strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

  • Categories

  • Wall of the Dead

Archive for the ‘Biodiversity’ Category

Gigunda Rodent. Yes, Definitely Bigger Than a Housecat

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 6, 2015

O.k, New Yorkers, better stop your whining. Check out this report from the BBC:

Biggest rodent ‘fought with teeth’ like tusks

Josephoartigasia monesi (artist's impression)

The Big Fella

Scientists say the largest ever rodent probably used its huge front teeth like tusks, defending itself and digging with them instead of just biting food.

The bull-sized cousin to the guinea pig died out around two million years ago.

Based on a CT scan of its skull and subsequent computer simulations, its bite was as strong as a tiger – but its front teeth were built to withstand forces nearly three times larger.

This suggests that its 30cm incisors were much more than eating implements.

Researchers from York in the UK and Montevideo in Uruguay published the work in the Journal of Anatomy.

Only a single fossilised skull has been found belonging to this 1,000kg South American rodent, known as Josephoartigasia monesi. Unearthed in Uruguay in 2007, the animal lived in the Pliocene period – a warm era when large mammals were relatively abundant, including the first mammoths.

It remains the largest rodent ever discovered.

To study the mechanics of the skull,

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Leave a Comment »

A Cardinal Tests the Limits of Sexual Diversity

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 30, 2015

This are brownish-gray feathers of a female cardinal on the right side a male cardinal's red feathers on the left. (Photo: Western Illinois University)

This are brownish-gray feathers of a female cardinal on the right side a male cardinal’s red feathers on the left.
(Photo: Western Illinois University)

So, yeah, I’m talking about a bird, and definitely not about a member of the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals.  A gynandromorph is an animal that has traits of both sexes, but this cardinal is truly Janus-faced, all female on one side, all male on the other.  Or rather, not like Janus. More like Tiresias, the male prophet in Greek mythology who spent seven years as a woman. Oh, hell, let’s just call it the Transgender Cardinal.

How did other cardinals react? “We never knowingly heard the gynandromorph cardinal vocalize nor was it obviously paired with another individual, whereas other cardinals in the area vocalized and were paired, especially as the breeding season approached.” But here’s the key line: “There were no unusual agonistic interactions between the gynandromorph and the other cardinals, although at times it appeared less likely to approach the seed when other cardinals were in the vicinity feeding.” So a little shy and confused. But other birds were basically o.k. with that.

Here’s the press release

Western Illinois University biological sciences Professor Brian Peer is receiving attention for his research and publication on a bilateral gynandromorph bird found in the wild.

More specifically, the bird has the brownish-gray feathered appearance of a female cardinal on its right side and that of a male cardinal’s red feathers on its left side.

The Northern Cardinal was spotted several years ago in Rock Island, IL by Peer and his colleague Robert Motz and was observed between December 2008 and March 2010. The two men documented how the cardinal interacted with other birds

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Deadly Dozen Effects of Losing Nature

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 27, 2015

Richard Conniff:

Billfish preparing to dice and slice (or rather gun and stun).

Billfish preparing to dice and slice (or rather gun and stun).

There’s a tendency in our flat screen-fixated society to treat the preservation of nature and wildlife as a boutique issue. I mean “boutique” in the sense that it’s become a ladies-who-lunch sort of thing. Nice, but it doesn’t really matter.

Our own experience also reinforces the subliminal impression that destroying nature—or at least pushing it back away from civilized life—actually makes us healthier. Turning forests into fields has made it easier for us to get food, for instance, and building dams provides the electricity to power those flat screens, build products, and create jobs.

But a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that the continued loss of habitat is in fact increasingly a matter of life and death. Let’s skip the subtleties and go straight to a list of the study’s dozen deadly effects:

1. In Asia, Africa, and South America those seemingly beneficial dams and irrigation projects have created new homes for the aquatic snail species that transmits schistosomiasis. It now afflicts more than 200 million people worldwide with symptoms including coughing, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever and fatigue. The altered habitat also provides breeding places for mosquitoes and other disease-carrying organisms, increasing the incidence of malaria, filariasis, encephalitis, and other dreadful diseases.

2. Our increasing incursions into remote wilderness areas are bringing epidemic diseases out of the jungle and into our backyards. Roughly 75 percent of emerging diseases—think HIV, Ebola, West Nile virus, SARS, and the new coronavirus in the Middle East—spill over from the animal world.

3. When we reduce the variety of species living in an area, we make it more likely that new diseases will spill over to humans. The “dilution effect” theory suggests that when you have many species in a habitat, some of them will be ineffective, or even dead ends, at transmitting a particular disease pathogen. So they dilute the effect of the pathogen and keep it from building up and spilling over to humans. Studies have correlated reduced species diversity with increases in West Nile virus, Chagas disease, Lyme disease, and hantavirus.

