Wild Things
Slate’s animal blog.

June 26 2015 1:26 PM

Go, Baby Panda, Go!

Summer Fridays can be tough. Sometimes it takes a little pick-me-up to get you through the painfully slow crawl of minutes between clocking in and happy hour. Some weeks, that comes in the form of a historic Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. Others, a video of a baby panda climbing up a tree does the trick.

Today, because it happens to be a very, very good day, you get both. Right on the heels of the Supreme Court delivering their shot of adrenaline to the heart of humanity, I'm here to present you with—you guessed it!—a video of a panda cub climbing a tree (captured via Sony Action Cam).

On the off chance that the former wasn’t enough to get you over your so-close-to-the-weekend blues, I suggest you put the latter on repeat. Watch as the cute little guy scales up the impressively tall tree, and rejoice when he makes it near the top without falling.

And then, to bring you over the emotional finish line, read (or reread) the heartstring-pulling final paragraph of Justice Kennedy’s historic ruling. That should do the trick.

Happy Friday, you guys.

Video Advertisement

June 24 2015 5:00 PM

Poisonous Birds Prove That Nature Wants You Dead

Here’s a forensic riddle: Ten people eat an autumn dinner of roasted quail in Turkey. Hours later, four diners start to vomit. They grow weak. Their muscles ache. At the emergency department, they’re diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis—a life-threatening syndrome that afflicted people who survived being crushed under rubble during the London bombing raids in World War II.

Except this is 2007 in Turkey. And instead of Luftwaffe raids, these four men are the victims of a poisonous bird.

June 23 2015 1:48 PM

What It’s Like to Nearly Die From the Venom of a Blue-Ringed Octopus

From the blue-ringed octopus’s perspective, your breathless screaming and vomiting aren’t her fault. This little lady—barely the length of a pencil, from tentacle tip to tentacle tip—was just lurking in a nice rock crevice on an Australian beach. With her mellow nature and yellowish-brown skin that matched the rocks, she was patiently waiting for a delicious crab to scuttle by. Even when you leaned over her, she tried to warn you by flashing those bright blue rings dappling her body.

June 22 2015 3:50 PM

You Won’t Think the Platypus Is So Cute if You Feel the Excruciating Pain of Its Venom

Don’t pet the platypus. I know it’s tempting: Given the chance, I’d want to stroke their thick brown fur, tickle those big webbed feet, and pat that funny duck bill. And why not? What harm could come from this cute, egg-laying mammal from eastern Australia?

 

Plenty. As someone who doesn’t enjoy “long lasting excruciating pain that cannot be relieved with conventional painkillers,” I’d really regret petting a platypus. Especially a male platypus, in late winter, when there’s only one thing on his mind and, even worse, something nasty on his feet.

June 19 2015 12:55 PM

African Wild Dog Pups Go for a Swim 

For those of you looking for an update on the Cincinnati Zoo's painfully adorable African wild dog pups (which I assume to be everybody with a soul): You're in luck. In addition to remaining cute and awesome (despite somewhat sizeable growth spurts all around), they're also swimming now. In groups. Adorably.

Seemingly playing a synchronized dog version of sharks and minnows, a large swath of the herd can be seen in the video above doggy-paddling their way across the pool of their enclosure. "That is too much!" says a woman off screen, (probably) in response to seeing the multiple sets of massive ears bobbing along the water. And she's right, it almost is too much.

As a reminder, African wild dogs, or painted dogs (or Cape hunting dogs), are endangered canines native to the plains of sub-Saharan Africa. Highly intelligent and monogomous creatures, they operate as a family unit, caring for one another immensely and using advanced communication skills to hunt as a pack.

We can now also add leisurely swims to the list of things that they do well as a group.

June 16 2015 3:44 PM

How Impossible, Actually, Is the Dinosaur DNA Splicing in Jurassic World?

By the time Jurassic World begins, dino-making is yesterday’s news. Brontosaurs? Boring. Triceratops? Over it. The “science” that made all the wonder in the first film possible—extracting DNA from ancient mosquitoes, filling in the gaps with frog genes, and whisking it all together to grow a real live dinosaur—it’s all been done. “Let’s be honest,” says Claire Dearing, the park operations manager in Jurassic World. “No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore.” 

So now what? To restore a sense of wonder to the jaded masses, we’re going to need something bigger, better, and altogether grander: a dinosaur that can transcend the pesky laws of nature. Armed with test tubes and hubris, scientists set out to design their own, tricking out the T-Rex genome with strands of cuttlefish and tree frog DNA to create a custom-made methuselah: the Indominus rex. After all, why mimic Mother Nature when you can outdo her? 

