Dinosaurs Turtles Greyhounds Spiders Ants Chimps and Chickens

Carol: Hi Hurst! It finally feels a little bit like spring. Did you spend some of your weekend outside?

Hurst: Unfortunately my allergies kept me inside, but from what I saw out my window, the weather looked beautiful.

Carol: You know what else is beautiful?  Dinosaurs are. So, jumping into the news…I learned this week that our images of dinosaurs are not entirely accurate.  PRI did a story on a paleoartist who translates paleontological evidence into artistic images of dinosaurs. Gabriel Ugunto, started out his career as a herpetologist, somebody who studies reptiles and amphibians, but now uses his training to read academic research on dinosaurs and create realistic images of them.

Hurst: So, what makes them more realistic than previous images?

Carol: Well, for example, in Jurassic Park, do you remember the velociraptor?  Well, that’s not even its real name, but regardless it wasn’t really that big in real life…it was more like the size of a really big turkey.  Some dinosaurs had fur and others had feathers, but when we see images of them, they are usually portrayed as scaly, boney, lizard like creatures.  And they probably had more fatty tissue than is typically drawn.

Hurst: Interesting. Well, the next story is actually related to that…two hairy reptile stories in one week. Go figure. The Guardian reported that the Mary river turtle has been added to an endangered list.  One reason this has gotten media attention is because of the turtle’s really unusual appearance. Evidently, vertical strands of algae grow on its head and body, giving it a green mohawk to rival any 1980s punk bar. This turtle, which has organs in its genitals to help it breathe underwater by the way, was hunted as a popular pet in the ‘60s and ‘70s and consequently its population is still threatened because of the pet trade, the effect of building of dams, and the fact that the turtle doesn’t start having babies until it is around 25 years old.

Carol: So tell me more about this list of threatened animals. Is it the CITES Appendix 1 we frequently talk about?  

Hurst:  No, this one has been compiled by the Zoological Society of London since 2007. It is a list of “Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered” reptiles.  I know you like a good acronym, Carol, so you’ll appreciate that this is called the EDGE list. What makes the EDGE list different from CITES is that it focuses specifically on  threatened species that have a unique evolutionary history. Each animal is given a score that combines extinction risk with its evolutionary isolation or uniqueness. So basically, some of these reptiles look a little like dinosaurs. My favorite might be the pig nosed turtle, number 19 on the list.  You can look at other EDGE lists for birds, amphibians, mammals, and corals. 

Carol: Well, speaking of endangered animals, I read a story this week about how animal trainers are teaching animals to conserve themselves.  

Hurst: Wow, if animals could do that, it sure would save a lot of money in law enforcement of poachers. It’s about time the animals took more responsibility in their own survival.

Carol: I’ll ignore that you really said that. The gist of the article is that wildlife can be trained to avoid humans…to basically think of them as the most dangerous predator out there.

Hurst: That doesn’t sound far off.  

Carol: Exactly. The word “training” here is a bit off.  It’s more like teaching animals, much the way they already teach each other how to find food, create shelter, or avoid prey.  But when we are trying to teach animals to avoid humans, we can’t exactly go into their habitat and reward them with a treat.

Hurst: Right. That would teach them the opposite – that humans are like vending machines, but free ones.

Carol: The challenge is setting up a reward system for a desired behavior, doing it at a distance, and arranging this within the natural habitat.  The story I read highlights a project with chimps in Sierra Leone, where chimps were taught to scream en masse when an unfamiliar person approached. Chimps tend to scream anyway, so the trainers begin by identifying a natural trait of an animal and worked to teach the troop to call in unison, which is loud enough to be heard at a nearby ranger station. The trick was to use a remotely activated system of PVC pipes that dispensed insects and fruit at the push of a button. When a chimp screamed at an unfamiliar vehicle or human, the button was pushed and positive reinforcement tumbled out.  Soon all the chimps learned the behavior but what’s really amazing is that they’ve passed this learned behavior to their young.
Hurst: That’s clever.  I’m trying to think what kind of treat I would need to fall out of a PVC pipe to sufficiently motivate me to study for my upcoming exams.

