The Longest Brooder in the Animal Kingdom
A female octopus will defend her eggs to the death—literally. In species that live in shallow water, the mother guards a den where her eggs are clustered. An open-sea octopus carries her eggs in her arms, protecting them as she drifts through the water. And deep-sea octopuses shelter their eggs while perched in one spot. A new study shows that she may stay there for years.
Researchers observed one female watching over her offspring for almost four and a half years. That means the deep-sea species Graneledone boreopacifica has officially become the longest known brooder in the animal kingdom. She pays the ultimate price, wasting away until she dies protecting her young. But the reproductive payoff is in her octopus prodigies: Hatchlings of this species are the largest and “most developmentally advanced known” among octopus, giving them an upper tentacle in the evolutionary game of survival.
The marathon brooder chose a rocky outcrop 1,400 meters deep in the Monterey Submarine Canyon off the coast of central California, a popular spot for her species, according to a report in PLOS ONE Wednesday. Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, led by Bruce Robison, took a remotely operated vehicle down there in April 2007 and found a single female octopus with distinctive scarring heading toward the rock. When they dove again a month later, the same octopus—identified by her scars—had taken up residence about a meter above the sea floor on the rock, where she guarded a clutch of eggs. They measured about 1.5 centimeters long by 0.5 centimeters wide, like a large pile of white, translucent Mike and Ike candies.
Every few months the researchers checked in on the brooding mama while she gradually deteriorated. She started out with a “highly textured and pallid purple” mantle, but it paled to near whiteness once she began guarding her clutch. Her plump, round body gradually deflated, her skin went slack and lost its texture, her eyes grew cloudy and her tentacles lost their color. Tasty crabs and shrimp ventured by, but she just shooed them away from her eggs when they got too close, never having a snack. The scientists even offered her pieces of crab with the vehicle’s robot arm, but she ignored them. If she ever ate, they never saw it.
At 40 months, three quarters of the way into her brooding, the outlines of the baby octopuses inside their eggs were clear. By the last time the researchers saw her in September 2011, the eggs had grown to the size of Brazil nuts. On their 18th dive a month later, she was gone, leaving behind about 160 empty egg capsules. She had spent 53 months brooding her eggs, almost four times the longest octopus brooding time previously recorded, in the species Bathypolypus arcticus. Though elephants gestate for up to 21 months and frilled sharks carry their embryos up to 42 months, the only other creature to come close to this duration is the alpine salamander, which gestate their young up to 48 months.
Why so long? Two reasons: It’s cold down there, and growing such fully developed miniature octopuses takes time. The temperature at her brooding spot ranged from 2.8 to 3.4 degrees Celsius, and for cold-blooded animals, the time it takes for the embryos to develop is inversely proportional to how cold it is. The longer development time also allows for bigger eggs so that the hatchlings can take care of themselves immediately after emerging.
The tricky part for the mother is determining how many eggs she can lay against how long she can stick around to keep them safe. An octopus mother’s death around the time her offspring hatch represents a balancing act: She must survive long enough to protect her eggs until they hatch, but if she lives much longer past their send-off, that means she could have laid more eggs. The more closely her death and the hatchings are timed, the more accurately she projected how many eggs she could lay compared to how long she could safeguard them, though the mechanism for this coordination is not known.
What remains a mystery is how the mother takes care of herself as she broods. Although her metabolism doesn’t require much energy in such cold temperatures while she remains sedentary, it’s still not clear how she survives so long without appearing to eat. She might have nibbled on nearby animals, such as crabs that threatened her eggs, while the researchers were away, or she might have fed on unfertilized or diseased eggs as some other octopus species do. However she did it, the time she spent brooding exceeded what biologists knew octopus life expectancy could be.
Why Aren’t the World’s Giant Insects Even Bigger?
Chinese villagers have provided specimens of aquatic insects to local researchers, who believe they’re the largest of their kind. The bugs join a brethren of huge insects around the world, but entomological research is beginning to explain why these oversize bugs never grow to true B-movie-monster size.
