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The Best Animal Stories of 2012

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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By Jason G. Goldman and Matt Soniak

Humans have a complicated relationship with our non-human cousins. Some animals we invite into our homes, and treat as members of our families. Indeed, in November of this year singer Fiona Apple made headlines when she announced that she would cancel the South American segment of her tour to be with her dying dog. Some animals we brine, barbecue, bake, roast, fry, or saute. Strong opinions were expressed on all sides of the issue when a law passed by the California state legislature went into effect on July 1, banning the sale of foie gras. Still other animals we’d prefer to avoid entirely even while remaining endlessly fascinated by them. When Hurricane Sandy poured down upon New York City, one question on everyone’s mind was what would become of the subterranean rat populations, living deep underneath the city streets?

Whatever anyone’s personal thoughts about animals place within human society, stories about animals have a unique ability to captivate us. To celebrate our relationship with the rest of animalkind, we’ve compiled a list of what we consider to be the best animal stories of 2012. Some are scientifically important. Some provide commentary on the human-animal connection. Some are funny, quirky, or surprising. Some just made us smile. Here are our picks for the best animal stories of 2012.

Best tool-using species
As each year passes, more and more species are inducted into the club of the tool-wielding, making the group less and less exclusive. This year, a male Goffin’s cockatoo ( Cacatua goffiniana) named Figaro from the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna paved the way for the inclusion of his species among the tool users of the world. Parrots such as cockatoos have long been known for their linguistic abilities. Now that there’s evidence for the possibility of tool use, researchers can begin to probe the relationship between language and tool use. Clever captive cockatoo creates tool, a first for his species by Jason; The Innovative Cockatoo by Virginia Morell.

Best Piece of Jargon We Learned this Year
Since the 1930s, we’ve been calling the chemical cocktail released by anxious fish – which they use to warn others of danger – schreckstoff, an excellent term that means “scary stuff” in German. All that time, we didn’t know what it was made of, though. This year, writes Ferris Jabr at Scientific American, researchers from Singapore and Switzerland, think they’ve isolated schreckstoff‘s key ingredient, “a sugarlike molecule named glycosaminoglycan (GAG) chondroitin.”

Best new species that was hiding in plain sight
Last summer, in a piece at the New York Times, Carl Zimmer reported that some scientists estimate that there are some 8.7 million species populating our planet (give or take 1.3 million; some scientists think the number is actually far higher). Many of the still undescribed species are microbes and fungi, others are found only in tiny corners of the world, and hundreds if not thousands are certainly gathering dust in museum basements. More surprising, however, is that a monkey species new to science might be found in the backyard of a local school director in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a pet tethered to a post. The new species, called the Lesula monkey or Cercopithecus lomamiensis, is only the second new monkey species discovered in Africa in 28 years, after the Highland mangabey (Lophocepus kipunji) of Tanzania. Lesula: New species of African monkey discovered by Becky Crew.

A Reminder of What Sea Level Rise Can Do
The Caribbean is home to more than a few bat species today, but fossil evidence says that there was a lot more of them 25,000 years and many of them lived on parts of the islands that are now under water. What happened to them? One major driver of extinction, Annalee Newitz explains at io9, was sea level rise. As glaciers melted, the water came in and the edges of the island disappeared, causing a loss of habitat that the bats couldn’t bear.

Gorillas outsmart humans
Animal cognition researchers get excited whenever they see stunning examples of animal cooperation. They also get excited whenever they see younger animals learning from the older, more experienced members of their social groups. When both of those things occur simultaneously, as juvenile gorillas disable poachers’ snares, the story becomes not only impressive, but also heartwarming. Snares, while illegal, are quite common in Rwanda and are especially dangerous for the mountain gorillas who live in the area. Especially vulnerable are the youngest gorillas, who may not have the experience yet to identify and avoid them. Imagine the awe that John Ndayambaje, a field data coordinator for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, must have felt when a silverback shouted a warning call to prevent him – a human! – from approaching the snare, only to then watch two juveniles and an adult work together to disable the snare, as well as a second snare that he hadn’t even noticed. Unpacking just how sophisticated the cognitive mechanisms are that can lead to such swift, coordinated behavior is a daunting task, but on its surface, it seems as if the gorillas were acting with intention in a highly efficient, practiced manner. Exploring the Mind of the Mountain Gorilla by Kimberly Gerson.

Rest in Peace, Lonesome George
Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni), died this June. He was more than 100 years old. In his death, the world lost an individual animal, a subspecies of tortoise and as the International Union for Conservation of Nature called him, a “symbol of our global never-ending struggle to preserve the richness and diversity and beauty of the planet we inherited.” Many great stories focused on one of those three aspects, and considered what George’s loss means in the larger picture. Alejandra Martins talked to Fausto Llerena, George’s keeper and best friend, on mongabay.com. Virginia Hughes looked at the sex life, or lack thereof, of this “most awkward of virgins” at The Last Word on Nothing. Matt Bardo asked just how much the loss of a subspecies means, genetically speaking, at BBC Nature. Ira Flatow talked to Linda Cayot, scientific advisor to the Galapagos Conservancy, about what George meant to biodiversity in the Galapagos on NPR. Kim Tingley asks if an “an individual ‘face’” for extinction, like George, “actually prevents us from asking the kinds of uncomfortable questions that might significantly improve our larger conservation efforts” at OnEarth.

