World's first all-female patrol protecting South Africa's rhinos
Unarmed Black Mambas recruited from local communities are guarding nature reserve inside the Greater Kruger national park
Thursday 26 February 2015 08.00 GMT Last modified on Thursday 26 February 2015 08.58 GMT
The battle against the poaching that kills a rhino every seven hours in South Africa has acquired a new weapon: women.
The Black Mambas are all young women from local communities, and they patrol inside the Greater Kruger national park unarmed. Billed as the first all-female unit of its kind in the world, they are not just challenging poachers, but the status quo.
The Mambas are the brainchild of Craig Spencer, ecologist and head warden of Balule nature reserve, a private reserve within Kruger that borders hundreds of thousands of impoverished people.
The private reserve’s scientists and managers have had to become warriors, employing teams of game guards to protect not only the precious rhinos but lions, giraffes, and many other species targeted by poaching syndicates. The Mambas are their eyes and ears on the ground.
When the poaching crisis started – in 2007 just 13 rhino were killed in South Africa – Spencer saw other reserves within Kruger “taking out the same old rusty tools that we fought this same old war with a hundred times over, rather than to say, Hey! Let’s get better tools, newer tools!”
In Kruger rhinos are gunned down like this almost every day. This the Crime Scene Investigations Unit (names withheld to protect them) doing a post-mortem on a poached rhino to get the bullet that killed it so it can be linked the rifle that shot it, and then maybe the poacher himself. Only with good investigations can poachers be brought to justice. In Balule they have not lost a rhino in 11 months, warden Craig Spencer believes that the Black Mambas are responsible for the drop in deaths.
He developed an approach that he says addresses the huge economic and cultural divide between the wealthy reserves and local communities, which he believes drives poaching.
Arrests in Kruger show that the poaching crews are not only foreigners but local South Africans from poor communities. Rhino horn is priced higher than the street price of cocaine and Spencer says cash from poaching turns communities against the park.
“The problem really is that there is this perception that has developed in the communities outside the park, they see a uniformed official and think we are the sheriff of Nottingham, they see the poachers as Robin Hood.”
“We are not going to police the problem away,” he says, standing in the shade of an acacia. “This war will never be won with bullets.”
In a bid to engage communities outside the park fence, the reserve hired 26 local jobless female high-school graduates, and put them through an intensive tracking and combat training programme. Kitted out in second-hand European military uniforms, paid for by donations, the women were deployed throughout the 40,000 hectare reserve, unarmed but a visible police presence, like a British bobby.
The numbers suggest the approach works. In the last 10 months the reserve has not lost a rhino, while a neighbouring reserve lost 23. Snare poaching has dropped 90% percent.
Leitah Michabela has been working as a Black Mamba game guard for the last two years. “Lots of people said, how can you work in the bush when you are a lady? But I can do anything I want.”
She stops traffic at a small roadblock where, a few days later, a group of poachers were arrested before they could kill a rhino. “Many other people, especially young ladies like us, they want to join us,” she says.
Michabela and the other 26 Mambas are looked up to by the young women in her village as heroes, within the same communities the poachers come from. “I am a lady, I am going to have a baby. I want my baby to see a rhino, that’s why I am protecting it.”
The reserve uses a team of 29 armed guards, 26 unarmed Black Mambas, and an intelligence team that seeks to stop the poachers before they can kill. The Mambas main job is to be seen patrolling the fence. They also set up listening posts to hear vehicles, voices and gunshots and patrol the reserve on foot, calling in the armed guards whenever they find something.
Collette Ngobeni sits quietly on top of the landrover with a spotlight under the light of the full moon. She and her team can be seen from miles away, a visual reminder to any poacher of this communities’ commitment to protect their rhinos.
“If we work together as a community we can work this out. People need to open their minds, their hearts. Its not about money, its about our culture, our future,” she says.
Hunting with wolves: How humans outlasted the Neanderthals
Robin McKie, The Observer
28 Feb 2015 at 21:27 ET
Dogs are humanity’s oldest friends, renowned for their loyalty and abilities to guard, hunt and chase. But modern humans may owe even more to them than we previously realised. We may have to thank them for helping us eradicate our caveman rivals, the Neanderthals.
