Slate’s animal blog.

Dec. 8 2014 3:02 PM

Discovery Channel Is Getting Eaten Alive for Eaten Alive

A month ago, the Discovery Channel promised a new journey into the world of the gratuitously grotesque: A man was going to wade into the Amazon, douse himself in pig’s blood, and get eaten alive by a giant anaconda. Several media outlets, Slate included, were more horrified than impressed. When the episode aired Sunday night, those who eagerly tuned in were treated to their own dose of outrage when they found out they’d been duped. Nobody got eaten alive on Eaten Alive. (Sorry if that was a spoiler.)

The reaction on social media, as noted by Business Insider, was snarky and swift. People felt misled—and rightfully so. As it turned out, stuntman Paul Rosolie had to stop the encounter with the snake due to the crushing pain he felt as the anaconda ingested his arm—he feared it might break. Rosolie, a naturalist, told AFP the stunt was meant to harness shock value to raise people’s concern about the rainforests. And to its credit, Discovery did link to a fund for protection and research of the Amazon rainforest. But people tuning in hadn’t seen a word about conservation in the ads promoting the show, or even seen video clips of creatures losing their habitat. They were promised one thing: A guy getting swallowed by a giant snake. And their disappointment definitely doesn’t help the rainforest.

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This stunt and the deceptive campaign were no accident: Eaten Alive is one more entry into a collection of disappointing Discovery programming that capitalizes on sensationalism and misinformation. There are obvious dangers to misleading the public on science, and Discovery has a disturbing history of, for instance, claiming that extinct giant sharks aren’t extinct. But however misleading those shows were, at least they misled in the way their titles promised. Now Discovery has made a step into another irritating territory—clickbait.

The essential ingredients for clickbait are all there: Misleading title? Check. Disappointing content? Check. Frustrated audience? Double check.

A lot of people were hate-watching Eaten Alive the way they might watch so-bad-it’s-bad Sharknado. But I have very little pity for people who wasted two hours staring at their televisions with bated breath, waiting for a perversely voyeuristic climax that never arrived. I actually think it’s pretty funny. But I worry what this says about supposed “documentary” television. The one thing Eaten Alive had going for it in the first place was that it was supposedly real. But since when does an incomplete stunt go anywhere but the cutting room floor? I am glad Rosolie was concerned enough about the danger to call it off. But this wasn’t filmed live—why did it air? Discovery could have cut its losses. But the company ran with it, and found a new low in shock value programming: A great teaser is enough, and quality content—or even complete content—is simply optional.

Hopefully the social media furor from those who endorsed the show with their viewership will at least dissuade Discovery and other channels like it from doing this kind of thing in the future. I’d hate to see March of the Penguins: The Sequel 30 years from now, only to sit through two hours worth of searching the Antarctic for some penguins.

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Nov. 28 2014 12:36 PM

Why Female Jacanas Do All the Fighting

Excerpted from Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle by Douglas J. Emlen. Out now from Henry Holt and Company LLC.

Jacanas are bizarre birds, especially when it comes to their weapons. The female I’m watching has especially big spurs, one on each elbow, and she creeps about with delicate steps on very long legs. Her slender toes splay to a span of more than 5 inches per foot, and her gait brings to mind a carnival stilt walker. This female, “red-over-blue-and-white right” (named for the colored ring bands on her right leg), is making the rounds of her territory, checking the nests of each of her four mates. Her territory is difficult to get to, and we have to watch at a distance from a canoe. Jacanas defend areas of floating vegetation on wide tropical rivers. Panamanians call them “Jesus” birds because they look like they walk on the water and, in a sense, they do. They tiptoe across their floating mats, dispersing weight with each step over delicate toes, balancing atop the bobbing rosettes of water lettuce and hyacinth.

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This morning, red-over-blue-and-white right is fighting again, as she so often does. An unmarked female had darted in from the adjacent shoreline, hiding in the hyacinth leaves behind one of the males, but our territorial female spots her immediately and closes in. Now, face to face, the two birds size each other up. Crouching low, elbow spurs flared out to the sides, each sidesteps the other in a slow circle. Then red-over-blue-and-white right pounces, leaping into the air and striking the intruder feet first on her way down, slashing out with her spurs. Everything whirls into a blur as both birds leap at each other over and over, crashing together and jabbing as they flail onto the mat of floating lettuce, pop to their feet, and leap once more. And then suddenly the fight is over; the intruder flies away, and the thick air rings with raucous ka-ka-ka-kas as our focal female proclaims victory to birds nearby.

