Dear Cloud and Pryor Wild Horse friends;
From top to bottom, the Pryor Mountains are blanketed with snow. Only the deep green junipers and multicolored cliffs break a landscape of white. Erika Liljestrand, our newest member of the Cloud Foundation team, and photographer extraordinaire, friend and lover of all things wild, Deb Little, accompany me into the teeth of winter. For five days we search for wild horses in a forbidding yet wondrous wilderness.
Day 1. Nearly every morning we start out early from the Horseshoe Bend Motel (our home away from home) and drive through the Dryhead on the snow packed, paved road at the very bottom of the horse range. The road follows the route of the historic Bad Pass Trail, used by Native Americans, traders, and trappers traveling from the Bighorn Basin to the Missouri River country along the rugged Bighorn Canyon.
Snow is falling on day one when we spot a small group of mule deer making their way across a rocky hillside.
We backtrack, leaving the pavement behind as we travel to the base of Tillett Ridge, the most likely place (we think) to find Cloud and his family as well as Bolder and Echo and their band. As we load up the UTV, the snow continues to fall. Although the UTV seems able to handle the snow, its driver is having trouble. There are no tracks to follow and I can’t tell the road from the surrounding landscape, which includes steep drop offs. When I veer off the road, not once but twice, I stop. If we can’t get up the road we’re hosed.
Determined to get up the mountain, Deb and Erika get out and begin walking on what they think is the road. I let them get a ways ahead and then drive toward them, hoping they really are on the road. Is the sky a bit brighter or is it wishful thinking? Are we fools? What’s the worst that can happen? After all we have warm clothes, toe and hand warmers, and, most importantly, the will to find wild horses.
Eventually we make it onto a flat stretch of road and stop. The clouds are lifting a bit, allowing us to glass the area below the old uranium mines. Not seeing anything, Deb starts hiking uphill and we follow her. As we crest the ridge, horses come into view on top of the next ridgeline.
Baja! I recognize the stout little dun stallion with the two-toned mane and tail. His three mares are there, including the youngest member of the Pryor herd. Washakie gave birth in the fall—not a good time of the year to have a foal. Despite his ill-timed birth, the little colt looks fine to us. He is stout like his parents, and has a beautiful two-toned mane and tail like his father.
As we turn to look behind us, we identify Casper with his large band including Cloud’s sister, Mariah, as well as Aztec and her daughter, Jasmine. I wonder if Aztec will ever return to Cloud? And, more importantly, where is Cloud? Is he all right and and does he still have his band? As I have for his entire life, I begin to worry.
To the right of the mines, Deb spots horses and we set up our scopes again. We can see Cloud’s mother, so we believe we are looking at Diamond’s band. We assume the dark horse is Diamond as his coat can turn quite dark in winter, like many of the Pryor blue roans.
We drive on, struggling up the long red hill. We lose sight of Phoenix, and hike the road to the west of the mines where we glass out into the Hell ‘n Gone. I had seen Bolder far out in this inaccessible area at the end of December.
This time, we spot only two horses and I recognize the light dun roan bachelor, Knight, from miles away, with a bigger, dark horse, likely Inali or another one of the big Forest Service boys. I’m disappointed not to see Duke’s big band or Gringo’s band or He Who with Cloud’s stunning buckskin daughter, Jewel. Is Chance still dogging Gringo, trying to win back his family? I wonder silently. His loyalty is to be admired.
At the end of day one when the light is failing, we head to the Dryhead for a second time. Crossing over the cattle guard into the range we are rewarded with a look at the “greeters at the gate”—handsome Hickock with his mares, Hightail and Seneca. In a matter of seconds, they disappear into the willows, tall sage and greasewood.
Day 2. Overnight it snows in Lovell and low clouds obscure the Bighorns to the east and the Pryors in front of us. In the Dryhead, near the road, we spot the grullo stallion Fiero with the mare Sacajawea. The two disappear over the hill and we follow, and are lucky to get a few shots off before the pair walk downhill through the dense, snow-covered junipers.
Near the Devil’s Canyon Overlook four Bighorn sheep are foraging on mountain mahogany bushes, a critical winter food for both mule deer and the bighorns.
It is the two ewes and their lambs that I have seen since they were tiny last summer. How will I recognize you two when you are grown? Adult ewes all look so much alike to me. Beyond the ewes and lambs, on a rocky hillside, we spot a young, half curl ram.
I believe he is the son of one of the ewes. As we drive back to the main road, he crosses, dashing effortlessly up a snowy slope as if he had wings.
We head back to the base of Tillett—again. Thank goodness the snow hasn’t completely covered our tracks from yesterday! Close to where we spotted Baja we see them again near Doc and his little family.
Higher up we see Phoenix again with the band. I can see War Bonnet, Half Moon and her striking red son, Missoula. But the dark horse with them looks too dark and too big to be Diamond. Does the dark horse have a back boot? I ask Deb and Erika.
Diamond has a back white boot, but they confirm that the stallion has no leg markings. He does have a big star but it isn’t shaped like Diamond’s. We think it is Hernando, the son of Conquistador and Cavalitta, and the tallest horse in the Pryor Mountains. My heart drops to think that Diamond, at nearly 20 years of age, has lost his family. Is he alive? Or injured? I wonder out loud. During the course of our five-day adventure, we get our answer.
Diamond was the first wild horse foal I ever saw. He was only three days old in March of 1994. He and his family, including his striking father, Raven ran away from me in the red desert county at the base of Tillett Ridge. It was an unforgettable moment and, as I would eventually learn, a life-changing one.
In retrospect, I don’t believe that I would have gone back out to the Pryor Range after an uneventful, one day tour of the Dryhead with local advocate, Reverend Floyd Schweiger. But when the Reverend mentioned that there was a newborn on the range, I knew I had to go look for the foal. Without the desire to see the newborn, I would not have met Raven and his band at dawn the next morning, and, most likely, I would not have chosen the Pryors as a filming location for my Wild America film about mustangs.
But, I did meet charismatic Raven and I did find the newborn that I named Diamond for his big star. As they raced away, I vowed I would come back. Now, nearly 20 years later, I am standing on this stark, white landscape and wondering, Where are you dear Diamond?
