School of Evolutionary Astrology


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Meat-eating rabbits: study finds that the fluffy creatures are not exactly "herbivores"

So that's unexpected!

by Mihai Andrei
March 16, 2023

In what can only be described as an ironic twist of fate, researchers have found that hares can feast on carcasses, complementing their diet with animal meat — including meat from their own kind and even one of their predators, the lynx.

Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus), white morph. Image credits: Shirleys Bay.

    "It was shocking to see the first time," says Michael Peers, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, who carried out the study. "I had no idea they actually scavenge."

Peers found out about this by accident. He deployed hare carcasses at various points in Canada's Yukon area, setting up remote cameras next to them. He was expecting to see larger predators like wolves coming to the feast, but this wasn't always the case. Among the footage, he also recorded evidence of cannibalism as hares came to devour their own.

In an even more surprising twist, not only do the hares dabble in cannibalism, but if given the chance, they will also eat the meat of one of their main predators, the Canada lynx. In one case, an individual was even found to repeatedly ingest feathers from a Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) carcass.

Peers believe that the hares (Lepus americanus) do this in order to boost their protein intake in the rough Canadian winters when nutrients are scarce and protein is a luxury. The hares were also territorial with their carrion, protecting it from other individuals. Peers suspects that hares haven't been spotted munching on larger carcass such as reindeer due to the competition from proper predators.

This isn't the first time "herbivorous" creatures have been found to munch on meat. Anecdotally, scientists have reported different species of rabbits eating meat since 1921. Pet owners have also reported it from time to time — but this is the first time it's been caught on camera and described in a scientific setting. Previously, in Ontario, biologist Kevan Cowcill set up cans of partially opened sardines throughout the boreal forest and also found that hares came to eat the stash. However, he did not publish his results in a peer-reviewed journal — and perhaps Peers also wouldn't have, had it not been for the very unusual grouse carcass.

Although it was only one observed case, it's still shocking. Ingesting feathers is extremely unusual in the animal world, because they are made of almost entirely keratin — meaning they contain very little protein. It's entirely unknown how the hare stomach would break down feathers and what nutrients it could derive from it. Potentially, it could be a source of fiber.

Overall, carrion consumption is becoming increasingly reported for animals once thought to be true herbivores. Particularly in cold areas, these animals work on a protein-deficient diet and would not say no to the occasional meat offering.

The study "Scavenging By Snowshoe Hares (Lepus americanus) In Yukon, Canada" was published in Northwestern Naturalist.


At Long Last, a Donkey Family Tree

In a new study, genetics and archaeology combine to reveal the ancient origins of humanity's first beast of burden.

By Franz Lidz

The donkey is a key, if increasingly marginalized, character in human history. Once venerated, the animal has been an object of ridicule for so long that the word "asinine" — derived from the Latin asinus, meaning "like an ass or a donkey" — means "stupid." Donkeys and donkey work are essential to the livelihoods of people in developing countries, but elsewhere donkeys have all but disappeared.

"I guess that we simply forgot the importance of this animal, probably being blown away by the impact of its close cousin, the horse," said Ludovic Orlando, director of the Center for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse in France. "In Europe, the horse provided fast mobility and helped grow crops and make war. I am not sure we can claim that the impact of the donkey was as large." Compared to horses and dogs, donkeys have received relatively little attention from archaeologists, much less geneticists.

Nonetheless, despite this being the Year of the Rabbit according to the Chinese zodiac, it might just be the Year of the Donkey. The Oscar-nominated film "EO" features as its hero a soulful, barbarously misused donkey. And donkeys star in a major new genetic study published in the journal Science; Peter Mitchell, an archaeologist at Oxford who was not involved in the project, called it "the most comprehensive study of donkey genomics yet."

Dr. Orlando, who has spent years mapping the domestication history of horses, is an author of the paper, which he hopes will jump-start research on the humble donkey and restore some of its dignity. He and researchers from 37 laboratories around the world analyzed the genomes of 207 modern donkeys, living in 31 countries. They also sequenced DNA from the skeletons of 31 early donkeys, some of which date as far back as 4,500 years.

Scholars had previously identified three potential centers of domestication, in the Near East, northeast Africa (including Egypt) and the Arabian Peninsula. But Dr. Orlando's team concluded that donkeys — humanity's first land-based transport — were domesticated only once, around 5,000 B.C., when herders in the Horn of Africa and present-day Kenya began to tame wild asses. That date is about 400 years before the earliest archaeological evidence of tamed donkeys from El Omari, near Cairo, and nearly three millenniums before horses were first harnessed.

The period coincided with one where the Sahara grew larger and more arid. Donkeys are especially resistant to drought and tolerant to water deprivation, which has led Dr. Orlando to speculate that they became an indispensable conveyance for herders and their wares. "Finding an auxiliary for transportation in those increasingly difficult conditions probably triggered the domestication process," he said.

From that point of origin in northeastern Africa, the team then reconstructed the evolutionary tree of donkeys and traced their dispersal routes across the rest of the continent. Donkeys were traded northwest into today's Sudan and onward into Egypt, trotting out of Africa around 5,000 years ago, and splitting off to Asia and Europe some 500 years later. The various donkey populations became progressively isolated by their geographic distance, even though trade resulted in systematic shifts back to Africa. Interbreeding between bloodlines was limited.

A 2004 study, examining a small sample of modern DNA from hundreds of donkeys, had suggested that humans domesticated wild asses twice, in Africa and Asia. The lead researcher, Albano Beja-Pereira, a geneticist at the University of Porto in Portugal, collaborated with Dr. Orlando and his colleague Evelyn Todd to revisit the conclusions using a larger data set, and now agrees with the single domestication hypothesis.

To our ancestors, the donkey assumed an extremely varied mythical and religious dimension. In ancient Egypt, the ass was one of the sacred animals of Seth, the Lord of Chaos. In Greek folklore, a donkey — an equid involved in the harvest and production of wine — was the mount that carried the god Dionysus into battle against the Giants, and flutes fashioned from donkey tibiae (which produced a braying-like sound) were used in his worship.

Donkeys are central to Judaic, Christian and Muslim iconography: In the Old Testament, Balaam's ass saw an angel and uttered prophecies. In the New Testament, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey on the day that Christians celebrate as Palm Sunday. Ya'fur was the name of the donkey that the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ridden and conversed with.

During the Bronze Age, from 3300 B.C. to 1200 B.C., donkeys were sometimes buried with humans, indicating a bestowal of honor on both parties. "In other cases, we find them as ritual deposits below floors, as recently discovered at Tell es-Safi, or seemingly as buried in their own right," said Laerke Recht, an archaeologist at the University of Graz in Austria who also worked on the new paper. She quoted a term that dates back to at least the second millennium B.C.: "to kill a donkey," which means to sign a treaty, an act that apparently involved a sacrifice.

The new findings revealed a previously unknown lineage of donkeys present in the Levant from around 200 B.C. At an archaeological site on the grounds of a Roman villa in the French village of Boinville-en-Woëvre, 175 miles east of Paris, investigators found what seems to have been a donkey breeding center, where donkeys from western Africa were mated with their European counterparts. The resulting pack animals measured 61 inches, or 15 hands, from the ground to the withers. The current standard is 51 inches or 12 hands. The only comparable modern donkeys are the American Mammoth Jacks — large, robust males bred to produce draft mules or for agricultural work.

Dr. Orlando said that the production of giant-donkey bloodlines occurred at a time when mules — the sterile offspring of male donkeys, or jacks, and horse mares — were vital to the Roman economy and its military. "It wouldn't take that many generations to selectively breed larger and larger donkeys," said Dean Richardson, a professor of equine surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine's New Bolton Center. "Giant jacks have always been in demand to make more valuable mules."