Primates are not pets
Monkeys typically do not wear double-breasted shearling coats, they don’t usually wear diapers, and they never shop at Ikea. Earlier this month, however, a five-month-old Japanese macaque was discovered wearing the coat and diaper running around an Ikea parking lot in Toronto, Canada. While the monkey – named Darwin – will now be socialized with other monkeys and cared for properly at the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary in Canada, the story serves as an important reminder for why wild animals are not suitable pets. When monkeys who have been raised as humans transition into adulthood, with the strength, aggressiveness, and muscle power (and teeth!) that accompany their maturation, the story always ends the same: the animal winds up dead or abandoned. In the best cases, the animal might wind up in a zoo where even the best of care can’t entirely undo the years of being socialized with the wrong species. The best thing for Darwin was always being a monkey. Since he’s still relatively young, I suspect his chances for full monkey recovery at the primate sanctuary are good. Does Darwin the IKEA monkey need a human mother? by Andrew Westoll.

Best Use of Recycling by a Non-Human
Tobacco plants use nicotine to defend themselves against hungry bugs. Birds, it turns out, use the the chemical for the same purpose, but get it from a strange source. By lining their nests with discarded cigarette butts, birds protect their kids from parasites. Hannah Waters at Culturing Science calls the study a “wonderful example of wildlife adaptation to urbanization–or at least that birds are resourceful and can still follow their noses in urban environments.”

Best animal story that should not have been news
Grandpa is the name of a forty year old black handed spider monkey that lives at the Staten Island Zoo. He’s something of a local celebrity, having successfully “predicted” not only the winners of this year’s Super Bowl but also six out of nine U.S. Open winners. Given a choice between six bananas labeled with the names of those in the Republican primary race, he picked the one assigned to Newt Gingrich. Maybe Grandpa should stick to sports, or perhaps the idea of animal psychics is even more ridiculous than the notion that humans can foretell the future. In order, he ate Newt’s banana, followed by Rick Santorum’s, then Rick Perry’s, and finally Jon Huntsman’s banana. The Romney banana, along with Ron Paul’s, became a snack for a nearby female spider monkey. Grandpa the spider monkey picks Gingrich to win N.H. primary, via NY Daily News.

Best Rhetorical Lede
“If a penguin falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, I don’t know what kind of forest that is…” muses Elizabeth Preston on Inkfish. What’s clearer is that, in the Antarctic, there are plenty of people around to hear and see everything Antarctic penguins do, and they’re changing the nature of the birds. Ecologists found that the familiarity that comes with regular interaction with humans makes the birds more tolerant to stress, maybe because they’d gotten used to being harassed by humans, or maybe because the most stress-sensitive penguins had already fled human-heavy territory. Either way, people are inadvertently practicing a kind of artificial selection on penguins by getting too cozy with them.

Best blog fodder
Ah, springtime. The snow is thawing, flowers are blooming, many species are giving birth. Humans mark the season in their own ways as well – Christians give up eating meat for Lent while Jewish people turn to matzah instead of bread for Passover. In Ethiopia, even the spotted hyenas get spring fever. They replace their typical meals with donkeys, thanks to the Ethiopian holiday Abye Tsome. If you’re a regular reader of animal blogs, you know the rest of this story. Hyenas are treated in the big cities of Ethiopia as “municipal workers” – they scavenge the leftovers of meat left out by humans. In other words, they eat garbage. But when humans give up eating meat for the holiday, the hyenas’ supply of table scraps dwindles, so they predate instead on livestock. This causes problems for the human farmers, which, as you might expect, causes further problems for the hyenas. It’s an important story about how humans and non-human animals interact within a larger ecosystem, but it’s included in our year-end compilation for a different reason. The story, which served as obvious blog-ready material for many of us, shows how different writers can approach the same story in different yet equally engaging ways. Hyenas Give Up Eating Garbage for Lent, Hunt Donkeys Instead by Jason; Giving up trash for Lent: How a human custom forces hyenas to hunt by Matt; Hyenas Fast During Lent Too by Liz Preston; In run-up to Easter, fasting Ethiopians force hyenas to kill donkeys by Ed Yong.

The Best “Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men” Story
Rabies in Latin America usually comes from vampire bats, and governments usually respond by culling them. Yet the disease is on the rise, and scientists reported this summer that every colony they examined showed signs of infections. Those colonies that were periodically culled, Erik Stokstad reports for ScienceNOW, had higher rates of exposure. It seems that the cull method kills adults, which are more likely to have acquired resistance to the rabies virus and not spread it, and spares more juvenile bats that are susceptible to developing rabies. The standard solution, it appears, has backfired, and reminds us that “host-pathogen systems are complex and can respond to management in unexpected ways.”

Most heartwarming animals that pretend to be people
Can animals learn to communicate with humans? Well, that depends what you mean by “communicate.” All the training in the world can’t teach language to an animal. But that doesn’t mean that some animals can’t fool us. This year, two stories appeared within weeks of each other about animals that learned to mimic human speech. NOC is the name of a beluga whale who was the guest of the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego who produced sounds that, as Ed Yong put it, sounded like “a drunkard playing a kazoo.” Two weeks later, Koshik, a twenty year old Asian elephant at a Korean zoo made headlines for his ability to mimic at least seven Korean words. Writing at Double X Science, Emily Willingham pointed out that “when Korean speakers came in as stenographers for his communication, they could clearly distinguish his words.” The beluga and elephant aren’t speaking English or Korean any more than than the lyrebird speaks chainsaw. But as vocal learners, they could provide researchers with insight into how speech is acquired.

Best Feel-Good Invertebrate Story of the Year
The United States Army, in addition to protecting the country’s citizens, is obligated to protect threatened and endangered non-humans on its installations. In Hawaii, that means protecting kahuli tree snails from cannibalistic Rosy wolfsnails, chameleons and rodents. To give give the snails a safe haven, writes John R. Platt at Extinction Countdown, the army constructed a predator-proof enclosure about the size of a basketball court to house three hundred snails.

Photo: Allen’s Swamp Monkeys at the San Diego Zoo, copyright Jason G. Goldman.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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