Slate’s animal blog.

July 9 2014 12:23 PM

The Strange, Sordid History of Dosing Animals With LSD    

Human experiments on animals are more fraught than ever, but their long and sometimes sordid legacy is here to stay. That history is rarely stranger than the effort to give animals hallucinogenic drugs. Fish, monkeys, dolphins, and at least one unlucky elephant were dosed with LSD in the years after it was first synthesized in the 1938, and as the video above shows, the results varied wildly. 

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July 8 2014 12:54 PM

Solar Power Plants Are Literally Roasting Birds In-Flight

For proponents of renewable energy, it seems like every time a technology is primed to save the world, it gets dogged by some ironic bit of environmental unpleasantness. Wind turbines can be dangerous to birds and bats. Biofuels require so much land, fertilizer, and water that they may use more energy to produce than they provide. Hydropower dams screw up a whole lot of river habitat and stop fish from spawning.

The latest on this list of “dark green” technologies is thermal solar power, which is coming into vogue in the southern California desert. (Full disclosure: I work at an environmental organization that has opposed the locations chosen for some of those facilities.) A new study from the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory obtained by KCET gives some depressing and gruesome details of bird deaths occurring at industrial solar facilities.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees and energy company staff found 233 birds of 71 different species at three California solar facilities—Ivanpah, Genesis, and Desert Sunlight—during random surveys over two years. That’s not a huge number of birds (though the limited scope of the collections means it’s just a fraction of the actual deaths), but what’s shocking is the way some of these birds are dying: They are literally being burned alive, in midair.

Each of these facilities employs a different strategy for deriving energy from the sun. Ivanpah is a “solar power tower” plant, which scatters thousands of mirrors over an area larger than Central Park and aims them all at a single, water-filled tower. The reflected, concentrated heat reaches 800 degrees Fahrenheit, boiling the water in the tower and generating electricity. Genesis employs a trough system, generating steam by reflecting sunlight from parabolic mirrors onto water-filled tubes. Desert Sunlight is a photovoltaic system, converting sunlight directly into energy using an array of 8.8 million solar modules spread over 6 square miles.

Industrial-scale facilities like these are exactly the kind of places that can help wean this country off fossil fuels. Once they’re at full capacity, these solar plants together will generate about the same amount of power as a small coal-fired plant, but with none of the nasty emissions. They’re located on public lands, paying rent to the federal government and providing jobs in areas with few other well-paying opportunities.

Yet despite its blazing unwelcomeness, the California desert is anything but empty. The desert is home to thousands of species of plants and animals. Many of them are rare or endangered, including the desert tortoise and the desert bighorn sheep, or are found nowhere else. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s also a major route for migratory birds working their way north. Indeed, more species have been found on the Salton Sea—a stinking oasis in the middle of the desert—than at any other single spot in California. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife report, all these birds now have solar mega-traps in their path.

Researchers found that the bright lights created by the facilities—brighter even than surrounding daylight—attracted insects. At Ivanpah, researchers found “hundreds upon hundreds” of dead butterflies, including already-stressed monarchs, some with singed wings. Birds came to feed on the insects, and bigger birds came to feed on the insect-eaters. When birds flew into the hottest areas, observers saw them emit streams of smoke from their feathers. On-the-ground staff found birds with their flight feathers burned away, some still alive but unable to fly. During their visit to Ivanpah, the report states, USFWS staff saw birds burn in midair “every two minutes.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, birds are dying in a completely different—but equally ugly—manner at other facilities. Researchers found an unusually high number of water birds dead at the Desert Sunlight facility. These birds, including grebes, herons, ducks, and even pelicans, died not from the heat but from blunt force trauma. The cause was clear, as stated in the report: “A desert environment punctuated by a large expanse of reflective, blue panels may be reminiscent of a large body of water.” These birds—tired from flying over the hot desert—home in on what looks like a calm lake but instead crash into hard panels. They either die instantly or, as researchers found, lie helpless for land-based predators. Grebes need to take flight from water, so being marooned on land makes them sitting ducks for predators, should they survive the impact of landing on the panels or desert floor.