Hundreds of vagrant females forage along the nearby shores of the river. These individuals have failed to secure an island territory of their own, and they challenge the resident females incessantly, pressing and probing, searching for weakness. For vagrants these battles are “do or die,” since failure to secure a territory is an evolutionary full stop, a dead end. Unless they can find a way to displace one of the owners, their chances of breeding are nil.

Female jacanas are fighters, towering over the males. They are stronger than males, vastly more aggressive, and they have the larger weapons. Sharp yellow spurs jut forward like daggers from each elbow. Bigger females fare better in fierce battles, and as a rule only dominant, top condition females manage to hold a territory for long enough to breed.

Males also fight for territories on the floating mats, though their battles are less vicious and are independent of the wars waged by the females. Males fight with rival males, and successful individuals defend patches of floating greenery sufficient to raise a clutch of chicks. These territories pack into the floating islands like tiles of a mosaic, with the female territories superimposed on top. Some females may be able to shove rivals away from only a single male territory, but the biggest and best females own enough island to house three or four males.

My female is engaged in yet another fight—her fourth of the morning. The male shepherds his brand-new chicks as they wobble from plant to plant, all feeding on little insects squirming at the water surface around the lettuce.

The next male over, his territory also nestled within the holdings of red-over-blue-and-white right, still has eggs, and he sits on his hidden nest sheltering his clutch. A third male has nearly grown chicks, and the last male is between broods, ready to begin the process again. Our female, when she’s not battling to hold her spot, moves freely among her males, mating with them from time to time. When one of her males is ready, she’ll lay a clutch of four eggs into his nest. But then she will abandon the eggs to the male and move on, placing her next clutch a few weeks later into the nest of a different male. Male jacanas spend several months tending to young each time they reproduce, preparing nests, incubating eggs, and shepherding the chicks as they grow to independence. Females show up to provide eggs when needed, but otherwise they leave the tending of young to the males.

Jacanas seem backward. Females are more aggressive than males, they are larger than males, they fight more viciously and frequently than males, and they have larger weapons. In the animal kingdom, usually it’s the other way around. In flies, beetles, mastodons, crabs, and elks, males are armed, not females. Jacanas excepted, in every species with weapons confined to a single sex, males have those weapons. Why should just one sex have weapons? And why is it (almost) always the males?

Females of all animal species produce larger reproductive cells (called “gametes”) than males. Eggs are bigger than sperm, and this difference in material investment is far more substantial than most of us appreciate. Humans are rather ordinary in this respect, but we’re a good place to start. The female egg is the largest cell in the human body. It measures almost a fifth of a millimeter across—about the size of a period (.) on this page—and it’s just visible to the naked eye. Sperm are the smallest cells in the body, and 100,000 could fit into the volume of a single egg.

In many animals differences in egg and sperm size are much more profound. A zebra finch mom fits nicely in the palm of your hand. She’s roughly 4 inches beak to tail, but she lays an egg that is more than a ½ inch across. By weight, a finch egg is 7.5 percent of the weight of her body. That’s equivalent to a human female producing an egg weighing 11 pounds. Kiwis have the most gargantuan of all gametes, relative to their body size: brown kiwi moms lay eggs that are a fifth of their body weight. Our human mom would need to produce a 30-pound egg to compare—the size of an 18-inch watermelon.

Asymmetry in gamete size has consequences that ripple through the biology of animal species. For one thing, females can’t produce as many gametes as males do. With the same amount of resources, males produce trillions of sperm. And these numbers stack up fast, since each male produces similarly copious quantities of sperm. A human female produces roughly 400 viable eggs over the course of her lifetime. A male, on the other hand, cranks out 100 million sperm every day, easily 4 trillion over his lifetime. Scale that up to a population of 1,000 people, and there are a quadrillion (that’s 15 zeros) more sperm than there are eggs. Scale it to the current human population and there are a septillion (24 zeros) more sperm than eggs. And humans aren’t even an extreme example. The simple fact is that in virtually every animal species there are nowhere near enough eggs to go around. The result is competition.

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The size of female gametes is important for another reason. Large, nutrient-rich eggs are expensive, and they take time to produce. Depending on the species, females may take days or even weeks to recover from producing one batch of eggs before they are ready to lay another. Males, on the other hand, tend to need only a few minutes. Thanks to their gametes, females generally take longer to “turn around” between breeding events than do males.

