Vaquitas Bats Peccaries Sharks and Horses

Carol: Hey Hurst!  Did you celebrate Martin de Porres’s Birthday yesterday on December 9?

Hurst: You know I did! I love a good party, especially one celebrating Saint Martin de Porres. He’s worthy of celebrating because of all the good work he did not only for impoverished and sick people, but because he treated non-human animals with the same care and respect as people.  Some consider him the “unofficial saint of veterinarians” but regardless, he and Saint Francis of Assisi are both well known for their compassion toward animals.

Carol: Well I’m glad you had a good time, but did you hear of any animal news we could discuss this week?

Hurst: I did! In a bit of good news, veterinarians from the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association have been volunteering to help care for animals in need in the wake of the California wildfires. This help is definitely needed since 63% of households in California have pets; meaning there are about 10 million cats, nine million dogs and one million horses. This influx of vets came after a call for horse caretakers since horses are difficult to transport away from the wildfires.

Carol: I also heard about that! They are urging other veterinarians to join their own state veterinary association, like the California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps, in order to be organized in times of crisis. People that are not veterinarians can help by contacting animal shelters in evacuation areas to find out where they can be the most help.

Hurst: It is good to see that in tough times people are not forgetting about the animals that need help!

Carol: Amen to that. This week I also read a fascinating report that suggests that mammal diversity increases the amount of carbon stored in rainforests. Mammals do this by leaving behind carcasses, fruit cores, and pooping. As these things decompose, they release nutrients into the soil that microbes collect and store the carbon in the soil. Not the most glamorous process, but great for storing carbon in the soil! And I’m sure you recall from your 8th grade biology class that this is important because it takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as well as aiding the carbon cycle which is vital for life in the forest and beyond.

Hurst: That is especially interesting because it is the diversity of mammals and not necessarily the sheer volume of mammals having the impact. Why is that?

Carol: According to the study, it is because a greater diversity of mammals allows for more opportunities for them to eat each other, and therefore poop more, as well as a greater variety of fruits to be discarded on the forest floor. Researchers are still working to find data that strengthens the correlation between mammal diversity and carbon storage, but this newfound correlation could have serious positive impacts on conservation efforts. Conservationists can use this as an important reason to strive to preserve multiple species since it emphasizes the importance of biodiversity, rather than just the survival of singular species.

Hurst: Who knew pooping was so important for the environment!

Carol: Speaking of species survival, I’ve seen a lot of press lately about the vaquita. It’s a super cute dolphin only found in the northern part of the Gulf of California….are you familiar with it?

Hurst: Yes, they have a round nose and a perma-smile. They look like a cute cartoon character…and I mean that in the most respectful way possible. The Mexican Government has been working for over 25 years to support the conservation of vaquita – it is considered the most endangered marine mammal – all because it gets accidentally caught in the nets of fishermen in that region.

Carol: A recent piece from CNN reported a “rise of fish mafia” in one particular area of Mexico where local residents are making big, big bucks fishing for totoaba, a type of fish whose bladder is in high demand for traditional Chinese medicine.  The fish can be found only in a small area of ocean about 120 miles south of the Mexico-US border.

Hurst: Yes, I saw that piece.  Fishermen are making tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in one fishing expedition but the numbers of vaquitas caught in their nets are driving their endangered status. There are governments and NGOs working to help the vaquita, but I’m just not sure it is going to be enough; it’s quite sad.  

Carol: Very much so. In other sea mammal news, a new academic article was recently published about a way to reduce the public’s fear of sharks. In an experiment conducted at the Sydney Aquarium’s immersion “shark tunnel” exhibit, half of the visitors were “primed” with questions about the nature of sharks’ eyesight, the exhibit sharks’ ability to see visitors in the tunnel, and a shark’s general tendency to avoid humans in open water, while the other half were not. Those visitors who were primed to consider the sharks’ absence of intentionality (meaning. they don’t intentionally attack humans) showed a reduction in fear of shark bites and the sharks themselves.  These results are exciting because of potential far-reaching policy implications.  

Hurst: Well, um, sharks breathe through their gills and have skeletons made of cartilage which are some determining factors of being fish, not mammals, but regardless, how do you mean?

Carol: Well, there have been some lethal shark control programs in the past several years, which have drawn criticism from the public and resulted in the organization and/or support of pro-shark organizations such as Save our Sharks, Shark Savers, and Save our Seas.  By the way, did you know that Shark Week premiered on July 17, 1988? Just a little shark trivia for you.

Hurst:  Thanks for that. Shifting gears to another misunderstood and maligned animal, I read a Public Radio International story about how self-driving technology may get some help from bats.  

Carol:  Ah, that make sense!  Bats, who have very poor eyesight (hence the phrase “blind as a bat”), can navigate their way around in the dark and through swarms of thousands of their closest bat friends using echolocation.  

Hurst: If we can figure out how bats avoid in-air collisions in these massive swarms then perhaps the same concepts can be mimicked by technology.  Humans have been using “biomimicry” to imitate what animals and plants have already “learned” through generations and generations of adaptation.  It’s really just copying nature’s way of doing things in order for us to be more innovation and sustainable.

Carol: Well, our next story takes us to the Tahuamanu Province of Peru, where 72 camera “traps” were visited by some pretty interesting subjects over the course of two months. Jaguars, pumas, jaguarundis, tapirs, bush dogs, red deer, tufted capuchins, spider monkeys…

Hurst: The presence of these animals indicates that the conservation efforts implemented in this particular forested region within the last decade are working, something that will help retain the forest’s certification by the Forest Stewardship Council.  If you want to get up close and personal with a tapir or a band of pecarries, you can check out the short clips added to YouTube.

Carol: So pecarries travel in bands, do they?

Hurst: No, it’s actually a herd, but band sounds more fun, like they might play some sort of fun peccary music. Well, we can’t sign off before acknowledging that December 10 is International Animal Rights Day.  It is meant to call attention to the animals who have suffered or died because of human activity.  There is even a Declaration of Animal Rights drafted in 2011 traveling around the world in hardcopy and via internet to acquire 50,000 signatures.

Carol: And did you know that National Day of the Horse is coming up on the 13th, as well as Monkey Day on the 14th?

Hurst: Neigh, I did not. Sounds like more fun than a barrel of… well, you get the picture.

Carol:  Ugh.  On that note, see you next week!

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