May 16th, 2015
A herd of elephants in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.
By David Brown
An elephant herd leisurely grazes through a savanna in central Kenya. A small elephant calf playfully chases his older sister through the brush while their mother, the matriarch (leader) of the herd, strips bark from a large acacia tree with her tusks and grabs leaves with her trunk. As the matriarch approaches the next tree buffet she suddenly halts. She starts shaking her head and throwing dust over her shoulder, signs of great agitation. She sounds an alarm call and the entire herd of a dozen elephants runs shrieking away from the trees.
There are no lions or other predators around, and there are no people – these are the things that usually agitate elephants and make them run away.
What could be threatening the elephants and make them go screaming away from the trees?
Dr. Lucy King has studied that question. It turns out that it was something small that scares elephants when they get close to certain trees.
A mouse? No, it is only a myth that elephants are scared of mice.
Bees. Elephants are scared of bees. African honeybees are very aggressive. They form swarms of thousands of bees that attack any animal that gets too close to their hives. They sting their victim as a single unit, delivering thousands of stings within seconds.
These attacks can kill people, but are they enough to kill or harm an elephant? “Yes,” says Dr. King. “It seems that over the millennia elephants have learned to avoid trees with beehives. We think this must have come from elephants trying to forage in Acacia trees, accidentally knocking open a wild beehive and as a consequence being stung in the face, around the eyes and up the trunk.”
Dr. King collected data to show that elephants are afraid of bees. “We have collected a lot of anecdotal stories about this from herdsmen, farmers and rangers who have witnessed elephants being stung by wild bees. They run away as quickly as possible!” she explains. “I recorded the sound of very disturbed angry bees and played it back to families of elephants resting under trees using a hidden wireless speaker system to see how they might react should a wild hive be disturbed nearby. They ran away just like the anecdotes suggested. I’ve witnessed one family running from real beehives and it’s true – they just get out of there as fast as possible.”
Elephants running from bees! Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.
An elephant family runs from bees. Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.
In the region of Kenya where Dr. King studied elephants and bees there are sometimes conflicts between elephants and farmers. Dr. King explains what some of those problems are: “Elephants pose all kinds of social, economic and financial problems for farmers. They break open water pipes, knock down grain stores, break into houses where food is stored and of course crop-raid and trample crops that are still growing in the farms too.”
A thought occurred to Dr. King: could the fear that elephants have of bees possibly be used to help prevent conflicts between elephants and farmers? She worked with local farmers to figure out how bees might be used to keep elephants away from the farms. They developed an idea to use bees as a sort of alarm to scare away elephants by incorporating beehives into fences around fields that elephants would like to raid.
“In our study site in Kenya we are using beehive fences to reduce conflict between farmers and elephants,” says Dr. King. “The beehive fences consist of beehives strung every 10 meters around the boundary of a farm, which are interlinked with a strong piece of plain wire. Should an elephant try to pass between the hives to access the farm, the wire knocks into the body of the elephant causing each beehive on either side of him to swing, releasing the bees and scaring away the elephant.”
A beehive fence. Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.
A family uses a beehive fence to scare away elephants and stop them from eating their crops. Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.
A group checks up on a beehive fence. Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.
The beehive fence not only keeps elephants away from the farms, but has positive economic benefits for the farmers too. Dr. King explains the benefits that the bees provide the farmers: “The beehive fence is therefore reducing crop-raids into the farms, allowing an increase in crop yield from each of the farms, increased pollination of the crops from the presence of more bee pollinators AND the bees produce extremely valuable honey and bee products that the farmer can sell as an additional income.”
Elephants may not like beehive fences, but Dr. King’s view is that they have helped both elephants and people by reducing conflict between them. “We are seeing a significant attitude change now amongst our participating farmers – they feel much more able to cope with elephants on their own compared to before when they did not have a protective beehive fence around them. We feel it’s a real win-win solution for small-scale farmers in Africa living right next to elephant habitat areas.”
Dr. Lucy King holds some of the honey made by bees living in the beehive fences. Photo courtesy of Dr. Lucy E. King.
The bees both protect farmers’ crops and make them honey that they can use and sell. Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.
April 17th, 2015
By David Brown
A reticulated giraffe browses on a bush for lunch. Photo by John Doherty.
When most people imagine giraffes they probably think of tall mammals with spots.
There are actually many kinds of giraffes in Africa. They are all tall and they all have spots, but there are differences between them.
One type of giraffe is called the reticulated giraffe.
The reticulated giraffe lives in northeastern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and, possibly, southwestern Somalia. John Doherty and Jacob Leaidura study the Kenyan population of these giraffes from their base in Samburu National Reserve. John is a scientist from Ireland. Jacob is a member of the Samburu community – a group of people in northern Kenya. He is a naturalist and educator. Together, they spend a lot of time observing the behavior and other characteristics of the reticulated giraffes in their study area.
John explains what makes the reticulated giraffes different from other giraffes and how they got their name: “The word ‘reticulated’ means ‘marked like a net’ and refers to the clean, white lines on the giraffes’ lovely red-brown coats. Some people call them Somali giraffes because they used to be common in the very north-east corner of Africa.”
“In my language,” says Jacob, “the word for giraffe is ‘lmeut’ (many Samburu words start with the letter “L”) but usually people call them ‘lmara’, which means ‘spotted, dappled or colorful.’”
John Doherty and Jacob Leaidura look for giraffes. Photo by John Doherty.
John explains what they are trying to learn about the reticulated giraffes. “At the moment, we’re trying to understand their social structure: the ways in which they relate to one another. In the past, people thought that giraffes were not very friendly because, even though they are often found in groups, they are constantly changing their companions. Our work – and that of our colleagues studying different kinds of giraffes in other parts of Africa – suggests that this may be a misunderstanding. It may be, instead, that giraffes live in complex communities that don’t depend on friends and acquaintances being constantly together – very much in the way that we humans do.”
Jacob has been living around giraffes his whole life. He describes what it was like growing up with giraffes around him. “Because I was familiar with giraffes and other large animals throughout my childhood, I can’t remember the very first one I saw. What I do recall, from the age of about 10, is that there used to be so many and they were so huge and I was so small that I was afraid to go near them. In those days, when I wasn’t at school, I was looking after my father’s cattle, goats and sheep, roaming with them far and wide and protecting them from wild animals, especially lions, and also from thieves. By coincidence, John saw his very first reticulated giraffes at about that time and just outside my home village.”