Sawfish Are Some of the World’s Weirdest and Most Endangered Fish
The sawfishes, best known for the distinctive tooth-covered rostrum that gives them their name, are a family of rays. The saw is used to stun and kill prey, and it is so sharp that pups are born with a thick membrane over their saws to protect the mother during birth. Sawfishes are some of the most threatened species of fish in the world. Smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) were once commonly seen from North Carolina to Texas and throughout the Caribbean, but today the Everglades and the western side of Andros Island in the Bahamas are some of the only remaining places where they can reliably be found.
A team of scientists has just returned from an annual research expedition to study the smalltooth sawfish at Andros Island. Even there, finding sawfish is incredibly rare. This year, the team found five smalltooth sawfish, the highest number encountered in four years of studying the Andros population.
One of the goals of this research project, funded by the Moore Charitable Foundation, is to determine whether there is movement between the sawfish populations, in particular between Andros and south Florida, information that has important implications for their management. One of the smalltooth sawfish was fitted with a GPS satellite tag that will allow scientists to track its movements and help identify critical habitat. “We hope to determine if there is significant movement and genetic exchange between the U.S. and Bahamas,” says Dean Grubbs of the Florida State University Coastal Marine Lab. The GPS-tagged sawfish—named Blair; others were named Tammy, and Elizabeth, all after high school teachers who have participated in NOAA’s Teacher at Sea program—will contribute to the body of knowledge on how sawfish use habitat.
Sawfish are in big trouble. “All known populations of sawfishes have severely declined based on museum records, scientific surveys, anecdotal fisherman observations, and limited catch per unit effort information,” says John Carlson of NOAA, one of the expedition leaders. All known species of sawfish are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and both smalltooth and largetooth sawfish are protected by the United States Endangered Species Act.
Sawfish face many threats. Historically, people fished them heavily for their meat, especially in Lake Nicaragua. Today, they are frequently victims of unintentional fisheries capture. Their tooth-covered rostrum makes them extremely susceptible to getting tangled in fishing gear, which often results in their death. Another major threat facing sawfish is habitat destruction. Juvenile sawfish rely on shallow, mangrove-lined estuaries as nursery habitat, and previous satellite tagging studies on this species have shown that adults spent 96 percent of the time in shallow coastal waters. Unfortunately, much of this habitat has been rendered unsuitable for sawfish due to new construction of waterfront property.
Though the situation is dire, a recent paper by this research team shows that there is hope for the species. While extinction is likely if fishing mortality remains high, models show that population recovery could occur in as little as 40 years if fishing mortality is greatly reduced. New protections may be needed.
The sawfish research team made another important discovery. Before this expedition, southwest Florida held the only known locations of nursery areas for young smalltooth sawfish. However, “Andros has nearly as much mangrove habitat as all of the Everglades in Florida. Therefore, if nurseries exist in the Bahamas, they should be in Andros,” Grubbs said. After this expedition, Carlson told me, “we now have gained evidence of younger [less that 1 year old] sawfish in the upper portion of the numerous smaller creeks and bays in Andros. These areas may represent potential nurseries for smalltooth sawfish on Andros Island.” The data gathered by this project will be invaluable in promoting the recovery of the smalltooth sawfish, one of the most endangered marine fishes on Earth.
Do Dogs Get Jealous?
Inspiration struck psychologist Christine Harris when she was visiting her parents and their three border collie puppies. “I was petting two of them, and the third would take his head and push the others away,” she says. At the time, Harris was studying sexual and romantic jealousy in humans, which led her to wonder: do dogs show jealousy?
So, Harris and undergraduate Caroline Provoust decided to look into the question. They visited the homes of 36 dogs and videotaped them in three scenarios. (This procedure was adapted from a study of jealousy in 6-month-old infants.) In one scenario, dogs watched as their beloved human lathered affection upon a toy dog that barked and wagged its tail. Owners were asked to pet and coo at the toy as if it were real. In another scenario, the owner directed the same affection toward a jack-o-lantern pail (like the ones you fill with candy on Halloween). In the third scenario, the owner read from a musical pop-up book. “We weren’t sure what we were getting into,” says Harris. “We didn’t know if they would believe the interactions, or if they would they go ballistic.” Since there was a chance the study would rile up the dogs, they recruited small dogs whose owners reported they were rarely aggressive.
