The Best Animal Stories of 2012

By Jason G. Goldman and Matt Soniak

Humans have a complicated relationship with our non-human cousins. Some animals we invite into our homes, and treat as members of our families. Indeed, in November of this year singer Fiona Apple made headlines when she announced that she would cancel the South American segment of her tour to be with her dying dog. Some animals we brine, barbecue, bake, roast, fry, or saute. Strong opinions were expressed on all sides of the issue when a law passed by the California state legislature went into effect on July 1, banning the sale of foie gras. Still other animals we’d prefer to avoid entirely even while remaining endlessly fascinated by them. When Hurricane Sandy poured down upon New York City, one question on everyone’s mind was what would become of the subterranean rat populations, living deep underneath the city streets?

Whatever anyone’s personal thoughts about animals place within human society, stories about animals have a unique ability to captivate us. To celebrate our relationship with the rest of animalkind, we’ve compiled a list of what we consider to be the best animal stories of 2012. Some are scientifically important. Some provide commentary on the human-animal connection. Some are funny, quirky, or surprising. Some just made us smile. Here are our picks for the best animal stories of 2012.

Best tool-using species
As each year passes, more and more species are inducted into the club of the tool-wielding, making the group less and less exclusive. This year, a male Goffin’s cockatoo ( Cacatua goffiniana) named Figaro from the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna paved the way for the inclusion of his species among the tool users of the world. Parrots such as cockatoos have long been known for their linguistic abilities. Now that there’s evidence for the possibility of tool use, researchers can begin to probe the relationship between language and tool use. Clever captive cockatoo creates tool, a first for his species by Jason; The Innovative Cockatoo by Virginia Morell.

Best Piece of Jargon We Learned this Year
Since the 1930s, we’ve been calling the chemical cocktail released by anxious fish – which they use to warn others of danger – schreckstoff, an excellent term that means “scary stuff” in German. All that time, we didn’t know what it was made of, though. This year, writes Ferris Jabr at Scientific American, researchers from Singapore and Switzerland, think they’ve isolated schreckstoff‘s key ingredient, “a sugarlike molecule named glycosaminoglycan (GAG) chondroitin.”

Best new species that was hiding in plain sight
Last summer, in a piece at the New York Times, Carl Zimmer reported that some scientists estimate that there are some 8.7 million species populating our planet (give or take 1.3 million; some scientists think the number is actually far higher). Many of the still undescribed species are microbes and fungi, others are found only in tiny corners of the world, and hundreds if not thousands are certainly gathering dust in museum basements. More surprising, however, is that a monkey species new to science might be found in the backyard of a local school director in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a pet tethered to a post. The new species, called the Lesula monkey or Cercopithecus lomamiensis, is only the second new monkey species discovered in Africa in 28 years, after the Highland mangabey (Lophocepus kipunji) of Tanzania. Lesula: New species of African monkey discovered by Becky Crew.

A Reminder of What Sea Level Rise Can Do
The Caribbean is home to more than a few bat species today, but fossil evidence says that there was a lot more of them 25,000 years and many of them lived on parts of the islands that are now under water. What happened to them? One major driver of extinction, Annalee Newitz explains at io9, was sea level rise. As glaciers melted, the water came in and the edges of the island disappeared, causing a loss of habitat that the bats couldn’t bear.

Gorillas outsmart humans
Animal cognition researchers get excited whenever they see stunning examples of animal cooperation. They also get excited whenever they see younger animals learning from the older, more experienced members of their social groups. When both of those things occur simultaneously, as juvenile gorillas disable poachers’ snares, the story becomes not only impressive, but also heartwarming. Snares, while illegal, are quite common in Rwanda and are especially dangerous for the mountain gorillas who live in the area. Especially vulnerable are the youngest gorillas, who may not have the experience yet to identify and avoid them. Imagine the awe that John Ndayambaje, a field data coordinator for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, must have felt when a silverback shouted a warning call to prevent him – a human! – from approaching the snare, only to then watch two juveniles and an adult work together to disable the snare, as well as a second snare that he hadn’t even noticed. Unpacking just how sophisticated the cognitive mechanisms are that can lead to such swift, coordinated behavior is a daunting task, but on its surface, it seems as if the gorillas were acting with intention in a highly efficient, practiced manner. Exploring the Mind of the Mountain Gorilla by Kimberly Gerson.

