Bison Hummingbirds Horses Bees Wolves and Kangaroo Rats

Hurst: Carol, do you know what this week is?

Carol: Hmmm…I know World Tuna Day is coming up, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what you have in mind…

Hurst: It’s our half-year anniversary!  This is week 26 of Creature Feature News!  

Carol: Wow, I’m typically not very good at long relationships.

Hurst: Me either. This is my longest by far. I thought we would start this week by talking about animals talking. This week PBS’s Nova aired a feature on how animals communicate with each other. Think about all the sounds we hear animals make…what if we could decode them and actually understand what they are saying? We would know so much more about the creatures with whom we share the world. Nova hosts went all around the globe to speak with various scientists studying chimps, dolphins, songbirds, dogs, bonobos, bats, spiders, mice, and so on…it really seems that we are on the crest of a really big wave of research that is going to teach us more about the emotional and cultural lives of animals.  The World of Words podcast did a condensed story on these studies in case you can’t commit to the full hour on Nova.

Carol: That’s very exciting news that such a critical mass of knowledge is being created about animals and their communication. I always wanted to be Dr. Doolittle when I was growing up.

Hurst: Dr. Who?

Carol: No, Dr. Dolittle. Nevermind. The next story is one where words just can’t do it justice. Claire Rosen is a photographer whose latest project depicts animals having a dinner party at a long rectangular table. Each photo focuses on a different animal: horses, turtles, starfish, cobra, hedgehog, sloth, falcon, camel…the list really goes on and on…she calls the project Fantastical Feasts and each picture is framed in the same style as The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.

Hurst: I took a look at the images and they are visually, conceptually, and logistically impressive, but I was left wondering if there was a purpose behind it beyond composing amazing photos of animals.

Carol: She says that the point of the project is to encourage people to think about how we interact with animals and consider our responsibility to them. The animals and their table of treats are always set in a beautiful, natural, and somewhat mystic scene that is reminiscent of images of forests and wild places conjured up by many of the story books we read growing up.  This was intentional on the part of Rosen, who also hopes that by setting animals in a scene we are accustomed to – a dinner party or celebration – we will identify with the animals and feel kindly to them.

Hurst: Well, it also made me a bit hungry.  In addition to carrots and apples, I think the horse table displayed carrot cake and I skipped breakfast.

Carol: Speaking of horses, a successful cardiac ablation was done on a stallion in Belgium recently.  This is the first of this type of surgery to be done on a horse ever.  An ablation is a procedure used to correct a heart arrhythmia, a term used to describe an irregular heart beat. When your heart isn’t beating efficiently, it can really decrease your energy level and can affect how other organs perform as well.  Arrhythmias can been treated with electric shock therapy basically “resetting” the beat by shocking your heart back into rhythm, but sometimes the procedure only has temporary effects, because the electrically unstable groups of cells re-initiate the arrhythmia.  Ablation is a procedure where you inactivate these cells using heating or cooling. This is done in people all the time but this surgery is the first for horses!

Hurst: Well, I am glad to hear the horse is now stable.  

Carol: That one was pretty good, I have to say. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to tell you to rein in the horse jokes.

Hurst: So, this past weekend was the third annual City Nature Challenge, a world wide event where cities compete to see which residents can locate the most species of local plants and animals.  People use the iNaturalist app to snap photos of local biodiversity and as a result help local land managers by adding another data point or two to their records. This competition is only two years old, growing from an original contest between Los Angeles and San Francisco but is happening this year in 65 cities on five continents. Tourists can get in on the fun too.  The really cool thing is that after four days of data collection, scientists and naturalists volunteer their time to identify the thousands of photos resulting from the Challenge. On May 4th, people can learn what they took photos of.

Carol: Wow, I hope they have a lot of volunteers for identification. That’s a great way to get people interested in local nature found in urban environments. Speaking of city dwellers, I’ve got a story to share about how bison are keeping water clean for residents of Northern Holland.

Hurst:  Ok, but first.  What did mama buffalo say when her youngest went off to college? Bison!

Carol:  Wow, I can’t believe I’ve put up with this for 26 weeks. Anyway, a water company in the Netherlands have introduced bison, horses and cattle to a large tract of land they own, in order to help conserve the natural dune ecosystem and provide clean water to thousands of Dutch.  These animals are big grazers and they eat shrubs, small trees, and other plants that can take over the dune ecosystem. The problem with this natural evolution of ecosystems is that the native species dependent on dunelands were dying out. The coastal dunes are less than 1% of the land in the Netherlands, but account for 50% of the biodiversity.  The water company, PWN, worked with a local university to determine that a decline in large insects was setting up a chain of events which signaled to animals up the food chain that the dunes were not a hospitable place to live anymore. These insects needed grasses to feed on, and the grasses were getting shoved out by other plants as the native dune ecosystem evolved.

Hurst: So, again, it all comes back to supply chains, or food chains in this instance.

Carol: Exactly. PWN introduced a few of these big grazers who eventually took care of the problem by eating all the newer plants. They settled in, reproduced, and still continue to keep the dune ecosystem in check.  Highland and Galloway cows, Konik horses, and bison are all chillin’ in the dunes, which in turn provide a natural filtration system for water.  PWN uses only 5% of its land for water infiltration, and the dunes get many visitors to enjoy nature and try to spot a bison or two. And it’s not just PWN employing ungulates to help with their water supply.  Other water companies in that area are doing the very same thing on their land.

