Sunday, March 25, 2012


Helpful Buckeye received a lot of e-mails about last week's issue, A Zoologist's Dream?  Most of them expressed a fair amount of interest in the fish, amphibian, reptile, and bird articles that were included.  Many of you also sent in answers to our trivia questions.  About 25% of responders correctly identified the most common bird in the world.  No, it isn't the pigeon (as Desperado guessed) or the Starling (affectionately also known as rats with wings).  According to the Smithsonian Institution, it is the Common House Sparrow:

The second question had everybody stumped.  The mammal that has more names than any other, according to the Guinness Book of World Records is...the Mountain Lion.  It has more than 40 names, in English alone.  Some of these are Cougar, Catamount, Panther, Painter, Puma, Long Tail, Ghost Cat, Shadow Cat, Purple Feather, Mexican Lion, Deer Cat, Mountain Devil, Sneak Cat, Silver Lion, Mountain Cat, Mountain Screamer, Red Tiger, and Deer Tiger.  Mountain Lions are widely distributed across North and South America and are found anywhere between sea level and 14,000 ft. 

This week, we'll finish the vertebrate zoological spectrum by spending the whole issue on mammals...widely considered to be the most advanced of the vertebrates.  These will all be animals you are familiar with, so...sit back, read on, and enjoy.

Groundhog Day: Phil's Myth Stretches Back Centuries

Every February 2nd, a roly-poly rodent named Punxsutawney Phil is be hoisted from his burrow in front of TV cameras and cheering crowds and be called upon to predict the weather. If this famous groundhog casts a shadow, legend has it that winter is here to stay for six more weeks.

Weird tradition, huh?

In fact, relying on rodents as forecasters may date back to the early days of Christianity in Europe, when clear skies on Candlemas Day (Feb. 2) were said to herald cold weather ahead. In Germany, the tradition morphed into a myth that if the sun came out on Candlemas, a hedgehog would cast its shadow, predicting snow all the way into May. When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, they transferred the tradition onto local fauna, replacing hedgehogs with groundhogs.

Groundhog Day is now kept alive by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, whose members care for Punxsutawney Phil year-round. (Phil lives in an enclosure in the Punxsutawney Memorial Library along with several other groundhogs.) Every year, the Groundhog Club rises early with their charge and takes him to a local hillside, Gobbler's Knob, for the weather-prediction ceremony.

This year (2012) was Phil's 126th prognostication. (The Club is tight-lipped about how many groundhogs have taken on the forecasting role over the decades, but marmots in captivity normally live about 10 years.)

Phil's supporters insist that he's preternaturally accurate at predicting winter's duration, but statistics don't quite bear out that claim. According to the Groundhog Club's records, Phil has predicted 100 long winters and 17 early springs, with nine years of records lost. Those predictions have been right only 39 percent of the time — 36 percent if you look at post-1969 predictions, when weather records are more accurate.

"If Punxsutawney Phil is right 39 percent of the time, that's much, much worse than a climatological prediction,” Tim Roche, a meteorologist at Weather Underground told LiveScience's sister site Life's Little Mysteries. "Even if you flip a coin, you'll still be right close to half of the time – that's a 50 percent accuracy rate. So you'll be better off flipping a coin than going by the groundhog's predictions."

Maybe so, but a coin wouldn't be nearly as cute.

Adapted from:

Punxsutawney is about 60 miles from Helpful Buckeye's home town...and Desperado and I still watch Bill Murray's version of Ground Hog Day a couple of times a year.

Mammals Evolve From Size Of Mouse To Elephant In 24M Generations 

Mammals can evolve from the size of a mouse to the size of an elephant in as little as 24 million generations, although they shrink more than 10 times as fast as they grow to large sizes, according to new research reported Monday by an international team of biologists and paleontologists.

The study is the first of its kind to measure how fast large-scale evolution can occur in mammals.

The researchers explored increases and decreases in mammal size following the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, seeking to explain large-scale size changes and recovery from mass extinctions.

Their estimates are based on calculations of the most rapid increase in size observed in the fossil record after a mass extinction wiped out the dinosaurs.

The researchers found it took about 10 million generations for terrestrial mammals to hit their maximum mass: that’s equivalent to a mammal the size of a cat evolving into a mammal the size of an elephant.

Changes in the size of sea mammals, such as whales, occurred at twice the rate of land mammals.

“This is probably because it’s easier to be big in the water – it helps support your weight,” said study co-author Dr. Erich Fitzgerald, Senior Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at Museum Victoria and a co-author.

The researchers also discovered that it took only about one hundred thousand generations for very large decreases, such as extreme dwarfism, to occur.

“Our research demonstrates, for the first time, a large-scale history of mammal life in terms of the pace of growth. This is significant because most research focuses on microevolution, which are changes that occur within a specific species,” said Dr. Jessica Theodor, co-author of the study and an associate professor of biology at the University of Calgary.

Study co-author Dr. Alistair Evans, an evolutionary biologist and Australian Research Fellow, said the research was unique because most previous studies had focused on microevolution, the small changes that occur within a species.

“Instead we concentrated on large-scale changes in body size. We can now show that it took at least 24 million generations to make the proverbial mouse-to-elephant size change – a massive change, but also a very long time,” said Dr. Evans.

“A less dramatic change, such as rabbit-sized to elephant-sized, takes 10 million generations.”

The researchers looked at 28 different types of mammals, including elephants, primates and whales, from the four largest continents (Africa, Eurasia, and North and South America) and all ocean basins for the last 70 million years.

Size changes were tracked in generations rather than years to allow meaningful comparison between species with differing life spans. For instance, a mouse only lives for about two years while an elephant lives for 80.

