Heedless Ways

Chimpanzees in Uganda’s Kigali National Park have been getting up to some unusual business at night. These daytime foragers with poor night vision have been leaving the safety of the forest, crossing a bridge over a large ditch meant to keep elephants out of neighboring crop areas, and raiding corn fields.

And they aren’t the only ones. Chimps in other areas are raiding farmers’ fields, as well.

Why is this noteworthy?

Chimpanzee hand Artist: Lisa Roet

Chimpanzee hand
Artist: Lisa Roet

Well, according to a study out in PLOS ONE, this is the first recorded evidence that day-dwelling chimpanzees have significantly altered their behavior to include night-time feeding parties. Unlike some forest animals, chimpanzees’ eyes are not particularly suited for low-light vision, yet they are entering fields after sunset, and often during the darkness of a new moon.

Another development is that the raiders carry their food away with them, rather than eating it on the spot as usual. In doing so, they’ve overcome their own evolutionary wiring to eat during the day and avoid traditional nocturnal predators, like the jaguar, which has all but died out in these regions.

With habitat loss turning once-dense forests into mosaics of cultivated acreage and trees, and a reduction in the fruits usually eaten by the endangered chimps, the maize growing in nearby fields must seem like a decent alternative, if snares and farmer’s weapons can be avoided.

Primate finger Artist: Lisa Roet

Primate finger
Artist: Lisa Roet

One can’t help but admire the chimpanzees’ audacity and creativity in the face of necessity, and their unwillingness to simply starve.

It put me in mind of one the best-known poems of Dylan Thomas, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday today:

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now the question is, how well will government, conservation groups and farmers adapt to innovative chimpanzee behavior?

A few other examples of new adaptations, some less successful than others:

North American populations of the monarch butterfly, decimated over the years mainly due to deforestation in the wintering habitats of Central Mexico and the loss of milkweed plants, the monarch’s main choice of food, to industrial farming and pesticides. In an encouraging and unexpected turn of events, deforestation activity seems to have slowed, allowing the monarch to recover, at least for the time being. Deforestation, and milkweed prevalence, are two factors well within human control, so the monarch is adapting to our habits–and once in a while, we adapt to the monarch’s.

Walrus tusks, fossilized Source: Alaska Fur Exchange

Walrus tusks, fossilized
Source: Alaska Fur Exchange

A very large cluster of walruses was in the news for a few days in early October. As in previous years, tens of thousands of the sea mammals gathered on dry land when the sea ice that usually forms the platform from whence walruses hunt melted early in the feeding season. A gathering of walruses is known as an ‘ugly’, not a very kind term for such an interesting creature, but perhaps descriptive of what happens when too many of them all find themselves on the same beach, commiserating over meagre ice and elusive food. The 2014 ugly has since broken up and moved on to further shores, but given the current negative trends in Arctic sea ice, whether the walrus succeeds in surviving remains to be seen.

Arctic Dreams Artist: David Dancy-Wood via Wildlife Sketches

Arctic Dreams
Artist: David Dancy-Wood via Wildlife Sketches

The disappearance of ice platforms in the Arctic region has a number of species scrambling to maintain a foothold, among them the polar bear, whose populations have been in drastic decline as their hunting habitat melts beneath them. Stuck on land (well, the ones who make it to land), they have replaced their diet of seal and fish with Arctic birds and human garbage (and even, occasionally, other polar bears).

And again, what of our abilities to adapt our own behaviors, not just to make adjustments for the protection of these various iconic creatures, but when it comes to making the changes that won’t put us in situations similarly dire?

In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

(Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill)

Unforeseen Gatherings

Walrus

Sea ice located along the shallow continental shelf of the Bering Sea usually provides a diving board, a hunting perch and resting place for female walrus and their young. With sea ice retreating into water too deep for hunting, the walrus have had to find safer shores.

Around 10,000 of them have gathered on a small barrier island near the village of Point Lay in northwestern Alaska. They were photographed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has been carrying out aerial surveys of marine mammals in areas of potential gas and oil development.

It’s not the first time the walrus have gathered on dry land to escape treacherous waters. While there, they remain more vulnerable to hunters, polar bears, and other stress factors that have, in the past, prompted deadly stampedes.

What looks like a termite mound here is actually a massive walrus pod. This clickable image can be enlarged.