Hurst: It’s great when we hear stories that can be used as best practices for other places. Like this next is almost too good to bee-lieve! All countries within the European Union have agreed to stop the use of neonicotinoids, a pesticide that kills many pollinating insects, bees especially.

Carol: That is great news! Bees are such an important part of ecosystems and food production for humans.

Hurst: Hopefully this will help the declining bee populations to recover. Similar steps are being considered in the United States as the Environmental Protection Agency hopes to reach a decision on the legality of neonicotinoids by the end of the year.

Carol: Well maybe I will figure out how to pronounce neonicotinoids by then. To continue this trend of good news, did you see that Maryland became the second state to ban the sale of cats and dogs in pet stores?

Hurst: I’m glad to hear it!  Which state was the first?

Carol: California was the first to enact policy that said pet shops can only have cats and dogs for adoption from local shelters. The hope is that this will greatly diminish the amount of animals raised in puppy mills, specifically dogs. As you know, puppy mills raise a large amount of dogs in very poor conditions to be sold in pet stores. In addition to this new policy, a law was also passed that forbid people convicted of animal abuse from owning pets in the state of Maryland.

Hurst: Moving from Maryland to Mexico, National Geographic recently published a story about hummingbirds that I found to incredibly surprising as well as worrying. A secretive market that trades dead hummingbirds has come to light in Mexico and the southern United States.

Carol: What do people want with dead hummingbirds? That doesn’t seem like a very filling meal.

Hurst: They aren’t being traded for consumption, but for alleged supernatural properties, specifically making people fall in love. There is a community selling hummingbird carcasses, and concoctions containing them, to people who wish to make others fall in love with them, keep their lovers from meeting their spouses, or just as a good luck charm. This belief may trace back to mythologies from Aztec and Inca cultures in which the hummingbird was revered and believed to be linked to the gods.

Carol: But aren’t many hummingbird species endangered?

Hurst: Of the 58 species found in Mexico thirteen are endangered and five are threatened. However it is yet to be determined what kind of effect this practice will have on populations. There is a lot of mystery surrounding the size of this market, but one recent investigation in Mexico City found 650 dead hummingbirds for sale. Some researchers say that this trade is not big enough to have significant impact on hummingbird populations, but others say that since the birds are gathered indiscriminately, breeding adults and juveniles, it could have negative impacts. It is another issue altogether to actually halt this trade since it requires the collaborative efforts of Mexican and American officials in addition to the fact that the market is shrouded in mystery.

Carol: Well that story was a bit of a bummer, how about a joke to cheer you up?

Hurst: Oh great, let’s hear it.

Carol: What did the momma horse say to the foal?

Hurst:  …

Carol: Its pasture bedtime! Get it? Because they live in a pasture?

Hurst: Yes I definitely got it, but it’s a neigh for me.

Carol: Enough horsing around, this next piece is about an enlightening new study that shows that horses can not only read human facial expressions but remember and react to them. Researchers tested this by briefly showing a horse a picture of a human with either a happy or angry expression and later introducing the human to the horse. When the horse interacted with a human who’s angry face they had seen earlier, the horse perceived the person more negatively. This is groundbreaking research because this is the first mammal we know of that can read human facial expressions and use that knowledge when later confronted with the actual human.

Hurst: How did they know the horse perceived them negatively? Did they interview the horse?

Carol: Not quite, you can tell if a horse has a negative response to something by its gaze. If it looks at something with it’s left eye, it is negative because previous research has shown that animals process negative events with the right hemisphere of their brain, which is linked to the left eye.

Hurst: In a bit of local news, the last wild population of red wolves may be doomed. Here in North Carolina, forty red wolves remain. However, experts say that this population is not large enough to breed and grow and will therefore slowly become extinct in the wild.

Carol: Is there anything that can be done?

Hurst: There has been talk about implementing more severe policies to prevent humans from illegally hunting them since that seems to be the main reason for their decline. However, protections for the wolf face an unsure future as the debate continues on whether or not the red wolf is a form of coyote or its own separate species. The future of the red wolf does not seem promising, but hopefully help can come in time.

Carol: On the opposite end of the spectrum, researchers have rediscovered the San Quintin kangaroo rat in Baja, California, which was previously thought to be extinct!

Hurst: I don’t know how I feel about bring back extinct animals. I’ve seen Jurassic Park, it didn’t turn out so well for them.

Carol: Well lucky for us we aren’t actually bringing them out of extinction, their range has just become small pockets, and since they are not conspicuous animals, so they were assumed to be extinct. This rat was last seen in 1986 and then disappeared due to elimination of its habitat for agriculture. Researchers were presently surprised when they came across these rats while researching other small mammals in the area.

Hurst: I didn’t think I would be particularly excited about a new rat species, but I googled them just now and I must say they’re quite cute.

Carol: I agree! I was actually sent that story by one of my friends who found the rat to be particularly endearing and wanted us to talk about it this week!

Hurst: Well I’m certainly glad they did! In fact, if any of our readers have any recent stories that they would really like to see us cover they should tag us in them on Instagram or leave a comment on our latest post!

Carol: Thats a great idea, but I’m not convinced that you aren’t just suggesting that because you are too lazy to find stories.

Hurst: That could be a factor for sure. See you next week!

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