The researchers were surprised to find that decreases in body size occurred 10 times faster than the increases.

“Many of the species which shrunk, such as the dwarf mammoth, dwarf hippo and dwarf hominids, found in the Indonesian island of Flores, became extinct,” said Theodor.

“What caused their dwarfism? They may have needed to be small to survive in their environment or perhaps food was scarce and a small stature would require less nutrients,” she said

Dr. Evans was also shocked by how fast mammal sizes could decrease.

“The huge difference in rates for getting smaller and getting bigger is really astounding – we certainly never expected it could happen so fast!” he said.

Many miniature animals, such as the pygmy mammoth, dwarf hippo and ‘hobbit’ hominids lived on islands, helping to explain the size reduction.

“When you do get smaller, you need less food and can reproduce faster, which are real advantages on small islands,” Dr. Evans said.

The research sheds light on which conditions allow certain mammals to thrive and grow bigger, and which ones slow the pace of growth, something that could contribute to extinction.

Adapted from:

Even though there are many examples of evolution over relatively short periods of time, most of these studies have looked at periods involving millions of years.

Blind Seal Can See Again

Fresno Chaffee Zoo's Harbor seal, "Buck," had surgery on both eyes to remove cataracts that left him blind, and now he can see once again!

Over the last several years, Buck has had bilateral severe cataracts in both eyes, a common complication of old age with pinnipeds (seals), said Terri Mejorado, Fresno Chaffee Zoo's Director of Marketing and Development.

Last year, one of the cataracts started to shift in one of his eyes. Zoo veterinarian Dr. Lewis Wright decided to have the cataracts removed, Mejorado said.

The 4 1/2 hour procedure was a success; a team of veterinary specialists was able to remove both cataracts, Mejorado said. Buck was placed off exhibit for three weeks allowing time for his eyes to heal.

"When Buck came out of anesthesia, it was immediately obvious that he could see again" said Assistant Curator Lyn Myers. "It was amazing to see him respond to past training behaviors such as holding up a flipper when shown."

Buck is now back out on exhibit and doing great.

Adapted from:

A lot of these procedures are identical to those that are done on humans, dogs, and cats.

How To Fight Elephants With Bees

British scientist Lucy King has won a prestigious environmental award for her research, but she should also maybe get a movie deal. The substance of her research is using bees to scare off elephants, which could make an excellent blockbuster, with the addition of a few explosions and maybe a robotic bee.

Also, as it happens, it helps save elephants' lives. The greatest threat to elephants, besides robotic bees, is humans — and when the animals wander into human territory, the people may respond with deadly force. This isn't a one-sided conflict, either; elephants can kill humans without even getting out of breath. The best approach is to keep them separate and try to give both species enough space.

That's where the bees come in. Elephants are scared of them, and most will flee when they hear a bee buzzing. So King encouraged Kenyan communities to build fences that incorporate beehives. Approaching elephants stir up the bees, and the noise of the bees drives them back away from the humans' habitation. Meanwhile, the farmers have an additional cash crop — honey — and the bees have headquarters for developing their robot exoskeletons. It's an elegant solution for peaceful cohabitation that leaves everyone better off.

Adapted from:

Dogs Play the Piano

A French woman has taught her golden retrievers to play the piano

In a new YouTube video, the dogs sit side by side at an oversize keyboard, flawlessly pawing the keys in response to musical notes played by their owner, who accompanies them on a flutelike instrument called an ocarina.

Slowly but surely — and delightfully — the trio progresses through a short musical number titled "La Valse des Puces," or "Waltz of the Fleas." [See video] at:

It's quite a stunt. But what exactly is going on here?

Charles Snowdon, a psychologist and zoologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies animal responses to music, weighed in: "The dogs are being cued by their owner, which is different than memorization. She's playing notes and my guess is what they've done is learn the relationship between the notes she's playing and where they are supposed to put their paws," Snowdon told Life's Little Mysteries.

So, the dogs most likely aren't playing the correct notes because they tonally understand which notes sound right, but rather because they've been trained to respond to certain sounds on the ocarina by pressing corresponding keys on the piano. Or perhaps there is some cue we can't see in the video. Either way, it is still a pretty neat trick.

The result sounds (somewhat) melodic to us, but the dogs probably don't know it. "It's not clear that they're listening to it as music," Snowdon said.

On the other hand, they might be. Snowdon is a pioneer in the study of how animals respond to "species-specific music." Most animals have very different vocal ranges and heartbeat tempos than humans, so they simply aren't neurologically wired to enjoy music designed for human ears. He has worked with composers to create music using pitches, tones and tempos that are more familiar to specific animals. For example, they've composed music tailored for tamarins — monkeys with vocalizations three octaves higher than our own and heartbeats twice as fast. The songs sound shrill and unpleasant to us, but they are music to tamarins' ears.

But what about dogs? According to Snowdon, large dogs such as these golden retrievers have vocal ranges that happen to be quite similar to those of adult male humans. "So, it is possible that they might be responsive to music in our frequency range. My prediction is that a big dog might be more responsive to human music than a smaller dog such as a Chihuahua," he said.

More research is needed to determine whether dogs really do appreciate human music, or if these canine prodigies are just humoring us.

Adapted from:

Audubon Reproductive Technology Spawns Cute, Rare Kitten

Audubon Nature Institute Working To Aid Reproduction For Endangered Species

The birth of an adorable newborn kitten represents the latest in innovative reproductive technology.  The technology is being pioneered at the Audubon Nature Institute.

The kitten, an African black-footed cat was born on Feb. 6, officials with Audubon said, to an ordinary domestic cat, becoming the first of its kind to be born from inter-species embryo transfer.

