May 9, 2013
With their big, glossy black eyes and downy fluff, baby Weddell seal pups are some of the most adorable newborns in the animal kingdom. But these cute infants are far from helpless bundles of joy. New research published in the journal Marine Mammal Science reveals that Weddell seal pups likely possess the most adult-like brain of any mammal at birth.
The seal pups’ brains, compared to adult seals’ brain proportions, are the largest known for any mammal to date. The researchers write that this is “remarkable” considering that the pups are quite small at birth compared to many other newborn mammals.
To arrive at these findings, a team of researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the National Museum of Natural History traveled to Antarctica to collect fresh pups specimens. They took advantage of the fact that many pups never make it to adulthood due to stillbirths, abandonment and accidental death, such as being crushed by an adult. The researchers collected 10 dead seal pups (which quickly freeze in the Antarctic temperatures), conducted a few measurements and then decapitated and shipped the frozen heads back to the Smithsonian. They also tossed in a couple adult Weddell seal heads into the mix, one of which had died from acute toxemia–possibly from its gut being punctured by a fish spine–and the other whose cause of death could not be determined.
Back in the U.S., the researchers partially thawed the skulls in a lab and–like a well picked-over Thanksgiving turkey–manually peeled the tissue off of the baby seal faces. Then, they drilled into the skulls to extract the intact brains. Finally, they put the bones into a tank full of flesh-eating beetles to remove any remaining scraps of meat. Clean skulls and brains in hand, they went about taking measurements, and they also drew upon measurements of some older Weddell Seal skull specimens from the museum’s collection.
Remarkably, baby Weddell seal brains are already 70 percent developed at birth, the team found. Compare this to human infants, whose brains are a mere 25 percent of their eventual adult mass. As a Smithsonian statement explains, baby animals born with proportionally larger brains usually live in challenging environments in which they need to act quickly in order to survive. Other animals that share this trait include most marine mammals, zebras and wildebeest.
For Weddell seal pups, large brains likely help with diving under ice sheets and orienting themselves under water at less than three weeks old–an extremely dangerous task for any mammal, newborn or not. The pups must acclimate quickly since Weddell seal mothers abandon their young at about 6 weeks old, meaning they need to be able to completely fend for themselves when that day arrives.
In nature, however, everything comes with a price. The Weddell seal pups may have the biggest, best developed brains on the block when compared to what they will be as adults, but this metabolically taxing organ requires excessive energy to maintain. A pup weighing just 65 pounds needs between 30 to 50 grams of glucose per day in order to survive, and the team estimates that the energetically hungry brain may account for a full 28 grams of that demand.
Luckily for the seal pups, their mothers’ milk is almost exactly matched to the babies’ caloric needs. Weddell seal milk supplies about 39 grams of sugar per day. Females seals, however, lose significant weight while tending to their young, which jeopardizes their own survival. At their mother’s cost, the babies’ brains are allowed to thrive. That is, until their mother decides she’s had enough with the nurturing and leaves her pups to survive on their own.
April 26, 2013
You probably haven’t heard of the world’s second rarest ape, the cao vit gibbon. Scientists know of only one place the species still lives in the wild. In the 1960s, things got so bad for the cao vit gibbon that the species was declared extinct. But in 2002, to the surprise and elation of conservationists, the animals—whose shaggy coats can be a fiery orange or jet black—turned up along Vietnam’s remote northern border. Several years later, a few gibbons were found in China, too.
Also known as the eastern black-crested gibbon, the cao vit gibbons once covered an expanse of forest spanning from southern China and northern Vietnam just east of the Red River, but today only about 110 individuals survive. This gibbon is highly inclined to stick to the trees—in a previous study, during more than 2,000 hours spent observing gibbons in the field, researchers saw only once and very briefly one young male cao vit gibbon come down from the canopy and walk on a rock for a few seconds. Population surveys based on watching the animals in the branches reveal that the gibbons live in 18 groups scattered throughout the area. That makes it the second least populous species of ape, just after the Hainan gibbon, another type of extremely rare gibbon living in the same area of Asia.
In 2007 and 2009, Vietnam and then China hustled to establish special protected areas dedicated to preventing the cao vit gibbon’s extinction. Much of the area surrounding the remaining populations of gibbons is quickly being converted to agricultural fields and pasturesor cut down to make charcoal to sell and use at home, a common practice in the area. Hunting—though illegal—is also an issue, as exotic wild meat dinners are popular with locals in the region.
