Aardvarks Penguins Whales Rhinos Tardigrades and Big Cats

Hurst:  Hi Carol!  I’ve been wondering – how did the big crowdfunding campaign kickoff go this weekend?  I saw that really cool Big Cat Infographic you posted on Facebook yesterday to call attention to World Wildlife Day and the U.N.’s focus on endangered big cats this year.

Carol: Thanks for asking! We have eight of those gorgeous Big Cat infographics available to people who back the campaign or who sign up for Fanimal updates. Fanimal has 20 backers so far and I’m feeling hopeful we will reach our goal – we’ve got four weeks to get the word out about Fanimal and its mission to help everyday people be animal heroes!  

Hurst: So Fanimals get to wear capes?

Carol: Well, metaphorical ones.  Fanimal members will be informed on a variety of animal issues, like our readers are here, but will also have access to animal experts, and practical tips on how to easily incorporate animal advocacy into their lives, as well as how to affect change in animal issues both locally and internationally.  Fanimal members can feel good about small things they can do to make big changes in the lives of animals.  Plus 10% of the membership revenue earned through the campaign will go right back to the Wildlife Conservation Society. That’s a thing Fanimal will do – contribute 10% of its membership revenue each month to a different animal organization to leverage their good work.  

Hurst:  Sounds good. Well, we better turn to some animal news!  Speaking of the WCS, they teamed up with Foundations of Success to develop an ecotourism project aimed to improve wildlife populations within a particular region of Laos. To do that, they needed to reduce the illegal hunting and trade activities, and to do that, they developed a unique ecotourism compensation system to increase revenue to local communities.

Carol:  Ecotourism has been used for decades with varying successes and failures to provide an income stream to local communities who might otherwise use and potentially deplete a natural resource. By protecting the resource, whether it is an entire forest or a type of animal, so that tourists can pay to experience it, the resource becomes valuable to protect, as long as the revenue from the tourist activities goes back to the very communities wishing to use the resource.  In theory it sounds great, but it is more complicated than it sounds, and many ecotourism projects are criticized for not demonstrating measurable results in biodiversity terms.  In essence, they may not really end up saving the resource they are supposed to.

Hurst:  Right! So, what’s different about this project is it included contractual payments to villages that were directly tied to the amount of wildlife that ecotourists saw and it included a reduction in payments for any hunting violations that took place. The approach which was designed to reduce illegal hunting, and increase wildlife numbers, also generated continually economic incentives for the local communities to protect the wildlife. The project was assessed for four years and the results indicated a definite curtailing of hunting as well as an increase in wildlife sightings. A whole lot of threatened species including deer, primates and small carnivores benefited from the program. So it appears having that direct tie between income and more wildlife sightings and less hunting activities worked!

Carol: That’s great to hear!  Tourism activity certainly has the potential to ruin an area so it’s great to hear about positive examples!  I think I’ll use this story in my Sustainable Tourism class this semester.  Moving on to a less positive story about wildlife populations, Public Radio International reported the number of right whales are really dwindling. Scientists estimate their numbers to be in the four hundreds.

Hurst: Yikes!  I haven’t really heard of a right whale but that doesn’t sound like good prospects for them.

Carol: Yeah, I had not either.  According to Nat Geo, a right whale was named that by whalers to indicate that they were the “correct” whale to hunt.  Like any animal, they are really fascinating the more you know about them.  Their populations were severely crippled because of whaling and since the reproduction rate is incredibly low.  Females don’t give birth until after they are ten, they only have one pup at at time, and their gestation period is almost one year.  Scientists suspect that  climate change is affecting their food supply of plankton and because of this, their migration patterns are changing to areas where they are looking for food but where they also have a higher chance of getting killed.

Hurst: So what you’re saying is if we don’t take action there won’t be any right whales left? Sorry, I just couldn’t let that one go.  Speaking of marine news, we are running out of time to meet a big worldwide goal relative to marine conservation. The United Nations previously set a goal to assign ten percent of the world’s oceans to be Marine Protected Areas (MPA). A previous report stated that 5.7% of the ocean is protected, however recently it has been determined that a mere 3.6% of the ocean has protected status.

Carol: What exactly does it mean to have protected status?

Hurst: Well that’s the issue. In the previous 5.7%, many of the the areas accounted for were in various stages of becoming a Marine Protected Area. Some were still being discussed, planned, or not fully approved. So that figure is misleading because these areas of ocean still allowed varying degrees of overfishing and other environmentally destructive activities.

Carol: Okay so it’s less than we thought, is there anything we can do?

Hurst: Yes and no. Experts say it is highly unlikely that we will meet this goal of ten percent by 2020. However, if all proposed areas do actually become protected we will at least reach 7.3 percent of the world’s oceans. It is important that we strive for the highest percentage we can because these MPAs support fish populations for fishers, protect endangered species, ensure biodiversity, and allow for scientists to study unspoiled natural processes.

Carol: Speaking of fishers, I bet you don’t know the best way to catch a fish.

Hurst: Ok, go on.

Carol: Have someone throw one at you.