The report’s authors offered some possible improvements, including adding striping to panels and spacing them farther apart to make them look less like lakes and turning off the solar towers during peak migration. But they don’t seem to put much faith in these fixes. Wildlife groups are challenging the environmental reviews of these projects, armed with new information about the impacts to birds, but have yet to achieve significant changes. With several more solar plants under construction, it seems that these facilities will keep their place alongside wind farms, buildings, outdoor housecats, habitat loss, and good old fashioned climate change as deadly human-caused obstacles in the path of a successful bird migration.

Put some seed in your feeders, would you? These guys need a break.

July 7 2014 4:31 PM

The World’s Largest Flying Bird

How did something so huge stay aloft?

Reconstruction by Liz Bradford

If we had lived 3 million years ago, our holiday beach visits would not have been so pleasant. North American ocean fronts were home to Pelagornis sandersi, the largest known marine bird. It had a wingspan of up to 24 feet. For comparison, imagine the length of four humans head-to-toe, or the height of a two-story building. If its size isn’t terrifying enough, the bird also had pseudoteeth—all the better to impale its prey with.

The first P. sandersi fossil was found in 1983, when crews in South Carolina began construction to expand the Charleston International Airport. Charleston Museum volunteer James Malcom and museum curator Albert Sander removed a stone block containing the fossil and brought it to the museum for further inspection. (The sandersi in the species name is a homage to Sanders.) Nearly 30 years later, paleontologist Daniel Ksepka rediscovered it when he was invited to study the Charleston Museum’s fossils. “I was pretty confident it was a new species right away,” says Ksepka. “The size jumps out at you. I found a single wing bone longer than my arm, so I thought, this must be important.” Ksepka’s results are published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The newly described monster bird is part of a family of giant seabirds called Pelagornithids, named for teeth found on the edges of their bills. Unlike human teeth, which have roots and are covered with enamel, pelagornithids’ teeth were made of bone and were likely covered with beak tissue. Scientists believe these birds’ beaks resembled those of modern birds, only with bony, saw-like edges. “They were very sharp, but not made for slicing,” Ksepka says. “They could use them to catch fish or squids near the surface and impale them.”

The pelagornithid family was known for its ubiquity; species within the family have been discovered on every continent. According to Ksepka, it’s fairly rare for bird families to inhabit so many different climates. “Not that many birds make it to Antarctica,” he says.

Based on the structure of its bones, scientists are fairly certain that P. sandersi did fly. This raises one big mystery: How did something so large stay in the air? Bigger animals require more power to keep their bodies in flight. “It’s a scaling problem,” says Ksepka: Theoretically, extremely large birds cannot fly, because the amount of power they need to fly surpasses the power of their muscles. Some researchers calculate that this upper limit is around 17 feet, so by these estimates, a flying Pelagornis sandersi should be impossible. However, these calculations are based on the energy required for birds to stay in flight by flapping their wings; in new calculations, Ksepka proposes that large flying birds could have used other strategies. “They could harvest energy from the environment, like taking advantage of wind gusts,” he says. Like modern-day albatrosses, Pelagornis sandersi could have used their long wings to catch ocean winds and glide across the sky, rather than powering their flight with energy-intensive flapping.

This study is a first glimpse at an amazing ancient animal, but much is still unknown about how Pelagornis sandersi flew and hunted. “I’m looking forward to finding out how they launched and landed, and how maneuverable they were,” says Ksepka. Next time you’re at the beach, be thankful you have to shoo away only seagulls from your picnic snacks.

July 4 2014 9:30 AM

Elephants Eat the Strangest Things

The fruits that dangle from Solanum campylacanthum, an indigenous East African shrub, taste awful—like unripened tomato, stinging the tongue with acridity. Locals give them an aptly uninviting name—apples of Sodom—because they are poisonous to people and cattle. S. campylacanthum grows quickly, lately overtaking Kenya’s pasturelands. Getting rid of it is expensive, inefficient work.

Luckily, native herbivores eat the shrubs. Though few herders might welcome the thought of elephants, impalas, or dik-diks (adorable though they are) trampling across fields towards their sheep, these wildlife effectively control S. campylacanthum’s spread, as Robert Pringle of Princeton University and his colleagues report in a new paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The toxic chemical in S. campylacanthum is benign to these creatures. Pernicious compounds are common in bushes and shrubs, so “browsers” of branched plants have evolved to withstand eating the things “grazers” of grasses (which usually don’t contain such chemicals) cannot. What would spell famine for the domesticated ungulate brings a feast for many an untamed beast, as captured by camera footage from the researchers’ study:

To understand the effects different species had on S. campylacanthum growth, the scientists fenced off separate areas of their study site in the Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya. Different types of barriers excluded particular animals. For five years, they recorded the S. campylacanthum consumption patterns in each one. They used field measurements and a model to demonstrate each animal’s influence on plant proliferation.