4. When we destroy coastal mangrove swamps in Sri Lanka, or dune vegetation on the beach in New Jersey, we lose vital protection against deadly storms. In the Asian tsunami of 2004 one village in Sri Lanka that had cut down its mangrove swamps to create shrimp farms suffered 6,000 deaths. In a comparable Sri Lankan village that left its mangroves intact, only two people died.

5. By providing nursing grounds for young fish and for the prey species they will eventually eat, those mangrove swamps are responsible for about 80 percent of the global seafood catch. The continuing loss of seafood, as well as of land-based bushmeat, threatens a large segment of the human population with chronic iron and zinc deficiencies, meaning anemia, fatigue, and other symptoms.

6. Most of our drugs, including all antibiotics, originally came from the natural world. To cite three quick examples: ACE inhibitors, currently the most effective blood pressure medicine, were derived from the venom of South America’s deadly fer-de-lance snake. AZT, the first drug to turn AIDS from a death sentence to a treatable disease, was derived from an obscure Caribbean sponge discovered in the 1950s. Prialt, a potent pain medicine, comes from a Pacific cone snail that people used to value only because it has such a pretty shell.

7. When plant breeders need to make a drought-resistant strain of rice, or a wheat variety that doesn’t drop dead from disease, they often borrow traits from closely related plants in the natural world. The need for those traits is increasing because of climate change. But borrowing only works if there is a natural world left to borrow from.

8. When we lose habitat and species, we also lose essential pollinators for our crops, including insects, birds, and bats. Honeybees pollinate about a third of U.S. crops, and the recent drastic decrease in their population imperils a harvest worth more than the $15 billion a year. According to the study, pollinators are a key factor in producing about a third of the calories and micronutrients we depend on.

9. Clearing forests has led to reduced access to fuel for cooking, creating an extra burden for the women and girls in developing nations who generally do the wood gathering.

10. Loss of hillside forests means water tends to run off rather than soak in. That makes it harder to find water, for crops, sanitation, or safe drinking. And again, it’s generally the women who have to go farther and pump harder, then carry the water home by the bucketful.

11. More than 100,000 people have died so far in the civil war in Syria, which, it’s been argued, was set off as much by persistent drought as by bad government. On a much smaller scale, but closer to home, a heat wave last summer caused 82 known deaths across the United States and Canada. Climate disruption is likely to cause increasing human health impacts in the form of heat stress, air pollution, respiratory disease, and food and water shortages. The question of social justice runs through this discussion: We in the developed world tend to benefit in our relatively prosperous lives, while the poor and disenfranchised get stuck with the bill.

12. In our mobile, rootless society, it’s easy to forget what we have never had.  But losing habitat can mean losing an essential sense of place and of self, and that can lead to depression, emotional distress, and other psychological effects.

The authors of the new study, who come from Harvard University, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, and other institutions, make one major recommendation. Up to now, our research into the natural world has been driven largely by scientific curiosity. Instead, scientists now need to think a lot harder about policy.

For instance, when Brazil eases restrictions on land use in the Amazon, researchers should be ready to project exactly how that will affect local malaria rates. When policymakers in Southeast Asia are debating the use of fire for land clearing, scientists should be able to explain the public health implications from air pollution in downwind areas of Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia.

These kinds of considerations may sound, as the editor at a prominent magazine recently told me, “unsexy.” Not cool. But the new study makes it clear that if we don’t start paying much closer attention to them, and to the state of the natural world, we are all in imminent danger of ending up dead.

And that would be the unsexiest thing of all.

Originally posted on strange behaviors:

Mangroves (Photo: Diego M. Rossi/Getty) Mangroves (Photo: Diego M. Rossi/Getty)

My latest for TakePart:

There’s a tendency in our flat screen-fixated society to treat the preservation of nature and wildlife as a boutique issue. I mean “boutique” in the sense that it’s become a ladies-who-lunch sort of thing. Nice, but it doesn’t really matter.

Our own experience also reinforces the subliminal impression that destroying nature—or at least pushing it back away from civilized life—actually makes us healthier. Turning forests into fields has made it easier for us to get food, for instance, and building dams provides the electricity to power those flat screens, build products, and create jobs.