According to a leading US anthropologist, early dogs, bred from wolves, played a critical role in the modern human’s takeover of Europe 40,000 years ago when we vanquished the Neanderthal locals.
“At that time, modern humans, Neanderthals and wolves were all top predators and competed to kill mammoths and other huge herbivores,” says Professor Pat Shipman, of Pennsylvania State University. “But then we formed an alliance with the wolf and that would have been the end for the Neanderthal.”
If Shipman is right, she will have solved one of evolution’s most intriguing mysteries. Modern humans are known to have evolved in Africa. They began to emigrate around 70,000 years ago, reaching Europe 25,000 years later. The continent was then dominated by our evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, who had lived there for more than 200,000 years. However, within a few thousand years of our arrival, they disappeared.
The question is: what finished them off? Some scientists blame climate change. Most argue that modern humans – armed with superior skills and weapons – were responsible. Shipman agrees with the latter scenario, but adds a twist. We had an accomplice: the wolf.
Modern humans formed an alliance with wolves soon after we entered Europe, argues Shipman. We tamed some and the dogs we bred from them were then used to chase prey and to drive off rival carnivores, including lions and leopards, that tried to steal the meat.
“Early wolf-dogs would have tracked and harassed animals like elk and bison and would have hounded them until they tired,” said Shipman. “Then humans would have killed them with spears or bows and arrows.
“This meant the dogs did not need to approach these large cornered animals to finish them off – often the most dangerous part of a hunt – while humans didn’t have to expend energy in tracking and wearing down prey. Dogs would have done that. Then we shared the meat. It was a win-win situation.”
At that time, the European landscape was dominated by mammoths, rhinos, bison and several other large herbivores. Both Neanderthals and modern humans hunted them with spears and possibly bows and arrows. It would have been a tricky business made worse by competition from lions, leopards, hyenas, and other carnivores, including wolves.
“Even if you brought down a bison, within minutes other carnivores would have been lining up to attack you and steal your prey,” said Shipman. The answer, she argues, was the creation of the human-wolf alliance. Previously they separately hunted the same creatures, with mixed results. Once they joined forces, they dominated the food chain in prehistoric Europe – though this success came at a price for other species. First Neanderthals disappeared to be followed by lions, mammoths, hyenas and bison over the succeeding millennia. Humans and hunting dogs were, and still are, a deadly combination, says Shipman.
The idea is controversial, however, because it pushes back the origins of dog domestication so deeply into our past. Most scientists had previously argued the domestication of dogs, from tamed wolves, began with the rise of agriculture, 10,000 years ago, though other research has suggested it began earlier, around 15,000 years ago.
But Shipman places it before the last Ice Age, pointing to recent discoveries of 33,000-year-old fossil remains of dogs in Siberia and Belgium. Although they look quite like wolves, the fossils also show clear signs of domestication: snouts that are shorter, jaws that are wider and teeth that are more crowded than those of a wild wolf.
Thus we began to change the wolf’s appearance and over the millennia turned them into all the breeds of dog we have today, from corgis to great Danes. Intriguingly, they may have changed our appearances as well, says Shipman, whose book, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction , will be published this month. Consider the whites of our eyes, she states. The wolf possesses white sclera as does Homo sapiens though, crucially, it is the only primate that has them.
“The main advantage of having white sclera is that it is very easy to work out what another person is gazing at,” added Shipman. “It provides a very useful form of non-verbal communication and would have been of immense help to early hunters. They would been able to communicate silently but very effectively.”
Thus the mutation conferring white sclera could have become increasingly common among modern humans 40,000 years ago and would have conferred an advantage on those who were hunting with dogs.
By contrast, there is no evidence of any kind that Neanderthals had any relationship with dogs and instead they appear to have continued to hunt mammoths and elks on their own, a punishing method for acquiring food. Already stressed by the arrival of modern humans in Europe, our alliance with wolves would have been the final straw for Neanderthals.
Nor does the story stop in Europe, added Shipman. “I would see this as the beginning of the humans’ long invasion of the world. We took dogs with us wherever we went after our alliance formed in the palaeolithic. We took them to America and to the Pacific Islands. They made hunting easy and helped guard our food. It has been a very powerful alliance.”