For an endangered species to recover rather than just survive, it needs to grow in numbers. But any given patch of land can only support so many animals given the amount of food and space that’s available. If populations exceed this threshold—called a carrying capacity—then animals will either starve, get picked off by predators or have to move somewhere else.
Researchers from Dali University in Yunnan, the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming and the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences in Beijing wanted to find out how much of the protected forest the cao vit gibbons had expanded into, and also how many animals that pocket of land could eventually support. To answer this question, they turned to high-resolution satellite images, describing their results in the journal Biological Conservation.
Once they acquired aerial images of the gibbons’ habitat, they classified it into forest, scrub, shrub land and developed areas. This was important because gibbons can only live high in forest canopies, meaning the latter three categories were out of bounds for potentially supporting the animals. Overall, the area could be divided into five different zones that were split apart by either roads or rivers. From there, the researchers plugged the data into computer models that ranked possible gibbon habitat from high to low quality.
Their results revealed several bits of news, some good and some bad. First, from the models it seems that 20 groups of gibbons could eventually live in the protected forest areas before the population reaches its carrying capacity threshold. However, as human development creeps closer and closer, that disturbance could lower that figure. As things stand, the gibbons will likely reach their carrying capacity in the current habitat in 15 years, which doesn’t bode well for building up the species’ numbers.
There are a couple options. The protected area isn’t all great habitat, it turns out. Some of it is just mediocre for gibbons. If that span of forest could be improved, it could eventually support up to 26 groups of animals. The researchers also identified two other potential areas where gibbons could live if they could somehow manage to travel there (no gibbon has ever been known to cross a river or a road). But these patches of welcoming forest, located in Vietnam, are not protected, so they likely will not remain forests for long. If the government decided to protect those areas, the researchers write, they could serve as places for cao vit gibbons to live in the future, especially if narrow corridors of trees connecting the two areas were protected and restored as well.
If these patches of forest were protected, gibbons would not be the only species to benefit. Numerous other species of primates and monkeys, civets, pangolins, porcupines, birds, bats and many more depend upon those last remaining jungle habitats for survival. “In summary, the last remaining population of cao vit gibbon is nearing its carrying capacity in the current remaining forest patch,” the authors write. “Forest protection and active forest restoration using important food tree plantings to increase habitat quality and connectivity should be the most critical part of the ongoing conservation management strategy.”
April 25, 2013
Penguins seem a bit out of place on land, with their stand-out black jackets and clumsy waddling. But once you see their grace in the water, you know that’s where they’re meant to be–they are well-adapted to life in the ocean.
1. Depending on which scientist you ask, there are 17–20 species of penguins alive today, all of which live in the southern half of the globe. The most northerly penguins are Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus), which occasionally poke their heads north of the equator.
2. While they can’t fly through the air with their flippers, many penguin species take to the air when they leap from the water onto the ice. Just before taking flight, they release air bubbles from their feathers. This cuts the drag on their bodies, allowing them to double or triple their swimming speed quickly and launch into the air.
4. Penguins don’t wear tuxedos to make a fashion statement: it helps them be camouflaged while swimming. From above, their black backs blend into the dark ocean water and, from below, their white bellies match the bright surface lit by sunlight. This helps them avoid predators, such as leopard seals, and hunt for fish unseen.
5. The earliest known penguin fossil was found in 61.6 million-year old Antarctic rock, about 4-5 million years after the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs. Waimanu manneringi stood upright and waddled like modern day penguins, but was likely more awkward in the water. Some fossil penguins were much larger than any penguin living today, reaching 4.5 feet tall!
6. Like other birds, penguins don’t have teeth. Instead, they have backward-facing fleshy spines that line the inside of their mouths. These help them guide their fishy meals down their throat.
7. Penguins are carnivores: they feed on fish, squid, crabs, krill and other seafood they catch while swimming. During the summer, an active, medium-sized penguin will eat about 2 pounds of food each day, but in the winter they’ll eat just a third of that.
8. Eating so much seafood means drinking a lot of saltwater, but penguins have a way to remove it. The supraorbital gland, located just above their eye, filters salt from their bloodstream, which is then excreted through the bill—or by sneezing! But this doesn’t mean they chug seawater to quench their thirst: penguins drink meltwater from pools and streams and eat snow for their hydration fix.