It turns out that dogs showed the most jealous behavior toward their toy dog rival. The study, published Wednesday in PLOS ONE, found that 78 percent of the canine participants nudged or pushed their owner’s arm away from the toy dog. Only 42 percent behaved this way when the owner was interacting with the jack-o-lantern. Additionally, 30 percent of dogs tried to walk between and separate the toy dog and owner. A quarter of dogs even showed aggressive behavior, lunging or snapping at the toy dog. In contrast, dogs were unfazed by their owner reading a book. During that scenario, “dogs just strolled off,” says Harris. “They were much more active and seemed more distressed when their owner was paying attention to the stuffed dog.”
Jealousy is often presumed to be a uniquely human emotion because it involves a sophisticated web of beliefs. The classic example of jealousy toward a significant other’s attractive new friend actually requires a lot of thought: You have to consider your relationship and your partner’s relationship with the new friend, and then assess what their friendship could mean for you. Dogs may be showing jealous behaviors in Harris and Provoust’s study, but are they really capable of all that analysis? “I don’t think dogs are necessarily doing that,” says Harris. In their paper, Harris and Provoust suggest that there could be a “primordial” version of jealousy that kicks in when you see a loved one giving attention to anything but you, leading you to take action by getting between your loved one and the possible usurper.
Though the majority of dogs showed some form of jealous behavior, not all did. In future studies, Harris hopes to find out what’s different about those dogs. It could be that those were the not-so-smart dogs who didn’t realize the fake dog was swooping in to steal their human’s attention. Or perhaps the dogs who didn’t react were actually the most clever, because they realized the fake dog wasn’t real competition. (The paper reports that 86 percent of the dogs sniffed the fake dog’s rear end during the study, which suggests that they suspected the stuffed dog was real.) Strength of the dog-owner bond could also be a factor; dogs who didn’t react may have just cared less about the interloper.
As much as we would love to know what dogs are thinking or feeling, this study can’t tell us that. From a scientific perspective, all we know is that they often engage in behaviors that we humans associate with jealousy. But, dog owners, if it makes you feel any better go ahead and believe this: Fido definitely loves you very, very much.
Watch Amazing Bird Artist David Allen Sibley Draw a Townsend’s Warbler
Famed illustrator, ornithologist, and author David Allen Sibley dropped by the BirdNote studio while in Seattle on a book tour. We talked to him about his art, the artistic process behind his best-selling The Sibley Guide to Birds, and how his appreciation of nature was cultivated as a child. He stayed a few extra minutes to sketch a bird for an appreciative BirdNote team. Thankfully, our cameras were rolling. David finds it easiest to sketch a bird he's seen recently. On this day, that fortunate bird was a Townsend's warbler spotted on a field trip David had taken that morning with the local Audubon chapter.
In preparation for his numerous publications, David has sketched literally thousands of birds. It was fascinating to watch as this bird gradually took shape, all from memory. We hope you enjoy this insight into his artistic process.
View the original video on YouTube. Here’s a transcript:
Drawing is a way—it’s a method of looking at birds, for me. And the sketching, it’s not so much the drawing that I produce but the process of getting there, the observation that is required. And that leads to all kinds of discoveries.
I know the shapes and the postures and the general color patterns. I know what I’m shooting for, based on all my own experience and my sketches. I use photographs as reference material to make sure I’m getting the details right. But I've found that what I’m sketching, what I’m drawing and then painting, the shapes and proportions and postures that I’m painting, they are never exactly what I see in a photograph. It’s always a merging of all kinds of different experiences that I had. But you won’t ever find that particular shape in a photograph because what I’m trying to paint is not one instant in time. It’s sort of the impression of many experiences.
So I spent years in the field, just traveling and birding and sketching. Just doing pencil sketches, getting to know the birds, learning the shapes and the postures and the general patterns. And then when I go into the studio to paint, I have my sketches. I gather together all the photographs I can find. I’ve already visited museums and looked at specimens and taken notes on those. So I have all that material and I’m working on paintings. But what I try to put into the painting is sort of a "summary" or a compilation, a synthesis of all of the things that I’ve seen, all the things that I’ve learned, and to show a generic … not generic... but a stereotypical bird of that species of that plumage.