RISE AND FALL OF NEANDERTHALS
250,000 years ago The first Neanderthals appear in Europe.
200,000 years The first modern humans appear in Africa.
70,000 years The first modern humans leave Africa.
50-60,000 years Modern humans and Neanderthals share territory in Middle East.
45,000 years Modern humans enter Europe.
40,000 years Neanderthals disappear.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015
Backyard crows bring gifts to 8-year-old girl who feeds them: ‘It’s showing me how much they love me’
27 Feb 2015 at 07:30 ET
Every morning, 8-year-old Gabi Mann and her mother fill their backyard birdbath with fresh water and cover bird-feeder platforms with peanuts, and then toss handfuls of dog food into the grass.
Crows gather as they work, calling loudly to them, and then quickly clear nuts from the feeders.
The birds often leave behind shiny trinkets – earrings, buttons, hinges, polished rocks – small enough to fit into their mouths, reported BBC.
Gabi said a bird once left behind part of a necklace with the word “best” printed on it.
“I don’t know if they still have the part that says ‘friend,’” she laughed.
The Seattle girl treasures the gifts, which she keeps catalogued by date and where the birds left the paper clips, Lego pieces, broken glass, and other baubles.
Gabi started feeding the crows by accident when she was 4 years old and prone to dropping food, the network reported.
The crows began watching for her – and the chicken nuggets and other goodies that sometimes fell from her lap – and she and her brother started sharing their lunches with the birds as Gabi got older and walked to the school bus stop.
“I like that they love the animals and are willing to share,” said their mother, Lisa Mann.
Mann said she paid little attention to the crows until her daughter took an interest in them.
“It was a kind of transformation,” she said. “I never thought about birds.”
She and Gabi began their daily feeding routine in 2013, and the gifts started appearing soon after.
“There’s definitely a two-way communication going on there,” said John Marzluff, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington. “They understand each other’s signals.”
Marzluff and a colleague, Mark Miller, have studied crows and the humans who feed them, and they found the two species can form personal relationships.
“If you want to form a bond with a crow, be consistent in rewarding them,” he said, recommending shelled peanuts because they’re a high-energy food that makes noise when it hits the ground.
Marzluff said crows sometimes deliver gifts such as dead baby birds that they might give to a mate during courtship, although he admits he’s never personally received any crow gifts.
“I can’t say they always will, but I have seen an awful lot of things crows have brought people,” he said.
The gifts aren’t entirely random, Mann said.
She often photographs the crows and other birds, and she lost her lens cap in a nearby alley a few weeks ago while photographing a bald eagle.
When she returned home, the lens cap was sitting on the edge of the birdbath.
Mann checked video from the surveillance camera she set up to record the birds and spotted a crow bringing the lens cap into the yard, walking it to the birdbath, and then rinsing it off.
“I’m sure that it was intentional,” she said. “They watch us all the time. I’m sure they knew I dropped it. I’m sure they decided they wanted to return it.”
Gabi’s favorite crow gift is a pearl-colored heart.
“It’s showing me how much they love me,” she said.
Watch Gabi’s morning routine in this online video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogpNKYVg3Tk
Coo roo-c'too-coo! Enter the captivating world of pigeon fanciers
Raising and showing selectively bred birds is a world away from pigeons’ unjust image of ‘rats with wings’ – and it’s a hobby that helps forge lifelong friendships
Friday 27 February 2015 13.30 GMT Last modified on Friday 27 February 2015 14.17 GMT
Don’t feed the pigeons – unless you want to travel the world, forge life-long friendships and fall in love. These are just a few of the many perks of the pigeon hobby touted by fanciers from around the globe.
“Some people make art with paint and clay, we make art with pigeons,” said Leon Stephens, president of the Los Angeles Pigeon Club. Stephens studied genetics in college before starting his career as a health inspector.
Pigeon fanciers, or “bio-artists”, as Stephens describes himself, raise pigeons from infancy and breed them for show. Just as Charles Darwin did in his research for On the Origin of Species, pigeon fanciers select physical features and cross birds with particular characteristics to generate offspring with a specific aesthetic. The result is an eclectic variety of pigeon breeds with exotic colors, wings, crests and tails.