It is likely that the Romans preferred mules for their stamina, their speed and their capacity to bear massive loads of goods, especially for the army, which was stretched over thousands of miles. "When the Roman Empire collapsed, there was no incentive left for transportation across those long roads, and societies turned to more local economies," Dr. Orlando said. "The donkey then became more dominant and mules were hardly ever produced."

How can you tell that an ancient donkey was broken-in? "Domestication is a process," said Dr. Mitchell, the Oxford archaeologist and author of "The Donkey In Human History." Two decades ago at Abydos, in southern Egypt, the skeletons of 10 donkeys, dating from 3100 B.C., were excavated outside the funerary enclosure of the first pharaohs. "The bones showed a clear mosaic of wild and domestic characteristics," Dr. Mitchell said. "What gave away their domestic status was damage to vertebrae and joints consistent with hauling."

He said that the paucity of donkey scholarship reflects the out-of-sight, out-of-mind view of Western scientists, since over the last century donkeys and mules have largely vanished from Europe and North America. "Even in the developing world, they are very much an animal associated with the poor and with women more than men — so there's a double bias against them," Dr. Mitchell said.

In his 2008 travelogue "The Wisdom of Donkeys," the British academic Andy Merrifield notes that Benjamin, the skeptical donkey in George Orwell's "Animal Farm," desires only to retire to a pasture with his pal, a horse named Boxer. Dr. Merrifield finds in a donkey's eyes "a touching sadness, a grace," and a purity that "has no right to exist in the human world."

Still, the lucrative trade in donkey skins, an often illegal, largely unregulated and expanding global industry, encourages intensive farming to harvest hides, which are boiled down to make ejiao, a gelatin used primarily in traditional Chinese medicines. "This goes so obviously against animal welfare and causes a threat to local donkey populations and to those who depend on this animal for their subsistence," Dr. Orlando said. "If anything, our work reveals that our relationship with the animal goes really far back in time. This should help us realize the innumerable services they provided to humankind, and hopefully make us grateful."


The battle to save Cambodia's river dolphins from extinction

Agence France-Presse
March 16, 2023

Bulging grey heads break the turbid waters of the Mekong River in Cambodia as a pod of rare Irrawaddy dolphins surfaces to breathe, drawing excited murmurs from tourists watching from nearby boats.

The thrilling sight may soon be no more than a memory, as numbers of the endangered mammals dwindle despite efforts to preserve them.

Cambodia has announced tough new restrictions on fishing in the vast river to try and reduce the number of dolphins killed in nets.

But in a country with limited financial resources, it's a huge challenge to enforce the rules on a river hundreds of meters wide that is dotted with islets and lined with dense undergrowth.

"We fear we cannot protect them," says river guard Phon Pharong during a patrol searching for illegal gillnets.

Gillnets -- vertical mesh nets left in the water for long periods -- trap fish indiscriminately and are the main cause of death for dolphins in the Mekong, according to conservationists.

Pharong is one of more than 70 guards who patrol a 120-kilometer (75-mile) stretch of the Mekong from northeastern Kratie province to close to the Laos border.

The guards say their efforts are hampered by limited resources -- and intimidation by fishing gangs.

Mok Ponlork, a fisheries department official who leads the dolphin conservation guards in Kratie, has 44 people to monitor an 85-kilometer stretch but says to do the job effectively he would need at least 60.

Without the staffing, the guards know they are playing a losing game of cat and mouse with those fishing the river.

"If we patrol at night, they don't go. When we return at daytime, they go in the river," Pharong said.

Low wages mean guards are forced to take extra work onshore to support their families, taking them away from patrol duties.

Each guard receives about $65 a month from the government, while WWF funds another $5 for a day of patrolling.

- Dwindling numbers -

Irrawaddy dolphins -- small, shy creatures with domed foreheads and short beaks -- once swam through much of the mighty Mekong, all the way to the delta in Vietnam.

Illegal fishing and plastic waste have killed many, and the dolphins' habitat has been reduced by upstream dams and climate change, which have had a major impact on water levels in the river.

The population in the Mekong has dwindled from 200, when the first census was taken in 1997, to just 89 in 2020.

The species lives in only two other rivers: Myanmar's Ayeyarwady and the Mahakam in Indonesia, according to WWF.

The three river populations are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN red list of threatened species.

Found in fresh and salt water, Irrawaddy dolphins are slightly more numerous in coastal areas of South and Southeast Asia -- though even there they are classed as endangered.

Adding to concerns about the Mekong dolphins' future, around 70 percent of the population is now too old to breed.

Eleven Mekong dolphins died last year, but in December the deaths of three healthy breeding-aged dolphins entangled in fishing nets and lines within a week raised particular alarm among conservationists.

"It's kind of a worrying sign," Seng Teak, WWF-Cambodia Country Director, told AFP.

"We do need a lot in order to make sure that this species continues to survive in the Mekong," he said, calling on the government "to mobilise more resources into dolphin protection".

- Protection zones -

In late February, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a new law creating protection zones in which fishing is banned.

Violators face up to a year in jail for using gillnets and up to five years for electrofishing in the conservation areas.

In one such zone, around the village of Kampi, 24 guards now patrol a 22-square-kilometer (8.5-square-mile) stretch of river 24 hours a day.

"If they lay gillnets in the conservation zones, we will arrest them. If they use electrofishing, there is no mercy, they will be arrested and sent to court," said Ponlork.

So far, the extra push seems to be paying off: there are no more deaths and even a ray of hope.

"We got news from tourist boat operators that a baby dolphin was born a few days ago," Ponlork said.

Many locals who make a living taking tourists to see dolphins or selling related souvenirs are also worried about the mammals' future.

"If the dolphins are gone, we are over because our income is from dolphins," said Meas Mary, 53, who makes up to $15 a day running boat trips.

"Before there were a lot of dolphins. Now they are disappearing. I am so worried."

© 2023 AFP


Country diary: The tiniest contender for the king of birds

Radnor Forest, Powys: The Latin name for goldcrests hints at their lofty status, which is confirmed simply by watching them

Jim Perrin

The very big and the very small? My neck aches as I crane upwards to view a mighty Douglas fir by the path to the Water-break-its-neck waterfall. Meanwhile, small birds whirr continually across my peripheral vision. The air is filled with wheezy calls: tsee-tsee, tsee-tsee.

The golden-crested wren, king of the birds, the smallest European bird – is one of the few blessings that this conifer plantation has brought to these relatively unspoiled hills of Radnorshire. Sixty years ago, goldcrests bred here only in scattered pairs. Now, particularly in the Douglas firs on the southern flanks of Radnor Forest, but also in places like the stand of Scots pine by the pool on The Begwns above Painscastle, they've become numerous and characteristic. Semi-migratory, their hill population is augmented by winter visitors from the continent, and depleted by partial relocation to lower-lying regions.

"Dynasty" is the correct collective noun for these diminutive gems. A fable explains that a goldcrest challenged an eagle: who could fly highest? The eagle climbed and soared till exhausted with the effort. A tiny stowaway trickster emerged from between his wings, then flew higher still to receive the golden crown and title of Regulus regulus – king of birds.

If the goldcrest is king of birds, the Douglas fir is surely king among trees. A species originally imported from America's Pacific north-west, they can attain heights of 400 feet. These nonagenarian juveniles on the flanks of Radnor Forest have some way to go before reaching those heights, but already they're impressive at well over 100 feet. Their timber is straight-grained and strong, much in demand for roof trusses and the like.

As for Radnor Forest, it is one in the archaic sense of a hunting preserve. This conifer plantation apart, you'll find few trees here, only a fine, high moorland plateau of peat groughs and heather, more akin to Kinder Scout than to the natural habitat of Robin Hood. Currently there are plans to site huge wind turbines here that would dwarf even the tallest Douglas firs. I hope a more suitable brownfield site can be found for them. British wild land is precious, and grows ever more rare.

Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Lion king no more: Africa's most handsome lion slain by younger rivals

By Adela Suliman
WA Post
March 17, 2023

Bob Jr., who was hailed as Africa's most photogenic lion, has been killed by his rivals. He was 10 to 13 years old.

The striking lion with amber eyes and a golden-black mane — who was named after his father, dubbed Bob Marley by tour guides after the famed Jamaican reggae singer because of his lustrous, distinctive hair — once ruled over his pride in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. Local media and wildlife tour groups said the "Serengeti King" was killed over the weekend by a pack of younger, fitter lions — and some of them may have been related to him.

Bob Jr., also known as Snyggve, "was just always an exceptionally handsome animal," Craig Packer, professor and director of the lion research center at the University of Minnesota, said via telephone from the neighboring Maasai Mara reserve.

"This male lived in an area where he was very visible and would just knock your socks off because he was so good-looking," Packer said of Bob Jr. "He had such a luxurious and impressive mane that people would immediately react to that, and all he had to do was sit up."

Keith Somerville, a British conservationist and author of "Humans and Lions," said he last saw Bob. Jr in 2016. He was exceptionally photogenic, Somerville said, but it was his mane that stood out the most. "I've seen an awful lot of lions, and I've never seen a lion with such an amazing mane," he said.

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Serengeti National Park did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but media in Tanzania reported that Bob Jr. was killed by three younger rivals during a territorial battle near the Namiri Plains.

"I think this is entirely normal and part of the cycle of life, where the survival of the fittest reigns," said Rob Marchant, a professor of tropical ecology at the University of York.

"I am not sure which lions killed Bob Jr., but it could be quite likely that his offspring — now young and fitter — were the perpetrators. I am sure the genes of Bob Jr. will continue to live on through the many offspring he has fathered over the years," Marchant said.   

On average, Serengeti lions reach their prime and full size around 4 years old, Packer said, and are considered over the hill by age 12.

They rise to the top of their social order by operating in "coalitions," he added, as groups of male lions keep competitors for females and food at bay. The strength of a lion's roar is often an indicator to would-be rivals of a coalition's dominance and numbers, he said.

"We are so individually minded ... but it's a numbers game that lions play. If there's a younger but larger group, then they're going to be on the ascent at the expense of the fewer and the older," Packer added.

Bob Jr. — in a break with the arc of the Disney movie "The Lion King" — ruled in a pair with his brother Tryggve. His brother, known as "Marley," is reported to have been killed in a separate but related battle.

    This is the worst weekend ever!!

    It's now been confirmed that Tryggve was also killed by the coalition of 7 males 😭💔

    Two iconic legends of Namiri Plains are gone 👑👑
    Heartbreaking 💔

    RIP Kings Tryggve and Snyggve!
    Sons of the famous lions C-boy & Hildur.

    📸 Alex G Perez
    — LION LOVERS (@LIONLOVERS5) March 12, 2023

"This is normal — it's typically what happens," said Packer, who works in conservation and spent time with Bob. Jr when he was a cub. "He was eventually ousted and killed by a trio."

"He was much, much older and on his own. ... It's sad, but also it's the way lions live," Somerville added. However, the younger cubs in his pride may now seek retribution, he added, or face being killed in turn by the new rulers.

The Tanzania Times mourned the loss of "probably the best looking lion in Eastern Africa" but said Bob Jr. "ends his legacy with honor."

One safari group, Asilia Africa, paid tribute to Bob Jr. for his "distinctive and luxuriant black mane," calling him "one of Africa's most iconic lions," whose life was an "incredible journey of pride takeovers and losses."

Serengeti National Park is home to at least 3,000 lions, as well as elephants, rhinos, wildebeest and other wild animals. The northern Tanzania park is also a U.N. World Heritage site and attracts thousands of tourists from across the globe each year.

Bob Jr. "led a good life," Packer said. "The way he died, that's the way most males go who reach that exalted status — that's the price they pay."


A killer fungus has spread in Africa, driving more amphibians to extinction

By Mark Johnson
March 17, 2023
WA Post

A killer fungus that has caused the worst wildlife disease in history, wiping out or driving to the brink of extinction hundreds of amphibian species, has become more widespread across Africa than anyone realized and is probably causing overlooked outbreaks.

First described in the late 1990s, the fungal infection called chytridiomycosis has swept through the diversity-rich continent in little more than two decades, possibly fueled by air travel and the animal and food trades, according to a new study in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science. Ominous news from the study suggests that one lineage of the fungus assumed to be benign is more common and possibly more virulent than previously thought.

"There is no other pathogen that has caused a disease even close to this," said study co-author Vance T. Vredenburg, associate chair of biology at San Francisco State University. He keeps a jar full of dead frogs to remind him of what it felt like to watch firsthand as the disease destroyed frog populations in the Sierra Nevada mountain range between 2004 and 2008.

While most pathogens sicken or kill a limited number of species, this fungus "is a generalist across all amphibians, and it does extremely well," Vredenburg said. The fungus is considered a significant reason that 41 percent of amphibians around the world are in danger of extinction.

"We're incredibly lucky it doesn't affect mammals," Vredenburg said.

In terms of scale, the closest any human disease has approached to chytridiomycosis is the Black Death, Vredenburg said, referring to the epidemic of bubonic plague in the mid-14th century that killed one-third of Europe's population in five years.

The devastation to amphibian species is wreaking havoc on ecosystems around the world. Frogs and salamanders feed on disease-causing mosquitoes and other insects, keeping their populations in check. They also provide food for larger frogs, snakes and some bird species.

The new study's findings are important because "Africa was one part of the world where we've always had a big question mark" about the fungus, said Jamie Voyles, an associate professor of biology at the University of Nevada at Reno who has written about chytridiomycosis but did not participate in this study.

The continent is home to more than 1,200 of the world's 8,592 recognized species of amphibians, making it a key benchmark for measuring the impact of chytridiomycosis. Amphibians, a class of animals able to live both on land and in the water, consist of three groups: frogs, salamanders and the wormlike animals called caecilians.

Vredenburg said researchers did find cause for hope in the fact that "there are quite a few [amphibian] species that get infected and nothing happens." What protects resistant animals, however, remains unclear.

Spores from the waterborne fungus known as Bd, short for the scientific name Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, seep into the skin of frogs and salamanders. Within 24 hours, the fungus can produce thousands more spores that are released back into the water, where they swim using a threadlike structure called a flagellum. The new spores can infect the same frog as well as others.

The fungus kills by causing an amphibian's skin to grow up to 40 times its normal thickness, making it hard for the animals to breathe and causing them to become dehydrated. Eventually, many get conditions that cause their hearts to stop.

For their study, Vredenburg and his colleagues cast a broad net, searching for signs of the disease in Africa as far back as 1852. They examined 16,900 amphibian specimens, testing almost 3,000 from museums and 1,651 from wild animals in Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They also included amphibians recorded in previous journal studies. The earliest known example of the fungus worldwide dates back to 1933 and was found in Cameroon.

Vredenburg and his colleagues found that, starting just before the 1960s, the fungus was present in less than 5 percent of the samples they studied during every decade. Then its presence abruptly soared to 17.2 percent in 2000. The study reported that the fungus is spreading especially quickly in Cameroon and Kenya.

In Cameroon, they found that the fungus lineage known as Bd-CAPE was spreading and appears to be more virulent than previously thought.

"I like to see studies like this that combine a lot of different methods to tell a story," said Andrea J. Adams, assistant researcher at the Earth Research Institute at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

But the work leaves open an important question: Why has the fungus spread so dramatically since 2000?