Clearly, there’s a lot here to set off your scientific BS radar. But just how implausible is it to think that we could engineer a mega-creature out of a patchwork of different animals’ DNA?

First off, the idea of designing a dino is hardly as far-fetched as it once was. In the two decades that have elapsed since Jurassic Park came out in 1993, we’ve made massive breakthroughs in dino genetics and developmental biology. Some scientists—namely Jack Horner, the paleontologist who inspired Jurassic Park’s Alan Grant and dino advisor on Jurassic World—are even talking about reverse-evolving a chicken back into a dinosaur. Theoretically, we could “turn back the evolutionary clock” by breeding a chicken backward to unlock ancient genes that control dinosaur characteristics like teeth, scales, and talons. And ta-da: a chickenosaurus!

But in this scenario, scientists are merely working with what they’ve got: a chicken genome with some evolutionary holdovers. Blending entirely different species will require a little more imagination. Just ask the scientists trying to bring back the woolly mammoth by splicing mammoth genes into the modern elephant genome or others trying to resurrect the extinct passenger pigeon by grafting its DNA onto a living pigeon’s. The good news: “It’s not impossible,” says Robert DeSalle, a geneticist at the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics and co-author of The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World or, How to Build a Dinosaur. “The technology already exists.” 

In fact, the technology for combining unlike genomes isn’t just a dream. We’ve been making mutant hybrids for years: They’re called GMOs. Scientists have created strawberries augmented with antifreeze genes from Arctic flounder fish and oranges injected with disease-fighting genes cultivated from pigs.* Outside of crops, scientists have been tinting zebra fish and leopard gecko embryos with green fluorescent proteins from jellyfish and corals so they can watch them develop for decades now. So where are the rhinosauruses? Or the Clairodactyl, that rare hybrid that can fly long distances in heels? 

Well, there’s just one problem: Dinos are not like strawberries. In the case of GMO crops, we’re talking about isolating one gene that codes for one specific trait. In the case of Jurassic World, we’re talking about traits that involve hundreds of genes. Take camouflage, the trait that (spoiler alert!) so surprises the Indominus rex’s trainers. Blending in with your surroundings requires tweaks to neural genes, skin genes, hormonal genes, and temperature sensitivity genes. “It’s likely a whole suite of genes,” says Beth Shapiro, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.

In other words, it’s not a simple matter of genetic cutting and pasting. “When genomes evolve, they don’t do so in isolation,” says Shapiro. “They do so in the background of the entire genome.” Many of the genes you’re messing with are pleiotropic—that is, they code for several different characteristics. And it’s not like all of them are located in one place; they’re distributed all over the genome. You start to appreciate the difficulty. Shapiro compares the challenge to trying to swap out an elephant’s forelegs for wings. “I can’t cut out a wing gene, insert into an elephant, and assume I’m going to get an elephant with wings,” she told me, not without a touch of exasperation. “There is no wing gene.” 

There’s a bigger reason this wouldn’t work. Though we’ve sequenced hundreds of animal genomes, we still don’t know exactly how each one functions as a whole. You might say we have the vocabulary to describe the language of biology, but we haven’t yet mastered the grammar. As DeSalle puts it: “We’ve had the chicken genome sequences for a decade now—and we still don’t know chickenshit about it.”

So Jurassic World is right: In reality, injecting a complex trait into a foreign genome would be like trying to transplant a nonnative species into a delicate island ecosystem. (Which, it turns out, is exactly the plot of Jurassic Park.) No matter how careful you are, you can never predict the complex chain of interactions that will occur. The only thing you can predict is that you’re probably going to break the entire system—and make a pretty dramatic movie while you’re at it.

“You’re talking about mixing and matching across evolutionary barriers that have been separate for hundreds of millions of years,” says David Blockstein, a senior scientist at the National Council for Science and the Environment and the head of the Passenger Pigeon Project. “It’s hard to imagine that would work.”

But Jurassic Park was never about deconstructing the science of de-extinction. It was about entertaining the impossible. To watch Jurassic World is to experience the same chills of possibility you feel when Frankenstein’s monster comes to life, or when H.G. Wells’ time traveler turns on his machine for the first time. For a moment, man is larger than himself, surveying the whole of creation, his spirit as indomitable as … well, as the Indominus rex. 