“I can’t explain what draws me to the hobby,” Stephens said. “My passion for pigeons borders on Freudian.”
Nestled in his sunny backyard pigeon coop in Norco, California, Stephens introduced the beautiful breeds that have brought him a lifetime of joy. Spectacular birds strutted and flew around the coops like movie stars, sporting high feather hoods, peacock fan-like tails, and augmented chests. Stephens grinned with pride.
A large hutch full of intricate porcelain pigeons in Stephen’s living room sparkled among the bounty of his wife’s friendly sunflower décor. The collectibles came from faraway places Stephens has traveled to for pigeon shows, including Denmark and Germany.
“This is nothing compared to the collection at the German Pigeon Museum,” Stephens said. Germany is known as the mecca of pigeons, boasting shows with up to 35,000 fancy pigeon entries. Many pigeon fanciers make the pilgrimage and import special breeds. The US pigeon community is relatively smaller, but thriving.
Mike Tyson, boxing champion and devoted pigeon fancier, released 198 white pigeons into the sky to open the ceremonies last month at the National Pigeon Association Grand National in Ontario, California. Pigeon fanciers from 21 countries competed with 7,844 pigeons of over 300 breeds. Ron Bordi was the overall show champion, winning with his Oriental Frill breed pigeon. The show also featured pigeon artwork, a grand banquet and a competition for juniors.
Pigeon fanciers who got started as children and competed internationally say they learned compassion, responsibility and tolerance through raising pigeons.
“If all the presidents of this world were pigeon fanciers, we would have a much better world to live in,” said Fadiel Hendricks, Grand National attendee and president of the National Fancy Pigeon Association of South Africa. Hendricks has been a fancier for over 40 years. His club staged exhibitions in popular shopping malls to raise awareness about the hobby. Their efforts were a success. The South African association gained recognition as an official sports body in 2008.
Fancier Chuck Zeller, 73, credits his pigeon club membership with keeping him off drugs and out of trouble while growing up in a rough neighborhood in El Monte, California. He received his first set of pigeons in 1952 from his nextdoor neighbor, an LAPD officer. When he married, his wife’s friends asked how she could stand her husband’s pigeon hobby. Zeller says she told them: “At least I know where my husband is at night. Where’s your husband? What bar stool is he sitting on?”
“It really helped me relax with my family,” said Zeller. “Whenever I had a stressful day at work, I’d come home, swat my wife on the butt and head out to the pigeon coop before dinner.”
The older population of pigeon fanciers hopes to pass on their love of the hobby to the next generation. Many of the club members have been friends for over 50 years and their genuine connection is heartwarming. At a recent Los Angeles Pigeon Club meeting they served each other cake for someone’s birthday. A little boy ran around laughing and playing. They shared hugs and gave standing ovations. A glamorous lady tenderly stroked a black fantail pigeon on her shoulder.
Two Los Angeles Pigeon Club members even found love through the hobby. In 1969, pigeon fancier Frank Barrachina saw a photo of Tally Mezzanatto with her prize pigeon in the American Pigeon Journal and wrote her a letter. They have been together ever since, raising 1,000 pigeons in their backyard and traveling to compete in shows all over the world.
Mezzanatto, a retired microbiologist in the field of tuberculosis for the department of public health says that contrary to popular belief, pigeons are not dirty, disease-ridden vermin. According to the New York City department of health, pigeons seldom spread disease to humans, and when they do, its rarely life-threatening.
“If people worried about the spread of disease between humans the way they worry about the spread of disease from pigeons, they’d never leave the house,” says Mezzanatto.
Rick Barker, director of the American Pigeon Museum in Oklahoma City, believes the public perception of the pigeon as a filthy animal originated in the Woody Allen classic film Stardust Memories when a pigeon flies into the apartment and Allen screams: “They’re rats with wings!” Barker says visitors to the American Pigeon Museum are often surprised to learn about the long shared history of pigeons and humans.
“Entering the museum for the first time is like watching a movie on an Imax when you’ve only ever watched black and white TV,” said Barker. “Some people have even been moved to tears.”
