To complete the roundup of eye-candy, oddities and miscellany for this month, let’s look at the oddities. A lot of the weirdest stories I’ve seen recently are about animals. It turns out that, as populations of wild animals plummet, more and more humans have taken to adopting exotic pets, and that’s not a good thing.
Exotic Animals in Strange Places
Writing in the New Yorker, Rachel Monroe explores the recent rash of exotic animal thefts from the Dallas Zoo, linking it to wildlife trafficking and perhaps also to the enduring frontier mentality of the state. Texas’s laws governing exotic-animal ownership are notably permissive. The state is home to enough privately owned (and poorly secured) big cats that Texas Monthly once ran a column with the title “A Brief History of Tigers on the Loose in Texas, 2021 Edition,” which detailed numerous cases of escaped, seized, and rescued pet tigers in the first five months of that year alone. Recently, there’s been a spate of escaped pet kangaroos. In the past few decades, as drought and rising temperatures have made cattle ranching less feasible, thousands of landowners have stocked their ranches with antelope, sheep, and goat species native to Africa and Asia. While hunting native animals is restricted to certain months, no law limits when you can shoot, say, an impala or a Cape buffalo. So, hunting operations can run year-round.
According to the Texas-based Exotic Wildlife Association, this industry contributes a billion dollars to the state’s economy, and Texas’s exotic-hunting ranches have increasingly positioned themselves as conservationists who are also capitalists. WildLife Partners, an exotic-species breeder and broker, touts the animals as an investment whose growth “continues to out produce many traditional investment vehicles such as stocks, bonds and mutual funds.” And because hunters will pay a premium to bag a rare species—tens of thousands of dollars, in some cases—ranchers are incentivized to cultivate animals that are, in their native habitats, endangered by poaching and habitat loss. Certain species, such as the addax and the mountain bongo, both critically endangered, are more plentiful in Texas than in Africa.
After reading Ms. Monroe’s article, I was curious about the Canadian situation. Back in January, Parks Canada issued a plea or people to stop abandoning their pets and exotic animals after a three-fold increase at Rouge National Urban Park in recent years. Sofia Misenheimer’ s article “9 Exotic Animals You Can Legally Own In Canada (But Good Luck With That Upkeep)” on MTLBlog provides details of the care challenges of some of the exotic animals it is legal to own in Canada. Back in 2016, writing in The Toronto Star, Liam Casey noted that owning exotics is a growing trend in Canada thanks to outdated and inconsistent laws and bylaws. Owning exotics — wild animals taken from their natural habitat or bred in captivity and not native to the country — is a growing trend in Canada, according to animal welfare activists, who blame a patchwork of outdated and inconsistent laws and bylaws. Rob Laidlaw of Zoocheck, a wildlife protection charity based in Toronto, has been fighting for animals’ rights for decades. Reliable data on the number of exotic animals in Canada is difficult to come by, he says. Based on his research, Laidlaw believes there are hundreds of thousands of exotic animals in the country, the vast majority being reptiles. Among the patchwork of provincial and municipal laws and regulations, “Ontario is probably the worst jurisdiction in the country for exotic animal laws and has been for quite a long time,” Laidlaw says. Ontario leaves this regulation up to municipalities.
Part of the problem is laws based on “negative lists,” he says, which must be constantly updated. Instead, he says, Canada should adopt a “positive list” approach used in several European countries that allows ownership of only listed animals.
Problems with exotic pet ownership include:
- Wild capture and illegal trading,
- Poor welfare for the animals, and
- Potential harm to humans, such as the tragic death of two young brothers who were killed by an escaped African rock python in Campbellton, N.B.
Cocaine Bear, Meet Cannabis Raccoon and McFlurry Skunk
Writing in the New York Times last month, Emily Anthes details the strange but true origins that inspired the new movie “Cocaine Bear”. She also addresses a few other weird stories about animals getting into human things they shouldn’t. Some of their stories are amusing, even relatable. “I received a call of a skunk out behind a hotel, running around in the parking lot with a McFlurry cup on its head,” said Jeff Hull, an environmental conservation officer for New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. But animals’ taste for human goods — licit and illicit — can also bring trouble for them and for us.
Anyone who has gone wilderness camping in Canada will identify with the need to keep food out of the reach of bears. Bears are notorious for getting into human provisions, especially as winter approaches and they need to pack on the pounds. “Essentially, they’re an eating machine,” said Dave Wattles, a black-bear and fur-bearer biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Sometimes, they even break into homes. In the Berkshire Mountains, one bear burglar routinely sought out frozen treats.
The article goes on to details other animal misadventures with food and drugs, but not all of these are human’s fault. Many gardeners who own fruit trees, for example, have probably seen squirrels, racoons or birds get drunk on late-season fermented fruit.
Wolves of the wilderness are calling. Will your dog answer?
