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Robot Helps Scientists Study Wild Penguins


If we want to understand why wild animals behave the way they do, then studying them is critical. However one problem this raises is what if the passive act of observation ends up changing the way animals behave? Behavioural ecologists have worried about this problem for decades but according to a recently published paper in Nature Methods, there is a clever new technique for collecting data from wild animals without causing them unnecessary stress.

Lots of ways to study animals in the wild

There are plenty of ways to study how animals behave in the wild. You could for example attempt to gain their trust in the belief that they get so comfortable with your presence that they act as if you aren’t there at all. Alternatively you might want to attach your study group with some kind of device that has the ability to collect and perhaps transmit data in your absence. Even this is not full proof because such devices can end up increasing drag and alter behaviour in the process.

New technique causes less stress

Microchips implanted subcutaneously is a much better method for monitoring animals without disturbing them as they go about their business. The problem with this technique is that in order to be able scan the chip so that the individual animal can be identified, you need to get pretty close. There is however a new alternative that researchers have come up with that involves sending in a remote controlled robot that is equipped with a scanning device that can collect all kinds of data on the animal in question and then transmit it. The technique has been tested out on king penguins and it was found that the whole process caused much less stress for the animals.

Penguins not bothered by robot

For example, when the penguins were approached by a human, their heart rate increased by an average of 35 beats per minute. However when the rover approached, the heart rate also rose, but only by around 24 beats per minute, suggesting less stress. Another benefit is that humans tend to cause the target penguins to move much further than the rover and once the robot left the penguins, they were much quicker to return to their original psychological state.

Dressing the robot up

The researchers also tested the robot on a group of emperor penguins to see if they had a similar relaxed reaction. Initially many were wary, but then the researchers dressed the robot up as a baby penguin and everybody was happy. The scientists said they even heard the adults and chicks vocalising at the disguised rover which was able to infiltrate the group without causing a disturbance. This technique is obviously not going to work in every environment, but it does open the door to some exciting possibilities for people who are studying the behaviour of animals in the wild. Not to mention there are going to be some wonderful opportunities for photographs using this method in the future.

Emperor Penguins by Bryn Jones, on Flickr

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Orphaned Baby Sea Otter Rescued

Orphaned Baby Sea Otter Rescued

In October a sea otter pup that had been orphaned was rescued from a beach in California. The camera friendly critter has been given a new start in the Midwest of the United States and will be receiving 24 hour care at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. If you are wondering how on earth they managed to find an orphaned sea otter, it’s a bit of a long story, fortunately that is what we’re here for.

Just out for an evening stroll

When the baby sea otter was rescued, it was just a week old and weighed in at less than a kilogram. An individual who was taking an evening stroll along the beach between Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties in California heard the newborn otter’s cries. The next day officials from the wildlife department visited that site and were unable to locate the mother. As a result the pup was determined to be an orphan and was transported to California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium where she was given the provisional name Pup 681.

Sea otters need a lot of food

For a newborn pup she was quite small and because she and her mother had been separated for at least 16 hours, she was in urgent need of calories officials at the aquarium said. Typically these furry animals remain with their mothers until they are eight months old. Fathers usually disappear soon after mating. In order to maintain their metabolic rate and body temperature, sea otters need to eat at least a quarter of their body weight each day.

She is now doing well

After the pup’s condition stabilised at Monterey she was then moved to her more permanent home in Chicago. Her caretakers say she is doing well and achieving all the right milestones, like eating solid food such as clams and shrimp. She has also learned to regulate her body temperature and groom herself by climbing on to towels to dry off after she has been for a swim. Aquarium officials say Pup 681 will ultimately get a less clinical name. Currently staff are in the process of selecting a number of choices for a permanent name which both members of the aquarium and the general public will have the opportunity to vote on a spokesperson said.

