Too many cypress knees

Saturday, January 13th, 2018

Swamp Park, in southeastern North Carolina, is at the northern extreme for American alligators, which means it can get a little cold for the cold-blooded reptiles:

At first, [George Howard, the park’s general manager] thought the water had too many cypress knees – woody projections from tree roots that are a common sight in swamps.

Then he saw teeth.

Alligator Snout Poking out of Ice

When it’s cold but not icy, the alligators disappear, sinking to the bottom of the swamp for most of the day or burrowing into the mud, Howard said. “You don’t see them, but they’re under there.”


Right before the surface freezes, they stick their snouts out of the water so they can continue breathing.

Iguanas, by the way, react somewhat differently to the cold:

And in Florida, where temperatures took a rare dip into the 40s last week, iguanas also slowed their bodily functions. But because many are tree dwellers, some just fell to the ground.

It was a repeat of a cold snap in 2010, when the iguana situation caught people similarly unawares.

“Neighbourhoods resounded with the thud of iguanas dropping from trees onto patios and pool decks, reptilian Popsicles that suggested the species may not be able to retain its claw-hold on South Florida,” the Sun-Sentinel’s David Fleshler wrote.

But the story had a happy ending, Fleshler reported. The iguanas “have rebounded, repopulating South Florida neighbourhoods and resuming their consumption of expensive landscaping.”

By the way, the term brumation was coined in 1965, so reptiles could have their own term for hibernation.

Yes, dolphins are smart

Friday, January 12th, 2018

The more we study dolphins, the brighter they turn out to be:

At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the dolphin has built up quite a reputation. All the dolphins at the institute are trained to hold onto any litter that falls into their pools until they see a trainer, when they can trade the litter for fish. In this way, the dolphins help to keep their pools clean.

Kelly has taken this task one step further. When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer. After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on. This behaviour is interesting because it shows that Kelly has a sense of the future and delays gratification. She has realised that a big piece of paper gets the same reward as a small piece and so delivers only small pieces to keep the extra food coming. She has, in effect, trained the humans.

Her cunning has not stopped there. One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins.

Dolphins are clever in the wild, too:

In an estuary off the coast of Brazil, tucuxi dolphins are regularly seen capturing fish by “tail whacking”. They flick a fish up to 9 metres with their tail flukes and then pick the stunned prey from the water surface. Peale’s dolphins in the Straits of Magellan off Patagonia forage in kelp beds, use the seaweed to disguise their approach and cut off the fishes’ escape route. In Galveston Bay, Texas, certain female bottlenose dolphins and their young follow shrimp boats. The dolphins swim into the shrimp nets to take live fish and then wriggle out again – a skill requiring expertise to avoid entanglement in the fishing nets.

Dolphins can also use tools to solve problems. Scientists have observed a dolphin coaxing a reluctant moray eel out of its crevice by killing a scorpion fish and using its spiny body to poke at the eel. Off the western coast of Australia, bottlenose dolphins place sponges over their snouts, which protects them from the spines of stonefish and stingrays as they forage over shallow seabeds.

This earns a “wow”:

At a dolphinarium, a person standing by the pool’s window noticed that a dolphin calf was watching him. When he released a puff of smoke from his cigarette, the dolphin immediately swam off to her mother, returned and released a mouthful of milk, causing a similar effect to the cigarette smoke.

Their ability to learn a language is impressive:

By human definition, there is currently no evidence that dolphins have a language. But we’ve barely begun to record all their sounds and body signals let alone try to decipher them. At Kewalo Basin Marine Laboratory in Hawaii, Lou Herman and his team set about testing a dolphin’s ability to comprehend our language. They developed a sign language to communicate with the dolphins, and the results were remarkable. Not only do the dolphins understand the meaning of individual words, they also understand the significance of word order in a sentence. (One of their star dolphins, Akeakamai, has learned a vocabulary of more than 60 words and can understand more than 2,000 sentences.) Particularly impressive is the dolphins’ relaxed attitude when new sentences are introduced. For example, the dolphins generally responded correctly to “touch the frisbee with your tail and then jump over it”. This has the characteristics of true understanding, not rigid training.