The view is exceptional. It has cleared enough to see details and we begin glassing the far ridges below us, near the precipitous edge of Big Coulee. A pale horse! Two pale horses!!! It is Diamond’s little brother, Cloud with Encore and the family. In Deb’s picture, can you see Cloud far out in the center of the frame and to his right is Ingrid then Mato Ska and to the far right, Feldspar with Encore laying in the snow? What a relief to see them!
As the sun is setting we begin driving downhill, but something is wrong with the UTV. It loses power and starts to back fire. Nothing during our trip was as scary for me as this. If we stall out, the walk down will take hours in the dark, and how much of our photography equipment can we realistically carry? I floor the UTV and it picks up speed, only to sputter, lose power and back fire again and again. We are holding our breaths going down, but down we go and make it to the Durango at the base of the mountain. Dodged a bullet!
Day 3. The next morning, after we get the UTV fixed, we head out to the bottom of Sykes Ridge. The road is a series of drifts as a result of high winds the night before. Undaunted, we plunge into one drift after another at full speed. It is a wild ride.
At the Red Buttes we stop to glass, successfully identifying some of the distant dots as Fool’s Crow and Hidalgo’s bands and Jasper, the bachelor son of Flint. Even from afar I can see the lovely mark on his handsome face.There are other dots that will forever remain anonymous because when we try to drive closer we become hopelessly mired in a two-foot deep, 20 foot long drift. After getting lots of exercise shoveling, we retreat back to Tillet.
On our way we stop to glass and identify Jackson’s band in the hills just above Turkey Flat to the right of the mouth of Big Coulee. And we’re excited to see Bolder and his family, including Echo following his mother, traveling uphill on the east side of Big Coulee.
To Bolder’s left and higher we see Bristol, Kitalpha, and little Nova. The filly foal is the only red dun on the Pryors. She inherited her striking color from her grandfather, Lancelot. To their left we can see Cloud again. From this perspective they appear to be in a different place but one that looks equally inaccessible.
We head up Tillett Ridge again, hoping that there might be horses close enough to the road to observe and photograph. Hoping doesn’t make it so. We see no horses although we glass until sunset.
Day 4. We formulate our strategy before starting up Tillett yet again. At the new water catchment on Tillett we find Baja’s band moving quickly up hill.
Then we unpack our key pieces of equipment and set out on a hike to the highest hill above Big Coulee. Walking in the dense snow is not easy and we each fall at least once before reaching our rocky mountaintop perch.
The scenery is breathtaking, and to the east we begin to see bands that had eluded us from other vantage points, like Red Raven and Flint’s families. And near Big Coulee, we see Cloud and his family again. From afar they all look fine.
Over our shoulder and below us is Mescalero with Polaris and Rosarita and beyond them Casper and his band. But Deb was to make the very best discovery of all. To our left and down toward the canyon was Diamond! He is alive! Through our scopes we can see he is thin but has no visible wounds or lameness.
How he will fare alone without Phoenix and the rest of his family remains to be seen. I hope he might pair up with another bachelor, perhaps Sante Fe who is only one year younger. I always worry when a former band stallion isolates himself. “Don’t lose heart my boy”, I whisper.
After sunset we make our way to the Dryhead and spot the bachelors, Issaquah with the striped up grullo, Hidatsa. It is dark as we drive back to the Horseshoe Bend Motel.
Day 5. We travel out to the Dryhead where we spot the bachelors, Kemmerer and Chief Joseph. Knowing that we have little chance to access the Pryor bands, we decide to make a run over to the McCullough Peaks east of Cody, only a 45 minute drive from Lovell.
The colorful Peaks horses are as easy to see as the Pryor mustangs are hard. A multi-band group of 16 mustangs are foraging near a gravel pit and we are able to take those close-up pictures we had hoped for in the Pryors. Within a couple of hours, the horses streamed off their hilltop and we can stand right off the paved highway and take pictures.
Day 6. Deb leaves us to continue her journey, while Erika and I start the long drive back to Colorado. But we just have to have one more wild horse “fix”. Let’s take a run out to the Dryhead, I suggest. We are rewarded with our best views of a large group of mule deer does and fawns.
From the Devil’s Canyon overlook, we spot Corona with his son Norte and mare Waif, but we don’t see his oldest mare, Topper, the most striped up horse on the Pryor Mountains. I like to think she is fine. She is probably just over the hill.
There is plenty of time to think on our nine hour drive home. With Diamond’s fall from the ranks of a band stallion, Cloud becomes the oldest male to lead a band. How can the years have passed so quickly?
Many thanks for your continuing support of our efforts to keep our precious mustangs families in their wild homes where they are the safest and the happiest.
P.S. This may be the most difficult journey I have ever taken into the Pryors. Weather made travel almost impossible. We have encouraged the BLM to open the gate into the Administrative Pastures for the horses during this very difficult winter season. We will let you know if they decide to allow them to access this lowest area of their mountain home. It is where my journey with wild horses began nearly 20 years ago—where my sister, Marian, and I had that brief encounter with little Diamond, his father, Raven, and their family as the sun was cresting the Bighorn Mountains.
An issue has been brewing between the proponents of wind powered turbines and conservationists over the number of bird deaths for which wind turbines have been responsible. Some conservationists claim 20,000 bird deaths from collisions with turbines in 2009 alone. But the wind industry counters that collisions are relatively few and that other energy industries such as nuclear and fossil fuels kill many more birds every year. Of specific concern to conservationists are the golden and bald eagles. Because they fly with eyes on the ground looking for prey, they do not look at what is ahead of them and seem particularly vulnerable to wind turbine collisions.
While the world knows the name Charles Darwin, his contemporary, Robert Wallace, is far less well known. Working independently at first, both men developed a theory of evolution on which they would later collaborate. Wallace’s work was done on Indonesian islands and recently a new genus of rat was discovered on one of those islands, Molucca. Halmaheramys bokimekot is a brown rat with a tuft of hair on its back, a while belly and a white-tipped tail. This genus of rat appears to have developed on the western portion of the Indonesian archipelago and is distinct from the genuses of rats found on the eastern side, all as predicted by Wallace back in 1876.
