Slate’s animal blog.

Nov. 14 2014 1:27 PM

The World Recently Protected an Area Almost the Size of Australia

Some good news for the environment: The world is on track to meet its goals for expanding protected areas by 2020. On Thursday the United Nations Environment Programme released a report on these targets, part of a larger set of initiatives aimed at protecting biodiversity. It’s not quite time to pull out the organ and sing the Hallelujah chorus, however.

In terms of sheer area, we’re doing great. Since 2010, countries around the world have designated new protected lands that add up to 6.1 million square kilometers—an area almost as big as Australia (7.7 million square kilometers). Protected areas are a proven, cost-effective way to address climate change, food insecurity, and other threats to human health and well-being, according to the report, Protected Planet 2014. They’re also essential for protecting biodiversity, which contributes a significant chunk to the global economy. The only problem with these newly protected areas is that they don’t necessarily include the places most important for biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Last month, alarming reports on biodiversity showed just how precarious the conservation effort is. The World Wildlife Fund reported that the planet’s population of vertebrates is about half what it was 40 years ago. Blame falls on the usual culprits: habitat loss, hunting and fishing, and climate change. Later in October, the U.N. reported that the world is on track to meet only five of its 55 biodiversity protection goals for 2020, and has worsened or made no progress on 15. Six of those target indicators involved expansion and management of protected areas. Now Protected Planet provides a closer look at these six targets and what it will take to get all of them on track.

By 2020, the U.N. aims to conserve at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas. Areas of “particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services” should receive special attention, according to the report, and protected areas should also be ecologically representative of the planet’s ecosystem as a whole.

In terms of area, we are still on track, but the bigger problems emerge upon closer inspection of what areas are being protected, and how well they align with areas that most need protection.

Biodiversity protection is the first sticking point. In 2013, Protected Planet reports only 22 percent of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas and 23 percent of Alliance for Zero Extinction sites were completely protected. To help policymakers better determine what areas to protect, a global standard is being finalized that incorporates both of those site classifications.

If there’s one thing we’re actually good at when it comes to environmental issues, it’s talking about them. Public awareness of biodiversity has improved in both developed and developing nations (albeit to varying degrees), the U.N. noted in October. But for all our talking, we might not be driving the right message home: Studies indicate that while people know biodiversity loss is a global issue, they don’t perceive it as a local concern. They also are not sure what direct actions are beneficial or harmful to biodiversity.

The majority of the U.N.’s broader biodiversity targets can still be met, the October report said, but it won’t be easy. Individuals, organizations, and governments will have to make some changes.

On a macro scale, societies need to use land, water, energy, and other resources more efficiently. The report also called for “major transformations of food systems,” noting that agriculture and related activities account for 70 percent of projected loss of terrestrial biodiversity. Efforts for conservation, Protected Planet suggests, should focus especially on preventing biodiversity decline and extinction.

Simple consumer choices can also impact biodiversity. Some of these are obvious, like recycling and not buying things made from endangered animal parts; turning lights off; closing the faucet on our sprinklers when it’s raining. Some are more subtle: When was the last time you checked to see where your new wood floor was coming from? WWF estimates that each year the world loses an area of natural forest the size of Greece. The Forest Stewardship Council seal on a product means it was legally logged, and therefore more eco-friendly to use. Just food for thought next time you redecorate. And there’s always local politics, where smaller environmental battles are fought. Those seemingly small decisions add up.

All of this boils down to one thing: We’re making progress, but if we want to continue living on a biologically diverse planet, we’re going to need to do more, and do it better—both as individuals and societies. Protecting the environment involves incremental steps—the turning over of several small leaves, if you will.

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Nov. 11 2014 12:12 PM

Dear Discovery Channel: A Man Getting Eaten Alive by an Anaconda Isn’t Educational

“You have to go in head first” when getting eaten alive by an anaconda, according to the Discovery Channel’s sneak peek of Eaten Alive, its newest affront to televised science. On Dec. 7, Discovery will air one brave man’s quest into (and back out of) the belly of the beast—an anaconda, to be exact. This move is only the newest entry in a growing collection of pseudoscience and outright fiction clogging the airwaves of the once-educational TV channel.

On its surface, watching a “naturalist and wildlife filmmaker” survive feeding himself to a giant snake in the Amazon sounds pretty awesome—unless, of course, you’re the giant snake. But it’s gratuitous cruelty. If this were an attempt to understand snake digestion, the filmmakers could easily feed the snake a camera. If this were about gawking at a snake eating something huge, there’s always that YouTube video of the python eating a crocodile—a true act of nature wherein no animal was duped into wasting its energy eating (and then regurgitating) a guy who covered himself in pig’s blood. Discovery has already shot the program, and it says both man and snake are alive and well. In fact, stuntman Paul Rosolie has been tweeting about the program.

