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Elephant And Rhino Poaching On The Rise

Elephant And Rhino Poaching On The Rise

Wildlife officials are saying that a very rare population of elephants found in Northern Mali is being targeted by poachers and their very survival is being threatened. In the last month authorities say that 19 Gourma elephants have been slaughtered for their tusks and it is estimated that the group now numbers between 350 to 500.

Poaching linked to rebel groups

In the past poaching has been linked to the region’s rebel groups which have connections to ivory smugglers. This species of elephant migrate roughly 600 kilometres every year to feed. However because the vegetation in Northern Mali is sparse, they have to travel long distances across a route that runs into Niger and Burkina Faso.

Elephants need more protections

Colonel Soumana Timbo who heads up the government of Mali’s division for nature conservation has asked for military support from MP’s to protect the species. Mr. Timbo says that the few rangers that are assigned to the region are already risking their lives.

“In the Gourma zone there is total insecurity. We have about 10 rangers covering about 1.25 million hectares, so it’s quite insufficient, If we send out two rangers on a motorbike they are risking their lives. So we really need joint patrols – military and rangers – and we need to focus all our efforts on stopping this massacre.” Mr. Timbo said.

The situation is complex

Since Mali achieved independence in 1960, the Northern part of the country has been a flashpoint of conflict, with rebels waging insurgency for independence or increased autonomy. There has been further destabilisation in the region with the emergence of jihadi groups including Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Qaida which has been targeting both the rebels and the government.

South Africa thinking about legalising trade in rhino horns

South Africa has attempted to combat poaching by appointing an expert panel to examine the viability of the legal trade in rhino horns. In South Africa the level of poaching has risen to record to levels. It is estimated that 20,000 rhinos or 80% of the worldwide population live in the country. Last year there were 1,215 rhinos killed in South Africa which officials say represents an increase of 21 per cent over 2013. The expert panel is considering whether legalising the trade in rhino horns may result in a reduction in the number of animals poached.

“It is important to emphasise that South Africa has not taken a position on the issue and will not do so until the committee has completed its work and presented its findings,” the environment ministry said in a statement

African Elephants-Africa by flickrfavorites, on Flickr

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Penguins Only Have Bitter And Salty Taste Receptors

Penguins Only Have Bitter And Salty Taste Receptors

Scientists have discovered that penguins only have the ability to taste salty or sour food. According to the results of a genetic study the flightless bird lost three of the five basic tastes a long time ago as a result of evolution. Taste is vital for survival in most animals but may not be that important for penguins which tend to swallow fish whole say researchers.

Most birds cannot taste sweet

Many other species of bird lack the ability to taste sweet things but they do have the receptors to detect umami (meaty) or bitter flavours. The discovery came when researchers began to decode the genome of the penguin and found there were some taste genes missing. The behaviour of swallowing food whole and the structure and function of their tongue suggests that penguins do not require the perception of taste. A closer look at penguin DNA showed that all species of this animal do not have functioning genes for bitter, sweet and umami tastes.

“Based on genetic data, penguins are believed to have sour and salty tastes, but have lost sweet, umami, and bitter tastes,” lead researcher Prof Jianzhi Zhang, of the University of Michigan, US, and Wuhan University, Chin said.

Penguins swallow fish whole

The taste of umami gives food the strong savoury flavour that people associate with meat. Not having this sense is very surprising for an animal that is carnivorous. However it would seem it is unimportant for the penguin which tends to swallow fish without chewing. The researchers however remain unsure whether these traits are a cause or consequence of loss in taste.

Loss of taste is a puzzle

Prof Zhang published his findings in the Current Biology journal and says they are a puzzle. One possible clue comes from the evolution of the penguin on Antarctica’s frozen ice sheets. At very low temperatures, sending signals from bitter, umami, and sweet to the brain does not work, though it does work for salty and sour. This may have been the impetus for the species to gradually lose its sense of taste the researchers reckon. What is very interesting, with the exception of the humming bird which feeds on nectar, almost all other species of bird cannot taste sweet.

