This Week In Zoology: Speaking of Maremmani

In my previous post I mentioned maremmani, or Maremma sheepdogs, an Italian breed of white sheepdog which may have been used as far back as in Roman times. They are fiercely protective, and are used to guard ranging livestock from pretty much any kind of predator which threatens them. They are not particularly aggressive, in that their instinct is not to immediately attack anyone who ventures into their territory, but they will engage in aggressive combat with a predator, even one larger than themselves, if that predator does not back off.

While they are classically used to protect goats and sheep, and are raised in the flock as puppies to strengthen their bond, in recent decades they have also been used to protect an ever expanding range of species. The cuddliest of which is, in my opinion, the little penguin of Middle Island off the coast of Australia.



Long story short: the little penguin breeds on Middle Island, but they were almost completely wiped out by an invasive species of fox. In order to save them from extinction, someone had the brilliant idea to train up two Maremma sheepdogs to protect the little feathery cuties while they visited the shores of Middle Island.

To do this, they trained the dogs to protect chickens, and when the breeding season comes along, they load them onto a little boat and bring them to Middle Island. The dogs, associating one little feathery creature with another, guard them from predators while they do their business. In the past 10 years, they have managed to raise their numbers from 10 to almost 200.

This was an ingenious idea, not least because it seems to be working very well! So, let’s all spare a minute to thank the maremmano, for assuring that these little guys still waddle the earth and swim the oceans.


This Week In Zoology: It’s Seal Pup Time!

If you’re in Ireland, this is the time of year in which you might come across some adorable baby grey seals.

Usually, This Week In Zoology features strange and sometimes hilarious facts about animals. This time, however, I thought I’d help the Irish Wildlife Trust spread a few facts about what to do if you run across a seal pup on the shores.

Many people don’t realize that seal pups are supposed to be on the shores. They’re not stranded, and so if you see one, don’t try to put it back in the water. You can observe it from afar, take as many pictures as you like, but don’t try to approach it, touch it, or let your dog anywhere near it. While the “common knowledge” that touching a baby bird will make it’s mother abandon it is a myth, it can happen with baby seals, so please don’t handle it.

If, on the other hand, the seal pup looks sick, injured or is completely unattended by its mother, you can contact Seal Rescue Ireland for help. They have a very helpful infographic on their website as well, which lets you know what an unhealthy or injured seal pup actually looks like.



Even if you are not in Ireland, these rules generally apply to all seals, so if you do run across one on your morning stroll down the coast, now you know what to do, when to be concerned, and when to just snap a picture and leave them be.

Evolving Before Your Eyes

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a real problem in medicine today. Bacteria proliferate very rapidly, and thus they have the ability to evolve new way of surviving under unfavorable conditions in a very shot space of time. The following video shows you just how quickly they can do this, and it is a video that is both fascinating and terrifying, depending on your perspective.



From a biologists perspective, that video is 2 minutes worth of wow. From a medical perspective it’s horrifying, and really drives home how hard it is to combat infection and eradicate diseases. It’s amazing that any diseases have been eradicated at all, in fact.

More Vegan Controversy Out Of Italy

Given the recent news regarding the potential criminalization of vegan parenting in Italy, I was hoping to get my father’s take on the whole thing when he called me last night. “By the way Dad”, I said, “Have you heard about this controversy in Italy about veganism?”

“Oh”, he replied, “So you heard about the thing with the dogs in Maccarese?”

Uhm, no. What?

So it turns out, there is another, entirely different vegan controversy going on in my country, and at the small beach town right outside of Rome where I usually spend my holidays at that. Apparently, the owner of a certain dog-friendly beach club is in a battle with the local animal rights group. The reason is he is a devout vegan, and he is so convinced in his veganism that he is also feeding his dogs an entirely vegan diet. The animal rights group says no, you can’t do that, and are trying to either convince him to start feeding his dogs properly, or to take them away from him. If your lifestyle, they say, makes it impossible to properly take care of your pet, whether because you live in a tiny apartment in the city, don’t have the money or time to care for them, or because you can’t bring yourself to purchase any animal products, you lose your right to care for that animal.