Carol: For me, it would be chocolate. Ok, I’ve got one more conservation story for you before we switch to the wonder of dogs.  We talk a lot in Creature Feature News about the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, the catalogue of animals’ conservation status, particularly within the context of when the species is not doing so well.  I’m excited to say that a new framework is being developed called the Green List.  It will categorize species that have recovered from a threatened or endangered status. The creators of the Green LIst say that it is not enough to avoid extinction; we need to know what factors and strategies can contribute to a species’ health. The framework starts by defining what a “fully recovered status” of the animal would look like, outlines measures that have worked in the past, and proposes what those same tactics can achieve moving forward.  

Hurst: So, it’s a glass-half-full approach to conservation.

Carol: Exactly.  The authors of the study published in Conservation Biology state that it is a “global standard for qualifying species recovery and conservation success.”  It has been proposed that the Green List and the Red List might be joined together as a unified framework for evaluating species conservation.

Hurst: Cool.  Well, turning to canine communications, I read a story about greyhounds making a border crossing from Mexico to the U.S.

Carol: There is a political joke in there but I’m not going to bite.

Hurst: Bite. Dogs. Very funny.  Anyway, greyhound racing is still lawful in ten U.S. states, although many groups are working to change that.  The dogs in this story have been racing at a track in Tijauna – the last operational track in Mexico. An organization called Fast Friends has been working to place these dogs in homes within the U.S. once they are finished racing. Once dogs become older, they don’t have a very hopeful future.  We covered a greyhound racing story from Australia a few weeks back.

Carol: I remember.  It is big business, which is why it continues despite the claims of abuse to the dogs.

Hurst: Right, well, Fast Friends has placed 4,000 dogs over their 30 years of operation. That’s a lot of happy endings.

Carol: So, the next story is high on the fun factor – a new museum opened in Germany devoted to dachshunds.  It’s in the city of Passau in Bavaria. The founders have been collecting sausage dog memorabilia for years; they got to a point where they decided to quit their day jobs and open the museum. The museum includes over 4,000 items focused on dachshunds…stamps, statues, buttons, pillows, and so on.  I now have a new plan for my retirement…volunteering at various dog museums around the world.

Hurst: Keeping with the dog theme, did you ever consider that dogs might need their own therapy dogs?

Carol: That seems very meta. But I guess it makes sense, people go to therapy so I guess it’s helpful for dogs as well.

Hurst: Researchers in Switzerland recently conducted a study in which they exposed military dogs to therapy dogs in order to reduce their aggressive and antisocial behaviors. These military dogs are trained to be aggressive, defensive, and always on guard in order to fulfill their jobs as emergency responders and bomb detectors. However, when they were put through weekly socialization sessions with other friendly canines, they were noticeably less aggressive. Researchers compared these weekly interactions to therapy sessions since the effects fade over time if the socialization is not consistent.

Carol: Hmm maybe I should get another dog…you know, so my other dogs have someone to talk to about their problems. Not just because I want to adopt another dog.

Hurst: Sounds like solid reasoning to me. Carol, have you ever been to a White Castle?

Carol: That makes me think of a chess board for some reason.

Hurst: Well they have a new menu item that caters to a vegetarian audience. It’s called the Impossible Burger and it’s a plant based burger that copies the molecular structure of real beef, it even “bleeds” in the way that real meat does. White Castle is the first major fast food chain to start carrying this product, but it is already on the menu of over a thousand smaller restaurants across the United States.

Carol: What an exciting development in plant based proteins! I always support meat substitutes that help keep animals out of the unethical factory farming industry. Switching gears, warmer weather means more insects.  Did you see the story about the flying spiders?

Hurst: Just when I thought they couldn’t get any scarier, they start flying.

Carol: It’s not what you might think. A recent study looked at how spiders are using their silk and wind power to travel, either just a few feet or across oceans.  This technique is called “ballooning” and it involves about fifty strands of spider silk that catch the wind. The study showed that spiders use their leg hairs to measure wind speeds and typically wait until wind speeds are lower than about three meters per second to make their leap of faith. And if they happen to catch a jet stream, they can travel thousands of miles.