John and Jacob are worried that the number of reticulated giraffes is going down all of the time.
In the interview below, John answers questions about the work that he and Jacob do, why the reticulated giraffes are endangered, and what people can do to help them.
Mongabay.com: Why are reticulated giraffes endangered?
John Doherty: We think that the overall population has suffered a decline of more than 80% in only the last 15 years. Factors such as predation and disease may have played a part in this, but it seems that the single most important cause is poaching. The people who live in the areas where reticulated giraffes are found suffer from intermittent drought and famine. Many of them have illegal guns that have found their way into the area from long-running wars in neighboring countries. This combination of poverty, hunger, and firearms spells trouble for wildlife in general and giraffes in particular.
Mongabay.com: Lions and elephants get a lot of attention, but do the kids who live where the reticulated giraffes are know that they have a special kind of giraffe where they live?
John Doherty: We all take the things around us for granted. Children in Samburu have grown up with elephants, lions and giraffes and imagine that they will always be there. Some older people recognize that there are many places where they saw animals in their childhoods but don’t any more, or notice that, even where wildlife survives, the numbers are much lower than they used to be. We’re working especially with the youngsters to help them realize how lucky they are to live with such amazing creatures and to think of them as more than simply free-range food.
Mongabay.com: Do Kenyans know that they live in the place with the most kinds of giraffes in the world? Is there much interest in conserving giraffes in the wild? If not, is there any effort to try and increase giraffe conservation awareness?
John Doherty: Together with the Kenya Wildlife Service, Thadeus Obari, who studies Masai giraffes, and Zoe Muller of the Rothschild’s Giraffe Project, we take every opportunity to raise public awareness of Kenya’s unique inheritance. It is remarkable that no other country in Africa has more than one kind of giraffe while Kenya has three. John says that this reflects the fact that today’s giraffes first appeared in this part of Africa more than a million years ago. Later, they spread to the west and the south, but because they’ve been here longer than anywhere else, they’ve had more time to change and evolve.
Mongabay.com: What do people need to do to protect the reticulated giraffe and make sure that it survives into the future?
John Doherty: The issues facing reticulated giraffe conservation are complicated and difficult because they arise from much wider problems such as the world’s rapidly increasing human population and the effects of climate change and poverty. People who live with the giraffes first have to recognize that they’re endangered and then make a conscious decision that they don’t want to lose them. Giraffes bring benefits to local communities in terms of income from tourism and jobs in conservation but, beyond that, they help to make the world a wonderful and complex place for people to live in and enjoy.
Mongabay.com: What specific things can people do to help protect reticulated giraffes, especially those who are interested in giraffes but live outside of Africa?
John Doherty: Those of us who don’t live in Africa but who love to know that we share our little planet with such beautiful and fascinating animals can act only indirectly by spreading the word among our friends and neighbors and by encouraging grown-ups in positions of power and influence to take effective action. If you feel strongly that you want giraffes to survive, don’t keep it to yourself: tell your parents, your teachers, your local zoo, your government and the governments of countries where giraffes are still found.
Imagine if they were already extinct and we knew of them only from fossils, we’d never have guessed that they had such unusual and beautiful markings.
April 8th, 2015
By David Brown
England, 1614: The crop was in ruins. The food plants were desiccated, brown, and brittle. There would be no harvest this year. Despair descended upon the farmers for winter was coming and their food stores would not be replenished. They cursed the monster that stalked their land…
Our species grew up in a world of monsters. Sailors feared being swallowed whole by savage sea serpents. Travelers shivered at howls echoing through the night, terrified of becoming a werewolf’s next meal. Villagers dreaded possibly having their life forces drained from them by blood-sucking, soul-stealing vampires.
As we better explored and understood the world, the monsters shrank away.
Vampires now only haunt us in our movies, books, and other forms of imagination – at least the undead, mythological kind of vampires that drain the life force from humans.
Deep in the sea lurks a squid with blood red skin and glassy demonic blue eyes. A web of skin connects each of its arms. When the squid fans its arms out it looks like the cape of a vampire. So startling was the appearance of this creature that scientists named it Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the Vampire Squid of Hell. For many years very little was known about the vampire squid or what it ate. Surely such a creature must live by grabbing unsuspecting fish with its tentacles and drawing it to its jaws to suck out their blood? Alas the human imagination exceeds the cold reality of the vampire squid, which turns out to be a scavenger, helping clear the deep seas of dead sea jellies and other organic matter. This animal is a vampire only in our minds.
Vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis) by Carl Chun, 1903. Image from the NOAA Photo Library.
Yet, vampires are real. They fly and creep and stalk across the Earth, as they have for millions of years before the vampires of human imagination existed.
Perhaps the most famous real life vampires flutter through the forests of Central and South America, sucking blood from birds and mammals (including humans sometimes). Europeans first saw vampire bats in the 1600s as they explored the New World. Tales of the blood-sucking bats were sewn into the mythology of vampires. Dracula, perhaps the most famous vampire of all, transformed himself into a bat in the novel by Bram Stoker, inspired by the existence of real vampire bats.
In the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the coast of South America, is the Galapagos Archipelago. These islands arose from the volcanic engines powering the movement of continental plates. Over time an ecosystem of animals arose found nowhere else on the planet featuring giant tortoises, tropical penguins, iguanas that swim in the ocean nibbling seaweed, and genuine vampires – vampire birds. On two of the Galapagos Islands, Wolf and Darwin, lives a species of finch that makes its living by drinking the blood of other birds. The vampire finch, also known as the sharp-beaked ground finch, pierces the skin of sea birds called boobies, drawing blood. Like the vampires of myth the vampire finch slurps up the blood, using the life force of others to its nourishment.
We have banished the monster vampires of legend to our art and literature. We know that some real vampires lurk in the animal kingdom. Our consideration of vampires usually ends there. Yet, there is another kingdom of the vampires beyond these boundaries.
These vampires do not stalk us directly, but they have clashed with humans throughout our history and they shape the world around us. These are the vampires of the plant kingdom.