I’m reminded of that damn bird, Alex the African Grey parrot, who was no birdbrain, and of Rico the Border Collie.

Raptors are setting fires on purpose

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Raptors — the black kite, whistling kite, and brown falcon — are intentionally spreading grass fires in northern Australia:

Raptors on at least four continents have been observed for decades on the edge of big flames, waiting out scurrying rodents and reptiles or picking through their barbecued remains.

What’s new, at least in the academic literature, is the idea that birds might be intentionally spreading fires themselves. If true, the finding suggests that birds, like humans, have learned to use fire as a tool and as a weapon.

Gosford, a lawyer turned ethno-ornithologist (he studies the relationship between aboriginal peoples and birds), has been chasing the arson hawk story for years. “My interest was first piqued by a report in a book published in 1964 by an Aboriginal man called Phillip Roberts in the Roper River area in the Northern Territory, that gave an account of a thing that he’d seen in the bush, a bird picking up a stick from a fire front and carrying it and dropping it on to unburnt grass,” he told ABC.

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“MJ,” a Kimberley, (Western Australia) cattle station caretaker manager … saw kites working together to move a late dry season fire across a river by picking up, transporting, and dropping small, burning sticks in grass, which immediately ignited in several places,” they write. “The experience resulted in an uncontrollable blaze that destroyed part of the station’s infrastructure.”

Bob White, a firefighter in the Northern Territory saw a small group of raptors, likely black kites, “pick up numerous smouldering sticks and transport them ahead of a fire front, successfully helping the blaze spread up a small valley.”

Nathan Ferguson claims to have observed fire spreading about a dozen times in the Northern Territory since 2001. The long-time firefighter is adamant that the birds he’s observed — picking up twigs and starting new fires — were doing so on purpose.

That jibes with the other research Gosford and Bonta dug up. “Most accounts and traditions unequivocally indicate intentionality on the part of three raptor species,” they wrote.

Dogs are not super-cooperative wolves

Tuesday, October 24th, 2017

Dogs are not super-cooperative wolves:

She and her colleagues challenged their canines to a simple task, which other scientists have used on all kinds of brainy animals — chimps, monkeys, parrots, ravens, and even elephants. There’s a food-bearing tray that lies on the other side of their cage, tempting and inaccessible. A string is threaded through rings on the tray, and both of its ends lie within reach of the animals. If an individual grabs an end and pulls, it would just yank the string out and end up with a mouthful of fibers — not food. But if two animals pull on the ends together, the tray slides close, and they get to eat.

All in all, the dogs did terribly. Just one out of eight pairs managed to pull the tray across, and only once out of dozens of trials. By contrast, five out of seven wolf pairs succeeded, on anywhere between 3 and 56 percent of their attempts. Even after the team trained the animals, the dogs still failed, and the wolves still outshone them. “We imagined that we would find some differences but we didn’t expect them to be quite so strong,” Marshall-Pescini says.

It’s not that the dogs were uninterested: They explored the strings as frequently as the wolves did. But the wolves would explore the apparatus together — biting, pawing, scratching, and eventually pulling on it. The dogs did not. They tolerated each other’s presence, but they were much less likely to engage with the task at the same time, which is why they almost never succeeded.

“The dogs are really trying to avoid conflict over what they see as a resource,” says Marshall-Pescini. “This is what we found in food-sharing studies, where the dominant animal would take the food and the subordinate wouldn’t even try to approach. With wolves, there’s a lot of arguing and it sounds aggressive, but they end up sharing. They have really different strategies in situations of potential conflict. [With the dogs], you see that if you avoid the other individual, you avoid conflict, but you can’t cooperate either.”

“Amazingly, no one had ever studied whether carnivores could solve this type of cooperative task, and it’s fun to see that the wolves coordinated,” says Brian Hare from Duke University, who studies dog behavior and the influence of domestication. He has argued that during the domestication process, dogs began using their traditional inherited mental skills with a new social partner: humans.