So, putting aside the sending vegan parents to jail for a minute, can we all at least agree on no vegan cats or dogs?

It is true that dogs have evolved a lot alongside humans, and thus have picked up a few mutations that have allowed them to shift from a carnivorous diet to a more omnivorous one compared to wolves. This means that dogs will survive longer on a vegan diet than cats will, who have remained obligate carnivores. However, dogs are still carnivores. They still have a very high protein requirement, a very low coefficient of fermentation (i.e. the indicator of how well they can digest plant matter), and they require nutrients which are not found in plant matter like our old favorite vitamin B12. Dogs fed on a vegan diet will be lethargic, develop fur problems, and will not survive long without very careful and artificial tinkering with their food, and even then they will likely not live healthily. A kitten fed on a vegan diet will die before adulthood. Animal abuse is punishable by law in Italy, and people who do not care for their pets appropriately will have them removed from their custody and, if the abuse is severe, they will face criminal charges. Once again, this animal rights group is seeking to demonstrate that malnutrition qualifies as animal neglect and thus are trying to remove this man’s dogs from him.

Personally, I find his position extremely ironic. Killing animals is wrong, for any reason, no matter how humanely. In fact, humans are capable of killing animals in a far more humane way than any predator will, which usually terrifies and disembowels its prey before eating it. But the slow torture of his “beloved” pets? That’s fine. That’s not unethical.

If you can’t bring yourself to contribute to the meat, egg or dairy industry in any way, get a rabbit. Or a guinea pig perhaps. I think that owning a pet is a privilege, not a right, and no one should keep any animal if they are not capable of giving them the comfort they deserve. I adore pigmy marmosets, for example, but I would never keep them as pets, because I cannot provide them with the quality of life that they would have in the wild. I also love dogs, but I do not have the space, time or home life stability necessary to ensure their happiness. I do not contribute to the seahorse pet trade either, despite their beauty. I find it incredibly selfish when humans try to twist their pets into something they are not just to satisfy their own egos, whether it is the creation of severely unhealthy breeds of dogs, ripping the claws and canines out of kittens because you don’t want them to scratch up your precious furniture (also illegal in Italy, by the way), chop off the tail and ears from your pitbull because fashion, keep a boa constrictor in a tiny tank because you’re so macho, or feeding carnivores a freaking vegan diet.

So, shelving the jail time for vegan parents for a moment. Can we all agree on this, for the time being? Stop feeding carnivores a vegan diet?

This Week In Zoology: They Be Into Some Kinky Shit

And I mean that quite literally, actually.

By they, I am referring to a carnivorous pitcher plant found in Borneo, called Nepenthes hemsleyana. And how can a plant possibly fit the above description?

Well because, according to a group of German scientists, This particular carnivorous plant has evolved to entice bats to shit in their mouths. Mmm mmm, yummy.

Most pitcher plants survive by using slippery nectar to attract ants, termites and other insects onto the rim of their bucket-shaped leaf, where they slip into a pit of deadly digestive acids. Some species can devour up to 6,000 insects an hour.

But Schöner and his team noticed that one particular species in the Borneo jungle was living on nothing but bat droppings, and started wondering what the plant was doing differently to attract so many bats to roost nearby.

Publishing in Current Biology, they found that the plant has uniquely shaped back walls that perfectly reflect a bat’s own call back to it. The team then confirmed this by showing that the mammals were more likely to roost on pitcher plants with their reflector structures intact – even when they were hidden – than plants without them.

These plants seem to have become highly specialized in their preference for – literally – eating shit, as by evolving these traits they have also lost many that other species of carnivorous pitcher plants normally use to attract insects. But hey, who are we to judge, right? If batshit is what you want to eat, then more power to you.