Most people—I know it’s true for me—I enjoy looking at an artist’s sketches. If I’m at an art museum, the sketches that an artist does are often much more interesting than the finished painting. And I think part of that is that there’s so much left out of the sketch. It’s just an outline, a suggestion of what might be happening there. And we really have to interact with the sketch. We have to fill in a lot of the details in our mind, fill in the gaps and create a whole scene that, in our mind, fills in what the artist has started to suggest there.
And when I’m painting in the field guide, I’m trying to simplify as much as possible. So my paintings in the field guide, I’ve tried to just show the birds, the way they would look, at a distance, through binoculars, the broad outlines of patterns and colors, the shapes, but a sort of "generic" neutral posture for every species, neutral lighting, no background, no habitat. So there’s nothing there that suggests a particular experience that you’ve had. It’s just the bird and its distinguishing features. Sort of a "patternistic impression" of what that bird will look like.
You can look at the illustrations in the field guide and there’s a lot there, and a lot of details that aren’t there. A lot that you can fill in. A lot of blanks. You can superimpose your own experience onto it.
BirdNote thanks David for taking the time with us that day!
"David Allen Sibley Sketches a Townsend's Warbler" © BirdNote 2014
Video shot and edited by Adam Sedgley. Interview by Chris Peterson, recorded by John Kessler. Ambient audio edited by John Kessler.
These Flowers Have an Ingenious Pollination Mechanism
Flowers used to come with understood meanings. Marigolds were for the jealous and aggrieved; ambrosias a sign of love returned. Dumas fil’s heroine in Camille carried white camellias when in the mood for a tryst; red ones said, “not tonight, sweetheart.”
Un-plucked flowers, however, don’t leave their intentions up to human interpretation. They have evolved highly specific characteristics to ensure that whoever comes calling will help them bear fruit. A newly discovered pollination mechanism in the flowers of the South American Axinaea genus of shrubs, described in Current Biology, exemplifies this evolutionary ingenuity. These Andean blooms rely on birds to spread their pollen, and they have an elaborate floral architecture to make this happen.
Bird pollination is uncommon for plants of the Melastomataceae family to which Axinea belongs: Bees pollinate 98 percent of them. But ornithophily—as bird pollination is called—is known to occur in more than 500 genera of flowering plants. Many of them grow on mountainsides: Few bees buzz in high altitudes and windy conditions. Birds are more reliable when it rains, and they fly farther, potentially pollinating within a greater range. Research suggests that bird-pollinated plants in these regions are more successful.
But blossoms that are inviting to birds are harder to make than ones that attract bees. They have to offer more food energy (which usually means more nectar), taking more of a plant’s resources. They must be shaped to be reachable to a bird’s beak but protected against nectar poaching by other animals that will not help them breed. Bird-pollinated flowers are often bigger than bee-pollinated ones, with complex structures to heighten allure and easy (but not too easy) access: tubular blossoms if hummingbirds are likely to hover next to them or growing in clusters if frequented by perching birds. These traits have emerged independently in many plants. Botanists think most of these species adapted from first being bee-flowered to bird-flowered ones when the latter proved advantageous for their habitats.
Axinaea has evolved a unique anatomy to maximize pollen delivery by the birds that visit it, as Agnes Dellinger of the University of Vienna and her colleagues observed. Their cameras captured how some species of tanagers, ubiquitous local song birds, alight next to Axinaea blossoms and pick out and eat the large, brightly colored stamens encased by the flower’s rosy-hued petals.
It seems odd for a flower to offer up its reproductive organs for consumption. But Dellinger found that in the case of Axinaea plants, this was perfectly reasonable: The stamen of their flowers is hollow and filled with air as well as pollen. When a bird plucks one from the flower’s base, squeezing the stamen’s stem, it causes the air within to expel the pollen like a bellow, blowing powder onto the bird’s head before the stamen is gobbled up.
The stamens are high in sugar, the researchers found, explaining why tanagers relish them. Moreover, only birds could harvest them: Vibrations or small disturbances were not enough to dislodge a stamen and activate its bellow mechanism. That means fewer opportunities for insects to plunder all their stored energy without contributing to the reproductive cause.