Audubon said that the birth represents the latest breakthrough in assisted reproduction for endangered species from Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans.

The in vitro fertilization procedure included 11 embryos, to which five of those embryos were thawed after seven years and transferred to a domestic cat on Dec. 2, 2011. Audubon said that after a couple of months, a 65-gram healthy female black-footed kitten was born naturally.

“Just as technology races ahead in every other field today, the science of assisted reproduction for endangered species has come a long way since we opened Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in 1996. And now, another ‘first’ in the field renews our hope for the future,” said Audubon Nature Institute President and CEO Ron Forman. “We are proving this science works. We can provide high-tech options for many different species as the situation grows more and more critical for wildlife across the globe.”

The innovative technology used in the procedure gives endangered animals a chance at not becoming extinct.

“We can preserve DNA and work out protocols for creating pregnancies and producing babies through cryo-preservation and embryo transfer, giving these species a shot at survival even when their numbers dip to dangerously low levels,” said Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species acting director Dr. Earle Pope.

In 2011, scientists said that two black-footed cat kittens born last year were the first result of a similar process. In the 2011 processes, the cats were born among same species cats. The kitten born on Feb. 6, is a littermate to the two kittens born in 2011, Audubon said.

Audubon said that while the program focuses on small endangered cats, the center also successfully assisted in the reproduction program for endangered Mississippi sandhill cranes, which is serving as the prototype to help endangered whooping cranes.

While the black-footed cat might look similar to the ordinary domestic cats found anywhere, the Feline Conservation Federation said their numbers are very low. Audubon said that there are 53 cats in 16 accredited zoo collections in the United States Native to South Africa.

The kitten proving to be a marvel of modern science is being cared for by its surrogate mother and Audubon staff.

Audubon said the domestic cat has taken care of the newborn kitten and, at one month old, the kitten weighs 223 grams.

Adapted from:

War Veterans Tame Wolf-dogs at US Rescue Center


(AP) - It's been three months since a California animal rescue center retrieved 29 wolf-dogs from an Alaska tourist attraction that had fought the state over owning, breeding and selling the wolf-hybrids.

Chains were so deeply embedded in the necks of two of the animals that they had to be surgically removed. Many developed limps because they'd never used the pads of their feet.

Now the task of taming the wolf-dogs has been given to three U.S. military veterans who say they can relate to the stress of trying to transition to a normal life. The program is called "Warriors and Wolves."

"I get along with the wolves," said one of the three, Stanley McDonald, a 10-year Navy vet who has been foreman of the Lockwood Animal Rescue Center in Frazier Park, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, for more than four years.

McDonald said he knows what it is like to be homeless, alone and lost. "They've been in a bad situation, which I've been in most of my life. Most of them are afraid, taken away from the only thing they knew," he said.

The wolf-dogs are now thriving in small packs of two to six animals after joining 12 wolf-dogs already at the shelter, according to Lorin Lindner, who founded Lockwood with her husband, Navy veteran Matthew Simmons, in 2008.

Lindner said the wolf-dogs, which normally travel up to 40 miles (64 kilometers) a day, had been tethered in Alaska. Once they had room to run at the 20 acre (8 hectare) Lockwood sanctuary, they went lame because their muscles were not acclimated to the exercise.

"It's taken three months, but we are just now noticing them running without limps," Lindner said.

The animals are fed high-priced, high-quality food made of buffalo, venison and game birds, in addition to 5 pounds to 10 pounds (2.3 kilograms to 4.5 kilograms) of meat each day. Markets in the area give the rescue group their expired meats "so we are not killing any additional animals to feed the wolf-dogs," Lindner said.

In Alaska, they had been fed raw moose meat to keep them looking good so tourists could get close enough to the animals to take their pictures for a $5 fee.

Before the wolf-dogs arrived, Lindner and Simmons were running the sanctuary on $10,700 a month. But with the new arrivals, that's jumped to $15,500 a month, including salaries for the three veterans.

To help pay the bills, Lindner and Simmons are inviting supporters of the sanctuary to volunteer, donate or sponsor a veteran or a wolf-dog.

Lindner, Simmons, the vets and volunteers built enclosures for the animals that stand 10 feet (3 meters) high and include guards against the wolf-dogs digging under them.

Because some of the animals have bad hips and arthritis, Simmons is building soft-webbed trundle beds so they can sleep off the ground. They've put out a plea to firehouses since old fire hose makes good webbing.

McDonald, 48, is the wolf-dog program's biggest booster. He says he has been an alcoholic since he was 18. He spent 10 years in the Navy and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I wasn't a mean or angry drunk," he said. "I would just take everything we had to buy alcohol."

McDonald says he's learned from the animals and knew if he could help them, he could help himself. "I made a wonderful change," he said.

Since working with the animals, he's begun reconciling with his ex-wife and reconnected with a son, now 19, whom he'd lost touch with. His son didn't trust him at first, McDonald said.

"It took some work by both of us. It took a lot of forgiving," said McDonald. "I'm back with my family doing things I love to do."

Adapted from:

Daily Drama of the Rodeo Vet

By Colin McDonald

When the veterinarian for the Stock Show & Rodeo and his interns make their rounds, they try to keep a low profile.  They don't wear stethoscopes around their necks or carry black bags.  At most, they may have a thermometer tucked into a pocket.

But in the small world of showing and performing with livestock, the gossip about any animal needing medical attention travels fast.  “Basically everyone is on edge,” said Ben Espy, the Stock Show & Rodeo veterinarian for the past 15 years.

With hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships and millions of dollars invested in animals and prize money at the stock show & rodeo, the stress can be overwhelming.