For the first time, archaeologists have discovered an ancient mummified Egyptian dog that bears evidence of actual parasites. The finding confirms the common sense assumption that dog ticks and fleas existed in ancient times, as was hinted at by Greek and Roman writers. The next step is to attempt a DNA analysis of the parasites, which will shed new light on the their evolution up to the present day.
Although quite large, golden eagles usually prey on small mammals and birds. In a rare photographic opportunity, a camera trap at the Lazovsky State Nature Reserve in Russia was able to capture the moment when a golden eagle seized a small deer many times larger than itself.
Insects have adapted so that they can get a foothold even on vertical surfaces. But if a new plant-inspired invention becomes popular, ants won’t easily climb onto your picnic table in the future. Scientists at the Plant Biomechanics Group of the University of Freiburg, Germany studied the anti-adhesive properties of plants. Indeed, some plants, like the pitcher plant, have slippery surfaces allowing insects to fall inside so that they can be devoured. The scientists found that a surface that contains just the right microstructure — called “ cuticular folds” — tends to reduce the adherence of insects, and they developed the blueprints for just such a surface. In the future, this new design might be incorporated into everyday items, such as air-conditioners, in order to discourage insect infestation.
Researchers at the Aarhus University in Denmark have produced a study that indicates trouble ahead for the world’s forests. Because it is more efficient to cut down forests on flat land and leave the hillsides alone, a pattern has developed in which forests around the world have become fractionated into non-contiguous patches. This has an environmental impact, especially since it reduces the biodiversity of trees, weeding out those that do better on flat land. Patches of forests are also more prone to wind damage, and they cannot support the large predators that require large tracts of uninterrupted forests.
Much has been written about the negative impact that the reduction in Arctic ice is having on polar bears. New research compared the fat contents of the polar bears tissues over time. The results show that in the period between 1984 and 2011, polar bears have been eating subpolar seals more often than their traditional prey, the high Arctic ringed seals. But subpolar seals contain more persistent organic pollutants than do the ringed seals. As a consequence, polar bears have not benefitted as much as they should have from the overall regulatory reduction of pollutants in the environment over the past 30 years.
The zookeeper at Chessington World of Adventures Resort in England has had it with animal prints. Visitors to the zoo who are clad in leopard pattern outfits tend to scare some of the animals and those wearing giraffe-like patterns make the giraffes too curious. “‘It lets visitors get so close to wild species that if someone wears the same pattern to the animal’s coat they can become over friendly,’ said spokeswoman Natalie Dilloway.” And if they wear the coat of a predator, then the animals can panic. Anyone donning animals prints will have to wear a grey jumper or leave the park.
Although it seems to get little mention in the mainstream media, the after effects of the largest oil spill in the history of the United States will linger for decades, according to a new study published in PLoS ONE. In this case, it’s what you can’t see that is disturbing. While some species rebounded, there has been an extreme reduction of biodiversity in an area that spreads 57 miles around the wellhead. It is not on the shores but on the seafloor where the major impact on species is evident. As one expert put it, “The tremendous biodiversity of meiofauna in the deep-sea area of the Gulf of Mexico we studied has been reduced dramatically.”
The DNA that is in every creature large and small disintegrates upon death. But that doesn’t mean that each fragment is lost. Søren Overballe-Petersen of the Natural History Museum of Denmark has found that the bacteria that ultimately devour a carcass actually harvest fragments of the dead animal’s DNA and incorporate it into their own DNA. Even an experiment using the remaining DNA of a long dead mammoth found that the bacteria that digested the organic matter incorporated some mammoth DNA fragments into their own DNA. Scientists believe that this ability hints at the processes that were in place when early life formed on earth.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.
A disease that turns coral white from the base up is spreading in the Caribbean. Not too many years ago it was just an occasional occurrence, but now it is widespread and is having a negative impact upon the coral reefs of the Caribbean. New studies suggest that rather than being caused by a bacterial infection, the plague might be viral. Overfishing, which reduces the fish population and thereby increases the algae that grow on coral, is thought to play a role in the propagation of the white plague. Experts consider the disease a serious threat because it spreads quickly and can kill off entire fields of coral.
After a forest has been cleared by logging, a change occurs when the forest begins to grow back. The trees that remain somehow increase their rate of grabbing nitrogen from the atmosphere and releasing it into the soil, which in turn speeds the recovery of the forest. When scientists compared forests that were in the second year of recovery with those that had been recovering for decades they found that the trees in the newly rebounding forests had nitrogen fixation rates that were up to “nine times faster” than that of the older trees.
In the 1930’s, a misguided tour operator thought it would be a good idea to bring some rhesus monkeys to Florida as a prop for his tour boat operation. The monkeys escaped and now over a thousand are living in the wild in Florida. What concerns some experts is that the monkeys are known to be infected with a version of the herpes virus, which might be transmittable to humans. While cross species transmission is rare, it can be lethal when it occurs.
Normally, the female of a species is primarily responsible for the choice of a mate. However, researchers have noted that when female crickets are infested with a parasite they become far less choosy about with whom to mate. Rather than a purely chemical change caused by the parasites, some researchers have proposed that the parasites may make the females crickets stop producing eggs. This suddenly short window of reproductivity for the eggs that remain might be the impetus that causes them to mate quickly.
A well-respected organic chemist, Steven Benner, has suggested an unusual explanation for how life started on earth. As reported last week, it appears that early earth lacked some of the fundamental elements and compounds and dryness that seem necessary to produce the precursor of life, RNA. But analysis of martian meteorites suggest that Mars may have had oxygen as well as compounds called borates and molybdate, both of which could produce RNA in the presence of oxygen. But how did the Martian elements get to earth? Benner’s theory is that meteoric impacts on Mars could have kicked organic starting material off the surface and out of Mars’ orbit where it ultimately reached earth as Martian meteorites and in a sense “seeded” earth for life.
In Great Britain, some conversationalists are fed up with the human bias towards cute and furry animals. In order to increase public awareness of the many not so cuddly species that deserve human protection, they have turned to comedy. Various professional comedians and some scientists who try their hand at comedy have combined to champion some of the ugliest endangered species you have never heard of.