This is about pushing the envelope and garnering shock views—which is fair enough, until you factor in an abused snake and the fact that this is part of a series of unscientific endeavors by a channel whose reputation at least somewhat still involves education. A petition to stop the program from airing has garnered more than 20,000 signatures. Discovery told People magazine that it consulted three herpetologists before signing off on the stunt, but that didn’t stop PETA from calling it animal cruelty. Snakes often regurgitate their prey, but it’s usually a response to stress or outside threats, said David Steen, a wildlife ecologist at Auburn University. He added that retrieving a food item from a snake would be “stressful at the very least” to the snake.

“Done wrong, I can easily see how the snake could be injured,” Steen said. “For example, if I were to yank something out of a snake's stomach (rather than have the snake regurgitate it on its own), I would be concerned about causing internal injuries.”

Steen said he hoped the show had some educational goals, and noted it certainly has more potential to draw viewers than feeding a small camera to a snake would. Perhaps these viewers might become interested in snakes and seek out more educational material after watching. But he also fears the motivation here is “primarily exploitation of animals for ratings.”

This concern has been voiced before about Discovery programming. Shark Week, arguably one of Discovery’s biggest pieces of viewer bait, has been accused of capitalizing on people’s fear of sharks while simultaneously misinforming the public about an animal that is actually in danger. It’s also not the channel’s first foray into shock programming—last Sunday it aired Nik Wallenda traversing the Chicago skies on a tightrope with no safety net or tether. Animal Planet, which is also owned by Discovery Communications, has made two documentaries on mermaids that are so ineffectively marked as fictional that the U.S. government has had to issue a statement informing the public that mermaids aren’t real. It’s also home to Finding Bigfoot. (I’m not going to elaborate on this.) The History Channel, which is owned by Disney, airs shows about aliens. And let’s not even talk about TLC, another Discovery Communications channel, which has long stopped calling itself “The Learning Channel.”

When did educational television become so unenlightening?

It’s not a new question, but the answer isn’t easy to stomach: It’s kind of viewers’ fault. TV channels, after all, are just businesses. As businesses, it’s their job to make money. And to make money, they need viewers—and this is where our culpability lies. Put simply, if people didn’t reliably swarm in to watch these shows, they wouldn’t continue to air. Animal Planet hit record viewership last year with its second mermaid documentary. If it makes money, why stop?

“Somewhere along the line they realized that airing sensational nonsense tended to generate higher ratings and more advertising revenue than the wildlife documentaries I remember growing up,” Steen said. “So, it's a no-brainer. Education is not their mission.”

The problem is that many viewers still don’t know that—ask all the people who tweeted about mermaids. These channels have enduring reputations as informational, accurate sources. These don’t get undone in a few years—or even a decade, necessarily. The result is a viewership that can get severely duped, find out they’ve been misinformed, and then develop a mistrust not only for these channels, but for science in general, Steen said.

“In many cases, these shows even foster a distrust towards scientists and the scientific method; this was particularly evident in the wake of the programs making the case that mermaids exist or megalodon never went extinct.”

For most of us, channels like Discovery are our everyday link to the information about science and the environment. But now you can actually come out of these shows knowing less information than when you tuned in—again, ask people who got uneducated by watching documentaries about species that don’t exist today.

An anaconda eating a guy doused in animal blood might not misinform anyone—it’s not like anyone believes this happens in everyday life (I hope). But it plays into a larger business of exploitation and misinformation. Not to jump down anybody’s throat, but it would be nice if these channels used their influence for good, not evil—and for viewers to realize their voyeurism is turning the exploitation of animals into a veritable cash cow.

Nov. 7 2014 1:00 PM

Watch an Orphaned Baby Sea Otter Learn How to Act Like a Sea Otter

Awwwww. That is all. The video above shows an orphaned, 6-pound female sea otter pup arriving at her new home, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. It also shows, essentially, her first attempts at … well, being an otter.

Somehow separated from her mother near the San Francisco coast five weeks ago, the absurdly cute young pup—for now known by the placeholder name “Pup 681”—was discovered when a jogger heard her (probably soul-crushingly sad) cries for help. Per CBS News, the pup was first taken to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a top facility for sea otter rehabilitation, before an arrangement was made for her to be sent to Shedd permanently.

