Why we’re programmed to care for all creatures small and cute.
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Why we’re programmed to care for all creatures small and cute.
In 2012, New Zealand Geographic broke the story of a secret meeting of scientists in a lodge on the Central Plateau to evaluate the feasibility of a crazy idea. They concluded it might just work. Less than eight years later, Predator Free 2050—a mission to rid the entire country of rats, possums and mustelids—is gathering steam. But why is this important? Isn’t it enough to leave the birds to their sanctuary islands? One major criticism of the predator-free movement is that it involves too much nostalgia: that the quest for a prelapsarian Aotearoa is an expensive fantasy. We can’t go back to how things were. Change is one of the conditions of life on earth. It’s true that we can’t return to the past, that the living world is always in motion. But something else is also true: that we value what’s unique, that variety is prized over uniformity, that we see a danger in the homogenisation that introduced mammals are bringing to this country. If we leave predators to it, it isn’t only birds that they’ll extinguish, but the trees those species pollinate, the insect communities they sustain. You can’t pull threads out of an ecosystem without the whole thing fraying. The idea of Predator Free 2050 can be simplified in this way: Something is going to die. It will either be possums, mustelids, and three species of rat, or it will be most of New Zealand’s native birds and an unknown number of plants and invertebrates. You have to choose. Inaction is a choice. The Predator Free 2050 goal declares that what evolved on this “last, loneliest, loveliest” land, as Rudyard Kipling called us, is worth keeping, and not in the open-air museums of sanctuary islands, but among us. We want rocky outcrops heaving with white-faced storm petrels, and if hitting rats on the head with a belaying pin is what it takes, that’s what it takes. Predator Free 2050 has already proved itself a galvanising force, mobilising more than the sum of its parts—or budget. It acknowledges that something within our animal nature thrives when our neighbours are tūī and ruru and kererū and tīeke. Sanctuaries aren’t good enough. Something is lost when humans are a monoculture. Sometimes, we just need a bold name for what’s already happening around us: a declaration. Great Barrier’s newfound Dark Sky Sanctuary status—little changed on the island in order to acquire the label—immediately birthed a couple of businesses led by locals who discovered a passion in studying the stars. On an astronomy tour by Good Heavens, I noticed that all that was required for this form of sightseeing were beanbags, telescopes, and thermoses of tea. It was harmless as a picnic. And given that stargazing is better in winter—night falls earlier, the skies are clearer, the galactic core of the Milky Way is straight down the centre—it spreads the load of the seasons, the heavy tread of summer’s tourism. Before that—before the Dark Sky Sanctuary name was bestowed on an island just across the horizon from home—I hadn’t realised that the moon is bright enough to cast sharp-edged shadows. Bright enough to read by. Or how many species go about their lives after dark. Humans think of ourselves as separate from the natural world, but we aren’t. We’re part of it, our bodies perhaps more deaf and blind than those of the animals that surround us, but still attuned to greenery and complexity, to sunrise and the oncoming dusk.
The toutouwai (North Island robin, Petroica longipes) has eyes bigger than its stomach. Weighing about the same as a lightbulb, toutouwai regularly take down large invertebrates including wētā, stick insects and even 30-centimetre-long earthworms. But there’s only so much the tiny toutouwai can devour of these meals. Rather than let that protein go to waste, toutouwai are adept at storing leftovers—a caching behaviour similar to a squirrel hiding nuts for winter. To remember where all these tidbits are stored, toutouwai need a good memory map. Researchers gave 63 wild birds a puzzle with a mealworm treat hidden in one of eight compartments. The puzzle was placed in the toutouwai’s territory several times per day, with the treat always hidden in the same compartment. Toutouwai learned the location of the snack, opening fewer compartments to find the mealworm over time. Following these individuals over the next breeding season, researchers found that males with better memory raised more chicks and fed their offspring larger prey items. But for females, food memory was not linked to reproductive fitness, leading the researchers to speculate that females may have other traits under selection pressure—perhaps related to nest-building.