Females also stand to lose more than males if a breeding attempt fails. Although each sex invests nutrients, energy, and time in producing gametes, the amounts they invest are different. Females spend more than males each time they reproduce and, because of this, the cost of abandoning a brood is much steeper for females than it is for males. As a result, whenever additional offspring care is required, it’s generally the females who provide it.

Females invest in offspring in all sorts of interesting ways beyond simply producing eggs. Cockroach moms hold fertilized eggs inside their bodies until they are ready to hatch, feeding and protecting them in an insect equivalent of a mammalian pregnancy. Scorpions wear bundles of babies on their backs for weeks after they hatch. Dung beetle moms excavate tunnels into the ground and provision their babies with balls of buried dung; a few species even lock themselves inside a crypt for a year so they can guard the young as they grow.

Preparing nests, pregnancy, guarding eggs, and feeding and protecting young all take time. These forms of maternal care can increase the latency between reproductive events still further, compounding the rift in relative investment between the sexes. Males can invest in offspring, too, as they clearly do in jacanas and humans, but it’s surprisingly rare in the animal world. In most animal species, males provide little more than sperm, and this means they recycle an awful lot faster than females.

Turnaround times are tremendously important for explaining animal weapons because whenever they differ between males and females the result is always competition. If you walk into a population of just about any animal species, and you count how many individuals of each sex are physiologically capable of breeding right now, you’ll find that all the males are able and willing, but many of the reproductive-age females are not. Some of the females are physiologically unavailable—out of commission, so to speak—in between broods. Female zebras in the midst of pregnancy cannot conceive new foals. Cow elks cannot start new pregnancies while they are nursing existing young. Females that are locked into a current breeding event are “out of the pool” since they are not available for conceiving new young. If all of the males are able to breed, but only a fraction of the females are, then there will not be enough females to go around.

Enter nature’s most pervasive and potent form of competition, what Charles Darwin called “sexual selection.” Individuals of one sex compete for access to the other. In principle, sexual selection can work both ways, with either males or females competing. In reality, except for rare cases such as the jacana, it almost always involves males competing for access to females. Female jacanas still produce the larger gametes (eggs are bigger than sperm), and it takes them a few weeks to recover between clutches. But this is where female investment stops. Male jacanas spend up to three months tending to eggs and chicks, and as a result their turnaround time is longer than the females’. Females recycle roughly three times faster than males (24 days compared with 78 days), translating into almost three times as many reproductively ready females as males on floating territories. At any point in time, roughly half of the males in a population are tied down with existing eggs or chicks, leaving just a few of them free to start new broods while most of the females are yolked up and ready to go. They could lay eggs immediately if only they had access to a territory-holding, reproductively ready male. In jacanas, there simply are not enough receptive males to go around, and females battle it out for the chance to breed. Sexual selection, rather than selection from predators or prey, drove the evolution of blazing yellow spurs in jacana females.

llustration by David J. Tuss. Excerpted from Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle by Douglas J. Emlen, published November 2014 by Henry Holt and Company LLC.  Copyright © 2014 by Douglas J. Emlen. All rights reserved.

Nov. 24 2014 4:48 PM

The Rare and Spooky Black Seadevil Anglerfish, on Video

Good luck sleeping tonight. The video above shows the extremely rare female black seadevil, a terrifying-looking anglerfish replete with a large mouth and rows of sharp teeth, famous for its use of a “luminescent orb” hanging from their heads to lure prey.

The deep-water beast (admittedly small, at around 4 inches long) was captured on camera by a Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) submersible vehicle, apparently marking the first time that the anglerfish has been caught on video “alive and at depth.”

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The MBARI scientists came across the anglerfish at a depth of around 2,000 feet, but the fish are known to live at depths up to four times that. Which, obviously, explains the irregularity of seadevil sightings. According to MBARI research division chairman Bruce Robison, this was only the third sighting of the species in the Monterey Canyon in the past 25 years.  

 

Nov. 20 2014 12:45 PM

Save the Parasites!

Species reintroductions are some of the most dramatic and compelling stories in conservation. Bringing back wolves, black-footed ferrets, condors, and other animals to landscapes that have lost them gives a satisfying sense of closure. Wrong righted; ecosystem healed.

And the conservation biologists who undertake these reintroductions often emphasize that it isn’t just about preserving the species that they are bringing back but restoring their ecological linkages to other species, thereby reknotting the web of life.