The species is threatened

Southern sea otters tend to be found off California’s coast. The species was almost hunted to extinction in order to feed voracious demand for fur during the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 20th century the species began to make a comeback, but according to the U.S Endangered Species List they are still “threatened”. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the population of the sub species at approximately 2,944, barely unchanged from the previous year’s estimate.

Southern Sea Otters Amid Mating Activity by marlin harms, on Flickr

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Meet The Meerkat

Meet The Meerkat

Meerkats are carnivores that are very cat like though they are actually part of the mongoose and civet family. You can tell a meerkat by its ability to stand on its back feet, their short flat ears and long bodies. The coat of a meerkat can be brown, orange, silver or gold. They also usually have dark patches of fur around their eyes. If you have ever looked at these cute little animals and wondered about them, here is a guide to almost everything you ever wanted to know about the meerkat.

  • The meerkat is not a big animal and measures a maximum of 11.75 inches from head to rump.
  • If you include their tails, then another 9.5 inches can be added to their length.
  • They of course do not weigh much either, clocking in at less than 2.2 lbs.

Where do meerkats live?

You can find meerkats in the grasslands and deserts of Africa including North and West South Africa, Southern and Western Namibia and South Western Botswana. You can also find the meerkat in the Lesotho’s lowlands and the extreme South West of Angola. The meerkat is social so it lives in large groups with several meerkat families combining to form what is called a clan, gang or mob. These groups have between 3 to 50 members and there is a dominant female meerkat that leads the group according to the National History Museum.

Lying in the sun

The meerkat resides in an intricate system of underground tunnels called burrows. These animals are able to stay safe from predators in these tunnels and remain cool when the day gets hot. A single burrow can have up to 15 entry and exit holes and can measure as long as 6.5 feet. In contrast with other animals which burrow, the meerkat lives in multiple burrows and rotates through several of them. The meerkat begins its day by either lying in the sun or grooming another meerkat. The rest of the day is spent looking for food. The meerkat group is watched by one member of the gang who will sound the alarm if a predator approaches. The guard is replaced every hour so that all meerkats have a chance to look for food.

What do meerkats eat?

Whilst the meerkat is thought of as being carnivorous, their diet consists of more than simply meat. They have been known to eat fruit, bugs, birds and lizards according to National Geographic. Scorpions are also a particular delicacy for meerkats because adults are immune to scorpion venom.

Baby meerkats

Females can give birth to up to eight babies in a single session however on average the number of offspring is four. The meerkat gives birth underground in order to keep them safe from predators. New born pups weigh between 25 to 36 grams and when they are first born they are deaf, blind and almost completely hairless. Everyone helps in raising the new born meerkats including the father and siblings. By the time the pups reach nine weeks old they are weaned and they reach maturity by the age of one and a half years old. This means they will have the ability to have their own offspring and in general a meerkat lives for up to 8 years in the wild and 13 years in captivity.

Conservation status

The population of meerkats is robust and according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature the meerkat is listed as “least concern” which means that there are no major threats to this species and their numbers are incredibly healthy.

Image Credit:Meerkats by Martien Uiterweerd, on Flickr

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Chimps Are Violent And Its Not Because Of Humans

Violent Aggression in Chimps Not Product Of Human Interference

For decades anthropologists have observed wild chimpanzees go crazy and attack one another through a series of coordinated assaults. Scientists did not know until very recently whether the violent behaviour in chimps was as a result of their interaction with human beings or whether it was part of their basic nature. A study conducted over 54 years suggests that chimpanzees are innately aggressive and the behaviour is not linked to human interference. Michael Wilson, the lead researcher in the study says that violence is a natural part of chimpanzee life and there was no requirement for them to be fed bananas to kill one another. Dr. Wilson is an associate professor of anthropology as the University of Minnesota.

Chimp Violence Explains Warfare In Humans ?

