SPOTTING A JAGUAR NOW MADE EASIER

Thanks to a revised photograph identification technique, developed originally for tigers, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC) are able to better recognise individual jaguars in Bolivia than previously possible.

Coat patterns are as unique as our fingerprints, allowing researchers to accurately log data about individuals. The technique involves creating a digital map of an individual’s coat pattern by stitching a series of photographs together which have been taken by camera traps or even tourist photographs. The use of this method has spread throughout the animal kingdom to include species such as grey seals, cheetahs, whale sharks and now, jaguars.

The technique is also proving to be useful for persecuting those involved in the illegal fur trade. Animals can now be traced back to their natural habitat through the development of ‘maps’ created by digital imaging. This drives the direction of investigative enquiries by establishing the location of the population in the wild.

WSC researchers using the photograph identification technique have been able to recognise 19 individual jaguars from a total of 975 photographs taken by only one camera. The number of photos taken during this study is at record high due to digital cameras being used rather than the normal traps that use film. The practice of using spot patterns to identify individual jaguars has been made possible due to the high resolution offered by digital cameras.

The ability to accurately identify individuals at such a high resolution will allow researchers to gain an intimate insight into the lives of these secretive animals and how best to protect them against the dangers of poaching.

A unicorn whale?

You would probably recognise them by their distinctive appearance, but how much do you know about the toothed whale, the narwhal? It turns out researchers are also vague about the specifics of a narwhal’s life and how it may change as a result of global warming.

The WWF are trying to establish how Arctic melting is affecting ice – associated species such as the narwhal. Dr. Peter Ewins of WWF-Canada and his team tagged nine individuals in August of this year to try and establish how the elusive narwhal would cope with shrinking sea ice. Dr. Ewins is waiting on the results of their movement patterns to compare with anecdotal evidence of local Inuit’s to try and initiate a successful conservation plan. This is because narwhals are classed as near threatened by the IUCN, with their population at only approximately 50,000 – 80,000 individuals due to hunting practices for their meat and tusk.

Their long, helical tusk was thought to have initiated the fairytales of unicorns and who could blame anyone for being inspired by this mysterious species! The tusks originate from their left canine tooth and males can have tusks that reach up to 3m in length and in 1 out of 500 males, two are produced! Females also possess a tusk, but it is shorter and is not helical in shape. It is thought the tusk has evolved via sexual selection in a similar process to that of the peacock and its feathers. In addition to this, you may have thought the tusk could be used to break through ice patches enabling the narwhal to migrate with ease. However, it is thought the tusk is only used as a visual display to others as they are very rarely observed using their tusk in aggressive behavior.

They are the preyed upon by polar bears, orca and of course, humans, which further depletes their population. In addition to this, narwhals have a highly specialized diet (and therefore restricted) possibly hampering the recovery of their population in the future. When the results from this study are published it will provide greater knowledge to the scientific community when the time comes for a conservation plan for this unique species.

Check out Frontier’s blog for more science news!

Time to chill out with Sir David Attenborough

That’s right, David is back on our screens on the 26th of this month to bring us another stunning wildlife series; Frozen Planet. Little snippets of this series have been released to the media and general public over the past few days and it looks to be just as cool as the locations it’s set in! A few species have already made an appearance in wildlife news recently such as crafty killer whales and thieving penguins. To get us all in the mood for the new series, here is a mini food chain detailing why some species make good predators and why some make tasty prey!

Polar bears are one of the apex predators within this food chain. Males are very large and can reach up to 350 – 680 kg and 7.9 – 9.8 ft. in length, with females measuring half that length. Because of their large size, it makes it possible for them to smash into ice dens of seals and tear into prey easily. This is assisted by shorter claws on their feet and their extremely large paws, which can measure approximately 30cm across! Their keen sense of smell also helps them when hunting prey. Polar bears are able detect unburied seals from nearly 1 mile away and buried seals under 3 ft. of snow!

Killer whales are another apex predator that drift in and out of the icy waters surrounding Antarctica and the Artic. They have a varied diet depending on which subspecies they are and their geographical location. Killer whales make excellent predators due to their high intelligence and ability to work as a team. Just recently, new images of killer whales working together to knock a seal off of an ice float have been released. A team of killer whales will rush towards an ice float causing a wave to appear that is powerful enough to knock an unsuspecting seal into the mouth of another member of their pod. They work together like this in many clever hunting situations displaying team work that some think is reinforced by their own ‘culture.’

