More than 50 sperm whales emerged off the Southern California coast in an extremely rare, hours-long sighting that had whale watchers and scientists giddy with excitement.
Pods of mothers and juveniles rolled and played with dolphins Monday a few miles off Laguna Beach, the Orange County Register reported.
They later were spotted off San Diego and were heading south, said Jay Barlow, a sperm whale expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It’s by far the largest group ever spotted so near to shore in Southern California, Barlow said Tuesday.
“I’ve been counting whales and been on the water for 35 years. We’ve never had a large group like this ever,” said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, director of the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project.
The massive mammals were spread out over an area of up to 3 square miles and came within inches of boats as they poked their heads out of the waves, said David Anderson, who operates Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari sightseeing tours.
Monster size: Sperm whales are the huge, toothed creatures mentioned in the novel “Moby Dick.” They were hunted nearly to extinction for their oil in the 1800s.
The whales weigh up to 45 tons and eat about a ton of squid a day. They prefer to hunt in deep waters and can dive to 3,000 feet.
Why the sperm whales showed up remains a mystery.
Unlike toothless gray whales, which migrate down the California coast each year, sperm whales aren’t frequent visitors.
Usually, only one or two adult males show up each summer or fall while large groups of females normally are found in warmer waters, Barlow said.
However, this year has seen a lot of warmer water close to shore, he said.
“The climate patterns have definitely been weird,” Barlow said.
Other species that prefer warmer waters also have shown up this year, including pilot whales, false killer whales, and various species of tropical birds.
The sperm whales also might have been chasing food, Barlow said. “That’s mostly what they think about.”
Humboldt squid, which can weigh 60 pounds or more, have been turning up in the area for a decade.
“Could be they’re catching on,” Barlow said.
The whales also could simply have gotten confused by the complicated ocean terrain and “wandered in not intending to be here,” he said.
Reported by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. Information from: The Orange County Register, http://www.ocregister.comRead More
A hundred years ago, Martha died and an environmental cautionary tale was born.
On Sept. 1, 1914, Martha, a passenger pigeon, fell off her perch at the Cincinnati Zoo and dropped dead. She was 29.
She was the last known example of her species, the sole survivor of what once was the most numerous bird in North America and possibly the world.
Estimates suggest that the number of passenger pigeons in the mid-1800s was around 5 billion.
Accounts by bird-expert John Audubon and others of the staggering numbers of the bird sound nearly mythical, describing them as a sort of a cross between a natural disaster and a natural wonder.
The pigeons were known to form “superflocks,” which could be a mile wide and hundreds of miles long. These superflocks were said to eclipse the sun and took days to pass. Others said their millions of wings made a noise that sounded like a tornado as the superflock passed overhead at 60 mph. They could devastate a farm crop. Their nesting colonies could cover more than 100 square miles. And when they roosted, their multitudes caused trees to topple and poop to pile up a foot deep.
But all those birds were no match for hungry humans with modern weapons.
In the course of a few decades, habitat destruction and unregulated hunting wiped out the passenger pigeon. They are all gone now. Not one is left.
Extinct: The abrupt extinction of the passenger pigeon is considered the greatest human-caused extinction in recorded history.
“No one thought you could cause something as common as the passenger pigeon to go extinct. It was inconceivable,” said Robert Zink, a University of Minnesota professor and bird expert.
However, recent research by Zink suggests that maybe the bird’s own biology shares a bit of the blame.
The new study indicated that while passenger pigeons were booming early in the 19th century, that wasn’t always the case. Studies of passenger pigeon DNA labeled the birds an “outbreak” species, similar to plague locusts or lemmings. In other words, they underwent large swings in population size, which could have made them vulnerable to determined human depredation.
Zink’s research says a natural downturn in the bird’s numbers occurred in the late 1800s. That, unfortunately, was when hunting of the birds really got going.
Zink said the acorn-gobbling bird was able to recover from population lows before. Some were caused by North American glaciers and others by bad acorn years. Still, the pigeons couldn’t overcome the clearing of forests for farming and logging and hunting on an industrial scale. Hunters were also aided by the telegraph, which allowed them to broadcast alerts of where the birds were flocking. When that news came, hunters simply hopped on railroad cars and zipped over to the latest hunting ground. It wasn’t long until the bird became a staple of the 19th century American diet.
Food for America: “The principal attraction is the birds were cheap,” said Joel Greenberg, author of the recently published book, “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.”
“They were the cheapest terrestrial protein,” he said.
They were also easy to find and kill.