Violence in chimpanzees has had an important effect in how we think about the origin of warfare in humans Dr. Wilson said. Some have long argued that human warfare is a cultural invention and the product of a recent development such as agriculture. Jane Goodall a legendary primatologist however challenged the concept that warfare in particular is a modern development arguing that chimpanzees and humans are the only two species in the world that are known to conduct organised attacks on one another. Dr Wilson thinks the behaviour may have come from a common ancestor that lived between 5 to 7 million years ago.

Violence The Product of Human Interaction

Dr. Wilson’s ideas are themselves being challenged with other researchers claiming that the violent behaviour of chimps is the product of human intrusions. As African populations are increasing, they are infringing on habitats of chimpanzees. Hunters kill chimps, farmers clear land for farming and loggers cut down forests and this has put pressure on chimpanzee populations producing increased violence. Dr. Wilson and his colleagues looked at both bonobos and chimpanzees, which are both species that share a common ancestor with humans. The researchers observed 4 bonobo groups and 18 chimpanzee groups that lived in Africa.

Lots of Killings

There were a total of 152 chimpanzee killings of which 41 were inferred, 58 were directly observed and 53 suspected in 15 out of the 18 communities. There was a single killing amongst all the bonobos groups the researchers said and the different acts of violence were not dependent on human impact. The attacks tended to happen at sites where there were lots of males and the population densities were high. It was also found that East African chimpanzees killed more often than chimps living in West Africa according to the results of the study. The bonobos displayed very little violence and the researchers could not find a definitive case of killing, though there was one case where one member of a troop was severely attacked by other members of his group and never heard from again.

Does Evolution Favour Violence?

Because bonobos and chimps do not display the same levels of lethal violence, it is not possible to tell how the common ancestor behaved the researchers say. However it is possible to learn a little about the kind of circumstances where nature may favour the evolution of this kind of aggression.

“Overall, aggression makes [up] a small percentage of their daily lives,” Wilson said, adding that, “our behaviour affects them, but it’s not affecting them as people have suggested in the past, resulting in aggression.”

Image Credit:Chimpanzees by Gabriel Pollard, on Flickr

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Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About The Gorilla

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About The Gorilla

The gorilla is a large ape that lives in Africa. There are two types of gorilla. The first sub species lives in the mountain regions located in central Africa and is commonly known as the mountain gorilla. The other subspecies is known as the lowland gorilla and lives in the dense and flat forests of western and central Africa. Whilst both types of gorilla have a lot of similarities, there are also some key differences:

  • The lowland gorilla is a little bit lighter than its mountain cousin.
  • Both species measure between 4 to 6 feet.
  • Mountain gorillas have longer hair.
  • The gorilla is the world’s largest primate.


The mountain gorilla can be found on green volcanic mountains located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. Lowland gorillas on the other hand dwell in the forests of western and central African countries such as Gabon, Congo, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Angola and Equatorial Guinea. According to National Geographic, the territory of a gorilla group can range up to 16 square miles.

What do gorillas eat?

In general the gorilla is a herbivore and has a diet consisting of tree pulp, tree bark, fruit, roots, shoots and wild celery. They have also been known on occasion to eat insects and small animals. An adult male gorilla is able to eat as much as 40 lbs of vegetation each day.

The exact diet of a gorilla depends on where they live. Roughly two thirds of a lowland gorillas diet consists of fruit, 17 per cent of their diet is made up of stems, seeds and leaves whilst 3 per cent comes from caterpillars and termites. In contrast a mountain gorilla’s diet consists of 86 per cent stems, shoots and leaves. 7 per cent comes from roots and 3 per cent flowers.


Gorillas are social animals that live in groups known as troops or bands. A gorilla troop can contain as many as 50 members, though it is possible for some troops to have as few as two members. Gorilla troops are typically led by a single dominant male known as a silverback, which is distinctive because he has a streak of grey hair on his back.

Gorilla troops have a routine over the course of the day. The evenings and mornings are usually designated as feeding time. Nap time is during the middle of the day, when they also play with and groom one another. At night time the gorillas goes to sleep on beds made from twigs and leaves.