Now that she’s there, her new aquarium family will need to collectively fill the role of the pup’s mother. The first order of business? “We have to teach her to groom,” Christy Sterling, Shedd’s assistant supervisor of penguins and otters, told CBS Chicago. “We’ll put her on a white towel and get a white washcloth and she kind of has picked up on working on spots herself, but we’ll help out as well and she’ll learn to rub on the white towel and get that water out of her fur.”

In addition to the huge self-esteem boost that (likely) comes with sporting a clean, dry coat, the grooming process is also essential to her health, as sea otters are kept warm not by blubber, but rather through the insulation provided by their coats. Which makes sense, given that their fur is the thickest of all mammals.

Once she’s gotten the hang of that, one imagines she’ll move on to learning the really important things in the Standard Sea Otter Behavior playbook—like adorably holding hands with fellow otters while she sleeps.

Nov. 6 2014 7:25 AM

Watch a Porcupine Go Head-to-Head with a Pride of Lions

Note to Democrats: When you're outnumbered, surrounded by an angry horde that is licking its chops at the thought of feasting on your defeated carcass, this is how you respond. The living political metaphor in question—and on display in the video above—is a porcupine, and it shows its exemplary resilience by single-handedly fighting off a pride of 17(!) lions.

Captured on camera at the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa by guide Lucien Beaumont, the encounter looked, until the very end, to be lights out for the prickly rodent. But the little guy just would not go gentle into that good night. While the circling pride had every advantage—size, numbers, top-of-the-food-chain status—the would-be victim had a combination of some serious tail-shaking (called a “rattle”) and impressive fearlessness, and the porcupine was helped by a general reluctance on the part of the lions to take a face full of barbs. That all kept it alive and off of the dinner menu.

As you’ll see, contrary to common belief, porcupines don’t actually shoot their quills, but that clearly doesn’t matter much in confrontations like these. Per Beaumont, “if the porcupine manages to get close enough to a predator, it does not shoot its quills, as many people may think. Rather the quills have micro-barbs, which hook into the face or paws of a predator that may get too close.”

In addition to quills likely being exactly as painful as that sounds, quills can break off, leaving parts embedded in the skin of the predator and often resulting in major infection. Apparently, that was ample motivation for the lions to ultimately retreat, stomachs empty.

That, and a valiant display of heart. Lots and lots of heart.

Oct. 29 2014 2:29 PM

GoPro Captures Rare POV Footage of a Lion on the Hunt

Is there currently a scenario rattling around your head in which you could possibly outrun, outwit, or outhunt a lioness on the prowl? Well, you should probably go ahead and delete that one from your mental checklist of survival skills. Thanks to the man aptly dubbed “the lion whisperer,” we can now see, firsthand (in the video above), just how lethal lions are on the hunt.

Animal behaviorist Kevin Richardson’s close, familylike relationship with a pride of lions outside of Pretoria, South Africa (of which I am more jealous than anything in the world) allowed him to strap a GoPro camera to the back of Meg, an impressive lioness whom Richardson describes as “boisterous” and “game for anything.” Once the action cam was mounted between her imposing, muscle-bound shoulders, it didn’t take long before it captured some action, as Meg quickly took off in pursuit of her next meal.

“Lions are what is known as an apex predator. They’re the top of the food chain, very strong, very agile, and very fast,” says Richardson in a voiceover, as the POV footage of Meg stalking her prey rolls. “If they do hunt alone, they’ll generally sneak up as close as possible to the prey, and then make a sprint for it.”

Check, and checkmate. Meg sticks to the apex predator playbook the whole way, the unlucky waterbuck barely entering the camera’s view before it’s in her mouth. Silent, fast, and deadly—the poor thing never stood a chance. Thus proving, once again, that lions are the most badass animals on the planet.

For more on Meg, Kevin, and why we should all be doing more to protect the world’s remaining lion population, you can watch a short documentary here.

Oct. 27 2014 5:26 PM

Big, Old, Fat, Fertile, Female Fish Keep Fisheries Afloat

No, the name is not an insult. Big, old, fat, fertile (or fecund) female fish, or BOFFFF, is a term of respect among scientists. These fish are actually a much better breeding bet than their younger, more svelte counterparts, according to a new study published in a special issue of the ICES Journal of Marine Science. The merits of these older (certainly wiser) aquatic matriarchs have long gone underappreciated. BOFFFFs are prolific baby-makers—which means they’re better at helping fisheries stay sustainable and fend off stock collapse.