Rest in Peace, Lonesome George
Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni), died this June. He was more than 100 years old. In his death, the world lost an individual animal, a subspecies of tortoise and as the International Union for Conservation of Nature called him, a “symbol of our global never-ending struggle to preserve the richness and diversity and beauty of the planet we inherited.” Many great stories focused on one of those three aspects, and considered what George’s loss means in the larger picture. Alejandra Martins talked to Fausto Llerena, George’s keeper and best friend, on Virginia Hughes looked at the sex life, or lack thereof, of this “most awkward of virgins” at The Last Word on Nothing. Matt Bardo asked just how much the loss of a subspecies means, genetically speaking, at BBC Nature. Ira Flatow talked to Linda Cayot, scientific advisor to the Galapagos Conservancy, about what George meant to biodiversity in the Galapagos on NPR. Kim Tingley asks if an “an individual ‘face’” for extinction, like George, “actually prevents us from asking the kinds of uncomfortable questions that might significantly improve our larger conservation efforts” at OnEarth.

Primates are not pets
Monkeys typically do not wear double-breasted shearling coats, they don’t usually wear diapers, and they never shop at Ikea. Earlier this month, however, a five-month-old Japanese macaque was discovered wearing the coat and diaper running around an Ikea parking lot in Toronto, Canada. While the monkey – named Darwin – will now be socialized with other monkeys and cared for properly at the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary in Canada, the story serves as an important reminder for why wild animals are not suitable pets. When monkeys who have been raised as humans transition into adulthood, with the strength, aggressiveness, and muscle power (and teeth!) that accompany their maturation, the story always ends the same: the animal winds up dead or abandoned. In the best cases, the animal might wind up in a zoo where even the best of care can’t entirely undo the years of being socialized with the wrong species. The best thing for Darwin was always being a monkey. Since he’s still relatively young, I suspect his chances for full monkey recovery at the primate sanctuary are good. Does Darwin the IKEA monkey need a human mother? by Andrew Westoll.

Best Use of Recycling by a Non-Human
Tobacco plants use nicotine to defend themselves against hungry bugs. Birds, it turns out, use the the chemical for the same purpose, but get it from a strange source. By lining their nests with discarded cigarette butts, birds protect their kids from parasites. Hannah Waters at Culturing Science calls the study a “wonderful example of wildlife adaptation to urbanization–or at least that birds are resourceful and can still follow their noses in urban environments.”

Best animal story that should not have been news
Grandpa is the name of a forty year old black handed spider monkey that lives at the Staten Island Zoo. He’s something of a local celebrity, having successfully “predicted” not only the winners of this year’s Super Bowl and six out of nine U.S. Open winners. Given a choice between six bananas labeled with the names of those in the Republican primary race, he picked the one assigned to Newt Gingrich. Maybe Grandpa should stick to sports, or perhaps the idea of animal psychics is even more ridiculous than the notion that humans can foretell the future. In order, he ate Newt’s banana, followed by Rick Santorum’s, then Rick Perry’s, and finally Jon Huntsman’s banana. The Romney banana, along with Ron Paul’s, became a snack for a nearby female spider monkey. Grandpa the spider monkey picks Gingrich to win N.H. primary, via NY Daily News.

Best Rhetorical Lede
“If a penguin falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, I don’t know what kind of forest that is…” muses Elizabeth Preston on Inkfish. What’s clearer is that, in the Antarctic, there are plenty of people around to hear and see everything Antarctic penguins do, and they’re changing the nature of the birds. Ecologists found that the familiarity that comes with regular interaction with humans makes the birds more tolerant to stress, maybe because they’d gotten used to being harassed by humans, or maybe because the most stress-sensitive penguins had already fled human-heavy territory. Either way, people are inadvertently practicing a kind of artificial selection on penguins by getting too cozy with them.

Best blog fodder
Ah, springtime. The snow is thawing, flowers are blooming, many species are giving birth. Humans mark the season in their own ways as well – Christians give up eating meat for Lent while Jewish people turn to matzah instead of bread for Passover. In Ethiopia, even the spotted hyenas get spring fever. They replace their typical meals with donkeys, thanks to the Ethiopian holiday Abye Tsome. If you’re a regular reader of animal blogs, you know the rest of this story. Hyenas are treated in the big cities of Ethiopia as “municipal workers” – they scavenge the leftovers of meat left out by humans. In other words, they eat garbage. But when humans give up eating meat for the holiday, the hyenas’ supply of table scraps dwindles, so they predate instead on livestock. This causes problems for the human farmers, which, as you might expect, causes further problems for the hyenas. It’s an important story about how humans and non-human animals interact within a larger ecosystem, but it’s included in our year-end compilation for a different reason. The story, which served as obvious blog-ready material for many of us, shows how different writers can approach the same story in different yet equally engaging ways. Hyenas Give Up Eating Garbage for Lent, Hunt Donkeys Instead by Jason; Giving up trash for Lent: How a human custom forces hyenas to hunt by Matt; Hyenas Fast During Lent Too by Liz Preston; In run-up to Easter, fasting Ethiopians force hyenas to kill donkeys by Ed Yong.

