Sunday, January 29, 2012

Snowy owls soar south from Arctic in rare mass migration

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Bird enthusiasts are reporting rising numbers of snowy owls from the Arctic winging into the lower 48 states this winter in a mass southern migration that a leading owl researcher called "unbelievable."

Thousands of the snow-white birds, which stand 2 feet tall with 5-foot wingspans, have been spotted from coast to coast, feeding in farmlands in Idaho, roosting on rooftops in Montana, gliding over golf courses in Missouri and soaring over shorelines in Massachusetts.

A certain number of the iconic owls fly south from their Arctic breeding grounds each winter but rarely do so many venture so far away even amid large-scale, periodic southern migrations known as irruptions.

"What we're seeing now -- it's unbelievable," said Denver Holt, head of the Owl Research Institute in Montana.

"This is the most significant wildlife event in decades," added Holt, who has studied snowy owls in their Arctic tundra ecosystem for two decades.

Holt and other owl experts say the phenomenon is likely linked to lemmings, a rodent that accounts for 90 percent of the diet of snowy owls during breeding months that stretch from May into September. The largely nocturnal birds also prey on a host of other animals, from voles to geese.

An especially plentiful supply of lemmings last season likely led to a population boom among owls that resulted in each breeding pair hatching as many as seven offspring. That compares to a typical clutch size of no more than two, Holt said.

Greater competition this year for food in the Far North by the booming bird population may have then driven mostly younger, male owls much farther south than normal.

Research on the animals is scarce because of the remoteness and extreme conditions of the terrain the owls occupy, including northern Russia and Scandinavia, he said.

The surge in snowy owl sightings has brought birders flocking from Texas, Arizona and Utah to the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, pouring tourist dollars into local economies and crowding parks and wildlife areas. The irruption has triggered widespread public fascination that appears to span ages and interests.

"For the last couple months, every other visitor asks if we've seen a snowy owl today," said Frances Tanaka, a volunteer for the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Olympia, Washington.

But accounts of emaciated owls at some sites -- including a food-starved bird that dropped dead in a farmer's field in Wisconsin -- suggest the migration has a darker side. And Holt said an owl that landed at an airport in Hawaii in November was shot and killed to avoid collisions with planes.

He said snowy owl populations are believed to be in an overall decline, possibly because a changing climate has lessened the abundance of vegetation like grasses that lemmings rely on.

This winter's snowy owl outbreak, with multiple sightings as far south as Oklahoma, remains largely a mystery of nature.

"There's a lot of speculation. As far as hard evidence, we really don't know," Holt said.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and David Bailey)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Did you know cheetahs ride shotgun?

The Cincinnati Zoo has a traveling version of its Cat Ambassador Program where zoo trainers bring a cheetah and several "smaller" cats to local schools. And that means road trips. But not in a cage. Nope. When these cheetahs go out on the town, they ride shotgun.

This is Sara, who became the fastest animal on earth back in 2009, breaking the 100 meter sprint record at 6.13 seconds. To put that in perspective, Usain Bolt's official human record is a languid 9.58 seconds.

World record holders aren't the only ones who get to ride in the zoo's Subaru Forester. Below, find a photo of another cheetah named Nia — who was just a year old when the picture was taken — as she looks out at Cincinnati.

Are we the only ones who think it's weird that a program requiring the disclaimer of "Due to the nature of wild cats, students will not be permitted to touch animals" probably shouldn't be running said wild cats around town in the front seat of a car? Sure, we've seen this type of thing before, but that was Dubai — not Ohio.

What if there's an accident? Or what if someone sees the cat in the front seat and, you know, flips the hell out?

So is this legal? Although we know Ohio has pretty lax laws on exotic animals we know that it may be illegal to do so on the Ohio Turnpike thanks to Section 5537-3-01 of the pay-for-use road's rules. The section concerns limitations on use of the turnpike and clearly states: "Vehicles transporting animals or poultry not properly secured or confined." We're assuming that could mean the front seat.

Of course, Cincinnati is nowhere near the turnpike and otherwise it appears Ohio's statutes are silent on the subject. But this is Ohio we're talking about — so we're just impressed they have laws of any sort.

By Raphael Orlove Jalopnik

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Who Knew...?

Rare Sea Creature Appears on Seattle Woman's Dock

A Seattle resident recently got a big surprise when she discovered a strange-looking furry visitor on her property.

"She woke up and it was lying on her dock, hanging out and sleeping — just chilling," said Matthew Cleland, district supervisor in western Washington for the USDA's Wildlife Services, and the recipient of a photo of the bizarre intruder.

"I thought, 'That's an interesting-looking creature,'" Cleland told OurAmazingPlanet. "I had no idea what it was."

A quick glance through a book in his office soon revealed it was a ribbon seal, an Arctic species that spends most of its life at sea, swimming the frigid waters off Alaska and Russia.

Somehow, the seal turned up on the woman's property, about a mile from the mouth of the Duwamish River, a highly industrialized waterway that cuts through southern Seattle. In 2001, the EPA declared the last 5.5 miles (9 kilometers) of the river a Superfund site — an area contaminated with hazardous substances in need of cleanup.

The sighting was "pretty exciting," said Arctic seal researcher Peter Boveng, leader of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory's Polar Ecosystems Program. "It's really unusual."

Ribbon seals, named for the unmistakable stark white markings that ring their necks, flippers and hindquarters, typically shun dry land.