Then, of course, he gets eaten.

Read more in Slate about the Jurassic Park movies.

*Correction, June 19, 2015: This article originally misstated that most of us eat GMO strawberries and oranges. These GMOs are not yet on the market.

June 16 2015 12:04 PM

Biology Finally Explains Why Honey Badger Don’t Care

It’s official: Honey badger don’t care. This “crazy nasty-ass” critter—the subject of a National Geographic documentary transformed into a viral meme through satirical overdubbing—“really don’t give a shit.” Not about snarky documentaries, not about stinging bees, and especially not about venomous snakes.

Venomous snakes kill up to 94,000 people every year, on top of the millions of other animals that make up their diet. And death by venomous snakebite isn’t pretty: The toxins in venom can paralyze muscles, break down tissue, and even make victims bleed uncontrollably.

So why don’t honey badgers care about venoms that can kill almost any other animal?

Danielle Drabeck, a University of Minnesota grad student, wanted to study this question on a molecular level, but she ran into a problem: Honey badgers aren't found in Minnesota or even the Western Hemisphere, but only in Africa, the Middle East, and India.

“The hardest part, honest to God, was finding honey badger tissue” to study, says Drabeck—which likely explains why no other biologists ever investigated how honey badgers resist cobra venom. Working with biologist Sharon Jansa and biochemist Antony Dean, Drabeck obtained some precious honey badger blood from the zoos of San Diego and Fort Wayne, Indiana.

With this blood, the scientists figured out, for the first time, how the honey badger defends itself on the molecular level against its venomous prey. The blood also revealed clues of an evolutionary arms race. And it might help us design better antivenoms for humans bitten by venomous snakes.

But why would a honey badger need venom resistance in the first place? Why doesn’t it avoid venomous snakes, like more sensible mammals?

“Snakes,” says Drabeck, “are an excellent source of meat.” Up to 25 percent of the honey badger’s omnivorous diet consists of venomous snakes. But the honey badger doesn’t eat snakes out of desperation. Evolving to withstand snake venom is like being the only person at a party who can eat the extra-hot salsa: You get it all to yourself. Plus, Drabeck says, this means the honey badger gets to hunt fairly slow-moving prey with only one pointy end, rather than fast prey with one pointy end plus four sets of claws.

But it’s one hell of a pointy end. Venom has more than 100 proteins and other molecules that could potentially poison a snake’s victim—meaning that honey badgers need multiple defenses. To narrow the field, Drabeck guessed that the honey badger had probably evolved a defense similar to that used by other venom-resistant critters like mongooses. She focused on a defense against a nasty class of molecules in cobra venom called alpha-neurotoxins that paralyze the muscles used for breathing. These neurotoxins essentially park in a muscle cell’s nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, preventing the cell from receiving the nervous system’s signals to keep working.

Drabeck figured that the receptor targeted by cobra neurotoxin had probably changed to prevent the neurotoxin from parking there. Once she had the blood from the zoos’ honey badgers, Drabeck extracted DNA and sequenced part of the gene that contains the blueprint for making the receptor. Drabeck discovered several mutations in that gene that tweak the receptor. Cobra neurotoxin fits as well in the tweaked receptor as an SUV in a compact’s parking spot—and therefore it can’t paralyze the honey badger’s breathing.

Drabeck wasn’t surprised by these mutations, but she was surprised when she compared the honey badger’s tweaks to those found in other mammals. These tweaks had evolved independently in at least four species: honey badgers, mongooses, hedgehogs, and pigs. The hedgehog—which loves to eat venomous snakes—wasn’t a surprise. But the pig? “We were pretty excited by that,” says Drabeck. She hadn’t expected pigs to have molecular defenses against venom; biologists knew wild pigs could survive snakebites but assumed that was because their thick skin and fat acts like armor against fangs. But wild pigs, like honey badgers, have long shared the same parts of the world as venomous snakes—giving them an incentive to evolve venom resistance. And that in turn has given the snakes an incentive to evolve more toxic venom.

Venomous snakes and resistant honey badgers, it turns out, are locked in what Jansa describes as a “tit-for-tat arms race.” This co-evolution is an unending cycle of one-upmanship between predators and prey. When venomous snakes are attacked by venom-resistant honey badgers, the snakes need to evolve more toxic venom to protect themselves.

