Monday, December 11, 2006
The Year's Best Video Nasties
Ever seen an anaconda swallow the world's largest rodent, the south American capybara, or a giant octopus lock tentacles with a shark? Ever witnessed a puffer fish outwit an otter or a black mamba snacking on a squirrel? Didn't think so. Well, feast your eyes on National Geographic's top ten video clips of 2006. Just the thing now that Planet Earth has come to an end on the BBC.
Frosty The Ice Frog
The Australian Sunday Telegraph has been having great fun reporting on how a small frog that had been accidentally turned to ice in a freezer was successfully defrosted, at least for a while. This isn't quite the surprising news it seems. In fact, some types of frog - in common with other species - deliberately place themselves in a state of frozen, suspended animation so as to survive the Winter each year.
The common wood frog, for instance, is able to withstand the Arctic Winter by turning itself into an ice cube. The frog allows two thirds of its body water to freeze, thereby stopping its heart, brain and breathing functions and slowing its metabolism to a crawl. As long as its body temperature doesn’t drop below about 20° Fahrenheit (–6° C) its body will survive on the glucose in its system until the Spring thaw.
Similarly, some breeds of American alligators can survive the winter by freezing their snouts in ice, leaving their nostrils to breath for months on end.
Why Kitty Gets So Forgetful
Scientists at Edinburgh University may have explained why cats get so scatty in their old age. The rather disturbing truth is reported on the New Scientist's excellent daily blog.
All Together Now, Aaaaaaaah
Can't resist cute film footage of pandas? Then here's an early Christmas present, courtesy of Atlanta Zoo and the Associated Press.
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Birds, it seems, have different musical styles that vary according to whether they live in the town or the country. While rural birds like to sing traditional melodies, their urban relatives prefer more modern, rap-style rhythms.
A major study, carried out by a Dutch university and reported here, recorded the singing of great tits in ten major European cities, including London, Paris, Amsterdam and Prague. They then compared their musical efforts with tits living in forests.
While the country birds sang slower, more melodic and “traditional” songs, the study found that urban birds sent out calls that were shorter and faster and were also sung at a higher pitch. The city birds experimented with calls of between one and five notes, while those in forests stuck to the more normal combinations of two, three and four note tunes, the research found.
The authors have concluded the city birds are having to adapt to compete with background noise of the city in order to attract mates.
"Our data show that the adjustment of individual great tits to local noise conditions is not a local phenomenon but occurs throughout Europe and probably in all noisy urban areas,” say the authors of the paper, published in the journal Current Biology.
"Urban birds often experience very noisy conditions while singing, which may influence the efficacy of their acoustic signals. Male birds typically sing to defend a territory and to attract mates.If their song is not heard by the targeted audience they have to physically fight off intruders, and attracting females may be difficult."
Friday, December 01, 2006
Female wasps fight dirty. When they are losing a confrontation with another wasp, they shoot a substance similar to pepper spray from their heads. They fire the red hot chemical in their opponent’s face then run away a new study reported in National Geographic news revealed this week.
Which bit of the word killer didn’t you understand?
There is a reason why they call them killer whales, as a San Diego zoo keeper was reminded this week. The Times reports the unfortunate incident here.
This Christmas, Why Not Eat A Goat Fetus
Tired of fthe traditional turkey for Christmas? Then why not try this unusual Indian delicacy, served on special, family occasions - roast goat fetus. Why do I suddenly fancy a meat free Christmas dinner this year?
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Monday, November 27, 2006
Some things I noticed this week:
Pigging Out: Python Style
What would happen if an extremely greedy python tried to eat an alligator whole? This BBC story has the grisly answer.
If You Go Down To The Woods Today...
Insomniac bears are wandering the woods of Siberia, scaring the living daylights out of locals. According to news reports the bears can't settle down to their normal hibernation because of the unusually warm weather.
Every now and again, a wildlife film-maker does something so extraordinary it leaves you awe-struck, simply lost for words.
The National Geographic channel have just completed such a film. It's called Animals In The Womb and is precisely that: a collection of amazing ultrasound images of unborn dogs, dolphins, elephants and other animals. Visit the Animals In The Womb site to get a preview of the film and view a breathtaking gallery of photographs, including a 12 month old elephant foetus (it already weighs 26lbs and is 18 inches long) and a heart-melting image of three, incredibly peaceful looking golden retriever puppies curled up in their mother's womb. Happy Fetuses indeed. Remarkable stuff.
Panda Porn Update
Last week I mentioned that zookeepers in Thailand were showing giant pandas pornographic dvds to get them in the mood for mating. Well, the Press Association are reporting that it paid off. Reports that Chuang Chuang the male panda was spotted smoking a cigar afterwards haven't been confirmed yet.
What Not To Get Rover This Christmas
Wondering what to get your dog for Christmas? Well whatever you do, don't get Rover a robot companion. The shops are full of these yapping little automatons at the moment. Some of them are rather cute. But as this film clip of what happened when a team of researchers tried to introduce Sony's AIBO robot dog to another canine demonstrates, real dogs don't take terribly kindly to them. In the understatement of the year, the researchers concluded that :“It seems that at present there are some serious limitations in using AIBO robots for behavioral tests with dogs." Apparently the AIBO's warranty doesn't cover injuries to the robots by dogs. Now there's a surprise.
Friday, November 17, 2006
Things that caught my eye - and ear - this week:
Not So Happy Landings
Now we know why a dastardly leopard seal is the villain of the new animation movie Happy Feet.
