Slate’s animal blog.

Aug. 19 2014 11:43 AM

Big, Bad Botany: Oleander (Thevetia Peruviana), the Beautiful “Exit Plan”

All week on Wild Things, we’ll be presenting our favorite dangerous, horrifying, and monstrous plants, excerpted from The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo. Out now from William Morrow.

Oleanders are beautiful bushes with lance-shaped, dark green leaves with a waxy finish that bloom large whorled pink, white, red, and yellow flowers that smell similar to apricots. The plant originated in the Mediterranean region and, because it grows quickly in a burst of color, early settlers transported it around the world to beautify and give “hostile” lands what they considered a civilized look. Oleanders thrive primarily in warmer climates; often found growing in the vacant lots of warmer California and Florida, some varieties of oleander can survive the summers of slightly cooler regions, and are used frequently by gardeners and landscapers to add a quick-growing burst of color.

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Aug. 19 2014 9:36 AM

Why Do We Eat Wilbur But Not Fido?

I live around the corner from a gourmet grocery store that has, for the past several weeks, displayed three-foot-long sides of cured beef in the display window. The meat looks like what hangs from those big metal hooks in a slaughterhouse after people saw the cow in half. Though I walk by every day, I always feel jarred by the sight. The meat recalls the animal it came from in a way that I’ve grown unaccustomed to seeing in American grocery stores. Does this grisly display appeal to anyone? Other passersby go about their business unfazed, lugging their grocery bags and talking on their smart phones. Revulsion, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

Last month, John D. Sutter wrote a piece for CNN in favor of eating dogs. It forced readers to look more closely at what we consider repulsive. We already kill 1.2 million dogs per year in America’s animal shelters, Sutter pointed out. Dogs’ intelligence and sociability are not enough to distinguish the species from pigs, which are also highly social and intelligent. Sutter makes it clear that if you think that Fido should be under the table rather than on it, then Wilbur's spot next to the potatoes is arbitrary at best. But the piece wasn’t so much a serious suggestion as a modern A Modest Proposal, meant to spur our reexamination of a contentious topic.

The Week ran a response to Sutter’s piece that relied on this circular argument:  "Western society has invested different energies in dogs for other purposes, ones that give them honored places in our homes as guardians, assistants, or companions." Sutter had already preempted this argument, quoting Slate’s William Saletan: “There's an inherent danger in thinking that ‘the value of an animal depends on how you treat it.’”

Despite being a dog lover, I welcomed Sutter’s proposal as a much needed thought experiment. We should have to think twice about something that involves not just our health and environment but also the 3.7 billion land animals in the United States raised and slaughtered for food—not to mention the wellbeing and safety of the people who do the unseemly work for us. There is something automatic about the unthinking way we approach our food—something reminiscent of Descartes’ description of animals as living machines.

Aug. 18 2014 7:06 PM

Big, Bad Botany: Deadly Nightshade (Atropa Belladonna), the Poisonous A-Lister

All week on Wild Things, we’ll be presenting our favorite dangerous, horrifying, and monstrous plants, excerpted from The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo. Out now from William Morrow.

Atropa belladonna is a Eurasian perennial with reddish, bell-shaped flowers that bear glossy-coated, black berries. Other names for the plant include belladonna, deadly nightshade, devil’s berries, naughty man’s cherries, death cherries, beautiful death, and devil’s herb. The plant earns its sinister nicknames, as its foliage and berries are extremely toxic, containing potent dosages of tropane alkaloids. Its most common name, belladonna, derives from Italian, meaning “beautiful woman.” Historically, women have used the herb’s oil to dilate and enlarge the pupils for seductive effect. But it’s best known as the plant of choice for assassins through history.

Aug. 18 2014 4:28 PM

Environmentalist Marmot Is the Perfect Mascot

There are two rules to keep in mind when attempting to spread the word about a noble cause. No. 1: Have a noble cause. No. 2: Adopt an adorable animal as your mascot.

The people at Greenpeace USA are leading a campaign against the federal coal leasing program, a program that expedites climate change and may put some of our national parks at risk. It's a cause worth paying attention to—one that would qualify as noble.

Now, as to the second criterion? Meet one of Glacier National Park's resident marmots, in a fortuitously-timed GoPro selfie.

The video above—which was captured during the filming of a timelapse video intended for a related package—shows a marmot approaching the stationary GoPro suspiciously, before, as Greenpeace puts it, he "decided to give the best photobomb in Greenpeace history."

It's an undeniably cute moment, but one with a message. In the words of Greenpeace online campaigner Dawn Bickett: "This marmot took a minute out of its busy day to show us some love. It’s time for us to do the same. Global warming is shrinking marmot habitat—alpine tundra. Help protect his home from climate change."