Elephants often uprooted whole plants and contained S. campylacanthum growth best. Impalas less so: Though a doe might devour as many as 18 fruits within minutes, the undamaged seeds they spread though their droppings could plausibly offset what was eaten. (It was much less likely that enough seeds digested by elephants could germinate to replace the plants they had destroyed.) Dik-diks curbed S. campylacanthum with constant nibbling. Rodents and insects pitch in with some consumption, but not to any effectual degree.

The native fauna limiting S. campylacanthum are a mark of the stabilizing mechanisms inherent in a mixed ecosystem. Diversity is key: Each plant-eating critter played a slightly different part in managing the noxious weed.

But this discovery came about because the balance of that ecosystem is threatened. Overgrazing in Kenya’s fields has encouraged S. campylacanthum’s encroachment. Changing climate and increased farming activities have diminished access to well-watered lands for the country’s seven million pastoralists, leaving their livestock (numbering in the tens of millions, though precise counts are hard to come by) with smaller patches to roam. Pastures are chomped through with greater intensity, easing the way for invasive, inedible shrubs to take their place. “You end up with pastures choked with plants that are unusable,” Pringle told me, where sheep and cattle can no longer feed.

Even more troubling is the destruction of the wildlife that could check this imbalance, especially the killing of elephants. The price of ivory has soared in recent years, buoyed by demand from Asia (a pound of it goes for $1,500 today). Of the half million elephants left in Africa, some 35,000 are estimated to be slaughtered for tusks in a year. Kenya enacted a strict new anti-poaching measure in January, with heightened punishment for law-breakers, but that will do little to stem foreign appetites. A recent census shows that the country’s elephant population has declined over the past three years, from 12,573 to around 11,000—the outcome of continued poaching, habitat loss, and drought. Projections from the Center for International Forestry Research of the continent’s elephant population for the next 25 years are grim.

“We know that elephants can change landscapes and ecosystems,” says Truman Young, an ecologist at the University of California-Davis. He notes Sodom apple is not the most destructive invasive flora in East Africa: Non-native species such as prickly pear and lantana—a poisonous intruder from Central America—plague the region, too. “If there were more elephants, it would certainly help,” says Truman, for they are known to consume these exotic plants. The elephants’ decline leaves East Africa’s habitats all the more vulnerable.

There is some good news. In the past few years, local people have affirmed the mutual benefit between themselves and elephants that Pringle and his collaborators observe, and they are trying radical new protection efforts. Networks of community conservancies have sprung up, mostly with support from  pastoralists. In 2012, a national group was formed. It has been a “revolution, unlike anything I’ve seen before,” as Robin Reid, a conservationist and author of Savannas of Our Birth, puts it. Even as elephants continue to be illegally bagged in Kenya (more than 200 fell victim to poaching last year), conservancies have reported increasing elephant populations.

Moreover, such preservation efforts can aid economic stability—a 2010 study of three community conservancies found that 84 percent of pastoral households living within a conservancy reported either stable or increased incomes, compared to 44 percent of those in non-conserved areas. Part of the improvement is due to better grazing security—which healthy stocks of wildlife help boost, as the new research on S. campylacanthum shows.

Conservation is more successful when locals benefit directly from these endeavors. Elephants and other wildlife are a boon for controlling the explosive expansion of an invasive shrub threatening the livelihoods of many Kenyans and herders throughout East Africa. Understanding what other roles are filled by the continent’s many species is crucial. So is protecting them.

July 3 2014 9:48 AM

What Do Sharks Do in a Hurricane?

We here at Slate were talking about sharks not long ago and realized we had a lot of goofy questions. Shark conservation graduate student David Shiffman was kind enough to answer them.

What do sharks do in a hurricane? Do they clear out of the path?

Yup, they move to deeper water offshore where the effects of the storm won’t reach them. Aside from that little detail, SharkNado was basically 100 percent factually accurate.