Weddell seals are the preferred prey of apex predators as they are not as aggressive as crabeater and leopard seals, so the chance of injury by them is not as likely. Weddell seals measure between 8.2 – 11.5 ft. long and can weigh between 400 – 600kg. They are insulated with a thick layer of blubber which not only keeps them warm, but also attracts predators.  Their energy rich blubber is vital for them to stay alive because food is so hard to come by. The weddell seal does have a few tricks for avoiding gaping jaws, which are also used when hunting for their own prey. They can dive to depths of approximately 2,300 ft. and can hold their breath for around 80 minutes! That’s a very long time to play hider or seeker!

The Frozen Planet team filmed the Adélie penguin stealing stones from neighbour’s nests to put in their own. Unfortunately for them, penguins make a tasty snack for seals and killer whales (but without the wrapper and bad joke – if you exclude that one!) Penguins may make up the bulk of a predators diet perhaps due to their sheer numbers, making them easier to locate. In the Ross Sea region of Antarctica, there are currently around 5 million Adélie penguins! This may make them an attractive option for many in such a harsh environment.

With these species featured (and I’m sure a lot more) together with the great camerawork from the BBC, I know what I will be doing on Wednesday nights!

Compare the meerkat call

“Alan! Alan! Alan!” Not only can small mammals respond to their name, but it has now been established that they are able to recognise calls specific to other individuals. Research has been conducted by Dr Simon Townsend on meerkats inhabiting the Kalahari Desert, South Africa. Dr. Townsend and his research team are the first scientists to discover that voice recognition occurs in other species apart from primates and also suggests the possibility of it being more wide spread in the animal kingdom than previously thought.
Although the research has produced interesting results, Dr. Townsend and his team had to overcome the problem of the meerkat’s reaction to an individual’s call. Although it is widely known that meerkats are social animals, it is much harder to distinguish the relationships to one another in a clan. Consequently, it is difficult to observe which individual will respond to whom. To solve this problem, audio playback was used to gauge the individual’s reaction to a call.

Recordings of staccato “close calls” (noises made to reassure other members of the clan they are there and as territory warnings) were played to an individual from one location and their response recorded. A call from the opposite orientation from which the original call came from was then played to the same meerkat and the response was once again recorded. In the final stages of the experiment, recordings from the same meerkat were played to one individual from conflicting directions.

Dr. Townsend commented this process as being a “violation of the animal’s expectation” as the meerkat making the call could not physically be in two places at the same time. Also, during these periods of “violation” the meerkats became more vigilant to their surroundings. It is possible the ability to recognise individual voices has evolved to make communication between members of the same clan more efficient due to meerkats having complex social groups.

It is hoped this research will inspire others to investigate whether other animals can also recognise individual calls and whether we have underestimated other mammals’ communication methods.

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Alarming trend in China: keyrings containing live animals

A disturbing and cruel trend is emerging in China; keyrings containing live animals. The keyrings may contain one of three options for the discerning customer: one newt, one Brazil turtle or two small kingfish. Each keyring contains ‘nutrient rich water’ in varying choices of colour and can be bought for as little as £1.00. Of course, the water is not nutrient rich (tested by veterinarians) and the animals are contained in a small space until they die a few days later due to suffocation. But with prices this cheap, does it really matter to the customer if they die quickly when they can purchase more of them cheaply, ever increasing the demand?

The keyrings are sold openly in public areas due to this trade being completely legal in China as they are not ‘wild animals.’ Members of the general public acquire these keyrings perhaps as a ‘cool novelty’ or as one unidentified customer said “I’ll hang it in my office, it looks nice and brings good luck.” Some well-wishers are unintentionally increasing demand as they are buying large quantities of keyrings and releasing the animals into the wild.

In addition to increasing demand, the released animals may cause additional problems to the ecosystem if animals are released in the wrong environments, resulting in competition for limited resources. Customers should also be aware of the health risks posed by the animals in the keyrings. For example, turtles are carriers of salmonella bacteria, which may be extremely harmful if individuals come in contact with it.

This obvious cruelty is becoming increasingly popular in China. Encouragingly, so is the global awareness of this trade, sparking campaigns to try and stop the sale of these keyrings immediately. If the general public of China use their better judgement, hopefully the demand will drop and the trend will decrease.

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