9. Another adaptive gland—the oil (also called preen) gland—produces waterproofing oil. Penguins spread this across their feathers to insulate their bodies and reduce friction when they glide through the water.
10. Once a year, penguins experience a catastrophic molt. (Yes, that’s the official term.) Most birds molt (lose feathers and regrow them) a few at a time throughout the year, but penguins lose them all at once. They can’t swim and fish without feathers, so they fatten themselves up beforehand to survive the 2–3 weeks it takes to replace them.
11. Feathers are quite important to penguins living around Antarctica during the winter. Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) have the highest feather density of any bird, at 100 feathers per square inch. In fact, the surface feathers can get even colder than the surrounding air, helping to keep the penguin’s body stays warm.
12. All but two penguin species breed in large colonies for protection, ranging from 200 to hundreds of thousands of birds. (There’s safety in numbers!) But living in such tight living quarters leads to an abundance of penguin poop—so much that it stains the ice! The upside is that scientists can locate colonies from space just by looking for dark ice patches.
13. Climate change will likely affect different penguin species differently—but in the Antarctic, it appears that the loss of krill, a primary food source, is the main problem. In some areas with sea ice melt, krill density has decreased 80 percent since the 1970s, indirectly harming penguin populations. However, some colonies of Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) have grown as the melting ice exposes more rocky nesting areas.
14. Of the 17 penguin species, the most endangered is New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes): only around 4,000 birds survive in the wild today. But other species are in trouble, including the erect-crested penguin (Eudyptes sclateri) of New Zealand, which has lost approximately 70 percent of its population over the past 20 years, and the Galapagos penguin, which has lost more than 50 percent since the 1970s.
Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.
April 24, 2013
Pop quiz: Why are flamingos pink?
If you answered that it’s because of what they eat—namely shrimp—you’re right. But there’s more to the story than you might think.
naturally synthesize a pigment called melanin, which determines the color of their eyes, fur (or feathers) and skin. Pigments are chemical compounds that create color in animals by absorbing certain wavelengths of light while reflecting others. Many animals can’t create pigments other than melanin on their own. Plant life, on the other hand, can produce a variety of them, and if a large quantity is ingested, those pigments can sometimes mask the melanin produced by the animal. Thus, some animals are often colored by the flowers, roots, seeds and fruits they consume
Flamingos are born with gray plumage. They get their rosy hue pink by ingesting a type of organic pigment called a carotenoid. They obtain this through their main food source, brine shrimp, which feast on microscopic algae that
naturally produce carotenoids. Enzymes in the flamingos’ liver break down the compounds into pink and orange pigment molecules, which are then deposited into the birds’ feathers, legs and beaks. If flamingos didn’t feed on brine shrimp, their blushing plumage would eventually fade.
In captivity, the birds’ diets are supplemented with carotenoids such as beta-carotene and and canthaxanthin. Beta-carotene, responsible for the orange of carrots, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, is converted in the body to vitamin A. Canthaxanthin is responsible for the color of apples, peaches, strawberries and many flowers.
Shrimp can’t produce these compounds either, so they too depend on their diet to color their tiny bodies. Flamingos, though, are arguably the best-known examples of animals dyed by what they eat. What others species get pigment from their food? Here’s a quick list:
Northern cardinals and yellow goldfinches: When these birds consume berries from the dogwood tree, they metabolize carotenoids found inside the seeds of the fruit. The red, orange and yellow pigments contribute to the birds’ vibrant red and gold plumage, which would fade in intensity with each molt if cardinals were fed a carotenoid-free diet.
Salmon: Wild salmon consume small fish and crustaceans that feed on carotenoid-producing algae, accumulating enough of the chemical compounds to turn pink. Farmed salmon are fed color additives to achieve a deeper shades of red and pink.
Nudibranchs: These shell-less mollusks absorb the pigments of their food sources into their normally white bodies, reflecting the bright colors of sponges and cnidarians, which include jellyfish and corals.
Canaries: The birds’ normal diet doesn’t alter the color of its yellow feathers, but they can turn a deep orange if they regularly consume paprika, cayenne or red pepper. These spices each contain multiple carotenoids responsible for creating and red and yellow.
