Sunday, September 25, 2011

'Happy Feet' Penguin Tracker Goes Silent

An Emperor penguin nicknamed 'Happy Feet' waits in its crate on the New Zealand research ship Tangaroa moments before its release in the Southern Ocean near Campbell Island, New Zealand September 4, 2011.

Scientists tracking Happy Feet, the wayward penguin who became a worldwide celebrity after washing up on a New Zealand beach, said Monday they had lost contact with the giant bird.

Researchers said they had received no transmissions since last Friday from a satellite tracking device that was attached to the penguin after he was released into the icy Southern Ocean on September 4.

Happy Feet may have been eaten by predators, or the tracking transmitter may have failed or fallen off as the penguin swam in the sub-Antarctic waters where a New Zealand research vessel dropped him off, researchers said.

Colin Miskelly, an animal expert from Wellington's Te Papa museum who advised on Happy Feet's two-month rehabilitation when he was found emaciated and near death in late June, said efforts would continue to relocate the bird.

"It is unlikely that we will ever know what caused the transmissions to cease, but it is time to harden up to the reality that the penguin has returned to the anonymity from which he emerged," he said.

Happy Feet, was released into the water from the New Zealand fisheries vessel Tangaroa near Campbell Island, about 700 kilometres (435 miles) south of New Zealand's South Island.

The three-and-a-half year old male's home in Antarctica was about 2,000 kilometres further south and the hope was that he would join up with other emperor penguins on the long voyage.

Miskelly said in his blog about the bird at that he had not given up hope of a happy ending for Happy Feet.

"Maybe, just maybe, he will surprise us all by turning up at a monitored emperor penguin colony, where the transponder inserted under the skin on his thigh will remind us all that once upon a time, a long time ago, he was more than just another penguin," he said.

Happy Feet was only the second emperor penguin ever recorded in New Zealand.

He was close to death and needed surgery to remove sand and sticks from his stomach before he could be fattened up at Wellington Zoo on a diet of fish milkshakes, attracting international attention during his New Zealand sojourn.

Attendance at the zoo almost doubled during his stay and there are plans for a book and documentary recounting his story.

How Penguins Identify Mates and Family Members

Humboldt Penguins in their zoo enclosure

Penguins can sniff out the odor of lifelong mates, helping them reunite in crowded colonies, and also can identify the scent of close kin to avoid inbreeding, scientists said on Wednesday.

Some seabirds have previously been known to use their sense of smell to find food or locate nesting sites but the experiments with captive Humboldt Penguins at Brookfield Zoo near Chicago proved, for the first time, that the birds use scent to discriminate between close relatives and strangers.

"Other animals do it, we do it, so why can't birds?" said Jill Mateo, a biopsychologist at the University of Chicago, who worked with graduate student Heather Coffin on the research published in the journal PLoS ONE.

"Their sense of smell can help them find their mates and perhaps choose their mates," Mateo said.

"Seafaring birds that travel long distances in the ocean use odors to find food and use odors to recognize nests but we didn't know what odors or the extent to which they could use odors to recognize kin," Mateo said.

"This was the first study to show they can use odor to recognize genetic differences," she said.

Researchers worked with two groups of endangered Humboldt Penguins raised at the zoo, totaling 22 birds. Their behavior was recorded as the birds examined scents emitted by oil from the birds' preening glands. The gland near the bird's tail excretes oil used to keep them clean but also has an olfactory purpose.

In one experiment, penguins with mates preferred the comfort of their mates' scent over the scents of unfamiliar penguins. In another, penguins without mates spent twice as long investigating unfamiliar penguins' scents than those belonging to their close relatives.

"In all sorts of animals that we study, including human babies, novel odors, novel cues, are investigated longer than less-novel cues," Mateo said.

Scent is used by many species to attract mates, or to avoid mating with relatives, she said.

For Humboldt penguins, which nest on Peruvian cliffs and spend long periods foraging at sea, odor acts as an identifier when they return to colonies crowded with thousands of birds nesting in cracks and crevices.