This is really stupid, but speaking of hurricanes: Is it really dangerous to be a shark/fish in the middle of a thunderstorm? Do they get struck by lightning a lot?

I’m not aware of a single confirmed case of a shark being fatally struck by lightning, though it certainly could have happened if a shark was unlucky enough to be near the surface at the exact moment of a strike. The energy from a lightning strike doesn’t spread too far through the ocean, though—if you’re more than a few feet away, you’re probably fine. I’ve been in the water about 100 feet away from a lightning strike and didn’t feel a thing, though I did have to change my wetsuit right after this experience.

Always been curious about the hammerhead. If you are directly in front of it, can it see you? Does it bump into stuff a lot?

Hammerheads actually have amazing vision! Because of the way sharks move, their head doesn’t remain stationary.  When their head moves back and forth, they can see almost 360 degrees! I’ve had sharks bump into me before, but it isn’t because they don’t see me there.

When sharks are hungry, is it, like, an emergency?

On average, something like half of all sharks caught for “stomach content analysis” studies have had completely empty stomachs, and they were doing just fine (although they did go for a baited hook). Some sharks can actually go weeks at a time without eating if they have a big meal.

Also, is it true that Sharks don’t like the taste of human blood? If so, why do they full-on mangle people before deciding they're actually inedible? Are they stubborn? Mean-spirited?

Most shark bites last only a few seconds (if that), and most don’t even require stitches. Serious injuries and fatalities from shark bites result from the fact that a shark’s teeth are so sharp that even a brief interaction can cause serious damage to a human.

Sharks lose a lot of teeth. What is the going rate with the Chondrichthyes tooth fairy?

When I was a kid, I got “one of everything” from the tooth fairy—a penny, a nickel, a dime, a quarter, and a one-dollar bill. If we were using that rate, many species of sharks would be able to buy a decent used car.

How true or exaggerated is that whole thing about how sharks can never stop swimming?

It varies by species. Sharks need water passing over their gills for them to breathe. Some, including nurse sharks, can pump water over their gills. I once saw a nurse shark not move for 5 straight days. Other species need to be swimming pretty much constantly in order to breathe.

Do sharks feel the same way about those shark diving cages that we feel about clamshell packaging?

Sharks can detect electric fields, and some kinds of metal in seawater generate electric fields. There’s some anecdotal evidence of sharks biting boat engines and even shark cages. But it’s probably because of the electric field they generate, not because they’re trying to get at the human chum inside.

Do sharks have a sense of humor?

With a name like “wobbegong,” you better learn to laugh at yourself early in life, or high school will be no fun at all. Seriously though, while sharks are much smarter than most people think and are capable of a variety of complex behaviors and social interactions, they don’t have emotions in the same way we do.

What do male and female sharks find sexy?

As I wrote in “50 Shades of Grey Reef Shark,” shark sex is extraordinarily violent. Sharks don’t spawn like other fish; they copulate like mammals do. This means the female has to be held still relative to the male. Because sharks don’t have hands, the males use their mouths, which are full of sharp teeth. There isn’t a lot of romance and consensual behavior going on.

Do sharks ever change facial expression? Or is that cold stare the only face they can make?

Different species have really different looks to their faces, which people anthropomorphize. Individual sharks can move their eyes and open or close their mouths, but in general, they don’t really change expressions much. They do have some body language, though—tail slapping at the surface has been observed in some species, as has arching the back much like an angry cat.

Could you share some very useful info about where to punch a shark? (The eyes! The snout! The gills!)

Punching underwater doesn’t really work. Try it without a shark sometime. Elderly people do this in the pool for exercise, but that’s about the only practical use of that motion.

July 2 2014 2:00 PM

The Wasps of Your Nightmares

Spider wasps are known (and feared) for having an intensely painful sting. Now there’s a new reason for revulsion: They build nests with the corpses of dead ants. The newfound species of spider wasp has been given an appropriately hardcore name: Deuteragenia ossarium, or “bone-house wasps,” after graveyard bone houses and ossuaries.

Ecologist Michael Staab and colleagues based in China and Germany came across bone-house wasps in southeast China’s Gutianshan National Nature reserve when they were collecting nest samples for a different project, and they describe them in a PLOS ONE paper published today. Wasps typically build nests at ground level and create chambers made of plant debris, resin, and soil, but they will also use abandoned cavities. Staab’s team capitalized on this by leaving out plastic tubes, called “trap nests,” in which wasps could build their nests.

