translating biophilia into a love of life

Posts Tagged ‘wildlife

Happy (belated) world pangolin day!

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World pangolin day was 21 February 2015.  I dedicate this post to all pangolins and those who love, protect, and conserve them.

Adorable pangolin friend

What IS a pangolin, you might ask?

Also known as a “scaly anteater”, our buddy the pangolin is a burrowing mammal, with the singular characteristic of being covered in large overlapping scales.

While I typically favor carnivores with dangerous dentition, I adore this creature even though pangolins have no teeth.   Pangolins are carnivorous in that they eat ants, using their enormous front claws to dig into ant colonies, and incredibly long, sticky tongue to retrieve ants from within their labyrinthine underground tunnels.

Check out this video to see a pangolin (literally) digging into it’s dinner:

Sadly, the pangolin is the most trafficked mammal in the world.  While pangolins are adapted to fend off ant attacks with their scaly plates and ability to close off their ears and eyes to invasion, when they encounter a predator their defense is to roll up into a ball.  In fact, the name pangolin comes from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “something that rolls up”.

The pangolin ball

The pangolin defense posture. A ball.

While this defense works well against predators like lions, it does not protect pangolins from poachers.  Poachers easily capture pangolins, which are used in traditional medicine and as fashion accessories, or illegally traded internationally for their scales, skins, and meat.

dead pangolins

Too many dead pangolins.

You can help pangolins by (1) supporting conservation efforts that protect these delightful creatures, and (2) avoiding pangolin products.

Baby pangolins actually ride on their mothers this way.  It's true.

Baby pangolins actually ride on their mothers this way. It’s true.

Here is a list of organizations with pangolin conservation programs:


Written by morethangray

February 23, 2015 at 8:03 pm

Is the pangolin your spirit animal?

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Answer yes or no to these four questions:

  1. You sleep all day and party all night. (Partying may or may not include swinging from trees by your tail and/or eating ants).
  2. When confronted with an awkward situation, you run away and hide.
  3. You’re not so sure about that whole “pairing off” thing. #solitarylife
  4. You get so stressed out that sometimes you could just, I mean, like, die.

If you answered yes to any of these questions then — congratulations! — you might just be a pangolin person.

O hai!

(Originally from John D. Sutter’s post for CNN, “The most trafficked mammal you’ve never heard of”)

Written by morethangray

February 23, 2015 at 7:37 pm

Posted in thoughts, wildlife

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Carnivores caught on camera

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Carnivore nerds, have I got news for you.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has shared access to their 2014 Ecoregion Biodiversity Monitoring (EBM) data for the Northern Sierra Nevada Ecoregion!  This means we can now go online and view occurrence locations on a web-based viewer (called BIOS). 

About the EBM:

EBM is a wildlife monitoring project, which annually surveys over 100 species of birds and mammals. The project area covers twenty percent of California and fifty percent of its total forested area. Funding is provided through US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) grants. Data collected from this project is used by researchers to assess habitat conditions and wildlife population trends.

Thankfully, CDFW has also shared some charismatic images on their Facebook page.  My personal favorites are of the carnivores.  Please note, baiting wildlife is not legal except in approved scientific studies such as this.


gray fox


baby bear

What this means is I can easily look up animal locations.  Right now I’m curious about gray fox land use, so with a few clicks I was able to create this map, with each hexagon indicating a gray fox detection on their camera array.Gray fox locations

But wait, there’s more!  Metadata for each polygon, including camera coordinates, are available for geospatial analysis.


Written by morethangray

February 3, 2015 at 2:51 pm

Could a vaccine aid in conserving great apes?

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Infectious disease has recently joined poaching and habitat loss as a major threat to African apes, especially because they are increasingly restricted to ever-smaller populations.

Apes are subject to “naturally” occurring pathogens like Ebola and Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) as well as some diseases we humans transmit.  Both types of disease are important sources of mortality in wild chimpanzees and gorillas.

In a paper published in PlosOne (December 2011), Dr. Sadie J. Ryan and Dr. Peter D. Walsh present their findings based on an analysis of the consequences of non-intervention for infectious disease in African great apes.  In short: wild great ape recovery from disease is slow, and a single outbreak can devastate a population.

We found that the predicted recovery time for this specific gorilla population from a single outbreak ranged from 5 years for a low mortality (4%) respiratory outbreak, to 131 years for an Ebola outbreak that killed 96% of the population. This shows that mortality rates comparable to those recently reported for disease outbreaks in wild populations are not sustainable.

Given the grave impact a single infectious disease outbreak may have on ape populations, the researchers evaluate how to best impede such outbreaks from occurring.  Both non-interventionist actions, like limiting tourist access to apes and community health programs, as well as more direct actions like vaccination were proposed as ways to protect great apes from disease:

Based on our research here, we suggest that the great ape conservation community should pursue and promote treatment and vaccination, as weapons in the arsenal for fighting the decline of African apes. This should include rigorous assessments of both safety and cost-effectiveness, and should emphasize program sustainability, with particular attention to the training of African veterinary personnel.

Written by morethangray

March 15, 2012 at 4:31 pm

My handsome seahorse

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Short-snouted seahorse (via LTR Photography)

Let’s face it, we can never see too many stories about male animals that gestate their young and give birth. — Catherine de Lange

The handsome fellow pictured above is a short-snouted seahorse (Hippocampus hippocampus).  In addition to his good looks, this guy will carry and birth hundreds of babies on the behalf of his mate.