I hereby submit Nepenthes hemsleyana as kinkiest plant on the planet.

This Week In Zoology: A Possum Plea

If you live in the United States, this plea is made of you



While possums are invasive species in other countries, like Canada and New Zealand, the North American possum means you no harm if you’re living in the US.

However, if they still scare you, this little fact might make you feel better.

Most people know that possums, well, “play possum”, meaning they “pretend” to be dead if they are frightened. However, characterizing it as playing or pretending might make it seem as though it is a conscious and devious trick. In reality possums do not have conscious control over this behavior, so it would be better characterized as going into a dead faint. This means that the possum won’t spring back to life and bite you if you approach it while it is “playing” dead. Rather, you can move it somewhere else and it will eventually wake up, a couple hours later. If it’s in your house you’ll probably want to do this sharpish, because part of their playing dead routine is leaking a nasty smell from their butt to mimic the smell of a rotting corpse. Once you see them twitch go ahead and leave them alone, and they’ll wake up and wander off.

I wouldn’t mind having a possum in my garden, if only to make a dent in the ridiculous number of slugs I’ve got taking over the place. There’s no reason to fear it just because it has an ugly little face. Still, if you’re not convinced of it’s trustworthiness given it’s freaky grin, always remember that it is the cousin of these furry little cutie pies

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That second one is actually called the “little wooly mouse opossum”. That’s just too cute.



This Week In Zoology, What Can Fly and Swim?

And no, the answer is not flying fish, which sort of jump out of the water and glide for a bit in an attempt to escape from predators. The answer is Pteropus giganteus, also known as the flying fox, or fruit bat, as reddit and facebook have recently found out.


While this behavior is quite impressive on its face, finding a flying fox in a lake, or in your pool, is actually a sign that it is in distress. Just because they can swim does not mean that this is normal behavior for them.

While the data on why (and, for that matter, how many species of) bats swim is still quite thin on the ground, Zoologists who have observed this behavior hypothesize that it is something they do when stressed, or when they are not particularly successful in finding food. Often flying foxes have to fly great distances to find food, and so they might, under certain circumstances, drop into the water to grab some fallen fruit. So, if you find a flying fox paddling around in your swimming pool, try to help it out by giving it something to latch on to, and throw it a peach while you’re at it. It will be most grateful!

This Week In Zoology: Gross, Or Cool?

Yet another video is circling my facebook feed, once again with cries of “What is that?!” coupled with either “Eww gross!” or “What are you talking about that’s super cool!”

Here is the video in question, and you should go ahead and turn on the sound.



While I admit that the camouflage is well done, if you freeze the video and search for basic body plan, it’s actually fairly simple to spot what it is. Well, at least, more simple than it was the last time.

So, what is it, and what is it doing?

[Read more…]

Wait, T-Rex Didn’t Roar?!

It is amazing how much movies and media can subconsciously influence the way we see things, to the point that we can accept certain things as fact without considering whether or not there is any solid evidence to accept those facts. When it comes to the animal kingdom, this is also true in many ways. Whether it be the grossly exaggerated size and ferocity of the velociraptor in Jurassic Park, the red-tailed hawk’s screech dubbed in over the bald eagle to make America’s symbol sound more impressive, or the way that Jaws sparked international terror of sharks completely disproportionate to how many people they actually kill every year, media is often responsible for the perpetuation of a variety of misconceptions and myths about animals. Knowing this, however, does not mean that one is always aware of which mistaken “facts” they are believing without evidence.

So when I came across this article on IFLScience about what dinosaurs actually sounded like, I confronted one of my own mistaken preconceptions. The predators roar, everyone knows that, wait, why do I think that? Movies. Oh crap, you’re going to ruin another aspect of my image of dinosaurs aren’t you science? So I opened the article and, sure enough,

Now a new study looking into dinosaur vocalizations has revealed that some dinosaurs might have been mumblers, and cooed with their mouth shut rather than bellowed. Think giant dove, only with gnashing teeth.

