Carol: Hello there Hurst, I hope you are fully recovered from Saint Patrick’s day and ready for this week’s edition of Creature Feature.
Hurst: I certainly am, and to start off I have a unique story about platypus milk and it’s potential medicinal properties. Although these properties don’t include curing a Saint Patrick’s hangover, in case you were wondering.
Carol: I almost forgot platypus produce milk. They are mammals after all, even though they look like a cross between a duck and beaver.
Hurst: Fifty percent duck, fifty percent beaver, one hundred percent adorable. Anyway, these fascinating egg-laying mammals secrete milk through the surface area of the skin on their bellies instead of through a concentrated teat. Scientists believe that because of this contact between the air and the milk, platypuses evolved an antibacterial protein to protect their nursing young. It is this protein that could hold the secret to treating antibiotic-resistant illnesses. Human diseases are treated with antibiotics, however sometimes when a bacteria mutates and becomes resistant, it can pass on this resistant gene to its offspring. When humans contract one of these bacteria-borne illnesses, a typically mild sickness can prove to be fatal.
Carol: So you’re saying the cure is platypus milk?
Hurst: Maybe. Researchers identified a protein within the milk that is unique among over 100,000 protein structures known to science, so some are hoping it could be the silver bullet for these illnesses.
Carol: Very interesting. In other maternal news, it has been discovered that the southern African python provides maternal care for its offspring, making it the first known egg-laying snake to do so. What is particularly interesting is how they provide this care. The mothers stay with their young for two weeks after they hatch. During this time they do not eat, instead they allocate all of their energy to caring for their babies. In order to keep themselves warm during this period, they change their normally brown skin to black to absorb the sun’s heat and share the warmth with the young. In fact, the mother’s body heat can rise to levels just degrees away from what would kill them.
Hurst: This is interesting since we tend to portray snakes as cold heartless animals when some actually do a lot for their young. On the opposite end of the spectrum did you see the story about cannibalistic squirrels?
Carol: I couldn’t miss it. I found it to be quite shocking that adult male red squirrels often eat baby red squirrels.They sneak into the nests of other female squirrels and eat the babies, especially in years when food is plentiful. It seems logical that the opposite would be true, but this occurs because females are more likely to have a second litter of pups in a year when food is abundant. Males never know which pups are biologically theirs during the first round of breeding because females mate with multiple males. So the male kills the first litter and guards the female until she is ready to mate again, ensuring that the second litter will be his.
Hurst: Wow, and I thought human romance was hard; that sounds messy.
Carol: Squirrels are not the only animals to commit such infanticide; male lions have also been known to kill all younger lions when they take over a pride.
Hurst: Speaking of lions, I have always wondered if lions, tigers, and other big cats cough up hairballs like my cat does so frequently. Thankfully, National Geographic wondered the same thing. Domestic cats get hairballs because they spend a large portion of their time licking their fur clean with bristles on their tongue. The cats then swallow the fur and since it is indigestible, it is either vomited up or pooped out, as many cat owners unfortunately know.
Carol: So does this mean big cats are coughing up hairballs the size of house cats?
Hurst: You would think. However, for some reason that scientists are yet to fully figure this out. Big cats do not exhibit this behavior except for a few rare cases of sickness. This has left scientists a bit stumped since big cats swallow large amounts of hair while grooming just like domestic cats do.
Carol: The article said it might have something to do with their diet since wild cats are eating raw meat and domestic cats usually eat a pre-made diet. However, that is interesting that something so seemingly simply still has not been fully figured out. Maybe it’s just difficult to get funding for research about hairballs.
Hurst: Switching to butterflies, a new report states that the Monarch Butterfly population in Mexico has declined for the second year in a row, and specifically demonstrates a 15% decrease from last year. The already endangered insect migrates to Mexico annually, to hibernate in pine and fir trees during the winter.
Carol: I heard that they historically covered about 18 hectares in the 90s, but within the last 25 years, they are only covering about two hectares of land once they arrive.
Hurst: Some scientists are blaming a particularly active hurricane season for this decrease. This population decline could have a variety of effects on the tourism sector that relies on this migration as well as the flowers and crops that rely on the pollination that butterflies provide.