Simultaneously, dogs perhaps became less attentive to each other, adds Marshall-Pescini. After all, wolves need to work together to kill large prey, and sharing food helps to keep their social bonds intact. But when they started scavenging on human refuse, they could feed themselves on smaller portions by working alone. If they encountered another forager, “maybe the best strategy was to continue searching rather than to get into conflict with another dog,” she says.

But dogs can be trained. When owners raise dogs in the same household, and train them not to fight over resources, the animals start to tolerate each other, and unlock their ancient wolflike skills. This might be why, in 2014, Ljerka Ostojic, from the University of Cambridge, found that pet dogs, which had been trained in search and rescue, had no trouble with the string-pulling task that flummoxed Marshall-Pescini’s dogs.

“It speaks to the fact that living among other dogs, without interaction with humans, is arguably less natural for dogs — as if domestication both refined attention, coordination, and even pro-sociality between species, and weakened social skills within the species,” says Alexandra Horowitz, who studies dog cognition at Barnard College. “A pack of dogs living together, without human intervention, is impaired compared to dogs living with humans.”

Being bitten by an Australian tiger snake is a wholly unpleasant experience

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017

Being bitten by an Australian tiger snake is a wholly unpleasant experience:

Within minutes, you start to feel pain in your neck and lower extremities — symptoms that are soon followed by tingling sensations, numbness, and profuse sweating. Breathing starts to become difficult, paralysis sets in, and if left untreated, you’ll probably die. Remarkably, the venom responsible for these horrifying symptoms has remained the same for 10 million years — the result of a fortuitous mutation that makes it practically impossible for evolution to find a counter-solution.


The secret to tiger snake venom has to do with its biological target — a clotting protein called prothrombin. This critically important protein is responsible for healthy blood clotting, and it exists across a diverse array of animal species (humans included). Any changes to this protein and the way it works can be catastrophic to an animal, leading to life-threatening conditions such as hemophilia. It’s this vulnerable target that makes the tiger venom so potent, but at the same time, animals are under intense evolutionary pressure to maintain prothrombin in its default, functional state. As Fry explained in a release, if the animals had any variation in their blood clotting proteins, “they would die because they would not be able to stop bleeding.”

Non-permissive even to motorcycles

Monday, August 7th, 2017

American special operations forces famously found themselves riding to war on horseback in Afghanistan in 2001:

When the 5th Special Forces Group’s Operational Detachment Alpha 595 touched down and linked up with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum — a Soviet-trained ethnic Uzbek military officer who had sided with the Northern Alliance against the predominantly Pashtun Taliban and who ultimately became a highly controversial figure accused of multiple human rights abuses and war crimes — they found his forces already conducting cavalry raids on horseback due to the lack of roads and even established trails in the area.

“Looking back, it was the best means for travel because some of those places we went would have been non-permissive to even motorcycles,” retired U.S. Air Force combat controller Bart Decker, who had served attached to ODA 595, said in 2016.

“It was the wild, wild west,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Mike Sciortino, another former combat controller, who was then serving with the 31st Surgical Operations Squadron, added at the time. “When we first got in, they said we were probably going to ride horses … I had never ridden a horse before. I was like, are these guys serious?”

ODA 595 and Northern Alliance on Horseback in 2001

The whole situation might have been a disaster had it not be for an amazing twist of fate. ODA 595’s commanding officer, U.S. Army Major Mark Nutsch, had grown up on a cattle ranch in Kansas and competed in rodeo events while he studied at Kansas State University. “The guys did a phenomenal job learning how to ride that rugged terrain,” he said in a later interview. “Initially you had a different horse for every move … and you’d have a different one, different gait or just willingness to follow the commands of the rider. … The guys had to work through all of that and use less than optimal gear. … Eventually we got the same pool of horses we were using regularly.”

Chimps are not superhumanly strong

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Chimps are not as superhumanly strong as we thought they were:

“There’s this idea out there that chimpanzees are superhuman strong,” says Matthew O’Neill at the University of Arizona in Phoenix. Yet his team’s experiments and computer models show that a chimpanzee muscle is only about a third stronger than a human one of the same size.