In her own study of the disease in Southern California during the 1950s, '60s and '70s, Adams concluded that the fungus coincided with the region's postwar land boom and the construction of new roads, which offered a path for the pathogen to reach frog populations in the mountains.

In Africa, Vredenburg and his colleagues found one country, Equatorial Guinea, where there has been a significant decrease in the prevalence of the fungus. They don't know the reason.

In some cases, its spread can be traced to air travel or shipping, which have increased connections between different countries and between islands. In the Caribbean, frogs that slipped in with banana shipments appear to have carried the fungus from one island to another, Vredenburg said.

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"As we increase the connectivity," he added, "we're going to disrupt millions of years of evolution between pathogens and hosts."

The huge declines in amphibian populations could wind up changing a fundamental human experience, Voyles said. "Everybody can remember catching frogs or tadpoles as a kid. The joy of discovery is incredible."

Adams said the threat is important because "biodiversity is our knowledge. We need to keep everything around as long as possible." Some amphibians may be used in medicine, while others may have benefits people have not anticipated.

For Vredenburg, the spread of the Bd fungus is a sobering reminder that he did not initially realize how great a threat it posed to the frogs he studied in the Sierra Nevada.

"These frog populations are so robust. Come on, they've been here for millions of years in the mountain," he recalls thinking at the time. "Sure enough, the fungus came in and wiped them out. I saw tens of thousands of dead frogs."


Island tourists swoon over stray puppies. Many bring one home

In the Turks and Caicos, people line up to take rescue pups on a walk on the beach. Sometimes the line snakes around the block.

By Sydney Page
WA Post
March 17, 2023

When Brandon and Alyse Kay embarked on their honeymoon to the Turks and Caicos Islands, the last thing they expected was to bring a puppy home with them to Chicago.

"We had no intention of bringing a dog back," said Brandon Kay. "Next thing I knew, I was carrying a dog through customs."

The couples' dog — whom they adopted in 2019 and named Blueberry because he was found under a berry bush — is one of thousands of puppies that a team of local volunteers have rescued and placed for adoption with tourists like the Kays.

"Our lives were changed forever," said Brandon Kay, adding that, despite being born in a tropical climate, Blueberry adores the snow. "He is such a big part of who we are."

Jane Parker-Rauw is the founder and director of Potcake Place K9 Rescue. She started the nonprofit organization in 2004, but "I was rescuing dogs for probably about five years before that, just unofficially," she said.

Brandon Kay said that his wife had heard about the charity before their trip, and she suggested they go visit the adoption center in Grace Bay to see the cute puppies.

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The rescue group has a storefront in a busy shopping area, and tourists line up in the mornings to have a chance to take a pup on a walk on the beach. Sometimes the line snakes around the block.

Parker-Rauw, who is originally from England, moved to the island in 1996 for a job in the spa industry. She initially signed on for a 12-month contract and ended up staying.

Soon after moving to Turks and Caicos, she noticed an abundance of stray dogs — called "potcakes" — roaming around. The name potcakes came about because locals regularly left out their cooking pots — which were caked with food remnants — for the dogs to eat, she said. Other Caribbean islands are known for having potcakes, too.

There was limited infrastructure and regulation in place to prevent the potcakes from excessively breeding. The result: tons of puppies, and not enough people to look after them.

"Just seeing the problem, I wanted to try to do something to help," recalled Parker-Rauw, who said she has always been an animal lover, although she had no experience working with dogs.

She began volunteering at the Turks and Caicos Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and would go door-to-door in residential areas to speak with locals about spay and neuter services. In many cases, the dogs had already started breeding.

"Every house came with six to 13 puppies, and the SPCA had nowhere to put them," said Parker-Rauw, whose job at the time was to have the puppies euthanized. "It wasn't out of cruelty. They just had nowhere to put all these pups."

Dogs that are not neutered or spayed can produce a line of thousands of puppies in the span of only a few years. Dogs as young as 6 months old can get pregnant and then have a litter of puppies, with an average of seven at a time, although some litters are larger. A single female dog can birth up to 70 puppies in her lifetime.

Those puppies — if not spayed and neutered — then go on to reproduce, too, and the number of potcakes expands exponentially.

Watching so many helpless potcake puppies die was painful for Parker-Rauw.
Parker-Rauw said she couldn't stand seeing the puppies be put down.

"I understood why it had to be done," she said. "But it didn't sit too well with me."

After successfully adopting out one puppy, "I decided, there's a place for every potcake," Parker-Rauw said.

So she started Potcake Place — an all-volunteer staffed charity, which depends on donations to operate. A group of about 15 volunteers rescue the puppies — which they often find through the SPCA. Locals and tourists also alert them when they spot a litter, and people frequently leave boxes filled with abandoned puppies outside the adoption center.

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At any given time, there are between 60 and 100 puppies and dogs under Potcake Place's care. They are mostly fostered in local volunteer homes until they are adopted. On a yearly basis, the organization helps adopt about 500 dogs to people from the United States, Canada and elsewhere.

"We really care about where these pups go," said Parker-Rauw, adding that her team conducts a rigorous inspection before finalizing an adoption, which includes vet references and background checks. "We don't want them ending up in shelters."

"You can't just come down here and pick out a puppy and take it home," she added. "It's a serious commitment, and we take it very seriously."

Although the adoption requirements are rigid, "we adopt out every single one of our puppies," Parker-Rauw said.

Many of the rescued puppies have a rough start to life, including Lauren Olzawski's dog, Adira, who was found in a junkyard inside an old washing machine four years ago.

A few months after Adira was rescued, Olzawski — who lives in Loudoun County, Va. — arrived in Turks and Caicos for a vacation with her best friend. Whenever she travels, she said, she makes a point of volunteering at local rescue organizations.

"I had thought about adopting, but I hadn't really confirmed it in my head," the 30-year-old said.

She eagerly signed up to take a puppy on a socialization walk along the beach.

While Adira was shy when they first met, "she totally blossomed," said Olzawski, who decided the pup had to be hers.

Puppy walks have become a popular tourist attraction in the area. While it's a fun (and free) activity for tourists, it serves an important purpose for Potcake Place. "Ultimately, you're helping these puppies get adopted by socializing them," Olzawski said, adding that she was amazed at how invested Potcake Place volunteers are in each dog. "So many dogs go in and out of that place, and they know them all on a personal level."

Adam Kronick and his family had a similar experience. They took their now 4-year-old potcake, Millie, on a walk along the beach several years ago while on a family vacation "and fell in love," he said. "That was it."

Millie was found wandering alone on the Millennium Highway, which is how she got her name. At the mercy of his wife and three children, Kronick said, he had no choice but to bring Millie home to Toronto at the end of their trip.

Tensions were high when they introduced Millie to her brother, Rudy — a goldendoodle-labradoodle mix — but before long "they became best friends."

Most people bring their dogs home with them (pets under 20 pounds can sit in the cabin of commercial flights of most airlines), but some rely on volunteer couriers to transport them. Heavier dogs must be transported in the plane's cargo hold.

"At least 40 percent of people that adopt with us are with couriers," said Parker-Rauw, explaining that many people decide weeks or months after visiting Turks and Caicos that they want to adopt a dog. The charity tries to find a willing tourist to fly the dog to an accessible airport on their way home. Generally, the adopters pay the $125 cabin fee. "It's just a really good thing to do."

In its own way, Parker-Rauw said, being a courier is "very rewarding," particularly for individuals who don't feel ready to adopt. "You can help in lots of ways other than adopting."

Each puppy costs the charity roughly $300 to $500 to look after before they are adopted. Some visitors offer to sponsor a dog instead of adopting or transporting the animal.