Hurst: …Anyway. This week we have some depressing news about the last male northern white rhino. It has developed a serious infection, late in its life and the outlook doesn’t look good. This is such sad news because this rhino, named Sudan, is one of the three last northern white rhinos in existence, the other two being his daughters.

Carol: Does this mean it’s over for the species?

Hurst: Most likely, for now the three rhinos are protected by 24 hour armed guards. The saddest part of this extinction is that it was preventable. The loss can be primarily attributed to poaching. Its range used to include Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of the Congo, however by the 1980’s, poaching had brought its numbers down to double digits.

Carol: That’s terrible. I must praise the wonderful people out there doing great conservation work in the field trying to combat wildlife poaching and trafficking.

Hurst: On to another story that stinks, but in a very different way. Scientists have discovered a “supercolony” of Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands, But it’s how they discovered them that is particularly interesting. Satellite imagery showed huge amounts of bird poop stains, which sparked the interest of scientists, leading to a 2015 expedition that discovered a huge amount of these animals.

Carol: They could see it from a satellite? That must have been a lot of poop.

Hurst: Well, these scientists did a count and came to the conclusion that there were 751,527 pairs of breeding penguins. So that means there were approximately 1.5 million penguins! This discovery is significant because previous research shows that Adélie penguin populations are dwindling due to climate change. However, this discover of the largest colony of penguins could help scientists learn how they are adapting.

Carol: Speaking of new animal discoveries, a new species of Tardigrade has been discovered in a parking lot in Japan.

Hurst: Okay, I’ll bite, what is a Tardigrade?

Carol: I’m so glad you asked! They are such interesting creatures – little stubby worm looking things with feet! They are near-microscopic organisms that have amazing qualities. They typically live in moist environments, however they can withstand extreme conditions. One study found that they could even survive in the vacuum of space for 10 days. They survive in these environments by going to a hibernation-like state called cryptobiosis in which they reduce their metabolic rate to as low as 0.01% of normal levels, and can remain like this over 30 years; it’s astounding!

Hurst: Yet when I go into a hibernation-like state for a few days people get concerned, seems like a double standard, but okay.

Carol: Ummm yeah.  Tardigrades are pretty unique animals but this one was so interesting because it produces eggs that have these tentacle-like appendages that may allow the eggs to better attach to surfaces. As well as the fact that this new species was simply discovered on a piece of moss found the parking lot of a scientist’s apartment complex.

Hurst: I guess it just goes to show that even when we think we have seen it all, there is still new stuff to be discovered in our own backyard!

Carol: How profound. Well, there are so many animal holidays to tell you about, I don’t know where to start. The second week of March is officially National Aardvark Week.  I found a live stream video from last year’s Aardvark Week where Audubon Nature Institute provided some on-the-fly interpretation of an aardvark named Leia who was walking around her pen eating bugs and doing other aardvark things. Leia is super cute; she reminds me of a cross between a possum and a kangaroo, but her big ears remind me of a rabbit.

Hurst: And you think that somehow is cute?

Carol: Absolutely. Now here are some fun facts about aardvarks. An average “earth pig” – which is what aardvark means – weighs around 100 pounds (45 kg)!  They are nocturnal, hunting for their food at night. They have long snouts to sniff out their food, which are mainly insects, and a long, sticky tongue measuring 12 inches (30 cm) to catch them.  Not only do they have thick hairs around their nostrils to filter out dust, but can close their nostrils off while they dig. They are incredible diggers and get this – in addition to digging for sleeping burrows and for food, they also bury their poop.  This is helpful because aardvarks propagate this one type of fruit by eating, pooping, and burying the seeds.  This fruit is the only thing that aardvarks eat besides insects.

Hurst: What is the fruit?

Carol: It’s literally called an ‘aardvark cucumber.’ Anyway, that’s the poop on aardvarks. Moving on to other special days coming up there is Learn About Butterflies Day and Save a Spider Day – both on March 14, there is Buzzard Day on March 15, and of course National Panda Day on March 16.  Of course, pandas and butterflies are more well-received than spiders and buzzards but the latter are equally worthy of our interest and gratitude.

Hurst: I never thought about thanking a buzzard. Why exactly would I do that?

Carol: Well, their stomach acids are so strong that they can feed on animals that have died from such things as botulism, anthrax, salmonella, and cholera. In fact, their stomach acids actually kill the bacteria and toxins – so by consuming an infected carcass, the harmful bacteria or toxin can no longer spread to anyone else – animals or humans!  And spiders eat like 20,000 bugs or something like that, so just think of all the bugs you’d have in your apartment if you killed that spider hanging out in the corner.

Hurst: Ok, I admit that’s pretty cool.  But hey, did you hear about the buzzard that tried to board a plane with three dead raccoon?  The flight attendant told him that the policy was only two carrion per passenger.

Carol:  Hmmm, no, but I did hear that two buzzards were in a field eating a dead clown. One vulture says to the other, “Does this taste funny to you?

Hurst: Well, on that note, see you next week, Carol!

Carol: See you next week, Hurst!


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