This result matches well with the few tests that have been done, which suggest that when it comes to pulling and jumping, chimps are about 1.5 times as strong as humans relative to their body mass. But because they are lighter than the average person, humans can actually outperform them in absolute terms, say O’Neill.

His findings suggest that other apes have similar muscle strength to chimpanzees. “Humans are the odd ones,” he says.

O’Neill’s team has been studying the evolution of upright walking. To create an accurate computer model of how chimps walk, the researchers needed to find out whether their muscles really are exceptionally strong. So they removed small samples of leg muscle from three chimps under general anaesthetic and measured the strength of individual fibres.

The same procedure is used to study human muscles. Comparing the results with the many studies on those revealed that, contrary to the claims of several other studies, there is nothing special about chimp muscle. “Chimpanzee muscle is really no different than human muscle in terms of the force that individual fibres exert,” says O’Neill.

So why, on a pound-for-pound basis, are chimps slightly stronger than humans? The team went on to look at the muscle of chimps that had died of natural causes, which revealed that two-thirds of their muscle consists of fast-twitch fibres, whereas more than half of human fibres are slow-twitch.


Quite how the myth that chimps are incredibly strong came about is not clear, says O’Neill. But it may have been fuelled by a 1923 study that claimed one chimp could pull nine times its own body weight. Later studies suggested they could only pull two to four times their weight.

A parable of the lessons that can emerge from unfettered science

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

I was immediately fascinated by the Siberian farm fox experiment and the surprisingly broad domestication phenotype, which notably includes pigmentation.

Marlene Zuk reviews Dugatkin and Trut’s How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) for The New York Times, and ends on this note:

The book, however, is not only about dogs, or foxes, or even science under siege from political interests. It is an exploration of how genes, evolution and then environment shape behavior, and in a way that puts paid simplistic arguments about nature versus nurture. It may serve — particularly now — as a parable of the lessons that can emerge from unfettered science, if we have the courage to let it unfold.

Marlene Zuk wrote Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live.

Researchers find yet another reason why naked mole-rats are weird

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017

Researchers find yet another reason why naked mole-rats are weird:

For example, instead of generating their own heat, they regulate body temperature by moving to warmer or cooler tunnels, which lowers the amount of energy they need to survive. They’re also known to have what Park calls “sticky hemoglobin,” which allows them to draw oxygen out of very thin air. And because they live underground in large social groups, they’re used to breathing air that’s low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide.


To start out, he and his colleagues tested how well the mole-rats fared in a chamber with only 5 percent oxygen, which is about a quarter of the oxygen in the air we breathe, and can kill a mouse in less than 15 minutes.

They watched closely, ready to pull the mole-rats out at the first sign of trouble.

“So we put them in the chamber and after five minutes, nothing. No problems,” Park says. An hour later, there were still no problems.

Five hours later, the researchers were tired and hungry and ready to go home, but the mole-rats could’ve kept chugging along.

“Oh, I think so,” says Park. “They had more stamina than the researchers.”

The animals had slowed down a bit, he says, but were awake, walking around and even socializing.

“They looked completely fine,” he says.

Next, the researchers decided to see how the mole-rats dealt with zero percent oxygen.

“And that was a surprise, too,” he says.

Such conditions can kill a mouse in 45 seconds.

The four mole-rats involved in this leg of the study passed out after about 30 seconds, but their hearts kept beating and — a full 18 minutes later — the mole-rats woke up and resumed life as usual when they were re-exposed to normal air. (The three mole-rats that were exposed for 30 minutes, however, died.)


When the researchers looked at tissue samples taken from the mole-rats at various times during the oxygen deprivation, they noticed a spike in levels of another sugar, fructose, about 10 minutes in.

“We weren’t looking for it, but bang, fructose goes way up in the blood and then it goes way up in the organs and it gets used by heart and brain,” Park says.

The naked mole-rats appear to have the option of switching fuels from glucose, which requires oxygen to create energy, to fructose, which doesn’t.

Humans are capable of storing and using fructose in the liver and kidney, but as Park explains, we don’t have enough of the correct enzyme to create energy directly from fructose. Nor do we have enough of the proteins necessary to move fructose molecules into the cells of vital organs. Our cells have to convert it into glucose in order to use it.