"You can save a dog without having to take it in," Parker-Rauw said.

In addition to sponsoring, many people simply donate online, or deliver needed supplies when visiting the adoption center. Thousands of potcake owners and supporters belong to a Facebook group where people share updates and photos, as well as offer help and advice.

"Potcake Place is a huge network of people that just want to make a difference," said Parker-Rauw, who, in her spare time, visits local schools to educate children about the importance of spaying, neutering and animal welfare.

A high school basketball team had no band. A rival school stepped in.

"We are not just a fluffy puppy organization," she said. "This all comes down to education."

"There has been huge progress in that. It's the younger generation that I need to get to," said Parker-Rauw, noting that, while adoptions are helping the problem, her primary goal is to prevent puppies from needing rescuing in the first place.

Meanwhile, Parker-Rauw and her team are dedicated to helping every potcake puppy they can.

"Not everyone can do everything," she said. "But everyone can do something."


Critically endangered primate sings with rhythm, much like humans

These lemurs' songs have the same rhythm as the intro to We Will Rock You.

by Tibi Puiu

A cute, long-limbed lemur native to the rainforest of Madagascar is recognized as one of the few 'singing' primates in the world. Their lovely songs or terrible roars — depending on whom you ask — play important roles in the myths and legends of the Malagasy people. But their status may be even grander.

According to a new study, the Indri indri lemurs are not only capable of hitting notes, their songs also exhibit rhythm. This would make them part of a select musical club in the animal kingdom, mostly composed, until now, of songbirds and humans.

This primate's got rhythm — all the more reason to cherish it: Watch..

Many great composers have often described music as 'having a conversation'. Indeed, what we commonly refer to as bird and whale "songs" are actually communication systems, which leads us to language. Humans are the only primates capable of both acquired vocalization (speech) and musicality, which begs the question of how these traits evolved and how interconnected they are.

Biologists have often turned to our closest living primate relatives for clues. The natural communication of apes may hold clues about language origins, especially because apes frequently gesture with limbs and hands, a mode of communication thought to have been the starting point of human language evolution.

However, musicality is much more mysterious. Let's just say other apes aren't that interested in tunes, which is all the more intriguing since music seems to have been an integral part of the human experience since prehistoric times. The oldest musical instrument is a flute carved from cave bear bones by Neanderthals some 50,000 years ago.

This is why the indri, a black-and-white primate about the size of a dog, is so fascinating. In 2016, researchers found that indris co-sing certain parts of their song with other group members, effectively forming a choir.

Now, researchers at the University of Turin and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics have gone a step further, showing the primates possess categorical rhythm. This type of rhythm refers to intervals between sounds that have exactly the same duration (1:1 rhythm) or doubled duration (1:2 rhythm). Even when sung at different tempos, the categorical rhythm is what allows songs to be easily recognizable.

"Despite its preponderance in our lives, the existence of music is biologically puzzling, as the selective advantage of musicality in humans is highly debated. We know that human musical behaviors exhibit a few 'rhythmic universals', and the presence of categorical rhythms is one of them. Since indris' songs are composed of notes that are organized in phrases, we wanted to understand if they would share the same categorical rhythms that are typical of human music. We indeed found that indris' songs possess the same categorical rhythms that can be found in the intro of "we will rock you", by the famous band Queen!" first author Chiara de Gregorio told ZME Science.

These findings are the result of twelve years worth of painstaking fieldwork in the rainforest of Madagascar. During this time, the researchers recorded songs from twenty indri groups, comprising 39 individuals, in their natural habitat.

"Indris live all their life up in the canopy of Madagascar's rainforest, jumping from tree to tree up and down the hills. So, for many years, we have followed them in the humid forest in every weather condition! Some days you find yourself totally soaked, with leeches on your face, slippering down a hill as the ground is covered in mud. And it's not unusual to find yourself stuck in some big holes created by trees' roots!" de Gregorio recounted.

But all the hard work eventually paid off. Eventually, de Gregorio and colleagues had enough data that showed the indri songs had rhythmic categories (1:1 and 1:2), as well as the ritardando rhythm (slowed down rhythm typical of some ethnic music). Although male and female songs had different tempos and pitches, their rhythm was the same. Previously, the only non-human animals which exhibited these rhythms were songbirds.

"Rhythm is not something necessarily related to music: it can be considered as the intervals between certain phenomena. We have a circadian rhythm, for example, and hour heart has a particular beat. But when we take "notes" into account, then we can refer to musical rhythm. Indris are among the few species of singing primates, that are primates that communicate with songs. Like birds' songs, primates' songs too may have musical features, but we have demonstrated that indris' songs not only are composed of notes that are organized in phrases but also that they possess categorical rhythms, a musical universal considered typical of human music. Further research will investigate if other singing primates may share this rhythmic feature with humans," de Gregorio told ZME Science.

It's not clear why the indris possess this universal rhythm and whether other primates share this ability. But considering humans and indris last shared a common ancestor some 77 million years ago, the researchers speculate that the ability must have evolved independently. Both species likely found that rhythm helps them produce and process songs easier.

There are only a couple hundred of these musical lemurs left in the wild. Their extraordinary abilities provide all the more reasons to protect them, especially from their biggest threats: hunting and habitat loss. There are no indris in captivity because they can only survive in the wild.

"Our team is not focused only on scientific research but also works very hard for indris' conservation. We have a long history of collaboration with GERP, a Malagasy association that manages our field site, to enhance habitat protection, biodiversity conservation, capacity building, and improving living conditions of people inhabiting villages around the forest. We really think that scientific research and conservation are the two sides of the same coin," de Gregorio said.

The findings were reported in the journal Current Biology.


Why cats purr — and why there's more to purring than you think

Scientists are still learning new things about why your furry pet purrs but cats are confusing them with their adorable mind tricks

by Rupendra Brahambhatt

A cat named Merlin purrs so loudly that her owner can hear her purr even while using a loud hairdryer. Merlin also holds the Guinness World Record for the loudest purr (reaching 67.8 decibels) made by a pet cat. Most cats don't purr nearly as loudly as Merlin, but their purr is just as fascinating.

Cats are believed to purr when they are happy but this is also not entirely true — cats can convey many other things by purring and they can purr in a number of situations.

According to research, a cat purr can also be be linked to stress, hunger, pleasure, fear, pain, comfort, and even bone regeneration. Surprisingly, large wild cats like tigers, panthers, and lions can not purr. So just like meowing or hissing, purring is also considered an integral and unique part of a cat's behavior.

What is purring and why do cats purr?

Purring is a low-frequency (ranging between 25 to 150 Hertz) fluttering sound (or vibration) made by a few mammal species (such as cougars, cats, snow leopards, and cheetahs) belonging to the Felidae family. Previously, it was believed that purring was the sound of blood flowing through a cat's thorax but then other studies suggested that it could be the vibrations inside a cat's larynx that result from the frequent constriction and dilation of its glottis during breathing (this movement in cats is controlled by brain center called neural oscillator). However, there's still some degree of uncertainty about all of this and scientists are still unsure why and how cats actually purr.

Various studies concerning cat anatomy confirm that there is no special purring organ inside these lovable furry animals. It's likely that even cats don't know how they make that soft rumbling sound. Purring is an involuntary action that is totally under the control of the cats' central nervous system. So if you were thinking of making your cat purr on command, sorry it's never going to happen. Cats only purr when they want to — just like most things they do.

Cat owners usually found their cats purring either when they are being stroked or when they are hungry. This is why most cat owners believe that purring is cats' way of relaxing or saying that they want something. Some studies also suggest that within a cat's purr there is a baby-like crying sound that can urge the cat owners to respond to their pets' needs — something called solicitation purring.