Carol: In avian news, I recently found out about a new art project involving chickens.
Hurst: I didn’t know chickens were particularly artistic.
Carol: Haha. The chickens are being photographed by two Italian photographers, Moreno Monti and Matteo Tranchellini, to demonstrate how striking and interesting these ordinary barnyard animals can be. They did an initial portrait exhibit called Chic!ken (don’t you just love that play on words?) but then kept taking photographs until they totaled over 200 which they are using in a hardback photobook called simply Chicken. If you have time, you should check out the photos in the article to behold these fabulous fowl.
Hurst: Well, you aren’t the only one with a news story about a book. A new children’s book called Red Alert! is based on the The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The book covers the natural history of 15 species that are on the list, a note on each page listing the species’ category Red List, the threats each animal faces, the various ways that people interact with wildlife, and finally, ways we can help them.
Carol: That’s a great approach! I am going to check it out when it is available for purchase. What are the IUCN categories again?
Hurst: An animal can be listed as Extinct, Extinct in the Wild, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near Threatened, and Least Concern.
Carol: Well, that’s great that the book teaches kids about specific animals under threat, but also raises awareness about the IUCN’s globally agreed-upon measure for determining their status.
Hurst: I agree. I hope kids also learn that there are many people out there who care very deeply about wildlife and how to protect their habitats! The next two features are unpleasant but I’m mentioning them together because they have a common theme – how and why humans kill certain animals. The first article is by Peter Singer and addresses the killing of kangaroos in Australia.
Carol: Is that the same Peter Singer the renowned ethicist who writes on issues related to altruism and poverty, as well as animal liberation and veganism?
Hurst: The very one. In this essay, he writes about the killing of kangaroos as part of the trade in their meat, skin, and fur, as well as because they are perceived as a pest to farmers because the kangaroos eat grass that farmers use to feed their cows and sheep. The Australian Government authorizes the killing of five million kangaroos each year, although an exact count is not known. Singer writes “Every year, millions of kangaroos are shot, in the largest commercial slaughter of terrestrial wildlife anywhere in the world…On one hand, the quotas are not fully taken up, so the number killed may be less than five million. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of joeys inside the pouches of female kangaroos who are shot are not counted, though they will invariably die. In addition, no one knows how many kangaroos are killed illegally, outside the quota system.”
Carol: I’m feeling conflicted about this because I understood kangaroos to be a source of national pride, since they are such a unique mammal found only as a native species to Australia. Aren’t kangaroos on the Australian coat of arms?
Hurst: Yes, and kangaroos are on Australia’s coins, and a mascot of Australian Airlines, as well as a symbol of Australia’s sporting heritage used by the Australian Olympic Committee. However, some city-dwellers eat kangaroo, but the meat is mostly offered to tourists, and made into pet food. The skin is used for leather and the fur is destined for tourist souvenirs. The point of Singer’s essay is to suggest that there should be more consideration regarding the killing of an indigenous creature (such as a kangaroo) when it is done to make room for other industries such as sheep and cattle farming. He points out that this is done with other animals, in other countries and because of other industries, and just wants us to consider the inherent ethical issue that this poses.
Carol: That’s definitely worth pondering, especially in regard to where to draw the line. Five million sure sounds like a lot. What was the other story you wanted to share?
Hurst: It is about iguanas in Florida. In this case, the iguanas are not shot but hit very hard on the head, which according to a wildlife biologist and research coordinator with University of Florida, destroys their brains quickly and is considered one of the more “humane” ways to kill them. This technique evidently falls within the parameters of Florida’s animal cruelty laws.
Carol: Why are they being killed in the first place?
Hurst: Overpopulation, basically. Iguanas are native to Mexico and Central America and were introduced to Florida as pets. They are herbivores, and their growing populations are eating their way through the state. The wildlife biologists involved in the situation still aren’t sure why the population is growing so quickly. The article provides tips for homeowners to help keep their yard from becoming attractive homes to iguanas.
