Carol: Hi Hurst! Do you have Royal Wedding Fever?
Hurst: I do! But maybe not how you would think. I don’t really get the appeal of the actual Royal Wedding, but I am all about the royal corgi wedding!
Carol: The what?
Hurst: It’s exactly what it sounds like. As Prince Harry and Meghan Markle tied the knot on May 19th, so did a corgi prince and princess. This canine wedding was hosted in Times Square by Lifetime and featured an entire cast of royal corgi characters that reenacted the pomp and circumstance of the historic human event.
Carol: That sounds adorable! I hate to distract from such hard hitting news, but I want to talk about a “modern day Noah’s Ark” that caught my eye this week. There is an organization called African Parks who is helping restore wildlife in African nations including Benin, Chad, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Zambia. They are reintroducing wildlife like rhinos, elephants, and lions to places where they were once indigenous but whose populations have since been wiped out or significantly decreased because of poaching, or whose habitat has been destroyed. Working with wildlife officials and local communities, they take wildlife from other areas and relocate them to parks that they manage – parks that have fences around them to help protect them from bad people getting in, or from what might happen to the animals if they get out.
Hurst: Well, that sounds like a good plan, but it can’t be that simple.
Carol: It’s not. There is some criticism of the program because having these animals within fences, instead of migrating freely, is not the ideal. Still, we are in dire circumstances and this is a good step in helping the overall issue. The article listed some staggering numbers regarding African wildlife: “Over 90 percent of the continent’s elephants have vanished over the last century. The lion population has crashed by more than 40 percent since 1993. There are fewer than 1,000 mountain gorillas in the wild. There are only two northern white rhinos in existence.” So, to take wildlife from conservancies and other protected areas and transport them to areas where biodiversity is lacking and needed so desperately, may appear like a ‘Hail Mary” attempt at propagating these important species but it seems like that’s what the situation warrants. African Parks has been around since 2000, and have an impressive array of partners, as well as strong principles with which they operate, all laid out on their website.
Hurst: I hope their good work continues. It sounds like an intensive, innovative, and so far effective program! Moving from African savannas and forests to Arctic climates, I have three stories for you about cold-weathered critters. The first is about twelve Alaskan bison yearlings who are being relocated to Siberia. They will join lots of other cold-acclimated animals like reindeer, yaks, and horses to try to recreate the historic natural ecosystem.
Carol: Why are they being relocated to Siberia? Did the get in trouble or something? Siberia is so cold though, even coming from Alaska. Will the bison be ok, and what will they eat?
Hurst: Well, that’s where they are performing their work. All of the animals I mentioned are herbivores, and will eat the trees and shrubs that are growing there, promoting the expansion of grassland. Grasslands and snowy plains reflect solar radiation better than areas with vegetation. This is thought to a small part of reducing the impacts of climate change but is still being investigated as to how much it can help.
Carol: Cool. That reminds me of the story we discussed recently about the bison in the Netherlands who are also keeping the grasslands in tact which helps filter water used by northern Holland.
Hurst: Right. The bison and other animals will also help keep the ground to stay frozen longer by trampling on the snow and packing it down. The goal is to keep the permafrost from melting as long as possible because when it does, it will release an enormous amount of carbon, which will worsen global warming.
Carol: Whoa. Those baby bison have a big burden.
Hurst: These may be the first livestock flown from Alaska to Siberia, so they are making provisions to make sure the bison don’t overheat and aren’t stressed. They will be given a mild anti-anxiety drug before the flight.
Carol: Well, keep us posted if you hear more. What’s the next arctic story you mentioned?
Hurst: It is about polar bears and how an upsurge in their presence is related to the decline of the seal industry. Seal hunting is still firmly entrenched in some parts of Canada, however along the coastal area of Labrador and northern Quebec, the harp seal population has increased dramatically, and as a result, so have the polar bears. These bears typically eat ring seal but have adapted by moving south to feed on harp seals now.
Carol: That is interesting! It is yet another example of how natural systems are complex webs of relationships and interactions.
Hurst: And now for the final arctic story… Northern sea otters were hunted for their pelts to virtual extinction in the 1700s. But thanks to the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention, a treaty that banned hunting of the otters, and put into place effective conservation measures, the species has made an amazing comeback. Four hundred sea otters were reintroduced to their historic range in the 1960’s and by the last population count, an estimated 27,500 individuals were documented. The population is currently growing at a rate of about 13%, and expected to double again in six years.
Carol: So what is the problem here? That sounds like a conservation success story to me.
Hurst. It is an conservation success, but a an economic disaster. Sea otters feast on geoduck clams, sea urchins, Dungeness crabs, and sea cucumbers; all of which make up the livelihood of approximately 200 fishermen and a $10 million industry. In the past, divers have harvested six million pounds of red sea urchins, however the most recent haul was only one million. Sea otters are currently not listed as endangered or threatened, but cannot be hunted due to protections from the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Soon legislation may be put into place that will allow sea otters to be harvested for their pelts however. All of this puts conservationists in a bit of a sticky situation; can a balance be found between industry and conservation?
Carol: That is tough, and a constant equilibrium we human and non-human animals have to negotiate. But on a different subject, did you know that puffin beaks glow in the dark?
Hurst: Sure, everyone knows that.
Carol: Right. National Geographic did an interesting feature on animals who have bioflourescent body parts.
Hurst: Do tell. What other animals did they focus on?
Carol: The story provided images of chain catshark, flatfish, scorpionfish, green eel, hawksbill sea turtle, seahorse, and bream, but there are over 180 known species altogether than glow, including sharks, corals, and many marine animals. These animals are bioflourescent which means their parts reflect the blue light hitting a surface and re-emit it as a different color, usually green, red, or orange. Contrast this with bioluminescence, where animals themselves produce their own light through a series of chemical reactions. The fact that these animals use light, generate light, and and communicate through light in this way reminds us that there are incredible things happening all around us that are vastly different from how we operate.