The vampires of imagination sustain themselves by plunging their fangs into their victims and sucking out their blood. Botanical vampires operate in similar fashion, only without fangs and they are not drinking blood. Plants need to move water, nutrients, and sugars throughout their bodies. Vascular plants are plants with a circulatory system of tissues called xylem and phloem. Xylem is a highway of canals moving water throughout a plant’s body. Phloem does the same thing for sugars. These tissues are analogous to the circulatory system moving blood throughout the human body. They make a very tempting target for the vampires of the plant world.
If a plant dreaded a vampire attack, it is not the bite of a fang that it would fear but the deadly grasp of the haustorium. A haustorium is a modified root that seeks not to draw water and nutrients from the soil, but to find a victim and penetrate deeply into its tissue. A vampire plant unleashes a swarm of haustoria into its victim to tap into its xylem and phloem. Once inside, the haustoria directly connect the circulatory system of victim and vampire. The victim plant literally has the life sucked away from it as the vampire hijacks its water and nutrients.
The haustoria are the fangs of a vampire plant, penetrating deep into the host’s tissues.
The vampires of myth dwell in the shadows, pouncing on their victims only in the depths of night. Vampire plants operate out in the open in the full light of day. Nobody knows for sure how many kinds of botanical vampires there are. There are between 300,000 and 400,000 species of vascular plants (plants with xylem and phloem) in the world. Some scientists have estimated that perhaps 1% of these species are vampires, known technically as parasitic plants to botanists. This means that there may be 4000 or more species of plants seeking to sink their haustoria into their fellow plant species.
One of the most famous botanical vampires has a starring role as a holiday decoration.
Mistletoe is a vampire, and there are over 1000 different kinds of it. The vampiric life cycle of mistletoe begins with a bird being attracted to a luscious berry on a mistletoe plant. The bird unknowingly swallows the vampire in the form of a seed within the berry and transports it to a new victim plant, a tree. The vampire seed emerges from the bird unharmed and deposited on a tree branch where it germinates. Haustoria writhe from the mistletoe seedling and infest the tissue of the tree hosting it. The xylem and phloem of vampire and host are connected and the mistletoe feeds on its host for years. The victim is weakened by the vampire feeding upon it for decades, but likely will not be killed by it. It is in the interest of the vampire not to destroy its victim by overfeeding on it. Eventually the mistletoe will flower and produce a seed embedded in a berry. Another bird will feed on it and the vampire attack will start anew.
Vampire plants do not attack humans directly, but in medieval Europe one species did cause real horror. Yellow rattle is a plant species that lives in meadows and grasslands. It has beautiful yellow flowers. When the seeds mature they rattle around within the fruit pod of the plant. This rattling would not be a welcome sound for European farmers. Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasite. This means that the plant sometimes lives freely on its own, absorbing water and nutrients from its roots like a normal plant does. Other times yellow rattle becomes a vampire, engulfing the roots of surrounding plants with haustoria and sucking dry their water and nutrients. Yellow rattle was known by the curse “stealer of bread” in medieval Europe. It would infest fields and vampirize entire crops of wheat so that nothing was left.
Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor). Photo by Ian Cunliffe, courtesy of Flicker.
As vampire hunters of legend arose to fight off the vampires of our imaginations, the farmers of Europe figured out how to defeat the real life vampirism of yellow rattle. They discovered that yellow rattle does not produce enough seeds to remain in the ground over time and start a seed bank, a repository of seeds that survives over years and replenishes a plant species’ numbers. If the yellow rattle was destroyed before seeds were produced then the vampire threat could be eradicated from the fields and the crops would be plagued no more. By the 1800s farmers no longer considered yellow rattle a threat to their crops. The stealer of bread had been defeated.
Yellow rattle was once seen as vampiric scourge that preyed upon other plants with evil intent. Today we know more about its role in its grassland ecosystems. In England scientists are restoring agricultural fields back into natural grasslands. Sometimes a few species of grasses will dominate a field and reduce the biological diversity, the number of species present, of the restored grassland. When yellow rattle is added in these ecosystems it helps preserve biological diversity by preventing any one species from taking over by vampirizing the most abundant species and controlling its numbers. Just as our increasing knowledge and exploration of the world transported us out of a world of imaginary monsters, our increased understanding of vampire plants now shows us that they are not really monsters. They are important parts of the ecosystems that they live in and help conserve biological diversity.
The sea serpents and werewolves have disappeared from the world, but we really do live in the garden of the vampires.
The author thanks Dr. Duncan B. Westbury for his help with this story.
February 11th, 2015
A trio of bulls. Photo courtesy of Kelly Landen
By David Brown
Nobody is sure how many elephants there are in Africa.
There are pretty good estimates of how many people there are in Africa. Elephants are much bigger than people obviously, so how can it be that people don’t know exactly how many elephants there are in Africa?
For one thing Africa is approximately as big as the moon in terms of surface area (Africa is roughly 31 million square kilometers and the moon is about 38 million square kilometers). Elephants roamed across 46 African countries; now they are limited to 35, their fate unknown in some. In 20 countries, elephant populations number fewer than 1,000 animals.
Elephants are also very good at hiding from people. They can virtually disappear into thickets of savanna woodland or slip deep into impenetrable rainforest. This skill has served them well over their history with humans. African elephants and humans evolved in the same areas and have encountered each other throughout their history. African elephants learned how to avoid people and hide from them.
Their cousins, the mammoths, mastodons, stegodons, and gomphotheres, who used to live in North and South America, Europe, and most parts of Asia did not have much experience with humans until people left Africa and spread across the rest of the world. The lack of experience with humans may have been why these elephant cousins did not recognize humans as a potential threat. These elephant cousin species were hunted to extinction about 10,000 years ago, along with many other species of large mammals like ground sloths, saber-toothed cats, and wooly rhinos.
A poached elephant carcass. Photo courtesy of Kelly Landen.
With a vast geographic area to survey, and with an animal that can very well hide itself if it doesn’t want to be seen (even though it is the largest living land animal), people who want to know how many elephants there are in Africa have had a very difficult time.