Carol: Switching from one reptile to another, our next story is a hopeful one about the yellow spotted Amazon River Turtles in Bolivia. This turtle, which is named for the yellow spots on its head, is found in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname, and Brazil, and thought of as an environmental indicator to biologists because it is sensitive to variations in the ecosystem. Additionally, it plays an important role in the Amazon River basin ecosystem because it disperses seeds through its eating and pooping cycle.
Hurst: There you go talking about poop again.
Carol: Yep, it’s kind of fascinating how poop and waste, in general, can lead to big advantages in environmental ecosystems, or to big detriments, depending on how it is handled. But I’m digressing… Back to the turtles…their egg laying season is August and September which corresponds to Bolivia’s dry season. They lay anywhere from 6 to 50 eggs on the riverbanks, around 8 inches (20 cm) below ground. The eggs incubate for two to three months, which is ample time for traffickers to take the eggs and sell them in markets for consumption. This is illegal, by the way, because the turtles have a Threatened status on IUCN’s Red List, a list we bring up a lot in our weekly chat.
Hurst: Right, this is the list of wildlife whose populations are in trouble.
Carol: Fortunately, these turtles have a lot of allies. The park rangers of the Biosphere Reserve and Biological Station of Beni. After the eggs are laid, the rangers carefully collect them and transfer them to an artificial beach where they remain, guarded, until after they hatch. Once hatched, the rangers wait until the baby turtles’ shells are hard and then they take them back to the River basin to release them. All this effort is truly needed; last year, for example, over 50,000 turtle eggs were confiscated from thieves during egg-laying season. The rangers are also educating local populations about the importance of the turtles, and making a big deal about releasing them back to the River basin…making it a celebration for everyone to take part in…kids love seeing the baby turtles waddle to safety.
Hurst: Well, that is a positive story. I hope that program and others like it continue to reap success! So, Carol, I know you love your two dogs dearly. Have you ever thought about cloning them?
Carol: Hmmm, that’s an interesting question, mainly because it is an ethical one. I heard recently that Barbara Streisand decided to clone her dog. No, I don’t think I would ever do that, even if I did have a spare $50,000 lying around.
Hurst: I read an opinion piece from the NYT whose author agrees with you. She presents a compelling argument against cloning pets. First, she points out that there exists “an underclass” of dogs involved in the cloning process who are simply viewed as vehicles to a end: the egg-donor-dogs whose DNA is wiped clean and substituted with the clonee’s DNA, and the surrogate dogs who carry a litter of cloned puppies. But also, this is done while thousands of other dogs languish in shelters, and who might be given a home, if and when bereaved pet owners are ready to invite a another pooch into their homes. The author writes “Cloning is symptomatic of deeper problems in how our culture thinks about pet dogs. It reinforces the status of dogs as things to buy and collect, and as sentimental tokens and emotional support objects. Dogs are valued for our feelings toward them, rather than for who they are as individuals.” She adds that the biotech companies who do the cloning are selling an unhealthy and unnatural dream of never having to “say goodbye” to a beloved pet.
Carol: Ah, that’s all very interesting to think about.
Hurst: Well, it’s time to wind up this week’s Creature Feature. Anything exciting happening in your world this coming week?
Carol: Well, on March 22, I will be celebrating the International Day of the Seal. It was started 35 years ago to draw attention to the cruelty of seal hunts and promote conservation of seals so as to hopefully ward off their extinction. Seals are protected in the US by the Marine Mammals Protection Act. If you want to celebrate too, you can do an easy search to find out fun facts about seals, for example, they are part 33 types of pinnipeds, which also includes sea lions, walruses and fur seals. Crabeater, Weddell, leopard and Ross seals live in the Antarctic. Fur seals and sea lions live in the Northern Pacific and off the coasts of South America, Antarctica, southwestern Africa, and southern Australia. Or you can watch documentaries about seals. And help raise awareness about them among your friends. But anyway, I know you like a good joke, so…what’s grey and has a trunk?
Hurst: I want to say elephant but something is telling me that’s not it.
Carol: A seal on holiday.
Hurst: That is a good one! It definitely gets my seal of approval…
Carol: Ugh. See you next week, Hurst!
Hurst: See you next week!