Walrus gathering on Alaskan coastline Image: Stan Churches/NOAA

Here’s a quick update on a couple of topics I’ve followed over the past year:

Elvers

I’ve written several times about the ongoing discussion surrounding the American eel. More specifically, the harvesting of young eel – elvers – during their spring run along the American East Coast in spring.

Prices for live elvers have skyrocketed over the past few years due to high demand in Asia, where the local populations have been decimated by overfishing, environmental pressures and natural disasters. The young eel are shipped to farms, where they are grown to adulthood and sold for consumption all over the world.

In light of how little is actually known about the current population and health of the eel population, there was talk earlier this year of tightening regulations when it comes to fishing elvers. This has, for the moment, been postponed until further notice. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s American eel management board has been unable to reach a consensus, likely pushing any decision until right before the 2014 season starts in early spring.

My overview of the American eel is here, with some of the other posts here and here.

A good discussion of the current fraught situation is here.

Via: glooskapandthefrog.org

Via: glooskapandthefrog.org

Pangolin

One of the more obscure objects of international animal smuggling is the odd pangolin, the scaled anteater which inhabits its very own lonely branch on the mammalian tree of life. I’ve talked about them here, when I looked at seizures of illegal shipments.

Pangolins are in demand because their scales (which are no different in composition than fingernails or hair) are used in some traditional medicines, while pangolin meat and fetuses are served as a delicacy in some East Asian cuisines. The pangolin is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The pangolin is considered to be one of the world’s most trafficked animals, yet I find very little on conviction rates following seizures.

Six men were convicted in Malaysia this year of smuggling 150 pangolins, sentenced to a year and jail and fined. Meanwhile, over seven tons of pangolin – some of them still alive – were confiscated by customs officials in Hai Phong, Vietnam. And in a baffling decision, the seized goods were auctioned off rather than destroyed, thus re-entering the illicit market.

No mention of what happened to the smugglers themselves.

The world’s first ever pangolin conference with the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Species Survival Commission (IUCN-SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group met in Singapore in July. Perhaps this will bring more attention this unique creature, hopefully before it is trafficked into extinction.

Infographic: Annamiticus

 

 

The Shape of the Unknown

Yesterday, I wrote about the mythical monsters that once populated the marine realm on the way to uncharted territories. Today, I thought I’d look at images of creatures that might have inspired tales of monsters, at least in the retelling.

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Photo: Bryant Austin

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae).
Photo: Bryant Austin from his book Beautiful Whale

It doesn’t come as a surprise that whales inspired stories of awe. The humpback whale easily grows to be 12–16 metres (39–52 ft) long, around the length of the three ships Christopher Colombus sailed in search of new territories. In the late 20th century they became one of the standard-bearing animals for human impact on marine life.

Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) in the Chukchi Sea. Photo:: Sarah Sonsthagen/US Geological Survey.

Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) in the Chukchi Sea.
Photo:: Sarah Sonsthagen/US Geological Survey.

Growing up to 3.6 m (12 ft) in length, the walrus impresses more through its massive weight and long tusks. During the 18th and 19th century, American and European sealers and whalers hunted the walrus into extirpation (local extinction) in the Atlantic. Here’s an image of a walrus from an ancient map:

Olaus Magnus' 1539 Carta marina, including a green walrus the size of a mountain. Source: Wikipedia

Olaus Magnus’ 1539 Carta marina, including a green walrus the size of a mountain.
Source: Wikipedia

Global trade in walrus ivory is restricted under the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Although not listed as imminently endangered, the main danger to the walrus at this point is habitat alteration due to climate change.

The Giant Octopus earns its name. Little is known about its habits, but individuals have been found that were over 4m (14 ft) in length. Not large enough to take down a ship, but an impressive sight nonetheless. Little is known about this octopus, which has proven an elusive object of study.

North Pacific Giant Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini). Photo: Mark Laita

North Pacific Giant Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini).
Photo: Mark Laita from his book Sea

Thus, while it is known to be highly intelligent and a successful hunter of anything in its size range (including birds), and sensitive to polluted water, it is not considered endangered simply because too little is known about its population.

I try to imagine trying to describe these animals to someone who had never seen them in an era before photographs and mass communication, before most people had traveled farther than they could walk in a few days.

Would I emphasize the strangeness of the new creatures, make them sound even more fear-inspiring than they were, or would I talk about their unusual grace, impressive speed and unaccustomed movement?

Would the shape of the unknown be a fearsome maw, or  a sinuous fin?