The Best “Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men” Story
Rabies in Latin America usually comes from vampire bats, and governments usually respond by culling them. Yet the disease is on the rise, and scientists reported this summer that every colony they examined showed signs of infections. Those colonies that were periodically culled, Erik Stokstad reports for ScienceNOW, had higher rates of exposure. It seems that the cull method kills adults, which are more likely to have acquired resistance to the rabies virus and not spread it, and spares more juvenile bats that are susceptible to developing rabies. The standard solution, it appears, has backfired, and reminds us that “host-pathogen systems are complex and can respond to management in unexpected ways.”

Most heartwarming animals that pretend to be people
Can animals learn to communicate with humans? Well, that depends what you mean by “communicate.” All the training in the world can’t teach language to an animal. But that doesn’t mean that some animals can’t fool us. This year, two stories appeared within weeks of each other about animals that learned to mimic human speech. NOC is the name of a beluga whale who was the guest of the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego who produced sounds that, as Ed Yong put it, sounded like “a drunkard playing a kazoo.” Two weeks later, Koshik, a twenty year old Asian elephant at a Korean zoo made headlines for his ability to mimic at least seven Korean words. Writing at Double X Science, Emily Willingham pointed out that “when Korean speakers came in as stenographers for his communication, they could clearly distinguish his words.” The beluga and elephant aren’t speaking English or Korean any more than than the lyrebird speaks chainsaw. But as vocal learners, they could provide researchers with insight into how speech is acquired.

Best Feel-Good Invertebrate Story of the Year
The United States Army, in addition to protecting the country’s citizens, is obligated to protect threatened and endangered non-humans on its installations. In Hawaii, that means protecting kahuli tree snails from cannibalistic Rosy wolfsnails, chameleons and rodents. To give give the snails a safe haven, writes John R. Platt at Extinction Countdown, the army constructed a predator-proof enclosure about the size of a basketball court to house three hundred snails.

Image: “Allen’s Swamp Monkeys at the San Diego Zoo” copyright Jason G. Goldman.


Night of the Bargain Hunter: some bats pick prey based on the cost of the hunt

While they’re less likely to occupy Wall Street than a barn upstate, bats are as concerned as we are about the economy. Their economy revolves around energy instead of money, though, and a problem on the balance sheet can be a matter of life and death. If they spend more energy catching a meal than that meal provides, they’ve created an energy deficit that impacts their health, growth and survival.

There’s no need to worry about bats during a recession, though. New research from biologists in Germany suggests that bats are actually pretty savvy shoppers and are able to use echolocation to make economic decisions while hunting and stay in the black, calorically speaking. [Read more]


Stop, Hey What’s That Sound?: Chimps Know Social Upheaval When they Hear it.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe “Ooooooohhhh!” a human being cries out when they stub their toe might sound a pretty similar to the “Ooooooohhhh!” they cry out at the end of their mating ritual, but they two calls are different. An important part of human-to-human communication is our ability to extract information from context-specific calls and integrate it with other information we already have to make sense of what we’re hearing. It’s how we know, if we’re standing in one room and the TV is on in another, the difference between the scream of a serial killer’s victim in a slasher movie and the scream of a hero going into battle in an action blockbuster. We might not know what kind of movie is on in there, but we can at least identify which end of a blade the screamer might be on.

Katie Slocombe, a lecturer at the University of York’s psychology department, has spent her career tracing the evolution of different aspects of human language. More often than not, she finds herself starting with pants, grunts, hoots and hollers of chimpanzees. Many people find this surprising, Slocombe has said, but they shouldn’t. Finding an evolutionary explanation for any part of human language is difficult. Unlike, say, wrist bones, spoken language hasn’t left any fossil remains behind for us to study. Genetic evidence from our hominid ancestors suggests that we evolved our capacity for complex spoken language in a very short window of time, so it’s likely that the cognitive abilities underlying language emerged farther back in the primate lineage. Hence it makes perfect sense to look to other living primates, apes and monkeys, for clues to language’s origins. [Read more]


Context is King: Squirrels’ bodies react differently to warnings about different predators

One if by land, and two if by sea/And I on the opposite shore will be/Ready to ride and spread the alarm/Through every Middlesex village and farm/For the country folk to be up and to arm.