King Penguins, Falklands. by Richard McManus, on Flickr

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Robins Extremely Sensitive To Artificial Light

Robins Extremely Sensitive To Artificial Light

A new study being undertaken by Glasgow University is hoping to understand why robins stay up all night singing in cities. According to Dr. Davide Dominoni, the reason why they do this could be because the city lights make the robins believe there is no end to the day. If that does end up being the case,  Dr. Dominoni is recommending we reduce the amount of light pollution we emit at night.

Artificial lighting causes disruption to body clocks

The robin is specifically adapted to hunting insects under conditions of dim lighting which suggests that they are probably extremely susceptible to the impact of artificial lighting. Dr. Dominoni reckons that blue light from neon signs probably cause a lot of disruption to the body clock of this species of bird. Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, in San Jose, California, Dr. Dominoni said living in Glasgow he has heard robins singing at all times of day and night and he believes they are one of the most sensitive species to light.

There are other possible reasons

In order to test his hypothesis, Dr. Dominoni is placing cameras in the nesting boxes of birds to see exactly when they sleep. Artificial light is not the only reason put forward to explain nocturnal singing. Other researchers have suggested that birds like to sing at night in urban areas largely because during the day it is simply too noisy. Regardless of what the real reason may be, Dr. Dominoni believes that signing throughout the night could have some adverse impact on the birds.

“This brings us to some of the physiological costs that that these environmental pressures might have. Singing is a costly behaviour, it takes energy. So by increasing their song output, there might be some energetic costs. I think we should reduce the intensity of the light we put out, reduce the amount of light and try to think about the spectrum of the light we are putting out. In some cases, we can try to modify the street lamps, by putting shields on top to reduce light pollution.”

Robin by David Salter, on Flickr

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Rarest Big Cat On Earth Sees Its Numbers Start To Recover

Rarest Big Cat On Earth Sees Its Numbers Start To Recover

Things are certainly starting to look up for the critically endangered Amur leopard which is the rarest big cat on Earth. The Amur leopard is indigenous to parts of North-eastern China and South-eastern Russia and since 2007 has seen its population double according to WWF. According to the latest census data from a part of Russia which covers 60 per cent of the Amur leopard’s habitat, the population is estimated as being 57 which is up from the 30 that were counted during the previous census in 2007.

“Such a strong rebound in Amur leopard numbers is further proof that even the most critically endangered big cats can recover if we protect their habitat and work together on conservation efforts. There’s still a lot of work to be done in order to secure a safe future for the Amur leopard, but these numbers demonstrate that things are moving in the right direction.” Barney Long, director of species protection and Asian species conservation for WWF, said in a statement.

10,000 photos taken

In order to count these big cats which by nature are extremely solitary, researchers and rangers from the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences placed a number of camera traps in an areas covering over 3,600 square kilometres. There were over 10,000 photographs taken which were then used to identify roughly 60 individual Amur leopards. Experts had to identify each individual through their distinctive spots on their fur according to WWF.

Siberian tiger numbers make an impressive recovery

Siberian tigers used to be in a similar situation to what the Amur leopards are in now, with only 56 tigers remaining in the wild as recently as 2009. Ten Siberian tigers were then introduced into the Land of the Leopard National Park in 2012 and now there are approximately another 350 Siberian tigers living in other parts of the Russian Far East. The tigers have begun to make in-roads into North-eastern China as well so it just goes to show that conservation efforts can make a big difference.

The Russians and Chinese are collaborating

Russian conservationists are now working with their Chinese colleagues to more closely monitor Amur leopard populations in China as well. WWF officials say the next step will be to create a new nature reserve that spans both countries. Let’s hope that efforts to keep this great species of big cat that is so elusive are successful and we see a large scale recovery in their numbers.

Amur Leopard Cub by Borek Lupomesky, on Flickr

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Record Number Of Rhinos Poached Last Year

Record Number Of Rhinos Poached Last Year

In 2014, 1,215 rhinos were poached in South Africa setting a new record and representing an increase of 21 per cent over the previous year. To add insult to injury, over two-thirds were killed in the famed Kruger National Park. Over the last few years new records have continuously been set as a result of demand for rhino horns from countries such as Vietnam and China where there is a belief the horns have medicinal properties. As a result the market is very lucrative and has attracted criminal gangs who make use of sophisticated technology to kill their prey.