Unfortunately, their ample bodies also make great trophies for fishermen.

The study compiled research from around the world and found that BOFFFFs are vital in keeping fishery stocks sustainable.

These fish produce more and larger eggs than smaller mature females. Their eggs, the study found, may also develop into larvae that grow faster and are less susceptible to starvation. BOFFFFs also enjoy longer spawning seasons, and might spawn in different places from their slimmer counterparts. These features, the study points out, hint that BOFFFFs are simply a better bet because they can outlive unfavorable reproduction conditions, and still be ready to “spawn profusely” next season. Scientists call this “the storage effect,” but most people would probably just call it “being a tough cookie.”

"Increasingly, fisheries managers are realizing that saving some big old fish is essential to ensure that fished populations are stable and sustainable," said study author Mark Hixon of the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa in a press release.

But despite their survival savvy, keeping BOFFFFs alive might not be as simple as it sounds. Fishermen love a good trophy, and bigger fish also just look more delectable than punier fish. The study says the two most viable options to protect these fertile females are “slot limits” and marine reserves. The former is regulation that says only medium-size fish may be captured—none smaller or larger than a strict size limit. The latter makes certain parts of the ocean off-limits to fishing entirely, which allows some fish to spawn through their entire lifespan, and for their offspring to replenish fished populations outside the reserve.

These ideas aren’t new, but the study suggests one factor slowing their adoption is the perceived difficulty of implementing them. But, the study also says, “Change is in the air.” The study says stock assessments, sets of biological information that helps fisheries regulate their stocks, for 12 of 19 rockfish species now include age or size-dependent relationships with relative fecundity—in effect giving BOFFFFs their due. Perhaps having this information on hand could turn the tide and motivate fisheries to keep their big, old, fat, fertile, female fish around longer.

Oct. 24 2014 5:10 PM

What Do Animals Think They See When They Look in the Mirror?

The six horses in a 2002 study were “known weavers.” When stabled alone, they swayed their heads, necks, forequarters, and sometimes their whole bodies from side to side. The behavior is thought to stem from the social frustration brought on by isolation. It can be seen in a small percentage of all stabled horses, and owners hate it—they think it causes fatigue, weight loss, and uneven muscle development, and it looks disturbing.

People had tried stopping the weaving by installing metal bars that limit a horse’s movement, but the study found that a different modification to the stable worked surprisingly well: a mirror. “Those horses with the mirror were rarely [observed] weaving,” the researchers reported. A later study even found that the mirror worked just as well as the presence of another horse.

Studies have shown that mirrors can improve the lives of a variety of laboratory, zoo, farm, and companion animals. Isolated cows and sheep have lower stress reactions when mirrors are around. With mirrors, monkeys alone or in groups show a healthy increase in social behaviors such as threats, grimaces, lip-smacking, and teeth chattering, and laboratory rabbits housed alone are also more active. Mirrors in birdcages reduce some birds’ fear.

But why? Other animals have a very different experience with mirrors than people do. According to the prevailing science, individuals of most species can’t recognize their reflections as themselves. The only known exceptions are humans, some great apes, and possibly dolphins, elephants, and magpies—all animals with high intelligence.

Gordon Gallup invented the test that shows whether an animal recognizes itself in the mirror: He marked primates’ faces and ears with dye and watched whether they used a mirror to investigate the spots. If they did, it revealed that the animals understood that the faces in the mirror were their own. But he thinks that most animals probably think of their reflections as another animal. The calming effect in some cases could come partly from the reflection’s apparent mimicking. “The animal confronting its own reflection in a mirror has complete control over the behavior of the image, and therefore the image is always attentive and ready to reciprocate when the animal is,” he and Stuart Capper wrote in 1970. In other words, the mirror image is sort of like a friend who always does exactly what you want.

Yet it does seem likely that some animals are intelligent enough to notice that there are differences between a reflection and a real animal—an animal in a mirror has no smell or sound, and for that matter, no body. Even fish may get that: Researchers have routinely used mirrors to test aggression levels in fish because fish are among the creatures that react fearfully to their mirror images. But a study published in May found that two out of three related cichlid species exhibited differing responses to a mirror image and to an actual live opponent. Another study found differences in brain gene expression levels depending on whether fish were meeting other fish or a mirror. “Clearly, the fish recognize something unusual about the mirror image and the differential brain response may reflect a cognitive distinction,” the authors write.