Intern Megan Kirkland, for example, got an emergency call from the petting zoo that a cow was lying down.  “The cow was perfectly fine,” Kirkland said. But the man in charge of watching the cow was nervous, she explained.

And so their day goes. From 7 a.m. to often well past midnight, Kirkland and Ashley Stricklin, both 25 and in their fourth year of veterinary school at Texas A&M, help Espy with the people of the rodeo and their animals.  For two weeks they sleep on couches in the vet clinic and live on the grounds.

There are brief moments of excitement.

On the first Friday night, a bucking horse crashed into the metal gate of the chute and knocked itself unconscious.  The eight orthopedic surgeons on staff jumped into action to deal with the rider, who ended up under the horse.

Espy, his interns and the rodeo clowns went to deal with the horse, Espy said.  With 15,000 people watching, they approached the animal.  Raised almost completely free of human touch, the 1,400-pound horse was entirely unpredictable.  Espy gave it a sedative while the clowns held its head down.  With his interns' help, he moved it to a trailer to be taken to an empty pen where it could recover on its own.

Then it was back to the daily grind.

Monday morning, rival high schools were assigned to the same pig pen.

“The pigs don't care what high school the other pig is from,” Kirkland said.

The competitors did.

“The animals are not dramatic,” Stricklin said.

The Ohio State Buckeyes basketball team made it through both games this weekend, beating Cincinnati and Syracuse in very impressive wins.  That puts us in the Final Four next weekend against Kansas on Saturday.  Kansas beat us in a close game back early in the season when our All-American center was out with a back, we have some extra payback incentive against them.

Even Emily Dickinson, American poet, has gotten into the excitement of March Madness: “A little Madness in the Spring Is wholesome even for the King."

Helpful Buckeye had an interesting experience this week when a neighbor came to my door in tears, crying that her little dog, Scooby, had gotten away from her and was lost.  We went down to the golf course where they were walking (in snow that was up to 2 ft. deep), and started looking for him.  Scooby's only about 8 lb. and could easily disappear in the snow, but I also was looking for signs of blood since there are a few coyote families on the golf course.  After an hour, we'd had no luck, so I decided to get my car to look a little further away from there.  Before I got to my garage, I walked over to the friend's front porch...and there sat Scooby, trembling with fear and very subdued.  I called Diane on her cell phone, told her I'd found Scooby, and checked him over for any damages.  He'd had a sweater on but it was nowhere to be seen...perhaps whatever grabbed him got the sweater rather than a "doggie" treat?  Remember, the leash needs to be on the dog at ALL times!

Desperado and Helpful Buckeye celebrated 3 March birthdays this week down in Sedona on the deck of our favorite restaurant.  Desperado was the only interloper, from the land of Aquarius.  We had a nice visit...the temperatures were in the 70s, a pleasant change from the 2 ft. of snow we got early in the week.  The dessert was "mile high chocolate coconut cream pie"...a winning combination!  We're scheduled to hit another of Sedona's trails this week as part of Desperado's "return to hiking" tour.

On the way out of Sedona, we saw several huge waterfalls coming over the rim of Oak Creek Canyon...snowmelt remnants of the big snow.  They were impressive.
~~The goal of this blog is to provide general information and advice to help you be a better pet owner and to have a more rewarding relationship with your pet. This blog does not intend to replace the professional one-on-one care your pet receives from a practicing veterinarian. When in doubt about your pet's health, always visit a veterinarian.~~

Sunday, March 18, 2012


HOLY WEATHER CHANGE, BATMAN!!! we used to hear in the old Batman and Robin comics, TV series, and movies.  Helpful Buckeye was able to take 3 long bike rides outdoors this past week with temperatures in the low 60s and on Friday, I drove down to Phoenix with a good friend to see my LA Dodgers play a spring training game.  We basked in the warmth of 87 degrees and got to work on our tans.  Now, just 2 days later, I shoveled 21" of snow, with another 4-10" expected by tomorrow morning.  I suspect that this can only happen in the very diverse state of Arizona.  Those readers who think Arizona is all hot desert should consider visiting northern AZ between October and April...perhaps you'd be able to experience one of these big dumps of the white stuff.

Anyway, back to the animal stuff.  Our young reader, Jamie, from College Station, Texas, who e-mailed last week's question about dogs getting sunburned, has a younger sister who sent Helpful Buckeye a question of her own.  Maria wondered what I meant in last week's issue of Questions On Dogs and Cats by describing all the species of animals I'd seen on one of my bike rides as a "Zoologist's Dream."  Well, Maria, I know from your e-mail that you already understand that biology is the study of living things, including plants and animals.  A zoologist is someone who does the animal part of that group, while a botanist takes care of the plants.  Then, zoology can be broken into two major divisions...vertebrates (animals with bony skeletons) and invertebrates (animals without bony skeletons). 

My undergraduate degree was in zoology and I was pursuing a graduate degree in marine biology when Uncle Sam intervened in 1969.  As result of being trained as a medic in the US Army, I opted to combine my interest in animals with that medical training and go into veterinary medicine.  So, my area of interest became the vertebrates (specifically, dogs and cats) although many veterinarians work with all five major groups of vertebrates. 

Those five major groups are fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals...all having a bony skeleton.  Helpful Buckeye would like to use the next couple of weeks to present some interesting articles about these "other" vertebrates (besides dogs and cats) that may help our readers gain an appreciation for some of the other species of animals.  Thanks again, Maria, for initiating this discussion!

Salmon virus confirmed at Nova Scotia fish farm

Cooke Aquaculture won't stop $150-million expansion

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has confirmed an outbreak of salmon virus at a commercial Nova Scotia fish farm, but Cooke Aquaculture says that won't stop a $150-million expansion from being built.

