X FACTOR OF THE ANIMAL WORLD

With all the hype of the X Factor in the media every week, a comparison between the talent of the natural world and the individuals that will appear on the show can offer an interesting comparison!

Mimic – each year a contestant will try and impersonate their favourite singer on the show for maximum effect. However, they are never going to be as good as mimicking abilities of the lyrebird which is endemic to Australia. Of all the passerines, the lyrebird has the most complex musculature surrounding the syrinx allowing this species to imitate a variety of natural and man made sounds including car alarms and chainsaws.

Loudest – some of the characters on the X Factor do not suffer from shyness in terms of their singing volume and neither does the blue whale. The blue whale call can reach up to approximately 188 decibels and can travel for hundreds of miles underwater. That is the equivalent of the noise produced by a rocket launch pad. If humans stood near to this without ear protection the noise would cause irreversible damage to our hearing.

Specialist – the occasional contestant will try and do something different during their audition to get noticed including rapping and beat boxing. An army of frogs all croaking at alternating times may give the beat boxers a run for their money as different pitches and styles are combined. The sound is produced via a space in the throat called the glottis which is surrounded by the vocal chords and arytenoid cartilage. The loud noise reverberates around the expanding vocal sac causing the croak to become louder.

Sounds to make you shudder – during the first few weeks of the X Factor, there will be plenty of contestants who think they can sing resulting in cutting comments from the judges. Vocalisations from some species have the same affect on people such as a cockerel crow or a noisy dog living next door to you. The near – threatened aye – aye gets a raw deal if it is heard in its native Madagascar due to superstitions. Indigenous people think of the aye – aye as a symbol of death and as a consequence, they will dispatch of any if they are seen or heard.

Surprising sound from an unlikely source – many auditions show macho men singing in high pitched tones or beautiful opera performed from an unexpected individual. In nature, various species also make surprising noises. A rabbit will generate a high pitched squeal when in distress and cheetahs make a chirping noise, quite dissimilar to the roar of most big cats. This chirp is a very intense noise and can be heard approximately one mile away!

By Haley Dolton

THE SLOW WADDLE OF A PREGNANT DOLPHIN

We are all used to seeing acrobatic dolphins surfing and jumping effortlessly through the ocean. But until recently, we were unaware of the expectant mothers lagging behind their pod.

Dr. Shawn Noren and her team observed dolphins (located in Hawaii) for 10 days before giving birth and followed their progress for 2 years after calving. Dr. Noren observed that during their 12-month gestation period, dolphins develop a ‘bump’ akin to the ‘bumps’ seen in humans. However, for a marine mammal designed to be streamlined, the ‘bump’ could drastically affect an expectant mother’s lifestyle and lifespan!

Dr. Noren explained how the drag experienced by an expectant mother effects their speed:

“When a pregnant animal is swimming at 1.7 metres per second, it has the same drag force acting on it as a non-pregnant dolphin swimming at 3.4 metres per second.”

“So the pregnant dolphin can only go half the speed as the non-pregnant dolphin before it gets the same drag force.”

Dr. Noren also observed the arc of the tail whilst swimming reduces by 13% in a pregnant female. This is thought to be down to the location of the foetus in the abdomen creating surface tension in the mother’s skin, reducing its flexibility. 

These two factors slow pregnant females to a maximum speed of 13km/h (8mph), which is markedly slower than a non – pregnant female whom can reach speeds in excess of 22km/h (14mph). This puts them in danger of becoming ‘easy prey,’ as the top speed of their natural predators would be equal to, or higher than, the maximum speed of a pregnant dolphin.

Pregnant humans may feel ‘less streamlined’ as the weeks pass by, but at least they are not reliant on their shape to glide through the world’s oceans like these graceful mammals!

By Haley Dolton

Seahorse trade devastating wild populations

Whilst on holiday, you have probably seen shells, dried starfish and maybe, even seahorses in curio shops around the globe. These curiosities are so popular; approximately 25 million seahorses are sold per year via this trade, the pet trade and their use in traditional medicines. With little known about the actual population of seahorses, it is very difficult for conservation strategies to establish if a sustainable catch is viable in the future.

It is estimated that seahorse populations have declined between 15 – 70% in recent years because of trading and the decline of their natural habitats. Coral reefs face difficulties such as climate change, curio trade, pollution, bleaching and destructive fishing practices.  Recently the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network have reported that globally, approximately 19% of coral reefs have already disappeared, 15% are under serious threat in the next 10 – 20 years and 20% will be lost in the next 20 – 40 years!

