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The Best Animal Stories of 2013

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

It should come as no surprise that we humans can be a bit confused when it comes to our relationship with other animals. We live in a society that is at once captivated by the National Zoo’s panda-cam and repulsed by the story of killer whale capture told in Blackfish. So, are we for or against caring for animals in captive environments like zoos and aquaria? Well, it’s complicated. But wherever you come down on these kinds of questions, one thing is certain: we seriously love our animal stories. So, following from our 2012 list, Matt Soniak and I have put our heads together and come up with our picks for the best animal stories of 2012.

Most Awesome New Species of the Year
Quite a few new species were introduced to the world this year, with a few last minute contenders, like a new tapir in Brazil, or the southern tigrina, also in Brazil, that was hiding in plain sight all these years. (Which makes us wonder: what other new species lurk in Brazil?) But the hands-down winner for most awesome new species announced this year has to be the olinguito. The olinguito is not only adorable, but it’s also the first new carnivore discovered in the Western hemisphere in thirty five years! Lots of folks wrote about the olinguito, but head on over to Brian Malow’s blog to watch a video in which he interviews Roland Kays, one of the co-discoverers of the new species, which Becky Crew described as a cross between a housecat and a teddy bear.

The High Price of Conservation
This isn’t an animal story per say, but an still important one if you think animals are worth protecting from harm and exploitation. On May 31, the body of sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval was found on a beach in Costa Rica. Sandoval had been kidnapped the night before along with four other volunteers by a gang of masked men while surveying sea turtle nesting sites. The group was separated after they were abducted and the others managed to escape, but Sandoval was stripped, bound, beaten and then shot in the head before being dumped on the beach. He was twenty-six years old. Sandoval’s death is a tragedy, and a part of an even larger one: the growing number of conservationists and environmentalists who have been killed for trying to protect wildlife or natural resources or ecosystems. Mongabay’s Jeremy Hance wrote about Sandoval’s life and death, and Fred Pearce wrote about the dangers that conservationists face for Yale 360.

High-Flying Frog
The internet loves animals, and loves animals in surprising places even more. So when a photo emerged showing a frog flying alongside NASA’s Minotaur V rocket as it lifted off from it’s launchpad in Virginia in September carrying the LADEE spacecraft towards the moon it was an immediate hit. It then went completely viral. As Jason wrote in The Guardian, “It may have been, as Megan Garber put it at The Atlantic, ‘one small step for a frog’ and ‘one giant leap for frogkind’, but this acrobatic amphibian was actually not the first to cross paths with space-faring institutions such as NASA.” The airborne critter allowed us a chance to look back on the rich history of frogs in spaceflight.

Here There Be Monsters
2013 was the year that cute animals got there comeuppance and were exposed for what they are: animals. Yes, kids, believe it or not, even cute wittle fuzzy critters kill, eat, shit, screw and do other gross, horrible and not cute things. The crew at The Last Word on Nothing went all out with “Snark Week” this summer: invasive rabbits, 10,000 species of awful stinging velvet ants, boat-devouring crustaceans and marauding, sheep-killing parrots with “a glint of sociopathy in their beady little eyes.” Brian Switek, meanwhile, christened Wild Things, Slate’s new wildlife blog, with tales of sea otters “humping and drowning baby seals,” dolphin rapists and necrophiliac penguins

A Shark That Walks
The olinguito may be our pick for best new species, but we can’t miss the opportunity to give an honorable mention to a new species of shark that was filmed off the coast of Indonesia that uses its fins to walk across the seafloor. You have to see the video video of the startling behavior in Alan Boyle’s post at NBC News.

“If anybody has a Jeep in the parking lot, there’s a gator underneath it.”
In the middle of the 145,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge sits NASA’s NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “It’s like putting an office park in the Amazon, a surreal intersection of the primal and the modern,” writes Modern Farmer’s Jesse Hirsch, who went to Kennedy to find out what happens when a rocket scientist comes face to face with a rattlesnake and gators can wander freely into office buildings.

I Just Wanna Dance!
In April, researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz described the dancing abilities of a California sea lion named Ronan. More accurately, Ronan showed evidence of rhythmic entrainment; that is, he could move his body in sync with the beat of an external stimulus. In this case, that stimulus was the music of the Backstreet Boys. Is Ronan the first non-human mammal dancer? Well, it depends on whether you require a controlled experiment, or if you’re satisfied with anecdotal observations. But even if he’s not strictly the first non-human mammal to dance in the scientific literature, Ronan is still a winner.

