1. Endangered Elephants vs. Desperate Villagers.

    Another unfortunate confrontation between an endangered species and humans is being reported in Indonesia. There are fewer than 3,000 Sumatran elephants left in the wild, and about 200 of those live in Indonesia’s Way Kambas National Park, which is near a village called Braja Indah. The elephants, driven by hunger, have invaded the village and are eating farm crops and causing general damage. In December, a villager was trampled to death and in April, five of the elephants were poisoned. Unless the authorities intervene, villagers are threatening to kill the elephants rather than suffer any further property loses.

    More at Global Animal.

  2. In the Future Olympic Equestrian Breeders Might Bring in the Clones.

    In July, the body governing Olympic equestrian competition, the Féderation Equestre Internationale (FEI), decided to lift a ban on pedigree horses that have been cloned. This means that horse breeders will be free to enter cloned prize horses to win Olympic gold. If this becomes an accepted trend, future Olympic equestrian competitions might include cloned versions of past stars. However, even if clones are introduced in the future, the strategy is costly and does not guarantee success. Clones are only 98% identical to the original and the effects of breeding and training are variables that cannot be cloned.

    More at National Geographic.

  3. Looking to African Tribes for Rare Genetic Variants.

    We will never know how many human genetic variants have been lost over time. In order to preserve the remaining vestiges of rare variants, scientists have focused on some remote tribes in Africa: the Hadza and Sandawe from Tanzania and the Pygmies from Cameroon. After completing genetic analysis of five individuals from these tribes, scientists have identified millions of genetic variants, including about 3 million that have never before been recorded. It is hoped that these genetic variants will offer clues on how the tribes cope with their environment, which will in turn inform scientists on what these genes do. The possibility of genetic clues to medical treatments also lies within these variants. And, as a bonus, scientists believe that these tribes demonstrate signs of interbreeding with the African equivalent of an ancient human cousin (analogous to Neanderthals in Europe).

    More at Science Magazine.

  4. A Virtual Ocean Observatory.

    Interested in sharks and ocean life in general? Brian Skerry hosts a web site for the New England Ocean Odyssey. The site allows even landlubbers to feast their eyes on some dramatic video of sharks and other sea life.

  5. Elephants and South African Tree Loss.

    Elephants are known to knock down trees, but the extent of their destruction has been a matter of speculation. Now, using a new aerial technique that produces accurate 3-D images of the South African savannah, scientists have a much better estimate of the damage done. In fact, elephants can destroy 20% of trees in their favored 15-30 foot height range. The new technique pinpoints the areas most preferred by elephants for tree toppling so that preventive measures, such as fences, can be considered. The head of the South African National Parks praised the new technology, “Knowing where increasing elephant impacts occur in sensitive landscapes allows park managers to take appropriate and focused action.”

    More at Red Orbit.

  6. Wasps As Vinters’ Helpers.

    James Gorman writes for the New York Times that oenophiles and entomologists have a common friend. The wasp, whose appearance at a picnic causes reactions ranging from annoyance to panic, is an important link in the preservation and cultivation of baker’s yeast. Yeast, in turn, is what makes wine and beer brewing possible. Scientists in Italy and France wondered where baker’s yeast spends its winters before it magically reappears in the spring and summer on vineyard grapes. The answer turns out to be that it winters in the guts of Queen wasps who, during the summer, collect it from the worker wasps who toil in the vineyards. The cycle is completed when the Queens pass the yeast back to their progeny, which in the spring return the yeast to the vineyards and fields. The result is the wines and beers humanity has enjoyed for about 9,000 years.

    More at New York Times.

  7. The Terrible Truth about Garfield.

    The University of Georgia and the National Geographic Society’s Crittercam program completed a study on exactly how lethal housecats are when they are allowed to roam outdoors. The results are chilling. No matter how cute and playful at home, when left outdoors even for only 5-6 hours per day, housecats are virtual killing machines. The study tracked cats fitted with videocams and the results produced estimates that “house cats kill far more than the previous estimate of a billion birds and other animals each year.” Using the study’s averages, if all the outdoor housecats are taken into consideration and the results extrapolated, the number is even more shocking: “cats are likely killing more than 4 billion animals per year, including at least 500 million birds.” In fact, housecats are the single biggest factor in the decline of many species of birds.

    More at Global Animal.

  8. What African Grey Parrots Can Infer from an Empty Box.

    In an experiment to test whether the African grey parrot, already known for its cleverness, can deduce which of two boxes contains a treat, the feathered subjects performed as well as a three-year-old child. The experimenters presented two opaque boxes to the parrots and shook each of them. One made the noise of a treat shaking inside; the other sounded empty. The birds consistently chose the full box. The experimenters next varied the protocol by sometimes shaking only the full box, sometimes only the empty box, and sometimes both, but the parrots still deduced which box was probably full of treats. Perhaps the most impressive result of the experiment is that after only hearing an empty shaken box, the parrots avoided that box, deduced that the other box was probably full, and went for the unshaken full box.

    More at Live Science.

  9. Faced With A Steel Box, Hyenas Try to Think Outside It.

    Michigan State University researchers conducted a test of the problem solving ability of spotted hyenas in Kenya. A steel trap with meat inside was presented to wild hyenas and the techniques and attitudes they displayed were carefully documented by the experimenters. The solution to the problem was to move a bolt on the steel box, which would open it. The traits that were associated with success for the hyenas that solved the problem and got their treat centered on “thinking outside the box” — in this case, trying anything and everything that might open the box. In addition to creative thinking, the successful hyenas had to be brave enough to approach the strange-looking device in the first place. Interestingly, pure persistence did not pay dividends since it often led to repeated attempts at the same wrong approach. The takeaway: giving up on a losing approach and trying another is sometimes the key to success.

    More at Science Daily.

  10. Monkeys and the Blame Game.

    Since it’s political season and the blame game is a daily news event, it is interesting to note that monkeys, too, are exquisite masters of this sport. Experimenters believe that a particular area of the monkey’s brain “lights up” when it watches one of its brethren make an error. In fact, the process is an example of higher mental functioning since it requires the monkey to not only monitor the errors of other monkeys, but to also adopt the perspective of the monkey who messed up. Of course, the skill is also highly useful since it enhances learning, albeit at the expense of others.

    More at Science News.

“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.

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