Passenger pigeons weren’t particularly clever or elusive either, the experts agree. Zink said they didn’t have to be. Their huge numbers meant that natural predators couldn’t kill enough of them to make a difference in their survival as a species. That changed when humans with 19th-century technology came along.
A single shotgun blast into a dense flock could bring down a dozen birds. A kid with a pole could knock them out of a tree or even out of the sky. They also were netted, poisoned, burned out of their roosts and gassed with burning sulfur.
The birds were slaughtered in such numbers that surplus carcasses were used to feed hogs and fill potholes, according to Greenberg.
Hunting never stopped: Even as their numbers dwindled, the killing continued. Some people were in a state of denial about the disappearance of the bird, believing stories they had flown to South America and changed their appearance.
“That sounds crazy to us now, but at the time, the crazier alternative was that the passenger pigeon would go extinct,” said Elisabeth Condon, as assistant scientist with the University of Minnesota’s Natural Resources Research Institute.
Hunting efforts actually intensified as the flocks shrank, Condon said.
“People were really eager to shoot the last passenger pigeon,” she said.
According to Zink, it wasn’t necessary to shoot the last bird. Humans had already fragmented their habitat and their dwindling numbers made it hard for them to recover. Without large colonies and flocks, the passenger pigeon had a hard time breeding, scouting for acorns and resisting non-human predators.
The final pigeon: The last wild nest and egg of a passenger pigeon was found in Minneapolis in 1895, according to Greenberg. The last credible report of a wild bird bagged by a hunter occurred in 1902. The second-to-last bird living bird, named George, died in captivity in 1910 after failing to reproduce with Martha.
Martha, who had spent her life in captivity, endured the last four years of her life as a lonely, tragic celebrity. Greenberg said her death may be unique in bird extinctions in that we know the day when a species came to an end.
Passenger Pigeon 2.0: The story may not end if something called “The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback” turns out to be a success.
That’s the “flagship project” of an organization called Revive & Restore dedicated to “de-extinction,” or using cutting-edge DNA science to bring extinct animals back to life.
The project would use passenger pigeon DNA harvested from museum specimens and DNA of the closely related Band-tailed pigeon to create a bird that would look and behave like a passenger pigeon.
“What is created is going to be up for debate by a lot of people,” said Ben Novak, leader of the project. “It’s a lot like passenger pigeon 2.0.”
Novak said if everything goes right, the “Adam and Eve” of this species “reset” might be created in about eight years. He said by using surrogate Band-tailed pigeon parents, several hundred or even a thousand new passenger pigeons could be created in another five years for a “soft release” in an enclosed wild environment.
“I can see wanting to bring it back because it’s pretty clear we caused its demise,” Zink said of the project. “I think the motivation is apologetic. We’re sorry for the passenger pigeon, we’re sorry we did this to you.”
Reported by RICHARD CHIN of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Richard Chin can be reached at 651-228-5560. Follow him at twitter.com/RRChin .Read More
Toledo’s newest exotic resident weighs 440 pounds, is old enough to be considered a living antique, and hails from a volcanic Pacific archipelago near the equator.
Emerson, a dome-shelled Galapagos tortoise estimated to be about 100 years old, arrived last month at the Toledo Zoo in Ohio from the San Diego Zoo.
“He is a spectacular animal,” said R. Andrew Odum, curator of herpetology at the zoo. “He’s a very majestic, statesman tortoise.”
Emerson emerged from his wooden transport crate with no hesitation and explored his new surroundings. Handlers rewarded him with carrot and sweet potato treats and a neck rub.
No one knows the average lifespan of a Galapagos tortoise because they live so long. Tracking the animals with known hatching dates takes several generations of humans, but experts estimate the giant reptiles may live anywhere from 150 to 200 years.
The species: Galapagos tortoises, an endangered species, are one of the foremost examples of the impact of human activity on the natural world and are a common symbol of the need for conservation. They can live for months without food or water, and their populations were decimated in the 1800s when whalers rounded them up to store aboard ships as a reliable source of fresh meat. Now, predation and habitat destruction from invasive species are the primary concern.
Emerson was born in the wild on the Galapagos Islands — a part of Ecuador 575 miles off the coast of that South American nation — before being brought to the United States, so his age and history are only a best guess.
A spokesman with the St. Louis Zoo, which originally housed Emerson, said records show the tortoise arrived there on New Year‘s Eve, 1959, but there are no records that say exactly where Emerson came from other than having been acquired through a “private source.”
