Wild Things
Slate’s animal blog.

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.

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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!

June 2 2015 3:26 PM

Going It Alone

Andrew Fields wasn’t looking for a miracle. The Ph.D. candidate at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Science was just doing some routine genetic sampling of his study organism, the critically endangered smalltooth sawfish. But then Fields found something amazing: several fish with nearly identical chromosomes. He knew this was big, but just to be certain, he ran the discovery by his advisor, Demian Chapman. “Holy shit,” Chapman said.

The pair had stumbled upon some of the only animals known to have switched in the wild from sexual reproduction to asexual. These sawfish, a type of shark, were begotten by parthenogenesis, a process by which eggs develop in the absence of sperm. The researchers’ findings, published this week in the journal Current Biology, follow research in 2012 on pit vipers that had gotten pregnant in the same paradoxical fashion and given birth in the lab. But until now, no one had come across the offspring of mateless mothers doing fine on their own.

“It was a pretty big shock to me,” says Fields. “I never expected to find virgin births.”

Now just imagine how the sawfish felt!

In the animal kingdom, virgin births are far less exceptional than you might think. They’re downright common in invertebrates, from starfish to water fleas to honeybees. Vertebrates are in on the game, too: Turkeys, Komodo dragons, bonnethead sharks, and even the massive green anaconda have been found to occasionally spawn sans fathers. New Mexico whiptail lizards reproduce this way regularly, and bdelloid rotifers—tiny, leechlike water dwellers—have lived in celibate, all-female communities for hundreds of millions of years. (And they’re perfectly happy, thank you very much.)

Why go solo? Traditionally, researchers have viewed parthenogenesis as a move of desperation: It may happen under the extreme stress of captivity or in animals that are critically endangered and have no nearby mates. The latter was presumably the case with these sawfish. When there’s no sperm to fertilize an egg, the egg instead consumes a polar body—a cell split off during meiosis—creating a half-clone. And voilà: your own mini-you!

In the short run, reproducing this way can help stretch a species one more generation in the hopes that the offspring can come across some mates. But in the long run, it can be a dead end. After all, sex is “probably pretty important,” as Fields puts it. That is, sexual reproduction evolved as a way to recombine DNA so that offspring have enough variation to give them a shot at survival if conditions change. Foregoing sexual reproduction drastically lowers the genetic diversity of offspring, leaving a species more vulnerable to being completely wiped out.

Virgin births could be a dire omen for species like the imperiled sawfish—creatures so threatened that they are on their way to becoming the first entire marine animal family to be driven extinct by overfishing and coastal habitat loss. “This is a big warning sign,” says Fields. “It’s saying, ‘hey, we need to pay attention to these guys’—or they’re not going to survive that much longer.”

But beyond sawfish, virgin births might not always bode so badly. Parthenogenesis has some distinct advantages. Since parthenogens with a build-up of mutations will quickly die off, this method of reproduction could purge bad genes from a species, says Warren Booth, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Tulsa who wrote the 2012 paper on pit vipers and reviewed the recent study. Booth has found this to be the case in inbreeding bed bugs, which he also studies. Moreover, if a female is particularly well-suited to her environment, having offspring that are as closely related to her as possible may not such be a bad idea.

Ready for the best part? “It’s less biologically costly,” says Booth. “With sexual reproduction, you have to find a mate, you have to be compatible with that mate, you have to be able to reproduce. With parthenogenesis, you don’t have any of those initial costs.” Sign me up! (Sadly, in case you’re wondering, humans have preventative genetic mechanisms in place that make it “beyond possible” for them to give virgin births, says Booth.)

We’ve long considered sexual reproduction to be the best form of reproduction. But maybe—just maybe—we’re wrong. After all, asexual reproduction, which includes cloning and budding, is a far older form of reproduction than sex. And the fact that parthenogenesis also happens in populations with a 50/50 sex ratio, where sex is clearly still an option, suggests that it isn’t always just a measure of necessity. Perhaps, from our sexcentric vantage point, we’ve overlooked a perfectly good form of reproduction.

But don’t take it from me. Here are the benefits of going it alone in the sawfish’s own words, to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”*

At first I was afraid
I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never breed
Without you by my side
But then I spent so many nights
Counting up your genetic cost
And I grew certain
That losing you, it was no loss

And then one day
From deep inside
I felt a kicking in my belly
And knew something was alive
See, I’d thought for baby-making
That your male sperm was key
But then my egg consumed my cell
And now I’ve got a little me

Go on, now go! Walk out the door
’Cause I just found out
I don’t need males anymore
Weren’t you the one who said I’d never make a tribe
Did you think I’d crumble?
Did you think I’d lay down and die?
Oh no, not I

I self-fertilized!
Oh as long as I know how to clone
I know I’ll stay alive
Now I’ve got all my brood to wean
(Hope they still pass on my genes)
And they’ll survive
They will survive, hey, hey!