Climate change could spell the end for emperor penguins by the year 2100—that’s the somber prediction of a new international study. If current warming trends continue, emperor penguins will be marching toward an 86 per cent population decline by the end of the century, at which point, “it is very unlikely for them to bounce back,” says study author Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Emperor penguins, the largest penguin species on Earth, require sea ice of a specific type to survive. It must be fixed to Antarctica’s shoreline, but also extend far enough into the open sea to allow for foraging. Without sea ice, emperor penguins are unable to raise their chicks and numbers plummet. By combining two computer models, researchers mapped future sea ice distribution and modelled how the penguin population would respond to changing ice conditions under three different climate scenarios. If humans limit warming to 1.5ºC, as proposed in the Paris Agreement, sea ice will only decrease by five per cent, leading to a 19 per cent drop in emperor penguin numbers by 2100. Under a 2ºC warming regime, sea ice loss triples and 31 per cent of the population is lost. The worst case—guaranteed extinction—arises if no action is taken and current warming is allowed to continue unabated. “If we don’t hit the Paris Accord emissions goals,” says Michelle La Rue, study co-author from the University of Canterbury, “emperor penguins are in deep trouble.”
After severe coral bleaching—the stress response of coral to higher sea surface temperatures—parrotfish thrive, a new study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) has found. Researchers looked at fish populations on two bleached reef areas—the Great Barrier Reef and the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, 8000 kilometres away. Parrotfish populations in damaged reef areas were two to eight times as high as normal, and individual fish about 20 per cent larger. The fish use their beak-like teeth to scrape microorganisms off coral. Study co-author Brett Taylor believes the parrotfish’s presence helps the coral repair process, as their feeding creates large areas of newly barren surfaces. He thinks coral and parrotfish might create a positive feedback loop: the fish nibble away microalgae and cyanobacteria ‘scunge’ from the coral, giving it a better chance to recover. “Parrotfish are a vital link in the reef ecosystem,” says co-author Mark Meekan. “As herbivores, their grazing shapes the structure of reefs through effects on coral growth and suppression of algae that would otherwise proliferate. Because of these important ecological roles, they have been described as ‘ecosystem engineers’ of reef systems.”
Life is constantly in motion around the world, floating across oceans and colonising new shores, as frequently today as it did hundreds of millions of years ago. So what’s arriving along New Zealand’s coastlines?
Perched way out in the Pacific, Rangatira Island is pockmarked with thousands, maybe millions, of seabird burrows. Its forest remnants and rocky platforms also shelter some unique and critically endangered birds. But even endangered birds can make a tasty snack and, on a crowded island, there might not be enough room for everyone to rear their chicks.
A drowned volcano, jutting out into the ocean, shelters one of the world’s tiniest marine dolphins. Fresh meltwater from Southern Alps rushes down braided rivers, washes food into the sea and percolates into wetlands that provide a home for the long lived and mysterious eels.
The islands of New Zealand were the last major landmass to be colonized by people. Their beaches, mountains and forests had lain untouched since the dawn of time…. isolated and protected. It was a fertile oasis for marine animals, and a South Pacific Garden of Eden for the land-lovers. Evolution ran riot to create some of the rarest and most unusual wildlife on Earth; making New Zealand a strange land of amazing creatures.
It’s the stuff of nightmares; - eight hundred hungry grey sharks swarming at a remote tourist destination, two hundred Hammerheads navigating a mysterious shark superhighway, while highly solitary Mako sharks swarm for survival at the bottom of the world. Shark Swarm explores some of the largest & mysterious shark aggregations on the planet.
From its glittering coasts and dripping rainforests to the cruel desiccation of its deserts, the animals of Mexico are locked in an endless struggle to provide for a new generation. Many are fighting their way back from extinction – others we know very little about. Mexico Untamed - Live Another Day meets the incredible array of creatures that call this fascinating and diverse country home.
From desert to coast to rainforest, Mexico’s sheer diversity breeds fierce competition between animals, creating a wild battle for dominance. The stakes are life or death. Predator seeks prey, prey fights for survival; an age old story that still plays out every day in this spectacular country. Mexico can be a rich home for them all, but sharing is a losers’ game when territory and food are at stake. Only the toughest will survive.
Since ancient times, sightings of a massive, eight-legged sea creature has spawned myths of a monster that can sink boats and swallow men. Now, National Geographic Wild is revealing the hidden secrets of this incredible predator. In this special event, we're pitting the Giant Pacific Octopus against a human to see how they match up in the reams of Intelligence, Problem Solving, Flexibility, Adaptation and Strength.