The leopard seal stalks the Antarctic waters in search of emperor penguins, often striking when the birds are most vulnerable - as they enter and leave the water.
As this gruesome National Geographic footage shows , whether a penguin escapes the seal’s clutches or not is often a matter of luck. Some enter and leave the water safely, others make not so happy landings...
How To Control A Spooked Camel
Things you really need to know: No 19199. This is WikiHow’s rather excellent advice on how to regain control of a freaked out camel. I particularly like the tip about not pulling too hard on the reins in case you yank out the peg implanted in the camel’s nose.
Rip Van Winker?
Struggling to teach your dog to come to heel? Getting frustrated at how long it's taking to get your budgie to talk? It could be worse. Imagine spending forty years trying to get your tortoise to wink.
The World's Weirdest Sounding Dog
How Does A Barkless Dog Sing? In a very, very weird voice, that’s how.
The Basenji is the only breed of dog that can’t bark. But as this recording of a Basenji accompanying a flute reveals, they can make a whining sound that really doesn't seem to be of this world.
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Every species needs a little something to add spice to their love lives now and again.
So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that those most reluctant of romeos, male giant pandas, watch pornography to get in the mood.
Chuang Chuang, a male in captivity at a zoo in Chiang Mai in Thailand, has been frustrating his keepers by avoiding his female room mate, Lin Hui, with whom they want him to make panda babies.
They've concluded Chuang Chuang simply doesn't know about the birds and the bees, so have started showing him videos of other pandas, caught in the act, as it were.
"They don't know how to mate, so we need to show the male how through videos," project chief Prasertsak Buntrakoonpoontawee told Reuters news.
To maximise their chances of getting Chuang Chuang in the mood, scientists have advised he is shown the movies when he is most relaxed and receptive. So he is settling down to his panda porn immediately after he’s had his dinner.
We all wish him luck I'm sure.
Monday, November 13, 2006
Some animal stories that caught my eye during the last week.
Crows are the world's cleverest birds. They are gifted mimics, can make their own, elaborate tools and even know how to play possum in order to lure their prey. But the unbelievably cunning birds caught on the Youtube film available here have got to be the smartest crows of the lot. Who needs a nutckracker when you've got the rush hour traffic to do the job for you? Amazing.
Tarantula venom is as hot as chilli powder, apparently.
Even killer whales need a little "me time". National Geographic have footage of an orca giving itself a full body massage and a seaweed rubdown.
And finally, is this the perfect dog?
Friday, November 10, 2006
Thursday, November 09, 2006
So now I know why this giant iguana came to visit our room when we were on holiday in Brazil. He was a lounge lizard - on the look out for a party.
Scientists have just discovered that reptiles have personalities, with “asocial” ones preferring their own company and others - like our friend the green iguana - enjoying a bit of a social life.
In a long-running experiment, Julien Cote of the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, France collected together a group of wild pregnant lizards. When their offspring were born he tested their reaction to the scent of other lizards. He then watched them interact with other lizards as they grew up.
The lizards that showed an aversion to the scent of lizards tended to shun the company of other reptiles when they grew up. He called these “asocial”. The ones that had been attracted to the scent actively sought out places where there was a high population of lizards.
Scientists are excited about the results. They seem to indicate that animals have distinct personalities, which mould the way they interact in the world.
Friday, November 03, 2006
The sloth is a much-maligned creature. Name another animal that's had one of the seven deadly sins named after it?
Most of us know it's not exactly the prettiest or the most dynamic of creatures, spending an average of 18 hours a day asleep. A few of us probably know that it moves so slowly fungus grows between its toes. But until I got this great post from Joe Kissell at Interesting Thing Of The Day I certainly didn't know the female of the species can shriek like a Hollywood scream-queen or, even more interestingly, that sloths provide a home for a veritable menagerie of other creatures. "One effect of the sloth’s languid pace of life is that it can’t be bothered to groom itself. This turns out to be beneficial to several varieties of algae and mold that grow inside the sloth’s hollow hairs," Joe explains. But it's not only algae that are attracted to this hirsute haven. Beetles have been found in their hundreds living on a single sloth and there is a type of moth (Bradipodicola hahneli) that lives exclusively in the sloth's hair. "Not only does it feed on the algae, but it also deposits its eggs in the sloth’s droppings, where they pupate and hatch, and then fly off to look for another sloth to live on," says Joe.
So perhaps it's time to re-evaluate the sloth. He may be slow, deeply unattractive and lazy, but no one can fault his generosity. And that's definitely no sin.
Another animal that gets a bad press is the panda, or more specifically panda mothers.
Much of the blame for the near catastrophic decline in the giant panda population has been laid at the door of the female of the species. They can only conceive once a year and are receptive to males for only three days. If they produce twins - which they do in sixty per cent of cases - they will only care for one of the cubs, leaving the other to die. But as ZenKitty at Echoes of Cold Moon saw at first hand, the panda's maternal instincts can be as strong as those of any other animal.
Squirrels aren't exactly the most popular creatures either, at least, not when they run up your stairs and hide in your house. Regular contributor Mad Kane has posted a cautionary tale about just such an invasion - and the curious impact it had on her marriage.
Some other things that caught our eye this week:
Elephants joined humans, great apes and dolphins as the only species known to be able to recognise themselves in the mirror. But did they like what they saw in the morning, that's the question?