Rhinos have been moved

Edna Molewa the environment minister for South Africa says over 100 rhinos have been shifted to locations that are more secure including some neighbouring countries in order to make sure the animals remain protected. Ms. Molewa says it is hoped that this method will result in the creation of rhino strongholds where the species can be reproduced cost effectively.

Number of rhinos being poached worrying

Despite the relocation programme being successful, Ms. Molewa says the number of rhinos being killed every year remains worryingly high. She adds that conservation efforts were being undermined by the organised transnational illicit trade in rhino horn. As a result her agency wants to ensure it works with all stake holders in bolstering the measures that have been adopted. Conservationists say the challenge they face to protect these animals from poachers is extreme because they equip themselves with sophisticated tools such as long range rifles and night vision goggles.

“Killing on this scale shows how rhino poaching is being increasingly undertaken by organised criminal syndicates. The country’s brave rangers are doing all they can to protect the rhinos but only a concerted global effort can stop this illegal trade. This includes South Africa scaling up its efforts to stop the poaching and Vietnam taking urgent measures to reduce consumer demand.” said Dr Carlos Drews, WWF’s director of global species programme.

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Zimbabwe Undertakes Controversial Plan To Export Baby Elephants

Zimbabwe Undertakes Controversial Plan To Export Baby Elephants

Wildlife officials in Zimbabwe say they intend to export as many as 62 baby elephants in order to raise finance for the country’s national parks, where poachers pose a threat to the species as a whole. Despite that fact, animal activists have been very vocal with their disapproval and say they want to know what is really going on.

Elephants at risk from poachers

The valuable trade in ivory has meant that African elephants have been poached for their tusks which of course has resulted in a contracting population. State parks in Zimbabwe have very limited funding from the government which means there are not enough patrols by game rangers which leaves these magnificent animals very vulnerable to illegal poachers. In 2014 at least 300 elephants were killed in Hwange National Park after their watering holes were poisoned with cyanide by poachers.

Export of baby elephants to start soon.

Jerry Gotora who is chairman of Zimbabwe’s wildlife authority and parks says he expects exports to start in the first quarter of this year as officials decide which destination the baby elephants should be sent to. In an interview with a news agency he said buyers from the United Arab Emirates wanted 15 elephants, French buyers expressed interest in 15 to 20 whilst Chinese buyers wanted 27 elephants.

“We have 80,000 elephants against a carrying capacity of 42,000 and this is not sustainable in the long run,” Mr. Gotora said.

Animal rights activists say plan is cruel

Despite the good intentions behind Zimbabwe’s plan, many animal rights activists say the capture of baby elephants endangers their lives and is cruel. Elephants tend to live in tight social matriarchal groups and babies are entirely dependent on their mother’s milk until they reach five years old. This means that separating them from their mother even when the interests of the whole population are being considered means it is extremely likely that the babies will not survive.

“We are trying to speak to those who we believe brokered the deal and check on the welfare of the captured animals,” Ed Lanca, ZNSPCA’s (Zimbabwe’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) chairman said.

Officials say the plan is necessary

Mr. Gotora responded by saying the exports of these animals are both safe and necessary and there is nothing unusual about it. The main reason for the sale is because the country wants to ensure there is sustainable use of natural resources.

“All those making noise about it are people who do not want Zimbabwe to benefit from its resources,” he added.

Baby Elephant Walk by Saumil Shah, on Flickr

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Dolphins Have The Longest Memories In The Animal Kingdom

Dolphins Have The Longest Memories In The Animal Kingdom

Move over elephants, it would seem the dolphin has the best memory in the animal kingdom according to the latest research. New experiments suggest the bottlenose dolphin has the ability to remember the whistles of other dolphins they have encountered or lived with even after they have been separated for over 20 years. Each dolphin is identified by a unique whistle which acts just like a name, enabling these marine mammals to maintain strong social bonds.

Remembered by a dog

This new research has conclusively found that dolphins have the longest memory of any species of animals apart from humans. Chimpanzees and elephants also present with similar memory abilities though these have yet to be tested according to Dr. Jason Bruck of the University of Chicago. Dr. Bruck had the idea to study the memory of animals when he was remembered and greeted by his brother’s dog after a four year absence.