In an effort to increase the genetic diversity of the world’s remaining large cats, a tiger’s entire genome has been sequenced. Its DNA will be compared to tigers, lions and leopards around the world to determine just how inbred the remaining populations of large cats have become. But the sequencing also has provided some interesting information about the evolution of the cats. For example, a tiger’s DNA is 95.6% similar to that of the domestic housecat. The housecat and the tiger last had a common ancestor around 10.8 million years ago. And certain genetic changes in the tiger’s DNA allowed it to become an exclusive meat eater and to have powerful fast-twitch muscles necessary for hunting down prey. In the case of the snow leopard, which lives at high altitudes in the Himalayan Mountains, genetic changes, similar to those discovered in the naked mole rat which lives underground, allow it to survive on low oxygen levels.
What can science possibly learn from termite poop? Actually, quite a lot. It turns out that termite excrement is used by termites to cultivate helpful bacteria that keep them disease-free. Just as the human digestive system cultivates bacteria internally to sustain health and fight off dangerous pathogens, the termite uses its excrement externally, as part of its construction of nests, for pretty much the same reasons. But the real payoff from studying termite excrement might be the discovery of new bacterial agents that can help wage what is becoming a losing war against antibiotic resistant germs that infect many hospitals.
In India, wild elephants and farmers often have a contentious co-existence. Destruction of crops by elephants and deadly retaliation by farmers is a cause of concern to conservations who are trying to preserve the quickly diminishing wild elephant populations of the world. A new idea might come in the way of an audio recording. Since elephants fear tigers, recorded tiger growls, played by hidden speakers seem to do the trick and the elephants slowly back off from the farmer’s field when the recordings are played. Interestingly, a similar strategy is used in Africa where wild elephants are scared off by the recorded buzzing sounds from bee hives.
New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer discusses some new thinking about genetics that may affect medicine in a big way. Despite the commonly held belief that each individual’s DNA uniquely defines who they are, it turns out that many individuals carry around genes that belonged to other people. Sharing a uterus with a twin, giving birth to a child and even receiving a transplant donation are just some of the ways that some cells of our bodies are formed from DNA that is decidedly different from the rest of our cells. How this new realization will affect medicine and even impact the forensic sciences will probably be the focus of the next decade.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.
Isolated islands throughout the world have served as ideal habitats for untold generations of seabirds. But when human explorers began visiting these islands in the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought with them unwanted guests: rats. Rats are a major threat to the seabird populations of such islands as South Georgia island in the Antarctic region, Lord Howe Island, Australia and Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia. Now, conservationists are embarking upon an ambitious campaign to right an old wrong. They are attempting a complete eradication of the rats that were imported centuries ago in an attempt to restore the seabird populations to their former numbers.
For several years now, the North American bat population has been plagued by a disease called white nose syndrome (WNS). The fungus responsible for the epidemic was identified in 2009. While no cure has been found, a new effort is underway to study the “molecular toolkit” of the fungus that kills millions of North American bats. By studying close relatives of the fungus, some of which can be found in Europe where the disease is less lethal, it may be possible to devise future treatments.
July 29th has been designated as “international tiger day.” It represents the efforts of several organizations and national governments that are dedicated to saving the wild tigers of Asia. Today, only 7% of natural tiger habitat remains. There are an estimated 3,200 wild tigers remaining in isolated pockets where they face increased pressure from an active Asian black market for their skins and body parts and poachers who have easier access to the animals. One of the more ambitious plans is to double the remaining tiger population by 2022.
In Alberta, Canada a hidden camcorder captures how wildlife behaves when no humans are present. Watch what happens when the power of suggestion takes over and bears flock to a tree that acts as a favorite scratching post.
A recent experiment conducted at MIT has unleashed an avalanche of speculation about the future of memory control in human beings. The MIT scientists used genetically engineered mice whose brains contained neurons that could be labeled when they formed specific memories. The memories themselves could be turned on and off using a chemical switch and a beam of light. The scientists then produced an unpleasant fearful memory for the mice in one environment and then, by using these switches, had the mouse experience the same fearful but false memory when it was in a different environment.
Unlike most animals, monogamy is somewhat common in primates. The question how it evolved as a behavior has been debated for many years. Two recent scientific papers provide new insights, although they don’t reach the same conclusions. One paper from British anthropologists from University College, London, among others, theorizes that caring for big-brained socially adept offspring was such a time intensive task, that it required two parents and that involving the male parent also prevented the risk of infanticide, which occurs when males kill infants not their own to drive the female back into estrus. But Zoologists at the University of Cambridge have at the same time posited a different theory: that it is the wide dispersion of female primates—reflecting the difficulty in finding adequate food—that led to the collateral consequence of monogamy.
A University of Utah biologist has discovered 33 new ant species in Central America and the Caribbean. The ants are predatory and when viewed under a microscope they appear truly frightening. Recognizing this fact, and also to show that biologists have a sense of humor, he named the ant species after several mythical Mayan demons. As a result, one ant species has been named for a crocodile—like Mayan monster—while two others are named for death gods and the underworld they were believed to inhabit. There could be as many as 100,000 different ant species on earth.
In a sort of accidental alliance, researchers have found that the wolves of Yellowstone Park are actually assisting the grizzly bear population in a couple of ways. Wolves are responsible for a large number of elk killings. Bears are sometimes the beneficiaries, since if they can reach the elk carcass in time, they will relieve the wolves of their kill and gain valuable nutrition for themselves. Then there are the berries. Berries are not particularly numerous in Yellowstone Park because elk and deer feed on them extensively. However, when wolf packs are around, the elk and deer stay on the move leaving more berries, and more nutrition, for the bears.
New discoveries of life on earth continue to surprise us. Recently, researchers at the Aix-Marseille Université’s Structural and Genomic Information Laboratory in France described a class of new viruses that sets a world record for size. Called pandora viruses, they are immensely larger than other known viruses. Studies of the genetics of the pandora viruses show that their genes are unlike anything found elsewhere in the plant or animal world. This has led to speculation that the viruses might someday be categorized as a new and distinct “fourth domain of life.”