In addition to this, another habitat used by seahorses, seagrass meadows are also under threat from similar pressures. It has been estimated that losses of up to 90% have been seen in Chesapeake Bay (the U.S.) in the last 50 – 100 years and in just 20 years; approximately 50% of seagrass meadows have been lost in Vietnam.

Another factor contributing to seahorse declines is their biology. They reach sexual maturity late in life; consequently, they are often removed from the wild before they have time to reproduce. When they do reproduce, they have low birth rates when compared to other marine species such as fish. For example, cod can produce an estimated 200 000 eggs per spawn, whereas a seahorse will birth around 1000 young per year.

All these factors are negatively contributing to the global decline of seahorse populations. With increased awareness and education, attitudes towards seahorses are slowly changing. For example, individuals are beginning to see that seahorses are worth more alive to them because of tourism, rather than supplying them to the curio trade. This, combined with additional research into population levels, will hopefully see a sustainable conservation strategy put into place in the not too distant future before it is too late.

Haley Dolton

The helpful gardener: rats aid pollination and seed dispersal

Rats do not always provoke the best reaction from people, but hopefully, due to recent research, people may look upon them more favorably and get past their ‘creepy’ hairy tail and feet.

Historically, rats have been transported all around the world mainly by exploring travellers, making rats an invasive species across the majority of the globe. Some rat populations have played a major role in carrying diseases to new countries and devastating native flora and fauna species. However, new investigations into the role played by invasive rats in an ecosystem have been conducted and it turns out, they are not all that bad.

Recent declines in pollinating invertebrates such as bees, has resulted in pollination of flowering plants declining. This has a negative impact on food crops and the natural flora and fauna found in the wild. Insect pollination is approximately worth £141 billion per year, making a resolution to this problem not only ecologically important, but also financially beneficial.

Fortunately, other species can pollinate flowers such as bats, birds, mammals and reptiles. Dr. David Wilcove and his team have found the invasive rat (Rattus rattus) in New Zealand acting as a pollinator on the main Island. Unfortunately, this may only be because they have preyed upon the majority of endemic pollinators.

Although this research is somewhat of a double – edged sword, it was unexpected to find rats acting as pollinator for native plant species which may otherwise have suffered a major population deficit. Dr. Wilcove has suggested the rats make a successful substitute for pollinators in this instance because the plants studied do not rely on a specialist to pollinate them.

In another study, Dr. Pierre-Michel Forget and his team have discovered for the first time that the species, Kivu giant pouched rat (Cricetomys kivuensis) is helping flora seed dispersal in Africa.

Rodents in temperate climates are well known to disperse seeds far from a parent tree. For example, we have all seen a squirrel hiding their nuts for winter! Conversely, it was long thought that rodents living in tropical conditions in Africa only stored seeds deep in burrows, leaving no chance for them to germinate.

However, Dr. Forget established the Kivu giant pouched rat also scatter-hoarded large seeds, leaving any forgotten hidden seeds the chance to germinate. This not only benefits the ecosystem as whole, but also the rat directly as food will continue to be provided from new plants in years to come.

These two studies highlight the importance invasive species may be playing in certain ecosystems, which is vital to consider in future pest control schemes.

A CROAK FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE

Preserved specimens at museums always draw a crowd due to the extraordinary rarity to see whole animals preserved in liquid. Not only are they are crowd pleasers; they allow museums to catalog species we know exist on this planet.  An exciting new discovery by graduate student Tina Cheng and her team will put museum specimens to another great use.

The main focus of this study was the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) and it’s spread across Mexico and Central America. Bd causes chytridiomycosis, a disease that is currently devastating amphibian populations with approximately 40% of total species affected by it. The disease changes both morphology and behavior and eventually leads to death.

Museum specimens are normally preserved in formaldehyde, which interacts with proteins found in DNA. This allows the fixation of body tissues to occur. Ms. Cheng and her team were able to use old specimens from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley, Calif, to establish where and when the deadly fungus Bd first appeared.

Swabs were taken from frog and salamander specimens (collected in the 1960s) that inhabited the mountains of southern Mexico, western Guatemala and the cloud forests of Monteverde, Costa Rica. Interestingly, the swabs showed the presence of Bd corresponding with the earliest reports of Bd related deaths of amphibians in the wild.

Ms. Cheng and her team were effectively able to take a ‘freeze frame’ of time to show the spread if the disease. It appears Bd spread in a southerly direction across Central America in the 1970s – 1980s.

Using museum specimens in molecular research is a massive step forward in research science, as it was previously believed formaldehyde would denature the proteins needed for testing in DNA. Encouragingly, this study shows tiny stretches of DNA can survive the preserving process, leaving the opportunity for additional research to be conducted using museum specimens. As scientists are currently in the process of establishing how Bd spreads, how to stop it and how to treat infected individuals, this new research method could not have come at a more important time.