Red wine drinking mice have delivered an early Christmas present for the world's gluttons.
Robin Hood, eat your heart out! Have a look at this fantastic film of an archerfish landing itself some insect lunch.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
They were talking, of course, about the world's first test-tube koalas.
As you'll probably know, the trio of koalas are the result of an artificial insemination programme being run by an Australian university. Scientists there plan to build up a koala sperm bank (now there are three words I never thought I'd string together in a sentence) to help protect the dwindling species.
My problem this morning was this. I know a little about the koala. And they're reputation as the world's cuddliest creature is ill-deserved. For a start, koala babies don't just eat eucalyptus leaves - as is commonly thought. They also eat their mother's own faeces, which - whilst it helps their immune system - makes them rather unpleasant to be around. Second, koalas are notoriously promiscuous and prone to a number of sexually-transmitted diseases, including chlamydia. (Is it any wonder there's a need for a clean batch of sperm at the bank to preserve the randy blighters?) Third, they are lazy slobs. Koalas spend most of their day asleep, and even when they're awake pass away the time, er, resting or eating. Finally, koalas are a menace to human society. For one thing, they can be vicious if handled wrongly. Second they have fingerprints that are identical to those of humans. The similarity is so great they can cause complete chaos when Australia's CSI-style forensic teams arrive at crime scenes.
So as I sat there with the kids, I had two options: one to keep quiet and coo along at the adorable little furries. Or two, explain that they were looking at a bunch of violent, lazy, poo-eating creatures with weird fingerprints and loose morals. As you've probably guessed, I went for option one. Well, I figured, they had enough frights on Hallowe'en last night.
Friday, October 27, 2006
I'm writing in haste this week, partly due to pressure of work and partly
because I'm guesting as a blogger at MSN Entertainment.
It's early days yet but feel free to pop in and have a look.
OK, on with this week's submissions.
Animal communication is a beautiful thing, well most of the time. Among the more unpleasant discoveries I've come across in recent years are the fact that, in order to talk to each other, herring break wind, llamas spit in each other's faces, and, as Hueina Su confirms at Echoes of Cold Moon lobsters use another, deeply unpleasant bodily fluid to get their message across. As Hueina says: "Obviously, lobsters have entirely different social etiquette from us humans. You'd be happy that you're not dating a lobster after reading this!"
We've had posts on the world's first allergy free cat. Here, courtesy of michelle, is another one.
Regular Carnival of the Animals poster Madeleine Kane is back with A Poodle Tale
Jason Homan submitted an interesting post on barking problems in dogs. Worth a peek, or is that Peke?
Staying with dogs,Yvonne DiVita posted a nice item promoting a good cause Adopt a Shelter Dog Month.
As the Pythons would say, and now for something completely different.
Avant News posted a thought-provoking piece entitled Turns Out God Doesn't Particularly Care About Humans It's worth a read, if only because it leads you to other headlines, such as:
- Nuclear Device Destroys Crawford, Texas
- Howard Stern Claims Fatherhood of Madonna's Malawi Baby
- God Rebukes Bush for Presumption of Blessing
- Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie to Defuse North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions
That concludes this edition. As I said earlier, sorry for the haste. Not enough hours in the day. Submit your blog article to the next edition of carnival of the animals
using our carnival submission form. Until then...
Friday, October 20, 2006
I have a confession to make. Until this week, I'd never heard of the binturong.
Now, having been introduced to the creature by a fascinating post from JBruno at the voltagegate I feel like I know all there is to know about the animal otherwise known Arctictis binturong, the Malay Civet Cat, the Asian Bearcat, the Palawan Bearcat, and just simply the Bearcat. The first thing is it isn't even a bear or a cat, it's civet. And as JBruno explains, it's got an interesting evolutionary history.
The binturong has lots of rather endearing traits too. It can make a chuckling sound when happy, it sleeps suspended above the ground on branches and secretes a musky smell that is very much like popcorn. Its most impressive assets, however, are a false penis and a prehensile bushy tail, which can be used like an extra, fifth hand. Apparently it's unique among mammals in being able to use its tail like this.
Bio-luminescence, the ability to generate light independently, is a gift limited to few species. Perhaps the best-known is the Brazilian "railroad worm" which glows with a red light on its head and a green one down its side. As Sandra Porter at Discovering Biology in a Digital World reports in an interesting post, scientists have developed a new strain of zebrafish that are fluorescent. "Normally zebrafish are white with black stripes, but these zebrafish have been genetically engineered to produce a fluorescent protein that makes the fish glow," she explains. The fish are being sold as pets under the name GloFish but, Sandra explains, are intended eventually to be used as pollution detectors too. "The idea is that you could put detector fish into water, and if the water contained pollutants, the fish would glow". Illuminating stuff. (Sorry)
Lastly, if you'd like to know the answer to questions like 'Why don't dogs make good dancers?" or "Why is a dog's nose in the middle of its face?" then visit Surfer Sam who will reveal all.
Other things that caught our eye this week:
As the old north of England saying goes, there's 'nowt (nothing) as queer as folk'. Well, actually, there is. In fact there are about 500 species in which homosexuality is perfectly common. An eye-popping exhibition currently being staged in Oslo is dedicated to the animals who practice the love that dare not tweat, bark or roar its name. The exhibition website is here. Take a look at what the two male dolphins are doing to each other.
I Am The (Hungry) Walrus: The winner of this year's wildlife photograph of the year is a truly astonishing image of a walrus dining on an underwater feast of clams. The BBC has the story and a link to the picture here.