After trap nests were colonized by wasps, Staab collected the traps and opened them with a knife to see what was inside. Mother wasps build nests to house their larvae, so as terrifying as larval wasps may be to a layperson, Staab was not surprised to find those. What was surprising was his discovery of a bunch of dead ants.

“The first time I saw it, I thought maybe I wasn’t seeing it clearly,” he said. “But then I found 10 to 15 more nests.” When the wasp larvae from the ant-filled nests hatched, Staab saw that they were all the same species. After analysis by taxonomic experts, the team discovered that they had stumbled upon a new species.  

But why would wasps put ants in their nests? Staab and his colleagues think the bodies may help protect wasps’ nests through their scent. Ants communicate mostly by pheromones, and even after ants die, that scent lingers for days. Mother wasps abandon their larvae after nest-building, so the young are very vulnerable: Other animals co-opt wasps’ nests for their own eggs or break in to eat the larvae inside. Ants’ smell could deter animals from approaching the nest, especially if those animals have had bad experiences with ants in the past. They could also serve as an olfactory camouflage.

Staab and his colleagues are working with a chemist to figure out what compounds go into ant pheromones. “If we’re able to synthesize them, we want to do behavioral studies,” says Staab, such as testing whether ant pheromones really do repel parasites.

The researchers also want to determine how wasps get ants for their nests. Do they collect dead ants or hunt live ones? Staab thinks the good condition of the ants means they were freshly killed. “They were not decayed or molded,” he said, describing the ants he found. “That leads us to the assumption that they probably hunt live ants.”

Plus, like other spider wasps, the bone-house wasps hunt spiders. And the way a mother spider wasp does so is truly horrifying: She stings a spider, paralyzing it, then drags it back to her nest. There, she eats the non-essential parts of the spider, like its legs, leaving the body immobile but still alive. “That way, it is preserved for her larvae,” says Staab. Finally, she leaves it in the nest for her larvae to consume after she abandons them there.

So, while a spider wasp’s sting may be akin to “dropping a running hair dryer into your bubble bath,” as one entomologist describes it, you can be grateful that it can’t dismember you, let its young eat you alive, or use your corpse as a nest decoration.

July 1 2014 7:00 PM

Pet Fish Are Surprisingly Smart

For those of you who are teased about your forgetfulness, good news! It turns out having the “memory of a fish” may actually be a compliment. Fish may have a reputation for having three-second memories, but new research suggests that we’ve been underestimating their abilities. In a study presented today at the annual meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology, researchers from MacEwan University in Canada found that African cichlids have a memory span of at least 12 days.

African cichlids are common aquarium pets, and there are lots of anecdotal reports from their owners about their intelligence. Some people claim that cichlids greet them when they come home; others believe their cichlids watch TV with them. According to psychologist Trevor Hamilton, some even claim cichlids process what they’re watching: “If there’s something scary, they’ll react with a fearful response.”

The jury is still out on cichlids’ TV watching habits, but scientists have come up with more empirical methods of assessing cichlid intelligence. Memory is an especially important skill to have; for animals in the wild, remembering good places to find food can mean a long life and evolutionary success.

To assess cichlids’ memory for food sources, Hamilton, along with undergraduate Erica Ingraham and psychologist Nicole Anderson, tested seven fish. Each fish was placed individually in a tank. The sides of the tank were outfitted with screens that showed a striped black and white display. In one area of the tank, the stripes on the screen looked like they were moving upward; in the other area, they looked like they were moving down. When fish were in the area with upward-moving lines, they were fed. The researchers trained the fish for three 5-minute sessions over a five-day period.

Eleven days after the last training session, they let the fish go hungry so that they would have increased motivation to seek out food. On the 12th day, they brought fish back to the tank one at a time and took note of where they hung out. Six of the seven fish they tested spent more time in the area with upward-moving lines, suggesting that they remembered they had gotten food there previously and were hoping to find it there again.

To eliminate the possibility that fish just have a natural preference for upward-moving designs, Ingraham, Anderson, and Hamilton repeated this study by training the same cichlids to associate food with the other area of the tank, the one with downward-moving lines. The cichlids succeeded at remembering that, too. Not only can these fish learn an association and remember it for 12 days; they can learn something new that overrides their old knowledge and remember that for 12 days, too.

