I trampled clumsily through the dense undergrowth, attempting in vain to go a full five minutes without getting snarled in the thorns that threatened my every move. It was my first field mission in the savannahs of the Republic of Guinea. The aim was to record and understand a group of wild chimpanzees who had never been studied before. These chimps are not lucky enough to enjoy the comforts of a protected area, but instead carve out their existence in the patches of forests between farms and villages.
We paused at a clearing in the bush. I let out a sigh of relief that no thorns appeared to be within reach, but why had we stopped? I made my way to the front of the group to ask the chief of the village and our legendary guide, Mamadou Alioh Bah. He told me he had found something interesting – some innocuous markings on a tree trunk. Something that most of us wouldn’t have even noticed in the complex and messy environment of a savannah had stopped him in his tracks. Some in our group of six suggested that wild pigs had made these marks, while scratching up against the tree trunk, others suggested it was teenagers messing around.
But Alioh had a hunch – and when a man that can find a single fallen chimp hair on the forest floor and can spot chimps kilometers away with his naked eye better than you can (with expensive binoculars) as a hunch, you listen to that hunch. We set up a camera trap in the hope that whatever made these marks would come back and do it again, but this time we would catch it all on film. Read More
Last month, a flock of trumpeter swans alighted on the wetlands of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, repeating an annual ritual that dates back centuries. But for the first time in 80 years, biologists were not there to count them.
The annual winter bird count, which dates back to 1935, provides key data on multiple species for a national migratory bird monitoring program. Biologists and volunteers count ibis, sandhill cranes, horned larks and other birds that stop at the refuge – an oasis in the high desert of the Great Basin.
But this year, the only people inside the refuge at the start of bird-counting season were a small group of armed militants. Instead of counting birds, refuge scientists are counting days. Monday marks the 38th day of the occupation, orchestrated by ranchers and others angered by a five-year prison sentence handed to local cattlemen Steven and Dwight Hammond for arson – and, more broadly, federal oversight of cattle grazing on public lands. Last week, 11 of the occupiers were arrested while traveling to a meeting, including the movement’s ringleader, Ammon Bundy. Another man, Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was killed by local law enforcement. But four holdouts remain at the refuge, and the site remains closed. Read More
Hidden among us are survivors – living, breathing beings that have pulled off some pretty remarkable feats in order to live another day. They can be found ambling through the moss beneath our feet, drifting in our oceans and our streams, even stuck in the local pet store or on the subway. You just have to know where to look.
These creatures give clues into how we could withstand extreme conditions, regrow damaged tissue or missing limbs, turn back the hands of time, guard ourselves from illness, and perhaps even achieve humankind’s most elusive goal – immortality. Read More
Watch a fly land on the kitchen table, and the first thing it does is clean itself, very, very carefully. Although we can’t see it, the animal’s surface is covered with dust, pollen and even insidious mites that could burrow into its body if not removed.
Staying clean can be a matter of life and death. All animals, including us human beings, take cleaning just as seriously. Each year, we spend an entire day bathing, and another two weeks cleaning our houses. Cleaning may be as fundamental to life as eating, breathing and mating. Read More
It’s time to enjoy some monster stories, and the scariest monsters of all are those that actually exist.
Join us as we share tales of some of the creepiest parasites around — those that control the brains of their human hosts, sometimes leaving insanity and death in their wake. These are the tales of neurological parasites. Read More
It’s probably best to get the bad news out of the way first. The so-called scientific method is a myth. That is not to say that scientists don’t do things that can be described and are unique to their fields of study. But to squeeze a diverse set of practices that span cultural anthropology, paleobotany, and theoretical physics into a handful of steps is an inevitable distortion and, to be blunt, displays a serious poverty of imagination. Easy to grasp, pocket-guide versions of the scientific method usually reduce to critical thinking, checking facts, or letting “nature speak for itself,” none of which is really all that uniquely scientific. If typical formulations were accurate, the only location true science would be taking place in would be grade-school classrooms. Read More
It might not just be expectant mothers who have to pay attention to their lifestyle. Now a new study published in Science could be relevant to a growing body of research looking at ways in which the lifestyle and environment of men before they become fathers could influence the lives of their children and grandchildren.
We know that many human traits, such as weight, height, susceptibility to disease, longevity or intelligence, can be partly inherited, but researchers have so far struggled to identify the precise genetic basis for this. This may partly be due to limitations in our understanding of how genetics works, but now there is growing interest in the potential for something called “epigenetics” to explain this heritability. Read More
The animal kingdom is full of color. Animals use it for camouflage, to advertise themselves and even as various forms of protection. But we haven’t been paying as much attention to what colors now-extinct mammals might have had – until now.
By matching samples of organic material to their chemical make up we’ve been able to determine the color of extinct bats and our novel research, published in PNAS, has the potential to work out colors in lots of other organisms. Read More
One evening last month, library technician Chris Weiss could be seen prowling the streets of Petersburg, Alaska, in her batmobile. She didn’t attract any special attention; the light blue Subaru blended right in. But the sensitive microphone on the roof and the bright yellow box inside the car gave her the power to hear sounds outside of human hearing – bat calls.
Weiss is part of a network of citizen scientists tallying the bats of southeastern Alaska through an Alaska Fish and Game Department project. The research is showing what a healthy bat population in the region looks like – important data on its own, but vital information if disease ultimately strikes Alaska’s bats as it has bats in the contiguous U.S.
There’s an idea circulating that humans are the only animal to experience sexual pleasure; that we approach sex in a way that is distinct from others. As with many questions about sex, this exposes some interesting facts about the way we discuss the subject.
On one level, the question of whether humans and nonhumans experience sex in the same way is fairly simply dismissed: how would we know? We cannot know how a nonhuman experiences anything – they can’t be asked. Sex as an experiential phenomenon for nonhumans is, quite simply, inaccessible. Science is obliged to propose questions that are answerable, and “how does a leopard slug experience sex?” is, at time of writing, about as unanswerable as they get.
Having said that, we can make educated guesses about whether sex is pleasurable for other species. Sex would be a very strange thing to seek if it didn’t bring some form of pleasure. It increases risk of disease, it wastes energy, it can seriously increase the likelihood of something bigger coming along and eating you (seriously, check out leopard-slug reproduction, below).