On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere told three Boston patriots to hang two lanterns in the steeple of the city’s Old North Church. A militia waiting across the Charles River in Charlestown kept an eye out for these signal lanterns and were prepared act appropriately as soon as they saw one or both of the lights stab out at the darkness. The meaning of the two lanterns has been memorized by countless American schoolchildren in the century and a half since Longfellow published “Paul Revere’s Ride.” One lantern told the militia that the British Army would march over Boston Neck and the Great Bridge, and two meant that that the Redcoats would take boats across the river to land near Phips farm.

Many, if not most, birds and mammals that live in groups have their own signals and alarms that alert members of the group to predators and other dangers. An alarm call can mean the difference between life and death for animals who didn’t detect the threat on their own and younger animals who are especially vulnerable to predation. Belding’s ground squirrels take a cue from Revere and use two different alarm calls to warn of two types of danger. Whistle alarm calls signal aerial predators and trill alarm calls signal terrestrial ones. A squirrel needs to react differently to each type of call and to each type of predator. Listeners respond to whistles by entering a burrow or another hiding spot, and adopt a “posting” stance on their hind legs in response to trills.

When young Belding’s squirrels first emerge from their burrows when they’re a month old, they don’t respond appropriately to the two different calls and if they respond at all, they typically just freeze. They pick up on the appropriate behavioral responses very quickly, though, often within five days of coming above ground. Watching the responses of mom, dad and the other squirrels could teach a youngster what they need to know pretty quickly, but Jill Mateo, from the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago, wondered if there was also a physiological factor. For many species, the sight, sound or even odor of a predator spurs physiological changes that make individuals better prepared to track predators and the responses of other animals, hide and be still, defend themselves or run/fly/swim like hell. Maybe a squirrel’s body reacts differently to a whistle than it does to a trill – to two lanterns than it does to one, if you will – and helps prime the squirrel for one response or another.

For the first five days after they come aboveground, juvenile ground squirrels show a higher level of cortisol (a steroid hormone released in response to stress) than during the days before emergence or the weeks after. To see if the hormone had some role in ground squirrels learning appropriate anti-predator behavior, Mateo tested how the levels of the hormone changed in response to different alarm and non-alarm calls. She caught pregnant female squirrels at a few sites near the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) at Mammoth Lakes, CA and brought them back to the lab so they could give birth and rear their young. Around the time the babies would normally leave the burrow, Mateo placed them, in pairs, in a large, dark wooden box once per day and played either a recording of ground squirrel whistle alarms, trill alarms, squeals young squirrels use during play or a silent control.

Every time a squirrel heard a recording, Mateo took a blood sample from it. These tests continued until she had one blood sample for each of the four recordings from a squirrel or until the squirrel turned 35 days old (in some cases, she was not able to get complete samples from a squirrel before it reached the age limit or did not have a large enough sample to analyze). After two rounds of tests in 2006 and 2008, Mateo had partial samples from 32 squirrels and complete samples from 17 of those.

Mateo analyzed the samples and, using a squirrel’s cortisol concentration following the silent stimulus as its baseline, looked at the hormone’s percent change in response to the alarm calls and play noises. Because multiple squirrels from several different litters were tested, Mateo averaged the cortisol responses to each recording for each litter.

For all litters, cortisol concentrations were higher following playback of trill alarm calls than after the other recordings. The change in cortisol levels compared to the baseline was only significant in response to the playback of the trill alarm calls. The whistle alarms did not increase cortisol concentrations, but earlier research by Mateo showed that they do elicit bradycardia, a slower than normal heart rate.

So the squirrels do have different physiological responses to the two alarm calls. What relationship do these changes inside the body have with behavior, though, and what do they have to do with air versus ground attacks? Mateo hypothesizes that cortisol might not increase in response to whistles because attacks by avian predators often only last a few seconds and most birds don’t make repeated attacks if their first one is unsuccessful; the attack would be over before circulating cortisol increased. Bradycardia, however, is associated in young squirrels with decreased motor activity and enhanced information processing. If the heart slows in response to whistles, the squirrels can stay still and pay attention in case it needs to make a break for a hiding spot.

On the other hand, the terrestrial predators that squirrels respond to with trills usually spend a significant amount of time either moving around squirrel burrows or waiting near one to attempt an ambush. Increased cortisol makes glucose available as fuel to the squirrels’ bodies for sustained vigilance in posting stances and, if needed, multiple escape attempts.

Both of these physiological reactions increase arousal and attention in a variety of species, so both might also just aid young squirrels in noticing and paying attention to the responses that nearby adults have to the alarm calls, making for a faster association between the alarms and their appropriate responses.