Hurst: Well I guess this means I won’t be going outside if there is even a breeze. I can’t risk a flying spider attack.

Carol: Good to see you aren’t being dramatic about this.

Hurst: In other insect news, did you know there are one million ants for every human on Earth?!

Carol: Should I call an exterminator?

Hurst: The opposite actually. Ants provide value to humans with an unseen and under-appreciated service in cities; they eat all the food we leave behind. If you added up all the food that ants consume on the streets of Manhattan, it would equal 60,000 hot dogs per year. Since ants are eating this food, it takes away food from other animals that often carry diseases like pigeons and rats.

Carol: Oh wow, that’s not only shocking that ants eat that much food, but that humans leave that much food on the street. Next time I see an ant I will be sure to give it my thanks before I escort it out of my kitchen.

Hurst: How polite. But what if instead of ants in your home, it was chickens?

Carol: I’m not following.

Hurst: More than a dozen nursing homes in the United Kingdom have welcomed flocks of chickens in order to keep residents engaged. These elderly people are feeding the chickens, caring for them, and harvesting their eggs. In return, the chickens keep them company and have been shown to help with depression and loneliness often experienced by residents of nursing homes.

Carol: Who knew chickens could help with depression? What a great nugget of wisdom.

Hurst: Moving on to a sadder piece of news, this week a sperm whale washed up dead with a stomach full of plastic. A shocking 65 pounds of plastic caused the whale to die of an abdominal infection. The plastic contents included dozens of plastic bags, rope, and glass.

Carol: I worry that these kinds of stories will become more and more common as our oceans continue to fill up with even more plastic. But this whales’ death alone has created a public awareness campaign that will include eleven beach cleaning events and nineteen public talks and forums. Keeping plastics out of our oceans is something we can all work to prevent.

Hurst: It seems whales aren’t the only ocean animals being affected by human activity this week. The country of Jordan has been undergoing a reef relocation process in order to save the reefs, and the tourism they bring in, from encroaching human developments. The Red Sea is renowned for its vibrant coral reefs. However, many of these reefs have found new homes miles away from where they started.

Carol: I didn’t know that coral had options on where to live. Are there little coral realtors helping them relocate?

Hurst: Thankfully, this program seems to have been a success. Transplanted corals are placed on marine concrete and metal structures and are growing at an above average rate. The corals of the Red Sea are tolerant of higher temperatures and have therefore not experienced the same coral bleaching that has devastated many other ecosystems. In the future, coral transplants from this area may be used to supplement other suffering reefs.

Carol: Whew, thats a reef-lief, corals are notoriously delicate so I’m glad this seems to be working. You could even say that I’m batty about that project. Speaking of bats, I read a fascinating article about bat misconceptions.

Hurst: I won’t bat an eye at that terrible transition because I know you love bats so much.

Carol: In the past, people believed that bat flight and bird flight essentially work the same way, but current research shows this is not the case. The two types of flight differ in that birds typically are landing on ground or upright on a branch, while bats do not land on the ground but instead hang upside down from branches. Bats use their large fleshy wings to slow down and flick themselves upwards as they go in for the landing.

Hurst: Landing upside down must be extra difficult since they use echolocation to navigate.

Carol: See I told you bats were cool. In fact, April 17 is International Bat Appreciation Day. So, Hurst, I hate to end on such a serious note, but I have something we need to discuss.

Hurst: Oh no, am I finally getting fired? Which joke finally did it?

Carol: No, not this week. I’m afraid it is even more grave…we did not celebrate National Draw A Picture of a Bird Day on April 8th.

Hurst: Jeez Carol, don’t stress me out like that. I know these holidays mean a lot to you so I urge our readers to draw their best bird pictures and tweet them to us @CreatFeatNews.

Carol: Thank you, that will help tide me over until Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale Day on the 26th.

Hurst: I’ll be sure to RSVP to the bake sale that I assume you will be hosting. See you next week!


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