You take a prescribed medication and you assume it will enter your bloodstream as planned. But your intestinal microbes might have other plans. New research shows that some individuals have a strain of bacteria that can deactivate medications. In the study, the commonly prescribed heart drug digoxin was deactivated by a particular strain of gut bacteria that only some people harbor. However, which genes are active in gut bacteria can be changed by chemical intervention. Thus, when lab mice with the active digoxin gobbling strain were given an amino acid that deactivated the gene, the digoxin levels remained higher. The takeaway is that in the future, prescriptions will have to take into account a patient’s microbial state.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.
Recent experiments conducted by Seth Bordenstein and Robert Brucker at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee suggests that two related species could interbreed only if their gut microbes were compatible. In the experiments, the scientists tried to breed different species of a parasitic wasp called Nasonia. Two of the species, X and Y, were closely related in terms of evolution while the third, Z, was more distant. It became clear from the experiments that Z could not breed with X and Y unless Z’s gut bacteria were removed. Once sterilized of bacteria, Z could they successfully mate with X and Y and produce fertile offspring. If these result hold up in other animals, it would mean that gut bacteria have an important role in speciation and that in turn would require a major tweak to the theory of evolution.
An upcoming documentary film entitled “Blackfish,” has ignited a firestorm between the filmmakers and Seaworld’s executive brass. The documentary is highly critical of the manner in which Orca whales are treated in captivity at Seaworld and displayed to the public. It also touches on several lethal incidents between captive Orcas and people. Rather than keeping a low profile and letting the film run its course, Seaworld has launched a frontal assault on the movie by engaging a public relations firm and providing interviews that depict the film as slanted and inaccurate. The filmmakers, however, are not upset by the controversy, calling Seaworld’s publicity generating campaign a “gift that keeps on giving.”
We rely upon plants to remove dangerous ozone from the air. Ozone is linked to various illnesses, both respiratory and cardiovascular. Plants remove ozone by opening their stomata, small holes on the leaf surface. Unfortunately, during a heatwave, plants tend to keep their stomata more tightly closed in order to reduce the loss of water. As a result, excessive heat makes plants less effective at removing ozone from the air.
Certain species of bees tend to pollinate specific species of flowers. This relationship is essential, especially to flowering plants, which depend upon the visiting bees for reproduction. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz wondered what would happen if some bee species were artificially removed from an environment. Would the remaining bee species remain loyal to “their” plants? The experiment was conducted by catching and removing one bees species, which left the remaining bee species with much less competition. The result was that the remaining bees, suddenly having more plants to choose from, drifted away from some of their otherwise favored flowering plants and instead visited those that usually were unavailable to them. The jilted flowers showed the effect: they produced 30% fewer seeds. The experiment points out the hard to predict threats from a loss of biodiversity.
Madagascar, one of the world’s largest islands, has been isolated for some 90 million years. It has been one of the most prodigious producers of new species, and today accounts for 3% of the world’s species even while occupying only 1% of the earth’s landmass. However, although scientists believe that the rate of new species on the island has been slowing down, they are not sure why. It could be that there is a limit to Madagascar’s, or any other region’s diversity, which is the main engine of speciation. In any event, the decline seems to have taken place over several million years, and therefore it is unlikely that human intervention is at issue.
For many years, even experts believed that cheetahs’ tremendous speed came at the expense of overheating. The popular view was that cheetahs had a lower kill percentage than other wild cats because they had to abandon a hunt when they got too hot. Although that view had been backed by a study based upon captive cheetahs, a new study suggests that it is wrong. More careful monitoring of cheetahs while they hunt, both successfully and unsuccessfully, shows that they do not tend to overheat. Instead, what might be at play is that after a successful kill, cheetahs become extremely wary of predators, especially hyenas, and the tension caused by this stress response is what increases body temperature.
If you think that this year’s cicada infestation was an exercise in noise avoidance, take a look at the bushcricket. A recently identified species of bushcricket can produce ultra-high frequency sounds up to 110 dB, or as loud as a power saw. The insect’s trick is called ‘stridulation‘ by which it rubs one of its wings against a series of “teeth” on the other wing. It is the male cricket who is responsible for this racket, which is the only effective way of calling distant females to mate.
Sometime during its evolution, the hero shrew developed a very strange vertebral structure. Its has ten lumbar vertebrae (humans and most other mammals only have five) and they lock together to form a super strong structure. The hero shrew’s backbone is five times more massive than is called for by its weight. In fact, there are witnesses to a full grown man standing on the back of a tiny hero shrew without harming it. The clue to why the hero shrew developed such an odd backbone may lie in its habits and habitat. It eats beetle larvae in the lowland forests of the Congo, and it puts it back into its work by pushing against Palm trunks and lifting up logs to get to its dinner.
Peacocks perform one of the most intricate and colorful courtship displays in nature. Curious scientists wondered, however, exactly what the peahen was looking for during the displays. To find out, they used sensitive eye tracking cameras and watched what the peahen watched during the male’s repertoire. It turned out that the peahens only appeared to be interested in lower portion of the feather train, possibly assessing the train’s width, while mostly ignoring the upper train of feathers. Next, the researchers will use the tracking technology on other peacocks to see what they are watching when they assess the displays of other males.
A new study of homing pigeons shows that they can find their home loft not by robotically calculating north-south coordinates, but by using a mental map. The pigeons were tested by using two lofts — one with which they associated with food and the other that was their home base. Two sets of pigeons, one satiated with food and the other hungry, were released from an unfamiliar location. As the researchers predicted, the hungry pigeons charted a course to the food loft while the fed pigeons went straight to the home loft. The research shows that pigeons can tell where they are by topographical clues and can maintain different maps in their brains, which allows them to actually choose between different target locations.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.
Lionfish are exotic looking fish with long poisonous spines and distinct stripes. Native to the Pacific Ocean, they were accidentally brought over to the Atlantic. Today, lionfish are overwhelming the coral reefs of the Caribbean. Ten years ago, there were very few lionfish in this area but now they have proliferated to the point that they are found at depths of 300 feet below the surface. As is the case with other invasive species, lionfish are becoming a threat to native fish species that have trouble competing with the relatively new import. Human intervention in the form of fishing or predator introduction might be necessary, but those efforts are often counterproductive.