Are there dogs that are more prone to reply with howling? Are these dogs genetically closer to wolves? To answer these questions, the effects of the dogs’ breed, age and sex on their behavior were tested in this study. Results of this extraordinary research were published in Communications Biology.
Endangered Bats Find Refuge in Abandoned Army Bunkers
Thanks to reader Desre Kramer for alerting me to this story by Abigail Klein Leichman. In 2006, Eran Levin entered an abandoned bunker on the Israel-Jordan border and saw a colony of bats hanging from cables and from metal shelves full of old cigarette packs. Levin had found his missing link. Then a PhD student, he was studying bats in the Judean Desert. He knew that after mating in April, greater mouse-tailed bats begin migrating north to the Sea of Galilee and Hula Valley. But where did they stop on the way? He and Aviam Atar from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) decided to look for roosts in the Jordan Rift Valley.
Abandoned after Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994, these underground army bunkers have become a haven for thousands of diverse bats in a model of peaceful coexistence. After gaining permission from IDF, Levin and colleagues were able to transform the bunkers into more bat-friendly habitat. The bat population in the bunkers has been rising steadily. The first counting in 2014 totaled 2,311. By 2021, the bats numbered 7,380. Levin goes on to note: “A whole ecological system has developed around them. Snakes feed on the bats and many invertebrates feed on the bat feces.”
Rare insect found at Walmart sets record
A giant insect plucked from the façade of an Arkansas Walmart has set historic records. The Polystoechotes punctata (giant lacewing) is the first of its kind recorded in eastern North America in over 50 years—and the first record of the species ever in the state. The giant lacewing was formerly widespread across North America, but was mysteriously extirpated from eastern North America by the 1950s. This discovery suggests there may be relic populations of this large, Jurassic-Era insect yet to be discovered, explained Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab. Skvarla found the specimen in 2012, but misidentified it and only discovered its true identity after teaching an online course based on his personal insect collection in 2020. He recently co-authored a paper about the discovery in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.
(See also: A Jurassic-Era Insect Rediscovered and Rare insect found at Arkansas Walmart sets historic record, points to deeper ecological questions)
Butt catapults on glassy-winged sharpshooters
Writing in LiveScience Charles Q. Choi shares recent research about the amazing speed with which some tiny insects can dispose of their waste. Relatives of cicadas known as sharpshooter insects can catapult pee droplets at superfast speeds, revealing the first known example of “superpropulsion” in nature, a new study finds.This newly discovered effect helps the bugs save energy during peeing and may inspire better self-cleaning devices and soft robotic engines, scientists noted.
In the new study, researchers examined relatives of cicadas known as glassy-winged sharpshooters (Homalodisca vitripennis). These insects, which are about half an inch (1.2 centimeters) long, feed on sap from xylem, the woody part of a plant that brings water and dissolved nutrients up from the roots, as opposed to the phloem, which brings sugar down from the leaves. The sharpshooter’s diet is 95% water, and poor in nutrients. So the bugs constantly drink xylem sap to get enough to eat, and pee up to 300 times their body weight per day. (For comparison, humans pee about one-fortieth of their body weight per day.) The scientists detailed their findings online in the journal Nature Communications.
Their time to slime
The annual Mollusc of the Year competition is underway. Will you choose beauty? The carnivorous Wavy Bubble Snail, perhaps, with its billowing skirts shimmering under UV light. Or will it be age? Like the venerable 500-year-old Methuselah oyster. Or will you be seduced by the leopard slug with its gymnastic mating ritual? The list of finalists for Mollusc of the Year has something for everyone. In a public vote ending Sunday, five species of soft-bodied invertebrates are vying to follow in the illustrious trail of previous winners, dubbed the “world’s most beautiful snail” and “weirdest octopus”. The grand prize? The triumphant species will have its genome decoded to better understand its evolution and potential benefits to humanity. The International Mollusc of the Year competition, which kicked off this month, is run by the LOEWE Center for Translational Biodiversity Genomics, based in Germany.
Keanu Reeves, the molecule: New active ingredient from bacteria could protect plants
Ok, so the actor is a hottie, but the bacteria named in his honor has some pretty nifty properties too. Bacteria of the genus Pseudomonas produce a strong antimicrobial natural product, as researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology (Leibniz-HKI) have discovered. They proved that the substance is effective against both plant fungal diseases and human-pathogenic fungi. The study was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and highlighted in an editorial in Nature.
It’s official: World’s largest giant waterlily recognized by Guinness World Records
At an event hosted at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in West London, an official from Guinness World Records has presented Mr. Juan Carlos Crespo Montalvo, the Bolivian Charge d’Affaires to the UK, with an official Guinness World Records title for the world’s largest giant waterlily, the recently-named Victoria boliviana. The species, which was named new to science in July 2022, has been described as one of the ‘botanical wonders’ of the world following years of investigation that culminated in the publication of a paper in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.
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