References: Mateo JM (2010). Alarm calls elicit predator-specific physiological responses. Biology letters, 6 (5), 623-5 PMID: 20236965

Mateo JM (1996). Early auditory experience and the ontogeny of alarm-call discrimination in Belding’s ground squirrels (Spermophilus beldingi). Journal of comparative psychology (Washington, D.C. : 1983), 110 (2), 115-24 PMID: 8681525

Image: “Belding’s Ground Squirrel in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, USA” by Justin.Johnsen via Wikimedia Commons. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.


Eavesdropping ungulates use baboon alarms to avoid predators

ResearchBlogging.org362258071_111a8114d8To borrow from Jonah Lehrer (in turn, giving a nod to Hobbes Hobbes), “baboons are nasty, brutish and short.” They’re noisy little brutes, at that. When they encounter predators, females and juveniles produce harsh single-syllable barks (turn your volume up a little). During baboon-on-baboon fights or dominance contests, the women and children scream. In both situations, males produce two-syllable “wahoos.” All the ruckus doesn’t necessarily make them bad to have around, though. Many animals respond, often appropriately, to alarm calls produced by other species. This, “eavesdropping” behavior has been observed both within taxonomic groups (among birds, marmots and squirrels) and between them (some mammals and reptiles, vervet monkeys, red squirrels, Gunther’s dik-diks, banded mongooses and Galápagos marine iguanas among them, respond to bird calls; hornbills can discriminate among different primate alarm calls). If species that live in proximity to baboons have gotten the hang of telling alarm calls from contest ones and learned to associate alarm calls with predators, they might avoid becoming lunch thanks to their noisy neighbors.

On the Okavango Delta in northwestern Botswana, impala, tsessebe, zebra and wildebeest are all abundant, all hear baboon calls often and all respond to the baboons’ alarm calls. Although all four ungulates come into contact with baboons, only impala regularly intermingle with the apes at close range, likely because of their overlapping diet and habitat preferences. Baboons and impala also share a vulnerability to predation by leopards and lions, while the larger ungulates only have to worry about the lions. Impala, therefore, are more likely to experience a close juxtaposition of baboon alarm calls and appearance of predators and have more opportunity to associate the two.

To test what seems like the impala’s edge over the other species, Dawn Kitchen, James R. Nicholson (Ohio State University), Thore Bergman (University of Michigan), Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth (University of Pennsylvania) broadcasted four unique pairs of baboon call sequences – each pair consisted of one sequence of alarm calls recorded during a lion encounter and one sequence of calls recorded during a male-male altercation that involved the chasing of females and juveniles – in the presence of groups of the four ungulate species. All four species showed stronger responses (responses measured were latency to orient toward the speaker, duration of looking toward the speaker, latency to move at least 1 m and rate of moving) to the alarm call sequences than to the contest sequences (even though both sequence types were similar in pattern, amplitude and duration). The impala, though, had stronger response scores than all other species combined in both the alarm and contest conditions and demonstrated the strongest discrimination between the two call sequence types. Specifically, the impala observed showed shorter latencies to orient toward the speaker, looked toward the speaker for a longer duration, began moving sooner, and moved at faster rates after the playback of alarm calls than contest calls.

Do these ungulates possess an innate skill for telling the difference between baboon alarm calls and other calls, or do they learn, over time, to separate the signal from the noise? Were the ability innate in any of the species, the researchers say, it could be explained by an acoustic convergence between baboon alarm calls and the alarm calls of the ungulates. However, their alarm calls are made up primarily of snorts that have little in common with the baboons’ barks and wahoos. Instead of natural talent, the researchers think the ungulates learn to discriminate between baboon calls, given the impala’s strong response difference to the two baboon call sequences, the species exposure to baboons and available opportunity to associate alarm calls with danger. The researchers suggest that the ungulates’ responses were guided primarily by the alarm calls of the females and juveniles, which are easier to differentiate from other calls than the males’ alarm and contest wahoos (although, female baboons can differentiate male calls and there is some evidence that birds can parse the subtle differences, humans can’t discriminate the calls by ear). Familiarity and social learning have been implicated as mechanisms for interspecies call recognition in other research. Juvenile vervet monkeys residing in groups that regularly hear the alarm calls of superb starlings responded appropriately to playback of starling calls at a younger age than juvenile vervets living in groups with lower rates of exposure. To further test their hypothesis, Kitchen and her co-authors suggest a similar series of playback tests conducted on young ungulates with varying levels of exposure to baboons and their vocalizations.

Reference: Kitchen DM, Bergman TJ, Cheney DL, Nicholson JR, & Seyfarth RM (2010). Comparing responses of four ungulate species to playbacks of baboon alarm calls. Animal cognition PMID: 20607576

Image: “Chacma Baboon – Papio ursinus” by Flickr user Arno & Louise Wildlife