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But conservationists may be prone to the cuddle-centrism that afflicts so many of us, preferring charismatic animals over other species. Ironically, at least two species reintroductions have been responsible for the permanent severing of one of the tightest ecological relationships in nature: that between parasite and host.

Environmental historian Dolly Jørgensen of Umeå University in Sweden explains in a paper published in Conservation Biology this month:

When the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) was deloused during captive breeding after extinction in the wild, the ferret louse (Neotrichodectes sp.) may have become extinct. Similarly, the louse Colpocephalum californianus was intentionally removed from the endangered California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) during captive breeding and is presumed extinct. It is unfortunate that these programs did not account for the parasite’s conservation.  

Um … what? Here we have expensive, complex, and much-lauded programs to bring back species from the brink of extinction, and then we just rinse two other highly endangered species down the drain with the Rid?

Presumably the intention was to ensure the health of the precious remaining condors and ferrets. But there are ways to achieve both objectives. Jesus Perez at the University of Jaén in Granada, Spain, suggests that researchers working on reintroducing the Iberian Lynx manually remove its species-specific lice and transfer them to captive lynxes, or raise them in the lab until the wild Iberian lynx population is robust enough to allow them back out in the wild.

All species are important, and adding back only the cute and charming ones undercuts the notion that reintroduction programs are about ecosystems, not just aesthetics. I’m considering making up some bumper stickers that say “Save the Whales … and Their Ecto- and Endo-Parasites!”

Nov. 17 2014 1:40 PM

Thanks for Nothing, New York City

In 1890, representatives from a group called the American Acclimatization Society released 40 pairs of nonnative European starlings into Central Park. The release was possibly part of a larger effort to introduce to North America every species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. (Henry IV, Part 1, Act 1, Scene 3: “I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak / Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him / To keep his anger still in motion.”) But more likely it was just to see if the birds would stick. Stick they did, and the European starling spread from New York to become an invasive pest and perhaps the most numerous bird in the country.

In 1904, a forester with the Bronx Zoo noticed that a fungus was killing his American chestnut trees. The fungus had been carried on decorative Asian chestnut trees brought by nurseries to New York as early as 1876. The Asian variety had long ago evolved resistance to the fungus, but the American species had no defense. The carnage was astonishing: The chestnut blight killed billions of American chestnuts, which once grew on nearly 200 million acres of eastern forest, all but completely eliminating the species from its native range in less than 50 years.

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Thanks for nothing, New York City.

There’s no doubt that a lot of great things got their start in the Big Apple: hip-hop, the roller coaster, Scrabble. But we shouldn’t forget that it’s also been the site of introduction for a great many of our country’s worst invasive species. As the city has changed the American landscape culturally, so too has it changed the landscape physically. And not for the better.

I know you know this already, but in case you didn’t: Invasive species are awful. They belly flop onto ecosystems, throwing everything out of whack. They prey on creatures unprepared for defense. They muscle out native species looking for a home or food. They destroy crops and fisheries. They’re just crappy, and a lot of them came here first through New York.

Sometimes introductions were intentional, as in the case of the nitwits from the Acclimatization Society, who released not just starlings but also pheasants, Java sparrows, brown trout, largemouth bass, and any other “foreign varieties of the animal and vegetable kingdom as may be useful or interesting.” In the spring of 1851, Colonel Nicholas Pike of the Brooklyn Institute released eight pairs of European house sparrows into that borough. The birds feasted on grain spilled from the feedbags of thousands of city horses, and within just 30 years of their introduction to Brooklyn, house sparrows had spread from coast to coast and numbered in the millions.

Other times the introductions came as a result of good old-fashioned New York opportunism. House finches taken from the southwestern United States in the 1940s were sold in New York as “Hollywood finches.” They inevitably escaped and have since spread all across the East. Mute swans from Europe were sold to romantic collectors in Long Island and the Hudson Valley in the early 1900s and have expanded throughout the Northeast, using their long necks to outcompete other plant-eating waterfowl.

Most times, though, it was accidental. New York’s busy port brings ships from all over the world, sometimes carrying invasive cargo. In the 1980s, sections of pipe were imported from China for a sewer project in Brooklyn. Burrowed into the wooden pallets that held the pipe were large, voracious, black-and-white Asian long-horned beetles. The beetles were first found in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 1996, killing trees by eating them from the inside out. They’ve since killed more than 80,000 trees, are spreading throughout the Northeast, and threaten almost all of America’s hardwood species.

