Firefighter rescues 7-foot boa constrictor from burning home

Firefighter Scott Hemmelsbach holds a boa constrictor after rescuing it from a burning home in Muskegon, Mich., on Sunday, March 30, 2014.  (AP Photo/Courtesy of Gordon Cole)

Firefighter Scott Hemmelsbach holds a boa constrictor after rescuing it from a burning home in Muskegon, Mich., on Sunday, March 30, 2014. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Gordon Cole)

If you were a snake and your house was on fire, what would you do? Try to get out, right?

A Michighan firefighter found out just what happens, and he put his past reptile-handling experience to good use when he rescued a 7-foot-long boa constrictor from a burning home.

Muskegon firefighter Scott Hemmelsbach told The Muskegon Chronicle that he reluctantly agreed to enter the two-story, smoke-filled house Sunday night to retrieve the snake. He says he cradled the “weighty” snake before carrying it to safety.

“It was trying to crawl up the side of his terrarium and get out,” Hemmelsbach said. “His face was pushed up on the screen and trying to get out. There was a lot of smoke and he was trapped.”

The firefighter said he learned how to handle snakes while he was at high school.

“I’d take them around and show them to the kids in the elementary classes,” he said. “That didn’t bother me at all.”

When Hemmelsbach reached the boa inside the home, he gingerly handled him so not to scare the reptile.

“I removed the screen off the top and knew to approach it by coming up behind his head. He became very active, and I was glad because that meant that he was OK.”

Two people in the home escaped without injury, fire officials said. The fire significantly damaged the home, and the cause is under investigation.

“I would do it for any creature,” Hemmelsbach said. “I’m just glad it had a happy ending.”

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Information from: The Muskegon Chronicle, http://www.mlive.com/muskegon

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Last chance for the water monster

 Investigators have begun a search in hopes of finding what may be the last free-roaming axolotl. Not one axolotl was found during last year's effort at finding them in the wild in Xochimilco, their only natural habitat. The axolotl is known as the "water monster" and the "Mexican walking fish." (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

Investigators have begun a search in hopes of finding what may be the last free-roaming axolotl. Not one axolotl was found during last year’s effort at finding them in the wild in Xochimilco, their only natural habitat. The axolotl is known as the “water monster” and the “Mexican walking fish.” (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

Mexico’s axolotl, a salamander-like creature, apparently hasn’t disappeared from its only known natural habitat in Mexico City’s few remaining lakes.

Researchers say they have sighted, but not caught, two of the slippery little amphibians during a second effort to find them.

A weekslong effort last year by researchers trying to net axolotls in the shallow, muddy waters of Xochimilco lake found none, raising fears that they might only now survive in captivity.

But biologist Armando Tovar Garza of Mexico’s National Autonomous University said members of the team carrying out the search had seen two axolotls during the first three weeks of a second survey.

“We weren’t able to capture them … because the behavior of the axolotl makes them very difficult to capture,” Tovar Garza said. “We haven’t had any captures, but we have had two sightings.”

The axolotl is best known for its feather-like gills, a mouth that curls into an odd smile and its ability to regenerate severed limbs. In Mexico, the locals call it the “water monster” and the “Mexican walking fish.” It’s only natural habitat is the Xochimilco network of lakes and canals. These “floating gardens” of earth piled on reed mats were built by the Aztecs. Now they water system is suffering from pollution, urban sprawl and invasive species.

Some axolotls still survive in aquariums, water tanks and research labs, but experts said those conditions aren’t the best, because of interbreeding and other risks. How about letting some of those aquarium-bound axolotl’s go? Scientists fear releasing captive-bred axolotls into the wild could spread a fungus infection many captive axolotls carry.

Helping out: Alarmed by the creature’s falling numbers in recent years, researchers built axolotl “shelters” in Xochimilco to help them breed in the cleanest part of their remaining habitat.

Sacks of rocks and reedy plants act as filters around a selected area, and cleaner water is pumped in, to create better conditions. The shelters also include permeable cages and other devices intended to help protect axolotls from non-native carp and tilapia that were introduced to the lake system years ago and compete with axolotls for food.

