Monkeys Giraffes Elephants Whales Tortoises Barnacles and Cockroaches

Carol: You know Hurst, I’ve always thought you could pull off a handlebar mustache.  

Hurst:  I have no idea where this is going but I’m sure it is going to be interesting.

Carol: Well, this week I read an article about a type of monkey that lives in Ethiopia and Sudan called the Blue Nile Patas Monkey that was first identified in 1862. Scientists have long regarded it as a just another patas monkey, but have recently determined that it should be upgraded to be considered its own species, Erythrocebus poliophaeus in case you were wondering. I learned that patas monkeys actually live on the ground and are the fastest runners among primates; they can run more than 30 miles per hour.  Oh, and the facial fur of these Blue Nile Patas Monkeys looks exactly like a handlebar mustache.

Hurst: I knew if I were patient enough, you’d stop monkeying around and get to the punchline.  

Carol:  Our readers may think your jokes are chimp-ly marvelous, but they drive me bananas.

Hurst: Anyway, while we are discussing matters in Africa, I’ll mention a couple stories about giraffes. Both stories come from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation’s latest newsletter. The first story takes place in Namibia, which as you know borders South Africa to the north west. The upper part of Namibia is a desert wilderness that is home to a number of wildlife who have adapted to the climate, for example Angolan giraffes.

Carol: Ooh, I would love to see a giraffe in its native habitat!

Hurst: Well, it’s your lucky day.  GCF has a long-term monitoring program regarding the giraffes that live in this area of Namibia. One of the ways that GCF supports this effort is through tourism. You can actually go to Namibia and help with giraffe conservation in the field for two weeks. This program is really important because, according to GCF, it is one of the first long-term monitoring efforts of giraffe in Africa, and the information collected is provided to local, national, and international conservation partners.

Carol: Very cool. What’s the other giraffe story about?

Hurst: Well, you are going to like this one too. It is a 27-page nature workbook for children that is full of fun information, games, and activities to help kiddos learn about giraffes as well as important general information on the environment. Some of information in this workbook is Kenya specific but the GCF has a workbook focused on Namibia as well.

Carol: That’s a fun way for kids to learn about respecting nature and wildlife. I think I’ll be doing some word puzzles and coloring after we finish up here.  

Hurst:  You do that. On to more serious matters, I know we talk a lot in this column about the threatened or endangered status of various species…

Carol:  Do we ever!  It would be depressing if it weren’t so overwhelming and numbing.

Hurst: That was a very dark joke, Carol.  A new report from the Turtle Conservation Coalition calls attention to the 25 most endangered tortoise and freshwater turtle species. Get this – more than half of the world’s 356 species of tortoises and turtles are currently threatened with extinction.

Carol: Are they endangered because of their use in food, traditional medicine, and the legal and illegal pet industry?

Hurst: Yes, and because of loss of their habitat. There are a number of groups working very hard to combat this trajectory by enforcing regulations, providing ongoing education initiatives, creating economic alternatives to poaching…but all that requires a lot of financial and human resources. Some of the groups that make up the Turtle Conservation Coalition are the IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, Turtle Conservancy, Turtle Survival Alliance, Wildlife Conservation Society, Global Wildlife Conservation, Chelonian Research Foundation and Turtle Conservation Fund.

Carol: That’s a who’s who of the reptile world for sure.  By the way, what is the difference between a turtle and a tortoise?

Hurst: I don’t know, Carol, but this joke better be funny.

Carol: No, I’m serious, I don’t know the difference.

Hurst: Oh, sorry.  I’m used to hearing your bad jokes each week. The main difference is that tortoises live on land, where turtles hang out in water part of the time.

Carol: Ah thank you! I’m always turtle-ly impressed with your animal knowledge. I shell-ebrate how smart you are.

Hurst:  You set me up for that one.

Carol: So, on to man’s best friend, a program at University of Pennsylvania has been getting some press lately. The Penn Vet program is training five dogs to sniff out artifacts in an attempt to identify pieces of art and architecture that are sometimes stolen and then sold off to finance terrorist or other shady activities. The researcher-trainers are trying to determine if there is something similar enough about the scent of ancient artifacts that a dog could identify it.

Hurst: That makes sense. If dogs can sniff out drugs, electronics, bombs, currency, and human illnesses, why not artifacts?

Carol: When I’m walking my dogs, one of them in particular likes to stop every five feet to give the ground a thorough once over with his snout. Sometimes it takes half a day just to get around the block.

Hurst: I know you are exaggerating, but from what I understand, the percentage of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is 40 times larger than ours.  Humans have five million scent receptors to detect smells but dogs have anywhere from 125 to 300 million depending on the type of dog.

Carol:  I’ll be doggone. Well, I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t bring up some story about eating. The one this week focuses on a recently published study following the eating habits of 100,000 people over 22 years. During that time period, 20% of the subjects died, and roughly 4.5% died from heart disease.  Researchers found that subjects who ate lots of plant fats had a 16% lower risk of dying compared to those with lower plant fat intakes, and those who ate lots of animal fats had a 21% higher risk than those who ate lower amounts. Even replacing a small amount of animal fats with plant fats cuts a person’s risk of dying by 10 to 15%.

Hurst: So it sounds like that study is confirming the common wisdom about animal fats…that they tend to be high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which contributes to heart disease.

Carol: Yep!  Better stock up on your avocados, nuts and seeds, Hurst!

