Incredible Photos of Tiny Animal Body Parts
Inventions like the microscope and the camera have allowed us to discover parts of the natural world that had remained hidden for the majority of the history of humankind. The Nikon Small World competition, which was founded in 1974, showcases the best examples of photomicrography—images taken under a microscope—from around the world, and year after year they continue to delight and amaze. In 2013, the competition received more than 2,000 entries from 80-plus countries around the world. These images happen at scales so small the recognizable becomes distorted, abstract, and revelatory. Whether it’s a shrimp’s eye, a turtle’s retina, or a mouse’s inner ear, below is a selection of images that details the inner world of animals, their body parts, their inner organs, and the internal structures that allow them to perceive the world and function in it.
The Amazing Live Feed of a Bald Eagle’s Nest
Introducing the most patriotic livestream on the Internet. Thanks to the good people at Berry College in Mount Berry, Ga., you can watch the daily activities and interactions of two adult bald eagles and their less-than-a-week-old offspring. The pair, which originally arrived in the area in 2012, returned to their on-campus nest in September, producing the first of two eggs on Jan. 14. That egg hatched on Feb. 22, thereby affording those watching the live feed an inside look into the first days of the adorable, fuzzy bird of prey. You can watch a few of its first minutes alive here:
The second egg has yet to hatch, so if you’re feeling particularly fond for our national bird—or are just a fan of all things majestic and cuddly—keep your eyes on the livestream for the next couple of days. In the meantime, enjoy this charming, if morbid, video of baby eagle No. 1 at feeding time.
Bizarre and Colorful Vintage Circus Posters Featuring Animal Performers
The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin holds a collection of circus memorabilia dating from the middle of the nineteenth century to about 1940. As historian Janet Davis writes in her book The Circus Age: Culture & Society Under the American Big Top, during that time the traveling circus was a major vector of popular culture, bringing new ideas and cultural norms along with it. When the big show came to town, people who might not have otherwise seen trained animals or exotic beasts had their chance. (In the interest of full disclosure: Davis was one of my dissertation advisors.)
Wolves May Be Losing a Nasty Political Battle
The Endangered Species Act sounds simple on paper. Its goal is to preserve biological diversity, protect critical habitat, and recover threatened species across the country. But nothing is simple when it comes to the environment. Lobbyists have labeled the ESA both a success and a failure, and a Republican congressman is the latest to try to drastically curtail its protections. The ESA has been argued from all sides, and never more so than when discussions turn to the American gray wolf.
The gray wolf is one of the most hotly contested symbols in the conservation debate today. In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service presented a proposal to nudge gray wolves from under its protective umbrella, effectively “delisting” them across the lower 48 states. (Gray wolves have already been delisted in seven states of the Northern Rockies and Western Great Lakes.) The proposal would turn wolf management over to individual states.
The proposal caused a great deal of consternation among scientists and wolf supporters. The Endangered Species Act provides an “emergency room way-station for declining species to regain their footing and the sufficiently recover,” said Don Barry, a former chief counsel for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, now at Defenders of Wildlife. Some of the ESA’s biggest success stories are the bald eagle, brown pelican, and American alligator. But wolves are a long way from the healthy numbers these species have reached: An August 2013 population count found just 5,443 wolves across the entire country (excluding Alaska, where wolves are not covered by the ESA). The Fish and Wildlife Service is tired of the issue, Barry told me, and “they are sort of getting up in the middle of the movie.”
Should We Destroy Our Ivory Art Out Of Guilt? Prince William Seems to Think So.
On Sunday, the U.K. paper The Independent reported that Prince William had privately stated that he wanted to see the royal collection of ivory destroyed. William, along with his father and his brother, attended the recent London Conference, where conservationists gathered to discuss the alarming recent increase in elephant poaching driven by the illegal ivory trade. (The Independent has taken on wildlife trafficking as a cause, aligning itself editorially with the London Conference and the anti-poaching campaign.)
Why Do Animals Dance?
