Our Wonderful Nature

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

Our Wonderful Nature turns its attention to the tiny water shrew in mating season:

Another episode looks at the gluttonous chameleon:

Danger at the Zoo

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

Zoos accredited by organizations like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have weapons teams trained to use deadly force to prevent death or serious harm:

Although the procedures followed by the ‘weapons teams’ are standardized, the firearms used appear to be chosen by the individual zoos and/or the leader of each team. Open source information points to a combination of 12 gauge shotguns and high-powered rifles being on hand at most major zoos.

From a story in the St Petersburg Times:

The team armed themselves with four guns from a locked cabinet kept in the general curator’s office. Salisbury carried a 12-gauge shotgun. The remaining staff carried two .375 rifles and a 30-06 rifle.

Zoo employees also train and qualify with local and state law enforcement agencies.

From a story in the Pittsburgh Tribune:

Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Stephen A. Bucar said police officers and zoo workers went through training immediately after the incident Nov. 4, 2012, when 2-year-old Maddox Derkosh was killed. Bucar said police don’t carry weaponry needed to bring down a large animal in the event of a similar incident. They don’t know enough about animal behavior to shoot an animal, he said.

Some guidelines:

Always make sure that firearms are on safety and handled with extreme caution. The use of a killing weapon must always be tempered by the potential to endanger human life.

Whenever possible, the shooter should stay in a vehicle when approaching the animal.

Never run after the animal. It’s certain that you can’t outrun it. You will be out of breath, which will not allow you to have a steady hand.

Make sure you have a good clean shot. Be aware of what is in front and behind your target.

If you must shoot, shoot to kill. If you do not feel you are capable of doing this, relinquish the responsibility to another qualified shooter (if one is available)

If you haven’t seen the raw footage:

The Gorilla Incident

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

Reason shares an eyewitness’s firsthand account of the gorilla incident (lifted from Facebook):

My family and I decided to go to the zoo yesterday after visiting my niece at Cincinnati Children’s hospital. For those of you that have already heard, there was a terrible accident there yesterday. And since every news media has covered this story, I don’t feel bad telling our side. This was an accident! A terrible accident, but just that!

My husband’s voice is the voice talking to the child in one of the videos. I was taking a pic of the female gorilla, when my eldest son yells, “what is he doing? ” I looked down, and to my surprise, there was a small child that had apparently, literally “flopped” over the railing, where there was then about 3 feet of ground that the child quickly crawled through!

I assumed the woman next to me was the mother, getting ready to grab him until she says, “Whose kid is this? ” None of us actually thought he’d go over the nearly 15 foot drop, but he was crawling so fast through the bushes before myself or husband could grab him, he went over!

The crowed got a little frantic and the mother was calling for her son. Actually, just prior to him going over, but she couldn’t see him crawling through the bushes! She said “He was right here! I took a pic and his hand was in my back pocket and then gone!” As she could find him nowhere, she lookes to my husband (already over the railing talking to the child) and asks, “Sir, is he wearing green shorts? ” My husband reluctantly had to tell her yes, when she then nearly had a break down!

They are both wanting to go over into the 15 foot drop, when I forbade my husband to do so, and attempted to calm the mother by calling 911 and assure her help was on the way. Neither my husband or the mother would have made that jump without breaking something! I wasn’t leaving with my boys, because I didn’t trust my husband not to jump in and the gorilla did just seem to be protective of the child.

It wasn’t until the gorilla became agitated because of the nosey, dramatic, helpless crowd; that the gorilla violently ran with the child! And it was very violent; although I think the gorilla was still trying to protect, we’re taking a 400 lb gorilla throwing a 40 lb toddler around! It was horrific!

The zoo responded very quickly, clearing the area and attempting to save both the child and the gorilla! The right choice was made. Thank God the child survived with non-life threatening, but serious injuries!