The cells in the brain, heart, liver and lungs of naked mole-rats are all outfitted with proteins that moves fructose into the cells, and with the right enzyme to create energy from it.

“They have a social structure like insects, they’re cold-blooded like reptiles, and now we found that they use fructose like a plant,” Park says.

No sci-fi alien is as strange as an octopus

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

“No sci-fi alien is so startlingly strange” as an octopus, Sy Montgomery noted, but they’re even stranger than we realized:

Rosenthal and Eisenberg found that RNA editing is especially rife in the neurons of cephalopods. They use it to re-code genes that are important for their nervous systems — the genes that, as Rosenthal says, “make a nerve cell a nerve cell.” And only the intelligent coleoid cephalopods — octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish — do so. The relatively dumber nautiluses do not. “Humans don’t have this. Monkeys don’t. Nothing has this except the coleoids,” says Rosenthal.

It’s impossible to say if their prolific use of RNA editing is responsible for their alien intellect, but “that would definitely be my guess,” says Noa Liscovitch-Brauer, a member of Rosenthal’s team who spearheaded the new study. “It makes for a very compelling hypothesis in my eyes.”


Only about 3 percent of human genes are ever edited in this way, and the changes are usually restricted to the parts of RNA that are cut out and discarded. To the extent that it happens, it doesn’t seem to be adaptive.

In cephalopods, it’s a different story. Back in 2015, Rosenthal and Eisenberg discovered that RNA editing has gone wild in the longfin inshore squid — a foot-long animal that’s commonly used in neuroscience research. While a typical mammal edits its RNA at just a few hundred sites, the squid was making some 57,000 such edits. These changes weren’t happening in discarded sections of RNA, but in the ones that actually go towards building proteins — the so-called coding regions. They were ten times more common in the squid’s neurons than in its other tissues, and they disproportionately affected proteins involved in its nervous system.

Having been surprised by one cephalopod, the team decided to study others. Liscovitch-Brauer focused on the common cuttlefish, common octopus, and two-spot octopus. All of these showed signs of extensive RNA editing with between 80,000 to 130,000 editing sites each. By contrast, the nautilus — a ancient cephalopod known for its hard, spiral shell — only had 1,000 such sites.

This distinction is crucial. The nautiluses belong to the earliest lineage of cephalopods, which diverged from the others between 350 and 480 million years ago. They’ve stayed much the same ever since. They have simple brains and unremarkable behavior, and they leave their RNA largely unedited. Meanwhile, the other cephalopods — the coleoids — came to use RNA editing extensively, and while evolving complex brains and extraordinary behavior. Coincidence?

Liscovitch-Brauer also found that around 1,000 of the edited locations were shared between the coleoid species — far more than the 25 or so sites that are shared between humans and other mammals. These sites have been preserved over hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

No invertebrate on land would have been a match for it

Friday, March 10th, 2017

The earliest tetrapods had much bigger eyes than their fishy forebears, and those bigger eyes evolved before walking legs:

Eyes don’t fossilize, but you can estimate how big they would have been by measuring the eye sockets of a fossilized skull. MacIver and his colleagues, including fossil eye expert Lars Schmitz, did this for the skulls of 59 species — from finned fish to intermediate fishapods to legged tetrapods. They showed that over 12 million years, the group’s eyes nearly tripled in size. Why?

Eyes are expensive organs: it takes a lot of energy to maintain them, and even more so if they’re big. If a fish is paying those costs, the eyes must provide some kind of benefit. It seems intuitive that bigger eyes let you see better or further, but MacIver’s team found otherwise. By simulating the kinds of shallow freshwater environments where their fossil species lived — day to night, clear to murky — they showed that bigger eyes make precious little difference underwater. But once those animals started peeking out above the waterline, everything changed. In the air, a bigger eye can see 10 times further than it could underwater, and scan an area that’s 5 million times bigger.