Ghost ants: There’s not much more than meets the eye with ghost ants: these tropical insects get their name from their transparent abdomens. Feed them water mixed with food coloring and watch their tiny, translucent lower halves fill up with brilliantly colored liquid.
Humans: Believe it or not, if a person eats large quantities of carrots, pumpkin or anything else with tons of carotenoids, his or her skin will turn yellow-orange. In fact, the help book Baby 411 includes this question and answer:
Q: My six-month-old started solids and now his skin is turning yellow. HELP!
A: You are what you eat! Babies are often first introduced to a series of yellow vegetables (carrots, squash, sweet potatoes). All these vegetables are rich in vitamin A (carotene). This vitamin has a pigment that can collect harmlessly on the skin, producing a condition called carotinemia.
How to tell that yellow-orange skin isn’t an indication of jaundice? The National Institutes of Health explain that “If the whites of your eyes are not yellow, you may not have jaundice.”
April 22, 2013
Anyone who has read a Richard Preston book, such as The Hot Zone or Panic in Level 4, knows the danger of tampering with wildlife. The story usually goes something like this: Intrepid explorers venture into a dark, bat infested cave in the heart of East Africa, only to encounter something unseen and living, which takes up residence in their bodies. Unknowingly infected, the happy travelers jump on a plane back to Europe or the States, spreading their deadly pathogen willy-nilly to every human they encounter upon the way. Those people, in turn, bring the novel virus or bacterium back home to strangers and loved ones alike. Before the world knows it, a pandemic has arrived.
This scenario may sound like fiction, but it’s exactly what infectious disease experts fear most. Most emerging infectious diseases in humans have indeed arisen from animals–think swine and bird flu (poultry and wild birds), SARS (unknown animals in Chinese markets), Ebola (probably bats) and HIV (non-human primates). Therefore, experts prioritize the task of figuring out which animals in which regions of the world are most prone to delivering the latest novel pathogen to hapless humanity.
With this in mind, researchers at Harvard University, the University of Granada and the University of Valencia set out to develop a new strategy for predicting the risk and rise of new diseases transmitted from animals before they happen, describing their efforts in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To narrow the hypothetical disease search down, the team chose to focus on non-human primates. Because monkeys and great apes are so closely related to us, their potential for developing and transmitting a pathogen suited to the human body is greater than the equivalent risk from animals such as birds or pigs. As a general rule, the more related species are, the greater the chances they can share a disease. The researchers gathered data from 140 species of primates. They overlaid that information with more than 6,000 infection records from those various primate species, representing 300 different pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, parasitic worms, protozoa, insects and fungus. This way, they could visualize which pathogens infect which species and where.
Like mapping links between who-knows-who in a social network, primates that shared pathogens were connected. This meant that the more pathogens an animal shared with other species, the more centrally located it was on the tangled web of the disease diagram.
From studying these charts, a few commonalities emerged. Animals at the center of the diagram tended to be those that lived in dense social groups and also covered a wide geographic range (yes, similar to humans). These species also tended to harbor parasites that are known to infect humans, including more pathogens identified as emerging infectious diseases. In other words, those species that occurred in the center of the diagram are the best positioned to kick off the next pandemic or horrific infectious disease, and thus should be the ones that experts should keep the closest watch on.
Such animals could qualify as “superspreaders,” or those that receive and transmit pathogens very often to other species.”The identification of species that behave as superspreaders is crucial for developing surveillance protocols and interventions aimed at preventing future disease emergence in human populations,” the authors write.
Apes appeared in the heart of the disease diagram and are among the species we should be most worried about, which is not surprising considering that diseases such as malaria and HIV first emerged from these animals. On the other hand, some non-ape primates, including baboons and vervet monkeys, also popped up in the center of the diagram and turn out to harbor many human emerging disease parasites.
Currently, our ability to predict where, when and how new emerging infectious diseases might arise is “remarkably weak,” they continue, but if we can identify those sources before they become a problem we could prevent a potential health disaster on a regional or even global scale. This new approach for identifying animal risks, the authors write, could also be applied to other wildlife groups, such as rodents, bats, livestock and carnivores. “Our findings suggest that centrality may help to detect risks that might otherwise go unnoticed, and thus to predict disease emergence in advance of outbreaks—an important goal for stemming future zoonotic disease risks,” they conclude.