"This does not impact our plans," Nell Halse, Cooke spokesperson told CBC News Thursday from the company's headquarters in Saint John, N.B.  "We're still going full steam ahead with our plans for Nova Scotia, for creating new jobs and building a hatchery and a plant and expanding our feed mill," Halse said

The infectious salmon anemia (ISA) was confirmed by the agency Wednesday after a sample of 13 salmon, weighing about two kilograms each, were tested by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.  The company confirmed the outbreak was at its Shelburne N.S. facility.

"The release confirms we have a very good system in place for monitoring fish health and for managing it, and it also confirms that the actions we took several weeks ago were the right ones," Halse said.  Though plans will continue with its expansion, the company says its taking the outbreak seriously.  She said the company has dealt with infectious salmon anemia in New Brunswick in the past.

3 cages to be destroyed in total

When the virus was first suspected in February, Cooke voluntarily destroyed two cages of salmon at its Shelburne facility.  The salmon — believed to be in the thousands — were disposed at a rendering plant.  CFIA says it ordered the destruction of a third pen of fish after ISA was confirmed.

Cooke would not say how many fish are being destroyed, nor estimate the value.  "We're just not giving specific details of how many fish, but we have 20 cages on a farm, so it is still a small percentage of the overall production on this farm," Halse said.

Under new federal rules, owners of water-based animals are entitled to compensation when the government orders them eradicated.  The ISA confirmation is sure to renew the debate over aquaculture in general and Cooke's expansion, especially into Jordan Bay next to Shelburne.  The company is currently seeking government approvals for two farms, each holding up to one million fish in Jordan Bay.

Lobster fisherman Ricky Hallett said he does not accept that ISA poses no threat to the lobster fishery.  "In light of the problems found in Shelburne Harbour, there should be no expansion into Jordan Bay," Hallett said.

Others worry about the potential impact on strugging Wild Atlantic salmon.  "It's just more damaging to wild fish," said Lewis Hinks of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. "It's just another nail possibly in the coffin. It causes us great concern no matter how you look at it."

Nova Scotia's fisheries minister said the situation is serious but in hand.  "It's a normal business day, and that these particular incidents are being managed in an appropriate fashion," said Sterling Belliveau.  The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it will continue to monitor and test the rest of the salmon at the Cooke facility. If more ISA is found, more fish will be destroyed.

Adapted from:

This situation in Nova Scotia not only involves aquaculture (the farming of fish) but also the possible conflict between farmed animals and those in the wild.  These conflicts will continue as long as there is any kind of animal farming.

Piranha-Proof Fish May Build Better Body Armor

Scientists hope to replicate the fish scales of a tough, ancient Amazonian fish that repels predators' bites


• The arapaima can grow to nearly 8 feet long and weigh more than 500 pounds.
• Piranha normally don’t attack the arapaima.
• The arapaima's outer scales are mineralized bio-material, while the inner ones are made of collagen fibers that form a flexible laminate, almost like a woven cloth.

 The arapaima is a South American tropical freshwater fish. An ancient Amazonian fish with thick piranha-proof scales may hold the secret to building better bullet-proof body armor, puncture resistant gloves or even safety goggles and CD cases.

Arapaima scales

Researchers at several institutions have been looking at engineering new materials that contain some of the same properties as these fish scales; they’re light, flexible and often transparent. Now some are taking a step forward and actually building these materials.

At the University of California, San Diego, materials science professor Marc Meyers has been studying the scales on the massive freshwater arapaima, which use two layers of scales to repel bites from the predatory piranha.

Piranha normally don’t attack the arapaima, which can grow to nearly 8 feet long and weigh more than 500 pounds, however when food supplies are low and water levels drop in the Amazon basin, everything in the water is considered a meal, Meyers said.   “The arapaima is called the cod of the Amazon,” Meyers said. “When there is not a lot of food, the piranha will attack anything that is in trouble.”

Meyers likes to go fishing in the Amazon, and once hooked a 100-pound arapaima. At his lab in San Diego, Meyers used a special device to press a piranha tooth into the arapaima scales to measure the force it took to penetrate them. But the piranha tooth failed to penetrate into two layers and broke when it was pulled out.  “What arapaima have are fairly thick triangular ridges that other fish don’t have,” Meyers said. “It can bend at the same time, like a ceramic that would be flexible.”

The outer scales are mineralized bio-material, while the inner ones are made of collagen fibers that form a flexible laminate, almost like a woven cloth.  Meyers experiments were published in this month’s Advanced Engineering Materials.

In Canada, scientists are using the scales of a more common fish, the striped bass, as inspiration for new materials that could even change the shape and form of airplane wings.

Francois Barthelat, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at McGill University, has tried to puncture the much lighter and weaker bass scales with a sharpened steel needle, which simulates the shape of a tooth used by predators.The results showed the scales were stronger than protective plastics used for CD cases, biomedical equipment and safety goggles.

Barthelat said it’s the formation and pattern of the scales, rather than their intrinsic properties that make them tough. Now he’s used this research on scales to build a composite material that he one day hopes will be worn by both soldiers and athletes.  “We actually made a large scale material inspired by the scales that can duplicate its properties,” Barthelat said. “Once we have proof of concept in the lab, then we can put more effort into fabrication. I don’t think it’s very far down the road.”

Barthelat is also considering an idea to match the flexible bio-armor with something called morphing materials that change shape. Rather than using fixed-wings on aircraft, for example, he envisions a scale-coated rubber wing that would constantly alter its shape for improved aerodynamics as it flies. “The wing would be inspired from birds,” Barthelat said. “And it would have protection on top from fish scales.”