In the air, it’s also easier for a big eye to pay for itself. A predator with short-range vision has to constantly move about to search the zone immediately in front of its face. But bigger-eyes species could spot prey at a distance, and recoup the energy they would otherwise have spent on foraging. “Long-range vision gives you a free lunch,” says MacIver. “You can just look around, instead of moving to inspect somewhere else.”

Tiktaalik with Eyes Above Surface

Those early hunters would have seen plenty of appetizing prey. Centipedes and millipedes had colonized the land millions of years before, and had never encountered fishapod predators. “I imagine guys like Tiktaalik lurking there like a crocodile, waiting for a giant millipede to walk by, and chomping on it,” says MacIver. “No invertebrate on land would have been a match for it.”

Monarch miscalculation

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

It looks like a scientific error about butterflies has persisted for more than 40 years:

A few years ago, Christopher Hamm was reading up on monarch butterflies when he noticed something peculiar. All of the scientific articles that mentioned the number of the insect’s chromosomes — 30, it seemed — referenced a 2004 paper, which in turn cited a 1975 paper. But when Hamm, then a postdoc at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, did a genetic analysis of his own, he found that his monarchs only had 28 chromosomes, suggesting that an error has pervaded the literature for more than 40 years. Another twist, however, was just around the corner.

Hamm suspected a mistake when he read the original 1975 paper. The authors, biologists N. Nageswara Rao and A. S. Murty at Andhra University in Visakhapatnam, India, had studied what they claimed was an Indian monarch butterfly in their work. But there’s a problem: Monarchs are nearly exclusively a North American species. “It’s implied they just went outside their building and collected some butterflies,” Hamm says. “I immediately thought, ‘Monarch butterflies in India? Really?’”

Sure monarchs are master travelers, with the longest-known seasonal migration of any insect. And it’s not uncommon for a few to get blown off course to Australia, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, and a handful of other places from time to time. But ending up as far away as India seemed like a stretch. Hamm, now a data scientist at Monsanto in Woodland, California, also knew that taxonomists since Carl Linnaeus have struggled to distinguish species in Lepidoptera, the order of insects to which monarchs belong. For example, the monarch (Danaus plexippus) and a similar-looking butterfly known as the common tiger butterfly (D. genutia) were thought to be the same for more than a century until they were reclassified as separate species in 1954. And guess what: D. genutia lives in India.

Common Tiger Butterfly and Monarch Butterfly

Hamm thinks that Rao and Murty, perhaps not knowing about the reclassification, netted bugs they assumed were monarchs but were actually common tiger butterflies. Back in the lab, they performed a technique known as a chromosome squash — squeezing the butterflies’ cells between thin films of glass until individual chromosomes are visible under a microscope — counted to 30, and published the results. Then, in 2004, Brazilian zoologist Keith Brown Jr. cited the work in his own research exploring the evolutionary history of butterflies; he never suspected that Rao and Murty might have been working with a misidentified species. Brown’s paper has been cited a dozen times since, and the idea that monarchs have 30 chromosomes is now well established in the literature.

They can fight off a wolf and then come home and be polite

Friday, February 24th, 2017

In the highland steppes of Sivas province in central Turkey, the Kangal dog is a local icon:

The huge, sand-colored breed is named after a town in the southern Sivas province, where Kangals emerged as a distinct breed about 6,000 years ago. Kangals can grow to about 145 pounds and up to 33 inches tall, surpassing most other massive dog breeds like Great Danes. Today, in Turkey and increasingly in the United States, the viciously protective dogs are known and celebrated as wolf fighters.


The dogs boast an intimidating size, a thick coat that protects against bites, and fearlessness—they’re capable of killing a wolf but sometimes the sight of a Kangal alone is enough to scare large predators away.

Kangal Dogs

The shepherds whistle and shout all the time at the sheep, directing them this way and that, but it’s not common for the Kangals to face anywhere in the direction of the flock. Their heads are always pointed towards the horizon or the nearest hillside; they are always on watch. When we load into an SUV at the end of a bitterly cold day, they’re still looking out into the distance with no desire to turn in.