*Not an actual sawfish quote

May 29 2015 10:50 AM

The Best Biologist on Twitter

Social media has been billed as a way to start conversations with anyone, but most people only speak with people just like themselves. It’s great for connecting those who like or think the same things, but not so good for exposing people to new perspectives. Especially new perspectives about things people misunderstand, fear, or hate.

David A. Steen, a wildlife ecologist, research fellow at the Alabama Natural Heritage Program at Auburn University, and occasional Slate contributor, is biology’s best social media ambassador. Steen’s Twitter presence—his handle is @AlongsideWild—is geared almost entirely toward breaking out of the social media echo chamber and politely confronting those in need of some outside information. Snake information.

Steen says he has always been interested in communicating with people curious about something they saw or heard in the wild even if they’re not necessarily interested in wildlife ecology and conservation. For years, Steen’s herpetological outreach was based on his blog, but the problem is that people have to actively surf or Google their way to it. (He also runs a great Facebook account, Living Alongside Wildlife.) With Twitter, he didn’t have to wait to be found.

Judging from social media, a person does one of two things upon sighting a snake. No. 1: Take a quick photo before fleeing in terror and posting the picture on social media, or No. 2: Murder the snake with a shovel or foot, take a picture, and then post it on social media.

By rule, in the case of a nonmurdered snake, the social media poster will ask the anonymous online masses what kind of snake it is. And by rule, some commenter will respond that it’s either a deadly cottonmouth or a copperhead. In the case of a murdered snake, the brave vanquisher will volunteer the cottonmouth or copperhead identification himself.

Of course, these snakes are almost never actually cottonmouths or copperheads, and David Steen is there to correct the record. There are more than 150 species of snakes in the United States, and the vast majority of them are completely harmless to humans. But just as every single shark is a great white, our nature-deprived populace views every slithering reptile as dead.

Steen takes upon his back the Atlas-ian burden of our nation’s snake misidentification crisis, tirelessly responding to strangers posting snake pictures on Twitter. He tells me he has set up alerts that ping keywords when people post about snakes, then he spends about an hour per night looking at the photos and scheduling responding tweets to be released throughout the day. The toughest part is getting the keywords right: He says many of the people tweeting about “copperheads” are actually tweeting lyrics to “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle.

Steen has corrected thousands of snake questions or misidentifications on Twitter. His signature #NotACopperhead and #NotACottonmouth hashtags each bring up hundreds of responses to individual social media posts. And with such politeness! There’s no #snakeshaming here, rather a “beautiful!” compliment for a photo of a live snake, and a subtle “try asking me first next time” attending every photo from someone who killed the snake first. With every identification corrected and tweet retweeted, another citizen is exposed to the world of reptile science and disabused of reptile myths. He’s a modern-day St. Patrick, banishing snake misidentification from the land!

The posters are, for the most part, delighted and relieved to have a snake expert appear and answer their questions. Being followed on Twitter by those he corrects is a win for wildlife, because now these folks are exposed to information—correct information—about snakes.

This being social media, of course, some people are not so delighted. Some people are embarrassed that they killed something harmless instead of something dangerous, others are just certain that their ID is the correct one. Whatever the reason, he’s been called every bad name on Urban Dictionary. Thank goodness Twitter has a block function.

It’s tireless work on the front lines of the fight between nature and civilization. I don’t know of a more effective use of social media’s reach. Godspeed, David Steen; every squished garter snake is just another chance to spread the good word.

May 29 2015 10:22 AM

Chimps Hate Drones, Too

Not long ago, drones were having a moment—a good one. Now it’s hard to see them as anything other than what they are: at best the harmless-but-annoying whirring toys of amateur cinematographers, and at worst, well, ruthlessly efficient unmanned killing machines.

Now it seems as if that frustration with UAVs has evolved into something that spans species. Take the video above, for instance. In it, a quadcopter is flying over the Royal Burgers’ Zoo in the Netherlands, its camera recording the zoo-related sights and sounds from above. We see an elephant, tiger, and bear in all their captive glory before moving into the chimpanzee enclosure. It’s here that the cross-species drone rage comes to a head.

Either upset by how close it flew to its personal space, bored, or in protest of the human race’s growing obsession with unmanned aerial vehicles, a tool-using chimp immediately reaches out and bats the copter clear out of the sky with a stick. It's not only an incredibly satisfying moment in primate-human relations, it also proves, once and for all, the depths of our shared DNA.

May 22 2015 11:36 AM

A Lesson in Memorial Day Weekend Enjoyment From Luna and Mari

Sea otters live life as if on a never-ending vacation. The majority of their days are spent floating along in their trademark (and thoroughly relaxed-looking) reclined position, and the aquatic mammals eat, sleep, and mate in the water. They rarely come ashore, save for the occasional dry land snooze.

