“Rewilding” the USA with lions & elephants

An article about what knocked off the mammoths–not man as previously thought, but climate change–got even more interesting when it told about a current proposal that environmentalists are making:  “Rewild” America by bringing back into the countryside elephants, camels, lions, and other ancestors of animals that have gone extinct. [Read more...]

Squirrel and deer potty training

I don’t know whether this is gross or sublime.  Actually, I think it is both gross and sublime.  Mostly sublime:

Baby squirrels must be taught to defecate. This fascinating bit of information came from Don Moore , associate director of animal care sciences at the National Zoo. Earlier in his career, Don worked in Syracuse, N.Y., rehabilitating baby squirrels.

Squirrels are among species — deer are another — where the mother uses her mouth to carry her offspring’s poo and pee away from the nest. This is to protect her litter from predators.

“Evolutionarily, that’s a great strategy,” Don said. “The mother’s removing the only thing that can give [the baby] a scent: the pee and poo.” With no scent to follow, predators can’t find the defenseless baby.

The mother’s selfless act is so hard-wired in a squirrel’s very being that babies can urinate and defecate only after being stimulated by the mother licking around . . . down there.

Orphaned squirrels raised by humans risk becoming constipated and bloated. “The gut stops moving,” Don said. “You don’t want that to happen, so you stimulate them. In fact, you have to start stimulating them just to get them to feed.”

Squirrel moms provide stimulation with their tongues. “We don’t recommend that,” Don said. “We would use a warm, damp washcloth.”

Baby squirrels must have their nether regions stimulated at every feeding from birth to about five weeks of age, when their eyes are open and their fur is coming in.

“It’s a wonderful day when they start doing it themselves,” Don said.

via Answer Man gives the scoop on squirrel poop, other readers’ questions – The Washington Post.

In praise of the naked mole rat

Scientists have sequenced the genome of a strange little creature, the naked mole rat.  Why?  Because it never gets cancer, lives an unbelievably long life without mental decline, and has many other amazing powers that may hold clues for human health.

Mole rats are hairless, buck-toothed rodents four inches long that live in underground colonies in arid sections of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea. Their social structure is the mammalian equivalent of an ant colony. There’s a queen who takes two or three male consorts and is the only female to reproduce. She lords over the rest of the realm — which can be as large as 200 animals — so that the other females cease ovulating and the males give up.

Mole rats can survive in environments low in oxygen (as little as 8 percent as opposed to 21 percent in the atmosphere) and laden with ammonia and carbon dioxide. Unlike other mammals (but like reptiles), they have a hard time regulating their body temperature. They have to move toward the warmer upper reaches of the burrow or huddle with their brethren when they get cold.

But their most unusual features are extreme longevity and apparently complete resistance to developing cancer.

Naked mole rats can live more than 25 years; mice live about four. Buffenstein said she has never found a malignant tumor in a mole rat in her 30-year-old colony, which has 2,000 animals. In a recent experiment, a group of mole rats had patches of skin painted with a chemical carcinogen at a dose 1,000 times stronger than what causes skin cancer in mice. None developed tumors.

A study published in 2009 found that naked mole rats had a molecular anticancer mechanism not present in mice or people. But a first look at the species’ full complement of 22,561 genes shows that’s just the beginning.

There are changes in genes involved in maintaining telomeres, the “tails” of chromosomes that determine how long a cell lives. There are changes in genes involved in marking damaged proteins for destruction. There’s an increase in “chaperone” genes that keep proteins folded into their right shapes. There are genes that appear to let the animals maintain stem cells in their tissues longer than other rodents.

The study looked at 54 human brain genes that become less or more active as a person ages. In the mole rat, 30 of those genes remain stable throughout life, and two others change their activity in a direction opposite to what occurs in human brains.

Mole rats have 96 gene families unique to the species. Interestingly, they and humans also share 178 gene families that neither mice nor other rats have.

via Naked mole rat genome may point way to long, healthy life – The Washington Post.

 

 

How did the animals know?

Shortly before the earthquake hit Washington, D.C., the animals in the National Zoo started freaking out.   So did lots of people’s housepets, with sleepy cats suddenly jumping up and heading for the hills just prior to the quake.  Scientists can’t figure out how they knew:

Orangutans, gorillas, flamingos and red-ruffed lemurs acted strangely before humans detected the historic magnitude-5.8 earthquake. Now the question hovering over the zoo is: What did the animals know, and when did they know it?

Therein lies a scientific mystery, one in which hard facts and solid observations are entangled with lore and legend. There has been talk over the years about mysterious electromagnetic fields generated by rupturing faults. There has been speculation about sounds inaudible to humans, and subtle tilting in rock formations, and the release of vapors that people can’t smell.But there also may be less to the mystery than meets the eye, with Tuesday’s zoo weirdness merely serving as a reminder that many wild animals are paying close attention to nature while humans are doing whatever it is that humans do.

The zoo documented a broad range of animal behavior before, during and after the tremor that began in central Virginia and shook much of the eastern United States. For example, a gorilla, Mandara, shrieked and grabbed her baby, Kibibi, racing to the top of a climbing structure just seconds before the ground began to shake dramatically. Two other apes — an orangutan, Kyle, and a gorilla, Kojo — already had dropped their food and skedaddled to higher turf.

The 64 flamingos seemed to sense the tumult a number of seconds in advance as well, clustering together in a nervous huddle before the quake hit. One of the zoo’s elephants made a low-pitched noise as if to communicate with two other elephants.

And red-ruffed lemurs emitted an alarm cry a full 15 minutes before the temblor, the zoo said.

During the quake, the zoo grounds were filled with howls and cries. The snakes, normally inert in the middle of the day, writhed and slithered. Beavers stood on their hind legs and then jumped into a pond. Murphy the Komodo dragon ran for cover. Lions resting outside suddenly stood up and stared at their building as the walls shook.

Damai, a Sumatran tiger, leaped as if startled but quickly settled down. Some animals remained agitated for the rest of the day, wouldn’t eat and didn’t go to sleep on their usual schedule. . . .

The belief that strange animal behavior is a precursor to earthquakes goes back to antiquity. A recent scientific study suggested that toads fled to higher ground days before the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy. In the most famous case of modern times, snakes and frogs emerged from their holes in 1975 in the dead of winter several weeks before a magnitude-7.3 earthquake in Haicheng, China (the odd animal behavior helped persuade officials to evacuate the city just before the tremor).

via Zoo mystery: How did apes and birds know quake was coming? – The Washington Post.

One explanation has to do with the so-called p-wave, a faint foreshock that precedes the big s-wave in an earthquake.  This is imperceptible to human beings, but maybe animals can pick it up.  The p-wave hit 15 seconds before the big 5.8-on-the-Richter-scale shock.  That would explain some of the animal behavior.  But some of the zoo animals started panicking a full 15 minutes before the quake.


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