One thing that is clear is that over the 20th century there became increasingly fewer elephants in Africa. Scientists estimate that there were more than a million elephants in Africa in the first part of the 20th century. By the start of the 21st century there were likely only 500,000 or fewer elephants in Africa. The main reason for the decline in elephant numbers is poaching for their ivory. In the 1970s and 1980s there was a major epidemic of elephant poaching across Africa. This ivory poaching crisis was halted in 1989 when the ivory trade was banned under the international agreement called CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. After the ban, elephant numbers rose across Africa.
Limited ivory trade was again allowed in the early 21st century when some countries claimed that there was enough ivory stockpiled from natural elephant deaths. Unfortunately this trade was not controlled as was planned and poaching of elephants resumed. Scientists estimated that upwards of 20,000 elephants a year were being illegally killed for their ivory by 2013. This rate of elephant killing could eventually lead to elephant extinction in many parts of Africa if not stopped. Critical pieces of information needed to protect elephants include knowing how many elephants there are in their habitats across Africa, and what other things are threatening their survival. Ivory poaching is the major obvious threat to elephant populations, but illegal logging and development of their habitat is also a threat in many places. Wildlife authorities in Africa need to how many elephants there are and what threatens them in the areas they protect.
A team of scientists has undertaken the massive task of counting African savanna elephants across the entire continent of Africa, a project called the Great Elephant Census, funded by Microsoft co-founder, Paul G. Allen. Dr. Mike Chase and Kelly Landen of the elephant conservation group Elephants Without Borders are coordinating the Great Elephant Census, working with a team of scientists and wildlife authorities from government agencies and conservation groups across Africa. They are counting elephants in 17 countries. According to experts on elephant estimates, the targeted 17 countries account for approximately 90 percent of the continent’s savannah elephants.
The elephant census team is counting elephants and other wildlife within elephant habitats in the countries being surveyed. The survey plane flies low to the ground methodically over an area in a planned grid pattern. Flying back and forth like this ensures that an entire area is systematically searched for the presence of elephants.
“When we see animals, we count and call out the numbers in the herds and which species. At the same time, photos of all of the herds are taken by remotely controlled cameras attached to the plane to verify what was seen. Then we recount the herds in the photos on the computer,” says Kelly.
One day, while flying around in their plane, the survey team spotted a family of elephants in a delta. Photo courtesy of Kelly Landen.
The census team also spots and records other wildlife from their plane, such as these giraffes and zebras. Photo courtesy of Kelly Landen.
A group of hippos lounge in a pond. Photo courtesy of Kelly Landen.
A herd of zebra spotted from the plane. Photo courtesy of Kelly Landen.
A herd of eland counted on a computer. Photo courtesy of Kelly Landen.
This is how planes fly when looking for elephants and other wildlife.
The surveys are done during the dry season, which varies depending on the country. This is because in the dry season there is less vegetation for the elephants to hide in and it is easier to see them.
Elephant carcasses and bones seen in the aerial census are also counted. The census team can tell how old elephant carcasses are by how decayed they are. The number of elephant carcasses seen in an area indicates how much elephant poaching is happening, and their age indicates whether poaching is recent (recent elephant carcasses) or happened in the past (older elephant carcasses).
In addition, the aerial census allows the team to count other large herbivores living in the same area as elephants like giraffes, zebras, and antelope species. They can also assess the environmental conditions of elephant habitat, such as whether people are cutting down trees, building roads, grazing livestock, or turning elephant habitat into farms or other human developments.
The aerial census not only will give a count of the numbers of savanna elephants across their range in Africa, but also allow the detection and counting of specific threats like poaching and different types of habitat destruction.
As of October 2014, the Great Elephant Census had surveyed elephants in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and recently Botswana. The census has shown the scientists both negative and positive trends for elephant conservation.
Unfortunately, poaching is only part of the problem, with the census exposing environmental degradation is a key factor in wildlife declines. “Loss of habitat is the biggest conservation problem for elephants and other wildlife, in many areas. People are also taking over land into protected areas much more than was previously thought,” explains Kelly.
On the positive side, in some areas anti-poaching efforts seem to be effective as the only elephant carcasses seen are old skeletons. The absence of newer elephant bodies means that poaching may have stopped in these areas. The aerial census has also found elephant herds in some areas where they were thought to be extinct.
The survey plane. Photo courtesy of Kelly Landen.
A herd of elephants meanders through the landscape. Photo courtesy of Kelly Landen.
The goal of the Great Elephant Census is not only to count elephants and other wildlife, but also to assess the impact of poaching and threats to their habitat and make the information useful to the conservation authorities in each country where the census is occurring. Mike, Kelly, and their colleagues meet with the wildlife departments and scientists in each country to review the findings of the census. In these meetings they assess the conservation problems (and hopefully good news, too) that the aerial censuses reveal about elephant numbers and their conservation challenges.
“The elephant is a flagship or what is called a keystone species – they play a key role in maintaining the balance of all other species in their environment. They are a lynchpin to Africa’s ecosystem and losing them would be a detriment to other species and our planet. Elephants are symbolic of our commitment to conservation in Africa. If we can’t save the African elephant, what is the hope of conserving the rest of Africa’s wildlife? I am hopeful with the right tools, research, conservation efforts and political will we can help conserve elephants for decades to come,” says Mike.
What can people who do not live in countries where elephants live do to help conserve them? Kelly recommends that people can help by keeping aware of how elephants are doing in Africa and helping others keep aware. She observes that young people have helped spread awareness of the elephant poaching crisis by creating social networks and that has been helpful in keeping elephant conservation relevant in the world, especially among the young people who will decide whether elephant populations remain in Africa for this century and beyond.
“The survey data is still being gathered and it will take months for the results to be distributed. However, the Great Elephant Census will create a baseline of novel and meaningful information that will benefit conservation efforts and is critical to the future of African elephants’ survival. It has been an honor and privilege to be part of it,” says Kelly.
Members of the census team. Photo courtesy of Kelly Landen.
February 9th, 2015
What Miracinonyx inexpectatus, a species of American cheetah, may have looked like. By Apokryltaros.
By David Brown
A big cat zipped through the plains chasing an antelope. This cat was built for speed. It had a small head and long legs for making great strides. Exhausted from the chase, the cat sought out the shade of a cave. Unfortunately the cave was a trap. It had very steep sides and the cat could not climb out of it.