But a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that the continued loss of habitat is in fact increasingly a matter of life and death. Let’s skip the subtleties and go straight to a list of the study’s dozen deadly effects:

1. In…

View original 964 more words

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | 1 Comment »

Using Probiotics to Prevent Disease is Common in the Animal World

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 14, 2015

Doctors of probiotic medicine (Photo: Stefan Meyers/Arkive)

Doctors of probiotic medicine (Photo: Stefan Meyers/Arkive)

I light up whenever I see a story about hoopoes, colorful Old World birds, mainly for the silly reason that they have the coolest scientific name in the animal kingdom.  I think it may just be impossible to say Upupa epops without smiling.  I’m pretty sure these birds must be fans of 1950s jazz.

But let’s talk about the story, which is in equal parts intriguing and kind of annoying. Scientists have discovered that hoopoe moms laying their eggs automatically apply a bacterial film that protects their offspring from various pathogens.  This is cool stuff: Birds using probiotics.

The press release says that this sort of behavior has never been detected before in any bird species.  It thus gives the annoying impression that this is a totally new thing in science, which is of course not so.  For at least the past half dozen years, for instance, scientists have been studying how certain salamanders and frogs apply a bacterial coating that protects their eggs from the deadly chitrid fungus and other pathogens, as I wrote here in 2013.

Indeed, all the writer of the press release needed to do was read the first paragraph of the study to learn that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

We Spend $60 billion on Pets. How About a Little for Wildlife?

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 19, 2014

A wildflower at The Nature  Conservancy's Boardman Grasslands in north central Oregon.

A wildflower at The Nature Conservancy’s Boardman Grasslands in north central Oregon.

You’ve probably already noticed this while flipping through the contents of your overstuffed mailbox or scrolling past the endless stream of email solicitations, but this is the time of the year when nonprofit organizations ramp up their pleas for your donations. And with good reason: About a third of all charitable giving in the United States takes place in December. This is, of course, due to holiday cheer and a spirit of giving—not anything so cynical as tax write-offs.

But don’t be so quick to hit delete. Charitable giving makes us happier, and it has the potential to make wildlife happier too, or at least to keep monarch butterflies, wolves, elephants, songbirds, and other creatures a part of this world. Government funding for wildlife is declining everywhere, even as the pressure on wildlife from poaching, climate change, and expanding human populations dramatically worsens. “Conservation is often an early casualty of any government funding squeeze,” the authors of a recent Nature article noted. In the United States, for instance, the National Park Service has seen a 13 percent drop in funding over the past five years, and it’s much worse in many other countries. That means many wildlife and conservation organizations, and the animals they protect, increasingly depend on charitable contributions.

So how do you handle the tricky task of choosing just which organizations to support? Charity Navigator rates nonprofits on their financial efficiency and transparency (but not on the effectiveness of their services and programs). It lists 271 organizations under the Environmental Protection and Conservation heading, and that’s just organizations it has evaluated. Behavioral economists have shown that too having many choices leads to inaction, and the check never makes it into the mail. So let’s cut down the choices.

When I asked conservation-minded contacts on Twitter and Facebook and via email for their ideas on donating to help wildlife, responses generally fell Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | 8 Comments »

Wolves and Bears Make Comeback in Crowded, Urban Europe

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 18, 2014

Street traffic in Kuhmo Finland (Photo: Staffan Widstrand / Wild Wonders of Europe)

Street traffic in Kuhmo Finland (Photo: Staffan Widstrand / Wild Wonders of Europe)

What if European travelers suddenly stopped going to Yellowstone National Park to see grizzly bears and wolves, and found that they could see even more of the same species in their own backyards—say, within an hour or two of Rome? What if the “call of the wild”—the sound of wolves howling in the night—became more a European than a North American experience? This improbable scenario may be closer to reality than we imagine.

A study published Thursday in the journal Science reports that Europe, one of the most industrialized landscapes on Earth, with many roads and hardly any large wilderness areas, is nonetheless “succeeding in maintaining, and to some extent restoring, viable large carnivore populations on a continental scale.”

A team of more than 50 leading carnivore biologists across Europe, from Norway to Bulgaria, details in the research a broad recovery of four large carnivore species: wolves, brown bears, the Eurasian lynx, and the wolverine.

“There is a deeply rooted hostility to these species in human history and culture,” the study notes. And yet roughly a third of Europe Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Travel Hell? Whales Stuck in Middle East for 70,000 Years

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 3, 2014

A whale named Spitfire (Photot: © Tobias Friedrich)

A whale named Spitfire (Photot: © Tobias Friedrich)

As I read this, these humpbacks extended their range into the Arabian Sea 70,000 years ago, and then got bottled up there by some temporary glacial barrier, or long-term thermal barrier.  Even if they could travel elsewhere now, they don’t and their numbers are down to just 100 individuals.  It may be that they stick to the Arabian Sea because, as a result of their lengthy isolation, their reproductive cycle got out of whack with the rest of the humpback world.