What they found was that the ability to make squeaks and squawks without opening the bill has actually evolved separately more than 16 times in the group that contains birds and crocodiles known as Archosaurs. Crucially, this group also contains their larger, more ferocious relatives, the dinosaurs. This means that it is quite likely that at least some of the creatures that are often depicted as roaring and shouting were really making far more understated coos and chirrups.

Between the velociraptor actually looking more like a skinny chicken, and the prospect of a mumbling chirruping T-Rex, I’m thinking that Jurrasic Park might not be all that scary at all, should anyone ever manage to build one.

This Week in Zoology: And Now They’ve Mastered Architecture

In Zoology, we often discuss organisms as being in two broad categories: specialists, and generalists. The concept behind these two categories is that evolution by natural selection can favor both strategies for a species, as they both have benefits and consequences.

Specialist species evolve to be almost perfect for their niche. You can think of animals which inhabit a very particular habitat, like pearl fish, or an animal with outstanding camouflage. Specialists are hard to out-compete in their niche, because they are so damned good at inhabiting it. However, if their environment changes, even slightly, they can suffer the consequences of no longer being so well adapted at their new environment, and becoming so specialized also brings with it more rigidity in your ability to evolve to adapt to changing circumstances. A drastic environmental change can wipe out a specialist species, as they cannot evolve quickly enough to adapt and ensure their own survival.

Generalists, on the other hand, are able to live in a much wider range of environments, but being able to do so also means that your species cannot be perfectly adapted to each one. A generalist will most likely be out-competed by a specialist in one particular habitat, but it compensates by being able to inhabit other niches outside of the specialist’s reach, and also by being more flexible in dealing with environmental changes. Humans are a prime example of a generalist species, having been able to figure out a way to thrive from Siberia to the Sahara. When speaking of generalists, only microbes are putting us to shame. They can inhabit deep sea vents, inside glaciers, and can even survive in space. Now, it seems that they keep putting Homo sapiens to shame, by having taken up the art of sculpting cities.


Just recently, divers exploring the shallow seafloor off the coast of the Greek island of Zakynthos thought they had come across a real-life version of a long-lost city when some very unusual underwater formations came into view, including some strange pillars, walkways and even what appeared to be courtyards. Writing in the journal Marine and Petroleum Geology, a team of environmental researchers have now revealed that these peculiar structures are not actually archaeological remains at all.

Had some unforetold disaster wiped out the unfortunate residents of a previously undiscovered and undocumented civilization? Had all the people living there escaped before the catastrophe hit, taking all their precious ceramic goods with them? Unfortunately for archaeologists, geochemical dating techniques revealed that these strange seabed features dated back to the beginning of the Pliocene era – about 5 million years ago – long before the genus to which humans belong to, Homo, walked the Earth.

After being carefully examined by archaeologists, geologists and professional divers from both Greece and the United Kingdom, it was clear that the disk and doughnut-shaped columnar features were a type of mineralization feature. They were being generated by the escape of chemicals, mainly methane, emerging from hydrocarbon-rich layers hiding below a semi-ruptured fault.

Microbes lurking in the sediment there appeared to be using the carbon in the methane as a source of energy. As they oxidized the methane, these bacteria and archaea were inadvertently changing the chemistry of the sediment they were living in to form a natural cement. To geologists, this is known as “concretion,” and it can result in a number of new rock formations.


It was the bacteria, folks, and they’ve been doing it well before humans even existed, let alone came up with such a concept.

Of course, it is a little unfair to compare humans and bacteria when it comes to who-is-the-greater-generalist. After all, Homo sapiens is one species, where as bacteria and archaea have countless species to their name. Of course, there is also the fact that microbes also colonized us, to the point that the microbial genes that we carry around with us outnumber our own genes by over 10:1, making us, in a way, more microbe than human.

OK, maybe they win after all.