And finally, the news everyone has been waiting for. (Well everyone within a 400 yard radius of the world's noisiest sleeping equine.) Rocky the horse isn't snoring any more.
Friday, October 13, 2006
The great geneticist JBS Haldane put it best: "The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we CAN suppose." Weird, wonderful - and often downright unbelievable - new insights into the animal world pop up to surprise us seemingly every day. This week, for instance, we learned why woodpeckers don't get headaches and - perhaps - why elephants are getting increasingly angry with us humans. The aim of this carnival is to bring as many of these discoveries as possible to as wide an audience as possible. We want to do this every Friday, providing you with an entertaining and, hopefully, informative walk on the wild side at the end of each week.
Since announcing this first carnival a week ago, a few of you have been kind enough to post items. Thanks for all your contributions, they are all listed here. We've also added a few other things we've seen and liked this week. If you enjoy what you see here, spread the word, add us and our other cited bloggers to your list of links and send your own posts in to us via the Blogcarnival form which you can find here.
OK, on with the carnival, and first, the items submitted this week:
One of the most blogged about stories on the web this past week has been a major New York Times piece on the mental meltdown supposedly being experienced by elephants. I blogged about it myself. Not everyone is impressed by the NYT's reasoning, however. Josh Rosenau, who writes Thoughts From Kansas, has an alternative viewpoint which he expresses here Rosenau wonders whether, rather than falling to pieces mentally, elephants are actually staging their equivalent of an insurgency. Rather than being victims of a form of mindless, mass hysteria, he asks, "why not assume that they know exactly what they're doing?"
"Elephants are long-lived, and have very structured societies. Older elephants teach younger ones the ways of the world, and a lot of people point to the loss of older elephants in the ivory trade as a cause of rising elephant violence. Given that elephants are social animals capable of abstract reasoning, communication over long distances, even producing art. They see their territory occupied by outsiders, and some young males respond by attacking the invaders, even at the cost of their lives.," he says.
With Winter around the corner - at least, here in the Northern Hemisphere - a large chunk of the animal kingdom is preparing to hunker down and hibernate.Different species have evolved all sorts of strategies for surviving the coldest months, none more original than the one described in a, er, cool post by the the guys at Salamander Candy. They reveal how wood frogs effectively turn themselves into lollipops, freezing themselves so that their heart and other organs slow down to a near stop. With the demands on their body reduced to a minimum, the frogs can survive the Winter months on the reserves of frozen glucose in their system.
Much has been written in recent weeks about the arrival of the world's first, specially designed hypoallergenic cats. The news that you can now buy a furry friend that won't trigger your asthma and other allergies has met with a mixed reaction amongst cat lovers. Some can't wait to fork out the $4,000 (just over £2,000) being charged by breeders in the US. Others, like poetic comic Madeleine Kane , lament the fact that "A kitty whose genes/Are swept allergen clean" demands "such hefty fees". Methinks Ms Kane has put her finger on the key issue here. Who in their right minds is going to pay so much money for a pet, especially one that, the minute you let it out the back door, is going to cover itself in soil, grass and excrement, not to mention - if I may steer you to a popular post of my own - the blood of the birds, mice and other creatures it is going to kill by night. If that lot don't make you sneeze, nothing will. Significantly, a couple of days after Ms Kane posted her piece, a company selling genetically cloned cats at some $30,000 a throw announced it was going out of business.
Breanne Boyle sent in a nice post on a question every dog owner must have asked themselves at some point: How do you stop your pooch puking in the car? Read her take on this rather sticky subject here.
Finally, three other blogs and stories that caught our eye this week:
One of the big blog-generators this week was, of course, the Ig Nobel prizes, the annual awards for people working on the (lunatic) fringe of science. I like a million others couldn't resist blogging about scientist Ivan Schwab, who was rewarded with an Ig Nobel for discovering why woodpeckers don't get headaches. Visit here to read the original paper in which Schwab revealed how "evolution has provided the woodpecker with a thick bony skull with relatively spongy bone, especially at the occiput, and cartilage at the base of the mandible to partially cushion the incessant blows". Genius.
Eek, a new species of mouse has been discovered. Mus cypriacus, the Cypriot mouse, is the first new mammal to be unearthed in Europe in many years, although you have to wonder why it's taken us so long to find him. Apparently he predates man by thousands of years. Blogger John M Lynch at Stranger Fruit introduces this fascinating little fellow.
Ever seen a starfish walk along the beach? Visit The Science Pundit and be amazed.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Reports of elephants attacking human communities are becoming increasingly common. Last week a 34-year-old Briton was trampled to death while on his honeymoon in the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya. Dozens of similar incidents are reported worldwide every year. A major investigation in this week's edition of the New York Times magazine , suggests that these attacks are the result of a series of catastrophic, psychological changes that have been inflicted on the giant creatures by human colonisation of their habitats. Writes reporter Charles Siebert:
"All across Africa, India and parts of Southeast Asia, from within and around whatever patches and corridors of their natural habitat remain, elephants have been striking out, destroying villages and crops, attacking and killing human beings. In fact, these attacks have become so commonplace that a new statistical category, known as Human-Elephant Conflict, or H.E.C., was created by elephant researchers in the mid-1990’s to monitor the problem."
Siebert goes on to explain that many scientists thing the roots of this conflict lie in a form of "chronic stress, a kind of species wide trauma" precipitated by the breakdown of the elephant's tight-knit, family-oriented way of life.
"Decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss, they claim, have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture."
The article also offers a warning. Yes, ultimately, elephants are going to lose their struggle for supremacy with us. But they are not going to lie down without a ferocious fight.
"It has long been apparent that every large, land-based animal on this planet is ultimately fighting a losing battle with humankind. And yet entirely befitting of an animal with such a highly developed sensibility, a deep-rooted sense of family and, yes, such a good long-term memory, the elephant is not going out quietly."
Chilling and highly recommended reading.
Monday, October 09, 2006
Friday, October 06, 2006
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Monday, October 02, 2006
And you thought Spiderman was impressive...
German scientists have revealed that tarantulas climb vertical walls by oozing a super-adhesive silky substance - through their feet.
The spider's extraordinary ability to defy gravity has long been attributed to a combination of their claws and the tiny hairs that are attached to their feet. The latter form weak electro-magnetic attractions that attach the spider to solid surfaces. Their silk-spinning skills have been well-documented too. The sticky silk is pumped out through abdominal structures known as spinnerets and is used, amongst other things to capture prey and form protective shields for the spiders' young.
But it is only now that scientists have spotted spiders generate the glue-like substance through their feet as well, providing them with a third method for fixing themselves to sheer surfaces.
"We have discovered that the tarantula has a third attachment mechanism, which depends on fibres exuded from nozzle-like structures on its feet," said Stanislav Gorb, from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tubingen, Germany, who reported the discovery in this week's Nature. "These fibrous secretions function as silken tethers and, when laid down on glass plates, appear as 'footprints'."
The results have caused a real stir in scientific circles. Spider expert Professor Fritz Vollrath from Oxford University told the BBC today that the idea of arachnid's spinning foot silk had been regarded as something of an "old wife's tale". "It's incredible - just like Spiderman. If the stuff is so good he can pull a train around, how does he get it off? And that's the thing for the spiders: first they have to glue themselves down and then they have to get themselves off again. It's very clever," he said.
The discovery is exciting from an evolutionary perspective too. It raises the question of which came first, foot silk or abdominal silk. Or did spiders evolve the two techniques separately?
Photo: Max Planck Institute
Friday, September 29, 2006
At the heart of the study, conducted by Justin Runyon and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University and reported in today's Science , is an unremarkable looking weed called dodder. Dodder is a parasite which makes up for its inability to photosynthesise very well by wrapping itself around the stems of other plants and sucking out their nutrients. The yellow weed is bad news for farmers in particular, hence dodder's nickname strangle-weed or witches' shoelaces. The study looked at the way the pesky parasite finds its victims and ran an experiment in which dodder plants were given a choice of plants to wrap themselves around. It turned out the weed favoured some plants over others. While tomato plants, for instance, were popular targets others, such as wheat, were not. Looking deeper the scientists found an explanation for this: wheat emits an airborne chemical (or volatile) that somehow repels the dodder. In effect, it shouts "stay away from me". They think the tomato plants may have been sending the opposite signal out, releasing volatiles that say "come and get me". Previous studies have suggested that plants under siege from herbivorous insects send messages to other plants telling them to boost their chemical defences before they too are infested, but this is the clearest evidence yet that plant-to-plant chatter really does exist. "The results go a long way toward convincing people that plant-plant interaction via volatiles is a real phenomenon," says Eran Pichersky, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Pharyngula explains in sometimes brain-frazzling detail how the domestic cat's lack of interest in sweets and candy is defined by its genes. A mangled mutation of a taste receptor gene that normally registers the effect of sugary tastes has effectively left the gene dead and unable to function. Basically, your kitty can't experience sweets in the same way we humans do for instance, so they generally give them a wide berth. He also suggests this has happened through evolution and is common to other members of the cat family, like lions and tigers.
Now this makes me wonder whether this is proof that cats are smarter than dogs, at least when it comes to evolving successfully. Sweets, and in particular, chocolate can be highly dangerous to animals. The large doses of toxic theobromine in dark and baking chocolates can send the canine system in particular into overdrive, causing increased urination, over-excitement, muscle tremors, increased heart rate and - in the worst case scenario - fatal cardiac attacks. Yet what happens when you lob a tasty-looking chunk of chocolate in a dog's direction? Yep, the concept of death by chocolate is completely alien to it. Instead it, er, wolfs the stuff down much like its much more resilient ancient ancestor probably would. So why haven't dogs - like cats - learned any better? Given the way we've tinkered with almost every aspect of their physiognomy in the name of selective breeding, should we take some of the blame?
Monday, September 25, 2006
The study's authors, Josh McDermott, a perceptual scientist at MIT, and Harvard evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser, had found in earlier tests that tamarin and marmoset monkeys can tell the difference between different types of music. They took this a step further and tested which music they preferred. By building a maze with two navigable paths and two speakers at either end, they were able to test which type of music attracted monkeys. Given a choice betwen a lullaby and silence, the monkeys headed down the maze that led to the silent speaker. Given the choice between a lullaby and German techno music, however, they chose the quieter tones of the lullaby. "The continuity of the melody of a lullaby is something that is designed to calm," Hauser said. He also suggested the monkeys' choice of slower tempos might be tied to "ancient evolutionary roots". The pair's results are to be published soon in the journal Cognition.