Adapted from:

Amphibians, Reptiles and Salmonella

Many people are aware that turtles and other reptiles can carry Salmonella bacteria, but not many know that amphibians can carry it, too. Since April 21, 2009, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 241 individuals in 42 states were infected with Salmonella typhimurium. All of the individuals were infected through contact with amphibians – more specifically, water frogs – or their habitats. The majority (69%) of the ill people were less than 10 years old, and the median age was 5 years. According to the CDC, 30% of the ill persons were hospitalized but no deaths were reported. The CDC's investigation determined a common source of the infected frogs: Blue Lobster Farms of Madera County, California. This doesn't mean amphibian and reptile owners should get rid of their pets. What it does mean is that amphibian and reptile handlers and owners should take precautions to protect themselves and their families. Simple, common sense measures can significantly reduce your risk of amphibian- or reptile-associated Salmonella infection, including:

• Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after touching or handling any amphibian or reptile, its housing, or anything (including food) that has come in contact with a reptile or amphibian or its feces (stool).

• Adults should closely supervise children when they handle amphibians or reptiles, and should assist young children with hand washing.

• If you or any of your family members develop diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever or other signs of illness, contact a physician. Make sure you inform your physician of your contact with a reptile or amphibian.

• Children less than 5 years old should not be allowed to come into contact with amphibians or reptiles without close supervision. Children less than 5 years old are at high risk of Salmonella infection.
• Elderly people and people with weakened immune systems are at high risk of Salmonella infection and should be especially cautious about contact with amphibians or reptiles or their environments.

• Amphibians and reptiles should not be kept in child-care centers.

• Reptile and amphibian pets should not be housed in children's bedrooms. This is especially important when the children are less than 5 years old.

• Do not allow amphibians or reptiles to roam freely throughout your house.

• It is especially important to keep reptiles and amphibians out of food and drink preparation areas.  Do not bathe reptiles or amphibians in your kitchen sink or near any areas used for food or drink preparation. If you use a bathtub for this purpose, it should be thoroughly cleaned and bleached afterward to kill any bacteria that may remain on the surface.

When cleaning the reptile's or amphibian's habitat:

o Wear gloves and do not clean the habitat in or near any areas used for food or drink preparation.

o If possible, clean the habitat outside of the house and in an area that is not frequently accessed by children, elderly or immunocompromised people.

o Do not clean the habitat near any sources of food (such as gardens or crop fields) or drinking water.

o After cleaning the habitat, remove and discard the gloves and thoroughly wash your hands.

o Children less than 5 years old should not be allowed to clean the reptile's or amphibian's habitat.

Adapted from:

Crocodiles Have Strongest Bite Ever Measured, Hands-on Tests Show

"Extraordinary" study hints crocs are "force-generating machines" rivaling T. rex

Brian Handwerk, for National Geographic News

Crocodiles may be the world's champion chompers, killing with the greatest bite force ever directly measured for living animals, a new study says. In fact, their bite forces may rival that of mighty T. rex.

Paleobiologist Gregory M. Erickson and colleagues put all 23 living crocodilian species through an unprecedented bite test. The "winners"—saltwater crocodiles—slammed their jaws shut with 3,700 pounds per square inch (psi), or 16,460 newtons, of bite force.  By contrast, you might tear into a steak with 150 to 200 psi (890 newtons). Hyenas, lions, and tigers generate around 1,000 psi (4,450 newtons).  And while a 2008 computer model estimated that a 21-foot (6.5-meter) great white shark would produce nearly 4,000 psi (17,790 newtons) of bite force, that figure hasn't been directly measured.

Erickson and colleagues did physically measure the bites of several 17-foot (5.2-meter) saltwater crocs—as well as Nile crocodiles, alligators, caimans, gharials, and other crocs, some for the first time ever.  The team spent countless hours wrestling with the reptiles at Florida's St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park and getting them to bite a force transducer—a "very expensive, very durable, waterproof bathroom scale that's padded with leather."

"The testing is like dragon slaying by committee, often involving ten or more people to test a single animal," said Erickson, of Florida State University.  For every croc species, the transducer registered impressive power, suggesting that a big bite is at the heart of what it means to be a crocodilian, according to Erickson.

"That's why I think they've been so successful," he said. "They seized on a remarkable design for producing bite force and pressure to occupy ecological niches on the water's edge for 85 million years, and nothing else evolved that could wrest those niches from them."

Surprisingly, at least to Erickson, variations in the bite forces of croc species turn out to be largely based on body size. In many animal groups this variation is tied to differing jaw shapes and tooth forms, but those features didn't much affect the croc chomps in the team's tests.  This suggests crocs were big biters from the dawn of their evolutionary line, said Erickson. "I think the most primitive development of the crocs was basically as a force-generating machine," Erickson said. Variations in snouts and teeth arose later, fine-tuning that powerful bite for prey ranging from fish and snakes to birds, mammals, and even insects.

"Think of a Weed Eater with a big engine that has different attachments, like a grass cutter or a tree trimmer. During evolution [crocs] basically played around with those sorts of attachments," said Erickson.  In a typical croc environment, "big game comes to the water's edge, mollusks grow there, birds land—and anything that's around that water, they can eat it."

Paleobiologist Laura Porro, who wasn't involved in the new research, added, "People have been talking about how differences in snout shape and tooth shape and diet may impact crocodilian biomechanics, but no one has been able to collect all these data. It's extraordinary."

