August 6, 2008
It often seems that good news about primates—and especially gorillas—is hard to come by. Last year, we reported the sad story of the endangered mountain gorillas of Congo’s Virunga National Park (Guerillas in their Midst), where several of the animals had been massacred. Later, rebel forces overtook the park, and even now much of the park, and the gorillas, remain off limits to the park’s rangers.
This week’s good news should put a smile on anyone’s face, though: a census of western lowland gorillas in Congo, released yesterday at the International Primatological Society Congress, found more than 125,000 in the northern part of the country, or what Steven Sanderson, the president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, calls “the mother lode of gorillas.”
Western lowland gorillas are found in seven central African nations, and estimates from the 1980s had numbered them at fewer than 100,000. With gorillas being lost to hunting, habitat destruction and the spread of Ebola, scientists had thought they would find that the population had been halved. Instead, they found population densities as high as 21 gorillas per square mile, some of the highest ever recorded.
What was the secret of Congo’s success? The researchers cite the remoteness of some of the gorillas’ homes—such as the 6,000 who live in an isolated raffia swamp—a habitat full of food, and Congo’s management of protected areas. Not all of the gorillas live in protected areas, though, and the government of Congo is currently considering protecting more of them with the creation of a new national park.
But the primate conference also brings us bad news. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, the organization responsible for the Red List of Threatened Species, released a comprehensive review of 634 primate species and subspecies and found that nearly half are in danger of extinction (defined as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered). The situation is worst in Asia, where more than 70 percent of primates are threatened. The IUCN cites habitat destruction as the major threat, with others including hunting of the animals for food and the illegal wildlife trade.
The mountain gorillas might have been a sorely needed bright spot in this report. Researchers had been considering reclassifying them to endangered from critically endangered. However, they had to delay those plans due to the gorilla killings and ongoing violence in the region.
(Image: Kigali, a western lowland gorilla at the National Zoo. Credit: Jessie Cohen, National Zoological Park.)
July 2, 2008
Turns out Australia has upwards of 50 million kangaroos hippity-hoppitying around the arid continent. Cute as they are, kangaroos are major pests on farms and rangelands. To get the general idea, imagine your garden variety rabbit or woodchuck, scale it up to about 200 pounds, and ask it what it wants for dinner.
Current kangaroo reduction measures include shooting, poisoning, supplying birth control, and distributing recipes online. (Herb and caraway crusted kangaroo escalopes on soft olive polenta, anyone?)
But all it takes is a whiff of fresh dingo urine to send a kangaroo fleeing. The YouTube still above shows a kangaroo just moments after taking a full dose straight up both nostrils.
Perceptive Gist readers may be less than astounded to find that kangaroos find the smell of urine objectionable. But apparently they only flee from dingo pee – human urine causes them no consternation at all, and coyote whiz produces only momentary pause.
The last remaining details to be worked out involve the, er, supply side. It turns out that high-quality dingo urine can be hard to lay your hands on. It has to be fresh to be effective, and apparently you can’t artificially bump up a dingo’s productivity without compromising the effectiveness of the result. Nature must be allowed to run its course, it appears.
As a result, dingo urine fetches around 350 Australian dollars per liter (about as much as a bottle of Cristal) and gets shipped around the country on liquid nitrogen to keep it fresh, New Scientist reports.
There were no details about how the wonder solution is collected.
June 13, 2008
Now there’s one more thing that’s bigger in Texas: the turtles. Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth reports that a leatherback sea turtle has nested on the Padre Island National Seashore for the first time since the 1930s.
Leatherback turtles are the largest sea turtles in the world, growing to nearly 10 feet long and weighing almost a ton. In other words, it’s a turtle the size of a horse. Like many other sea turtles, they are highly endangered. Threats include altered beaches, unintentional catch in the fishing industry (sound familiar?), and floating, discarded shopping bags that resemble their main prey, jellyfish – yet another reason to carry a cloth bag with you to the grocery store.
Check Dot Earth for a shot of the massive mother’s 6-foot-wide tracks heading up into the dunes. Our pic opts for the other end of the spectrum, an hour-old baby leatherback making a twilight dash for the surf in Costa Rica.
Today’s turtle surprise is reminiscent of the unexpected return of a wolverine and a wolf we told you about earlier this year. We’re glad to hear it.
(Image: Charles Eldermire)
June 9, 2008
Score one for consumer clout: dolphin populations in the heavily fished eastern tropical Pacific may be starting a recovery, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That stems (at least partly) from the early 1990s movement to make canned tuna “dolphin safe.” Before tuna-fishing fleets adopted the practice, dolphin numbers in the Pacific had dwindled to between one-third and one-fifth of their original numbers, according to NOAA.
At the time, tuna fishing wasn’t just a matter of accidentally catching dolphins: fishing boats pursued groups of dolphins – even scouted for them with helicopters – then surrounded them with nets to catch the hordes of tuna that swam with them. Now the tuna fleets use other methods, and the dolphin catch has dropped to nearly nil (from a 1970s high of 700,000 per year in the eastern Pacific). After far-ranging ocean surveys, NOAA scientists are encouraged by tentative signs of recovery in two of 10 dolphin species, but they still aren’t sure why it has taken more than a decade.
The dolphin story may be headed for a happy ending, but our phenomenal appetite for tuna – well over 3 million metric tons every year – has shifted the burden to other species. Instead of setting nets around dolphin groups, fishermen switch their attention to floating debris and mid-ocean buoys, where they catch thousands of sea turtles, sharks, and slower sea-life along with the tuna.
If it sounds like fishermen are to blame here, remember that they’re not eating all that tuna themselves. But fans of tuna melts and seared ahi (present bloggers included) do have choices. Some supermarkets have begun to carry “sustainable” canned tuna caught with old-fashioned hook and line. It’s a more laborious method, but nearly everything that’s landed is an actual tuna. The main adjustment you’ll need to make: it’s about $5 a can. The way I look at it, after decades spent gouging dolphins, maybe it’s time we paid the price for a while. That’s a consumer action I can get behind.
(Image: Spinner dolphins: NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, Southwest Fisheries Science Center)
May 21, 2008
Here at The Gist we deeply admire everything that Monty Python has done for science (including but not limited to their work with silly walks, confused cats, migrating swallows, etc.).***
But who could have known that their famous dead parrot sketch – involving a shady pet shop and a parrot rumored to be Norwegian – could have had any basis in reality? Yet the current issue of Palaeontology carries the news that two ancient parrot species have been discovered from a Danish fossil bed. Some 55 million years ago, according to the report, these birds squawked and fluttered over ferny lagoons that stretched from Copenhagen to Oslo.
The British press has gone bonkers over the news, though they seem more interested in the Python angle than in any revelations about psittaciform evolution per se. The article’s author, David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, a Python fan himself, has helped out by peppering his interviews with snippets from the sketch.
And the last laugh: the bone that clinched the specimen as a parrot? It came from the upper arm. Or humerus.
(Image: David Waterhouse; hat tip: the KSJ Tracker)