Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Cincinnati Blob - Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?

Experts are trying to figure out whether a huge fossil found by an amateur palaeontologist in northern Kentucky is an animal or a plant. They’re pretty sure it isn’t a mineral.

The 450-million-year-old fossil is more than 6 feet long and 3 feet wide, and weighs about 150 pounds. Intricate patterns on its rippled surface resemble the skin of a bird, but some parts look more like fish scales. Whatever it was, it apparently had no bones, so it most likely was not a vertebrate, and was undoubtedly a relatively simple life form. Another interesting piece of the puzzle is the presence of small trilobite fossils found on the surface of the fossil, which has been dubbed Godzillus.

So far, suggestions as to what it might have been include a type of huge algae, a jellyfish, or possibly a broken piece of coral or sponge. The Cincinnati area was covered by a 100- to 200-foot deep sea at the time this animal (or plant) lived, so the researchers are concentrating on trying to identify what kind of sea life this unique specimen represents.

As of now, it is much too early to expect any definitive results from the investigation. Photos of the whatever-it-is can be found here, and more information is available here

Friday, April 20, 2012

Tool-Using Monkeys?

Many years ago, it was thought that human beings were different from all other animals because people used tools and animals did not. But new information shows us that we are not alone in using tools.

Many of us have seen how otters float on their backs while breaking open shellfish by hammering them on a stone held on their stomachs. Now, it seems, otters aren’t the only ones who use stones to harvest oysters and other shellfish.

Thai scientists were studying the impact of the tsunami that ravaged the southeast Asian coast in December 2004. They noticed a pair of female long-tailed macaques using some type of object to crack open mollusk shells so they could scoop out and eat the animals inside. Curious, they landed and discovered cracked oyster shells scattered on the beach along with axe-shaped stones that the monkeys had used to break them open.

Further investigation revealed that this behavior was common among the macaques living along this stretch of coast, and that the monkeys were regular visitors to the beach. It seems that the macaques not only cracked shells open with their tools, but they also used them to dislodge their prey from the rocks. They also discovered that the monkeys had a special fondness for crabs, which were also broken open using their stones.

Interviews with local islanders showed that the animals’ behavior was a year-round practice. They also said that when the macaques were foraging in mangrove swamps which did not contain suitable stones, the monkeys used empty oyster shells in their place.

Surprisingly, the long-tailed macaques’ odd behavior had been reported 120 years before by Alfred Carpenter of the Marine Survey Office in Bombay, India. In an article written for the journal Nature, Carpenter described how macaques living on islands of the Mergui Archipelago in South Burma were already using stone ‘hammers’ to crack open oyster shells. He also said that the monkeys frequently carried their stones up to 80 yards, which indicates that the monkeys were very careful in their tool selection. Somehow, though, his observations were either overlooked, or not taken seriously, until the new information was published in 2007.

How many other animals are using tools? Many new examples are coming to light and I’ll be investigating these claims over the next several months.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The World’s Only Venomous Primate

The little primate known as the slow loris, or ‘little fireface’ in parts of Java, was, until recently, a fairly obscure animal known primarily to researchers. It is, without doubt, one of the cutest little creatures you will ever see, and many people are adopting them as pets. As it turns out, not only is this little animal in serious danger, but it can be dangerous to humans as well.

The little lorises suddenly became famous when a video posted on YouTube showing one of the little animals being tickled suddenly went viral. Many viewers commented on how cute they were, with their huge eyes and gentle looking faces, and many expressed a desire to adopt one. But there are a few things potential owners should know about the animals and the way they are treated.

The trade in slow lorises is actually illegal. They are relatively slow-moving and seem to be very docile. But when aroused, they secrete venom from a patch on their elbow, mixing it with their saliva. If they bite, the mixture is injected into the wound, causing an allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, which can be fatal. Traders know this, and frequently yank the animals’ teeth out using nail clippers, pliers, or wire cutters.

The slow loris is a shy and secretive animal found in a number of countries surrounding Indonesia. They have a few notable peculiarities, such as extra vertebrae and two tongues.

One researcher, Anna Nekaris, is spearheading an effort to help these amazing little animals. You can read her story here