This isn't the first time animals' musical tastes have been observed. In a less scientific environment, for instance, farmers have discovered that cows produce more milk to Beethoven than they do to pop music. Playing the 80s band Bananarama actually reduces their productivity.
Another scientist, however, is cautioning against getting too carried away about music-loving creatures. "These experiments clarify that the animals can in fact show preferences in response to music," says Erin Hannon, a psychologist and expert in music perception at Harvard. "Yet, it also shows that these animals just aren't generally very interested in music."
Love is a risky business, just ask the Utah prairie dog. A recently reported, new study of the cute-looking critters reveals that males pay a high price for pursuing females during the species' brief, 17-day long breeding season each year. The prairie dog is hunted by a range of predators, including foxes, badgers, eagles, goshawks and coyotes. As a result the endangered creatures spend their lives conducting a high-risk game of hide and seek with their pursuers. The survey of a 200-strong colony of praire dogs in Bryce Canyon National Park suggests their hunters may hold the upper hand. Predation rates soared during the breeding season, with ten male prairie dogs falling victim to foxes or goshawks, far more than during the rest of the year. Scientists think this suggests the predators know the male prairie dogs will show themselves out in the open more during this period, possibly to impress females with their macho behaviour. They have learned to lie in wait, then capitalise. The study is being seen as a significant breakthrough in proving how animals carefully select their hunting grounds. "This is by far the best documentation and quantification of selective predation," says Jerry Wolff, a behavioral ecologist at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. The study was carried out by behavioral ecologist John Hoogland of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Frostburg and will be reported in next month's American Naturalist.
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Warbling songbirds each have their own subtle signature tune which they develop at a young age and use throughout life to identify themselves. But, rather like humans who struggle to hold their voices with others singing around them, birds need to be able to hear each note they are producing to keep in perfect pitch. And if they are interrupted by the sound of their own song being repeated back to them, they can completely lose their way reverting to a stammering babble. A rather cute New Scientist recording of a finch interrupted by the sound of its own song being repeated back to it reveals what happens.
One of the authors of the study compares the effect of his experiment with one of us losing our thread when we hear our voice echoed down a transatlantic telephone line. “We think that the dependence on auditory feedback is similar in humans and songbirds,” says Jon Sakata of the University of California in San Francisco, whose results are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.(Reference: DOI: 10.1523/jneurosci.2027-06.2006) Sakata thinks his study supports the theory that human stuttering is caused by the abnormal processing of this kind of feedback.
Monday, September 18, 2006
Scientists at work in uncharted coral reefs off Papua New Guinea have discovered a treasure trove of new animal life. According to Conservation International, two dozen new species of fish, as well as eight previously unknown types of shrimp and twenty unique forms of coral have been found in the Bird’s Head Seascape, which stretches for 180,000 sq km (70,000 sq miles) on the north western end of PNG. By far the most fascinating of the research team's discoveries is the epaulette shark, pictured above. The 1.2 metre (4ft) long creature walks along the sands of the ocean floor using its muscular pectoral fins as legs. Other finds include a shrimp with a striking resemblance to a praying mantis and a male wrasse fish with a highly colourful courtship ritual: when courting females its body turns from a rather dull grey to a spectacular blaze of yellow, blue and purple.
The research team are convinced they have only scratched the surface of the area's scientific riches, however. The "coral triangle" is thought to be home to at least 1,200 species of fish and almost 600 species of reef-building coral - three quarters of the world's known totals for these species. “It’s one of the most stunningly beautiful landscapes and seascapes on the planet,” Mark Erdmann, a senior adviser of Conservation International who led two surveys to the area earlier this year, is quoted as telling The TImes. “Above and below water, it’s simply mind-blowing.”
Picture Gerry Allen/AP/Conservation International
Friday, September 08, 2006
A new study of reproduction in one creature affected by rising temperatures and sea levels - the Caribbean hawksbill turtle - has raised the sinister possibility. (Sort of.) As with other animals, such as lizards and snakes, the sex of a turtle's hatchling will depend on the temperature its eggs are kept during incubation. In general, the cooler the egg is kept, the more likely the baby is to be male. The hotter the egg, the more likely it is to be female. With this in mind, the hawksbill turtles chooses different incubation grounds for male and female eggs, dividing eggs roughly equally among the two sites to maintain a balanced population. To produce males they lay their eggs above the high tide marks on beaches where, in the past, at least, the shade of the natural forests have kept temperatures cooler. However, rising sea levels and temperatures - as well as deforestation by humans - has reduced the number of cool spots for the turtles to lay their eggs. As a result, or so the survey reported in Science magazine concludes, the hawksbill population is becoming more and more dominated by females. If things carry on like this, the poor male turtle will soon be completely over-run by his female counterparts. We have yet to see evidence of how lizard and snake populations are changing, but it's a safe guess they may well be experiencing the same female bias. Where will it end? And is there a female hand at work in all this? Don't human mums produce more CFCs?