Odum said that given Emerson’s age and characteristics, he could be one of 180 tortoises brought to the states from Isabela Island in 1928 by Charles H. Townsend. The New York Zoological Society naturalist and director of the New York Aquarium was one of the first to notice the plight of Galapagos tortoises after examining logbooks from whaling ships and realizing how many had been taken. He led an expedition to the archipelago in an attempt to preserve them.
Reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from TOLEDO, Ohio. The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Alexandra Mester is a reporter at The Blade: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6066, or on Twitter @AlexMesterBlade.Read More
A Penn State student is gaining an Internet reputation as a “squirrel whisperer” for befriending, feeding and dressing up a furry little friend she has named Sneezy.
Junior Mary Krupa tells WJAC-TV (http://bit.ly/1B9IvPf ) that she’s able to dress up the squirrel in party hats, or get Sneezy to hold doll-sized props, simply by feeding the animal.
Krupa and Sneezy’s exploits are chronicled in a Facebook page titled “Sneezy the Penn State Squirrel.”
So far, the squirrel is proving quite popular. Its Facebook page has more “likes” than a page dedicated to the school’s official mascot, the Nittany Lion.
Captive-bred endangered black-footed ferrets crept out of their cages into the freedom of an open space area in the Colorado city of Fort Collins on Wednesday. The ferrets were the first set free under a new Colorado law that lets cities and counties release the animals into prairie dog colonies.
Officials hope the 15 ferrets will continue to hunt like they did while they were still in captivity. Each ferret is expected to eat at least a prairie dog a week. In the Western United States, prairie dogs are considered a pest and the black-footed ferret is one of their top predators. The ultimate goal is to restore ecological balance in areas where they are set free.
“It is the natural habitat where they started,” Fort Collins Mayor Karen Weitkunat said. “Because of the population of prairie dogs, we believe they will succeed.”
Other cities have expressed interest in re-introducing black-footed ferrets, formerly American’s most endangered mammal, as natural predators in similar open spaces. To do so, cities and counties must have at least 1,500 acres of un-fragmented land, said Pete Gober, National Black-footed Ferret Recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Ferret recovery is a pretty simple process,” Gober said. “You put ferrets with prairie dogs. You manage to keep disease off the landscape. And you deal with boundary control so that you don’t have prairie dogs wandering off and becoming a nuisance. If you’re committed to that kind of management, we will work with anyone to put ferrets out and have success.”
Recovery effort: Ferrets historically hunted on Colorado grasslands. Poisoning and hunting rendered them scarce by the 1930s and officials considered them extinct in the 1980s. A small population was found in Wyoming. Federal biologists took those last 18 animals and bred them at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center northeast of Fort Collins, where, with help from zoos, they now have 500.
USFWS regional director Noreen Walsh hailed Wednesday’s release of ferrets on Fort Collins’ Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and adjacent Meadow Springs Ranch open space as a major step toward recovering black-footed ferrets as a self-sustaining population in the wild.
Federal officials aim to introduce 3,000 across 12 states. Colorado officials said 150 will be introduced in that state.
What are they? Black-footed Ferrets typically weigh about 2 pounds, often not larger than their prey.
At night, their elongated bodies and sensitive snouts let them slink into tunnels to underground dens where prairie dogs sleep. Ferrets clamp their teeth into prairie dogs’ necks and squeeze, then devour them. One female ferret typically will guard turf of about 100 acres.
Reported by BRUCE FINLEY of the Denver Post from FORT COLLINS, Colorado. Contact Bruce Finley at 303-954-1700, email@example.com or twitter.com/finleybruceRead More
Sue Sausser said she awakened Sunday to find bird droppings and feathers all over her apartment, the Coeur d’Alene Press reported.
Sausser found the brownish, yellow-eyed owl between the wall and the chest of drawers on which the bird cage sits. It flew out the door and perched on their balcony railing long enough for them to take a few pictures. Don Sausser estimated the owl was 6 to 8 inches tall.
Sue and Don Sausser found one of their canaries dead in the cage. The other seemed jumpy and anxious, they said.
Beth Paragamian, wildlife education specialist with for Idaho Fish and Game and the Bureau of Land Management, said it’s strange that an owl would be flying so high in an area without many tall trees and surprising that it would enter a residence, much less open a bird cage.
“That is very unusual,” she said.
Don Sausser said they’ll likely still leave their sliding glass door open on warm summer evenings, but plan to use twist ties to secure the door on the bird cage.
See pictures of the owl here: http://www.cdapress.com/news/local_news/article_f57beda1-8a5c-5171-8f13-85c4b0ac997b.html
Reported by the Associated Press from COEUR D’ALENE, IdahoRead More
Inspectors at Los Angeles International Airport seized an unusually slimy package — 67 live giant African snails that are a popular delicacy across West Africa.