Lots of data on dolphins

Dr. Bruck decided to study dolphin behaviour because they have extremely tight social bonds which are very important and there are excellent records for captive dolphins (rather than wild dolphins). He collected data from six facilities and 43 bottlenose dolphins throughout the U.S. and Bermuda. These facilities formed a breeding consortium that have been swapping dolphins for decades and kept meticulous records of each dolphin’s social partners.

Dolphins remember their companions

Dr. Bruck began by playing recordings of a number of unfamiliar whistles to the dolphins that were participating in the study. The dolphins eventually got bored and stopped checking out the underwater speaker that was making the sounds. At that point Dr. Bruck started to play the sounds of dolphins the subjects of the study were familiar with. When the dolphins heard these sounds they would perk up and approach the speakers, and in most cases they would whistle their own name in the hope of a response. In general the dolphins under study tended to respond more to the sounds of animals they had known decades ago than to animals that were picked randomly, which suggests they did indeed recognise their previous companions.

Memory Linked to Smarts?

It is still not known why a dolphin with a lifespan in the wild of 20 years would need long term memory. Some people theorise that it may be due to having to maintain relationships because over time, groups of dolphins tend to break up and reorganise themselves into new alliances. This type of social system is known as “fission-fusion” and is also seen in both chimpanzees and elephants which are also both social and highly intelligent species.

5 dolphins_Save_these_beautiful_creatures by Jay Ebberly, on Flickr

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Diving Can Be Dangerous For Marine Mammals

Diving Can Be Dangerous For Marine Mammals

The Weddell seal has the ability to dive up to 2,000 feet below the surface of the sea. This is astonishing because at that depth, even most submarines would be crushed. Even more impressive is these seals can hold their breaths for up to 45 minutes in the icy waters of Antarctica, but the big question is whether there is any cost in doing so. A new study suggests that the mechanism which allows marine mammals to dive so deeply may in fact not be good for their hearts.

Heart rate slows down and then speeds up

When either a terrestrial or marine mammal dives, they experience a reduction in the heart rate which is known as bradycardia. The slowdown in the heart rate allows the diver to conserve oxygen whilst they are holding their breath. There are some marine mammals such as seals and dolphins which go on extended dives in search of food. This means they must find and chase their prey, all on a single breath. They must do all of that whilst enduring hydrostatic pressure which can be intense. The sheer physical exertion of this kind of activity produces what is known as tachycardia or a sharp increase in heart rate and until very recently it was not known how these marine mammals were able to deal with such dramatic cardiovascular disparity. The results of the study suggest they do not cope well with it at all.

Marine mammals suffer from irregular heartbeats

The researchers led by Dr. Terrie Williams assessed the diving behaviours of both Weddell seals and bottlenose dolphins. The team fitted these animals with specialised equipment which enabled them to measure both depth and heart rates on over 165 separate dives. In 73 per cent of all dives the animals suffered from an irregular heartbeat known as cardiac arrhythmia.

The two conditions work against each other

The results of the study suggest that the alteration between a slow and fast heart rate produces the erratic cardiac condition. Bradycardia and tachycardia work against one another it would seem though it is not clear what the effects of arrhythmia on the hearts of marine mammals are. Dr. Williams is hoping her work will inspire more research to that end.

“This paper is introducing people to the fact that we have some sort of ancestral baggage that seems to exist in these mammals. That dive response that we thought was such a great safety mechanism for marine mammals isn’t perfect.” Dr. Williams said.

Evolution is not perfect

Cetaceans such as dolphins and whales share a land dwelling ancestor that is common to both. Evolution however is far from being a perfect system in the sense that it does not create attributes from scratch but instead compromises between existing traits. For marine mammals this has resulted in two contradictory impulses which cannot be reconciled – to slow the heart when diving and to speed it up when exercising.

“The more we got into this, the more we realized that there are so many signals going to the mammalian heart, and as we started to look at this in detail for marine mammals, we noticed that the heart looks like the same heart you would see in a mountain lion. These animals are working with the same cardiovascular system, just packaged in marine mammal form. So maybe living in the ocean is asking an awful lot from that system.” Dr. Williams adds.