THE NOT SO GLAMOROUS WORLD OF EXOTIC PETS

The ownership of exotic pets has been brought to the forefront of people’s minds recently with instances of ownership being reported in the media. Having pets such as lions, tigers and chimpanzees, is not only harmful to the animals but also to the owners. Inappropriate, emotional bonds are formed between humans and domesticated ‘wild’ animals that will never lose their natural instincts.

One notable occurrence has been that of the Vietnamese vet Terry Thompson, who released 56 of his exotic animals into Ohio farmland and took his own life after doing so. The menagerie of animals included: 18 rare Bengal tigers, wolves, bears and monkeys, which had to be shot before they came into contact with the general public. The whole incident is speculated to have occurred due to financial difficulties of keeping so many exotic pets.

Louis Theroux has also just released a new documentary about the ownership of exotic pets in order to gain an insight as to why people believe they should own such powerful and dangerous animals. The programme was filmed once again, in Ohio where the number of exotic pets is high as the state laws are relaxed in relation to the worlds view on owning exotic pets. The limited control of exotic animal ownership is not without consequences, as 75 people have been killed and over 1500 injured by their pets.

Both these news stories highlight how dangerous these animals can be, but why do people continue to buy them? It may be that the dangerous animals are used as power symbols to enhance their owners status, for profit by selling body parts, or because cubs and primates have the cute factor when young. But when these cute animals grow up, they often outgrow their enclosure, become expensive to keep and aggressive as they reach sexual maturity. It is for these negative reasons that out of control pets are given away to establishments such as those featured in Louis Theroux’s documentary. This gives a justifiable reason for keeping them open, in addition to using them as gene pool in the future.

However, despite their proposed usefulness in the future, can conservation organisations really rely on these establishments to make sure the gene pool of endangered species are not compromised by inbreeding when it is normally controlled by an overseeing body? With approximately 5000 Bengal tigers (5% in recognised zoos) kept in captivity in 2004 in the USA alone and only 3200 Bengal tigers in the wild, this is an increasingly important question to consider.

Keeping exotic animals is not a practice everybody agrees with and less than 24 hours after the massacre in Ohio was reported to the general public, approximately 28 000 people signed a petition to ban the sale and ownership of wild animals. There needs to be a shakeup in terms of the laws surrounding owning a dangerous animal as a pet. It should not, in today’s society, be acceptable to be able to buy unchecked numbers of tiger cubs in car parks for $200/cub as reports suggest. Nor is it acceptable for the owner to put themselves in constant risk of being attacked and killed by a loved pet.

If laws surrounding wild animal ownership are stringently controlled in countries which currently permit it, they could provide an invaluable service to conservation in the future. This is because the release of endangered, captive bred individuals into the wild may be considered as a way to reverse depleted populations. But until it is controlled, how long before we hear of another incident similar to the one in Ohio or before an owner is killed?

KILLER WHALE CHANGES ITS COLOUR

Whilst watching Frozen Planet, has it crossed your mind why the killer whales in the Antarctic are slightly off colour? This slight yellow tinge is caused by nutrient rich diatoms and algae found in these chilly waters which attach to the mammals skin. John Durban of the NOAA has offered a new proposal as to why a certain type of killer whale will migrate thousands of miles in relation to this yellow tinge.

Since the killer whales travel at a constant speed during this migration, researchers believe that they are not traveling to find prey or to give birth. Type B killer whales (which feed mainly on seals) were tagged off the Antarctic Peninsula and it was revealed that they move towards sub – tropical waters continually. One tagged individual travelled over an incredible 5, 000 miles to Brazil, only to return just 42 days later to Antarctica! The speed and distance travelled is unprecedented in killer whales and it implies the individual departed from Brazil immediately, but why?

Killer whales return from this journey to warmer seas ‘cleaner’ than when they left. It is thought the warmer water helps killer whales to shed the algal growth and regenerate skin tissue. It is possible that the energy they would need to expend in the cold Antarctic waters can be utilised to repair any tissue damage created by diatoms or algae. Further evidence for this theory is shown by killer whales actually slowing down their speed in warmer waters. They do not travel slowly enough to indicate calving or extensive feeding, but it would give the killer whales extra time in warmer waters to shed and heal their skin.

As more research is conducted on these beautiful mammals, the more we are finding out about how clever they are. This may provide interesting comparisons when researching into the evolution of intelligence and how similar to the intellectual capability of humans they may be.

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!