Sunday, December 30, 2007

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Endangered Animals

Despite some good news for endangered animals, such as the discovery of a massive wildlife migration across previously war-torn southern Sudan, animals are becoming increasingly under threat by deforestation and other forms of habitat destruction, pollution and poaching.

In its annual Red List of Threatened Species, the World Conservation Union announced that 200 species moved closer to extinction in 2007, with more than 40,000 species, including gorillas, dolphins, corals and many species of birds and fish, total on the list.

Modern Beetles Predate Dinosaurs

Wait, don't squash that beetle! Its lineage predates dinosaurs.
New research hints that modern-day versions of the insects are far older than any tyrannosaur that trod the Earth.

Today's plethora of beetle species were thought to have blossomed 140 million years ago, during the rise of flowering plants. But the new study of beetle DNA and fossils, published in the Dec. 21 issue of the journal Science, pushes their appearance back to 300 million years ago.

That beats the arrival of dinosaurs by about 70 million years.

"Unlike the dinosaurs which dwindled to extinction, beetles survived because of their ecological diversity and adaptability," said the study's lead scientist Alfried Vogler, an entomologist at Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum in London.

Today, 350,000 species of beetles dot collections around the world, and millions more are estimated to exist but haven't been discovered — which means they make up more than one-fourth of all known species of life forms. The reason for this tremendous diversity has been debated by scientists for many years but never resolved.

Vogler thinks beetles' head start on our planet with its ever-changing environments was the secret to their success.

"The large number of beetle species existing today could very well be a direct result of this early evolution," Vogler said, "and the fact that there has been a very high rate of survival and continuous diversification of many lineages since then."

To reach this conclusion, Vogler and his team teased out evolutionary data from the DNA of 1,880 modern beetle species, then compared it to fossil records dating back 265 million years to build detailed evolutionary trees. The new genetic maps suggest that a common ancestor to beetles crept up well before its descendants showed up in the fossil record.

"With beetles forming such a large proportion of all known species, learning about their relationships and evolution gives us important new insights into the origin of biodiversity and how beetles have triumphed over the course of nearly 300 million years," Vogler said.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Dumb animals - we don't think so!

The BBC Natural History Unit's search for Britain's cleverest performing wild animal reveals some unexpected talents.

Words: Mike Beynon
Images: Richard Taylor

Bright badgers
I've made many films about badgers and have always found them to be delightful but dim. I would never have associated their bumbling antics with the word 'clever' - until I heard about Don Hunford's badgers.

Don, a respected expert, was impressed when a badger he was caring for managed to climb out of its underground shelter by ingenious means. The only way out of the shelter was through a hatch 3-4 feet above floor level. Pushing with its shoulder, the badger managed to shunt a handy box into position beneath the hatch and stand on it to escape.

Don decided to see if wild badgers could learn to use a similar strategy to obtain a food reward. He built a feeding platform on a tree just out of the badgers' reach, and provided a cube of wood nearby. The badgers figured out that by pushing the wood over to the tree, and climbing on top of it they could reach the treats.

Meet Betty
Cows, donkeys, otters, woodpeckers, foxes, rats and grey squirrels, they're all here. But the programmes we've made about animal intelligence are invariably dominated by examples of avian acumen. It was among the corvids that we found the star of this show. Betty is a female Caledonian crow and long-time resident at Oxford University.

When you see Betty in the flesh, you really get a sense of her remarkable intelligence. The inquisitiveness, the fascination with anything new, the way she cocks her head to study a novel object, the impression that she's working things out in her head before going into action.

Her ability to figure things out is demonstrated by the tasks she performs. Food is placed at the bottom of a tube too deep for her to reach with her beak, inside a tiny basket with a little hoop on top. Betty is given a thin wire, about 7cm long. She picks up the wire in her beak and sticks it into the tube. She can reach the food but can't raise it to the top. Then, extraordinarily, Betty carries the wire over to the wall, pokes its end into a little hole in the plaster, then pulls upwards with her beak to fashion a primitive hook. Betty flies back to the tube, inserts the wire down the shaft and through the hoop on the basket. She pulls the wire, and up comes the basket. Triumphantly, Betty eats her reward.

According to experts, this feat may make Betty the first animal, other than a human, to fashion a tool for a specific task using novel materials not found in the wild. Clever, or what?

A service stop with a difference
Driving down the M4 in heavy traffic on a hot day is not a pleasant experience. And taking a break at Membury Services is never going to be one of the great culinary experiences of your life. But for local residents, Membury has a lot to offer. They fly around the carpark, watching fractious children and fraught parents picnic beside their cars and then tip the scraps into one of the many wastebins. This information is observed, noted and filed away for future reference.

Rooks may not be one of Britain's most charismatic birds, but they are one of our cleverest. All corvids (in Britain, this includes rooks, crows, jackdaws, ravens and choughs) have large brains relative to their body size and remarkable memories, combined with an almost aggressive inquisitiveness. Their impressive capabilities are admirably demonstrated at Membury.

Located all round the carpark are wastebins, full of tempting rubbish. The trouble is, the staff at Membury are too efficient - before the bins even start to fill to a level at which the rooks can reach the titbits, the cleaners race to empty them. As a result, the rooks can only gaze longingly at food that is just out of beak-reach.

Thinking it out
Or they used to. The rooks have learned to perch on the rims of bins, reach in with their beaks, grab folds of the black plastic bin liners and haul them up and over the edge. This action would, in itself, be useless. Let go, and the weight of the rubbish will pull the bin liner - and the food - back down. So, to avoid this happening, the rooks have figured out that they have to stand on the fold of bin liner they've just pulled up before reaching back down to grab another beakful.