One hundred and fifty million years of evolution have made flowering plants astonishingly adept at dressing up their blooms for greatest effect, whether through size, shape, or color. (Ornithophilic flowers, for example, are more likely to be red—birds see the color well, but bees can’t perceive it.) But few designs measure up to the Axinaea’s sophistication: No other plant is known to have a flower with a bellow structure quite like it, nor a stamen meant for eating. An old-fashioned romantic might consider presenting a sprig if he is trying to coyly convey a message about his cleverness, adaptability, and commitment to reproductive success.
How the World’s Largest Flying Dinosaur Avoided Crash Landing
In the dinosaur world, raptors have a reputation for being ferocious, fast, and having sharp claws to slash open their prey. A new fossil unearthed in China confirms that some raptors could not only rip your face off—they could also fly. The new species, called Changyuraptor yangi, is the largest known flying dinosaur. It was named for its hallmark feature: long feathers (chang yu), which grew on its tail and legs. Changyuraptors and other dinos from their family of raptors are often called “four-winged” dinosaurs because their long feathers make their legs look like a second pair of wings.
This is one of several recent discoveries that suggest flight did not originate with birds but with their dinosaur ancestors. Paleontologist Luis Chiappe has studied the origin of birds for more than two decades, but he was floored when he first saw the Changyuraptor fossil, the subject of a paper in today’s issue of Nature Communications. “It was stunning to see,” he said. “You have the quintessential feature of a bird—these long feathers that are remarkably similar to modern feathers—attached to the body of a fearsome dinosaur like a raptor—sharp teeth, sharp claws, and a long tail.”
The specimen Chiappe and colleagues studied was around 4 feet long, and they estimate it weighed around 9 pounds. As the largest flying dino, Changyuraptor had extra challenges in flight. Maintaining careful control during landings would have been especially important for survival, since large animals tend to fly faster, which creates the potential for dangerous crashes. Researchers’ analysis of the fossil found that its foot-long tail feathers were great for catching winds and helped direct its flight, especially during landings. “Just the same way you land in a plane, Changyuraptors needed to slow down and pitch their nose up,” said Chiappe. “Otherwise, they would crash.”
Part of the reason scientists were able to make such detailed observations of this fossil has to do with where it came from. This fossil was found in the Jehol Biota, an incredibly rich source of fossils in the Liaoning Province of northeast China. Hundreds of exceptionally well-preserved fossils have been found in this area, due in part to the conditions of its ancient environment. When Changyuraptor lived—120 million years ago, during the early Cretaceous period—the area was densely forested, with small lakes and streams and many active volcanoes. Volcanic ash buried animal corpses on land and in water; some were even buried in sudden, Pompeii-like eruptions. Lakes in the area had very little oxygen, which meant specimens were not scavenged by other animals, and were less prone to decomposition by bacteria. This preserved delicate soft tissues like feathers, skin, muscle, and guts.
Despite the exceptional preservation of this specimen, it wasn’t perfect; Chiappe said that in the fossil they studied, the Changyuraptor’s legs overlapped. Chiappe and his team believe these “hindwings” were useful in flight, but its not yet clear how useful.
This is a rare glimpse into the beginning stages of flight evolution, showing that even fairly sizeable dinosaurs could fly. “In the context of a dinosaur, this is a small guy, but in the context of a flier, it’s quite sizeable,” said Chiappe. “I’m sure we’ll find even bigger animals in the future.”
Rosie O’Donnell, New Co-Host of The View, Killed an Endangered Hammerhead Shark
After controversial anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy was let go from The View, the producers were presumably looking for someone with less of a history of being on the wrong side of public policy. In Rosie O’Donnell, they made an awful choice. O’Donnell killed an endangered hammerhead shark for fun, bragged about the experience, and insulted conservationists who were upset at her actions.