Hamilton notes that we still have much to learn about cichlid memory. Cichlids in this study were able to remember for 12 days where they had found food, but that “doesn’t mean that’s the maximum or minimum,” Hamilton says.

Now these researchers want to explore other claims about cichlid intelligence. “We’re looking at their ability to identify different perceptual stimuli in terms of pattern recognition,” says Hamilton. It is yet to be seen whether cichlids can identify patterns more complicated than moving stripes, such as their owner’s face. Fish owners, there may be more going on in your aquarium than you thought.

June 27 2014 9:15 AM

Good Snakes vs. Bad Snakes

I live with twin 6-year-old boys, one of whom—Alex—is snake-obsessed. Every dream he has, every story he tells, every drawing he makes involves snakes.

You can only imagine his joy a few weeks ago when we spotted a gigantic snake in our front yard through the living room window.

My reaction was quite different than Alex’s. I did what any neurotic, overprotective mom would do. I ran out the front door, grabbed an elderly gentleman off the street, and dragged him into our living room to show him the snake through the window.

Luckily for us, I learned that our snake—a big one, measuring in at more than 5 feet long—was a black rat snake. The elderly man, John, a neighbor I hadn’t met before yanking him into our home, assured me that our snake was a nice snake, a good snake. In other words, it wasn’t a copperhead.

Just a black rat snake. Nothing to worry about.

Courtesy of Holly Allen

Atlanta, where I live, has been struck with Copperhead Fever. Everyone is talking about the copperheads. Our neighborhood has sent out a copperhead alert on email. Photos and warnings about copperheads are all over my Facebook and Instagram feeds. Copperheads are under the trashcans of friends of friends and in the ivy that surrounds most of our homes. A friend of mine almost stepped on a baby copperhead on her daily walk, and another friend accidentally chopped one in half while pruning her hedges. Copperheads are the topic of the local news, the chitchat at the checkout line, and all the buzz at swim team practice. Honestly, it feels like a plague of snakes around here.

Some people are trying to fight snakes with snakes. People in one neighborhood nearby, Druid Hills, which backs up to the Fernbank Forest, imported and released a bunch of black rat snakes into their yards. They hope the snakes will crowd out the copperheads and compete with them for the same food sources. The other day I attended my first-ever snake release party—complete with balloons on the mailbox, a local snake expert, and a kingsnake in a box—right in my own neighborhood after a small child was bitten on the foot while chasing fireflies.

This cannot be normal, can it?

To find out, I reached out to David A. Steen, a wildlife ecologist and research fellow at the Alabama Natural Heritage Program at Auburn University. (And a blogger and occasional writer for Slate.)

“Wow—I don't even know where to start with what's wrong with that,” he said of the snake release efforts.

Steen does not recommend that anyone relocate harmless snakes in the hopes that this will somehow reduce their risk of venomous snake encounters. “There's virtually no evidence that this will work," he said. "The relocated snakes have a relatively small chance of surviving for long; the relocated snakes may actually harm the local population of harmless snakes; and the practice may be illegal in your state.” (I checked and he’s right: It is illegal in Georgia to move snakes without a nuisance wildlife permit.)

“Wild animals are important components of natural ecosystems, and in these natural ecosystems they may be predators or they may be prey, among many other roles. However, we should not take wild animals out of these natural ecosystems and expect that we can use them as tools for fixing problems in our backyards.”

Yet people in Georgia are scared enough to try it anyway.

Carin Jordan, the mother of the little girl who was struck in my neighborhood, felt she had to do something. In addition to removing all the ivy from her yard (ivy’s dense horizontal layers make it the perfect habitat for mice, chipmunks, lizards, and of course—snakes), she invited snake expert and wildlife director of the Chattahoochee Nature Center, Kathryn Dudeck, to her home to release a rescued 4-year-old, 30-inch-long kingsnake, a species that eats copperheads, into her yard. Then Jordan turned the release into a party, hoping to educate neighbors in the process.

“I never thought I’d be happy to knowingly have a snake in my yard!” she told me, adding the kingsnake, dubbed “Queen Slinky” by her daughter, was welcome to stay for a good long time, hopefully as an unseen, outdoor pet.