Sea otters also have a refined palate when it comes to diet. As they're often seen smashing open clams and mussels on their stomachs with rocks, their affinity for shellfish is well-established, but the rotating otter carte du jour also includes octopus, sea urchin, and fish.

Most importantly though (insofar as their relaxation tendencies), they’re not afraid to say yes to a good time. Take the video above. In it, the Shedd Aquarium’s semi-famous otter pup, Luna, meets fellow sea otter Mara for the first time. Watch as they feel each other out briefly before ducking and diving throughout the nursery pool like a couple of vacationers on a morning swim. And pay particularly close attention to when they flip over to their backs, leisurely drifting along as the Shedd trainers throw them treats to snack on.

If that’s not a fitting playbook to follow this summer, then I don’t know what is. Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend, everyone. Channel your inner sea otter.

May 20 2015 10:31 AM

The Chicken Dance

One morning last March, I stood alone on a roadside in Utah and watched some chickens dance. I had come a long way to find them, and the birds did not disappoint. They spun and strutted and chased each other around in a field. They snapped loud ping-pong noises from inflated sacks on their necks and I laughed, partly because it was a funny sound, and partly because there on the roadside it was almost impossible to believe that these chickens were at the center of the largest and most contentious conservation effort of the century.

The chickens were not domestic chickens, of course, but a related native species called the greater sage-grouse.

The plump grouse stay out of sight for the majority of the year, keeping low in the sage to avoid being seen by birds of prey or coyotes, but their spring mating dances give the males a chance to show off their finery. They puff up the white feathers around their neck, spread their pointy tail feathers, and grow out stringy feathers from the back of their heads that float like a comb-over in the wind. Males gather on flattened patches of ground called leks, where they repeatedly make their wobbly air sac calls, hoping to woo nearby females.

More than 16 million greater sage-grouse used to live in the sagebrush steppe that stretched from Washington and North Dakota down to New Mexico and Arizona. But just a few hundred years after the arrival of European settlers—who brought with them livestock and agriculture and invasive plants and, more recently, oil wells—sage-grouse populations have fallen dramatically to somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 birds.

The sage-grouse is a sort of ambassador for a host of creatures that rely on the sagebrush ecosystem, many of them only found in the United States. An episode of PBS’s Nature airing May 20 called “The Sagebrush Sea”—which is great, you should watch it—highlights the surprising diversity in a landscape some call The Big Empty. It’s a landscape that, frankly, a lot of people are either completely unaware of or only know as “the stuff that guys on horseback chase each other through in Westerns.”

“The Sagebrush Sea” reveals that The Big Empty is actually bursting with charismatic life, each species evolved in its own way to live in this hardscrabble country. The hip-high sage plants have managed to thrive in the high desert by stretching their roots to the water table more than 12 feet below. Prairie dogs and jackrabbits skitter through the brush to avoid the drifting shadows of golden eagles and prairie falcons. Tiny owls pop out of underground burrows. Pronghorn migrate between seasonal ranges; they’re the second-fastest animal on Earth, evolved to outrun American cheetahs (!) that lived in this habitat until 12,000 years ago.

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Two males chicken-dance on a lek in Utah.

Courtesy of Nicholas Lund

But it’s the sage-grouse that are at the center of the current controversy. As it became clear that their numbers were tumbling, conservationists petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the birds under the Endangered Species Act. In 2010, Fish and Wildlife punted: It found that ESA listing was warranted, but it gave the birds a low priority, meaning they would wait years for protection. Lawsuits were filed, and Fish and Wildlife said it would come up with a better decision by September 2015.

Western states with lots of sagebrush, especially those enjoying the benefits of a massive increase in oil and gas production, believe that an ESA listing for the greater sage-grouse would be a headache, making it harder to expand in sagebrush habitat. In December 2014, Republicans in Congress tried to protect the oil industry from the birds by pushing through a ban on using federal funds to issue an ESA listing. Meanwhile, in order to head off a decision from Fish and Wildlife, states are working with the Bureau of Land Management, which controls 60 percent of current greater sage-grouse range, to develop plans of their own to conserve the bird’s habitat without the restrictions of the ESA. The first of those plans are already coming out, including a grouse-centric federal wildfire strategy released Tuesday by the Department of the Interior, though it’s uncertain how they’ll coexist with Fish and Wildlife’s court-ordered ESA mandate.

So while the male greater sage-grouse continue to visit their leks, American politicians keep up the dance on their own ancestral strutting grounds in Washington, D.C. The decisions made there in the next few months will shape the future of the greater sage-grouse and the American sage brush ecosystem. Watch “The Sagebrush Sea” this week, and maybe you’ll be inspired to take a seat next to me for these dancing chicken’s next recital.

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