The history of pigeons is extensive and dramatic. The use of pigeons to carry messages dates back to Noah’s Ark and, before that, Gilgamesh. The ancient Romans used pigeons to deliver results of chariot races. Genghis Khan established pigeon relay posts across Asia and Eastern Europe. Charlemagne designated pigeon raising as the exclusive privilege of the wealthy. During the second world war, spies used pigeons to carry information across the Channel between Great Britain and France. This is just a single page from the multi-volume oral history book veteran pigeon fanciers delve into with one another and newcomers to the hobby.
Muhammad Shaheed, a civil engineer and young father of five, grew up raising pigeons in Bangladesh before moving to the US and joining the Los Angeles Pigeon Club. He hopes to be a bridge between the older, knowledgeable members and the next generation.
“There are two Muslims in the club,” said Shaheed. “The whole group has always been very welcoming, accepting and generous with everyone.”
The Islamic State recently imprisoned 15 pigeon owners in Diyala, Iraq, for a hobby they deemed “un-Islamic” (three are said to have been executed). Some pigeon breeders may feed their birds around the same time devout Muslims hold their first of five daily prayers, an activity that has prompted clerics to issue fatwas against them.
Shaheed recently completed significant updates to the club website and participates in outreach to the young community. He hopes the pigeon hobby can give young people some distance from technology and bring them closer to nature. “I’m kind of an oddball in the group because I let my pigeons mate with whoever they want,” said Shaheed. “In the wild, pigeons mate for life.”
John DeCarlo Jr, 36, a third-generation pigeon fancier and a real estate developer in Gilroy, California, enjoys sharing the hobby with his 13-year-old son.
“It broadens your mind and teaches responsibility because you have to care for and keep something alive,” said DeCarlo. He says his son still plays video games, but he takes care of his birds too.
Not all modern kids are as willing to put aside the immediate gratification of their devices to put in the several years it may take to raise champion fancy pigeons. Chuck Zeller described a scene at a show in San Bernadino where a child was interested in buying two pigeons to get started. Fancy pigeons cost anywhere between a few dollars and a few thousand dollars, depending on the show value of its specific traits. Zeller says the child asked: “How much do the pigeons that I can win the next show with cost?”
“I nearly fell to the floor in shock,” said Zeller. “All he cared about was winning.”
Zeller acknowledges that lack of commitment isn’t the only factor holding today’s youth back from taking up the hobby. Keeping pigeons is now illegal in many places due to city ordinances. Before 1965, Zeller says he could find over a hundred people raising pigeons in a five-mile radius. When the neighbors complained and Zeller was taken to court to defend his hobby, he pointed out that even the mayor at the time was keeping illegal pigeons.
This won’t stop most fanciers from pursuing their dreams. The compassion and acceptance of diversity that so many pigeon fanciers embody creates unity and solidifies their passion for the hobby. As pigeon fancier Bob Nolan puts it: “When you meet someone else who loves pigeons, you’re friends for life.”
Rare white elephant discovered in Myanmar
March 2, 2015
Officials in Myanmar reported on Sunday that they have located and captured a rare white elephant in the jungles of the western Ayeyarwaddy region, making it just the ninth member of its species to have been discovered in the country also known as Burma.
Forestry official Tun Tun Oo told the Associated Press that the elephant is a seven-year-old female that was captured by his department on Friday, six weeks after it was first spotted living in a reserve in Pathein township.
Oo added that they “had to be careful” in capturing the “wild” creature because they didn’t want either it or the forestry officials to get hurt in the process. The elephant is about six foot, three inches (190 centimeters) tall and has “pearl color eyes,” according to the AFP.
Symbols of royal power
The AP explained that white elephants, which are actually albinos, have long been revered in Myanmar, Laos and other Asian countries. They are typically pinkish in color and previously were kept and cared for by monarchs as “a symbol of royal power and prosperity.” Even today, many people continue to believe that they are symbols of good luck, the wire service said.
“Previous white elephants transported from Myanmar’s jungles have been heralded in lavish ceremonies in which military leaders sprinkle them with scented water laced with gold, silver and precious gems,” the Daily Mail said. “And in the 16th century Thailand… and Burma even went to war over the disputed ownership of four white elephants.”
