Category Archives: animals

Who’s afraid of the big bad coyote?

800px-Coyote-face-snow_-_Virginia_-_ForestWander

Photo of an Eastern Coyote, from http://www.ForestWander.com

 

Many people in New York state, apparently. And they certainly have the right to be concerned. Due to recent coyote sightings and attacks on pets, New York state issued a rare coyote advisory, telling people to take precautions in areas where coyotes are prevalent. While coyotes have long thrived in rural areas and even the suburbs, they are increasingly being sighted in urban areas, with one yuppie coyote being spotted in Manhattan last year. Though precautions may be necessary in certain areas, people who think we need to start killing them are overreacting.

Since coyotes almost never attack people(except very small children), these precautions are more about protecting pets. Cats and dogs have been known to disappear when left unsupervised in coyote country. In the south-west U.S, house cats are a favorite meal of coyotes and this is also the case in some parts of the eastern U.S. In the north-east, what we call coyotes are actually coy-wolves, a hybrid of coyote and wolf. Coy-wolves are significantly larger than their western cousins, though not necessarily more dangerous.

As far as adult runners, hikers, and other outdoorsy people go, there is little to fear from coyotes or wolves for that matter. I occasionally see coyotes during trail runs, but they always quickly disappear into the dark wilderness, way too fast for me to stop and take a photo. If you see one and they don’t run away, wave your arms around and yell to scare them away.

It’s estimated that there’s around 20,000 to 30,000 coyotes in New York state, far more numerous than a few decades ago. This highly adaptable species has also expanded its range well into the NYC metro area, with a significant presence in Westchester county. I know some people who were terrified when they saw them for the first time in their idyllic suburban neighborhood where nothing interesting ever happens, though the coyote didn’t attack and just quickly ran away.

As predators, coyotes are a vital part of the ecosystem, especially in areas where the deer or lawyer population is exploding(which in New York is everywhere). Rather than living in fear, I believe peaceful coexistence is the best way to deal with them, and taking extra precautions if you have pets or small children. Whatever you do, don’t feed them! If you’re a runner in Westchester county or live in an area with a lot of wilderness, I don’t think you should cancel your trail running plans just because of coyote sightings.

 

 

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High Altitude Airships to Combat Poaching

Elephants_at_Amboseli_national_park_against_Mount_Kilimanjaro

Elephants at Amboseili National Park from amoghavarsha.com

Hardly a day goes by without some depressing news about species going extinct or on the brink of extinction due to poaching or habitat destruction. These are sad times indeed for those of us who realize what a treasure biodiversity is, and how the loss of it can never be undone. So many unique, wonderful animal and plant species, some of which may have contained cures for many diseases have been irrevocably lost.

Elephants and rhinoceroses in Africa are particularly vulnerable due to their size and because of the high demand for elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn. Various countries and organizations are doing what they can to combat the ivory trade and poaching, yet it continues. It appears to be getting worse. According to experts, in 2013, we lost 96 African elephants a day due to illegal hunting.

This bloodbath continues to go on due lack of protection and corruption. There just aren’t enough park rangers or security personal to prevent all poaching. These days, poachers linked to terrorist organizations are heavily armed and often kill rangers to get to the elephants. Besides this, some locals see elephants as a nuisance.

One approach that I think can help prevent poaching of elephants, rhinos, and other endangered species is a much more effective surveillance system based on unmanned high altitude airships with cameras and sensors located up in the stratosphere. The current system of park rangers or military personal in jeeps or helicopters patrolling wildlife reserves on the lookout for poachers is woefully inadequate. I don’t remember where I first heard of this idea, but it came back to me after reading this article by Joshua A. Krisch: Modern Research Borne on a Relic: Airships That Carry Science Into the Stratosphere

It looks like there is a lot of potential in this area for airships to improve surveillance. Instead of satellites, which are very costly, and not stationary, or airplanes, which are also costly, think of something that is stationed high up in the stratosphere, almost in outer space, monitoring a very large area. Think “stratellites“, instead of “satellites”.

553px-High_Altitude_Airship

High altitude airship. Public domain picture.

With state-of-the-art camera and detection equipment on board these high altitude airships, it may be easier to monitor the movements of both animals and poachers. Many elephants will have GPS on them to make them easier to track. Obviously, this will need to be coordinated with rangers on the ground or in helicopters to arrest the criminals. Maybe this will also make it easier to conduct an Elephant Census.