But what does this research mean for the 1.8 million unfortunate people bitten by venomous snakes every year? Drabeck suggests that figuring out these molecular tweaks in the honey badger’s resistant receptor could suggest new ways to create better antivenoms. “That’s one of the important questions” about this research into honey badgers, says biologist James Biardi, an expert on venom resistance at Fairfield University in Connecticut. “What does this mean for people?”

Right now, many antivenom infusions are made of antibodies—molecules produced by the immune systems of horses and sheep exposed to venom, which can neutralize the venom in bitten people. But whenever someone gets treated with these antivenoms, they run the risk of having an allergic reaction as dangerous as the venom itself. By understanding more about the targets of venom—targets like the honey badger’s neurotoxin receptor—scientists can hopefully design safer treatments. Because unlike the mongoose, hedgehog, pig, and honey badger, we humans with our puny neurotoxin receptors do care—especially about venomous snakes.

June 12 2015 11:41 AM

A 20-Foot Great White, Up Close and Personal

We interrupt your regularly scheduled heartwarming animal video for something much more summer-appropriate: shark cage footage of a massive, 20-foot-long great white.

Taken in 2014 off of Guadalupe Island in Mexico, the video features researcher Mauricio Hoyos Padilla in an underwater cage as Deep Blue—the 20-footer in question—approaches. Apparently feeling the irresistible need to leave the confines of the cage, Padilla is out in the open water as the shark comes around to further explore the contraption, allowing him to reach out and touch the giant.

Deep Blue was filmed and tagged as a part of a Discovery Channel Shark Week special that same summer, which is where the amazing underwater footage originated. The show’s crew not only estimated her length at 20-plus feet, they also assessed that she was pregnant at the time. According to Discovery, the shark is one of the largest ever caught on film. 

If you’re a lover of rare, majestic creatures, the footage is truly an amazing thing to see. But if you’re even the slightest bit galeophobic (shark-fearing), the sight of 15 passenger van–sized underwater predator is, well, a little bit terrifying.

No matter what your emotional stance on sharks is, though, I think we can all agree: That guy’s gonna need a bigger shark cage.

June 5 2015 1:09 PM

How Did T. Rex Have Sex?

Dear reader, you and I have had some good times here. Together we’ve learned about oral sex in bats, golden showers with porcupines, and even the real meaning of “doggy style.”

Now I have three words for you: Tyrannosaurus rex sex.

I recently had the opportunity to watch a team of paleontologists and large animal vets cut into a life-size, hyperrealistic model of the king of the Tyrannosaurs as they filmed a special event called T. Rex Autopsy for the National Geographic Channel.

At the end of the first day’s filming, the beast had been gutted. Fake blood and silicone viscera lay everywhere. And the monster’s eye, a combination of Jurassic Park and Sharptooth, stared dully at the ceiling.

But all I could think about was the dinosaur’s cloaca.

Teeth, skull, feet, tail: Fossils can tell us what these looked like on a T. rex. But the cloaca—the all-inclusive organ out of which dinosaurs would have urinated, defecated, had coitus, and laid eggs—this beautiful organ is the gateway to many mysteries.

Let’s get the biggest question out of the way first: Did T. rex have a penis?

“I think we can give a firm ‘yes’ to the penis question,” says Brian Switek, science writer and author of the excellent My Beloved Brontosaurus. “And I apologize for the pun that just happened.”

Unlike many mammals, dinosaurs did not have bones in their penises. And because soft tissue doesn’t fossilize as readily as the hard stuff, we’re left without a specimen that could settle the penis debate. But we don’t actually need one.

By using what scientists call extant phylogenetic bracketing, or looking at T. rex’s closest living relatives, we can infer that the predator had a penis tucked up inside that cloaca.

“Crocodilians all have what’s politely called an ‘intromittent organ,’ ” says Switek. “And if you look at birds, the most basal or primitive lineages—the ratites, the waterfowl—they also have penises.”

It’s very unlikely penises would have evolved separately in crocs and cassowaries. Instead, having a penis is more likely the default setting among all of them, T. rex included, and their common ancestor.

As to what that monstrous member would have looked like, well, that’s still up for debate. Penis size is extremely variable across the animal kingdom. Gorillas, though they can grow up to 400 pounds, have penises that are just 1.25 inches long. (Yes, that would be erect.) Ducks, on the other hand, have relatively large sex organs for their small body size, not to mention explosive erections—but that’s another story.