This was an open exhibit! Which means the only thing separating you from the gorillas, is a 15 ish foot drop and a moat and some bushes! This mother was not negligent and the zoo did an awesome job handling the situation! Especially since that had never happened before! Thankful for the zoo and their attempts and my thoughts and prayers goes out to this boy, his mother and his family.

Mammoth Hunt

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

Russian paleontologists have pieced together the story of mammoth hunt but studying the long-dead beast’s bones:

He was around 15 years old and in good shape but not as wily as an older bull. The humans surrounding him were smaller but much smarter and better armed.

Spears breached his rib cage in several places, sinking through skin and muscle, scoring the bone on their way to vital organs. Three pierced his left scapula, at the height of a human shoulder, entering hard on a downward path after they were thrown. The spears were seeking his heart, and the men throwing them would make the tosses of a first-rate quarterback look weak and sloppy.

The last of their talents was to finish off the goliath after he fell at their feet, still full of rage and strength. One of them thrust a bone- or ivory-pointed spear into the mammoth’s cheek. He would not have been aiming there but at the arteries feeding the trunk, as modern elephant hunters, like the foragers of the African tropical forest, still do. Surprisingly, the point did not break off.

How do we know all of this? Because the Russian scientists deployed tools of their own—CT scans to peer into bones and organs, radiocarbon dating to establish the time frame, stratigraphy to analyze and order the soil and rock layers where the fossils were found—in that same clever old human way. Like their prehistoric forbears, they reasoned through the problem, developed a strategy and cooperated to nab their quarry.

The men got all they could from the beast. Damage to a tusk shows that they sliced from it slim, sharp knives and scraping tools of the hardest ivory. Other evidence suggests that the men took the tongue as a delicacy or for some ritual, though they left the penis behind.

Prepared for Dracula’s Minions

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

In Chapter XIX of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, our heroes explore the London property that Harker helped the Count buy:

A few minutes later I saw Morris step suddenly back from a corner, which he was examining. We all followed his movements with our eyes, for undoubtedly some nervousness was growing on us, and we saw a whole mass of phosphorescence, which twinkled like stars. We all instinctively drew back. The whole place was becoming alive with rats.

For a moment or two we stood appalled, all save Lord Godalming, who was seemingly prepared for such an emergency. Rushing over to the great iron-bound oaken door, which Dr. Seward had described from the outside, and which I had seen myself, he turned the key in the lock, drew the huge bolts, and swung the door open. Then, taking his little silver whistle from his pocket, he blew a low, shrill call. It was answered from behind Dr. Seward’s house by the yelping of dogs, and after about a minute three terriers came dashing round the corner of the house. Unconsciously we had all moved towards the door, and as we moved I noticed that the dust had been much disturbed: the boxes which had been taken out had been brought this way. But even in the minute that had elapsed the number of the rats had vastly increased. They seemed to swarm over the place all at once, till the lamplight, shining on their moving dark bodies and glittering, baleful eyes, made the place look like a bank of earth set with fireflies. The dogs dashed on, but at the threshold suddenly stopped and snarled, and then, simultaneously lifting their noses, began to howl in most lugubrious fashion. The rats were multiplying in thousands, and we moved out.

Lord Godalming lifted one of the dogs, and carrying him in, placed him on the floor. The instant his feet touched the ground he seemed to recover his courage, and rushed at his natural enemies. They fled before him so fast that before he had shaken the life out of a score, the other dogs, who had by now been lifted in the same manner, had but small prey ere the whole mass had vanished.

With their going it seemed as if some evil presence had departed, for the dogs frisked about and barked merrily as they made sudden darts at their prostrate foes, and turned them over and over and tossed them in the air with vicious shakes. We all seemed to find our spirits rise. Whether it was the purifying of the deadly atmosphere by the opening of the chapel door, or the relief which we experienced by finding ourselves in the open I know not; but most certainly the shadow of dread seemed to slip from us like a robe, and the occasion of our coming lost something of its grim significance, though we did not slacken a whit in our resolution. We closed the outer door and barred and locked it, and bringing the dogs with us, began our search of the house. We found nothing throughout except dust in extraordinary proportions, and all untouched save for my own footsteps when I had made my first visit. Never once did the dogs exhibit any symptom of uneasiness, and even when we returned to the chapel they frisked about as though they had been rabbit-hunting in a summer wood.