Fast forward 18,000 years later and scientists looking for fossils in the cave found the bones of the cat. The scientists were surprised to discover this cat with a small face and long limbs. Based on its body shape this cat was clearly some kind of cheetah, right? Why the surprise?
The scientists were surprised because this cat was found in Wyoming. Cheetahs were only known from Africa and Asia. Could this new cat really be a new kind of North American cheetah?
The new cat fossil was found with other species that were also specialized for running, or cursorial. The other cursorial species included horses, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn antelope that had long legs designed for fast running. Was it possible that the mystery cat only looked like a cheetah because it also chased fast prey through open plains at high speeds?
Scientists gave the cat the scientific name Miracinonyx. Some scientists argued that the cat was a relative of the puma (the North American cat also known as mountain lion and cougar) that was adapted for the same lifestyle of the cheetahs. Other scientists disagreed and argued that the new cat really was a new kind of cheetah. They argued that cheetahs were from North America and then moved to Asia and Africa.
Dr. Ross Barnett is a geneticist who uses DNA to study how different animals are related to each other. DNA (dioxyribo nucleic acid) is the blueprint of an organism. Dr. Barnett and a team of other geneticists set out to compare the DNA of Miracinonyx with DNA from cheetahs and pumas. This comparison would help determine if Miracinonyx was actually a cheetah or a puma relative that was adapted to the same running lifestyle of the cheetah.
A modern-day cheetah in Kenya. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
The first step was getting DNA out of the Miracinonyx bones from the cave in Wyoming. Dr. Barnett explains: “We ground up a tiny piece of the bone into powder. We then used various chemicals to separate the DNA and concentrate it down. DNA is made up of units called nucleotides”. These nucleotides are arranged in a long chain like letters in a very long word called a DNA sequence. Dr. Barnett used a machine called a genetic sequencer to read a small piece of the DNA sequence from Miracinonyx.
The geneticists also produced DNA sequences from cheetahs, pumas, and a small cat called the jaguarundi. These cats plus Miracinonyx make up one branch of the cat family. With DNA sequences from all of these cats Dr. Barnett created a family tree to determine if Miracinonyx was actually an American cheetah.
“When we created a family tree by comparing the DNA from our Miracinonyx specimen to cheetah, jaguarundi and puma we saw a clear pattern. The sequences for Miracinonyx and puma were the most similar. The sequences for Miracinonyx and cheetah were least similar. The difference in sequence between Miracinonyx and jaguarundi were somewhere in-between. This allowed us to say that Miracinonyx and puma were sister species,” says Dr. Barnett. Sister species are species that are more closely related to each other than they are any other species.
Because cheetahs were not found to be the sister species of Miracinonyx it seems that true cheetahs did not live in North America. “Miracinonyx had probably evolved in North America from a puma-like ancestor and all the characters that made it look like a cheetah were a result of adaptations to a similar lifestyle, a lifestyle of fast running. I was surprised as other scientists had said that the skeleton of Miracinonyx looked so much like a cheetah that it was impossible for it to be a close relative of the puma” says Dr. Barnett.
There may not have been actual cheetahs in North America, but it is still amazing to think that there were once large cats with the same appearance and lifestyle as cheetahs roaming the plains of Wyoming.
July 28th, 2014
By David Brown
Lopé National Park. Photo by Stephanie Schuttler.
Stephanie Schuttler awoke to something clattering around outside her bedroom, knocking over garbage cans and ripping leaves off of trees.
If she were back home in North America, then she might think that it was a raccoon or an opossum.
The animals outside her room then started knocking down window panels and ripping the plumbing out of the bathroom a few rooms down from Stephanie. They were trumpeting and making agitated rumbles.
Those were not raccoons.
They were forest elephants outside of a cabin at the Station D’Etudes des Gorilles et Chimpanzes, a research station in Lopé National Park in the Central African country of Gabon.
Stephanie recounts her experience with the elephants that night: “Outside of my room an elephant tried to climb the stairs leading up the front porch. It pushed my door in with its trunk, but the door held, luckily, being locked from the inside. I decided it was no longer safe to stay in bed. I leapt out of bed to the opposite side of the room. There was no time to grab a flashlight and the moon was dull, so I only saw darkness. I heard wood breaking and falling, but the noise was coming from inside my room. There were two other researchers in the rooms next to mine and I called out “They’re coming in my room!”
She quietly went into her colleague’s room next door. They huddled quietly and the elephants eventually went away.
Forest vs. Savannah Elephants
Forest elephants are smaller than savannah elephants. Photo by Stephanie Schuttler.
Stephanie was in Gabon to study the social networks of the forest elephants. The elephants dismantling Stephanie’s cabin were not there to “friend” her and join her social network, however.
Social networks are the connections of social interactions and personal relationships that individuals have with each other. Humans maintain social networks with their families and friends, the people that they go to school and work with, and electronically with other people around the world. Elephants similarly have social networks with other elephants.
There are two species of elephants in Africa. The savanna elephant lives in the savanna grasslands of East and Southern Africa. The savannas are very dry and open grasslands.
The other kind of elephant, the forest elephant, lives in the African rainforests of West and Central Africa. The tropical rainforests are very wet and enclosed with trees, vines, and other plants.
African savanna elephants are the largest living land mammals on Earth. Forest elephants are smaller than savanna elephants. Both kinds of elephants have large ears. Savanna elephants have ears shaped that are somewhat pointed on the bottom. The ears of forest elephants are typically more round on the bottom. Both savanna and forest elephants have tusks. Savanna elephants have tusks that are usually more curved. Forest elephant tusks tend to be straighter than savanna elephant tusks. Forest elephant tusks can have a yellow or may have a pinkish color. Some scientists think that the forest elephant tusks may have evolved this way to create less resistance for traveling through the forest.
Forest elephants also have straighter tusks than savannah elephants. Photo by Stephanie Schuttler.
A savanna elephant meets and associates with many individuals in its lifetime. Savanna elephants live in matrilineal herds with an older female, a matriarch, as a leader. Several females and their calves live together in family groups. This herd structure helps protect the elephants against predators and helps them find food and water. Different family groups of savanna elephants will hang out with each other at various times of the year. During the wet season in countries like Kenya many family groups may come together and form groups of hundreds of elephants. Savanna elephants have very large and active social networks.