Myanmar now has a total of nine white elephants in captivity, including five in the capital’s zoo and three in Rangoon. It was not immediately clear where the new elephant will be housed.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are between 25,600 to 32,750 Asian elephants remaining in the wild. Only males carry tusks and are thus targeted by poachers for their ivory, which continues to be a threat to the population on these pachyderms. Burma, India and Vietnam have banned the capture of wild elephants for domestic use to protect wild populations.
In Thailand, white elephants are officially known as ‘chang samkhan’ or ‘auspicious elephants,’ and only experts in the royal palace can determine what qualifies as an auspicious elephant and then assign it a rank, according to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. White elephants are placed into one of four families using “ancient and arcane rules,” and are then given heirarchical ranks using seven different basic criteria, the organization added.
Myanmar, which the AFP says has been “ruled by a quasi-civilian government” over the past four years, is currently preparing for a new general election. Prior to the last set of elections, held in 2010, the discovery of a white elephant was hailed by state media outlets as an indication of a successful “democratic transition,” despite allegations of fraud and criticism of the polls.
“The country’s long-feared army is also currently enjoying a rare public relations boost as it battles ethnic Chinese rebels in the northeastern borderlands,” the news organization added. “The fighting has been framed by state media as a defense of sovereignty, but it has also intensified doubts over government efforts to reach a nationwide ceasefire deal.”
Antarctica today: conditions perfect for penguins, unlike last ice age, study finds
Current sea ice conditions may be optimal for emperor penguin population, which is estimated to be seven times larger than during ice age, researchers say
Australian Associated Press
Sunday 1 March 2015 21.47 GMT Last modified on Sunday 1 March 2015 23.34 GMT
Antarctic sea ice levels are perfect for emperor penguins, according to researchers, who have found the frozen continent has in the past been too cold for the bird.
A team of researchers, including scientists from the University of Tasmania and the Australian Antarctic Division, has been investigating how emperor penguin numbers have varied over centuries.
The lead researcher, Jane Younger, said that despite emperor penguins being accustomed to temperatures of -30C, the last ice age seems to have been a snap too cold for them, when their population was about seven times smaller than in 2015.
“Due to there being about twice as much sea ice compared to current conditions, the penguins were unable to breed in more than a few locations around Antarctica,” Younger said.
“The distances from the open ocean, where the penguins feed, to the stable sea ice where they breed was probably too far.”
The finding suggests current sea ice conditions might be optimal for the emperor penguin population, but researchers have yet to determine the impact of further global warming.
Great gerbils – not black rats – were chief cause of the great plague, study says
Researchers claim Black Death was imported from Asia over 400 years of the pandemic via native rodents such as great gerbils and marmots which harboured the plague bacteria
Ian Sample, science editor
March 2 2015 19.24 GMT
The gruesome waves of bubonic plague that began with the Black Death in medieval Europe and ended with the Great Plague of London may have been driven more by great gerbils than black rats, researchers claim.
In a study that threatens to overturn the popular history of one of the world’s greatest health disasters, scientists suggest that the disease had little to do with pest-ridden rats lurking in European cities, but was instead imported from Asia time and again over the four hundred years of the pandemic.
Researchers in Norway found that historical climate fluctuations in Asia fuelled periodic explosions in the populations of native rodents, including great gerbils and marmots, which harboured the plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis.
Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers describe how, when the local climate changed, and rodent numbers crashed, their fleas found themselves in need of new homes. Many hopped on to traders and their camels working the ancient Silk Road, and found their way through maritime routes to European ports, the scientists say.
The Black Death arrived in Mediterranean harbours in 1347 and killed more than 30% of the European population in the first six years. Successive waves of disease lasted until the early 19th century.
The pandemic is generally considered to have begun with the one-off arrival of infected rodents from Asia, with the disease then becoming rife in local rats, which spread the disease through their fleas from then on. But if that was the case, the outbreaks in Europe should have risen and fallen with changes in the local climate, because better conditions meant more rodents to carry the disease.
Nils Stenseth and his colleagues at the University of Oslo analysed more than 7,700 records of plague outbreaks in Europe and compared them with tree ring-based climate records from Europe and Asia. The researchers found that plague outbreaks in Europe indeed tracked the climate, but only in Asia.