I don’t remember that scene from any of the movies.

(This came up when @MorlockP declared, “No need for cats; turns out that nanodog is an EXCELLENT rat-killer. Prob wiped out 40 or so over the last few months!”)

In the catbird seat

Friday, April 29th, 2016

If you don’t like cat videos, you may like this one — of a bald eagle bringing a cat to feed its eaglets:

Pitbulls account for half of dog fatalities

Monday, April 18th, 2016

Only the worst kind of racist — a dog-racist — would suggest that pitbulls account for half of dog fatalities:

According to a report by Merritt Clifton (via Rosalind Arden), pitbulls accounted for 295 of 593 human fatalities due to dogs between 1982-2014, although only making up 6.7% of dogs. But that’s still the second most popular breed, behind only labrador mixes. My observation from walking down the sidewalk is that pitbulls are much more prevalent today in Los Angeles than a half century ago, when they were only vaguely heard of.

In contrast, labradors and lab mixes account for 11.5% of dogs, and only 4 human deaths.

German shepherds, an aggressive/protective breed, are in-between with 15 fatalities and 3.7% of dogs.

Pitbulls, which aren’t particularly big, aren’t the most dangerous dog per capita. The perro de presa canario, a 100+ pound beast, killed 18 people despite being only 0.02% of dogs for sale or adoption. Both are in the molosser class.

Also, wolfish dogs, such as akita, huskies, and wolf-hybrids are pretty scary, as are chows, a wolfish-molosser cross.

Rottweilers are about as dangerous per capita as pit bulls. Dobermans, however, which were notorious when I was a child as WWII guard dogs, have gotten less dangerous: my recollection is that Doberman owners have been breeding for safety while rottweiler owners have been breeding their dogs to be scary.

Mishima

Saturday, April 2nd, 2016

Each year, all the calves born in France get names starting with the same letter. A few years ago the letter was I, and friend-of-the-blog Grasspunk named one of his female calves Isegoria. That was vachement genial of him.

This year Isegoria the cow gave birth to a male calf who needed an M name, and GrassPunk suggested Mishima, the name of the infamous Japanese-nationalist writer who committed seppuku after a doomed coup attempt.

That turned into Mishimaburger, whom I envision as a Kobe-style beef trying futilely to rouse the other beeves to go outside and eat grass.

Anyway, this convinced me to find some actual Mishima to read, and the go-to piece seems to be his short story, Patriotism — which, honestly, reads as almost comically Japanese to a modern Western audience. A newlywed Lieutenant and his beautiful young wife commit ritual suicide after his friends fail in their coup attempt, the infamous February 26 Incident:

“I knew nothing. They hadn’t asked me to join. Perhaps out of consideration, because I was newly married. Kano, and Homma too, and Yamaguchi.”

Reiko recalled momentarily the faces of high-spirited young officers, friends of her husband, who had come to the house occasionally as guests.

“There may be an Imperial ordinance sent down tomorrow. They’ll be posted as rebels, I imagine. I shall be in command of a unit with orders to attack them…. I can’t do it. It’s impossible to do a thing like that.”

He spoke again.

“They’ve taken me off guard duty, and I have permission to return home for one night. Tomorrow morning, without question, I must leave to join the attack. I can’t do it, Reiko.”

Reiko sat erect with lowered eyes. She understood clearly that her husband had spoken of his death. The lieutenant was resolved. Each word, being rooted in death, emerged sharply and with powerful significance against this dark, unmovable background. Although the lieutenant was speaking of his dilemma, already there was no room in his mind for vacillation.

However, there was a clarity, like the clarity of a stream fed from melting snows, in the silence which rested between them. Sitting in his own home after the long two-day ordeal, and looking across at the face of his beautiful wife, the lieutenant was for the first time experiencing true peace of mind. For he had at once known, though she said nothing, that his wife divined the resolve which lay beneath his words.