In addition to shedding light on living crocs, the new data could illuminate the extinct animals at the roots of the croc family tree, said Porro, of the University of Chicago, who studies live alligators but also models biomechanics of extinct reptiles.  "This kind of work with living animals can help us try to validate our models," she said. "And I think you could definitely extend this model to the fossil crocs, even the giant ones, that look relatively similar to modern crocs."

Erickson and team have already done some such scaling—producing an image of a truly ferocious ancient croc.  "We tested several 17-foot [5-meter] saltwater crocs," he said. "If you scale the results up to 20-footers, you get estimates of 7,700 pounds [34,250 newtons], which is the low end of T. rex bite-force estimates.  So if you want to see what T. Rex bite force looks like, go look at one of these crocs."

Furthermore, by Erickson's calculations, the extinct, limousine-size Deinosuchus, or "terrible crocodile," had an estimated bite force as high as 23,100 psi (102,750 newtons)—greater even than new estimates that put T. rex's bite at 12,814 psi (57,000 newtons).  "It's mind-boggling to think about that one," he said.

The University of Chicago's Porro noted that no Tyrannosaurus rex muscle survives, so estimates for the dinosaur's bite force are based on its body size, wide skull and short snout.  Those T. rex bones look capable of a stronger bite than any croc's, Porro said. "But then again, if you dissect a croc's head, it's amazing just how much muscle mass they have. They have huge jowls ... all jaw-closing muscle, so who knows?" she said. "Maybe it's a matter of crocs just having more muscle."

We may never know for sure whether a croc or a tyrannosaur was the world's all-time champion chomper (and in any case, a giant prehistoric shark likely has both beat).  "There is always going to be some uncertainty," Porro said.

Modern crocs are remarkably similar to prehistoric ones, which in some ways makes things easy for ancient-croc researchers, she noted. But "we have nothing today that looks very much like a T. rex."

Adapted from: 

For a comparison to the bite force of the most popular dog breed in the USA, the Labrador Retriever, here are the numbers: put the record measurement into perspective, hyenas, which are bone-crushing mammals, have a bite force of 1,000 pounds, slightly more than the 940 recorded for lions. Dusky sharks manage 330 pounds of force, and the Labrador Retriever bites with 125 pounds of force. Humans surprisingly beat out the pet dog, and measured in at 170 pounds of force.

Adapted from:

Pretty impressive for the crocodiles, huh?  Helpful Buckeye had his share of dog bites during his working career and, even though most of them did hurt, he's glad he wasn't working on crocodiles!

Gecko Feet Inspire Amazing Glue That Can Hold 700 Pounds On Smooth Wall

For years, zoologists have been amazed by the power of gecko feet, which let these 5-ounce lizards produce an adhesive force roughly equivalent to carrying nine pounds up a wall without slipping. Now, a team of polymer scientists and a zoologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have discovered exactly how the gecko does it, leading them to invent "Geckskin," a device that can hold 700 pounds on a smooth wall.

Doctoral candidate Michael Bartlett in Alfred Crosby's polymer science and engineering lab at UMass Amherst is the lead author of their article describing the discovery in the current online issue of Advanced Materials. The group includes zoologist Duncan Irschick, a functional morphologist who has studied the gecko's climbing and clinging abilities for over 20 years. Geckos are equally at home on vertical, slanted, even backward-tilting surfaces.

"Amazingly, gecko feet can be applied and disengaged with ease, and with no sticky residue remaining on the surface," Irschick says. These properties, high-capacity, reversibility and dry adhesion offer a tantalizing possibility for synthetic materials that can easily attach and detach heavy everyday objects such as televisions or computers to walls, as well as medical and industrial applications, among others, he and Crosby say.

This combination of properties at these scales has never been achieved before, the authors point out. Crosby says, "Our Geckskin device is about 16 square inches, about the size of an index card, and can hold a maximum force of about 700 pounds while adhering to a smooth surface such as glass."

Beyond its impressive sticking ability, the device can be released with negligible effort and reused many times with no loss of effectiveness. For example, it can be used to stick a 42-inch television to a wall, released with a gentle tug and restuck to another surface as many times as needed, leaving no residue.

Previous efforts to synthesize the tremendous adhesive power of gecko feet and pads were based on the qualities of microscopic hairs on their toes called setae, but efforts to translate them to larger scales were unsuccessful, in part because the complexity of the entire gecko foot was not taken into account. As Irschick explains, a gecko's foot has several interacting elements, including tendons, bones and skin, that work together to produce easily reversible adhesion.

Now he, Bartlett, Crosby and the rest of the UMass Amherst team have unlocked the simple yet elegant secret of how it's done, to create a device that can handle excessively large weights. Geckskin and its supporting theory demonstrate that setae are not required for gecko-like performance, Crosby points out. "It's a concept that has not been considered in other design strategies and one that may open up new research avenues in gecko-like adhesion in the future."

The key innovation by Bartlett and colleagues was to create an integrated adhesive with a soft pad woven into a stiff fabric, which allows the pad to "drape" over a surface to maximize contact. Further, as in natural gecko feet, the skin is woven into a synthetic "tendon," yielding a design that plays a key role in maintaining stiffness and rotational freedom, the researchers explain.

Importantly, the Geckskin's adhesive pad uses simple everyday materials such as polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), which holds promise for developing an inexpensive, strong and durable dry adhesive.

The UMass Amherst researchers are continuing to improve their Geckskin design by drawing on lessons from the evolution of gecko feet, which show remarkable variation in anatomy. "Our design for Geckskin shows the true integrative power of evolution for inspiring synthetic design that can ultimately aid humans in many ways," says Irschick.

The work was supported by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) through a subcontract to Draper Laboratories, plus UMass Amherst research funds.