Aug. 15 2014 11:02 AM

Shark Week Is Lying Again About Megalodon Sharks

Carcharocles megalodon sharks were amazing animals. They were capable of growing up to 50 feet long and are commonly regarded as the largest predatory sharks that ever lived. Savvy readers will notice I used the past tense to describe megalodon, because there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that these sharks are extinct and have been for millions of years. If a 50-foot-long predator that fed on surface animals and lived in coastal environments were still around, someone would have found evidence of this by now.

You wouldn’t know that megalodon is extinct from watching the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” documentaries, though. In 2013, Shark Week aired Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, the latest in a series of totally made-up nonsense from Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, also known as “the rotting carcass of science on TV.”

The Monster Shark Lives featured actors playing scientists, photoshopped pictures, and fake digital video. At no point in the documentary did it mention that it was fictional, causing many viewers to believe that these animals are still alive—and Discovery even bragged that 73 percent of viewers now thought that megalodon isn’t really extinct. Conservation activists have been upset at Shark Week’s focus on fear-mongering “shark attack” specials rather than the conservation of a group of animals of which 25 percent are threatened with extinction. But this film’s blatantly lying to viewers was the last straw for many. It was strongly condemned by many scientists, including myself.

Misinformation on this large a scale matters. Shark Week documentaries are watched by tens of millions of people, and they generate almost twice as much Twitter conversation as the infamous “Red Wedding” episode of Game of Thrones. As a marine biologist interested in outreach, I speak to hundreds of high school students each year, even earning an award as “Florida’s marine science educator of the year.” Not once since The Monster Shark Lives aired have I spoken to a group of children and not been asked about megalodon.

After all the controversy and negative publicity the Discovery Channel received for its dishonesty last year, I was shocked and angered to see that Shark Week 2014 will feature Megalodon: The New Evidence, airing tonight after a repeat of the original Megalodon film. The message people at the Discovery Channel are sending is that “they don’t care what their audience thinks, they don’t care about educating their viewers, and they don’t care about accuracy,” says marine biology grad student and blogger Christie Wilcox. “All they care about is ratings, and they’ll deceive if not outright lie to their audience to get them.”

The information in the press release about this documentary reveals the Discovery Channel’s relationship with the truth:

In April 2013, a fishing vessel off the coast of South Africa was attacked, killing all on board. A TV crew documented marine biologist Collin Drake as he worked to determine the predator responsible. Megalodon: The New Evidence presents SHARK WEEK viewers with shocking new evidence and interview footage.

The supposed fishing vessel incident did not occur; it was entirely made up for the purpose of storytelling. Collin Drake is not a marine biologist; he is a fictional character played by an actor. I haven’t yet seen the 2014 version, but if it’s anything like the last time, the “shocking new evidence” will be completely and totally fake. Most of the rest of Shark Week 2014’s programming also appears troubling: Titles such as Shark of Darkness, Zombie Sharks, and Lair of the Mega Shark are unlikely to contain a great deal of science and conservation content.

Shark Week runs through this weekend. If you want to learn about some of the most amazing and misunderstood animals in the world, read a book instead.

Aug. 12 2014 12:10 PM

Almost Every Lobster Image You See Is Anatomically Incorrect

Humans have two legs. Dogs and cats have four. Spiders have eight. Quick, how many do lobsters have?

What? You don’t know?

Thank goodness, then, for lobsters’ rights activists. A new blog called Lobsters Have Ten Legs is dedicated to raising awareness about the unrealistic portrayals of lobsters, and it turns out these inaccuracies are all around us. The site points out anatomical mistakes from children’s sidewalk art and stuffed animals, all the way up to—gaspRed Lobster’s logo. It seems that lobsters are commonly depicted as having eight legs instead of 10 (two claws in front and four pairs* of smaller legs).

Et tu?

Photo by Mike Mozart/Flickr Creative Commons

Beyond educating people about the number of legs on a lobster, the blog depicts the rich habitat of anatomically incorrect lobsters: They appear on top of a car, or serenading a woman with a guitar. And the blog even throws shade at Patrick Stewart's lobster costume. (Unless Stewart meant to go as a dead lobster, there’s some extra inaccuracy to his costume: Live lobsters are actually brown, not red.)

Here’s to hoping that the forces behind Lobsters Are Decapods joins up with those of the Birds Rights Activist to rule the seas and skies.

Oh, never mind.

Photo courtesy Tina D/Flickr Creative Commons

Correction, Aug. 12, 2014: Due to a production error, this article originally stated that lobsters have four smaller legs. They have four pairs of smaller, walking legs.