“Well, then…” The lieutenant’s eyes opened wide. Despite this exhaustion they were strong and clear, and now for the first time they looked straight into the eyes of his wife. “Tonight I shall cut my stomach.”

Reiko did not flinch.

A general intelligence factor in dogs

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Researchers have confirmed that there is a general intelligence factor in dogs — some dogs are more equal than others:

Our results indicate that even within one breed of dog, where the sample was designed to have a relatively homogeneous background, there is variability in test scores. The phenotypic structure of cognitive abilities in dogs is similar to that found in people; a dog that is fast and accurate at one task has a propensity to be fast and accurate at another. It may seem obvious that once a detour task (finding the treat behind a barrier) has been solved in one form, the solution to the other forms will follow naturally, but dogs are not people. Experiments have shown that dogs’ problem-solving skills do not transfer readily from one problem to a different form of the same problem as ours do (Osthaus, Marlow, & Ducat, 2010). The g factor we report is consistent with the prediction made by the many experts in the ‘dog world’ (trainers, veterinarians, members of dog societies, and farmers) who were consulted in the early stages of this study. Those experts said that in their experience some dogs were more likely to catch-on, learn and solve problems more quickly than others. Our results show structural similarities between canine and human intelligence. Individual tests have some test-specific variance, tests are influenced by a group-level factor, and the group-level factor is influenced by a g factor. We tested models without the g factor, without the group-level factors and with uncorrelated group-level factors; models positing correlated group-level factors (the unstructured model and the hierarchical g model) fit the data. We emphasize the hierarchical g model because the poor fit of the no-g model rules out uncorrelated first-order factors; the hierarchical g allows us to examine how those correlations arise.

Although we cannot calculate empirically the impact of range-restriction (of intelligence) on our results we surmise that our sample of farm dogs is somewhat analogous to a human university student population because farm dogs at the low tail of the intelligence distribution are more likely to be given away as companion animals. Range restriction attenuates correlations (Alexander et al., 1984 and Wells and Fruchter, 1970) so we cautiously interpret the g factor we found as being a low estimate of commonality. A plot showing the possible impact on our results given various estimates of range restriction is given in the Supplementary Information together with the zero-order correlation matrix for all test scores.

Noise may arise from variation in appetite for treats. We assume that dogs vary in their appetitive motivation—and that differential interest in food treats may be confounded with test scores. Our finding that speed and accuracy are positively correlated suggests that this has not been a major concern, yet we expect that performance on a problem-solving test is affected by more than just ‘smarts’. Affective traits such as motivation, persistence, and so on likely influence performance on cognitive tasks, but if they contribute to covariance among tasks, it may be hard to distinguish these aspects from g; there is no a priori reason why g should not have an affective component. The crucial point is that our study investigates the covariance, the structure, among test scores. In humans where g has been most studied, g arises among mathematical and vocabulary tests even though students often have different preferences and motivation to do these kinds of tasks. If g tapped motivation heavily, we would expect to see covariance among measures of motivation across different kinds of test; in humans we do not see this (Loken, 2004).

Evolved to Throw

Sunday, February 7th, 2016

Human shoulders evolved to throw, as this infographic explains:

Why Chimpanzees Can't Throw

Lovecraft on Cats and Dogs

Monday, November 9th, 2015

H.P. Lovecraft was obviously not a dog guy:

I have no active dislike for dogs, any more than I have for monkeys, human beings, negroes, cows, sheep, or pterodactyls; but for the cat I have entertained a particular respect and affection ever since the earliest days of my infancy. In its flawless grace and superior self-sufficiency I have seen a symbol of the perfect beauty and bland impersonality of the universe itself, objectively considered; and in its air of silent mystery there resides for me all the wonder and fascination of the unknown. The dog appeals to cheap and facile emotions; the cat to the deepest founts of imagination and cosmic perception in the human mind. It is no accident that the contemplative Egyptians, together with such later poetic spirits as Poe, Gautier, Baudelaire, and Swinburne, were all sincere worshippers of the supple grimalkin.