Ranchers in the U.S. are now starting to take interest in Kangals. Breeders in western Montana have imported the dogs since 2009, and 20 Kangals were imported from Turkey in 2014 for a joint research program on wolf predation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Jan Dohner, the vice president of the Kangal Dog Club of America, says there’s been substantial interest in the dogs recently, “especially as livestock raisers search for nonlethal methods of large predator control.”

The dogs have been paired with farmers since they can guard against bears and wolves, but they get along with people. And they’re tough, too—able to work through windy winters and dry, hot summers. For Vose Babcock, whose cattle ranch is situated outside Missoula, Kangals are the perfect dog for rural living. “They’re good with house guests and baby livestock, but don’t like thieves.”

The sight of the huge, watchful dogs may become more common on American ranches in the coming years—the USDA will continue to breed the dogs imported in 2014. Babcock sees no downside: “They can fight off a wolf, mountain lion, or bear and then come home and be polite with grandparents and grandchildren.”

A Hotel California for Apex Predators

Monday, February 20th, 2017

P-45, the King of Malibu, is a hundred-and-fifty-pound male mountain lion:

After killing an alpaca at a Malibu winery in late 2015, he was captured and fitted with a G.P.S. collar by the National Park Service, which designated him the forty-fifth subject in a long-running study, led by a wildlife ecologist named Seth Riley, on the mountain lions of Los Angeles. (The “P” comes from Puma concolor, the species whose common names include puma, panther, catamount, cougar, and mountain lion.) Since P-45 was collared, according to Phillips, he has killed some sixty goats, sheep, llamas, and alpacas, a miniature horse, and a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound heifer: members of the class of rustic pet known as “hobby animals.” Gallingly, he has eaten little — a nibble of heart meat here, a nip of scrotum there. Except in the case of pygmy goats, for which he has a taste, he seems to kill for sport.

Rickards, who has short blond hair and a cheerful manner, grew up on the ranch and runs a cat rescue there. She and Phillips have horses and dogs and, until recently, had alpacas. Then one night P-45 jumped into the alpaca pen, killing two of them. When it happened again last spring, and three more died, Phillips gave away the rest of the herd and turned his attention to pursuing the culprit. To Phillips, P-45 is a sociopath, a freak — “the John Wayne Gacy of mountain lions.”

Mountain Lion P-45

The Santa Monica Mountains extend from the Pacific Coast through the Hollywood Hills, to end in Griffith Park. Urban though Los Angeles is, its mountains are furrowed with densely vegetated canyons full of deer and coyotes, cactuses, live oaks, wheeling hawks — a patchwork of public and private holdings claimed both by top carnivores and by their human counterparts.

The real estate is increasingly contested. At some two hundred and forty square miles, the range is the perfect size for one or two dominant males and several females, along with their young. The National Park Service study is currently tracking ten mountain lions in the area, including three breeding males. There is also an unknown number of uncollared lions. Living at such close quarters intensifies the lions’ natural territorialism; in this population, the leading cause of death is conflict with other lions. But adolescent lions who set out in search of their own hunting grounds often come to an impasse. The range is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Hollywood Freeway (the 101) to the north, and bisected by the 405 between Brentwood and Bel Air. Just as the roads keep native lions in, they also keep outside lions from entering, and first-order inbreeding has become common. Lush but confined, the mountains are a cushy prison, a Hotel California for apex predators, whose future is threatened by a double deficiency: not enough space for a group of lions with not enough genetic differences among them.

As a result, the mountain-lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains is in danger of entering an extinction vortex, a downward spiral in which everything starts to fail. “They could be in the process of genetic flatlining,” Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says. “Without our assistance, the Santa Monica Mountain pumas are likely to go extinct.” This is what nearly happened to the Florida panthers, in the mid-nineties, when intensive inbreeding caused physical changes that hindered reproduction. According to Riley, who recently published a paper on the subject, if similar problems occur and no new lions enter the area the likelihood of L.A.’s lions disappearing in fifty years is 99.7 per cent. But genetic rescue can come in the form of just one new animal in each generation — in Florida, where the population was larger, it took just six females from Texas to reverse the spiral.