Forest elephants are seen in much smaller groups than the ones formed by their cousins on the savannas. The forest elephant species lives deep in the rainforests of Central and West Africa where they cannot be observed as well by scientists as savanna elephants can be. This means that much of what goes on in the lives of forest elephants is a mystery and raises many questions: How big is a forest elephant social network compared to a savanna elephant social network? How many individuals is a forest elephant hanging out with and what are they doing when they get together? Do forest elephants get together as much as savanna elephants do? Stephanie Schuttler set out to investigate these questions by observing their behavior and analyzing the genetic relatedness of individuals to each other.
Stephanie observes a group of forest elephants. Photo by Stephanie Schuttler.
Stephanie and her field team first had to identify the forest elephants in their study area in Lopé National Park. Lopé National Park is a good place to watch forest elephants.
“With forest elephants, you can only see them well in a clearing, or in a savanna,” Stephanie explains. Forest elephants spend most of their time deep in the forest where people cannot see them. The northeastern part of Lopé National Park is a patchwork of forest and savanna, so forest elephants are more visible there than in most of their range. To identify the elephants, Stephanie and her team would drive around the park’s road network at sunrise and sunset and photograph every elephant that they saw.
Once they had a photo catalog of all of the individual elephants that they could find, they had to figure out ways to recognize each individual. Savanna elephant researchers frequently identify the individual elephants that they study by the patterns of tears in their ears. This method would not work for all forest elephants however.
“Most forest elephants in Lopé don’t have ear tears,” says Stephanie. Instead she learned to identify her study elephants by their tusk shape and the vein patterns in their ears. Stephanie eventually identified 117 individual elephants.
Once all of the individuals were identified, Stephanie looked at the observation data of which individuals formed groups and associated with other individuals. As best as she could, she directly observed the social network of the forest elephants in Lopé National Park.
The Poop Tells All
Stephanie’s colleague scoops up some elephant poop. It contains DNA that can help scientists figure out how related elephants are to each other. Photo by Stephanie Schuttler.
Another challenge for the forest elephant study was determining how all of the elephants observed were related to each other. Stephanie addressed this challenge by using genetic analysis of the elephant population. Like every other animal, each individual elephant has a unique genetic pattern that makes it distinct from every other elephant. Individuals that are closely related to each other will have genetic patterns that are more similar to each other than are the genetic patterns of unrelated individuals.
Stephanie collected genetic material for her genetics work from elephant dung.
Stephanie collects some poop. Photo by Stephanie Schuttler.
How-To Guide for collecting genetic samples from forest elephant dung:
- Watch forest elephant until it poops. Wait for elephant to leave so that you can get to sample safely.
- Collect a small sample from the outside of the dung with a popsicle stick.
- Put it in a small tube and boil the tube to kill any potential germs.
- Add a chemical buffer to preserve the DNA (genetic material).
You might think that collecting genetic samples from elephant dung would be yucky and stinky, but it is not necessarily so. “Forest elephants in Lopé eat fruits, leaves, bark, and grass, so their poop smells more like lawn mower clippings,” says Stephanie.
Once Stephanie had collected DNA from all of the elephants that she could get samples from she took them back to a genetics laboratory at the University of Missouri. She used a technique called microsatellite analysis to look at the genetic pattern of each individual elephant. Microsatellite patterns of closely related individuals like a mother and child will be similar and those of unrelated individuals will be quite different from each other.
What Stephanie Learned
Stephanie was surprised to find that forest elephants of the same matriline (meaning they shared their mothers’ ancestry) were found all over the park in different places. But when looking at the social network, she found that they tended to associate with one another. This finding fits in with what is known in savanna elephants, where closely related females and their female offspring will usually be found with each other for their entire lives. Male savanna elephants will live with their mother, aunts, grandmother, and sisters until their teenage years (about 10 to15 years old) and then leave to live with other males or by themselves.
From her direct behavioral observations, Stephanie found that some individual forest elephants have few or no known associates that they hang out with. Forest elephants were usually observed in small groups consisting of a mother and calf. Sometime other adults were seen with a mother forest elephant and calf, but usually group size was not larger than five individuals.
Stephanie analyzed her behavioral observations using network analysis, a way of measuring how individuals in a population are connected to each other by looking at patterns of connections between the groups that they are in.
In savanna elephant populations, network analysis shows that almost every individual elephant in a savanna elephant social network is connected to every other individual because at some point their family units will interact with each other.
In contrast, network analysis of the forest elephants shows that the forest elephant social network is very patchy. There are many gaps in connections between forest elephants, meaning that most forest elephant individuals are not meeting each other. Stephanie observed the patchy nature of the forest elephant social network in both directly observed behavior and genetic patterns.
Although there are more observations of savanna elephants, there still appear to be large differences between the savanna and forest elephants and therefore more questions to explore about the forest elephant social network.
“We need to understand the differences between individuals who are more social and less social and how it affects survival and fitness,” says Stephanie. “We need to understand how they interact with each other and what they need to survive. They are very secretive.” Do forest elephant mothers who associate with more individuals have better success in protecting their calves from predators or finding food? Do these mothers have more calves and are they less stressed, and healthier? These questions and many others about forest elephants remain to be answered.
How You Can Help Elephants
Forest elephants are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. This means there are many fewer than there used to be, and they are at risk of going extinct. In fact, while there used to be 700,000 forest elephants, scientists think there are only 100,000 left. Photo by Stephanie Schuttler.
One thing that is clear is that all elephant social networks in Africa, both savanna and forest elephants are in danger from humans.
“Poaching for ivory is the biggest danger,” says Stephanie. She suggests several ways that anyone who is concerned about the future of elephants can help them survive:
- Spread the word to your friends and family and across social media about not buying ivory. Explain how illegal hunting destroys elephant social networks that they need to survive.
- Write to your governmental representatives to encourage them to help African nations fund anti-poaching activities and enforce laws against the illegal ivory trade.
- Donate to conservation organizations who are supporting rangers and law enforcement on the ground in African nations in anti-poaching campaigns.
