TIME animals

Say Hello to the Akron Zoo’s New Baby Snow Leopards

The rare cubs were born last month

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After Snow Leopard couple Shanti and Roscoe gave birth to twin baby snow leopards just two years ago, the couple was blessed again with a new pair of fluffy little leopards. The babies — one girl and one boy — were born April 14th.

Considering there are only 4,000 Snow Leopards left in the wild and just 155 in the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan, the double twins are more than twice as nice. Shanti and her cubs will remain inside until late June for health reasons, but here’s a behind the scenes look at their lives.

TIME animals

This Zoo Is Selling Exotic Animal Poop

Frank Cummins, horticulturist at Binder Park Zoo, holds some of the manure/compost the zoo will have for sale, in Battle Creek, Mich. on May 27, 2014. John Grap—The Enquirer/AP

Michigan gardeners can buy giraffe, zebra, and antelope dung for their soils.

A zoo in southern Michigan is selling truckloads of giraffe, zebra, and antelope manure to gardeners to raise money, The Associated Press reports via the Kalamazoo Gazette and the Battle Creek Enquirer.

Droppings from about 20 different animals at Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek have been incorporated into this garden manure, horticulturalist Frank Cummins told Fox 17.

To avoid the transmission of diseases, “We don’t include carnivore or monkey poop,” Jenny Barnett, the zoo’s Director of Wildlife, Conservation & Education, told the Kalamazoo Gazette.

A truck or trailer load costs $30 for people who are not members of the zoo.

 

TIME animals

Here Are Some Otters Tickling the Ivories

They're actually pretty good if you cut them a bit of slack. Since, you know, they're otters

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A group of Asian small-clawed otters got a chance to show off their musical talents by playing a keyboard at the National Zoo. (It’s part of their “enrichment” program.)

Some are total slackers and just hang back, riding on the coattails of the other otters. But those who go for it, well, they really go for it. Bravo.

TIME

Start Your Day Off Right With This Video of Adorable Bear Cubs Play Fighting

Too bad they'll grow up to become vicious predators

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There is absolutely nothing cuter than this pair of black bear cubs just frolicking around a yard and pouncing on each other as their momma bear has a quick nosh nearby.

You might want to turn your volume down, though, because as HyperVocal points out, the guy who filmed this is a major mouthbreather.

TIME animals

This Cat Is Suspiciously Good at Jenga

This must be some kind of conspiracy

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Somewhere in the world, there exists a cat who plays Jenga. As John Keats once said, “That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”

TIME Environment

Your Ant Farm Is Smarter Than Google

Ants carry leaves to their nest
As a collective, ants are efficient and surprisingly intelligent Moment Select via Getty Images

Ant colonies are surprisingly efficient at forming intelligent networks that can rapidly spread information, according to a new study

Ants may have the largest brains of any insect, but that doesn’t mean a single ant on its own is all that smart. As individual ants leave their nest in search of food, they walk in what appear to be random paths, hoping to come across something to eat. The behavior of hundreds of scout ants circling their nests on a hunt for sustenance can be chaotic as it looks, like drunks stumbling about the house in search of their keys. The ants will search for food until they’re exhausted, then return to the nest to briefly eat and rest before heading back out again.

But as a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences makes clear, something amazing happens when an individual ant finds a food source. The ant will take a bit of the food back to the nest, leaving a trail of pheromones behind them to mark the path. A wave of ants will then attempt to follow the path back to the food source, but because pheromones evaporate quickly, their behavior will still look chaotic as they attempt to home in on the food.

Over time, though, the ants will organize their search, optimizing the best and shortest path between the food and the nest. As more ants follow the optimal path back and forth, they leave more and more pheromones, which in turn attracts more and more ants, creating a self-reinforcing efficiency effect. The chaotic, seemingly random foraging of individual ants is replaced with organized precision. Working as one, the ants create the sort of distribution networks a traffic engineer could only dream of.

“While the single ant is certainly not smart, the collective acts in a way that I’m tempted to call intelligent,” said study co-author Jurgen Kurths of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Reseaerch, in a statement. “The ants collectively form a highly efficient complex network.”

That’s not all the study found. The researchers also discovered that individual ants differ in their ability to find food. Over time older ants gather more experience about the environment surrounding their nests, which makes it easier for them to forage effectively, even though their age means they tire faster than young ants. The young ants are more like interns—their lack of experience means they can’t contribute much to foraging, but they are effectively learning on the job. (No word on whether they get course credit.)