And those are just the ones we know for sure. Pinpointing the introduction of a species is tricky business—they don’t get their passports stamped, after all. A bunch of invasives probably started in New York, though I can’t say for sure. Purple loosestrife, a European weed that has invaded marshland pretty much everywhere except Florida, snuck into the United States in ship ballast, likely in New York harbor. Garlic mustard has invaded forests all over the Northeast and Midwest, but it was first seen on Long Island in 1868. Cheatgrass was first discovered in New York in 1861, possibly the result of contaminated grain shipments, and now is found in all 50 states and is a major driver of wildlfires in the West, where it covers an area more than 4,000 times the size of Manhattan.

New York isn’t our only point of introduction for invasives, of course. Asian carp were introduced in Arkansas. Zebra mussels were first sighted in the Great Lakes. South Florida is practically an open-air zoo for introduced species, hosting all manner of tropical lizards, birds, and plants. Texans looking for exotic things to shoot introduced several species of Asian and African ungulates, including nilgai, blackbuck, and axis deer, that have since established wild populations. These nonnative creatures aren’t much of a threat to spread to other parts of the country though, because the habitats that allow them to thrive—arid in Texas or tropical in South Florida—are limited. New York’s temperate climate isn’t restrictive at all. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if species can make it in New York City, they’ll make it anywhere.

Of course, there’s one nonnative species that hasn’t been mentioned yet, one that’s become as symbolic of the city as a floppy slice of pizza: the rock dove, the pigeon. Oddly enough, the pigeon is one of the few widespread invasives that didn’t get its start in New York; it made its North American debut in 1606, in Port Royal, Nova Scotia. Thanks for nothing, Canada.

Nov. 14 2014 1:27 PM

The World Recently Protected an Area Almost the Size of Australia

Some good news for the environment: The world is on track to meet its goals for expanding protected areas by 2020. On Thursday the United Nations Environment Programme released a report on these targets, part of a larger set of initiatives aimed at protecting biodiversity. It’s not quite time to pull out the organ and sing the Hallelujah chorus, however.

In terms of sheer area, we’re doing great. Since 2010, countries around the world have designated new protected lands that add up to 6.1 million square kilometers—an area almost as big as Australia (7.7 million square kilometers). Protected areas are a proven, cost-effective way to address climate change, food insecurity, and other threats to human health and well-being, according to the report, Protected Planet 2014. They’re also essential for protecting biodiversity, which contributes a significant chunk to the global economy. The only problem with these newly protected areas is that they don’t necessarily include the places most important for biodiversity and ecosystem services.

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Last month, alarming reports on biodiversity showed just how precarious the conservation effort is. The World Wildlife Fund reported that the planet’s population of vertebrates is about half what it was 40 years ago. Blame falls on the usual culprits: habitat loss, hunting and fishing, and climate change. Later in October, the U.N. reported that the world is on track to meet only five of its 55 biodiversity protection goals for 2020, and has worsened or made no progress on 15. Six of those target indicators involved expansion and management of protected areas. Now Protected Planet provides a closer look at these six targets and what it will take to get all of them on track.

By 2020, the U.N. aims to conserve at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas. Areas of “particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services” should receive special attention, according to the report, and protected areas should also be ecologically representative of the planet’s ecosystem as a whole.

In terms of area, we are still on track, but the bigger problems emerge upon closer inspection of what areas are being protected, and how well they align with areas that most need protection.

Biodiversity protection is the first sticking point. In 2013, Protected Planet reports only 22 percent of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas and 23 percent of Alliance for Zero Extinction sites were completely protected. To help policymakers better determine what areas to protect, a global standard is being finalized that incorporates both of those site classifications.

If there’s one thing we’re actually good at when it comes to environmental issues, it’s talking about them. Public awareness of biodiversity has improved in both developed and developing nations (albeit to varying degrees), the U.N. noted in October. But for all our talking, we might not be driving the right message home: Studies indicate that while people know biodiversity loss is a global issue, they don’t perceive it as a local concern. They also are not sure what direct actions are beneficial or harmful to biodiversity.

The majority of the U.N.’s broader biodiversity targets can still be met, the October report said, but it won’t be easy. Individuals, organizations, and governments will have to make some changes.