Stephanie’s study site. Photo by Stephanie Schuttler.
June 11th, 2014
By David Brown
Sometimes the lions win…and sometimes they don’t.
A male giraffe contentedly strips leaves from an acacia tree on the Serengeti plains. He wraps his long, flexible tongue around the sharp thorns of the tree branch and plucks it clean, leaf-by-leaf. He has superb eyesight and hearing and these senses are mounted on the tallest watchtower in the animal kingdom.
This time though, he does not see or hear danger slinking towards him. A lion creeps towards the giraffe from the rear. The giraffe does not see the golden cat in the tall yellow grass, nor does it hear or smell it until it is too late to run. The lion launches itself at the giraffe, attacking the giraffe’s hindquarters with its massive paws and grasping it with its claws. A struggle ensues as the giraffe bucks and shakes, kicking at the lion with its sharp hooves. The giraffe manages to break the hold of the lion’s paws and run away to safety – for now.
Lions are the main predators of giraffes. They attack both giraffe calves and adults. More than half of giraffe calves never reach adulthood and lion predation may be the leading cause of death. Lions hunt subadult and adult giraffes also, although people rarely see these attacks. George Schaller, a famous biologist, observed only 10 lion attacks on giraffes in his three-year study of lions in the Serengeti. If lion attacks on giraffes are rarely witnessed, then how can scientists learn about how often they happen and how successful they are?
Megan Strauss studies the ecology and behavior of giraffes in the Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania. She has photographed hundreds of individual giraffes. She noticed some interesting scars on the bodies of the giraffes in her study population and wondered what caused them. The answers surprised her.
“When I examined the scars through my binoculars and zoomed in on digital photographs, it was clear that these scars were caused by lions,” she said. “I did some reading and discovered that marine biologists use predation scars observed on living whales and dolphins to learn about their predators, so I thought this would be an exciting new method to apply to giraffes.”
The first question that Megan faced was how to tell that the claw marks she observed on the giraffes were really from lions.
“Lions, like other felids, rely on powerful forelimbs and retractable claws to grab hold of prey,” she said. “Whereas hyenas, which prey on young giraffes, grab hold of prey with their strong teeth and jaws, leaving puncture wounds. As a lion drags its claws along the skin of its prey, it leaves a pretty distinctive set of parallel incisions. (Imagine dragging your fingernails through the mud.)”
Scientists can learn several things about how lions attack giraffes based on the claw marks that lions inflict during failed hunts. Most of the lion claw marks are found on the hindquarters of giraffes, confirming that lions attack giraffes from behind. This makes sense because giraffes have thick skin on their neck and fronts that is difficult for lions to penetrate. There are more claw marks on giraffes in more densely wooded areas of the Serengeti than in open grassland areas. This may be because it easier for giraffes to see lions in open areas than in woodlands where the lions can better hide.
No claw marks were found of giraffe calves. When lions attack giraffe calves they probably always succeed with their hunt. When giraffes were found with missing tails, there were always claw marks on their tail stumps, hind legs or rumps. Even if the lion didn’t successfully hunt giraffes with amputated tails, they can make their lives miserable because losing a tail may make it difficult for a giraffe to swat away biting tsetse flies or knock Acacia thorns out of its skin.
A lion attack on a giraffe is obviously dangerous for the giraffe, but can it be dangerous for the lion too?
“Yes!” said Megan Strauss. “An attacked giraffe kicks vigorously with its forelegs and hind legs and poses a serious threat to a lion. Adult giraffes have severely injured and even killed lions with well-placed kicks. Attacking a giraffe is risky business for a lion.”
There are recorded incidents of giraffes decapitating lions with their kicks. One successful lion kill of a giraffe was observed where the lion brought its prey down on top of itself and was crushed to death!
Lions and giraffes have been locked in combat for millions of years and hopefully will continue their drama in the future with efforts to preserve them and their ecosystems. There is still much to learn about how lions hunt giraffes. The “autographs” that lions leave on giraffes with their claw marks are one tool that scientists can use.
All photos were taken by Megan Strauss.
April 24th, 2014
By David Brown
Some people claim that Bigfoot roams through the forests of Northern California.
For hundreds of years people have told stories of seeing large reptilian creatures swimming in Lake Champlain in Vermont. Despite many sightings and legends, nobody has found real scientific evidence that these creatures actually exist in the forests and lakes of North America.
There is real scientific evidence though that there was a giant creature that lived in both the lakes and forests of North America. This creature’s scientific name is Castoroides ohioensis. This creature is also known as the giant beaver. It was the largest beaver that ever lived. It grew up to eight feet long and weighed nearly 500 pounds. It was as big as a black bear.
These giant beavers were the size of bears!
Where The Giant Beaver Roamed
The giant beaver lived in many parts of North America. It is known only from its bones because it went extinct at the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. This period is known as the Pleistocene. The bones of the giant beaver were first discovered in Ohio. This is why it is named “ohioensis.”
The giant beaver was probably amphibious like its modern cousin. This means that it both lived in lakes and went out on land. Scientists do not know if giant beavers had webbed feet and large flat tales like modern beavers. These body parts are not preserved like bones. Scientists assume that the giant beavers probably did have tails and webbed feet though because they did swim in lakes.
Food and Lodging of the Giant Beaver
Dr. Catherine Yansa is a scientist who has studied what giant beavers ate. The plants that the giant beaver ate left a specific kind of chemical trace on its teeth. Dr. Yansa tested the chemical trace that the plants left on the giant beaver’s teeth. Her chemical tests showed that the giant beavers probably were not eating trees like modern beavers do. Giant beavers probably ate aquatic plants like pondweeds.
Modern beavers live in homes called lodges. Lodges are domed houses that beavers build out of logs, sticks, and mud. Scientists are not sure what kind of homes the giant beavers built, but Dr. Yansa has one idea.
“Although we have no proof, giant beaver probably didn’t build lodges. Their biology (their diet and the shape of their tail) suggest that they were more like giant muskrats and may have had excavated dens rather than built lodges. But again, we have no proof either way.”
Live giant beavers may not be around anymore, but people sometimes find their fossilized bones. Photo by Ninjatacoshell.
Why Are There No Giant Beavers Today?
