Hello, and welcome to February’s Wild Wild Life, the monthly newsletter that celebrates the biodiversity of our planet’s animals plants and other organisms. To receive this free, monthly newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
The birdsong where I live in London has really picked up in recent weeks and I’m enjoying the regular rattle of great spotted woodpeckers on my morning walks. Most of the increased animal activity in spring is familiar from childhood, but these have been enhanced for me by some recent sightings of a red kite or two – sightings that would have been unimaginable to me when I was a child growing up in this city.
ANIMALS OF CONTROVERSY
Do you feed your local pigeons? I’ve never knowingly met someone who does, but I’ve always wondered why some people do it. Pigeons are noisy, messy and gather in large numbers in areas where people regularly put out food for them – a practice that can attract other vermin species. A resident roost of feral pigeons is a nuisance, yet many people do regularly put out bread or seeds for these birds.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what’s known as human-animal conflict, when animals pose a problem to the daily lives of people. I’m especially interested in those species that inspire love and adoration in the communities experiencing those problems.
I’ll start off by saying that, of course, we are the ones to blame – we create these food-rich urban environments that encourage pigeons, foxes, rats and an array of more exciting species to thrive close to us. Take, for example, the white-tailed deer of Staten Island in New York. Since the turn of the millennium, these deer have been recolonising the island, seemingly by swimming over from New Jersey. Now the deer population there is booming and has become a local controversy, as detailed in this fascinating New Yorker piece by Brooke Jarvis. Many Staten Islanders are pleased to see the deer return. As Jarvis writes, white-tailed deer are seen as “icons of the American wilderness”, although this symbolism is partially rooted in a misinformed nostalgia.
I can relate to the Staten Islanders who felt the need to put out food for the deer, thinking they needed help to survive in their urban environment. But a 2014 survey suggested that there are more than 15 deer per square kilometre of park in Staten Island. Such a high density is a problem for people, as deer cause traffic collisions and carry the ticks that cause Lyme disease. The city’s response has included education campaigns to explain to locals the dangers of ticks and why the deer don’t need feeding, plus an effort to sterilise male deer using vasectomies.
There are hopes that sterilisation might also help solve a problem people in Delhi are facing with macaques. In her absorbing book Animal Vegetable Criminal, Mary Roach explains how food offerings at temples have taught the monkeys to expect food from people, and they will aggressively demand it. A large urban population of macaques can’t help but lead to a degree of mayhem. Delhi hospitals reported 950 incidents of the monkeys biting people in 2018.
This has proven a difficult issue to tackle. Animals in India are pretty much protected unless a state declares that a species is vermin, and that’s unlikely to happen with monkeys due to their association with the Hindu deity Hanuman. As Qamar Qureshi, research director of the Wildlife Institute of India, tells Roach, many people don’t want the monkeys killed, they just want them to disappear.
Criminal animals now have a new hero: Hank the Tank. The 200-kilogram black bear was believed to have broken into more than 30 homes in California last month, forcing wildlife officials to consider either killing him or moving him to a sanctuary. The huge bear burglar garnered quite a following online, but DNA samples now suggest that at least two other black bears were involved in the break-ins, and Hank’s life will be spared – for now.
All this so-called conflict reflects poorly on us. Not content with wrecking the world’s wild habitats, we also expect any animals that adapt to our cities to abide by impossible rules. It’s hard to see a solution, but recognising that we all play a role seems important – people feeding pigeons and gulls next to signs warning that such behaviour is ultimately bad for wildlife is a very common sight in urban parks. I can understand the pleasure people get from connecting with animals in this way, but unfortunately it’s rarely good for them or us in the long run.
NEWLY DESCRIBED SPECIES OF THE MONTH
Were the dinosaurs we have been calling Tyrannosaurus rex actually three different species? An analysis of 38 fossils suggests that the iconic animal started out as a species with four small incisor teeth, which the team behind the work suggests should be called Tyrannosaurus imperator. The researchers believe this then evolved into two younger species that had only two incisors: T. rex and Tyrannosaurus regina, which they suggest had more slender thigh bones and was more lightly built than T. rex.
A member of the team, Scott Persons at the College of Charleston, South Carolina, told writer Colin Barras that modern ecosystems support the idea, as we have seen that apex predators evolve and diversify into distinct species, like lions and leopards, for example. But some other researchers aren’t convinced. You can read more about the study here.
THIS MONTH I LEARNED…
…that some slugs may play an important role in dispersing fungi throughout forests. A study of mantleslugs (Meghimatium fruhstorferi) in Japan has found that most individuals deposit fungal spores in their faeces, suggesting that mushroom-eating slugs can seed fungal colonies wherever they deposit their waste.
DNA analysis revealed that the slugs mostly carried spores from wood-rotting fungi, but spores were also present from pathogenic species and the types of fungi that form cooperative relationships with trees.
Carefully tracking the path of five slugs through a forest at night, the team determined that the animals tended to move though materials like leaf litter and wood debris that are well-suited for establishing new fungal colonies.
ARCHIVE DEEP DIVE
A study has revealed that orangutans can figure out how to use stone tools, but not necessarily how to make them. It’s an interesting insight into the intelligence of these wonderful apes, but as I explained on episode 107 of the New Scientist Weekly podcast, the experiment is a very human one – we are exceedingly proud of our ancient history of stone tool use, but orangutans live in trees and rarely come into contact with rocks.
Orangutans are known to use hook-shaped tools in their natural environment, meaning they do have a place in the ever-expanding club of animal tool users. Apes dominate: chimps, bonobos and gorillas are all known to use tools. And many monkeys are have been seen using tools too. But tool use isn’t only the domain of primates. Lab rats have been found to use hook tools, and birds put in a good showing, with cockatoos and several species of crow making canny use of tools to solve problems.
One of the amusing things about animal tool use is it opens the door to zoological archaeology – the study of ancient artefacts made by animals other than humans – which is shedding light on the history of Burmese long-tailed macaques and sea otters.
The appeal of problem-solving, tool-using animals is easy to see, but also prompts deeper questions. What does tool use tell us about intelligence if even ants do it? Or do such discoveries mean we should rethink our definitions of intelligence altogether?
OTHER WILD LIFE NEWS
Sticking with the subject of urban animals, your long read this month is all about how cities are shaping animal evolution. And for a lighter look at trouble-causing animals, I recommend this episode of the podcast Criminal.
I’d really like to hear from you about the controversial animals you love and your experiences of sharing human spaces with wild animals – you can email me at [email protected] or tweet me @PennySarchet.
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