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
We knew chimps were smart, but who realised they had such impeccable manners? Amazing new film footage, part of a study just published in Current Biology, shows a group of chimps crossing a busy track that had recently opened in a forested area of Guinea, west Africa. As they approach the road, the three males in the twelve-strong pack, adopt positions at the front and the rear. While the one at the front checks the road to make sure the coast is clear the other two leads the five women and four youngsters to safety, also checking for traffic as they go. Researchers Kimberley Hockings at Stirling University and Tetsuro Matsuzawa at Tokyo University reckon the roles reflect the chimps positions within the hierarchy. The Alpha Male of the group, Yolo, adopts a position at the back of the pack in most cases. "Adult males, less fearful and more physically imposing than other group members, take up forward and rearward positions, with adult females and young occupying the more protected middle positions," Hockings and Matsuzawa write. Chimps have been seen working together to extract food in the past, but the pair think their study offers a unique, new insight into how groups of primates work together to solve more complex problems. "Although humans themselves are not predators of these chimpanzees, we propose that road-crossing, a human-created challenge, presents a new situation that calls for flexibility of responses of chimpanzees to variations in perceived risk," they wrote.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Scientists think they've discovered the world's greatest commuter. Sooty shearwater birds travel an amazing 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometres) each year, from New Zealand all the way to the northern Paciic area, the longest migration yet recorded. As National Geographic News reports, a team of research biologists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, placed electronic tags on the birds as they left the Southern Hemisphere during winter and headed for their summer feeding grounds in the Northern Hemisphere.
"It was really amazing to see the distance they were traveling," said Scott Shaffer, one of the team.
Shaffer and his colleagues plotted maps of the shearwaters flight paths. They look like giant figures of eight over the Pacific Ocean.
The Arctic tern is the shearwaters main rival for long-distance travelling. The tern also commutes from the southernmost parts of the globe to the far north each year. Their exact routes haven't been tracked because the birds are too small to be tagged. The results of the shearwater study are published in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
Heard about the penguin from Ipanema.
Well, it appears that thanks to global warming the world's most famous beach is the hot new destination for the flightless Antarctic birds.
Each year scores of penguins are washing up on beaches along the coast around Rio de Janeiro, carried there on ice floes that are floating further and further northwards as the polar caps melt.
Life on the beach isn't good for these accidental tourists, however, so, the Reuters news agency reports today that the Brazilian air force and navy are mounting a rescue operation to transport 100 of them back to the South Pole. They will be flown to Brazil's southernmost region, Rio Grande De Sul, and then taken by ship to their Antarctic habitat, a military spokesman told the agency.
Monday, July 31, 2006
Elephants don't do stairs - or even gentle slopes, apparently. According to the results of a major new survey, released today, the giants of the savannah shun higher ground because the job of hauling themselves upwards is just too hard. Before we go dismissing Dumbo as a lazybones, however, it's worth thinking about the logistics of mountaineering, elephant-style. To generate enough energy, the four tonne vegetarians need to eat about 42kg (90lbs) of food a day. As a result they spend up to 18 out of every 24 hours foraging for fruit, grass and tree bark.
The co-author of the study, Iain Douglas-Hamilton reckons an elephant needs an extra 25,000 calories of energy for every vertical metre climbed - about 2,500% the cost of level walking. Finding enough food to fuel such activity is not easy. "Climbing is something that an elephant should not do lightly," he said. Even if an elephant does climb a mountain, getting back down again is almost as much effort. "Actually climbing down also requires quite a bit of energy for braking," Dr Douglas-Hamilton told the BBC nature website.
Douglas-Hamilton and his fellow researchers used GPS devices to track the movements of thousands of elephants in northern Kenya. They found the elephants confined their movements to around three quarters of their habitat, sticking to specific corridors that helped them avoid hilly terrain. "At an incline of five degrees, there were approximately half the number of [elephants] recorded per sq km as there were at a zero-degree incline," said Douglas-Hamilton, a chief executive of the charity Save The Elephants.
Some elephants do take the risk. They are great lovers of salt and there are instances of elephants climbing hundreds of feet to get access to salt mines. And famously an African elephant, nicknamed Icy Mike, lived and died on Mount Kenya, 4.4km (14,000 feet) above sea level. Scientists have yet to successfully explain why Mike did this. The results of the Kenyan survey are published in the new edition of the journal Current Biology.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
The homing instincts of the humble bumblebee are a lot more powerful than anyone thought. A new UK study has revealed that the bomb-shaped insect can navigate its way home from as far away as eight miles (13 kilometres). The study, by the University of Newcastle and reported today by the BBC, tagged 20,000 bees with ID numbers then dropped them at various points around the countryside, leaving them to make their way home.
Some bees made it back from a drop off eight miles away - much further than the three miles (5 kilometres) it had been assumed was the limit of their range. Research into how bees navigate is developing all the time. It's believed they use a variety of information, including odour-based "maps".
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
"Who's a clever boy then?" Parrots can do much more than raise a laugh by mimicking their human masters. The results of a massive, 30 year study of African grey parrots revealed that the birds are up there with chimps and dolphins in terms of intelligence, with abilities similar to those of small children. “Their communication skills are similar to those of a two-year-old child, but their adding and ability with colours and shapes are more like a five or six-year-old,” the scientist in charge of the study, Irene Pepperberg, associate professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts told The Sunday Times
Pepperberg's star parrot, called Alex, displayed an astonishing range of mathematical abilities. He was able to name seven colours and five shapes and count or add up to six. He was also able to identify, request and refuse about 100 different objects. In one experiment, he was given collections of four, five and six blocks of three different colours. As individual blocks were pointed out to him, Alex was able to identify them by saying, for instance, "four blue". He performed a similar feat with groups of items, correctly picking out "four corks" for instance. During the course of these lengthy tests, Alex got it right eight times out of ten, Pepperberg concluded.