Nobody knows for sure why giant beavers went extinct. Many large animal species in North America and other parts of the world went extinct at the same time that the giant beavers did including mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and giant sloths. Some people think that humans hunted these species to extinction. Other people think that changes in ecosystems that these animals live in may have caused their extinction. It is possible that these species went extinct for a combination of reasons including hunting by humans and changes in their habitats.
Sadly, there are no giant beavers left swimming in the lakes or roaming through the woods of North America. Unlike Bigfoot though, we can be sure that the Giant Prehistoric Amphibious Beast of Ohio was real.
April 23rd, 2014
- By David Brown
A group of Masai giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi) look out over the NgoroNgoro Crater. Photo by Gary.
Did you know that that there are different kinds of giraffes? Scientists have identified nine different kinds of giraffes. All of the types of giraffes live in Africa. All of them have long necks and spots, but different types of giraffes have different kinds of spot patterns.
The Giraffe With White Stockings
The Rothschild’s giraffe is a type of giraffe that lives in the Great Rift Valley region of East Africa.
Lord Walter Rothschild was the first scientist to describe this giraffe after he saw them in East Africa in the late 1800s. The Rothschild’s giraffe is also known as the Baringo giraffe because they were once found around Lake Baringo in Kenya.
The Rothschild’s giraffe has a specific type of coat pattern. It has light brown patches with creamy lines in between. Their most distinguishing feature is their white “stockings.” Their legs are completely white with no markings from the hoof up to their knees. No other types of giraffe wear white stockings like the Rothschild’s giraffes do.
This Rothschild’s giraffe shows off its white stockings. Photo by Saipal.
The Rothschild’s Giraffes Are Having Problems
Rothschild’s giraffe were once found in Uganda, Kenya and Sudan.
They are now extinct in Sudan, and live only in the Rift Valley area of Kenya and Uganda. This area has very fertile soils and so a lot of people choose to live there and farm the land. With good rainfall and a warm climate, the area is excellent for growing crops and raising livestock.
This farming activity means that any forests or trees in the area get cut down to make space for crops and domestic animals. The giraffes in this area lose the places where they live. The Rothschild’s giraffes have nowhere to go and their numbers have fallen as a result.
There are now fewer than 800 Rothschild’s giraffes left in Kenya and Uganda,
Giraffes evolved long necks to reach tree leaves, their favorite food. Photo by Daryona.
Learning About Rothschild’s Giraffes
Zoe Muller is a scientist who studies the Rothschild’s giraffes and works to find ways to protect them. She explains what her work is about: “My project is carrying out research on practically everything there is to know about the Rothschild’s giraffe. I am finding out what they eat, what kind of places they choose to live in, how they form groups and how they make friendships. I am also looking at their distribution, past and present, and what steps need to be taken to ensure their conservation.”
Many of the children who live where the Rothschild’s giraffes do never get to see the giraffes and other wildlife that live in their country. Zoe visits local schools and community groups to tell people about the Rothschild’s giraffe and why it is special.
Helping The Rothschild’s Giraffes Solve Their Problems
The main things that the Rothschild’s giraffes need to survive are protection of their habitat and increasing peoples’ awareness of how special these giraffes are.
Protection of the Rothschild’s giraffe’s habitat can only be done where they live in Kenya and Uganda, but anybody can help these giraffes by caring about them and spreading awareness of giraffe conservation.
Zoe has some advice for anyone wanting to help giraffe conservation:
“The biggest thing that people can do to help is to help spread the word about how endangered giraffes are in the wild, and let people know. Ways of doing that include making posters about the Rothschild’s giraffe, perhaps doing a talk to your class or school, or writing a blog about them on the Internet. Raising money for conservation projects also is a great help, for example raising funds by having a bake sale, or by taking part in a sponsored walk or organizing a sponsored movie night. Every little helps!”
If enough people know and care about the Rothschild’s giraffes, hopefully they continue to wear their white stockings for a very long time into the future.
A Rothschild’s giraffe at Giraffe Manor in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.
February 27th, 2014
By David Brown and Stuart Short
Today’s article is coming to you from Ankarafantsika National Park in Madagascar. Our special guest today is the creature known by the common name “Large-Eared Tenrec”.
Geo- the large-eared tenrec. Photo Copyright P.J. Stephenson
Interviewer: Hello, Mr. Large-Eared Tenrec, how are you today?
Large-Eared Tenrec: I’m fine thank you. You can call me Geo. My scientific name is Geogale aurita.
Interviewer: What would you like to tell us about yourself, Geo?
Large-Eared Tenrec: If you saw me and didn’t know better you would probably think I was some kind of mouse. I’m about the size of a small mouse with grey fur on my body and white fur on my tummy.
Interviewer: So you are not a mouse? You really do look like one. Are you really sure that you aren’t?
Large-Eared Tenrec: Ha ha! I fooled you! Nope, I’m a tenrec. I’m related to elephants and aardvarks, not to rodents! My ancestors came to the island of Madagascar from Africa and there weren’t a lot of other animals around. We evolved to take advantage of all of the different ways of making a living that were available to us because nobody else was around.
Interviewer: What kind of lifestyle do you have, Geo? Where do you live and what do you eat?
Large-Eared Tenrec: Well, you see these ears that take up a lot of space on my head. They’re not just for looks (although they do make me look cute, don’t they?). I use them to listen for termites moving underground. When I hear the termites I scamper over and chomp them down. There’s noting better than slurping down fresh termites on a warm night. DELICIOUS! I live in grasslands and dry forest areas where termites live.
Interviewer: Do you have any special method for eating termites?
Large-Eared Tenrec: I have 34 sharp teeth for shredding and munching those termites. Look, there’s one now!
Large-Eared Tenrec: Ooops, sorry dude. I thought that the tip of your finger there was a termite. My bad.
Interviewer: Okay, I think it’s about time to wrap this up. Are there any animals that you are afraid of Geo?
Large-Eared Tenrec: Owls. Owls like to eat us. Fortunately with these large ears we can usually hear them coming. Speaking of which, what is that whooshing coming down from the forest? If that’s what I think it is, then I’ve really got to run! Take care!
Interviewer: And that, ladies and gentleman, was Geo, the large-eared tenrec.