Inch by inch, the rubbish rises higher. It's a slow process, requiring immense patience - a hungry rook will have to pull out up to 20 or so folds of black plastic before it can reach its prize. By this stage, it's standing on a veritable hill of scrunched-up bin liner. Distractions are all around, but the rook is dedicated to its task and finally achieves its goal - the food is within easy reach.

Decisions, decisions
The bird now faces another dilemma. Does it take just one beakful of food and fly off, allowing the rest to slide back to the bottom of the bin? Surely then the effort required would outweigh the reward? Instead, the rook reaches in and tosses the scraps over its shoulder, repeating the action again and again, until a pile of food litters the pavement behind it.

Now the rook can relax and gorge itself on its well-deserved prize. If it can get a look in - an entourage of small birds is already busy helping themselves to a free lunch, courtesy of the rook's labours.

Animals Home


Badgers use a complex system of underground tunnels leading to multiple entrance holes, the number of which has no bearing on how many animals actually use the sett.

If you find a badger sett, count the number of entrance holes that are well used. You can tell this if they have freshly dug earth leading from the inside of the hole to the outside. Also, see if you can find piles of bedding which have been left out by the badgers to dry.


A rabbit's home is similar to a badger's, with a multiple entrance hole system called a warren. However some rabbits live on the surface, hiding in thick bramble in areas where there is little risk of predation.


Foxes make their dens almost anywhere. In urban areas they turn up in the most unlikely places, such as underneath portable dwellings or discarded builders' rubble.

The traditional fox den is usually a solitary entrance hole that may originally have been made by a badger. A good way to tell if a fox is at home is to smell the air around the entrance hole. The harsh musty smell of a fox is often overpowering. It's not unusual for foxes to share a badger's sett, so don't be surprised if you see both species emerging from the same hole.

Grey squirrel

Grey squirrels live in dreys that look superficially like birds' nests, built as they are from materials such as sticks and moss. Squirrel dreys are usually found close to the trunk of the tree. They can be found in holes in trees or in large nesting boxes. In urban areas squirrels sometimes build their dreys in the lofts of houses.

Otters living close to and in the water make their homes in the banks of rivers. They are called holts, and may be a hole in a bank or at the base of an overhanging tree. They are often found where the roots of a tree break the surface of the ground as this helps to keep them secure. Where overhanging trees are absent, man-made otter holts can really benefit this species.

Water vole

Water voles also make their homes in the banks of waterways. Voles prefer to construct small entrance holes where there is thick vegetation but where the hole can easily be seen from the opposite bank to enable them to swim for cover if threatened.
Find out more about water voles from Chris Sperring's video diary.

A disaster waiting in the wings

Please help Compassion in world Farming to tackle the root cause of H5N1, namely an end to intensive poultry farming.

We are seeking to take positive steps to highlight the unnecessary suffering so often caused by intensive poultry farming. Each year, 10 million turkeys are produced specifically to meet the heightened demand for turkey at Christmas. Of all the turkeys in the UK, 90% are reared intensively, spending their short 15 week lives in windowless, crowded, barren sheds.

Our scientific report, The role of the intensive poultry production industry in the spread of avian influenza (2007), concluded: "The booming global trade in intensively farmed poultry and poultry products – an industry that has grown by 300% worldwide in the past two decades – is a serious risk factor in the emergence of the highly pathogenic strain of avian 'flu (H5N1) and its consequent spread around the world."

Please support this Christmas appeal. It underpins a major campaign to resolve the root cause of the suffering and risk of disease caused by intensive farming: we want humane and sustainable farming to be the New Year Resolution that everyone sticks to.

Animal photo contest fights factory farming

Chris Cheesman A photography competition to find 'the world's best pictures of farm animals' has been launched by an organisation campaigning against factory farming.

Launched by Compassion in World Farming, Focus On Farm Animals is open to amateur and professional photographers worldwide.

Entrants are asked to submit photos of animals from 'any kind of farm, whether small, large, indoors or outside'.

Winners and runners-up images will be published in the magazine Farm Animal Voice and on the website

The winning entries will also form the centrepiece of the publicity campaign for World Farm Animal's Day on 2 October 2008.

'We want our competition to draw attention to the fact that these are sentient creatures and that intensive modern farming systems cause them sometimes great suffering,' said World Farming's chief executive Philip Lymbery.

The competition aims to find images 'showing farm animals as they really are: feeling beings with physical, psychological and emotional needs'.

There is no cash prize but organisers point out that they will mention winning photographers' own websites for images used in publicity.

Copyright remains with entrants but organisers say they reserve the right to use winning entries as they see fit, crediting the photographer accordingly.

Full details are available at

The closing date is 30 June 2008.

Picture credit: Martin Usborne/Compassion in World Farming 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Monday, December 17, 2007

New law: Vets must report animal abuse

DENVER – A new Colorado law that went into effect on Sunday requires veterinarians to report any case in which they suspect an animal is being abused or involved in fighting.

Diane Balkin, with the Denver District Attorney's office, says that cruelty is defined by law as any act of mistreatment or neglect.

The law does not apply to physical abuse alone, says Dr. Michelle Smith, of the 29th Avenue Animal Hospital at Stapleton.

"It can be neglect in the form of leaving a dog outside without adequate shelter on a hot day, or not giving enough food or water," she said.

The law is patterned after child abuse laws where a medical doctor is required to report child abuse.

Some fear that the law will discourage people from taking their pets to the vet for treatment, but Denver city leaders disagree.

"The studies have indicated that individuals won't be deterred from seeking veterinary care for fear the vet will report them. There are certainly a host of people that won't go to the vet at all just like there are people who will not go to the pediatrician or go to any type of medical doctor," said Balkin.

Only six other states have passed similar animal abuse prevention laws. The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association has backed the law with overwhelming support.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

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