    "While the purr does generally represent contentment for cats, it can also express nervousness, fear, and stress. Fortunately, more often it's an indicator of the former," says Gary Weitzman, President, San Diego Humane Society.

However, while cats purr most often when they're relaxed and they enjoy something, this isn't the only reason why cats purr. At the time of birth, kittens are believed to purr to bond with their mother and let her know about their presence, whereas the mother cat is said to purr to make her kids feel relaxed. Adult cats are found to purr when they are happy and excited and also when they are frightened, injured, or involved in a fight.

The vibrations that occur in a cat's body due to purring may also play a role in easing breathing, repairing bones, healing wounds, and strengthening muscles. Interestingly, these vibrations have frequencies similar to the ones that are used in the therapeutic treatment of osteoporosis. This could also be one of the reasons why cats experience fewer bone-related issues (such as osteoarthritis) compared to dogs.

There's still much we've yet to learn about the surprisingly complex behavior of purring — but that doesn't mean we don't know much about it. Quite the opposite: research has found out a number of intriguing facts about purring.

    Cat purring is believed to be helpful against depression and high blood sugar levels in humans. A study also suggests that as compared to others, cat owners have lower chances of developing serious cardiovascular ailments. Moreover, pet cats (also dogs) can also prove to be helpful to owners who go through psychological treatment, they act as supportive companions for patients who suffer from social isolation, cognitive impairment, and other behavioral disorders.

    If you want to form a strong bond with your cat the next time you hold her, you should try narrowing your eyes at the catw. This phenomenon is called cat smile, and research indicates that this is probably the best way to communicate with a cat. Many cat owners may have already experienced that when they slowly narrow or close their eyes in front of their cat, the cats also do that. However, the best part is you don't need to own a cat to try this technique because "cat smile" works even on street cats.

    In ancient Egypt, after the death of a pet cat, all his human family members used to shave off their eyebrows. For dog owners, the rituals were more strict as when a dog died, the dog owner and his family had to remove all the hairs present on their body and head.

    Apart from discovering gravity and inventing calculus, Sir Isaac Newton is also remembered by cat lovers for creating cat doors. While Newton was working at the University of Cambridge, a cat and her kittens often visited his office but sometimes when they found the door closed, they started scratching it — a familiar experience for many cat lovers. The scratching noise made by the cats often disturbed Newton so in order to solve the problem, he ordered the university carpenter to make two holes in his office door so that the cat and her kids could easily enter the office without making any noise.

    Cats are also found to purr when another cat whom they know is injured, some researchers believe that by doing so a cat tries to relax the other cat. This behavior is referred to as purr therapy and it is also believed to be beneficial for healing damaged soft tissues, tendons, and swollen body parts in humans.

Though most of the reasons given behind a cat's purr and its impact on humans are yet to be scientifically proven, one thing that's sure is that purring is a very important part of a pet cat's life. Not only does it enable cats to communicate with other cats and humans, but this is also among the few special actions by which a cat owner can at least guess if his feline friend is happy or not.


The week in wildlife – in pictures

The best of this week's wildlife photographs, including a damselfly, turtle hatchling and beached manta rays

Arnel Hecimovic
18 Mar 2023 08.10 GMT

Click to see all:


How to help pets in Ukraine: 8 charities you can donate to

Here's how you can help rescue shelters during the ongoing war

By Lisa Joyner   
Country Living

Are you wondering how to help pets in Ukraine? As the war continues to unfold, organisations on the ground and globally are actively supporting animal charities to ensure stray dogs and cats find shelter.

According to Open Cages,, countries including Latvia, Poland and Romania have all temporarily lifted the requirements for transporting pets without a set of veterinary documents (such as a vaccination certificate or passport), meaning that animals can be rescued safely from war-torn areas. Some charities are looking for people to rehome pets, while others are in need of funds to purchase food.

Take a look at the eight animal charities that you can support today:

1. Shelter Friend

In Ukraine, Shelter Friend is a non-profitable charity organisation and rehabilitation centre for homeless animals in Dnepr City, Ukraine. They are urgently looking for monetary donations to help sick and injured stray animals suffering during the war. For more information about how you can donate visit their Facebook page, or email [email protected].

2. Shelter Ugolyok: Animal Rescue and Farm Sanctuary

This sanctuary for pets and farm animals in Ukraine aims works hard to save and rehabilitate animals in danger. You can either give a one-off donation or choose to give on a monthly basis. Visit for more information.

The charity's founders say: "Quite unexpectedly, war has broken out in the far east region of our country, which has brought wreaked havoc on our economic health. At the same time, we have had little to no local support and are constantly under scrutiny by local authorities, making our mission of helping otherwise helpless animals extremely difficult."

3. Kyiv Animal Rescue Group

The Kyiv Animal Rescue Group are also urgently in need of funds to help support stray pets affected by the war. They are a voluntary association of animal rescuers that are not funded by the state or any foundations. If you want to make any donations, head over to

4. Viva! Rescue Centre

This animal rescue centre is helping care for animals who need urgent help in Ukraine. They are currently accepting donations, all of which will be transferred to workers on the ground in Poland. For more information, visit

"The war in Ukraine is a tragedy not only for people but also for animals. It is hard to describe the current situation – bombs and rockets are dropped on shelters, animals die on the spot or run around in shock," say Viva! Rescue Centre. "There is a shortage of food and resources for treating sick and injured animals. The situation is dramatic."

5. Shelter Sirius

Shelter Sirius is the largest shelter for homeless animals in Ukraine located in the Kyiv region. If you want to make a donation, please email [email protected] or call +380 93 193 4069. Every small donation really does make a big difference.

6. PETA Germany

PETA Germany has now delivered 110 tons of food for animals in Ukraine, with some of their other work including rescuing 80 dogs from an animal shelter in Kharkiv, and 11 cats and 10 dogs from Kyiv. Lots of the four-legged friends that have been rescued are looking for a new home after being separated from their owners. See here for more information on what you can do to help:

This content is imported from Twitter. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

    UKRAINE UPDATE: PETA Germany just acquired an extra van so they can rescue even more animals from Ukraine!

    The vehicle will be out in Ukraine on Saturday to transport 80 dogs to safety in Poland 💛💙
    — PETA (@peta) March 17, 2022

7. UAnimals

Another charity helping to save animals from the Ukrainian war is UAnimals – an animal rights organisation based in Ukraine. From rescuing stray dogs to delivering vital pet food supplies, they rely heavily on donations to ensure they can continue to do their work. If you'd like to make a donation, please email [email protected] for more information.

8. Kyiv Zoo

Funds are being raised to help distressed animals in Kyiv Zoo, with donations helping to provide food and care during the ongoing war. According to a statement on their website, all Kyiv Zoo animals are on site under the 24-hour supervision of zookeepers and veterinarians to keep them safe.

A recent statement read: "Thanks to the work of our special food brigades and suppliers, we received provisions for zoo animals: a variety of fruits and vegetables, raisins, nuts, flour, butter, oil, fish, meat, eggs, cookies, cereals, pasta, juices – we have a stock for two weeks. Together we will win!"

To make a donation, please visit zoo.kiev:


New data links Covid-19's origins to raccoon dogs at Wuhan market

Analysis of gene sequences by international team finds Covid-positive samples rich in raccoon dog DNA

Ian Sample Science editor
20 Mar 2023 14.23 GMT

Newly released genetic data gathered from a live food market in Wuhan has linked Covid-19 with raccoon dogs, adding weight to the theory that infected animals sold at the site started the coronavirus pandemic, researchers involved in the work say.

Swabs collected from stalls at the Huanan seafood market in the two months after it was shut down on 1 January 2020 were previously found to contain both Covid and human DNA. When the findings were published last year, Chinese researchers stated that the samples contained no animal DNA.