Dancing animals aren’t just a viral video sensation; they’re the subject of serious science. At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago over the weekend, one panel explored the ability of certain animals to follow a musical beat. The session, titled “Rhythmic Entrainment in Non-Human Animals: An Evolutionary Trail of Time Perception” featured experts in psychology, neuroscience, neurobiology, language, and intelligence. With new studies that “hold increasing promise for understanding the evolutionary trajectories of perception and cognition of temporal dynamics,” according to the session abstract, we now finally have a chance of figuring out what’s behind all those dancing bird videos.
The ability to sense rhythm could help animals distinguish among sounds from different sources and help them synchronize their movements, which can improve perception by providing periods of relative silence.
In humans, according to panelist Aniruddh Patel, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts, rhythmic beats activate a broad network of auditory and motor planning regions of the brain. Structures like the basal ganglia are known to be important for timing, and areas of the parietal cortex are thought to help coordinate different cerebral regions. Similar brain activities have now been observed in other animals.
Impressively, researchers have now specifically demonstrated the ability of cockatoos, bonobos, sea lions, and other animals to not only extract a beat from music and follow it, but to adjust their movement if the tempo is changed. Peter Cook, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University who has closely observed the dancing sea lion Ronan, writes: “The neural mechanisms underpinning flexible beat keeping may be much more widely distributed across the animal kingdom than previously thought.”
The sea lion studies are especially interesting. For years, scientists have thought that animals’ “rhythmic entrainment” (the ability to synchronize with an external beat) was necessarily associated with vocal capacities to imitate sound. Sea lions are quite limited in the sounds they can make, which “poses a real problem for the theory that vocal mimicry is a necessary precondition for rhythmic entrainment," according to Cook.
Mysteries remain, of course, but this body of research has important implications for evolutionary biology, animal communication systems, and other fields of study. As a story in National Geographic points out, it also contributes to our understanding of the evolution of music among humans. Some researchers have studied the adaptive value of rhythm, noting that music has a social bonding function in humans. These animal studies take us a step closer towards understanding how the ability to sing and dance evolved.
Adapted from Young Widower: A Memoir by John W. Evans, out this week from University of Nebraska Press.
The bear that killed Katie had white fur on its paws and muzzle, and for a little less than an hour it flashed white across the path of my flashlight, making a deliberate measure of her body and slowly, without pretense, pressing her chest into the ground until it made no sound and did not return the force.
This is how Katie died: gross thoracic trauma. Her body, mauled. The body, when we recovered it, bloodless and blank. It did not appear to be mangled. We stood together over her and thought she might have had a shock. She lay at an angle on the grass, and her body was intact, her clothes were not torn, there was not so much blood as we might have expected. To look at Katie’s body, we thought she had survived the attack, or perhaps the attack had only happened in our imaginations, or to someone else, or someplace else.
An hour earlier that day in 2007 my group had left Katie’s group at the lake in Bușteni, Romania, and walked a few hundred yards ahead down the path. We reached a river of snowmelt, where the Israeli doctor said we should wait to cross as a group. Or, her husband said, I could wait for Katie, Sara, and the Romanian while they went ahead to the smaller hostel. I watched them disappear into the darkness. I wound the mechanical charger on my flashlight, thinking that when Katie arrived I would need to show the way across. After a while, I became impatient, and then, after a longer while, concerned. What was taking them so long? I called Katie, then Sara on their cellphones. I left long, insistent messages to which they never listened, encouraging them to pick up the pace.
Perhaps, I thought much later, the ringing of her cellphone angered the bear and inspired it to take a second pass across the ridge.
I turned back to the path and after several false starts found my way to the lake. They were not there. I screamed Katie’s name, then Sara’s into the night wind; I could not remember the Romanian’s name. It was still louder now, but there were gaps in the wind when I could make my voice distinct.
Just across the path I saw what looked like clumps of feathers on the gravel. I reached down and picked up the pages from our guidebook, ripped from the spine and torn in half. I turned the crank and shined my light down into the brook. Had someone from Katie’s group fallen into the water? Had they all slipped on the rocks? The rocks sloped down to the river at an angle. If a person fell sideways toward the stream, I thought, they might lose consciousness, bleed, even drown. I tried to move faster and climb down to the stream, but I could make very little progress in the dark.