Or maybe–could it be–they just like it there?

Here’s the press release:

Scientists from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the Environment Society of Oman, and other organizations have made a fascinating discovery in the northern Indian Ocean: humpback whales inhabiting the Arabian Sea are the most genetically distinct humpback whales in the world and may be the most isolated whale population on earth. The results suggest they have remained separate from other humpback whale populations for perhaps 70,000 years, extremely unusual in a species famed for long distance migrations.

(Photo credit: Darryl MacDonald)

(Photo credit: Darryl MacDonald)

Known for its haunting songs and acrobatics, the humpback whale holds the record for the world’s longest mammal migration; individuals have been tracked over a distance of more than 9,000 kilometers between polar feeding areas and tropical breeding areas.

“The epic seasonal migrations of humpbacks elsewhere are well known, so this small, non-migratory population presents a wonderful and intriguing enigma,” said WCS researcher and study co-author Tim Collins. “They also beg many questions: how and why did the population originate, how does it persist, and how do their behaviors differ from other humpback whales?”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Evolution | 1 Comment »

Manhattan Is Actually Run by Ants (Also Maggots)

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 3, 2014

You heartless and cynical New Yorkers probably thought rats and pigeons did all the garbage removal from your streets. But it turns out you also owe a great big “thank you”–plus a smiley face and an exclamation point–to ants.

Also other insect forms.

I am just so disappointed that the authors of this study, who came from North Carolina to find the maggots in the Big Apple, did not include any photos with this press release (UPDATE: One of the co-authors, Matt Shipman, just sent photos, posted below):

Elsa-Ant-HEADER-848x477In the city that never sleeps, it’s easy to overlook the insects underfoot. But that doesn’t mean they’re not working hard. A new study from North Carolina State University shows that insects and other arthropods play a significant role in disposing of garbage on the streets of Manhattan.

“We calculate that the arthropods on medians down the Broadway/West St. corridor alone could consume more than 2,100 pounds of discarded junk food, the equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs, every year — assuming they take a break in the winter,” says Dr. Elsa Youngsteadt, a research associate at NC State and lead author of a paper on the work.

“This isn’t just a silly fact,”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

That Rat Poison? It’s Killing Bobcats in Your Backyard

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 7, 2014

Bobcats live all around us.  (Photo: John Fowler/Flickr)

Bobcats live all around us. (Photo: John Fowler/Flickr)

A few years ago, I was driving in a Connecticut suburb when a bobcat crossed the road in front of me. He was heftier than a house cat, or even a fox, with tufted ears, a short, “bobbed” tail, and a ballsy, street-smart attitude.  He stopped in front of me as I was slowing down, and glowered, as if to say “You got a problem, pal?”  When I looked suitably chastened, he turned away and strolled onward.

If ever a species was ready to find room for itself in our increasingly urbanized world, the bobcat (Lynx rufus) is it.  My encounter to the contrary, bobcats are generally ghostssolitary, nocturnal, and elusive, slipping through the dark corners of our lives. They’re relatively small, only about 15 pounds for females and 20 for males, which helps them live around us unnoticed.  They thrive on the sort of small and medium-sized prey species commonly found in developed areas, including mice, rats, squirrels, and rabbits.

In his 2010 book, Urban Carnivores, Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service, called bobcats “perhaps the most adaptable cat species in the Western Hemisphere.”  Riley has seen bobcats raising kittens in

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

What Are Your Wearing for Halloween, Deer?

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 31, 2014

Vampire deer in Afghanistan, ready for romance.

Vampire deer in Afghanistan, ready for romance.

And, darling, what big teeth you have!

I was thinking the folks at the Wildlife Conservation Society just put out this press release to have a little fun at Halloween. But it’s based on a new study in the October issue of the journal Oryx (also apparently feeling the Halloween spirit) and the species Moschus cupreus is apparently real, and poachers know it:

 More than 60 years after its last confirmed sighting, a strange deer with vampire-like fangs still persists in the rugged forested slopes of northeast Afghanistan according to a research team led by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which confirmed the species presence during recent surveys.

Known as the Kashmir musk deer – one of seven similar species found in Asia – the last scientific sighting in Afghanistan was believed to have been made by a Danish survey team traversing the region in 1948.  The study was published in the Oct. 22nd edition of the journal Oryx.  Authors include: Stephane Ostrowski and Peter Zahler of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Haqiq Rahmani of the University of Leeds, and Jan Mohammad Ali and Rita Ali of Waygal, Nuristan, Afghanistan.

The species is categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List due to habitat loss and poaching. Its scent glands are coveted by wildlife traffickers and are

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Sex & Reproduction | Leave a Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,349 other followers