That conclusion has now been overturned by an international team of scientists. Their analysis of gene sequences posted by the Chinese team to the scientific database Gisaid found that some of the Covid-positive samples were rich in DNA from raccoon dogs. Traces of DNA belonging to other mammals, including civets, were also present in Covid-positive samples.

The discovery does not prove that raccoon dogs or other animals infected with Covid triggered the pandemic, but scientists presenting the work to an expert group at the World Health Organization on Tuesday believe it makes that more likely.

"The data does point even further to a market origin," Prof Kristian Andersen, an evolutionary biologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, told Science magazine. Andersen attended a meeting of the WHO's scientific advisory group for the origins of novel pathogens and is working on the data.

The recently uploaded gene sequences were spotted by Florence Débarre, an evolutionary biologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. She alerted Andersen and Prof Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, who have both written papers providing evidence of a market origin for the pandemic.

What started the worst pandemic in a century has become the focus of intense – and often toxic – debate. One theory proposes that the virus emerged in wild animals and spread to humans through contamination at the market. Another suspects it escaped from the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology, where researchers work on similar pathogens.

The lab leak theory has gained headlines in recent weeks after an intelligence assessment from the US energy department and Republican-led hearings into the origins of the pandemic. Concrete evidence is lacking for either theory and may never be found.

The latest genetic data does not prove raccoon dogs or other mammals were infected with Covid and spread it at the market. If the animals were infected, they may have contracted the virus from infected humans. But the findings do point to the possibility that the cause was an infected animal and, ultimately, the illegal wildlife trade.

While scientists expect the debate to rumble on, there are questions over why the Chinese team did not release the genetic data earlier. One member of the team, George Gao, the former head of China's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told Science there was "nothing new" in the sequences. Why the data was later pulled from the Gisaid site is also not clear.

Débarre said she was working on a report of the findings, which will be made public, and would answer questions only once that was done.

Dr Jonathan Stoye, a virologist and senior group leader at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said: "The finding of Sars-CoV-2 infected racoon dogs strengthens the plausibility that coronavirus-infected farmed animals were an important link in the series of events leading to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"However, it does not disprove lab-leak theories: that would require the demonstration that such animals were infected prior to their arrival and display at the Huanan seafood market, something that may never be possible."

Also on Friday, the WHO said the Covid-19 pandemic could settle down this year, posing a risk similar to that of flu.

"I think we're coming to that point where we can look at Covid-19 in the same way we look at seasonal influenza: a threat to health, a virus that will continue to kill, but a virus that is not disrupting our society," Michael Ryan, the WHO emergencies director, said, adding: "I believe that that will come ... this year."


This crow is 'very intelligent' — and it's struggling to survive in the wild

Plans to repopulate Hawaii's forests with its "very intelligent" crows have been upended in part by its natural predator, the Hawaiian hawk. Now scientists are tracking the hawk in order to save the corvids.

By Dino Grandoni
WA Post

FERN ACRES, Hawaii — Amy Durham wound the straps under the wing, over the wing, under the other wing, over the other wing, making sure the backpack-like device stays comfortably strapped to the Hawaiian hawk for many months.

"This may be your best work yet," said Diego Johnson, one of her colleagues holding the straps on the chocolate-colored hawk's chest as Durham secured a lightweight GPS transmitter to its back.

These San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance researchers are trekking around the mountainous jungles of Hawaii's Big Island not just to understand the 'io, one of the state's only birds of prey, which is considered at risk. It's crucial, too, for restoring an even more endangered bird species — the 'alalā, or Hawaiian crow.

Known for its problem-solving abilities, the Hawaiian crow is one of the most remarkable bird species in the world. The 'alalā, whose name means to "yell" in the local language, is one of the only birds in the world known to naturally use — and even make — its own tools.

Yet this distinctive crow that many dub "very intelligent" has been extinct in the wild for two decades, with the only about 120 alive in human care today.

So far, plans to repopulate Hawaii's forests with its native crows have been upended in part by the 'io. The hawks are the crows' natural predator, and have come after the corvids during prior reintroduction efforts.

By tracking the hawks, scientists with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources are trying to figure out where it is safest to reintroduce the crows so they can again thrive in the wild. At the heart of their research is a riddle: How do you protect two rare birds when one keeps attacking the other?

"They've coexisted for many, many, many years," said Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager for the zoo. Now his team is trying to get these two bird species found nowhere else on Earth to coexist again.

Bringing back a 'family god'

Ever since people set foot in the Hawaiian archipelago, humans have been enthralled by the islands' crows.

Its glossy black feathers adorned Native Hawaiian robes. Its imposing beak and piercing eyes led some families to regard the 'alalā as a manifestation of an 'aumakua, or "family god" that watches over them.

When Capt. James Cook arrived in Hawaii in 1778, many murders of crows stalked the islands' volcanic hillsides.

Over the centuries, a variety of factors — disease, destruction of forests for farming and cattle ranching and predation by cats and other nonnative animals — conspired to drive the crow's population down.

By 1992, there were only 13 'alalā in Hawaii's forests. The last wild ones were spotted a decade later. The only 'alalā known to exist today live in a pair of breeding centers run by the San Diego Zoo on the Big Island and Maui.

A picture of one of the survivors caught the attention of Christian Rutz, a behavioral ecologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

For more than a decade, he had studied a different corvid species called the New Caledonian crow. Without any training, chicks in New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific, pick up sticks to collect grubs from crevices. At the time, no other crow was known to naturally use tools.

But Rutz suspected there were others. When he saw the Hawaiian crow's straight beak and forward-facing eyes — features perfect for holding and manipulating twigs — he phoned the San Diego Zoo's bird conservation center.

A manager told him the Hawaiian crows were always flying around with sticks in their bills. Rutz was stunned. "I booked myself pretty much onto the next flight to Hawaii," he said.

Hawaiian crows use sticks as tools..0:30:

In a paper published in the journal Nature in 2016 and subsequent research, Rutz, Masuda and others showed Hawaiian crows did more than pick up sticks to dig out morsels of food from logs.

The crows also manufactured their own tools — shortening sticks or stripping them of bark to make them fit better into tight, grub-filled crannies. "They will shape the right tool for the right job," Durham said.

Living on isolated islands without much competition for insects, the two crow species likely evolved their dexterity with twigs independently of each other.

"They were just incredibly slick," Rutz said.

'No other bird like it'

At the zoo's bird conservation center in Maui, a pair of 'alalā awaiting reintroduction hopped from perch to perch on a recent day in their enclosures, landing with a thud. The birds flexed their tufts and ogled their human handlers with big, expressive eyes.

"There's no other bird like it," Masuda said.

Beginning in 2016, biologists tried to bring the 'alalā back to the wild. Yet of the 30 released, 25 died or went missing. The other five were recaptured.


The turtle moms that 'talk' to their eggs before they hatch

Turtles aren't known for their parental instincts, but the arrau is an exception. The discovery is spurring a race to save the chatty species.

By Dino Grandoni
WA Post

Camila Ferrara felt "stupid" plunging a microphone near a nest of turtle eggs.

The Brazilian biologist wasn't sure if she would hear much. She was studying the giant South American river turtle, one of the world's largest freshwater turtles.

"What am I doing?" she recalled asking herself. "I'm recording the eggs?"

Then Ferrara — who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society, a U.S.-based conservation group — heard it: a quick, barely audible pop within the shells.

The hatchlings seemed to be saying to one another, she said, "'Come on, come on, it's time to wake up. Come on, come on.' And then all the hatchlings can leave the nest together."

South American turtles dig nests along Amazon river basin..0:32:

Researchers for decades thought of aquatic turtles as hard of hearing and mostly mute. One popular 1950s textbook claimed turtles "make no appreciable use of sound in their daily routine." In the world's rumbling rivers and cacophonous oceans, the lumbering reptiles appeared to tread along without much to say.