As is the case with humans, female gorillas gestate for nine months and tend to give birth to a single infant at a time. A newly born gorilla weighs approximately 4 lbs when they are born. Baby gorillas ride on their mothers back from about 4 months to 2 or 3 years.

When they reach 7 to 10 years the gorilla reaches sexual maturity and is able to have its own offspring. When this happens, the gorilla will usually leave the group to find its own mate. Gorillas have a lifespan of around 35 years in the wild and over 50 years in captivity.

Conservation status

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies both types of gorilla as endangered on its Red List of Threatened Species. Both types of gorilla have suffered from habitat destruction and hunting. It is estimated that there are approximately 680 mountain gorillas left located in two different population groups.

The low land gorilla is also critically endangered though it is not known exactly how many of these gorillas are left. It is thought that their population has fallen by more than 80 per cent over three generations and it is estimated there are about 100,000 lowland gorillas left.

Image Credit:Derek Keats, on Flickr

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Acidifying Oceans Affect Sharks in Strange Way

Acidifying Oceans Affect Sharks in Strange Way

A new study suggests that acidified ocean water produced by carbon emissions is causing sharks to swim much longer compared to when they swim in more typical less acidic water, especially during the night time. The findings of the study are particularly worrisome considering the effects of fossil fuel consumption by human beings will only serve to make ocean water more acidic. If the consumption of fossil fuels continues, sharks and other marine species are going to face even more challenges in the future, particularly when nearly 25 per cent of all shark species are already at risk of extinction.

“Usually when you expose a fish to some kind of environmental stressor, they acclimate to that stressor, and that makes them less vulnerable to that stressor, but here, it seemed like this high CO2 [carbon dioxide] continued to be a stressor to these sharks for quite a long time.” said study researcher Fredrik Jutfelt,

Acidifying Oceans

The earth’s ocean absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide which decreases the pH level of ocean water and makes it more acidic. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that on a 14 point scale, the pH of surface ocean water has declined by 0.1 since the start of the Industrial Revolution. What that effectively means is that surface ocean water has seen its acidity spike by as much as 30 per cent.

According to the results of a study of bony fish, a number of species have had a catastrophic reaction to the quickly acidifying oceans, whilst other species have seemed to be able to tolerate it. Dr. Jutfelt adds that hardly anyone had taken a close look at the effects of acidification on rays and sharks, which are species of marine life that are known for their cartilaginous bones.

Strange Swimming

The research team took 20 spotted cat sharks from an aquarium as part of their study. This species of shark is small but common throughout the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Half of the sharks were placed in tanks containing typical ocean water with a pH of 8.1 and the other half were placed in acidified ocean water with a pH of 7.7.

After a four week period the researchers then examined the sharks to test for a variety of physiological responses such as oxygen consumption and blood pH levels. They also recorded the night time behaviour of the sharks when they are most active. What the researchers found was some odd night time behaviour exhibited by the sharks placed in acidic water.

“The control sharks, they would have these many starts and stops throughout the night. They would swim for a few seconds, or up to a minute, maybe, and then stop, but the CO2-exposed sharks, they kept swimming for longer time periods. Some of them swam for an hour continuously.” Dr. Jutfelt said.

Evolution Won’t Have A Chance To Work

The researchers thinks that the continuous swimming behaviour could be the product of changed ion concentrations in the brain of these sharks. Another explanation the researchers proposed was that the sharks were able to sense their water was too acidic and just continued swimming into order to reach water of a better quality which may be elsewhere.

The researchers say they do not know what this kind of behaviour would mean for sharks that live in the ocean, What they do know is that sharks take many years to reach sexual maturity and that means they reproduce slowly, so there will only be a few generations of sharks before the species is exposed to highly acidic water by 2100. That in turn means evolution will not have the chance to take its course and have a moderating effect which could be catastrophic for the species as a whole.