“We find plague to have been repeatedly re-imported along the same route as the Black Death was imported, triggered by large-scale climate events in Central Asia,” said Boris Schmid, the first author on the study.
The Oslo team is now in the process of collecting tissue from victims of the European plague outbreaks in the hope of reconstructing the genomes of the ancient plague bugs that killed them. Once several of the genomes have been read, scientists will create an evolutionary tree for the pathogen that charts its course through history.
“If the plague that arrived with the Black Death was the ancestor of all the strains of plague in Europe in the centuries afterwards, you will find a different pattern of relatedness than when plague in Europe was repeatedly re-imported from plague reservoirs in Asia,” Schmid told the Guardian.
You dirty rat! Turns out giant gerbils were responsible for the Black Death
For now, great gerbils, marmots and ground squirrels in north-west China remain the leading culprits for driving the European plague pandemic.
If the scientists are right in exonerating black rats, or other European rodents, it would slash the chances of a future outbreak happening again. “There’s no reason to assume there will be a major plague outbreak in Europe, simply because we don’t have the right small rodent species there,” said Stenseth.
According to Schmid, the findings should re-focus historians’ attention on the later outbreaks of the plague pandemic, and not just the Black Death, to see if those can be traced back to their roots.
“It will be easier to study the process by which plague was transported from Asia to Europe based on historical descriptions and archeology, if scholars are not limited to only the Black Death event, but have multiple reintroductions to study,” he said.
“On another level, we have to ask the question why the second plague pandemic ended in Europe, while the plague was still transported from the east to the Mediterranean. For some reason the disease couldn’t establish and spread itself across Europe anymore after the last great outbreaks of 1620-1670. That will give us an idea what conditions made Europe vulnerable to pandemics, and what changed to make it resistant again,” he added.
Are lizards necrophiliacs?
March 2, 2015
Necrophilia might be one of the last remaining taboos in our society, but for some male Brazilian lizards, a dead female lizard doesn’t mean she’s not DTF.
Zoologist Ivan Sazima first observed the behavior while on a nature walk in search of interesting animal interactions. What he probably didn’t expect to find was a male black-and-white tegu getting his freak on with a long-deceased female companion.
“I felt a sense of wonder, because I did not observe this behavior in lizards before, only in frogs,” Sazima, from the Zoology Museum of the University of Campinas in São Paulo, told National Geographic.
This ain’t their first rodeo
To be clear, necrophilia has been seen in some lizard species before, but not in Salvator merianae, the lizard’s scientific name which doubles as a a future 50 Shades of Grey character.
Sazima said he looked on as the male tegu started the courtship ritual by flicking his tongue at the unresponsive female. He then proceeded to mate with the female for around 5 minutes. A gaggle of geese then happened upon the scene – sending the copulating male running for the underbrush.
Sazima said he returned to the scene the next day and found that the female’s corpse had begun to rot and stink. However, this state of decomposition didn’t prevent a different male from going at the corpse: This time for nearly an hour.
During the marathon necrophilia session, the male lizard bit the rotting, stinking corpse on the head – another classic mating behavior. Occasionally, he rested atop his decomposing companion between bouts of copulation. Finally, he finished by flicking his tongue on the corpse and rambling off.
Again, this ain’t their first rodeo…but why?
Sazima’s observations, in September 2013, are just two in a long list of lizard necrophilia records. Henrique Caldeira Costa, of the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, reported in 2010 a necrophilia incident involving a female ameiva lizard that appeared to have been hit by a car.
Despite all these records of this activity, “necrophilia in lizards is still poorly understood,” Costa told Nat Geo.
Sazima argued that the black-and-white tegus simply aren’t capable of knowing a female is dead and they simply see her as receptive to their amorous advances. If the body is still warm and releasing pheromones, the male tegus probably can’t help themselves, he said.
Costa agrees with this theory, and said the incident he observed in 2010 was probably driven by the female’s high body temperature and pheromones leaking from her crushed corpse.
While humans might have a tough argument in defending acts of necrophilia for our own species, one form of necrophilia found in the animal kingdom can actually be defended. A small frog, also from Brazil, called Rhinella proboscidea practices “functional necrophilia,” in which males can extract eggs from dead sexual partners and fertilize them.
Not exactly romantic, but it does serve a purpose.