Growing up to a foot long, axolotls use four stubby legs to drag themselves along the bottom or thick tails to swim in Xochimilco’s murky channels while feeding on aquatic insects, small fish and crustaceans. But the surrounding garden-islands have increasingly been converted to illicit shantytowns, with untreated sewage often running off into the water.

Reported by TERESA DE MIGUEL of the Associated Press from MEXICO CITY, Mexico.

Biologists from Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM) conduct a census of the salamander-like axolotl and of non-native fish in a canal of the Xochimilco network of lakes and canals in Mexico City. Investigators have begun a search in hopes of finding what may be the last free-roaming axolotl. Not one axolotl was found during last year's effort at finding them in the wild in Xochimilco, their only natural habitat. The axolotl is known as the "water monster" and the "Mexican walking fish." (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

Biologists from Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) conduct a census of the salamander-like axolotl and of non-native fish in a canal of the Xochimilco network of lakes and canals in Mexico City. Investigators have begun a search in hopes of finding what may be the last free-roaming axolotl. Not one axolotl was found during last year’s effort at finding them in the wild in Xochimilco, their only natural habitat. The axolotl is known as the “water monster” and the “Mexican walking fish.” (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

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Who’s got Sherman the owl?

A tawny owl named "Sherman" sits on a perch in a bird sanctuary in Selah, Wash. The Yakima County Sheriff's Office says that on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014, someone entered a building on the Raptor House property in central Washington and stole the 14-year-old  bird.. (AP Photo/Brian M. Christopher)

A tawny owl named “Sherman” sits on a perch in a bird sanctuary in Selah, Wash. The Yakima County Sheriff’s Office says that on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014, someone entered a building on the Raptor House property in central Washington and stole the 14-year-old bird.. (AP Photo/Brian M. Christopher)

The police are facing a real ‘Who’-dunnit at a Washington state bird sanctuary where a rare owl has went missing.

The 14-year-old tawny owl was stolen from a building on the Raptor House property in Selah, Wash., the Yakima County sheriff’s office said.

Shannon Dalan, who helps run the sanctuary with his wife, Marsha, said it was obvious the owl didn’t fly the coop on his own: Someone took off a lock to the building, removed latches and unhooked the leash holding the owl, named Sherman.

The bird is glove-trained and frequently is displayed in classes, the sheriff’s office said. Sherman weighs less than a pound and has reddish-brown feathers and pink eyelids.

The tawny owl is native to Europe and Asia, not North America, and Sherman could be worth $3,000 to $4,000 on the black market, Shannon Dalan said Tuesday.

“This bird is rare,” he said. “They knew what they were looking for. The person who stole it walked past other, native birds.”

The Raptor House is home to about 20 birds, including other owls, hawks, falcons and eagles. Some are being prepared to return to the wild, and others that can’t be released are used for education.

The tawny owl arrived about five years ago from a sanctuary in St. Louis. Shannon Dalan started calling him Sherman after ball-hawking Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.

Sherman the owl has been seen by a lot of people, but Dalan couldn’t speculate on who might have taken him.

Reported by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS from SELAH, Wash.

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White lion shows off her triplets

White lioness Azira lies in their cage with her three white cubs that were born last week in a private zoo in Borysew, in central Poland, on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

White lioness Azira lies in their cage with her three white cubs that were born last week in a private zoo in Borysew, in central Poland, on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

A private zoo owner in central Poland feels three times lucky with the birth of white lion triplets who are getting loving care from their mother.

Andrzej Pabich, head of the zoo in Borysew, said white lions often have defects that prevent giving birth, or mothers may reject the cubs. Triplets are rare.

Pabich told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the 2 1/2 -year old white lioness Azira has been patiently feeding and caring for the cubs that were born Jan. 28. Their father, 3 1/2-year old Sahim, who is also white, is kept in a neighboring cage.

The cubs will be allowed into an outdoor run in April.

Opened in 2008, the zoo has animals of 80 species including white tigers and white camels.

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Online: http://zoosafari.com.pl/

Reported by the Associated Press from BORYSEW, Poland.

