Surfer Pushed into the Path of a Shark

Many people from shark enthusiasts to researchers would love to swim with sharks in their natural environment. We all know the possible dangers of certain species of shark that are exaggerated by films such as ‘Jaws’ and played up in many documentaries. Due to an increased exposure to wild animals via this medium, are some people becoming too relaxed around wild animals?

There is no doubt in many individuals’ minds of the worth of well written and executed documentaries, but what about sensationalist pieces which concentrate on Hollywood stereotypes and do not mention the ‘whole deal’ when it comes to different species? Are we losing a sense of how dangerous wild animals can be with the apparent ‘safeness’ of certain species?

A video has been posted recently of a surfer that is pushed into the path of a shark in the Irish Sea and reported by the media as ‘not as dangerous as it may look’ due the shark in question, being a basking shark. This may be a case of bad journalism, but it highlights a worrying underlying thought of a ‘safe’ wild animal.

Basking sharks are filter feeders, concentrating on plankton found in the sea. Even if they did develop a taste for larger prey, they would not be able to swallow it as their throat only measures 4 inches in diameter. For a shark that can measure up to 10 meters, that is a surprisingly small throat!

However, this does not mean they are ‘safe’ to play around with because they are not ‘as bite-y’ as other sharks. Basking sharks typically measure around 6 – 8 meters, all of which is mostly muscle. If that surfer had been hit by the shark’s tail, it would have resulted in a morbidly different story and no doubt, cries of ‘Jaws’ off the Irish coast.

Despite the basking sharks tag as a ‘safe shark’, it is a very large and powerful wild animal. It is a shame that some bad journalism is promoting the apparent safeness of some species, probably making the decision to push your friend into the path of a basking shark easier than if it was a great white!

Videos like this are making the protection of this vulnerable species and other species harder as disturbances to their behaviour by unregulated boats or flying surfers, will have severe consequences for their population.  Although social media is a great way to promote conservation, unfortunately, some irresponsible individuals are using it to get more hits, retweets and a popular hashtag.

 

Haley Dolton

 

 

It’s World Penguin Day!

I’m sure you’ve all got this marked down in your calendar, but it is world penguin day! So to celebrate, here are 10 facts about these beautiful birds:

1)            Some species of penguin can live up to 15 – 20 years old

2)            They spend 75% of their lives at sea

3)            Penguin biodiversity ranges from 17 – 20 species

4)            The tallest penguin, the emperor penguin, can reach the dizzy height of 3 feet 7 inches

5)            Penguins can dive further than any other bird species, the emperor penguin can dive 1,870ft for up to 22 minutes at a time

6)            A group of penguins is called a rookery

7)            They can swim at speeds of up to 25mph

8)            Penguins can survive more than 3 months without food or water

9)            The only penguin to cross the northern hemisphere is the Galapagos penguin

10)         The eyesight of penguins is far better underwater than on land

So now you’re armed with 10 fun facts about penguins, go and spread the word about world penguin day! Sadly, most of these penguins need your help to conserve them for future generations!

Haley Dolton

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!