For many years, the colorfully beaked Puffin has been considered an endangered bird species. Some 40 years ago, conservationists embarked on a program to relocate Puffins to areas that were free from predators and that contained man-made burrows. Today, Puffins face challenges related to climate change. The fish that they depend upon for survival, such as herring, have been reduced due to warming sea temperatures. In this short photo series, CBS news provides a pictorial short history of the Puffin’s plight.
Nature is all about opportunity and that is why plants come in a variety of scents. Like the bees that pollinate them, we love the smell of flowers, especially roses. But some plants have evolved to be pollinated by different insects, such as dung beetles, that prefer the smell of, well, dung. Enter the corpse plant or Amorphophallus titanum. It is one of the most offensive smelling plants in nature because its main pollinator is the dung beetle. People trying to describe the horrific odor are sometimes at a loss for words, but to the dung beetle the smell suggest that rotting flesh is nearby and that is a good place to lay its eggs. The plant is native to Indonesia, but one is presently blooming in the U.S. Botanic Gardens, coincidentally just a few miles from the U.S. Capitol.
Although Tyrannosaurus Rex was traditionally depicted as a ferocious predator with strong grasping jaws and giant teeth, another theory also existed. Some paleontologists had suggested that T. Rex might have been more of a scavenger than a killer. However, a new find of a T. Rex tooth buried in the vertebrae of another dinosaur may be enough to restore T. Rex’s reputation as the ancient king of the beasts.
Soon after the remains of what appeared to be a new archaic hominid species were found 10 years ago, the debate began. Were these miniature remains found on the Indonesian island of Flores a new hominid species or just ancient humans with a severe pathology? The small cranium of the individuals, one third the size of modern humans, did not easily fit either hypothesis. Now, the new species contingent has received new support from a detailed study of the ancient craniums. Researchers have analyzed every crook and cranny of the cranial fossils and after comparing them with archaic hominids and humans with pathologies, they have concluded it is more likely that the Indonesian “hobbit” was a separate species deserving of its scientific name.
A new member of the triceratops family has been discovered in Utah. It had a huge nose protected by small horns and has been dubbed Nasutoceratops titusi, which translates into “big nosed horned face.” Like other dinosaurs of this type, the elaborate headgear was probably used by the males to engage in fighting for females, as is still common today in animals with large horns. 75 million years ago, herds of these animals roamed from what is now Southern Utah into the Canadian plains.
How are these four things related? As we know, mosquitoes are a vector for the transmission on many diseases, such as West Nile Virus, to humans and animals. They are kept in check to some degree by birds, such as the Missouri-native Acadian flycatcher. Birds can eat prodigious numbers of mosquitoes, but they too have their enemies, in this case snakes. Snakes seek out bird eggs and baby birds for food, but as reptiles, their activity is temperature dependent. Higher temperatures, such as those seen recently and attributed to climate change, have activated the snake population, which in turn has diminished the bird population. This complex scenario is playing out today in the Missouri’s Ozark forest where higher temperatures have made snakes more active. Scientists are monitoring the overall effect on the bird population.
Folklore has it that the oddly featured dogs of South Carolina were not brought here by the colonists hundreds of years ago, as most dogs were, but were instead original residents of the area. The Carolina dog has a “fish hook” tail, a pointed snout and the odd habit of digging large holes everywhere in search of roots or other nutrients. Recently, DNA evidence suggests that folklore had it right. Tests done by researchers for the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden show that genetic markers found in European dogs, including most of the dogs in the United States, are not present in certain breeds, including the Peruvian hairless, the Chihuahua and the Carolina dog. Together with historic references to these dogs in the care of Native Americans of the area, there is now solid proof that these breeds made the trip to the Americas with their Asian masters over the land bridge from Siberia to North America thousands of years ago.
Butterflies are not just colorful, their wings seem to play with light and color. It is a crystalline structure on the surface of the wing that causes these effects, and scientists are hopeful that the nanochemical tricks can be put to use in material science to create new pattern and designs. Using an electron-scanning microscope, scientists can see that multiple layers are needed to create these dazzlingly colorful displays. Some of the layers contain color while others are airlike and cause a mirror effect that reflects only certain colors in order to produce iridescence. If perfected, clothing manufacturers who copy the butterfly could someday produce materials that display bright colors during daytime, and subdued hues in the evening.
We’ve read many times about the intelligence of ravens and crows. Watch this amazing video of a raven who seeks out human help to remove porcupine quills from its face.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.
Last week, there were reports that a record algae bloom was covering a large portion of the gulf of Mexico. This week, China’s yellow sea is turning green thanks to an algae known as “sea lettuce.” Once again, the source of the record bloom is agricultural runoff and overuse of fertilizers by farmers. The result is a cover of algae that is the largest ever seen in China’s yellow sea, with over 11,000 square miles affected. Fortunately, this particular algae is nontoxic and even edible, but its removal is necessary because its decay will ultimately lead to large dead zones in the yellow sea.
Just as the military uses electromagnetic radiation to defeat an enemy’s radar, it appears that hawkmoths produce high frequency sounds to defeat their enemy’s echolocation system. In this case, the hawkmoths’ enemy is the bat, which uses echolocation or sound waves to locate the insects. By producing its own high frequency sounds, the hawkmoth can disrupt or jam the echolocation techniques of the bat and avoid detection. Scientists believe that this defense system was developed by the hawkmoth because it lacks a chemical defense, such as toxins, which other moths use to defendant against bats.
If humans are to explore the solar system and beyond, we must know how life adapts to the absence of gravity. In an experiment that took place on NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis, a bacterium called P. aeruginosa was cultivated aboard the shuttle and a similar control sample was cultivated in a laboratory on the ground. The results were surprising. The space bacteria grew in a “column-and-canopy” structure that has never been observed in bacterial colonies on Earth.” The space bacteria also had more live cells and and was thicker with more “biomass” than the sample at home. The study contains both good and bad news. P. aeruginosa is associated with human diseases and its supercharged proliferation in a gravity-less environment might pose challenges for astronauts. On the other hand, the research might open new ways of dealing with bacteria in hospitals that spread infection.