Even though individual ants can get smarter over time as they learn more about their surrounding environment, the real ant intelligence is in the collective. Just how advanced are their search capabilities? Good enough to rival our best technology, at least. Google’s search engine forages for information on the Web in much the same way an ant colony looks for food. Google’s webcrawlers scour the Internet, bringing data about individual pages back to Google’s servers, where that information is indexed, sharpening the company’s picture of the ever-evolving Internet as it is—just as ants learn more and more about their environment over time. Google’s search algorithms use hundreds of signals to find the most efficient and accurate answer to any search query—just as the ant colony quickly organizes itself to find the most efficient path to a food source once it has been discovered by scouts.

But Kurths believes that ants are actually much more efficient at organizing data than a collective of human beings using the Internet could ever be, as he told the Independent:

I’d go so far as to say that the learning strategy involved in that, is more accurate and complex than a Google search. These insects are, without doubt, more efficient than Google in processing information about their surroundings.

Which doesn’t mean you should ask the closest ant colony, rather than Google, when you want to find out what time the Super Bowl is on. But in a digitally connected world where the network is quickly becoming smarter and more efficient than any individual, ants are apparently ahead of the game.

TIME Australia

Animal-Welfare Groups Hopping Mad Over Canberra’s Kangaroo Cull

Eastern gray kangaroos graze near Canberra Élodie Raitière—AFP/Getty Images

The Australian Capital Territory wants to reduce the number of kangaroos hopping about town for environmental reasons. But animal-rights groups are challenging the cull in court, saying the science isn't conclusive just yet

The old cliché about kangaroos hopping down the streets of Australia happens to be true in the national capital Canberra. Set 150 km from the east coast, among vast eucalyptus forests that are heavily prone to drought, the city’s parks, gardens, golf courses and sports grounds have proved irresistible to the iconic marsupial that is featured alongside the emu on Australia’s coat of arms. In fact, some of Canberra’s nature reserves boast the highest densities of kangaroos on the continent.

“Seeing kangaroos in urban areas is one of the best aspects of living in Canberra,” says Tara Ward, a legislative drafter with the Department of the Environment. “It’s one of the top things tourists want to see here because they don’t have to go for long drives to see our native animals.”

Yet interactions between humans and kangaroos can easily turn sour. In 2009, a kangaroo crashed through the window of a Canberra home, terrorized a family and gouged holes in their furniture until it escaped through an open door. In 2010, a footballer was knocked unconscious when he ran into a kangaroo in a Canberra park, while another man received deep gashes to his legs last year when he collided with one on a front lawn during his morning jog. “We both got a nasty fright — and of course when kangaroos are startled they lash out,” the victim, the capital territory’s minister for territory and municipal services Shane Rattenbury, said at the time.

In seeming contradiction to the philosophies of the Australian Greens party he represents, Rattenbury is now spearheading Canberra’s controversial kangaroo cull. Introduced in 2008 to prevent overgrazing, this year’s shoot puts over 1,600 eastern gray kangaroos in the cross hairs. “The primary goal of the conservation cull is to maintain kangaroos at sustainable densities to minimize the impact of heavy grazing on other native fauna and flora,” explains the Territory and Municipal Services website. “High numbers of kangaroos can eat down the ground-layer vegetation so it is no longer able to provide food and shelter for small animals.”

Australian National University conservation expert Professor David Lindenmayer says the science behind the cull is solid. “These woodlands were designed to have major predators like Tasmanian tigers, dingoes and Aboriginal hunters that were the key processes of population regulation,” he says. “And now we have significant amounts of extra water and grass, so it’s a double whammy.”

He adds, “Herbivore overpopulation is not just happening here, but in the U.S. and Patagonia with deer and with other species in different parts of the world. So for animal-welfare groups to say there is no evidence of it happening is like people saying there is no evidence of climate change. The data is very strong.”

Yet one of those welfare groups, Animal Liberation ACT, has thrown the demand for evidence-based environmental management back in the Establishment’s face. Earlier this month, the group’s lawyers, the Animal Defenders Office, persuaded a judge to grant a stay against the kangaroo cull on the basis that the government has failed in its duty to prove the kangaroo cull had improved biodiversity over the past six years.