Male seahorse giving birth (via

Unfortunately, our handsome seahorse is endangered due to pollution, fishing, and use in eastern medicine.  The number of adults is dwindling, as are the number of surviving babies that once maintained the population.  H. hippocampus reproductive success is relatively low — of the 1000 young released by male seahorses, less than 0.06% survive.  Like almost all other fish species, seahorses don’t care for their young after birth.  Instead, infants are susceptible to predators or ocean currents which wash them away from feeding grounds or into temperatures too extreme for their delicate bodies.  Given the new threats the animals face, this reproductive strategy has left the short-snouted seahorse at a disadvantage.

One approach to bolster the numbers of endangered animals is captive breeding with subsequent release into the wild.  Scientists are doing just that for H. hippocampus, with some amount of success: a record-breaking 918 baby short-snouted sea horses were born at London Zoo’s Aquarium in 2010.  You can watch a video about the seahorses and the captive rearing program at New Scientist.  Next step for science: successful release of the wee-horses.

Written by morethangray

March 15, 2012 at 11:49 am

Why we must protect endangered animals

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Rapid loss of sea ice is the major threat to polar bear survival

In the article, “Let the polar bears die, liberals: It’s only your beloved evolution at work” author S.E. Cupp argues that if polar bears (or any other single species) are on track for extinction, we should not interfere.  At one point Cupp asserts that protecting an endangered animal would be meddling with evolution:

“The crass and sometimes violent coming and going of species proves evolution’s central logic. So why, then, do polar bear activists insist that another species – that would be us – tamper with Darwin’s grand design and swoop in to save an animal that simply wasn’t fit enough to make it in the cutthroat world of biological survival?”

I disagree with Cupp that we should forgo the protection of endangered animals in favor of allowing threatened wildlife to become extinct.  Further, the argument that wildlife conservation intrudes on evolution is fallacious, and exposes Cupp’s fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, natural selection and artificial selection.

To take a step back, understanding the difference between evolution, natural selection and human-caused (or artificial) selection is crucial before considering whether to conserve wildlife.  Natural selection and evolution are not synonymous.  Simply put, evolution occurs when a population changes over time in response to pressure from the environment.  Natural selection is how changes can accumulate in an evolving population.  As a result of natural selection, individuals with certain traits survive and reproduce at the expense of their peers.  Evolution by natural selection happens very slowly, as living things respond to their environment over hundreds to thousands of years.

Artificial selection in dogs produced the giant Great Dane and the diminutive Chihuahua

Artificial selection in dogs produced the giant Great Dane and the diminutive Chihuahua

Artificial selection, also known as selective breeding or human-caused selection, was first described by Charles Darwin to distinguish the process from natural selection.  As opposed to natural selection, in which the environment acts as a sieve through which only certain variations can pass, in artificial selection humans favor specific traits and direct their persistence.  Artificial selection — which Cupp mistakenly refers to as “evolution” — is not the result of random, unpredictable events like weather or natural disasters, but is a direct result of our behavior.

Humans have drastically altered the appearance of animals and plants within a few generations by way of artificial selection. Consider the creation of hundreds of distinct dog breeds selected and maintained by humans within the past 150 years or the directed transformation of teosinte into modern cultivars of corn for food.  The rapid evolution of such radical changes in structure and function are unheard of with natural selection.

While it’s true that we have loaded the atmosphere with an unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide and global temperatures are changing as a result, it is not true that we have no control over the situation.  Further, the extreme changes in the composition of atmosphere have taken place within the past 2oo years — a pace exclusive to artificial selection.  When humans accelerate change with artificial selection, the participants of natural selection can, understandably, not keep up.

As humans we have the ability to understand cause and effect.  We are able to think about consequences, make responsible choices about how to behave and when to change the way we do things.  The same cannot be said for nature with its weather and natural disasters.  As sentient beings with a conscience and the ability to make premeditated decisions, it is our responsibility to maintain our planet for future generations — both human and animal.


Written by morethangray

December 22, 2010 at 11:39 am

‘It’s just an animal’

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The winner has been announced for the 2010 Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year, an annual competition owned by Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine.  Mark Leong won the competition with his 6-piece photoessay, It’s just an animal.

I’ve included three of the winning images in this post so you may see how Leong has captured the ignorance and cruelty demanded by the multi-billion-dollar international trade in wildlife products.  Head over to New Scientist to see all six.

A drugged asiatic black bear being illegally milked for bile (courtesy of Mark Leong)

Snakes being skinned to supply the international luxury leather goods industry (courtesy of Mark Leong)

I’ll end this post with an image of captive tigers that could have been taken during a tawdry circus act.  The photograph, of tigers performing tricks for entertainment, was actually taken at a wildlife “conservation” park in China.  You may be shocked to learn what is being done in the name of tiger conservation at the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Garden in Guilin, Giangxi, China:

The park owns over 1300 tigers, and claims to help their conservation by keeping them in captivity. It also owns a tiger bone wine distillery, however, and has lobbied to lift bans on trade in such tiger products. In 2007 DNA tests on food from its restaurant revealed it was serving tiger meat. (from New Scientist)

Tiger performance at a "conservation" farm known for serving tiger meat in its restaurant (courtesy of Mark Leong)

What do you think — are animals “just animals”?  How do Mark Leong’s photographs affect you?

Written by morethangray

October 24, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Posted in photography

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