Boveng said the animals spend only a few months per year on sea ice, to molt and give birth, and have almost never been seen so far south. "So it's a surprise, but knowing the species, it's not a complete surprise to me," he said. "They're good travelers."

The ribbon seal, which Boveng identified as an adult male, "looked to be in really good shape," he said. "We don't have any way to rule out other possibilities, but I'd say it's almost certain that it swam there."

Satellite tracking studies have revealed that ribbon seals do sometimes make it as far as the north Pacific Ocean, south of the Aleutian islands, but much about the species remains mysterious. Because they spend so much of their lives in the open water, it's a challenge to track them.

"Unfortunately we don't know a lot about their numbers," Boveng said. "There's never been a reliable survey."

A conservation groups has made efforts to list ribbon seals as an endangered species because of concerns about disappearing sea ice in the Arctic. So far the federal government has declined to do so, but is continuing to review the case for listing.

The Seattle ribbon seal appears to be only the second on record to make it so far south.

In 1962, a ribbon seal showed up on a beach near Morro Bay, Calif., a town about 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of Los Angeles. According to contemporary reports, the seal was in good shape, but totally bald except for hair on the head, neck and flippers. It died a month later at the local aquarium.

The Seattle ribbon seal's story is unknown, but one could be forgiven for thinking it a harbinger of things to come. This week, cold winds from Alaska helped create a record winter storm in Seattle, slamming the metro area with 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) of snow.

The ribbon seal hasn't been seen again since it was first spotted last week.

"It stirred up a lot of interest," Cleland said. "There are a lot of people out here looking for it."

Friday, January 20, 2012

Monkey long believed extinct found in Indonesia

Scientists working in the dense jungles of Indonesia have "rediscovered" a large, gray monkey so rare it was believed by many to be extinct.

They were all the more baffled to find the Miller's Grizzled Langur — its black face framed by a fluffy, Dracula-esque white collar — in an area well outside its previously recorded home range.

The team set up camera traps in the Wehea Forest on the eastern tip of Borneo island in June, hoping to captures images of clouded leopards, orangutans and other wildlife known to congregate at several mineral salt licks.

The pictures that came back caught them all by surprise: groups of monkeys none had ever seen.

With virtually no photographs of the grizzled langurs in existence, it at first was a challenge to confirm their suspicions, said Brent Loken, a Ph.D. student at Simon Fraser University in Canada, and one of the lead researchers.

The only images out there were museum sketches.

"We were all pretty ecstatic, the fact that, wow, this monkey still lives, and also that it's in Wehea," said Loken.

The monkey, which has hooded eyes and a pinkish nose and lips, once roamed the northeastern part of Borneo, as well as the islands of Sumatra and Java and the Thai-Malay peninsula. But concerns were voiced several years ago that they may be extinct.

Forests where the monkeys once lived had been destroyed by fires, human encroachment and conversion of land for agriculture and mining and an extensive field survey in 2005 turned up empty.

"For me the discovery of this monkey is representative of so many species in Indonesia," Loken told The Associated Press by telephone.

"There are so many animals we know so little about and their home ranges are disappearing so quickly," he said. "It feels like a lot of these animals are going to quickly enter extinction."

The next step will be returning to the 90,000 acre (38,000 hectare) forest to try to find out how many grizzly langurs there are, according to the team of local and international scientists, who published their findings in the American Journal of Primatology on Friday.

They appear in more than 4,000 images captured over a two-month period, said Loken, but it's possible one or two families kept returning.

"We are trying to find out all we can," he said. "But it really feels like a race against time."

Experts not involved in the study were hugely encouraged.

"It's indeed a highly enigmatic species," said Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist who spent more than eight years doing field research in the area.

In the past they were hunted to near extinction for their meat and bezoar "stones," he said, which can, on occasion, be found in their guts.

Bezoars, as Harry Potter fans know from lectures given by Prof. Snape to first year students, are believed by some to neutralize poison.

Meijaard said the animal has long been considered a subspecies of the Hose's Leaf Monkey, which also occurs on the Malaysian side of Borneo, but it now looks like that may not be the case.

"We think it might actually be a distinct species," he said, "which would make the Wehea discovery even more important."

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Dogs Have Built-In Snow Boots, Researchers Find

Dog paws have intricate circulation systems designed for warmth, making them similar to penguins and dolphins.

All that snow and ice just doesn’t seem to bother little Fido’s paws, and new research actually explains why.

Dogs’ paws, which lack the warm coverings on the rest of their bodies, have an intricate heat transfer system built in that immediately warms cold blood. Couple that system with a high amount of freeze-resistant connective tissue and fat located in the pads of the paw, and a dog’s paw rivals that of a penguin’s wing for the ability to stay warm in crazy-cold climates.

Researchers in Japan recently studied the legs and paws of dogs and discovered that a “wonderful network” of veins helped quickly circulate blood from the pad through the legs to warm it back up before sending it into the body, keeping the overall temperature of the dog steady. This same network has been found in penguins’ extremities, arctic foxes and even dolphins’ fins.

Released in the journal Veterinary Dermatology, the researchers found that with arteries running right close to veins, warm blood actually passed by the cool blood, helping to speed warming even more. This system, dubbed “counter-current heat exchanger” also pulls warm blood to the paws and limits the amount of blood near the body’s cool skin.

Earlier research had claimed that dogs have tissue in their feet that keep them from freezing all the way down to -35 degrees Celsius, meaning you can let your pet dog play freely with your pet penguin without fear of frozen paws.

Read more:

-Courtesy Time magazine -