I turned the flashlight crank and tried to make broad sweeps of the water. I climbed back to the trail and yelled Katie’s name again. Somehow I had turned myself around, because now I was facing out opposite both the smaller and the larger hostel, toward the ridge we had kept to our right as we crossed. It was then that I heard Katie’s voice and swung my flashlight around. I saw nothing, but I heard her:
Don’t come closer. Find a gun. Get back quickly.
Mutts Finally Compete at Westminster
In four-legged Olympics this week, mutts were finally given the chance to vie for doggie glory. The organizers of the premier Westminster Kennel Club dog show, held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, reversed a tradition in place since at least 1884 and finally allowed mixed breeds to compete. Lest you think the move is too progressive, mutts were welcomed only into the agility trial this year, with the prestigious Best in Show award reserved for purebreds. (Last night, that award went to Sky, a 5-year-old wire fox terrier, who bested about 3,000 of her competitors.)
Politely called “All-American” dogs, the mutts generally held their own in a contest where they’re judged on accuracy and speed as they navigate various obstacles off-leash. Roo!, a husky mix hailing from San Francisco, won the agility contest for the 24-inch category, and also took home the trophy for best mixed-breed dog. Another mutt, named Panda, took fourth in the 20-inch category. The underdogs (sorry) were unable to seize the gold, however, with purebred border collie Kelso winning the overall agility prize.
The Kennel Club’s policy reversal is likely due to growing pressure from animal rights activists, who have long contended that dog breeding is unethical. As PBS points out, efforts to accentuate certain characteristics can result in physical disabilities.
The excessively wrinkled skin of the Chinese Shar-Pei causes frequent skin infection; Bulldogs and other flat-faced (or brachycephalic) breeds such as the Pekingese have breathing problems because of their set-back noses and shortened air passages; Bloodhounds suffer chronic eye irritation and infection.
A host of other problems, including immune diseases, blood disorders, heart disease, and cancer plague some pedigrees. Moreover, almost 60 percent of dogs in shelters are euthanized, according to the American Humane Society, prompting many advocates (PETA protestors among them) to stress the importance of promoting mutts’ image as desirable pets.
Seeking Platonic ideals, the Kennel Club has historically encouraged a dogmatic (too much?) and rigid breeding culture that’s often downright detrimental to the animals themselves. Breeders consult what’s been called a “eugenicist's handbook” to determine standards for certain pedigrees, standards that have been slow to change even in light of emerging health problems. It’s nice to see the athleticism of all dogs celebrated, of course, but the real achievement at this week’s Westminster show was a gradual moderation of traditional views on what constitutes a prestigious animal.
The Real Reason Copenhagen Zoo Euthanized a Giraffe: Parenthood
I first visited the Copenhagen Zoo around 20 years ago and met the zoo’s scientific director, Bengt Holst, who found himself recently at the center of a campaign to save Marius, and is now the subject of another calling for his resignation.
The zoo had then, as it still does, a policy against using contraception for its animals and consequently a policy of euthanasia of the surplus animals that would arise as a result.
In contrast to most zoos around the world, which use contraception or sterilization to control their animals' reproduction, Copenhagen Zoo has chosen not to for two principal reasons. Some methods of contraception can have negative effects on an animal’s health and future reproductive ability, although slowly science is eliminating these.
But the Danes also strongly believe that being a parent is an enriching experience for their animals. The problem is that while it solves one animal welfare problem—the well-being of the breeding adults—it creates a subsequent ethical issue, that of what to do with the “surplus offspring.”
To humans, the concept of surplus offspring sounds wrong, but in the world of zoos, where space for endangered species and resources to keep them is limited, it is a different story. An enclosure to house giraffes is very expensive to build and maintain—and zoos do not have limitless pots of money. So if you allow animals to breed as often as they want, inevitably the result is animals perceived as surplus to requirements.