Aug. 5 2014 4:00 PM

This Is What It Looks Like to Get Attacked by a Great White Shark (Spoiler Alert: It's Terrifying)

Some people have reasonable crippling fears: Heights, drowning, finding out what's actually in a Slim Jim. Not me. I saw Jaws when I was an impressionable 10-year-old, and from about the moment the Kintner kid bought it, I've been absolutely certain that my life will end painfully in the mouth of a great white. And if you're at all like me—distrusting of shadows in the water, a childhood spent looking over your shoulder in the ocean (and, sometimes, the swimming pool)—then the video above should swiftly stir your galeophobia right back up to the surface.

The cold-sweat-inducing footage comes courtesy of the good people at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who in 2013 brought an underwater submersible to Guadalupe Island in Mexico and recorded great white sharks in their natural habitat.* What they ultimately captured on camera, unsurprisingly, was terrifying.

The submersible—dubbed the REMUS "SharkCam"—is what's known as an autonomous underwater vehicle, and in addition to being outfitted with six different cameras, it features technology that enables it to track animals that have been tagged with a transponder beacon. So, basically, the Woods Hole researchers used the underwater drone to hunt down previously tagged great whites, oftentimes coming up on the sharks from behind. Needless to say, the sharks were unimpressed.

As you'll see in the 5-minute-plus video of the trip, the curious sharks attack the SharkCam from all angles, resulting in a terrifying highlight reel of great white hunting tactics—all from the POV of the hunted. It's equal parts horrifying and awesome, and definitely worth a watch. It almost—almost—makes another 18 years of Amity Island nightmares worth it.

Correction, Aug. 6 2014: This post originally misstated the name of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

July 30 2014 2:00 PM

The Longest Brooder in the Animal Kingdom

A female octopus will defend her eggs to the death—literally. In species that live in shallow water, the mother guards a den where her eggs are clustered. An open-sea octopus carries her eggs in her arms, protecting them as she drifts through the water. And deep-sea octopuses shelter their eggs while perched in one spot. A new study shows that she may stay there for years.

Researchers observed one female watching over her offspring for almost four and a half years. That means the deep-sea species Graneledone boreopacifica has officially become the longest known brooder in the animal kingdom. She pays the ultimate price, wasting away until she dies protecting her young. But the reproductive payoff is in her octopus prodigies: Hatchlings of this species are the largest and “most developmentally advanced known” among octopus, giving them an upper tentacle in the evolutionary game of survival.

The marathon brooder chose a rocky outcrop 1,400 meters deep in the Monterey Submarine Canyon off the coast of central California, a popular spot for her species, according to a report in PLOS ONE Wednesday. Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, led by Bruce Robison, took a remotely operated vehicle down there in April 2007 and found a single female octopus with distinctive scarring heading toward the rock. When they dove again a month later, the same octopus—identified by her scars—had taken up residence about a meter above the sea floor on the rock, where she guarded a clutch of eggs. They measured about 1.5 centimeters long by 0.5 centimeters wide, like a large pile of white, translucent Mike and Ike candies.

This octopus spent more than four years guarding these eggs.

Courtesy of Robison et al.

Every few months the researchers checked in on the brooding mama while she gradually deteriorated. She started out with a “highly textured and pallid purple” mantle, but it paled to near whiteness once she began guarding her clutch. Her plump, round body gradually deflated, her skin went slack and lost its texture, her eyes grew cloudy and her tentacles lost their color. Tasty crabs and shrimp ventured by, but she just shooed them away from her eggs when they got too close, never having a snack. The scientists even offered her pieces of crab with the vehicle’s robot arm, but she ignored them. If she ever ate, they never saw it.

At 40 months, three quarters of the way into her brooding, the outlines of the baby octopuses inside their eggs were clear. By the last time the researchers saw her in September 2011, the eggs had grown to the size of Brazil nuts. On their 18th dive a month later, she was gone, leaving behind about 160 empty egg capsules. She had spent 53 months brooding her eggs, almost four times the longest octopus brooding time previously recorded, in the species Bathypolypus arcticus. Though elephants gestate for up to 21 months and frilled sharks carry their embryos up to 42 months, the only other creature to come close to this duration is the alpine salamander, which gestate their young up to 48 months.

Why so long? Two reasons: It’s cold down there, and growing such fully developed miniature octopuses takes time. The temperature at her brooding spot ranged from 2.8 to 3.4 degrees Celsius, and for cold-blooded animals, the time it takes for the embryos to develop is inversely proportional to how cold it is. The longer development time also allows for bigger eggs so that the hatchlings can take care of themselves immediately after emerging.