When plants take up atmospheric carbon dioxide they lose a tremendous amount of water. This fact and the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere led scientists to the hypothesis that desert plants would especially be benefited from higher carbon dioxide levels since they would lose less water with the more available CO2. Sure enough, new research done by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in collaboration with the Australian National University (ANU) has shown this to be the case. Between 1982 and 2010, they found an 11% increase in desert foliage when all other factors were held constant. And while increased uptake of CO2 by desert plant life will never make a significant contribution to reducing the vast amount of the gas in the atmosphere, it points out the complicated effects of increased greenhouse gases on climate.
The last time anyone saw an Australian night parrot was around 100 years ago. Thought extinct, a recent sighting by an Australian naturalist has spurred hope that the bird may not be extinct after all. The parrot is a shy, small bird with green feathers and brown and black mottled spots. It hops like a kangaroo—must be an Australian thing. Researchers believed that the bird was under significant pressure from predatory feral cats and foxes. The exact location of the new discovery is being kept secret to protect the remaining survivor(s).
In this New York Times article, the history of the movement to save medical research chimpanzees is traced back in time. Well known activists such as Dr. Jane Goodall have been leading the effort to stop the use of chimps as medical research subjects. But their most recent victory came last year when Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institute of Health, announced that as a result of an NIH study, most of the chimps owned by the NIH would be retired from service and placed in healthy facilities around the country specializing in chimpanzee care.
We readily accept that humans, primates and even vertebrates in general are aware when others are watching them. For the first time, however, research shows that even crickets respond to an audience. In this experiment, researchers evaluated the reaction of two male crickets who faced off in a fight. When other crickets were present in the controlled setting, the victorious cricket put on a much more elaborate victory display than when the two were alone. Nor is this pure instinct. When the more isolated lab raised crickets were used instead of wild crickets, they showed much less tendency to play for the crowd, indicating that the behavior is socially transmitted among wild crickets.
Twenty-three million years ago, a small lizard was entombed in a chunk of amber. It was discovered recently in Mexico. It is extremely rare for animals this large to be preserved in amber and this specimen appears to be almost complete with soft tissue, skin and skeleton.
With the international race to explore the pristine waters beneath the Antarctic ice now over, scientists are enjoying the fruit of their labors. So far, over 3,000 new microorganisms, identified by DNA, have been found some two miles below the ice under Lake Vostok. Isolated for millions of years, some of the new DNA sequences appear to be unique. How the microorganisms evolved over time will be a major focus of continued study.
Most conservationists would scoff at the idea that a golf course can benefit the environment. However, there is evidence that golf courses that are removed from housing developments, such as condos, are becoming an oasis for some animals, especially turtles. It appears that the well-maintained ponds that are common on golf courses attract not just high handicap golfers but also a “rich variety of turtle species.” While no one is quite sure why golf courses are so attractive to turtles, it could be that the extra care in maintaining the cleanliness of the ponds by the groundskeepers makes them more attractive than the local park’s pond.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.
The most endangered parrot in the world now numbers fewer than 1,000 individuals. The beautiful green and gold cape parrot in native to South Africa, but it is an environmental specialist—it lives only in the ever vanishing yellowwood forests of the area. National Geographic Emerging Explorer Steve Boyes is interviewed about his ambitious plans to plant additional yellowwood forests in an effort to save the cape parrot.
Today’s concerns about global warming may have an odd parallel in what occurred on earth some 116 million years ago when the supercontinent known as pangaea began to break up into the continents we know today. A cooling event took place when photosynthesized plants captured much of the atmospheric carbon dioxide, which sunk to the bottom of the ever-widening oceans. The absence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere prevented global warming and resulted in a 5 degree drop in global temperatures. Global cooling ended only when volcanic eruptions put greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere and rewarmed the planet. Perhaps the takeaway is that while human activity is shaping global climate today, there will always exist much more powerful influences just beneath the earth’s surface.
Gill nets are small mesh fishing nets that are used by fishermen. Anchored by weights, the mesh of the nets is so fine that anything larger than its spaces cannot escape. That means that every year hundreds of thousands of seabirds, turtles and water mammals are imprisoned and drowned in the nets. At one time, the nets could be seen by and avoided by diving seabirds. Today’s materials are much more lightweight and barely visible. If there is any good news here it is that fishermen also would like to avoid entrapping nonfish in their nets. The search is on for a economically sustainable solution.
There is a new addition to the world of fungi, but it’s not a welcome one. A researcher from the University of Sydney has identified the new species named Aspergillus felis. In cats, the fungus is extremely dangerous and can cause fatal tumors in the eye sockets. In humans, it attacks individuals with already compromised immune systems. Even though cats and humans are susceptible, the fungus is not transmitted between cats and humans. To date, one dog has also been diagnosed with the fungal infection.
Common scientific belief holds that dogs are descended from the grey wolf. However, recent research into dog and wolf DNA suggests a different ancestor. Researchers collected DNA from three widely dispersed grey wolves (Croatia, China and Israel) each location might have been the site of original domestication. They compared the grey wolf DNA to that of three very different breeds of dogs (a boxer, a Basenji and an Australian dingo). The result was that the grey wolves were each equally genetically distant from the dogs, indicating that none of the modern grey wolves likely had a common ancestor with the dogs. Instead, the scientists believe that some 15,000 years ago the first domestication occurred with a now-extinct wolf species. Also, analyzing genes associated with the ability to metabolize starchy food, they concluded that proximity to humandriven starchy diets played no role in dog domestication.
Today, ecologists warn of the acidification and increased carbon dioxide levels in the worlds’ atmosphere and oceans. But if evolutionary genetics is any predictor, fish might respond: “been there, done that.” It appears that fish, which like all vertebrates require oxygen for their tissues, evolved a special and highly efficient form of hemoglobin hundreds of millions of years ago when earth’s oceans were much more acidic and had much less available oxygen. Tests run on fish show that when they are under stress, such as that triggered by an overly acidic environment, their hemoglobin kicks into high gear and becomes far more efficient at delivering oxygen to their tissues than is the case with later evolving land animals.