On a macro scale, societies need to use land, water, energy, and other resources more efficiently. The report also called for “major transformations of food systems,” noting that agriculture and related activities account for 70 percent of projected loss of terrestrial biodiversity. Efforts for conservation, Protected Planet suggests, should focus especially on preventing biodiversity decline and extinction.

Simple consumer choices can also impact biodiversity. Some of these are obvious, like recycling and not buying things made from endangered animal parts; turning lights off; closing the faucet on our sprinklers when it’s raining. Some are more subtle: When was the last time you checked to see where your new wood floor was coming from? WWF estimates that each year the world loses an area of natural forest the size of Greece. The Forest Stewardship Council seal on a product means it was legally logged, and therefore more eco-friendly to use. Just food for thought next time you redecorate. And there’s always local politics, where smaller environmental battles are fought. Those seemingly small decisions add up.

All of this boils down to one thing: We’re making progress, but if we want to continue living on a biologically diverse planet, we’re going to need to do more, and do it better—both as individuals and societies. Protecting the environment involves incremental steps—the turning over of several small leaves, if you will.

Nov. 11 2014 12:12 PM

Dear Discovery Channel: A Man Getting Eaten Alive by an Anaconda Isn’t Educational

“You have to go in head first” when getting eaten alive by an anaconda, according to the Discovery Channel’s sneak peek of Eaten Alive, its newest affront to televised science. On Dec. 7, Discovery will air one brave man’s quest into (and back out of) the belly of the beast—an anaconda, to be exact. This move is only the newest entry in a growing collection of pseudoscience and outright fiction clogging the airwaves of the once-educational TV channel.

On its surface, watching a “naturalist and wildlife filmmaker” survive feeding himself to a giant snake in the Amazon sounds pretty awesome—unless, of course, you’re the giant snake. But it’s gratuitous cruelty. If this were an attempt to understand snake digestion, the filmmakers could easily feed the snake a camera. If this were about gawking at a snake eating something huge, there’s always that YouTube video of the python eating a crocodile—a true act of nature wherein no animal was duped into wasting its energy eating (and then regurgitating) a guy who covered himself in pig’s blood. Discovery has already shot the program, and it says both man and snake are alive and well. In fact, stuntman Paul Rosolie has been tweeting about the program.

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This is about pushing the envelope and garnering shock views—which is fair enough, until you factor in an abused snake and the fact that this is part of a series of unscientific endeavors by a channel whose reputation at least somewhat still involves education. A petition to stop the program from airing has garnered more than 20,000 signatures. Discovery told People magazine that it consulted three herpetologists before signing off on the stunt, but that didn’t stop PETA from calling it animal cruelty. Snakes often regurgitate their prey, but it’s usually a response to stress or outside threats, said David Steen, a wildlife ecologist at Auburn University. He added that retrieving a food item from a snake would be “stressful at the very least” to the snake.

“Done wrong, I can easily see how the snake could be injured,” Steen said. “For example, if I were to yank something out of a snake's stomach (rather than have the snake regurgitate it on its own), I would be concerned about causing internal injuries.”

Steen said he hoped the show had some educational goals, and noted it certainly has more potential to draw viewers than feeding a small camera to a snake would. Perhaps these viewers might become interested in snakes and seek out more educational material after watching. But he also fears the motivation here is “primarily exploitation of animals for ratings.”

This concern has been voiced before about Discovery programming. Shark Week, arguably one of Discovery’s biggest pieces of viewer bait, has been accused of capitalizing on people’s fear of sharks while simultaneously misinforming the public about an animal that is actually in danger. It’s also not the channel’s first foray into shock programming—last Sunday it aired Nik Wallenda traversing the Chicago skies on a tightrope with no safety net or tether. Animal Planet, which is also owned by Discovery Communications, has made two documentaries on mermaids that are so ineffectively marked as fictional that the U.S. government has had to issue a statement informing the public that mermaids aren’t real. It’s also home to Finding Bigfoot. (I’m not going to elaborate on this.) The History Channel, which is owned by Disney, airs shows about aliens. And let’s not even talk about TLC, another Discovery Communications channel, which has long stopped calling itself “The Learning Channel.”

When did educational television become so unenlightening?

It’s not a new question, but the answer isn’t easy to stomach: It’s kind of viewers’ fault. TV channels, after all, are just businesses. As businesses, it’s their job to make money. And to make money, they need viewers—and this is where our culpability lies. Put simply, if people didn’t reliably swarm in to watch these shows, they wouldn’t continue to air. Animal Planet hit record viewership last year with its second mermaid documentary. If it makes money, why stop?