The tricky part for the mother is determining how many eggs she can lay against how long she can stick around to keep them safe. An octopus mother’s death around the time her offspring hatch represents a balancing act: She must survive long enough to protect her eggs until they hatch, but if she lives much longer past their send-off, that means she could have laid more eggs. The more closely her death and the hatchings are timed, the more accurately she projected how many eggs she could lay compared to how long she could safeguard them, though the mechanism for this coordination is not known.

What remains a mystery is how the mother takes care of herself as she broods. Although her metabolism doesn’t require much energy in such cold temperatures while she remains sedentary, it’s still not clear how she survives so long without appearing to eat. She might have nibbled on nearby animals, such as crabs that threatened her eggs, while the researchers were away, or she might have fed on unfertilized or diseased eggs as some other octopus species do. However she did it, the time she spent brooding exceeded what biologists knew octopus life expectancy could be.

July 29 2014 1:13 PM

Why Aren’t the World’s Giant Insects Even Bigger?

Chinese villagers have provided specimens of aquatic insects to local researchers, who believe they’re the largest of their kind. The bugs join a brethren of huge insects around the world, but entomological research is beginning to explain why these oversize bugs never grow to true B-movie-monster size.

July 29 2014 10:47 AM

Sawfish Are Some of the World’s Weirdest and Most Endangered Fish

The sawfishes, best known for the distinctive tooth-covered rostrum that gives them their name, are a family of rays. The saw is used to stun and kill prey, and it is so sharp that pups are born with a thick membrane over their saws to protect the mother during birth. Sawfishes are some of the most threatened species of fish in the world. Smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) were once commonly seen from North Carolina to Texas and throughout the Caribbean, but today the Everglades and the western side of Andros Island in the Bahamas are some of the only remaining places where they can reliably be found.

A team of scientists has just returned from an annual research expedition to study the smalltooth sawfish at Andros Island. Even there, finding sawfish is incredibly rare. This year, the team found five smalltooth sawfish, the highest number encountered in four years of studying the Andros population.  

One of the goals of this research project, funded by the Moore Charitable Foundation, is to determine whether there is movement between the sawfish populations, in particular between Andros and south Florida, information that has important implications for their management. One of the smalltooth sawfish was fitted with a GPS satellite tag that will allow scientists to track its movements and help identify critical habitat. “We hope to determine if there is significant movement and genetic exchange between the U.S. and Bahamas,” says Dean Grubbs of the Florida State University Coastal Marine Lab. The GPS-tagged sawfish—named Blair; others were named Tammy, and Elizabeth, all after high school teachers who have participated in NOAA’s Teacher at Sea program—will contribute to the body of knowledge on how sawfish use habitat.

A smalltooth sawfish at Andros Island.

Photo by Tripp Rackley and Brady L. Rackley IV, courtesy of John Carlson

Sawfish are in big trouble. “All known populations of sawfishes have severely declined based on museum records, scientific surveys, anecdotal fisherman observations, and limited catch per unit effort information,” says John Carlson of NOAA, one of the expedition leaders. All known species of sawfish are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and both smalltooth and largetooth sawfish are protected by the United States Endangered Species Act.

Sawfish face many threats. Historically, people fished them heavily for their meat, especially in Lake Nicaragua. Today, they are frequently victims of unintentional fisheries capture. Their tooth-covered rostrum makes them extremely susceptible to getting tangled in fishing gear, which often results in their death. Another major threat facing sawfish is habitat destruction. Juvenile sawfish rely on shallow, mangrove-lined estuaries as nursery habitat, and previous satellite tagging studies on this species have shown that adults spent 96 percent of the time in shallow coastal waters. Unfortunately, much of this habitat has been rendered unsuitable for sawfish due to new construction of waterfront property.

Sawfish need mangroves and waterfront habitat more than condominiums do.

Photo by Charles Cotton, courtesy of John Carlson

Though the situation is dire, a recent paper by this research team shows that there is hope for the species. While extinction is likely if fishing mortality remains high, models show that population recovery could occur in as little as 40 years if fishing mortality is greatly reduced. New protections may be needed.

The sawfish research team made another important discovery. Before this expedition, southwest Florida held the only known locations of nursery areas for young smalltooth sawfish. However, “Andros has nearly as much mangrove habitat as all of the Everglades in Florida.  Therefore, if nurseries exist in the Bahamas, they should be in Andros,” Grubbs said.  After this expedition, Carlson told me, “we now have gained evidence of younger [less that 1 year old] sawfish in the upper portion of the numerous smaller creeks and bays in Andros. These areas may represent potential nurseries for smalltooth sawfish on Andros Island.” The data gathered by this project will be invaluable in promoting the recovery of the smalltooth sawfish, one of the most endangered marine fishes on Earth.