O’Donnell has been a frequent customer of “Mark the Shark,” an infamous shark hunter—that is, one of the few charter boat operators in Florida who doesn’t practice catch and release when fishing for sharks. He claims to have personally killed more than 100,000 sharks. Mark the Shark’s website, which features a photo gallery of scantily clad women lying on top of dead fish, includes warnings like “photos on this site may not be suitable for children, the faint-hearted, or PETA members,” and “We DON’T fly release flags, but we DO hang fish upside down.” I met him once, and the picture you’ve probably formed in your head from reading the description above is pretty accurate.
On one trip, O’Donnell and her family caught and killed a great hammerhead shark and then posed for a picture next to their “trophy.”
Though many species of sharks are in trouble, hammerheads are in particularly bad shape. It is illegal for fisherman to kill great and scalloped hammerheads in Florida state waters, though that wasn’t the case at the time O’Donnell caught this shark. Both species were already considered Endangered by the IUCN Red List, and both had suffered severe and well-publicized population declines due to overfishing. The Florida ban went into effect shortly after O’Donnell’s trip. Scalloped hammerheads sharks recently became the first species of shark ever listed on the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
When this story broke in January of 2012, I joined many in the marine science and conservation Twitter community in criticizing O’Donnell and asking for an apology and a promise never to kill an endangered animal for fun again. She mocked our concerns, insulted us, and refused to apologize. She made nonsensical claims such as “chill, my family fishes,” and “it wasn’t endangered 11 days ago.” As I explained to her at the time, I am not opposed to recreational fishing; I’m opposed to killing endangered species for fun.
Hamsters Don't Eat Burritos. They Eat Each Other.
A few months ago, a video made the rounds featuring a tiny hamster eating a tiny burrito. If you haven’t seen it yet, then behold the pinnacle of human-hamster achievement:
I’ll admit, this is probably the cutest thing to happen to us since baby sloths, surprised red pandas, or goats on sheet metal. Those little hands, that scrunched-up little face—I mean, these are the reasons hamsters are such wildly popular pets.
But anyone who actually had hamsters growing up, as I did, knows what should really be on that tiny poker chip plate—and that’s another hamster.
In the case of this video, we’re looking at the species Mesocricetus auratus, more commonly called a golden hamster or a Syrian hamster. Walk into any pet shop in America and you’ll find these fluffy little rodents. This is more than a little ironic since the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them as “vulnerable” in their native habitat along the Turkey-Syria border. That’s one step above “endangered,” FYI.
It’s also strange that Syrian hamsters should be popular, considering they’re ferociously territorial. If you’re going to keep two or more adults in the same tank, they require lots of personal space. The animals have scent glands on their flanks, which they use to mark territory, so it’s also recommended that you provide separate food, water, and bedding sources. Fail to give them enough space or resources, and they’ll eat each other for fun.
I’ve seen it.
I thought I’d provided Frank and Shirley with a hamster Taj Mahal. They had tubes leading to running wheels and skylights and loop-de-loops. Fresh water and all the seeds they could eat. All the same, one day I came home from elementary school to find Shirley huddled up in a corner. What was left of Frank—a wad of wet fur, a few toothpick-like bones—lay among the wood chips.
For her Ph.D. work on Syrian hamsters, neurobiologist Annaliese Beery wanted to study seasonality and reproduction, which necessitated breeding hundreds and hundreds of them. “I certainly never set out to study hamster cannibalism,” she told me, “but when you breed a lot of hamsters, that’s definitely something you observe.”
For those in the hamster biz, it’s accepted that more than 75 percent of Syrian hamster dams (mommies) will cannibalize part of their litter within the first day of birth. Beery’s own research suggests this estimate is probably on the low side.
In fact, in an experiment that had her up at all hours of the night checking for births, Beery found that 100 percent of her dams ate between 2 and 11 pups. (A second experiment showed a cannibalization rate of 74 percent, though Beery says they only checked the litters in the morning, which means they likely missed middle-of-the-night cannibalization in the other 26 percent.)
Why Syrian dams should be so om-nom-nommy toward their offspring isn’t completely understood. But Beery says that we have numerous “just-so stories” that make sense.
For instance, we know dams eat their young when resources are scarce. But the dams in Beery’s study had plenty of food—so they commit infanticide during both feast and famine. Her research also showed that mothers cannibalized female pups more often then males and in numbers great enough to significantly alter the sex ratio.