This really isn’t so far-fetched. The U.S Navy’s MZ-3A Airship has already been used to monitor and assist cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest oil spill in history, and was also used for security at the Olympics. Of course, this is a regular airship, not a stratospheric geo-stationary airship. Fortunately, a company called Hyperblimp seems to be on board with the idea of using its airships for preventing poaching, though they specialize in low to mid altitude airships. I really love their idea of using solar energy to power their airships, which could allow them to stay afloat longer and further reduce costs. Aerostar’s HiSentinel high altitude airship appears to be the most promising high altitude airship, and is probably closest to commercialization.

I really do not know exactly how to implement this, who would own or control the airships, or if an organization like Sea Shepherd would be interested or capable of doing this. In the past few years, the World Wildlife Fund has turned to drones and UAVs(unmanned aerial vehicles) to help combat poaching. This approach isn’t exactly the same as using unmanned stratospheric airships, though it’s similar. The airships would be stationed high in the stratosphere at around 60,000 to 70,000 feet(above all weather) for at least a few months, so fewer of them would be needed for monitoring a large area and they may cost less in the long-term(they may even be retrievable and upgradeable). The current WWF approach requires lots of drones and UAVs over smaller areas.

These approaches aren’t necessarily in conflict, and would probably complement each other depending on the situation. It’s great that technology may provide the answer to preventing the extinction of these magnificent creatures.

Stop the Ivory Trade

HiSentinel & Stratospheric Airship Design Sensitivity

 

 

 

Metacognition in Scrub Jays

Scrub Jay in Flight

Scrub Jay in Flight by Lyle Troxell

A common faulty justification for eating and exploiting animals is that humans are so much “smarter” than all other animal species. “Animals are dumb so it’s okay to eat them!” so many meat-eaters proclaim. This of course is absurd; even if it was true, this still doesn’t justify harming animals. Carry this reasoning far enough, and it justifies making meals of humans who are mentally challenged. Besides this, it seldom makes sense to do interspecies intelligence comparisons(it’s difficult enough comparing humans when it comes to intelligence). Each species evolved as intelligent as it needed to be, based on the unique environment it evolved in. Some species are “smarter” or more “talented” at some things than others.

Increasingly, it appears that certain cognitive traits that were once thought to only occur in humans also occur in other species. Metacognition, or “thinking about thinking”, is something humans do on a regular basis. This ability helps us solve problems, philosophize, and plan for the future, among other things.

Recent research reported in Scientific American suggests that a small species of bird called the Scrub Jay may be capable of metacognition. As Watanabe, one of the researchers put it, “some birds study for a test like humans do.” I suggest reading the entire article to understand the experiment they used to arrive at this conclusion.

If this is true, this is yet more evidence that the human mind isn’t so different from other animals after all.

Birds of lower Westchester celebrate spring

IMG_2437Now that the weather is getting warmer, the birds are coming out to play, to sing, and to search for food. Lower Westchester county in New York has numerous wild bird species, each with its own unique bird call, and unique resplendent plumage. Like I sometimes say to visiting friends, if you want to see a fantastic fashion show in New York, you can’t beat going bird-watching.

Now I am not very good at recognizing bird species, either by their call or by sight, but I believe the above is a robin. I could be wrong though. If it is a robin, it is most likely an American Robin or Turdus migratorius, which is a species of the Thrush family. If it isn’t an American Robin, it must be another type of Thrush.

This is one of the most common bird species in North America, and according to Wikipedia there are 7 sub-species of American Robin. If you want to take a stab at guessing the sub-species of the bird above, be my guest.

IMG_2438

The noisy bird in the above photo is a member of the Woodpecker or Picidae family, or near passerine birds. This woodpecker sure made a lot of noise pecking into the trunk of that tree to search for insects. This was how I became alerted to its presence. I rarely see them.

I’m guessing that it is a Hairy Woodpecker or Picoides villosus, based on its black and white plumage and size. They live throughout North America, but particularly in deciduous forests.

It’s always wonderful seeing and hearing all these unique species while running or walking. Besides woodpeckers and robins, I also often see cardinals, hawks, and some other species I have trouble identifying. The unidentifiable species add a bit of mystery to the local forests, as I try to figure out at least which bird family they belong to. They are difficult to photograph.

I hope all you northern hemisphereans are enjoying the spring, and if you’re a southern hemispherean, autumn!

Contest reminder

The Wild Juggling 1 year anniversary contest is still on. Enter to win some quality juggling balls. Sorry, U.S residents only.

I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving!

Can animals enjoy music?

I’ve always wondered if animals can appreciate music, and if they do, what type? We do know of one species of animal, homo sapiens, that appreciates music, but what about all the others? Or is enjoying music a uniquely human phenomenon?

So I did some Googling a little earlier, and I found this: What Type of Music Do Pets Like?