The snails — which are prohibited in the U.S. — arrived from Nigeria and were being sent to a person in San Dimas, said Lee Harty, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border protection.
The snails were confiscated July 1 and a sample was sent the next day to a federal mollusk specialist in Washington, D.C., who identified them as a prohibited species, Harty said.
The mollusks are among the largest land snails in the world and can grow to be up to 8 inches long. They are native to Africa and can live for up to 10 years.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture incinerated the snails after they were inspected, Harty said. The animals are prohibited in the U.S. because they can carry parasites that are harmful to humans, including one that can lead to meningitis.
The snails are also agricultural pests, said Maveeda Mirza, the CBP program manager for agriculture.
“These snails are seriously harmful to local plants because they will eat any kind of crop they can get to,” Mirza said.
The person the snails were destined for is not expected to face any penalties, Mirza said. She said authorities are investigating why a single person would want so many snails.
By KRYSTA FAURIA of the Associated Press from LOS ANGELES.Read More
When South Carolina construction workers came across the giant, winged fossil at the Charleston airport in 1983, they had to use a backhoe to pull the bird, which lived about 25 million years ago, up from the earth.
But if the bird was actually a brand-new species, researchers faced a big question: Could such a large bird, with a wingspan of 20 to 24 feet, actually get off the ground? After all, the larger the bird, the less likely its wings are able to lift it unaided.
The answer came from Dan Ksepka, paleontologist and science curator at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn.
He modeled a probable method of flight for the long-extinct bird, named as a new species this week. If Ksepka’s simulations are correct, Pelagornis sandersi would be the largest airborne bird ever discovered.
The big bird relied on the ocean to keep it aloft. Similar in many ways to a modern-day albatross — although with at least twice the wingspan and very different in appearance, Ksepka said — the bird probably needed a lot of help to fly. It had to run downhill into a head wind, catching the air like a hang glider. Once airborne, it relied on air currents rising from the ocean to keep it gliding.
An incredibly efficient glider, Pelagornis sandersi could probably soar for miles and miles over the sea, swooping down to catch its prey in the waves.
To snap up its meals, the bird used pseudo-teeth — a characteristic that Ksepka found just as fascinating as the bird’s massive wingspan. These teeth, Ksepka said, are not anything like our own.
“They don’t have enamel, they don’t grow in sockets, and they aren’t lost and replaced throughout the creature’s life span,” he said. “Instead, the bone just extends from the jaw.”
There were bigger flying creatures than Pelagornis sandersi. Some of the largest pterodactyls had wingspans of up to 35 feet. But they were flying reptiles, not the dinosaurs that birds descended from.
The previous record holder for largest flying bird, Argentavis magnificens, lived only 6 million years ago and hailed from Argentina. It was probably heavier than the new bird — something researchers know because of the size of their hind legs, which had to support their weight.
He added that while it is not possible to know everything about the ancient creature from one skeleton, he is quite certain about one thing:
“This is pushing the boundary of what we know about avian size, and I’m very confident that the wingspan is the largest we’ve seen in a bird capable of flight.”
Reported by RACHEL FELTMAN of The Washington PostRead More
A study of great white sharks finds their numbers are surging in the ocean off the Eastern U.S. and Canada — bad news if you’re a seal, but something experts say shouldn’t instill fear in beachgoers this summer.
The study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist says the population of the notoriously elusive fish has climbed since about 2000 in the western North Atlantic.
The scientists behind the study say the upswing is due to conservation efforts, such as a federal 1997 act that prevented hunting of great whites, and greater availability of prey.
“The species appears to be recovering,” said Cami McCandless, one of the study authors. “This tells us the management tools appear to be working.”
Great whites owe much of their fearsome reputation to the movie “Jaws,” which was released 39 years ago Friday. But confrontations are rare, with only 106 unprovoked white shark attacks — 13 of them fatal — in U.S. waters since 1916, according to data provided by the University of Florida.
The great whites are important to ocean ecology. They are apex predators — which means they’re at the top of the food chain — and help control the populations of other species. That would include the gray seal, whose growing colonies off Massachusetts have provided food.
The report also illuminates where people encounter white sharks — mostly between Massachusetts and New Jersey during the summer and off Florida in the winter, it says.
They also migrate based on water temperature and availability of prey, and are more common along the coast than offshore, the report states.
Reported by PATRICK WHITTLE of the Associated Press from PORTLAND, MaineRead More