If Marius has many siblings or other relatives in the captive giraffe population, not just at Copenhagen but at other Danish zoos and even those across Europe, then his genes are not important in terms of maintaining genetic diversity. This is one of the goals that drives zoo conservation, as it is genetic diversity that allows species to adapt to changes in their environment—and zoos see themselves as providing a population safety net.
For wild animal populations this is of vital importance. So Copenhagen Zoo would argue that by allowing Marius to live—in any zoo, and especially one of those in Europe already well-stocked with individuals bearing his family’s genes, he is taking up limited and valuable space. Space that should be allotted to an individual that will add to or help maintain genetic diversity.
This is a very pragmatic stance. To many people in Britain this goes against our cultural identity as a nation of animal lovers. Danes love animals, too, but express this in a different manner. They would, I suspect, agree with animal welfare experts in arguing that death itself is not an animal welfare issue; what is important is that the death is humane, and that the life that preceded it was good. In the United Kingdom we are perhaps too focused on longevity and not on quality of life. This is the key difference in attitude to the case of Marius the giraffe.
Conservation biology is driven by society’s recognition that human actions have driven many species to extinction and that we have a responsibility to do something about it. This is an ethical question, and again, it is society that determines what is right or wrong—not me, and not Bengt Holst or Copenhagen Zoo. Most societies around the world have determined that it is wrong to drive other species to extinction, but many differ on the question of how to save them.
So in this case, I’m sure that Copenhagen Zoo chose to euthanize Marius because it sincerely believes that this is the best course of action for giraffe conservation. Similarly, keepers in Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire euthanized their six lions last week for the same reason. Equally, others sincerely believe that this situation should have been avoided by the use of contraception, despite the welfare implications for the breeding adults.
It is perhaps time for us to remember that the nations of the world are jointly responsible for managing the world’s flora and fauna. Intentionally or not, this case has sparked an important debate. It is only by attempting to understand each other’s cultures that we can hope to make any progress on global issues such as wildlife conservation.
Vultures Know Where Animals Go to Die
The word vulture conjures up visions of boughs laden with crook-neck birds or silhouettes circling in the sky, patiently waiting for death to come to some poor creature. We say “the vultures are circling” to signal that someone is in danger of failing and their competitors are getting ready to swoop in. It turns out that these popular depictions of the world’s most unloved birds are pretty accurate. Vultures really are … well, vultures.
For decades, scientists believed that the vultures in Africa’s Serengeti-Mara ecosystem followed the most abundant food supply—the 1.3 million wildebeest migrating between Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. But it turns out that vultures aren’t concerned with how many wildebeest are in a given area. Instead, vultures haunt areas where animals are more likely to die.
Vultures are the only obligate scavengers, and they feed primarily on the decaying flesh of animals that died as a result of starvation or disease. The birds have to be able to scan large areas and quickly detect carrion before it is snatched up by hyenas or jackals or decomposed by microbes. Because of their efficient, low-energy soaring flight, vultures can forage over extremely large areas, but researchers didn’t understand how the birds decided where to search.
To learn how vultures select habitat, Corinne Kendall of Columbia University and her colleagues outfitted 39 birds from three vulture species with GPS transmitters and tracked their whereabouts over the course of several months.
Wildebeest are abundant in the study region throughout the year, but the vultures’ behavior varied with the season. Members of all three species followed the herds only during the dry season—that’s when wildebeest are more likely to die from starvation and drowning.
During the wet season, birds from two of the vulture species preferred to hang out in relatively dry, brown areas. Since rainfall and the availability of edible plants have major impacts on the survival of wildebeest and other ungulates, these parched landscapes are where animals are likely to die.
Focusing their attention on death traps rather than following the migrating herds might not be a great long-term survival strategy, unfortunately. Conservationists are concerned that vultures apparently rely on resident ungulate species during the wet season. Those species are rapidly declining throughout Kenya and in particular in the Masai Mara National Reserve. Food availability is important to a vulture’s survival—especially a chick’s. Two of the species in the study, the White-backed vulture and Ruppell’s vulture, have been up-listed to endangered by the IUCN Red List, while the third species, the Lappet- faced vulture, remains vulnerable.