Wild Things
Slate’s animal blog.

July 24 2015 3:04 PM

Black Widows’ Bizarre Mating Rituals

Pickup artists could learn a few tricks from the male black widow spider: Target single virgins. Communicate that you’re interested. Help yourself to any snacks she has lying around. And—most importantly—tear apart her home, fashion the broken pieces into a bundle, and wrap the bundle in silk secreted from your butt (sorry, your spinnerets).

 

Sounds sexy, doesn’t it? How could she possibly resist? But given that black widow females are famous for devouring their mates even after a good date, I have to ask: Why do the puny males dare destroy the webs of the large, carnivorous females?

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July 20 2015 4:25 PM

Athens’ Zoo Animals Are at Risk of Starvation

Dolphins do not usually have to worry about financial crises. But Greece’s current economic troubles may soon have a deadly impact on the dolphins, penguins, lemurs, and other animals in Attica Park, Athens’ only zoo. Many of the zoo’s 2,200 residents require imported specialty foods to survive—yet government-imposed restrictions on cash are blocking the zoo’s ability to access foreign shipments. And without immediate relief, some of the zoo’s animals may be just weeks away from starvation.

The trouble for Attica Park arises from the Greek government’s capital controls. These rules severely limit cash withdrawals from Greek banks, as well as money transfer to foreign banks. Spooked by Greece’s economic woes, the zoo’s suppliers are demanding cash in advance. But Jean-Jacques Lesueur, Attica Park’s founder, can’t access or transfer adequate funds to pay his suppliers in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. As a result, his zoo may soon be cut off from the fish, worms, additives, and other enriched foods necessary for some animals’ diets.

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When countries descend into political or economic turmoil, zoo animals often fall victim to food shortages like this one. During the 2014 Ukraine crisis, 9,500 animals at the Kiev zoo faced awful conditions and narrowly averted starvation. Dozens of lions and tigers at a Crimea zoo came close to going hungry when Ukraine cut off funds to the region following its annexation. The animals of the Baghdad Zoo were devastated during the 2003 invasion of the city, dying of starvation and thirst. (Conservationists and the United States military worked together to eventually repopulate the zoo.) Conflicts in Kuwait, Kosovo, and Afghanistan also led to the abandonment and death of thousands of zoo animals.

The fauna of Attica Park face a financial crisis, not a war. Their outlook, however, remains bleak. Even if the government relaxes its capital controls, the zoo’s attendance has plummeted as disposable income in the country runs dry. Just as ominously, Greece’s new bailout detail arrives with a massive new tax that will hit Attica Park hard. Right now, Lesueur just wants to keep his animals fed; beyond that, he has no long-term plan to keep the private zoo afloat. It seems that, in 2015, a zoo may be a luxury that Athens simply cannot afford.

July 9 2015 2:04 PM

Bumblebees Can’t Handle the Heat, Can’t Escape the Kitchen

There’s plenty to grumble about if you’re a bumblebee. When humans aren’t mooching off your free pollination services, they’re blasting you with deadly, disorienting toxins or encroaching on your ever-dwindling wildflower habitats.* Plus, you’re constantly fighting off invasions of parasitic mites that threaten to collapse your colonies. All told, you and your brethren are dying out at rapid rates.

As if that’s not enough, now bees have another thing to worry about: the rising heat. Bumblebees are facing critical declines across both Europe and North America due solely to climate change, reports a new global study published this week in Science. As temperatures rise, these humble bumblers are failing to migrate out of their homelands, which are rapidly becoming inhospitable to their survival. This is bad news for bumblebees, and it’s also terrible news for humans.

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Pollination by insects—mostly bees—is necessary for 75 percent of the crops we depend on for food. As bees have declined over the past few decades, our reliance on them has become abundantly clear. United Nations Under-Secretary-General Achim Steiner put it eloquently back in 2011: "Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less dependent on nature's services in a world of close to seven billion people."

The United States has launched a multimillion dollar task force to save the country’s pollinators. The task force spotlights the domesticated honey bee, which farmers depend on for $15 billion worth of crops. Yet recent research shows that wild, native bees are actually far more effective pollinators—and these are the bees that are most vulnerable to climate change. Wild pollinators like bumblebees "are as or more important than honey bees for crop pollination,” says Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist at University of California, Berkeley, who researches pollinators and who was not involved in the new study. “Their importance has been underestimated.”