Image Credit:Shark by Allan Lee, on Flickr

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Dog Refuses To Leave Dead Owners Side

Dog Refuses To Leave Dead Owners Side

It is often said that the dog is man’s best friend, and here is a story that illustrates that saying. Recently a dog refused to be parted from his dead owners side and stayed by his grave for over two weeks in Chennai India.

Tommy the dog became heartbroken after his owner Bhaskar Shri died in a car accident on August 2nd. Bhaskar adopted Tommy five years ago and since then, the pair became inseparable. According to Bhaskar’s mother, Tommy used to accompany Bhaskar to the various construction sites where he used to work.

Following Bhaskar’s death Tommy stayed by his side and did not consumer any food or water for 15 days. Blue Cross worker Dawn Williams was passing by one day and saw Tommy and after seeing him by the grave a couple of days later, decided he needed rescuing.

Mr. Williams and his team fed and attempted to rescue Tommy a number of times but he refused to leave his owner’s side.

“When we attempted to rescue the dog, it stubbornly resisted and refused to budge. It just scratched the grave and whined.” Mr. Williams said.

The Blue Cross team then began asking around about Tommy and learned that Bhaskar’s mother lived close by and decided to contact her. When Tommy saw her, he jumped up on her and licker her face.

Tommy did not seem to mind leaving with her and Ms. Sundari said she will care for Tommy as a reminder of her son.

“I’m sure Tommy will help Shrimati with her grief, dogs are amazing in times of emotion,” Ms. Williams said.

Image Credit:Road Dog by Mary, on Flickr

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Chinese Zoo Welcomes Rare Birth Of Panda Triplets

Chinese Zoo Welcomes Rare Birth Of Panda Triplets

A southern Chinese Zoo has celebrated the extremely rare birth of surviving panda triplets which is the first time this has ever happened.

The triplets were born to a mother named Juxio and arrived on July 29th but the Chimelong Safari Park where the triplets were born only announced the birth on August 13th because they were worried the triplets may not survive. Panda cubs have very high rates of mortality the zoo said in a statement.

Births of singles and twins are very common for pandas however it is extremely rare for triplets according to San Diego Zoo’s Christina Simmons.

“In the wild, it is rare for a panda mother to be able to raise more than one infant, and so multiple births result in mortality of the additional youngsters. This occurs because baby pandas are very small and undeveloped and need constant attention. It is difficult for the mother to be able to provide this care for more than one [cub].” Ms. Simmons said.

Chinese zoos traditionally wait 100 days before they name the baby pandas so as to avoid people becoming too attached to the tiny creatures who are born blind and who need their mothers to survive. The zoo has not announced the genders of the cubs yet and is also waiting before making an announcement.

After the birth of the triplets, their mother was so exhausted, workers at the zoo placed the cubs in incubators enabling Juxiao to rest. Fortunately the three cubs are now nursing from their mother the zoo said.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland also shared some good news recently announcing the pregnancy of a female panda named Tian Tian through artificial insemination.

Tian Tian was inseminated by a team of experts in mid April during the period when pandas usually mate. Experts will continue to monitor her pregnancy and will examine protein and hormone levels present in her urine, though they cannot be completely sure Tian Tian is pregnant until she gives birth.

Image Credit:panda by ~Jane, on Flickr

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Killing For Ivory Could Drive African Elephant Into Extinction

Killing For Ivory Could Drive African Elephant Into Extinction

Demand for ivory has resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of African elephants with poachers hunting more elephants faster than they can reproduce according to a new study. The study also found that poaching deaths have affected over half of all elephant families in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya.

In 2011 eight per cent of the African elephant population was wiped out, or an estimated 40,000 elephants making it the worst year on record since 1998. In the absence of poaching, the elephant population in Africa would grow by about 4.2 per cent each year.

The African elephant is an intelligent animal with individuals regularly cooperating with one another and in times of distress offering consolation to compatriots. Unfortunately ivory is still very popular says Dr. George Wittemyer the lead researcher from Colorado State University.