Queen Slinky

Courtesy of Holly Allen

Dudeck agrees with Steen that it is typically not a good idea to relocate snakes, but she said this case was an exception. “The Eastern Kingsnake I released came from near the area and was caught in landscape netting in a yard,” said Dudeck. “She was brought in for treatment at Chattahoochee Nature Center’s Wildlife Department. After removing the plastic netting and ensuring there were no lacerations or damage from the constriction, we released her.” She believes Queen Slinky will likely stay close by for the next few years, as long as there is abundant food, water, and shelter.

Steen disagrees. “Snakes have home ranges, which is the area that they use for their regular activities, like hunting, escaping predators, and taking refuge during winter, summer, or at night. Animals are not just randomly moving across the landscape, they are generally familiar with their home ranges. If you take an animal out of its home range it will not know where to hide, or find prey, etc.”

Moreover, he said, there actually are a number of studies that have researched what happens when you translocate snakes. Being unfamiliar with the area causes them to move around more, which makes them more vulnerable to being hit by a car, being seen by a predator, or simply perishing due to environmental conditions. Relocated snakes, he says, have low survival rates compared to snakes that aren’t moved.

If bringing in more snakes is not the answer to the copperhead problem, what is?

On this, both experts agree. Leave the copperheads alone.

“Copperheads are one of the most commonly encountered venomous snakes in Georgia and these encounters sometimes lead to bites, which generally aren't considered life-threatening,” Steen told me. “However, it is important to keep in mind that a majority of snake bites occur when attempts are made to kill, capture, or harass these animals. Refraining from doing so will greatly reduce your chance of a snakebite.”

“If you ask anyone who is bitten by a snake whether it was on their hand or their foot,” Dudeck says, “they look at you oddly”—how could you possibly know? “This is because snakes will pretty much only bite when stepped on or when someone is trying to pick them up or kill them with a shovel, etc. Pit vipers such as copperheads are very rudimentary—there are cases of decapitated heads of copperheads and rattlesnakes actually biting and injecting venom when the person who just killed it reached down to pick it up.”


“The number one thing you can do to reduce conflict with venomous snakes is to learn about the wildlife that live alongside you and treat them with respect,” says Steen. “That means watching your step and your hands while recognizing and not harassing potentially dangerous snakes.”

Although there are plenty of products marketed as snake repellents, neither Steen nor Dudeck has ever heard of any evidence that they work. “The best way to reduce your chance of a run-in with a venomous snake in your yard is to make your yard bad snake habitat,” said Steen. “That means keeping your lawn mowed and removing hiding spots like brush or wood piles.”

And ivy.

Time to get on that—or even better, hire someone else to do it. In the meantime, no more running with bare feet through sprinklers in the grass for my boys. They’ll have to settle on cowboy boots with their swim trunks. It’s OK. It’s Georgia.

A king cobra.

Courtesy of Alex

June 25 2014 5:01 PM

The Real Paleo Diet

Everybody poops. As modern humans, our inclination is to flush it away, but luckily for archeologists, there was no plumbing in the Paleolithic era. As reported in a new PLOS ONE paper, researchers analyzed 50,000-year-old feces for clues about what Neanderthals ate.

Remnants of the ancient poop were embedded in soil collected at El Salt, a Neanderthal gathering place in Alicante, Spain. The study’s lead author, Ainara Sistiaga, collected samples from the area and brought them back to her lab for inspection. “Only after analysis can we know if it was feces or not,” says Sistiaga. Specifically, she checked for coprostanol, a biomarker that is produced when cholesterol is digested. Because humans are able to break down more cholesterol than other animals, Sistiaga knew that if she found high levels of coprostanol, she would know the sample contained early human feces. She also looked for 5B-stigmastanol, the result of digesting plants. Sistiaga found both. The proportions of coprostanol to 5B-stigmastanol suggested that Neanderthals ate mostly meat, but they ate their vegetables as well.

This is the latest evidence suggesting that Neanderthals were omnivorous. This is a recent shift:  Archaeologists formerly characterized Neanderthals as carnivorous. Previous studies of Neanderthal diets have been based on less direct evidence than fecal matter. One method researchers tried was looking for carbon and nitrogen isotopes in Neanderthal bone fragments, but this type of analysis indicates the proteins in meat Neanderthals ate, not the plants in their diets. Other researchers analyzed microfossils found in Neanderthal teeth and saw traces of plant matter. This wasn’t conclusive evidence for Neanderthals’ omnivorous habits, either; the plants could have gotten stuck in Neanderthal teeth from indirect sources, like eating animals that ate plants.