Don’t Cry for Lions

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Goodwell Nzou, a doctoral student in molecular and cellular biosciences at Wake Forest University explains, in Zimbabwe, they don’t cry for lions:

When I turned on the news and discovered that the [Facebook] messages [about Cecil] were about a lion killed by an American dentist, the village boy inside me instinctively cheered: One lion fewer to menace families like mine.

My excitement was doused when I realized that the lion killer was being painted as the villain. I faced the starkest cultural contradiction I’d experienced during my five years studying in the United States.

Did all those Americans signing petitions understand that lions actually kill people? That all the talk about Cecil being “beloved” or a “local favorite” was media hype? Did Jimmy Kimmel choke up because Cecil was murdered or because he confused him with Simba from “The Lion King”?

In my village in Zimbabwe, surrounded by wildlife conservation areas, no lion has ever been beloved, or granted an affectionate nickname. They are objects of terror.

When I was 9 years old, a solitary lion prowled villages near my home. After it killed a few chickens, some goats and finally a cow, we were warned to walk to school in groups and stop playing outside. My sisters no longer went alone to the river to collect water or wash dishes; my mother waited for my father and older brothers, armed with machetes, axes and spears, to escort her into the bush to collect firewood.

A week later, my mother gathered me with nine of my siblings to explain that her uncle had been attacked but escaped with nothing more than an injured leg. The lion sucked the life out of the village: No one socialized by fires at night; no one dared stroll over to a neighbor’s homestead.

When the lion was finally killed, no one cared whether its murderer was a local person or a white trophy hunter, whether it was poached or killed legally. We danced and sang about the vanquishing of the fearsome beast and our escape from serious harm.

Recently, a 14-year-old boy in a village not far from mine wasn’t so lucky. Sleeping in his family’s fields, as villagers do to protect crops from the hippos, buffalo and elephants that trample them, he was mauled by a lion and died.

The killing of Cecil hasn’t garnered much more sympathy from urban Zimbabweans, although they live with no such danger. Few have ever seen a lion, since game drives are a luxury residents of a country with an average monthly income below $150 cannot afford.

Don’t misunderstand me: For Zimbabweans, wild animals have near-mystical significance. We belong to clans, and each clan claims an animal totem as its mythological ancestor. Mine is Nzou, elephant, and by tradition, I can’t eat elephant meat; it would be akin to eating a relative’s flesh. But our respect for these animals has never kept us from hunting them or allowing them to be hunted. (I’m familiar with dangerous animals; I lost my right leg to a snakebite when I was 11.)

The American tendency to romanticize animals that have been given actual names and to jump onto a hashtag train has turned an ordinary situation — there were 800 lions legally killed over a decade by well-heeled foreigners who shelled out serious money to prove their prowess — into what seems to my Zimbabwean eyes an absurdist circus.

PETA is calling for the hunter to be hanged. Zimbabwean politicians are accusing the United States of staging Cecil’s killing as a “ploy” to make our country look bad. And Americans who can’t find Zimbabwe on a map are applauding the nation’s demand for the extradition of the dentist, unaware that a baby elephant was reportedly slaughtered for our president’s most recent birthday banquet.

Double-Muscled Hogs

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

The same myostatin mutation responsible for double-muscled Belgian Blue cattle — and some freakishly muscular humans &mdahs; has been introduced into pigs:

To introduce this mutation in pigs, Kim used a gene-editing technology called a TALEN, which consists of a DNA-cutting enzyme attached to a DNA-binding protein. The protein guides the cutting enzyme to a specific gene inside cells, in this case in MSTN, which it then cuts. The cell’s natural repair system stitches the DNA back together, but some base pairs are often deleted or added in the process, rendering the gene dysfunctional.