Dr. Wittemyer has closely studied elephant populations in Kenya for nearly 20 years. In 2009, drought resulted in a decline of 12 per cent of the elephant population in Kenya. Numbers fell further as a result of poaching which has been continuing since that year.

“Sadly, in 2009, we had a terrible drought, and we started seeing a lot of illegal killing of elephants as well as natural deaths. We’ve been struggling to respond. We’ve been trying to find solutions to dampen the illegal killing.” Dr. Wittemyer said.

Dr. Wittemyer’s team looked at natural death data and compared it with poaching related deaths in the Samburu National Reserve. The team then applied their numbers to a database that spans the continent called MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants). The database was started in 2002 and is supported by African communities that report when, where and how elephants die.

Over the last decade elephant populations at 12 locations have fallen by 7 per cent which also takes into account the fact that until 2009, elephant numbers were mostly increasing. Over the last 10 years elephant numbers in central Africa have fallen by as much as 60 per cent. Poaching is so endemic that 75 per cent of elephant populations have fallen since 2009 with only 25 per cent having a stable or increasing population Dr. Wittemyer said.

Peter Leimgruber, a conservation biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who did not participate in the study said that the African elephant is being rapidly driven into extinction as a result of alarming increases in killing for ivory

He adds that ivory poaching rates are simply unsustainable and outstrip the natural population growth rate for wild African elephants which means that every decade, elephant populations will fall between 60 to 70 per cent and in the near future if the illegal trade in ivory is not stopped the species will go extinct.

Image Credit:Elephant by Doug Wheller, on Flickr

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Study Tries To Understand How To Improve Captive Rhino Breeding

Study Tries To Understand How To Improve Captive Rhino Breeding

European Zoo’s may be about to experience a renaissance in rhino reproduction as researchers seek to improve the success rate of these animals mating in captivity according to a new study.

The Black Rhino is endangered because it is illegally hunted for its horn and also has a very low birth rate in captivity the researchers said.

In order to find out why some species of captive rhinos breed very easily whilst others never reproduce, English researchers undertook a detailed study of 39 captive rhinos which constitute roughly 90 per cent of the European rhino population.

“This species is of high conservation importance, so understanding what could be limiting breeding in certain individuals and how we could make improvements is a priority,” Katie Edwards, who led the research as part of her Ph.D. studies at the University of Liverpool, said in a statement.

The researchers needed to obtain biological samples so they used rhino droppings taken from 11 zoos across Europe. Samples were collected every other day for as long as 6 years. The study’s authors looked at hormone levels in  samples that were used to examine the rhino’s reproductive cycles.

Of the rhinos that were part of the study, 15 failed to give birth whilst 17 bore offspring. 7 rhinos were not sexually mature and it was found that in female rhinos who had not reproduced, irregular ovulation cycles were more common.

“Our analyses showed that females who had never bred were more likely to exhibit irregular oestrus [ovulation] cycles, indicating that underlying physiology is involved in differences in breeding success,” Ms. Edwards said.

Observations of behaviour yielded very little information because female rhinos which were not breeding do not necessarily display when they are ready to mate which makes the management of breeding very difficult Ms. Edwards added. Instead zoos could use hormone analysis to predict when females are more receptive to mating.

Hormone analysis has already been a factor in the birth of three rhinos over the last three years in England. Additionally the study identified a number of other factors which might also increase the success rate of breeding.

Rhinos which do not participate in breeding tend to weigh more than rhinos that do breed which suggests that zoos should think about exercise and diets for animals held in captivity. Non breeding females also tended to be more temperamental.

Increasing the birth rate of rhinos held in captivity may well help the species survive experts say. Poaching is an existential threat to rhinos which means it is very important for scientists to understand the factors which may make reproduction successful.

Image Credit:Rhino Mother and Daughter by Mikel Hendriks, on Flickr

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