Neanderthals, or Homo neanderthalensis, shared a common ancestor with us Homo sapiens. Some of us even have Neanderthal ancestors; recent research suggests that the two species mated. Though this work cannot give us any direct information about early Homo sapiens, it may help us understand changes both species experienced in their evolutionary histories. One major development was the discovery of fire around 2 million years ago, which researchers think led to more meat eating. Homo bodies must have had to adapt to the effects of eating fatty, cholesterol-rich foods. “They probably weren’t prepared for such a high meat intake,” says Sistiaga. Now Sistiaga and her colleagues are moving on to feces from gorillas and chimps, our fellow great apes, for clues about how our bodies metabolized omnivorous diets.

Studying poop may not sound glamorous, but it’s a unique window into ancient human history. “Sometimes we focus on artifacts,” says Sistiaga of her fellow archeologists. “But there’s lots of important information related to organic activities in the soil.” One can only imagine the horror of archeologists thousands of years from now when they discover what we’re eating now.

June 24 2014 7:01 PM

Disco Clams’ Awesome Light Show

Party people, here’s your new patronus: the disco clam. A favorite of scuba divers, Ctenoides ales is known as the disco clam for its flashing light display that looks straight out of a dubstep show.

The marine world is rich with bioluminescent creatures that create their own light through chemical reactions. At first glance, it seems the disco clam is one of these. After all, disco clams hang out in dark parts of the ocean, have been found as deep as 50 meters (164 feet) below the ocean’s surface, and like deep crevasses. To find the clams, University of California-Berkeley researcher Lindsey Dougherty says she would “take a reef wall, look for place with holes, and dive in there, then look for smaller holes.”

However, in a new paper in Journal of the Royal Society Interface, Dougherty and her colleagues report that disco clams aren’t bioluminescent after all. Rather, the clam’s tissues ripple and reflect light, causing a flashing illusion. But how are they reflecting light in places where there’s so little of it?

Dougherty found that the secret lies in disco clams’ tissues, which are red with a strip of white along the edge. Researchers were surprised to find that the white strip is made up of tiny silica spheres. Silica occurs very rarely in living things, and mostly in plants. It also turns out to be a great medium for the disco light job. It “works as a great [light] refractor because it’s highly reflective,” says Dougherty. “These are the only animals we’ve ever found that have nanospheres as a form of light scattering.

What’s more, Dougherty’s optical modeling found that the size of those silica nanospheres was nearly optimal for scattering light underwater. Ambient light has different wavelengths, and these frequencies are absorbed by water at different depths. Just 10 meters below the ocean’s surface, the environment loses longer-wavelength colors like red. Colors with short wavelengths, such as blue and green, prevail. The disco clam’s silica is most effective at reflecting light in blue-green environments.

Beyond looking cool, the disco clam’s display may serve a purpose. Dougherty and her colleagues are considering three possibilities. One is that the light wards off predators. Brightly marked marine species are often toxic, and while the disco clam isn’t, its flashiness mimics the brightness that predators typically avoid. Another hypothesis is that the clam’s light lures prey—the spider plankton and doe plankton clams eat may be attracted to light.

The light may also lure fellow clams for mating. Clams reproduce by releasing their eggs and sperm in the water at the same time, which mix and develop into larvae and baby clams, so the process works best if you have members of the opposite sex around you. Around 60 percent of the clams Dougherty found in Indonesia and Australia were in mixed-sex groups. You can tell the gender and age of clams from their size: Clams are born male and then mature into females, so small clams are young and male, while larger ones are older and female. The mixture of sizes suggests that the clams didn’t settle at the same time, and that the small male clams may have sought out places where they saw bigger female clams. “The chances they would end up there randomly is fairly low,” Dougherty says. She and her colleagues have counted at least 40 eyes on these clams (yes, clams have eyes, on the edges of their tissue). The researchers are running tests to see if clams can see other clams to make decisions about where to settle

With their ability to make the most of low light, disco clams may even inspire new technologies. Dougherty speculates that we may be able to mimic clams’ light-reflecting capabilities to create more efficient lighting in dim environments. At the very least, they’d make great set pieces on Skrillex’s next tour.