Of course, the question of T. rex penis size is of more than just prurient interest. This detail would inform what sorts of positions were anatomically possible for the animals. For instance, if it turned out T. rex had some sort of long, prehensile penis, like whales do, then it’s possible they could just sidle up to one another and inseminate from relatively afar. (This is an especially appealing scenario for the armored and spiked dinosaurs like stegosaurus, if a little unlikely.) Otherwise, the cloacae would have to be in close contact.

And for that, T. rex would have to pretty flexible.

John Hutchinson is a professor of evolutionary biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College in London and a consultant on T. Rex Autopsy. (He also has one of the most fascinating dissection blogs around, because that’s a thing.)

Much of Hutchinson’s work has focused on reconstructing the arrangement of muscles, ligaments, and bones that made up T. rex’s impressive rump—not to answer sex questions, mind you, but to understand how fast those suckers could run. Still, he had some insight.

“I’d think there’d be some twisting of tails,” says Hutchinson. “The tail was flexible, especially at its base. The female could tilt her cloaca toward the male, the male could tilt his toward her, and any sort of phallus could be everted from there.”  

Position-wise, this would jibe with the way crocodilians mate. But then crocodilian cloacae aren’t 13 feet off the ground and attached to a frame that weighed as much as an African elephant. And if you look at the primitive birds, like ostriches, the male essentially climbs on top of the female. (Side note: People set animal sex videos to the weirdest music.)

“Did they do it standing up? Did they squat? These are good questions, but all we’ve got is speculation,” says John Long, paleontologist and author of The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex. “The biomechanics of a big dinosaur like that indicate that they were quite capable of squatting.”

So you have female T. rex squatting down on her haunches, leaning forward, tail in the air and twisted to the side. Essentially, downward-facing dino. But what happens when the male saunters over and leans all that meat-eating mass onto the female’s haunches?

“We’re really on the frontier of Tyrannosaur biology here,” says Hutchinson. (Ask scientists about something as speculative as the mating habits of animals that have been dead for 67 million years and you get a lot of caveats.)

“You’re looking at seven tons or so on two legs. There’s nothing like that around today,” he says. “But I have no doubt that if an animal had the strength to walk, it could probably have sex standing up.”

Unfortunately, although T. Rex Autopsy will teach you tons about the anatomy of a T. rex, it does not provide answers to any of these prehistoric sex riddles. As consolation, please enjoy the embedded clip below where paleobiologist Tori Herridge goes armpit-deep inside a Tyrannosaur cloaca. It may be the best thing I’ve ever seen happen on television. (I only wish they could have referenced Ian Malcolm’s horrible how-you-sex-a-dinosaur joke.)

As is often the case with science, there is no final word on T. rex sex. Switek says he’s optimistic that someday, someone will happen upon a fossil that provides more insight into the “big bang theory” (which is also one of the chapter headings in his book).

In the meantime, Switek says he’s working with paleontologist Heinrich Mallison at the Natural History Museum in Berlin to build digital models of different dinosaurs. With these, the two hope to test out every position in the dinosaur Kama Sutra and determine what’s even possible.

“It’s technically feasible to figure out what dinosaur sex positions could work,” says Switek. “We use biomechanics to learn about biting, or clawing at each other, or running, but no one’s thought about using it for probably the most important element in dinosaurian life.”

Until then, I’m afraid the more intricate details of T. rex’s sex life must remain a mystery. Male-to-male competition, courting dances and displays, female selection, coital duration, pillow talk—all of it lies within the fog of prehistory.

Using the sex lives of living animals as a guide, I think there’s at least one thing we can say with certainty: T. rex sex was likely appalling. And awesome.  

T. Rex Autopsy airs this Sunday night on the National Geographic Channel.

June 5 2015 10:54 AM

You're Free!

In need of a little pick-me-up to carry you into the weekend? The video above shows Hume, a koala that had been a patient at the Australia National Zoo’s wildlife hospital for two years, being released back into the wild.

Originally diagnosed with chlamydia, a common infection in koalas, Hume developed a bad case of cystitis, which normally carries with it a two-month treatment plan. Complications upped his stay at the zoo’s hospital to two years. While the 24-month stint was undoubtedly rough on the little koala, however, some good came of his struggle: Per the Australia Zoo’s Claude Lacasse, the zoo will now be able to identify and treat similar conditions in koalas much more efficiently.  

Plus, there’s a happy ending here for Hume, folks. Watch as he gleefully scurries up the tree—a happy and healthy life of eucalyptus-gorging ahead of him. Embrace your new freedom, Hume! The future is yours!

READ MORE STORIES