Whatever animals do conclude about the creature in the mirror, mirrors sometimes lead to bizarre (and unhelpful) behaviors. Many bird owners have horror stories of their male birds “mating” with their reflections and continuously masturbating. This mirror-image mate can also stimulate females to lay eggs, which can be dangerous for them because it depletes calcium, causing brittle bones and other health problems. Pair-bonding birds, like budgies, may bond with their mirror image and snub their owner. Mice feed less around mirrors, suggesting that mirrors may not be ideal companions for rodents, either.

When it comes to dogs and cats, reactions vary. The first mirror exposure can be hilarious, with the young animal trying to play or fight with its reflection—and ending up completely confused. Eventually most of them ignore or even avoid their reflections, although some dogs continue to growl when confronted with a mirror. But it’s clear that some pets, especially cats, continue to be entertained by their reflections, preening and performing acrobatics in front of the mirror, making it seem for all the world like they recognize themselves.

Though mirrors may provide comfort and entertainment, they are clearly not enough for most social animals. The most poignant example is a study of young monkeys raised with only mirrors for companionship. Not surprisingly, the monkeys displayed a sad mix of “autoeroticism, self-clasping, stereotypy, and bizarre posturing,” behaviors known as isolation syndrome. The same would be true for isolated cats, dogs, birds, and other pets. If you’ve got one, you know: They accept no substitute for the person you see in the mirror.

Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM

Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever

Drones are so hot right now. From peeking inside the mouth of an active volcano to recreating Tatooine pod races, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are in, and their utility (thankfully) extends far beyond the battlefield. For proof of this, look no further than the Vancouver Aquarium’s use of a custom-built hexacopter to track and monitor its local orca population, shown in the video above.

The first-of-its-kind study—which was a team effort of the aquarium’s Lance Barrett-Lennard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers Holly Fearnbach, John Durban, and Wayne Perryman—was put together to determine the impact of salmon fisheries on the resident orca population. Research showing a correlation between poor salmon years and spikes in orca deaths indicated that the connection was strong, but there was no way to know for sure until the team had a clearer idea of the whales’ exact feeding habits and preferred salmon-hunting locales.

Additionally, orca deaths were too black-and-white a measuring stick to create long-term strategies for reviving the dwindling whale population. As Barrett-Lennard says in his post about the study, “John [Durban] and I felt that a more sensitive measure of food stress—thinness rather than starvation—was needed, so that the role of prey availability could be better understood and salmon fisheries could be managed with the needs of killer whales in mind.”

Taking all of this into account, the team put their heads together with Don Leroi of Aerial Imaging Solutions—who had already been developing a UAV for NOAA at the time—and out came Mobly, their “steady, stable, and quiet” hexacopter. With the drone in tow, Barrett-Lenard and Co. took to the water, where they were able to capture two weeks of unbelievable footage of orcas in their natural—and undisturbed, thanks to Mobly—habitat.

The result? Using a formula developed by Durban for determining whale length and dorsal fin height, they were able to confirm that the orcas in the area were generally “robust” (unsurprisingly—it'd been a good season for Chinook salmon). Perhaps more importantly, Mobly proved its worth as a research tool. As Barrett-Lenard said: “We are convinced now that Mobly—or one of his cousins—will be an invaluable part of our research program for years to come, as we focus on recovering resident killer whale populations by, among other things, ensuring they have enough to eat.”

Well done, Mobly. Head on over to the Aquarium’s blog for a more in-depth look at the study.

Via io9

Oct. 22 2014 9:39 AM

Gertjie and Lammie, a Magical (and Bizarre) Friendship

Gertjie is a rhino. He looks like a rhino, he (probably) smells like a rhino, and if rhinos could talk, he would presumably talk like a rhino, too. He does not, however, always act like a rhino. As you’ll see in the video above, Little G—as his handlers at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, affectionately call him—is attached at the hip to a young lamb, who, apparently, causes the rhino to momentarily forget what species he is.

Orphaned last May when his mother was killed by poachers, Gertjie arrived at HESC with a rhino-sized hole in his heart. Enter Lammie, the affable lamb who would fill that hole, and in the process build a bond strong enough to cause Little G to prance around the reserve as if he too were a small, agile lamb—and not, you know, one of the more intimidating herbivores on the planet.

Filmed by assistant curator Karien Smit in order to catch the “very special pair” in action, the visual of Little G hopping around on all fours should be both a ridiculous and hilarious sight. But, to be honest, it’s suddenly so gosh darn dusty in here that it’s hard for me to focus on anything other than the fact that an orphaned rhino and lamb are BFFs.