But recent recordings of these turtles' first "words" — before they even hatch — challenge notions not just of the turtles' capacity to communicate, but also of their instinct to care for young. Now the discovery has spurred an urgent count of this talkative turtle's numbers, and may shape protections for shelled creatures in the Amazon and beyond.

When Ferrara began studying turtle communication, "so many people looked at me and said, 'Oh, how? I don't think that turtles use sound to communicate,'" she said.

"I said, 'Let's see.'"

'Something really new'

Known locally as the arrau or tartaruga da amazonia, the giant South American river turtle lives throughout the Amazon and its tributaries. During the dry season, thousands of females at once crawl onto beaches along the river to lay their eggs.

For other kinds of turtles, the mothering usually ends at the beach. Many turtle hatchlings are left by their parents to fend for themselves.

But that's not the case with the arrau. After nesting, females often hover by the shore for up to two months waiting for their eggs to hatch.

So Ferrara and her colleagues wondered: are mother turtle and child turtle communicating with one another? To test the idea, her team spent months taping the turtles — on land and underwater, in the wild and in a swimming pool.

The team recorded a wide repertoire of whisper-quiet calls from arrau of all ages.

Embryos appear to chirp together to coordinate hatching and digging up to the surface. With so many jaguars and other predators lurking, it is safer for baby turtles to move en masse toward the river.

The mothers, meanwhile, approach and respond to the calls of their young. Once the hatchlings reach the water, the baby turtles migrate down the river with the adult females, Ferrara's radio-tracking research shows.

When her team published an early study on turtle vocalizations a decade ago, Ferrara said, academic journals resisted putting the phrase "parental care" in the title of a study about turtles.

"At that time it was very hard to publish," she said. "It was something really new."

But Ferrara and her colleagues have gone on to record vocalizations from more turtle species, including the pig-nosed turtle in Australia, Blanding's turtle in Minnesota and Kemp's ridley sea turtle in Mexico, one of the world's most endangered. "Probably most of these species use sound to communicate," she said.

Other researchers may have missed turtle noises since they tend to be quiet, infrequent and low-pitched — just at the edge of human hearing. Leatherback sea turtles, for instance, appear to have ears tuned to the frequency of waves rolling ashore. Some species can take hours to reply to each other.

"Had we had a bit more expansive imaginations, we might have caught this earlier," said Karen Bakker, a fellow at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study who wrote about turtle vocalization in her book, "The Sounds of Life."

"We're looking for sounds in the frequencies we can hear," she added. "We're looking for sounds at a temporal rate that is as quick as we speak. And so we have blinders on our ears."

Conducting a turtle census

As a group, turtles are more ancient than dinosaurs, and are central to many cultures' creation stories. Yet today they rank among the species at most risk of extinction. Nearly three in five species may vanish, according to a recent assessment, with climate change, habitat loss and hunting posing risks.

The Amazon once teemed with so many turtles, it was difficult to navigate. While Indigenous people have long relied on turtles for meat, the arrival of Europeans accelerated their decline.

Colonists rounded up the turtles as a ready source of fresh meat. Missionaries declared turtles counted as fish, so Catholics could eat them during Lent. Fat from their eggs was rendered for street lighting in Brazil and cooking fat in Europe.

The species still faces serious threats. A boom in dam construction threatens to cull their numbers. And a continued appetite for turtle meat sustains a lucrative illegal trade, where middlemen can buy an arrau for $50 and sell it downriver for $450.

Residents of Brazil's Amazonas state alone, according to one estimate, consume about 1.7 million turtles and tortoises every year. Conservationists are pushing to have the International Union for Conservation of Nature declare the species endangered.

Researchers are now racing to count how many arrau turtles remain in the wild. In September and October, Ferrara and other Wildlife Conservation Society scientists conducted a turtle census along the Guaporé River, which forms the border between Brazil and Bolivia.

With flying drones fixed with infrared cameras, the researchers counted the nesting site, which they say is probably the largest concentration of any freshwater turtle species in the world.

The team is still analyzing the images, but it estimates that a staggering 80,000 giant turtles nested along the river. Over the past couple of weeks, millions of hatchlings have crawled out of their shells and scurried into the river.

"We need to know its biology, its population," said Omar Torrico, a biologist and drone pilot with the group. "Maybe climate change is going to be one of the problems for the future. And so we think assessing the population is one of the most important things to know."

Ferrara now wants to figure out if noise pollution drowns out turtle chatter. "We can observe with those impacts with the other types of animals, like for whales or dolphins. We know that the ship noise can impact their communication."

But for her, the real fight is not in the field, but in the cities, convincing regular Brazilians to refrain from eating turtle meat. For her, changing the minds of just a few folks would be a victory.

"What I want is to see two or three people stop."


World's first octopus farm is moving ahead despite grave scientific concern

They've never been commercially farmed before, so there are no welfare rules in place.

by Fermin Koop
March 20, 2023

Amid growing demand for seafood, a Spanish company is planning to open the first commercial octopus farm sometime this year as scientists warn this could be an environmental disaster. The farm, to be located in the Canary Islands, would raise about a million octopuses per year for food, according to confidential documents accessed by BBC.

The company behind the initiative, Nueva Pescanova, is now waiting for official authorization from the Canary Islands' General Directorate of Fishing to start setting up the farm. While breeding octopuses in captivity is difficult, as larvae only eat live food, the company said in 2019 it had done research that proves this can actually be done.

The octopuses, solitary animals that mostly live in the dark, would be placed in tanks with other octopuses, sometimes under constant light, according to the BBC. They would be housed in 1,000 communal tanks in a building in the port of Las Palmas in the Canary Island and would be killed by being put in tanks of water kept at -3 degrees Celsius.

Octopuses are caught in the wild by using pots, lines and traps and are eaten all around the world. Around 350,000 tons of octopus are caught each year – 10 times more than in 1950, which puts pressure on populations. For the company, aquaculture is the best solution to ensure "a sustainable yield" and eventually repopulate the species.

Nueva Pescarnova aims at producing 3,000 tons of octopus a year, which means one million animals – with 10 to 15 octopuses living in each cubic meter of the tank, the BBC said. The first group of 100 octopuses, 70 males and 30 females, will be sourced from a research facility the company has in Spain, where it has been testing octopus aquaculture.

In a statement, the company said it has achieved a level of "domestication" in the species without indications of competition for food or cannibalism. They ensured they will have high welfare standards in place that "guarantees the correct handling" of the octopuses. Also, they said the animals won't suffer or experience any pain during slaughter.

A species under threat

Octopuses are very intelligent animals and masters of camouflage. They can change the color and texture of their skin to hide from attackers, as well as open clamshells and maneuver rocks. Their lives came into the spotlight in 2020 with the Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher about the link between a filmmaker and an octopus.

There are no welfare rules in place for octopus aquaculture as this has never been done before, with many expressing their concerns. The World Organization for Animal Health said this would result "in poor fish welfare" and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, the main seafood certification scheme, proposed a ban if the cephalopod isn't stunned beforehand.

Researchers led by Jonathan Birch, associate professor at the London School of Economics, carried out a review of over 300 scientific studies and found "very strong evidence" that octopuses feel can feel pain and distress. This led to them being recognized as "sentient beings" in the UK last year. Birch and the co-authors concluded octopus farming would be "impossible" and that killing them in ice wouldn't be acceptable.

The campaign group Compassion in World Farming told BBC the authorities should block the construction of the farm, while the Eurogroup for Animals said the European Commission could address this by working on its welfare legislation. They have also expressed concern over the wastewater of the farm that would be sent back into the sea.