While other birds, such as crows, have displayed high levels of intelligence in making tools, for instance, Pepperberg believes that for parrots, the sky is the limit, so to speak. The most intriguing result in her tests came when Alex was asked which of two equal objects was the bigger.He confidently replied "none". This suggests birds are capable of much more complex pieces of logal thinking. The phrase "learning parrot fashion" may soon have a completely different meaning. There's much more about Alex at Pepperberg's website, The Alex Foundation. The results of her studies are also soon to be published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
Photograph: Irene Pepperberg tests one of her gray parrots
Credit: Rick Friedman/Corbis
Friday, July 14, 2006
We aren't the only species who spend time teaching our children how to eat properly, it seems. A new study, published in today's Science, reveals that meerkats go to great lengths to educate their young how to feed themselves. Researchers at Cambridge discovered that adults select dead animals for their youngest pups to eat at mealtimes. As the pups get older, however, the adults bring live prey along, disabling them before serving them up if they are dangerous creatures, such as scorpions. Eventually, however, they encourage the young meerkats to hunt and prepare their food under their own steam. Much of the teaching is done by specific "helpers". "Helpers will gradually introduce pups to live prey," scientist Alex Thornton told the BBC. "So when pups are very little they get brought dead prey, like scorpions, lizards, and spiders; as they start to get older, helpers will bring them prey that's been disabled, so if it's a scorpion the helper might bite the sting off before giving it to the pup. Then finally when the pups are approaching independence, the adults will give them live food that the pups have to deal with on their own," explained Dr Thornton. This is only the second example of teaching behaviour discovered in animals. Earlier this year scientists revealed that ants teach each other to locate food supplies.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
They say a friend in need is a friend indeed. Well this frog was a friend in a million to a tiny mouse when it got caught in raging floodwaters in the Indian city of Lucknow. In a scene straight out of a Disney movie, the amphibian ushered the mouse to hop on its back then ferried it safely to dry land The picture and story is reproduced in full at the National Geographic's excellent animal news site.
(Photograph from Reuters/Pawan Kumar (India)
Friday, June 30, 2006
Saturday, June 24, 2006
The birds revealed they might be under the influence when one of them crashed through the windshield of a car in Laguna Beach. The other three were found wandering around the town in a drunken haze. The Los Angeles Times reported that "after the pelicans being held in Huntington Beach have sobered up, they will be released on their own recognizance". The most likely explanation for the behaviour is demoic acid, a substance that can be absorbed from algae in water. It's not the first time this has happened in the area. Forty years or so ago, a similar incident was - apparently - the inspiration for Alfted Hitchock's classic movie The Birds.
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Across North America and Europe, bears are emerging from their five to seven month long hibernations - and straight into the headlines. With their normal habitats increasingly short of the resources they need to survive in the wild, the giant creatures are turning to human communities to get the bear necessities of life - food, shelter and a little entertainment. The result is the recent spate of bearly believable stories flying around the media.
In Vancouver, Canada, for instance, newspapers have reported how a woman walked into her kitchen to discover a two-year-old bear doing an impersonation of Goldilocks. The bear had got into the house via a sliding door and was helping itself to some oatmeal in the kitchen. According to the BBC news report on the unusual housebreak , the young bear extracted the oatmeal from a ceramic container. Even more impressively, he ate the meal calmly then - watched by armed police who had been summoned by the home-owner - casually wandered back into the woods with his appetite sated.
Not all bears are after food - some just want a little fun. In New Jersey, a family looked out into their garden to discover a bear in their hammock. Unfazed, they managed to make a home video of the intruder. The video, available via a BBC link here reveals that bears - like humans - can get themselves in a terrible tangle trying to climb into the swinging beds.
Of course, entering human territory carries risks. An amazing AP photograph published in full here, shows what happened when a black bear was confronted by a tabby, domestic cat. Clearly some bears aren't as terrifying as others.
By far the most entertaining bear to have emerged from the woods this Summer, however, is the first brown bear to have been seen in Bavaria, southern Germany in a century. Bruno, as he has been christened by the local media, has become a cause celebre across the country, with websites devoted to tracking his movements and an ebay auction of some turf embedded with his footprints. Despite leaving a trail of dead sheep, chickens and rabbits in his wake, Bruno has managed to evade hunters from a zoo in Munich. He has also made the police look pretty stupid too. A few days ago a Bavarian spotted him sitting directly outside a police station. But by the time the hapless officers had realised he was there, Bruno had slipped away again. Now teams of bear-hunters from as far afield as Finalnd have been called in. Ordinary Germans hope Bruno remains on the loose. In fact they are rooting for the bear almost as strongly as they are for their national team in the World Cup currently being held there.
Monday, June 12, 2006
In America alone, cats kill a staggering one BILLION mammals and HUNDREDS of millions of birds a year, mostly after dark. Cats are so prolific in parts of the country they have reduced some birds to the status of endangered species. Action to rein in these killer kitties is already being taken in some states where cats are confined to quarters at night time. For a glimpse of how smooth and deadly a killer a cat can be, have a look at this new National Geographic film about how a mild-mannered puss called Molly is transformed into a deadly assassin by night.
Thursday, June 08, 2006
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
The favourite tipple in the animal kingdom is fermented fruit. Birds and mammals, in particular, gorge themselves on everything from apples and elderberries, to the exotic marula fruit in Africa. Once inside the animal's stomach, however, the fruit continues to ferment - with often spectacular results. For a giggle, have a look at this film footage of giraffes, elephants, monkeys - and most comically of all - an ostrich under the influence.