Wolves, lions, hyenas, meerkats and dolphins are born without the skills they need to hunt and survive. They must learn them all from their pack. Each individual must make their contribution: as a soldier, a leader or a hunter. But they must do it within a social minefield where life is dominated by sexual tension and power struggles. It’s not easy to live inside the pack.
Genetic reanalysis in the Amazon has revealed that the electric eel is, in fact, three different species, including one—Electrophorus voltai—that can deliver an 860-volt shock. (That won’t kill a healthy person, says ichthyologist and lead author Carlos David de Santana, from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.) The new species is now officially the strongest bioelectricity generator known, making the previous record of 650 volts a mild tingle.
Embryonic turtles can choose what they’ll be when they grow up: male or female. In particular turtle species, the temperature of the egg appears to determine the sex of the hatchling. Research published in August in Current Biology found that embryos are able to move around within the egg to find different temperatures. Wei-Guo Du and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences incubated turtle eggs at a range of temperatures, finding that an embryo could experience a gradient of up to 4.7°C within its egg. (A temperature change larger than 2°C can alter the sex ratio of many turtle species.) In half the eggs, researchers applied a chemical that blocked the embryos’ temperature sensors. When the eggs hatched, the embryos that weren’t able to sense temperature were either almost all males or almost all females. But the temperature-sensing embryos developed about half and half males and females. “The most exciting thing is that a tiny embryo can influence its own sex by moving within the egg,” says Du. This indicates that turtles may have the ability to shield themselves against extreme thermal conditions. Du warns that this may not be enough to protect them from rapid climate change, which is predicted to create female-biased populations. “However, the discovery of this surprising level of control in such a tiny organism suggests that in at least some cases, evolution has conferred an ability to deal with such challenges.”
A sea sponge may one day save millions of lives, according to a study published in Scientific Reports in October. Tuberculosis kills 1.8 million people each year, more than any other disease, and current vaccines are struggling to contain it. That’s because Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the organism that causes TB in humans, is quick to mutate, meaning it can soon evolve drug resistance. The quest for a better vaccine has led scientists beneath the waves, looking for bioactive molecules in sponges: compounds that might one day comprise the basis of new vaccines. Over three years, the Centenary Institute and the University of Sydney analysed around 1500 sponges, and discovered that a species of Tedania, a genus found around Australia and New Zealand, possesses potent powers against M. tuberculosis. The active component, Bengamide B, was able to halt drug-resistant TB strains, and did not harm human cells. “Bengamide B shows significant potential as a new class of compound for the treatment of tuberculosis,” said the study’s lead author, Diana Quan, “and also importantly, for the treatment of drug-resistant TB.”
Normally, more than 200 sightings of great white sharks are recorded every year in False Bay, near Cape Town, South Africa. This year, that number is zero. Receivers that are supposed to ‘ping’ when a tagged shark passes by remain silent, while whale carcasses usually found in the bay are free of shark bite marks. False Bay is a renowned great white hotspot, and shark scientists are puzzled by the predators’ absence. It’s possible that orcas are the culprits—they’re known to attack great whites, and have a particular taste for their livers. Indeed, sightings of great whites decreased after two orcas visited False Bay in 2015. Alleged victims of orca predation have washed up along the South African coast, their livers removed with surgical precision—the orca’s calling card. This is also consistent with observations from Australia and California, where orcas on the prowl have led to a mass exodus of great whites. But there’s another suspect in this case: humans. It’s possible that changing prey distribution, pollution or overfishing could also be responsible for the missing sharks.
Warming seas will make life much harder for pāua, a NIWA study has found. Scientists raised young pāua in seawater of various temperatures and pH levels, then monitored their growth. “Essentially, seawater of the future will be warmer, with lower pH levels,” said Vonda Cummings, pictured, who led the study. “We found that the outer layer of pāua shells gets etched by seawater with lower pH, especially if the water was warmer.” The pāua were sensitive to temperature variations as small as 2ºC, “and that will affect the thickness of pāua shells, which could mean they are not as resistant to waves and predators”.
Giant carnivorous land snails don’t ask for much: moist leaf litter to burrow into, earthworms to suck up like spaghetti. But if the lower layer of the forest is nibbled away, if sunlight reaches the soil, and if one month of drought follows another, molluscs relying on damp homes struggle to survive.
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