Seal by Jackie Bamber, on Flickr

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Bowhead Whale Has 200 Year Lifespan

Bowhead Whale Has 200 Year Lifespan

The bowhead whale has the longest life span of all Earth’s mammals and can live for over 200 years according to the results of a new study. With scant evidence of disease as a result of its age, researchers hope the longevity of the whale can offer some insight into how humans can live longer and healthier lives. The findings of the study were published recently in the journal Cell Reports.

Bowhead’s don’t get cancer

Scientists from the University of Liverpool sequenced the bowhead whale’s genome and then compared the results with those of mammals with shorter life spans. It would seem the bowhead whale has some important genetic differences that are unique to its species. One example of this pertains to cancer, DNA repair and cell division. It appears the process of aging might actually help increase its lifespan by ensuring the species avoids contracting diseases that usually occur with old age.

“Our understanding of species’ differences in longevity is very poor, and thus our findings provide novel candidate genes for future studies. My view is that species evolved different ‘tricks’ to have a longer lifespan, and by discovering the ‘tricks’ used by the bowhead we may be able to apply those findings to humans in order to fight age-related diseases.” senior author Dr. João Pedro de Magalhães said in a press release.

Whales have a huge number of cells

One important fact that should be considered is that larger whales such as the bowhead, have over 1,000 times the number of cells of humans and scientists believe that this is a natural defence against the onset of cancer in such species. Additionally whale cells have a much slower metabolic rate when compared to mammals that are a lot smaller. It is hoped that we will eventually learn how the bowhead whale avoids cancer which could have significant impact for treatment in humans.

The bowhead is the second heaviest mammal

The bowhead whale is closely related to the right whale and like that species, the bowhead is a slow moving filter feeder that consumes zooplankton such as mysids, euphausiids and copepods according to the NOAA. Aside from being the longest living mammal on the planet with a 200 year lifespan, they are also one of the heaviest mammals as well, weighing in at 100 tons which is second only to the blue whale. Bowhead whales can typically be bound in the Arctic and it is estimated that there are between 7,000 to 10,000 bowhead’s alive today.

Bowhead Whales (Tim Melling) by Naturetrek Wildlife Holidays, on Flickr

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Rare Albino Dolphin Spotted Off The Coast Of Florida

Rare Albino Dolphin Spotted Off The Coast Of Florida

According to recent reports, a rare albino dolphin was seen in waters off the coast of Florida. If the reports are to be believed, this would be the first time in nearly fifty years an albino dolphin has been spotted. According to biologists, albinism has been confirmed in 20 species of porpoises, dolphins and whales and there have been only 14 previous sightings of an albino bottlenose dolphin.

The dolphin was spotted last month

Daniel Carter who volunteers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shot video footage of the latest sighting last month of the East coast of Florida, in an estuary. An FWC spokesperson said they felt it was worth sharing the video because of how rare the occurrence was, however for the sake of the safety of the animal, they declined to specify its exact location.

Snow white dolphin

Mr. Carter shot a two minute long video showing a bottlenose dolphin that was snow white, surfacing on multiple occasions near a shoreline of mangroves. The best views of the dolphin can be seen towards the end of the video. Albino marine mammals tend to become famous for their fair complexion. One species in particular that is famous for this is the mythological pink river dolphins of Brazil.

Albinism is extremely rare

Albinism is very rare and occurs when recessive genes are passed down from both parents. Whilst most people associate albinism in dolphins with pure white colouring, in actual fact they tend to have a pinkish hue colour, though the very latest sighting appears to be strikingly white. Albinism is also characterised with impaired vision and red eye colouring.

The trait makes animals vulnerable to predation

Because albinism in dolphins is so rare, there has been very little study and researchers are still unsure whether there are any other negative health effects. Greg Bossart, a veterinary pathologist says there is not enough clinical data to suggest whether they are healthy. He adds that it is probably not an adaptive trait because for obvious reasons in the wild, it would make animals more vulnerable to predation.

Pink_Dolphins_2 by Travis, on Flickr

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