"It's important for birds that live in large groups in the wild, like penguins, to know who their neighbors are so that they can find their nesting areas and also, through experience, know how to get along with the birds nearby," said animal behavior expert Dr. Jason Watters of the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo.

"It could also be true that birds may be able to help zoo matchmakers in determining potential mates," Watters said.

"You could imagine that if (naturalists) were trying to reintroduce birds to an area, you could first treat the area with an odor the birds were familiar with. That would make them more likely to stay," he said.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Rare Crocodile Found

Alligators are a common sight in parts of Florida, but residents of a gated community were shocked to spot one of the animal's reptilian cousins: An endangered American crocodile.

Crocodiles — which number about 1,500 in the state — are typically found some 300 miles (500 kilometers) south in the warmer Florida Keys. But the shy and reclusive animals are so rare in places like St. Petersburg that a wildlife official didn't initially believe Shondra Farner when she called to report the crocodile.

"He said, 'No, ma'am, you have an alligator,' and I said, 'No, I know the difference,'" she said.

Farner spotted the croc over the weekend in her backyard by the community pond. By Thursday, experts hired by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had set a cage trap filled with beef loin in hopes of capturing the giant reptile. Unlike alligators, the endangered crocodile can't be killed. But officials will release it into Tampa Bay and could implant a magnet meant to disorient the animal and prevent it from returning to neighborhoods.

"That big boy was just about 8 feet (2.5 meters) from our patio," said Farner, who snapped photos of the croc with its mouth open. "It's terribly scary looking. And fast. When he turned to leave, I couldn't believe how quick he was."

The reptile's gender is unclear.

Lindsey Hord, the crocodile response coordinator for the wildlife commission, said it's possible that this is the same reptile spotted south of St. Petersburg in 2008. Hord said the crocodile is living on the ducks that swim in the water.

Farner had recently seen crocodiles on a trip to Costa Rica and recognized the animal's narrower, more triangular snout. Alligators not only have wider, more rounded snouts, but they also don't like the brackish and salt waters that crocs can live in.

Hord said that despite their ferocious reputation, the state has never documented a crocodile bite, though people are occasionally bitten by gators. Still, she urged people to not feed or touch alligators or crocodiles and to keep pets away from them.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Giant Croc Captured in the Philippines

ANILA, Philippines (AP) — Villagers and veteran hunters have captured a one-ton saltwater crocodile which they plan to make the star of a planned ecotourism park in a southern Philippine town, an official said Monday.

Mayor Edwin Cox Elorde said dozens of villagers and experts ensnared the 21-foot (6.4-meter) male crocodile along a creek in Bunawan township in Agusan del Sur province after a three-week hunt. It could be one of the largest crocodiles to be captured alive in recent years, he said, quoting local crocodile experts.

Elorde said the crocodile killed a water buffalo in an attack witnessed by villagers last month and was also suspected of having attacked a fisherman who went missing in July.

He said he sought the help of experts at a crocodile farm in western Palawan province.

"We were nervous but it's our duty to deal with a threat to the villagers," Elorde told The Associated Press by telephone. "When I finally stood before it, I couldn't believe my eyes."

After initial sightings at a creek, the hunters set four traps, which the crocodile destroyed. They then used sturdier traps using steel cables, one of which finally caught the enormous reptile late Saturday, he said.

About 100 people had to pull the crocodile, which weighs about 2,370 pounds (1,075 kilograms), from the creek to a clearing where a crane lifted it into a truck, he said.

The crocodile was placed in a fenced cage in an area where the town plans to build an ecotourism park for species found in a vast marshland in Agusan, an impoverished region about 515 miles (830 kilometers) southeast of Manila, Elorde said.

"It will be the biggest star of the park," Elorde said, adding that villagers were happy that they would be able to turn the dangerous crocodile "from a threat into an asset."

Despite the catch, villagers remain wary because several crocodiles still roam the outskirts of the farming town of about 37,000 people.

They have been told to avoid venturing into marshy areas alone at night, Elorde said.