To most animals, human music falls into that ungraspable, unrecognizable category. With vocal ranges and heart rates very different from ours, they simply aren’t wired to appreciate songs tailored for our ears. Most studies find that, try as we might to get their legs thumping, animals generally respond to human music with a total lack of interest. That’s why Snowdon has worked with cellist and composer David Teie to compose music that is tailored to suit them.

Back in 2009, the researchers composed two songs for tamarins — monkeys with vocalizations three octaves higher than our own and heart rates twice as fast. The songs sound shrill and unpleasant to us, but they seem to be music to the monkeys’ ears. The song modeled on excited monkey tones and set to a fast tempo made the tamarins visibly agitated and active. By contrast, they calmed down and became unusually social in response to a “tamarin ballad,” which incorporated happy monkey tones and a slower tempo.

Snowdon and Teie have moved on to composing music for cats, and studying how they respond to it.

“We have some work-in-progress where we’ve transposed music and put it in the frequency range for cat vocalizations, and have used their resting heart rate, which is faster than ours,” he told Life’s Little Mysteries. “We find that cats prefer to listen to the music composed in their frequency range and tempo rather than human music.”

On the basis of their results, Teie has started selling cat songs online (at $1.99 per song) through a company called “Music for Cats.”

This all makes sense when you really think about it. I used to think that Victoria and Daisy(both cats) enjoyed listening to Bach while disliking heavy metal, but I guess I was wrong after all. Based on this article, I would likely hate cat or monkey music, but if I knew my cats enjoyed it I might play it for them sometimes, preferably when I’m not home.

What is the toughest life form?

So who or what is the toughest of them all?

A really good contender for the title of the toughest life form on earth is not a human at all, but a bacterium. It is Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacterium that can survive extreme cold, acid, vacuum, and dehydration. As if this wasn’t enough, it can also survive a huge amount of radiation. According to Wikipedia:

D. radiodurans is capable of withstanding an acute dose of 5,000 Gy (500,000 rad) of ionizing radiation with almost no loss of viability, and an acute dose of 15,000 Gy with 37% viability.[9][10][11] A dose of 5,000 Gy is estimated to introduce several hundred double-strand breaks (DSBs) into the organism’s DNA (~0.005 DSB/Gy/Mbp (haploid genome)). For comparison, a chest X-ray or Apollo mission involves about 1 mGy, 5 Gy can kill a human, 200-800 Gy will kill E. coli, and over 4,000 Gy will kill the radiation-resistant tardigrade.

That is pretty freaking amazing. No wonder deinococcus radiodurans is called a “polyextremophile”. All humans could go extinct due to a nuclear holocaust, and this little bacterium would survive. Its ability to survive extreme radiation is due to a very robust DNA self-repair mechanism. This ability makes it useful in bioremediation:

Deinococcus has been genetically engineered for use in bioremediation to consume and digest solvents and heavy metals, even in a highly radioactive site. For example, the bacterial mercuric reductasegene has been cloned from Escherichia coli into Deinococcus to detoxify the ionicmercury residue frequently found in radioactive waste generated from nuclear weapons manufacture.[22] Those researchers developed a strain of Deinococcus that could detoxify both mercury and toluene in mixed radioactive wastes.

It’s great to know that it is possible to decontaminate even some of the most dangerously polluted sites in the world, thanks to this powerful bacteria.

Can Mad Deer Disease spread to humans?

Oh deer!

Most meat-eaters in the western world consume store-bought processed meats from common livestock animals like cows or pigs. A small number of meat-eaters hunt for their meat, believing wild sources of animal flesh to be safer and more “natural” than meat from the store. In much of North America, deer are the most commonly hunted animal for consumption.

But is it really safer? Believe it or not, there is a Deer version of Mad Cow Disease that is sometimes called “Mad Deer Disease”. It is similar in many ways to Mad Cow Disease in that it is a neuro-degenerative disease(or “CWD” – chronic wasting disease) caused by a prion. It also shows some potential to spread to humans. According to the Department of Neurology, University of Texas Medical School at Houston, Texas, in Generation of a new form of human PrP(Sc) in vitro by interspecies transmission from cervid(deer) prions:

Prion diseases are infectious neurodegenerative disorders that affect humans and animals and that result from the conversion of normal prion protein (PrP(C)) into the misfolded prion protein (PrP(Sc)). Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a prion disorder of increasing prevalence within the United States that affects a large population of wild and captive deer and elk. Determining the risk of transmission of CWD to humans is of utmost importance, considering that people can be infected by animal prions, resulting in new fatal diseases. To study the possibility that human PrP(C) can be converted into the misfolded form by CWD PrP(Sc), we performed experiments using the protein misfolding cyclic amplification technique, which mimics in vitro the process of prion replication. Our results show that cervid PrP(Sc) can induce the conversion of human PrP(C) but only after the CWD prion strain has been stabilized by successive passages in vitro or in vivo. Interestingly, the newly generated human PrP(Sc) exhibits a distinct biochemical pattern that differs from that of any of the currently known forms of human PrP(Sc). Our results also have profound implications for understanding the mechanisms of the prion species barrier and indicate that the transmission barrier is a dynamic process that depends on the strain and moreover the degree of adaptation of the strain. If our findings are corroborated by infectivity assays, they will imply that CWD prions have the potential to infect humans and that this ability progressively increases with CWD spreading.

Since I never ever consume meat from any source, this isn’t something I have to worry about. But if you’re a hunter living the paleo life, this should concern you.

The Vegan Brain is Different After All!

Food or friend? Source: Public domain

Food or friend? Source: Public domain

I just found a very interesting new study which suggests that vegan and vegetarian brains do in fact work differently from the brains of omnivores when we observe the mouth gestures of closely related animals. According to San Raffaele University, Milan, Italy in, The “vegetarian brain”: chatting with monkeys and pigs?:

An array of brain regions in the fronto-parietal and temporal lobes cooperates to process observation and execution of actions performed by other individuals. Using functional MRI, we hypothesized that vegetarians and vegans might show brain responses to mouth actions performed by humans, monkeys, and pigs different from omnivores. We scanned 20 omnivores, 19 vegetarians, and 21 vegans while watching a series of silent videos, which presented a single mouth action performed by a human, a monkey, and a pig. Compared to omnivores, vegetarians and vegans have increased functional connectivity between regions of the fronto-parietal and temporal lobes versus the cerebellum during observation of mouth actions performed by humans and, to the same degree, animals. Vegans also had increased connectivity with the supplementary motor area. During human mouth actions, increased amygdala activity in vegetarians and vegans was found. More critically, vegetarians recruited the right middle frontal gyrus and insula, which are involved in social mirroring, whereas vegans activated the left inferior frontal gyrus and middle temporal gyrus, which are part of the mirror neuron system. Monkey mouth actions triggered language network activity in both groups, which might be due to the attempt to decode monkey mouth gesture, with an additional recruitment of associative temporo-occipital areas in vegans, whereas pig mouth actions activated empathy-related regions, including the anterior cingulum. These results support the role of the action observation-execution matching system in social cognition, which enables us to interact not only with our conspecifics but also with species in phylogenetic proximity to humans.

So next time you have trouble understanding the eating habits of omnivores, it could be due to our brains being wired differently. It seems we are more likely to feel empathy when seeing certain animals, and this may be hard-wired into our brains more so than in omnivores. Interestingly enough, vegan and vegetarian amygdalas(the emotional center of the brain) were more active than omnivore amygdalas when watching human mouth actions too. This means that our amydalas are more reactive in general, not just when it comes to empathizing with animals.

As an aside, it would be great if we could do brain scans of politicians, to see if their brains are very different from the brains of non-politicians. I have my suspicions. Most days, they seem like an entirely differently life-form!

It’s a Turkey Vulture!

IMG_1785Remember the big bird in the photo from my last post, “Spectacular Views From Beacon Mountain” I needed help identifying? According to commenter John:

Nice clear skies to be able to see the skyscrapers 50 miles away! That’s a turkey vulture in the one photo. They look so graceful from a distance, soaring over the mountains, but from closer up — yikes! — the naked red head is pretty ugly.

I agree, they sure do look graceful. Thanks for helping us identify it. I believe that in nature, even “ugly” creatures can still be beautiful in their own way. Check out John’s site, Life With John, for some great nature and travel photos.

Here are some more pictures of the turkey vultures from a few days ago. There were several of these birds flying around as I was in the fire tower.

IMG_1787IMG_1782IMG_1783IMG_1771I wish I could be a turkey vulture for a day. Or a week. Or a year! That way I could soar through the skies like I’ve always dreamed of. I’ve had other hikers tell me about turkey vultures before, usually as a warning to not climb a fire tower if they build their nest in one, since they may attack to defend it. Otherwise, they are harmless.

The turkey vultures of the Americas are also a good example of convergent evolution. They are not in the same avian group as Old World vultures, which belong to accipitridae, while New World vultures are in cathartidae. In spite of this, evolutionary forces have made them very similar.

If you could be any animal for a day, which animal would you choose to be?