So it’s doubly unfortunate to find out that these MVPs—most valuable pollinators—are rendered helpless in the face of climate change. Researchers looked at 67 species going back 110 years, to find that bumblebees have lost up to 300 kilometers from their southern ranges across both North America and Europe. At the same time as their southern habitats are being made unlivable, these bees are failing to move to more habitable northerly ranges. Thus their habitats are being compressed from both sides: Like Luke Skywalker & co. in the Death Star’s trash compactor, they’re being slowly squeezed into nonexistence.

It’s not as if bees are the only ones facing these threats: Birds, butterflies, and other insects all have to adapt to the same changing climate. Yet many of these pollinators are doing just fine. Not to rub it in, but many species of butterflies are virtually thriving, embracing warmer temperatures and rapidly expanding north into new horizons. So why are bumblebees dragging their furry feet?

Part of the answer lies in their evolutionary history. Butterflies evolved in the tropics, making them perfectly at home in the warmth and sunshine. Bumblebees, by contrast, originated in the cool conditions of the northern Palearctic zone. In other words, their biological machinery is ill-equipped for running in warmer climes. “Imagine a car that starts running out of coolant and steam starts coming out of the hood,” said University of Ottawa biologist and lead author of the new study Jeremy Kerr, at a press conference Wednesday. That’s the bumblebee, beaten and beleaguered.

Another reason is the difficulties inherent to bee colonization. Bees are mobile little beasts, but it takes a lot to get them to settle down. Unlike butterflies, who just need a male and a female to get going, bees require a queen and a critical mass of new males to establish a colony. For this, they rely on seasonal cues: Bees forage in the spring and summer, and then produce new males and queens at summer’s end. When those seasonal cues are interrupted, delayed, or don’t happen due to climate change, bee colonies fail to take root.

Perhaps, the researchers say, bees just need a little help from their friends. After all, we caused this environmental mess, so maybe we can fix it. Humans to the rescue: Kerr says we need to seriously consider the idea of “assisted migration,” or physically moving bees northward to try to nudge them into taking root in colder climes. Such a drastic move would require serious ethical considerations and international buy-in—but the situation might just be critical enough to warrant it. “This is not just something to worry about at a vague future time,” says Kerr. “This is happening now.”

But is that really the most efficient path? UC Berkeley’s Kremen says we may need to build landscapes that would mitigate climate change for many species, not just one. “It won't just be bumblebees but many species that would need this kind of assist,” she says. In fact, that’s just what Obama’s task force has in mind: This summer it announced a plan to build an ambitious pollinator “highway”—a 1,500-mile corridor that would aid bees and butterflies in flying between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. 

“Of course,” Kremen adds, “What we really need to do is deal with the root of the problem: our runaway consumption patterns that are causing this degree of climate change.” Until then, we’ll probably just keep bumbling about.

*Correction, July 9, 2015: This article originally misstated that bumblebees are used for their honey services. They are actually used for pollination.

June 30 2015 5:46 PM

Don’t Forget: Eating These Clams Can Cause Amnesia

Unlike the flashing blue-ringed octopus or the smelly rubbish bird, the Pacific razor clam isn’t in-your-face poisonous. This dark-shelled clam quietly dwells along beaches from California to Alaska, diligently filtering algae from the ocean. Usually, the clam’s not poisonous: Humans and wildlife both enjoy its “particularly delicious” flesh. But under certain conditions, the clam’s flesh harbors domoic acid, causing diarrhea, amnesia, and even death. The conditions that turn this savory clam toxic are becoming more widespread—and we humans are to blame.

June 29 2015 2:07 PM

Aphrodisiacs From These Toads Lead to Heart Attacks, Not Sex

I’m no Dan Savage, but I am a toxicologist. And if Dan and I switched jobs for a day, I would give amorous men one piece of advice: Please don’t eat toad toxins to get an erection.

 

Toad poisonings are rare but life-threatening. Men and women have died from heart attacks after eating herbal supplements called Chan Su, or aphrodisiacs called Rockhard or Love Stone. These products all contain the dried, toxic secretions of Asiatic or cane toads. Similarly, people have been sickened and even died after drinking toad soup, eating toad eggs, or swallowing live toads to win a bet.

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).

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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.

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.

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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.

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