The team edited pig fetal cells. After selecting one edited cell in which TALEN had knocked out both copies of the MSTN gene, Kim’s collaborator Xi-jun Yin, an animal-cloning researcher at Yanbian University in Yanji, China, transferred it to an egg cell, and created 32 cloned piglets.

Double-Muscled Hogs

Yin says that preliminary investigations, show that the pigs provide many of the double-muscled cow’s benefits — such as leaner meat and a higher yield of meat per animal. However, they also share some of its problems. Birthing difficulties result from the piglets’ large size, for instance. And only 13 of the 32 lived to 8 months old. Of these, two are still alive, says Yin, and only one is considered healthy.

Rather than trying to create meat from such pigs, Kim and Yin plan to use them to supply sperm that would be sold to farmers for breeding with normal pigs. The resulting offspring, with one disrupted MSTN gene and one normal one, would be healthier, albeit less muscly, they say; the team is now doing the same experiment with another, newer gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9. Last September, researchers reported using a different method of gene editing to develop new breeds of double-muscled cows and double-muscled sheep (C. Proudfoot et al. Transg. Res. 24, 147–153; 2015).

ROV Visitor

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Off the coast of Louisiana, 2,000 feet down, a remotely operated vehicle had a curious visitor. Watch — and listen to the monitoring scientists geek out:

When Birds Squawk, Other Species Listen

Monday, June 1st, 2015

When birds squawk, other species listen:

Studies in recent years by many researchers, including Dr. Greene, have shown that animals such as birds, mammals and even fish recognize the alarm signals of other species. Some can even eavesdrop on one another across classes. Red-breasted nuthatches listen to chickadees. Dozens of birds listen to tufted titmice, who act like the forest’s crossing guards. Squirrels and chipmunks eavesdrop on birds, sometimes adding their own thoughts. In Africa, vervet monkeys recognize predator alarm calls by superb starlings.

[...]

So-called “seet” calls, peeps produced by many small songbirds in response to a raptor on the wing, are well-known to ornithologists. Conventional wisdom held that the calls dissipated quickly and were produced only for other birds nearby. However, that’s not what Dr. Greene noticed: chatter sweeping across the hillside, then birds diving into bushes.

Studying the phenomenon, he documented a “distant early-warning system” among the birds in which the alarm calls were picked up by other birds and passed through the forest at more than 100 miles per hour. Dr. Greene likened it to a bucket brigade at a fire.

The information rippled ahead of a predator minutes before it flew overhead, giving prey time to hide. Moreover, while raptors can hear well at low frequencies, they are not very good at hearing at 6 to 10 kilohertz, the higher frequency at which seet calls are produced. “So it’s sort of a private channel,” he said.

Dr. Greene turned to chickadees, which are highly attuned to threats. When one sees a perched raptor nearby, it will issue its well-known “chick-a-dee” call, a loud, frequent and harsh sound known as a mobbing call because its goal is to attract other birds to harass the predator until it departs.

In 2005, Dr. Greene was an author of an article in the journal Science that demonstrated how black-capped chickadees embed information about the size of predators into these calls. When faced with a high-threat raptor perched nearby, the birds not only call more frequently, they also attach more dee’s to their call.

Raptors tend to be the biggest threat to birds nearest their own size because they can match the maneuverability of their prey. So a large goshawk might only merit a chick-a-dee-dee from a nimble chickadee, while that little pygmy owl will elicit a chick-a-dee followed by five or even 10 or 12 additional dee syllables, Dr. Greene said.

The researchers next showed that red-breasted nuthatches, which are chickadee-size and frequently flock with them in the winter, eavesdrop on their alarm language, too.

Dr. Greene, working with a student, has also found that “squirrels understand ‘bird-ese,’ and birds understand ‘squirrel-ese.’ ” When red squirrels hear a call announcing a dangerous raptor in the air, or they see such a raptor, they will give calls that are acoustically “almost identical” to the birds, Dr. Greene said. (Researchers have found that eastern chipmunks are attuned to mobbing calls by the eastern tufted titmouse, a cousin of the chickadee.)