Sympathy for the Devil
Plenty of stories have covered the plight of the Tasmanian Devil over the last few years as they’ve been besieged by a contagious facial cancer. Some stories have been sad, some have been hopeful, but almost all of them have focused exclusively on the devils themselves. As Tasmania’s top predators, though, the devils are a keystone species on the island, and their extinction or a huge loss in their numbers will send shockwaves through ecosystem. Already, Michelle Nijhuis writes at LWON, scientists are finding that on the parts of the island where the devils have suffered the facial tumors longer, the populations of feral cats are larger. The loss of a predator, Nijhuis reminds us, “causes a boom in its prey — and a consequent power shift that’s felt throughout the food web.” In the devil, you risk losing not just an animal, but a force that brings some order and balance to a small patch of the world.

A Conservation Success Story
“It requires a great deal of patience and more than a few days to get to the few remaining habitats of the La Hotte land frog (Eleutherodactylus bakeri) in Haiti,” writes John Platt. “First you rent a pickup truck in Port-au-Prince. Then you drive 11 hours west down the Tiburon Peninsula. At one point the road passes through a river where you may need to wait up to three days until the waters are low enough to cross. After that you start driving up the steep, scarred roads of the Massif de la Hotte mountain range. Finally, you reach an area where you can drive no farther. You hire a local crew of porters and guides and hike for another four hours. Only then, at an elevation of about 1,800 meters, do you find yourself in a tiny fragment of a once-massive forest.”

Most of Haiti has been completely deforested, and the few remaining fragments of untouched land probably won’t remain untouched for long. So in 2010, the Philadelphia Zoo rounded up 154 frogs from nine species established a captive breeding program. This year, the zoo announced that it now holds more than 1500 Haitian frogs, Platt reports, all of whom are descendents from the original 154. The winner was the La Hotte land frog, of which the zoo holds about 1200. Conservationists and zoo biologists hope to soon reintroduce the species back into the wild within a protected area.

Zombies vs Animals
One thing that horror movies tend to forget is that the zombie apocalypse doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Aside from whatever cast of plucky survivors we’re following, there are plenty of other life forms out there that zombies will have to contend with (Zombi is the lone exception I have seen that shows us the living dead interacting with wildlife). Some are be ripe for the picking of delicious brains, but others pose as much of a threat as a shotgun blast to the head. On BoingBoing, National Wildlife Federation naturalist David Mizejewski took us on a quick safari tour of North American animals – from carrion-eating birds to stealthy jaguars to trampling bison – that could easily turn a zombie horde into prey.

Best Clickbait of 2013
These Sea Slugs Penetrate Each Other In The Head During Sex. Lots of people covered the story, but perhaps the most fun, lyrical take was from Ed Yong. It’s a real, um… headfuck.

When Parrot Met Parasite
Matt’s going to toot his own horn here for a second and call out something he wrote, not because he found his own prose so riveting, but because he’s still obsessed with the story’s chubby green main character almost a year later. This is the story of a flightless Muppet-esque parrot and a parasitic plant that lives underground. They’re both from New Zealand, they’re both weird and they’re both in dire straits. Thanks to some ancient pieces of poop, though, scientists recently figured out that these two used to have some strong ecological ties, even though no one had ever known their ranges to overlap since humans arrived on the islands. Now, conservationists think, with a little ecological matchmaking, one species can help save the other, an idea that one reader called “mad scientist-level genius.” Matt’s article and some bonus material are both at Mental Floss.

When the King of the Jungle Just Wants to Snuggle
If Matt’s going to toot his own horn, then Jason will too, simply because it is such a fun story. Life is tough if you’re a lion, and after a tough day of defending your territory, guarding your harem, finding food, and killing off your rivals’ cubs, you might just need a little cuddle. But it turns out that lion cuddles aren’t just a good way to end the day; they’re tactical. Think: Sun Tzu meets Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

And, while we’re at it, don’t miss David Quamman’s excellent Nat Geo feature story on lions. It’s easily Jason’s favorite science longread of 2013.

What did we miss? What were your favorite animal stories of 2013? Let us know in the comments, or by reaching out on twitter: @jgold85 and @flossymatt.

Image: Yellow-footed rock wallaby 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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