“They have not collected any baseline data or monitoring data on the conditions of other species on the reserves they say they are saving,” says legislative drafter Ward, who moonlights as a volunteer with the Animal Defenders Office. “If the government wants to go and kill more than 1,600 healthy wild animals, we have to be clear that the science is impeccable before we let them do that.”

“And remember, those 1,600 deaths don’t take into account the joeys that have to be brutally dispatched by shooters after they’ve killed their mothers,” she says. “Part of the applicant’s contention is that it is impossible to carry this out without cruelty being involved.”

David Nicholls, a 70-year-old farmer who spent his whole life working in the bush — two years as a “roo shooter” — agrees. “You try to get clean head shots but it’s difficult because kangaroos are very jumpy — the slightest noise or change in the wind startles them,” he says. “You tell me which Olympic shooter can achieve 100% clean shots every time, even in perfect conditions? The clean-head-shot theory is a myth.”

The hearing to indefinitely end Canberra’s kangaroo cull commences on Thursday and concludes on June 2. In a bid to cool tempers, Rattenbury’s office has announced plans to use the drug deslorelin to neuter 500 eastern grays on a trial basis — the largest neutering drive ever performed on kangaroos. But with costs projected at $830 per animal — three times what it costs to shoot them — and data showing deslorelin can cause cancer, the trial isn’t expected to go mainstream anytime soon. “And even if it does work, those nonbreeding animals will continue to eat large amounts of food throughout their lives,” says Lindenmayer.

“The reality is this debate is not about science or the environment. It’s about people’s value sets,” he says. “Some people look at the world from a purely utilitarian viewpoint; others have a strictly bioethical position.”

TIME animals

Dog That Was Chased Away by Heroic Cat Has Been Put Down

Scrappy, a labrador-chow mix, was euthanized despite opposition from animal groups and online petitioners

The infamous dog that attacked a four-year-old child only to be fended off by a heroic cat in an episode caught on video has been put down, TMZ reports.

The dog, Scrappy, a mix between a labrador and a chow, was euthanized by animal control in Bakersfield, Calif. on Saturday. TMZ reports that the dog was aggressive even during his stay at the center, where he tried to attack staff members.

The video of the incident has been viewed more than 21 million times since it was uploaded to YouTube on May 14.

But thousands of people had signed onto online petitions like this one requesting that the dog, who was voluntarily surrendered to animal control, not be euthanized.

Tara, the “hero cat” who launched herself at the dog in the video, threw out the first pitch at a minor league baseball game last week.

[TMZ]

TIME animals

Here’s a Berry Good Video of a Bunny Eating Raspberries

A fruitful experience

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You knew bunnies ate carrots, but did you know they eat raspberries, too?

TIME animals

Evolution, What Were You Thinking?

Biologists tend to talk about evolution as the ultimate designer, perfecting the design of animals and plants over millions of years to be perfectly tuned to their environment. Think of the polar bear, able to withstand freezing temperatures, blend in with their snowy habitat and swim long distances from one ice floe to another–or sharks, the ultimate, streamlined aquatic killing machines.

But then you come across the ridiculous gerenuk, and you begin to think…WTF, evolution? That was journalist Mara Grunbaum’s reaction to this and other absurd-looking or bizarrely-acting creatures, anyway.

“I kept coming across these organisms that were strangely engineered, or just plain bizarre” Grunbaum said, “and kept wondering, ‘how on Earth did this happen?”

About a year ago, Grunbaum collected enough examples that she wanted to share them. The result: a Tumblr page titled (what else?) WTF, Evolution?, and, says Grunbaum, “it’s kind of taken off.” In fact, she has about 100,000 followers on the Tumblr and thousands more on her Facebook page. Soon, she’ll even be publishing a book that compiles some of the best examples.

The images are crazy enough; if you think a duck-billed platypus looks odd or that a camel seems like a horse that was designed by committee, you haven’t seen anything yet. But Grunbaum’s commentaries, which consist of brief, incredulous conversations with evolution itself, are frequently hilarious.

Most of her followers, Grunbaum reports, get the joke. They understand that the best adaptations don’t necessarily look pretty (and she gives readers links and other information to explain why a particular oddity is in fact highly adaptive). She’s gotten a few comments to the effect that these absurdities of nature disprove evolution entirely. Only God could create such creatures, they believe.

But of course, that raises another question: if God is perfect, how could he (or she) have such abysmally bad taste? WTF or not, evolution is clearly in charge.

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