Beery says you can read hamster cannibalism two ways. “You could either see it as the cannibalism benefits the ones left behind because they get more milk and they grow bigger, or you could see it as the mom has eaten the smaller pups and left the bigger pups behind,” she said. “And I don’t think we can distinguish between those interpretations.”
Still, there are plenty of other species that manage boom and bust cycles without resorting to cannibalism. And isn’t it sort of wasteful for the mother’s body to build and deliver all those babies only to eat them hours after birth?
“It turns out that from an energy perspective, at least for rodents, it’s lactation, not gestation, that’s really the hard part metabolically,” says Beery. In other words, it’s a lot easier to make babies than is to nurse them.
Unfortunately for the hamsters, the carnage extends beyond birth. Syrian hamsters are solitary in the wild. When they’re not in heat, females are extremely aggressive. And because estrous occurs about one out of every four days, that means enterprising males run the risk of disembowelment about 25 percent of the time. (Remember those scent glands? A male hamster’s ability to detect estrous may save his life.)
Despite all of this, Beery says Syrian hamsters make excellent pets. They’re a lot more docile than Siberians hamsters, another pet store favorite, and they’re very friendly if handled regularly. “I just wouldn’t breed them,” says Beery. (It’s pretty easy to determine a Syrian hamster’s sex before you buy it. Their testes are what Beery called “really obvious.”)
While I’m all for letting nature take its course, I didn’t expect the next viral hamster video, below, to include wanton acts of cannibalism. The video series is actually a clever piece of content marketing by Denizen, a creative agency in Los Angeles, and the second episode premiered this week. This time, the hamster (named Bogart) attends a birthday party for a hedgehog.
Oh yeah, and that “tiny hamster eating a tiny pizza” that surfaced just days after the burrito video? That hamster is an imposter. “It’s not canon,” wrote Denizen co-founder Joel Jensen in an email. Neither is the video of tiny hamsters eating tiny tacos or tiny hamsters eating tiny Caprese salads.
“We’ll take it as imitation being a form of flattery,” said Jensen, “but hopefully people can distinguish the real thing from them.”
Hey, I guess this means I’ll need to write about hedgehog cannibalism—because they do it, too.
Common Pesticide Is Linked to Declining Bird Populations
Some bird species in the Netherlands have been disappearing at an alarming rate, while others have been doing quite well. Scientists have been examining factors that may explain why bird populations thrive or wither. Human impacts such as habitat destruction, introduced species, and pollution are known to harm birds. Now there’s new evidence that the pesticides we use could be a major cause of bird declines.
Ecologists at Radboud University and the Sovon Centre for Field Ornithology in the Netherlands analyzed population data for 15 bird species as well as their government’s measurements of imidacloprid, a widely used insecticide, in surface water. Imidacloprid is an insect neurotoxin in the neonictinoid family widely used to kill insects on farms and in gardens, and recent research has linked it to disappearing bee populations. The analysis published today in Nature found that areas with high concentrations of imidacloprid had fewer birds.
The ecologists aren’t certain exactly what causes the bird decline. While imidacloprid is lethal to insects, it’s toxic to birds only in large doses, so it’s more likely any effects on bird declines are indirect. The researchers’ leading theory is that because the pesticide kills off insects, it disrupts the food chain.
“Bird populations in farmland areas may have having trouble finding food, so they may leave those areas,” said Ruud Foppen, one of the paper’s authors. Populations may be less likely to survive without a reliable food source; nine of the 15 species studied ate insects exclusively, including barn swallows and willow warblers. “[Birds] need to have a lot of insect prey for their young,” said Foppen, which could lead to a cascading effect. “It affects food; then by food, their reproduction rate; then by their reproduction rate, the population trends.”
In light of research linking the insecticide to bee population decline, the European Commission has placed restrictions on the use of imidacloprid until at least 2015. “Let’s use this time to figure out what’s going on," says Hans de Kroon, another co-author. "Something must be done," he says. De Kroon acknowledges that these restrictions may not be a long-term solution, since insecticides support our food supply. “We plea for a dialogue between everybody who is involved.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency does not ban or restrict use of imidacloprid but is reviewing the risks of it and other neonictinoids.