National Geographic explores the decision of the Philippine government to destroy virtually its entire stock—5 tons— of ivory. The Philippines is a consumer of ivory as well as a transit point from which the material is illegally shipped from Africa into China. In the past, other countries have taken similar steps. In 1989, Kenya’s government set fire to 13 tons of ivory. The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is now pressuring the primary supplier countries (Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) as well as the other transit and consuming countries (China, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam), to come up with their own action plans to stop the ivory trade.
A consortium of billionaires is pooling its own money and raising more in an effort to buy millions of acres of contiguous Montana prairie land from cattle ranchers. BIson, which graze on the Montana prairie, are the visual attraction and have been a magnet for public donations. If the plan is completed, the preserve will be even larger than Yellowstone National Park and will be a haven for the natural denizens of the prairie including bison, coyotes and prairie dogs.
You don’t have to travel to New Zealand to enjoy the wonderful marine mammal exhibit at Museum Te Papa Tongarewa. Courtesy of Live Science and the internet, the museum can come to you.
You wouldn’t dance a waltz to rock music. Neither would an Australian lyrebird. Just like people, male superb lyrebirds have four distinct dance routines which they perform for their female audiences while they are singing distinct songs for each dance. To accompany the different dance moves, the lyrebird also uses its feathers in different ways spread over its head like a veil in some routines or in the shape of a mohawk in others. The males are known to occasionally flub their routines under the pressure. Females watch these displays and either select a mate or move on to the next performer.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.
National Geographic focuses on the recent find of a wooly mammoth carcass in Russia’s frozen north. Media reports that the carcass might contain red blood and possible intact blood cells, with complete DNA, have been overblown according to paleontologist Beth Shapiro of the University of California at Santa Cruz. Shapiro points out that the likelihood of finding intact blood cells and DNA in the carcass are small and that the hype surrounding this find and the public discussion of de-extinction in general is detracting from other more important issues such as species preservation.
This adorable video of baby sloths doing what sloths do best will destress anyone. The video was filmed at a sloth orphanage in Costa Rica.
A new ant species found in the Philippines has an unusual pattern of pigmentation. The ants’ bodies are almost translucent and have a glasslike appearance. Dubbed the “pirate ant” because of a dark patch over the female’s eyes, scientists are puzzling over the evolutionary function of the strange pigmentation. Since the ants have extremely limited vision and mate in the dark, the pigmentation is unlikely needed to differentiate genders. Officially named Cardiocondyla pirate, researchers are considering whether the pigmentation developed as a warning to some yet unknown predators of the ants.
Mount Kaputar is a volcanically dormant peak in Australia that last erupted some 17 million years ago. When it blew its top, it created a special six square mile niche for plants and animals a cool misty mountain top ecology that is unlike anything else in the area. Among its unique inhabitants is a newly discovered slug that is colored hot pink. But Mount Kaputar is no paradise for these pink snails. Cannibal snails also share the environment and as their name implies, they have this newly discovered species looking over their hot pink shoulders.
Little penguins are the smallest penguin species and their continued existence on Australia’s Middle Island was very much in doubt that is until the reinforcements arrived. Bred to defend Italian sheep from wolves, a pair of imported Maremma dogs has been guarding the penguins as if they were sheep. The dogs have been on patrol since 2006 and since then there have been no penguins lost to their enemy, the fox. In fact, since 2006 the little penguin population has boomed, jumping from less than 10 to over 200 individuals. The project has been so successful that it is being implemented to protect another species, the endangered gannet birds.
It is well known that mosquitoes are a dangerous vector in disease transmission, especially for viruses. A new study finds that mosquitoes that breed in cooler temperatures tend to have more compromised immune systems, making them more susceptible to virus infection, and therefore a greater risk to human health. That ties in with climate change which increases weather variability and short term temperature fluctuations. Thus, an overall increase in worldwide temperatures does little to protect us. Instead, “The rate of transmission of [West Nile fever and chikungunya fever] has increased with outbreaks occurring in unexpected places, such as the introductions of West Nile virus to New York in 1999, and chikungunya virus to Italy and France in 2007 and 2010.”
Remember the dinosaur triceratops from your childhood? Well, it has a new cousin. Judiceratops tigris was an earlier relative that roamed what is now Montana about 80 million years ago. Apparently, the horned dinosaurs in North America speciated quite quickly, and at least 18 different versions are known to have existed. Judiceratops had a quite elaborate display of scalloped horns around its head. “Very bold, conspicuous display structures,” according to Yale researcher Nicholas Longrich, who made the find.
It has become axiomatic that inherited DNA makes us who we are. However, the relatively new field of epigenetics is demonstrating that nature does in fact make room for outside influences. Epigenetics concerns chemical markers that sit atop DNA and are picked up from the environment in which an organism lives. These epigenetic markers can drastically change the way DNA is expressed in an organism. But just like the DNA on which it resides, epigenetic markers too can be inherited. For example, a person who smoked before having children might have accumulated epigenetic chemical alterations to her DNA that can be passed on to her offspring. If epigenetic research continues along this line, theories of evolution might have to be modified to take into account the role of environment in speciation.
The Hula painted frog was declared extinct in 1996, the first amphibian species to get that unwanted designation. But in 2011, an Israeli park ranger caught a glimpse of a frog in the road. To the astonishment of scientists, it was the Hula painted frog which had not been seen alive in 60 years. What makes the Hula painted frog especially interesting is that it is consider a “living fossil” an animal like the coelacanth that has hardly evolved at all over the past millions of years. The Hula painted frog is far from out of danger. While perhaps a hundred or so still exist in the Hula Valley, much needs to be done to prevent its permanent extinction.
Spurred on by an attractive captive female tiger, a wild bengal male tiger wandered into India’s Nandankanan Zoo in April. Once inside, he made himself at home and indulged in the zoo’s free meals and laid back lifestyle. After a few weeks, however, he appeared to grow tired or bored of zoo life and just as ably as he broke in, he scaled a two-story wall, left the zoo and went back into the forest. He has not been seen since.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.
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