Hurst: So true. Well, turning from glowing puffins to Australian fairy-wrens, I read a story about how two species of songbirds in Australia cooperate with each other to fend off competitor birds as well as predators. The variegated fairy-wren and splendid fairy-wren have been shown to work together to protect their little areas of habitat. Now this in and of itself is not news because there are many examples of birds who cooperate across species, but what was exciting about this particular study is that these two species of birds actually work with specific members of the other species. So if Tyler the variegated fairy-wren shared an area of forest with Zach the splendid fairy-wren and Sydney the splendid fairy-wren, Tyler would know when Zach and Sydney were around and be ok with it, but the minute that Lionel the splendid fairy-wren came around, he would get aggressive toward him.
Carol: That’s interesting. How did the researchers figure this out?
Hurst: Well, to continue my example, they recorded the songs of Sydney and Zach, the song of a “foreign” or unknown fairy-wren, and the song of a robin, who acted as a neutral component in the experiment because robins don’t compete for the same resources as fairy-wrens. Tyler would recognize the various songs and behave differently according to which song he heard, actually becoming aggressive when he heard the foreign song.
Carol: I love how researchers are learning more fine-grained information about animals everyday. It helps us to see them as individuals, as well as appreciate how clever they are in ways that differ from us. Speaking of clever animals, let’s talk pigs.
Hurst: I’ve heard pigs are smart – more so than dogs.
Carol: I’ve heard the dog comparison too, and I bet it comes down to individual dogs and individual pigs, but regardless, pigs and hogs are adorable! Even the 600 pound ones! The story I will highlight next is related to hogs, but really focuses on how hog production affects humans. Obviously, with the two of us being from North Carolina, we are well aware of the enormous pork industry in our state. The short piece I saw this past week was announcing that trials are beginning against the hog producers who occupy a big proportion of farmland in eastern North Carolina. Twenty-six lawsuits, filed in 2014, are starting to hit local courthouses; I suspect we will continue to see news about these legal proceedings for months to come.
Hurst: I’ve heard about these lawsuits. They are from the neighbors around the farms who argue that the farms are not doing enough to curtail the negative impacts of hog production, including the spraying of liquified hog waste onto nearby fields. I’m sure that smells terrible as it drifts through the air.
Carol: Oh yeah. Beyond the flies, biting gnats, and buzzards that it attracts, the smell gets into people’s clothes and any cars parked outside. But also, the smell is making some people nauseous, sick, but neighbors are unable to open the windows of their houses to air them out. There is also the stress and worry about the harm this could be causing them from a health standpoint, not to mention the decrease in property value when new production structures are built. Also, there are reports of being able to hear the pigs in distress, which is pretty terrible to think about. The key complaint is that the production companies have the financial resources to employ better technologies to fix the environmental issues but they are failing to do so.
Hurst: It will be interesting to see how this all turns out. I don’t want to vilify the farmers who are trying to make a living but it seems like the large corporations who run these facilities could step up and do more to be good neighbors.
Carol: I agree. What’s on your agenda to talk about next?
Hurst: As you may have heard, giraffes are now listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation in Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. As a recent article states, we know very little about giraffe behavior and ecology, and we must learn fast to help conserve them. It appears that giraffes are the exception to a widespread ecological rule that group sizes of animals are greater when there is a risk of predators; this is to have more sets of eyes to be on the lookout. Instead of being determined by predation, group size is decided by the female giraffes who likes to spend time in smaller groups when they have calves.
Carol: Understanding a species is the key to effectively conserving them instead of using blanket tactics for very different animals. Transitioning from the stately giraffe, let’s talk about the not so charismatic flatworm! Next month at Fanimal the theme is DIRT, and I have been doing a lot research trying to find information to share on the website and I stumbled upon the news that footlong flatworms have been invading french soils and it is really quite interesting. These giant invasive worms have apparently been present in France since 1999 however are just now garnering scientific attention as they prey on soil organisms and could cause loss of soil biodiversity and other negative environmental impacts.
Hurst: Thanks for the dirt on flatworms!
Carol: Yikes, that was a bad one. And now to open a whole new can of worms, a bill is up for approval by the California State Senate that will redirect serious animal abusers into mental health evaluations and programs that work to address the root cause of their violent behavior. The hope here is that by intervening at this stage, it will prevent some of the violent acts often committed by animal abuse offenders. Senator Scott Wilk, who introduced the bill, cites studies that show that 70% of the most violent prison inmates had histories of animal abuse.
Hurst: Hopefully the bill passes! I like legislation that not only has appropriate punishment for crimes but facilitates rehabilitation as well. This next story hits close to my Millenial heart; it is about animals selfies and whether they are really worth putting yourself in danger. Several tourists in Australia were recently attacked by the kangaroos they were feeding when they tried to get close enough to take a selfie. News reports on this situation have described the Australian marsupials as “cute and cuddly” before they started attacking, and that is where the problem lies. People believe that wild animals will be as habituated to human contact as zoo animals and recklessly approach them. This leads to incidents like the one earlier this year in which an Indian man was mauled and killed by a wild bear that he attempted to take a selfie with?
Carol: It could be the Gen X’er in me talking, but I think it is pretty obvious that no selfie is never worth being mauled by a bear.
Hurst: Right, well on that note I think it is about time to say farewell, but not without looking ahead to some exciting animal holidays. June 3rd is National Animal Rights day.
Carol: That is exciting! But since I’ve been working so much to get Fanimal launched, it’s like every day is National Animal Rights Day. But maybe I’ll get a cake to make it extra special.
Hurst: I am always down for cake and animals. See you next week!