White lioness Azira stands next to her three white cubs that were born last week in a private zoo in Borysew, in central Poland, on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014. Zoo owner Andrzej Pabich says white lions often have defects the prevent giving birth, or the mother rejects her cubs, but two and a half-year-old Azira has been patiently feeding and caring for her little ones, as three and a half-year-old Sahim, who fathered them, watches from a neighboring cage. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

White lioness Azira stands next to her three white cubs that were born last week in a private zoo in Borysew, in central Poland, on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014. Zoo owner Andrzej Pabich says white lions often have defects the prevent giving birth, or the mother rejects her cubs, but two and a half-year-old Azira has been patiently feeding and caring for her little ones, as three and a half-year-old Sahim, who fathered them, watches from a neighboring cage. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

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Bad news for SpongeBob

This undated image provided by Brown University via the journal Science in December 2013 shows a Mnemiopsis leidyi, a species of comb jelly known as a sea walnut. A new study published online in the journal Science says comb jellies, a group of gelatinous marine animals, represent the oldest branch of the animal family tree. (AP Photo/Brown University, Stefan Siebert)
The Mnemiopsis leidyi, a species of comb jelly known as a sea walnut, is among a group of gelatinous marine animals that represent the oldest branch of the animal family tree. (AP Photo/Brown University, Stefan Siebert)

SpongeBob won’t be happy about this, but sponges are getting squeezed out of a distinctive role in evolution. A new study says the animals that inspired the oddball cartoon character don’t represent the oldest branch of the animal family tree after all.

The DNA research gives the spot instead to comb jellies, a group of gelatinous marine animals with cartoonish names like the sea walnut and the sea gooseberry.

All animals evolved from a single ancestor and scientists want to know more about how that happened. More than half a billion years ago, long before humans appeared, the first split in the tree separated one lineage from all other animals. Traditionally, scientists have thought it was sponges.

The evidence in favor of comb jellies comes from deciphering the first complete genetic code from a member of this group. Scientists were finally able to compare the full DNA codes from all the earliest branches.

The genome of a sea walnut, a plankton-eating creature native to the western Atlantic Ocean, was reported online Thursday in the journal Science by Andreas Baxevanis of the National Human Genome Research Institute with co-authors there and elsewhere. The work supports some earlier indications that comb jellies were the first to branch off.

Sorting out the early branching of the tree could help scientists learn what the ancestor of all animals was like. But despite decades of study and the traditional view favoring sponges, there is plenty of disagreement about which early branch came first.

The question is “devilishly difficult” to answer, and the new paper is probably not the last word, said Antonis Rokas of Vanderbilt University, who did not participate in the new work.

“The results need to be taken seriously,” he said, but “I’m pretty sure there will be other studies that suggest something else.”

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Online:

Science: http://www.sciencemag.org

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Reported by MALCON RITTER of the Associated Press. He can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/malcolmritter

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School canceled due for spiders

The Steodata nobilis is commonly called the "False Black Widow."

The Steodata nobilis is commonly called the “False Black Widow.”

Creepy crawlies, in the form of a venomous spider infestation, has forced a school in Britain to close a week before Halloween.

The Dean Academy, a secondary school in southwest England’s Gloucestershire, said it was closing Wednesday to get rid of the false widow spiders. The spiders are commonly mistaken for their relative, the black widow spider, whose bite can be fatal.
The school said no one has been bitten by the spider but local health authorities have advised it to close for the day to deal with the infestation.

Experts say the Steodata nobilis, a species of the false widow, are becoming more common in the U.K. and are the most dangerous of the 12 species of biting spiders known in Britain.

But they stress that spider bites are rare in Britain, and in most cases the symptoms are mild. The spider’s bite may sting, swell up or cause discomfort like a wasp sting, but has not been known to cause deaths.

“They’re not aggressive spiders, they don’t seek out humans,” said David Lalloo, a professor at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

“Most people won’t get much of a reaction. Some people may feel a bit unwell for a day or two, but that’s very rare,” he said.

Reported by the Associated Press from LONDON.