“Somewhere along the line they realized that airing sensational nonsense tended to generate higher ratings and more advertising revenue than the wildlife documentaries I remember growing up,” Steen said. “So, it's a no-brainer. Education is not their mission.”

The problem is that many viewers still don’t know that—ask all the people who tweeted about mermaids. These channels have enduring reputations as informational, accurate sources. These don’t get undone in a few years—or even a decade, necessarily. The result is a viewership that can get severely duped, find out they’ve been misinformed, and then develop a mistrust not only for these channels, but for science in general, Steen said.

“In many cases, these shows even foster a distrust towards scientists and the scientific method; this was particularly evident in the wake of the programs making the case that mermaids exist or megalodon never went extinct.”

For most of us, channels like Discovery are our everyday link to the information about science and the environment. But now you can actually come out of these shows knowing less information than when you tuned in—again, ask people who got uneducated by watching documentaries about species that don’t exist today.

An anaconda eating a guy doused in animal blood might not misinform anyone—it’s not like anyone believes this happens in everyday life (I hope). But it plays into a larger business of exploitation and misinformation. Not to jump down anybody’s throat, but it would be nice if these channels used their influence for good, not evil—and for viewers to realize their voyeurism is turning the exploitation of animals into a veritable cash cow.

Nov. 7 2014 1:00 PM

Watch an Orphaned Baby Sea Otter Learn How to Act Like a Sea Otter

Awwwww. That is all. The video above shows an orphaned, 6-pound female sea otter pup arriving at her new home, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. It also shows, essentially, her first attempts at … well, being an otter.

Somehow separated from her mother near the San Francisco coast five weeks ago, the absurdly cute young pup—for now known by the placeholder name “Pup 681”—was discovered when a jogger heard her (probably soul-crushingly sad) cries for help. Per CBS News, the pup was first taken to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a top facility for sea otter rehabilitation, before an arrangement was made for her to be sent to Shedd permanently.

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Now that she’s there, her new aquarium family will need to collectively fill the role of the pup’s mother. The first order of business? “We have to teach her to groom,” Christy Sterling, Shedd’s assistant supervisor of penguins and otters, told CBS Chicago. “We’ll put her on a white towel and get a white washcloth and she kind of has picked up on working on spots herself, but we’ll help out as well and she’ll learn to rub on the white towel and get that water out of her fur.”

In addition to the huge self-esteem boost that (likely) comes with sporting a clean, dry coat, the grooming process is also essential to her health, as sea otters are kept warm not by blubber, but rather through the insulation provided by their coats. Which makes sense, given that their fur is the thickest of all mammals.

Once she’s gotten the hang of that, one imagines she’ll move on to learning the really important things in the Standard Sea Otter Behavior playbook—like adorably holding hands with fellow otters while she sleeps.

Nov. 6 2014 7:25 AM

Watch a Porcupine Go Head-to-Head with a Pride of Lions

Note to Democrats: When you're outnumbered, surrounded by an angry horde that is licking its chops at the thought of feasting on your defeated carcass, this is how you respond. The living political metaphor in question—and on display in the video above—is a porcupine, and it shows its exemplary resilience by single-handedly fighting off a pride of 17(!) lions.

Captured on camera at the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa by guide Lucien Beaumont, the encounter looked, until the very end, to be lights out for the prickly rodent. But the little guy just would not go gentle into that good night. While the circling pride had every advantage—size, numbers, top-of-the-food-chain status—the would-be victim had a combination of some serious tail-shaking (called a “rattle”) and impressive fearlessness, and the porcupine was helped by a general reluctance on the part of the lions to take a face full of barbs. That all kept it alive and off of the dinner menu.

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As you’ll see, contrary to common belief, porcupines don’t actually shoot their quills, but that clearly doesn’t matter much in confrontations like these. Per Beaumont, “if the porcupine manages to get close enough to a predator, it does not shoot its quills, as many people may think. Rather the quills have micro-barbs, which hook into the face or paws of a predator that may get too close.”

In addition to quills likely being exactly as painful as that sounds, quills can break off, leaving parts embedded in the skin of the predator and often resulting in major infection. Apparently, that was ample motivation for the lions to ultimately retreat, stomachs empty.

That, and a valiant display of heart. Lots and lots of heart.

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