From this point of view, Los Angeles can’t spare a single cat, and certainly not one matching P-45’s profile. According to a preliminary genetic analysis done at Wayne’s lab, P-45 comes from north of the 101: he is an outsider, a lion who successfully navigated the freeway and miles of suburbs to introduce his precious DNA to the Santa Monicas. Under threat, P-45 has inspired a committed following. In November, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times titled “Save P-45” defended his behavior as entirely natural. “Killing P-45 is not the answer,” the editorial said. “Surely there is a better way to manage the conflicts that arise when humans and their domestic animals move into areas that have long served as habitat for wildlife.”

P-45’s alien provenance aggravates the unease that Phillips and his neighbors feel. “I know P-45 is not indigenous to here,” Phillips told me. “I think he was a killer someplace else.” He added, “I’m not too happy about P-45’s genes getting passed down.” Though the young generally travel with their mothers — mountain-lion fathers are more likely to kill their kittens than to train them — he saw the potential for P-45 to accustom his offspring to a life of theft and slaughter. Besides, he said, “I’m tired of living inside a biology project.” If the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the state’s mountain-lion population, or the National Park Service, which he blames for protecting P-45, refused to solve the problem, he warned that vigilante justice would prevail.

“Somebody’s going to shoot him soon,” Phillips said. “They’re just not going to report it. They’re not going to call N.P.S., not going to call Fish and Wildlife. They’re just going to shoot him, pound the collar off with a hammer, put it in a lead box in a bucket of water, and bury P-45 ten feet deep. That will be the end of that story. He will pass from reality into legend.”

Puma concolor, an evolutionary adept that, unlike the sabre-toothed cat, survived the Late Pleistocene Extinction, is found from Tierra del Fuego to the Canadian Yukon. Until successive extermination campaigns largely eradicated mountain lions from the Midwest and the East, they ranged throughout the United States. Now, as urbanization in the West encroaches on their remaining habitat, some are making audacious attempts to reclaim ceded lands. In 2011, a cat from South Dakota travelled more than fifteen hundred miles, to Greenwich, Connecticut, before being struck and killed by an S.U.V. on the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

Los Angeles is one of two megacities in the world that have a population of big cats. In the other, Mumbai, leopards live in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and occasionally eat the humans who make their homes around its edge. Though there have been instances of mountain lions targeting people in California — between 1986 and 2014, there were three fatal attacks — it has never happened in Los Angeles County. (Since the beginning of the twentieth century, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation, there have been fewer than thirty fatal attacks in North America; it is an often cited fact that vending machines kill more people than mountain lions do.) “They’re called ghost cats for a reason — they’re very elusive,” Jeff Sikich, a carnivore biologist with the National Park Service, who manages the field work for the mountain-lion study, told me. “We’ve seen with our data that they do a great job at avoiding us.” But, he said, “in this urban, fragmented landscape, they see us almost every day.”

No, the wooly mammoth won’t be resurrected by 2019

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

No, the wooly mammoth won’t be resurrected by 2019:

“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” Harvard’s George Church told The Guardian. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”

The key word there is embryo. Church’s team — the Wooly Mammoth Revival project — is using CRISPR gene-editing technology to put genetic traits collected from frozen mammoth corpses into Asian elephant DNA.

So far, they’ve managed to incorporate traits of the mammoth’s ears, fat, and hair into elephant DNA. In a few years they hope to make an embryo, but that’s a long way from creating a viable embryo. A viable embryo would have to be able to survive long enough to move from a Petri dish to some kind of womb — and then it would have to grow into a healthy calf that the team could successfully deliver and raise.

Artificial gestation is considered the most likely option for any viable embryo, because Asian elephants, the closest living relatives of mammoths, are currently endangered. Church has created an artificial womb capable of gestating a mouse embryo for 10 days but that’s a far cry from the 660-day gestation period of an elephant calf.

So while an embryo may indeed be possible by 2019, there’s no telling how many years would stretch between that milestone and the actual reintroduction of the woolly mammoth. Researchers have already created embryos of chickens with dinosaur snouts, for example, and those dino-chickens aren’t clucking around a co-op. The first attempts to make a living mammoth are many more years away.