Hurst: Good to know my passion for avocado toast is good for my health! In fact, I read a perplexing piece of news while enjoying my toast this morning. Did you hear about the mysterious death of 150 whales in Australia?

Carol: What are you blubbering about?

Hurst: Over 100 whales were beached and died in Hamelin Bay, Australia, south of Perth, and scientists can’t seem to figure out why. Of these short finned pilot whales, only 15 will likely survive, and that is only because they are not yet fully beached. This is not the first time large groups of these whales have washed up in the area, and scientists are beginning to believe there may be a correlation between loud human made sounds and their deaths. Increased Navy sonar activity has been reported in the area at the same times as these mass deaths. However, this is still just a theory and further dna testing will be needed to pinpoint the reason.

Carol: In other animal-oddity news, scientists have figured out why a certain Indian elephant has picked up a smoking habit.

Hurst: Haven’t they heard smoking kills?

Carol: Apparently not, but this isn’t quite smoking as we know it. Indian forest departments burn down select strips of trees so that when a forest fire does occur, these fire lines help contain it. And now this elephant is taking advantage of this practice by putting the charred wood in its mouth, blowing out the ash, and consuming what wood remains.

Hurst: Oh, so it’s just like when you accidentally burn your food and pick off the burnt parts. Not that I would know.

Carol: It’s a similar concept, yes. It is thought that by consuming this charcoal the elephant may be receiving some of the medicinal properties that it provides, like neutralizing toxins consumed in other foods.

Hurst: That doesn’t seem to be a very tasty way of eating healthier, I just take a gummy vitamin or two.

Carol: Now onto something that I know you have a special interest in, marine pollution.

Hurst: Ah yes, marine pollution. My other interests include long walks on the beach and frozen yogurt. A recent study stated that microplastic pollution in marine ecosystems is posing a huge threat to filter-feeding megafauna like whale sharks, manta rays, and baleen whales.

Carol: So microplastics are not the large chunks of plastic products, but small grains that have been broken down by the sea and the sun.  These tiny plastics harm the filter-feeding animals by direct ingestion of the material or by eating plankton that have consumed the microplastics. These particles block nutrient absorption and damage digestive tracts in the short term. Over a longer period, the pollutants build up in the body, altering growth patterns and fertility.

Hurst: There is certainly no shortage of plastics in the ocean. A whopping eight million metric tons of plastic waste enters the ocean annually. And if this growth continues, the rate will quadruple by 2050.

Carol: Thankfully, over forty countries have joined the United Nations “Clean Seas” program to decrease use of single-use plastic products and microplastics in cosmetics. And the pledge isn’t just for countries, individuals can also take part in reducing their use of these plastics for the good of the environment!

Hurst: Well human actions are having negative impacts on a lot of species it seems, but cockroaches are not one of them. Researchers have completed mapping the genome of the American Cockroach.

Carol: Fun fact, the American Cockroach is actually originally from Africa. It was introduced in the 1500’s.

Hurst: That was a very fun fact, thank you. After sequencing their genome, researchers were able to observe large amounts of genes dedicated to certain traits that may be the cockroaches secret to survival. There seems to be a genetic focus on detoxification, immunity, metabolism, and development. These metabolism genes were particularly interesting because they allow the insect to digest some nasty substances, including insecticides. Cockroaches tend to live in toxic environments and ingest plants that contain toxins. This has helped them to evolve an immunity to some of our insecticides, before they ever came in contact with them.

Carol: Well that is interesting, but it does not make them any less icky.

Hurst:  On a different topic, I’m sure you saw that Sudan, the last male northern white Rhino died this week.

Carol: Yes, it was very sad news. I guess some hopeful elements about the story include all the attention it has garnered in mass media and social media, demonstrating that people can care about the death of an animal across the globe.  I’m hopeful this means that our collective radar is becoming more aware of these increasing extinctions, feeling a little more connected and moved by these tragic events, especially with charismatic mammals.  Sudan lived the last years of his life in a sanctuary/conservatory of sorts, where he had very good caretakers looking after him. Sadly he spent a lot of his life in a zoo in the Czech Republic, where he lived until 2009.

Hurst: Sudan was euthanized by his vets after his degenerative muscle and bone illnesses became too much to bear.  I’m glad he had such a good medical team taking care of him. He is survived by his daughter and granddaughter – the last northern Rhinos on the planet.  Scientists have Sudan’s sperm, as well as the sperm of his deceased son, which they will use to try to regenerate the species.

Carol: Speaking of propagating species, National Geographic did a story about sex in the animal world. Ok, maybe not about the act per se, but about how males try to embellish their appearance to attract females.

Hurst: You mean, like grow a handlebar mustache.

Carol: Kind of. Some newts develop body dorsal fins which makes them look bigger and I guess more attractive, if you like the mohawk look, and certain salmon grow a hook on its bottom jaw, which they use to fight other males. Other fish bulk up muscle along their swim bladder and then use the muscles to vibrate the bladder to make mating sounds. And I’m not going to really go into detail about this but limpets and barnacles evidently grow super long penises during their mating season.  The barnacle penis can grow as much as eight times the length of his body.

Hurst:  Well, that’s a weird way to end the news column so instead I will wish you a Happy Respect Your Cat Day on March 28 as well as a Lovely Take a Walk in the Park Day on the 30th.

Carol: Back at you, Hurst!  See you next week!

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