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Olympians will get up close look at Rio’s resident reptiles

In this Oct. 14, 2013 photo, ecology professor Ricardo Freitas catches a broad-snouted caiman to examine, then release back into the water channel in the affluent Recreio dos Bandeirantes suburb of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “Caimans are like tanks, a very old species with a remarkable capacity for renovation that allows them to survive under extreme conditions where others couldn’t,” said Freitas, who runs the Instituto Jacare, or the Caiman Institute, which aims to protect the reptiles. “But the fact of the matter is that their days are numbered if things don’t change drastically.” (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Ecology professor Ricardo Freitas catches a broad-snouted caiman to examine, then release back into the water channel in the affluent Recreio dos Bandeirantes suburb of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)


Oh, the glories of Rio that await spectators and athletes at the 2016 Olympics: Those beaches, that music, the dramatic mountains. And then there are a few thousand alligator-like creatures slithering through sewage-like lagoons.

Some 5,000 to 6,000 broad-snouted caimans live in fetid lagoon systems of western Rio de Janeiro, conservationists say, and there’s a chance that visitors could have an encounter with one, though experts hasten to add that the caimans, smaller and less aggressive than alligators or crocodiles, are not considered a threat to humans.

Some of the animals have already taken refuge in ponds being built inside the Olympic golf course, which abuts a once pristine mangrove-filled lagoon that’s now thick with tons of raw sewage pumped from nearby high-end condominiums.

In fact, with two decades of anarchic growth decimating natural habitats, the hardy caimans have become an increasingly common sight in the urban heart of western Rio, drawn in part by the scraps tossed to them by humans.

Olympics: The district is the main hub for 2016 Games and site of the Olympic village, though most events will take place in indoor facilities. One exception is the golf course, where some caimans have taken up residence in lakes. Wildlife on golf courses isn’t uncommon, with alligators spotted on greens in Florida and kangaroos bounding around courses in Australia.

Conservationists say Olympic organizers are beginning to examine what to do about the reptiles on the still-unfinished golf course.

The caimans congregate in a canal in the affluent Recreio dos Bandeirantes suburb that’s sandwiched between two busy thoroughfares. Beach-bound mothers with toddlers in strollers, neighbors out to walk the dog and pizza delivery boys pause on a narrow wooden footbridge over the canal to observe the caimans, whose brown color camouflages them in the brackish, sulfuric waters.

Survival: With few fish surviving in the polluted waters, caiman increasingly rely on handouts from humans, which can range from raw chicken to crackers, sometimes still in their plastic packages. They also feed on birds and the sewer rats that emerge from the culverts.

“Caimans are like tanks, a very old species with a remarkable capacity for renovation that allows them to survive under extreme conditions where others couldn’t,” said Ricardo Freitas, an ecology professor who runs the Instituto Jacare, or the Caiman Institute, which aims to protect the reptiles. “But the fact of the matter is that their days are numbered if things don’t change drastically.”

With a population that’s 85 percent male, a serious demographic problem is looming for Rio’s caimans, said Freitas, who suspects that the uncontrolled release of raw sewage is behind the gender imbalance. Organic matter raises water warmer and among caimans, high temperatures during a certain stage of incubation result in male offspring.

While a few caimans wander from the canal, sometimes getting hit by cars, Freitas said he is aware of only one other person attacked by a caiman, a fisherman who was superficially bitten after he stepped on one.

Freitas himself has grabbed and tagged 400 of the reptiles over the past decade. He wades into the toxic sludge, slips a metal lasso around their heads and taps expertly on their snapping jaws until he’s able to tape them shut. While local caimans average about 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) long and weigh about 10 kilograms (22 pounds), older males can be up to twice as long and much heavier. Still, Freitas has been known to dive into the water to catch some with his bare hands.

“I was only bitten once, on the hand,” he said. “It was fine, although it got super infected because of the state of the water.”

Reported by JENNY BARCHFIELD of the Associated Press from RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil.

Brazilian caimans average about 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) long and weigh about 10 kilograms (22 pounds), older males can be up to twice as long and much heavier. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Brazilian caimans average about 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) long and weigh about 10 kilograms (22 pounds), older males can be up to twice as long and much heavier. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

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