Adapted from: 

Silenced songbird could have mites

By Jeff Kahler

Today we will discuss the case of "the songless canary."  Romeo is a 2-year-old songbird whose cage hangs from a stand in an atrium in Margret's house. The echo provided by the atrium's glass walls sends his song throughout the house.

A singing canary is a wonderful gift, and I can imagine the sadness Margret felt when Romeo stopped singing. Actually, according to Margret, Romeo began to sing less frequently about two weeks ago and is to the point now where he does not sing at all. He still appears to be eating, but it is obvious to Margret that he does not have his former zest for life.

Canaries, like many types of birds, are flock animals. They live in large social groups for mostly survival reasons. A flock can forage for food with greater success than an individual bird, and a flock provides protection. When presented with a flock of birds, a predator can become confused and find difficulty in singling out any one victim. A flock can also act together in defense against a predator. As good as the flock strategy can be for survival, however, it can also be ruthless to an individual bird that might become debilitated for any reason.

When a member of a flock becomes ill or injured, it will stand out from the rest. It becomes an easier target for a predator and, indeed, attracts unwanted attention to the flock. These individuals will be forced out of the flock for these very reasons. It is this flock mentality that causes individual birds to hide their disease symptoms.

You might now ask what this has to do with Romeo. My point is that Romeo has likely been sick for a while and has instinctively hidden his symptoms to avoid being excluded from the flock. He no longer can hide his symptoms and Margret has become aware Romeo is having a problem.

There are many possible disease processes that could be causing Romeo's decreased auditory performance and generalized decrease in activity. We do not have time to cover them all, but I will share one distinct possibility based on my experience working with both breeding colonies of canaries, as well as individual companion canaries.

The key focus is that Romeo has stopped singing. This once-prolific crooner has become silent and that is likely a symptom of a respiratory problem. There are many causes for respiratory problems in canaries, including bacterial and viral infections. The most common cause I have seen is air sac mites.

Air sac mites are tiny little bugs from the arachnid group, the same group that contains ticks, spiders and various mange mites we see in dogs, cats and other mammals. These little pests get into the canary's air sacs, part of their considerably complex respiratory system, through the trachea, and multiply to the point where they become obstructive to airflow. This obviously compromises the bird's ability to breath and, as Romeo has demonstrated, results in no singing and decreased activity.

Diagnosing air sac mites in canaries can be fairly straightforward. Romeo can be examined by his avian veterinarian and with the use of a powerful pinpoint light source it is often possible to see the mites crawling inside the bird's trachea. The beauty of this disease, if that is not too much of an oxymoron, is that it is very treatable. An injection or application of a topically absorbed parasiticide will kill the little invaders and, if my diagnosis is correct, Romeo will be back on concert tour in no time.

Along with treatment, Romeo's cage environment needs to be thoroughly cleaned. He should have one or maybe two more treatments of the parasiticide to account for any new mites that may have hatched from eggs in Romeo's environment, each of these treatments should be accompanied by cage cleaning.

Hopefully, Romeo has a simple case of air sac mites and he can soon return to serenading Margret and filling her house with his beautiful gift.

Adapted from:

How's that for an "arm chair" diagnosis?  And, speaking of flocking behavior, here's a study that looks into the dynamics of flocking:

Study finds European starlings flocking patterns similar to metals being magnetized

Scientists and amateur enthusiasts alike have long been fascinated by the abilities of some groups of animals to move in lockstep with one another, most specifically with schools of fish and flocks of birds. Now, new research by a team of researchers studying the flocking abilities of European starlings has shown that some of their abilities might be mathematically defined, and that the ability of the birds to change directions almost simultaneously follows the same model as metal when it becomes magnetized. The team is set to publish the results of their study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

 Prior research by the same team regarding the velocity of the birds in a flock showed that if just a single bird changed its speed, that change would propagate out to all the other birds in the flock. In this new research, the team focused on orientation. They wanted to know how individual movements of birds in the flock caused changes in the direction of the flock as a whole.

To find out, they set up multiple cameras around Rome, where the huge size of starling flocks is legendary. They took both video and stereometric stills which produce 3D imagery to allow them to capture the positions of birds in a flock as well as to project where they were going and how fast.

In so doing, they discovered two things. The first is that a change in path by one bird impacts exactly seven birds surrounding it, regardless of the size of the flock. The second is that changes in flight path for the flock as a whole happens very similarly to the way single electron spins within a metal line up when a magnetic field is created.

The first finding demonstrates that birds having neighbors is what is important to the flock, not how close they are. The seven birds that are impacted by the movement of one bird, then cause a change in the seven birds around each of them and so on until the entire flock has changed its alignment.

The second finding demonstrates that at least some of the ways birds move in a flock can be defined mathematically, which means other models may be found as well. If so, they may lead to predicting how a flock will respond in various scenarios, which when combined with the way the birds impact their neighbors, may finally solve the age old mystery of how they fly in flocks the way they do.

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Our last non-mammal story will finish off this week's issue.  For those who understand the connection between Madagascar and penguins, this one's for you:
Penguin launches 'Madagascar'-style daring escape from Japan zoo

The hunt was on today for a penguin that scaled a sheer rock face to escape from a Tokyo zoo and was last seen swimming in a river in the Japanese capital.  The one-year-old Humboldt Penguin was snapped bathing in the mouth of the Old Edogawa River, which runs into Tokyo Bay, after fleeing its home in the east of the city, echoing the hit animated movie Madagascar.

Takashi Sugino, an official at the Tokyo Sea Life Park, said the 24-inch (60cm) bird appeared to have climbed over a rock wall twice its size and made a waddle for it.  "We first noticed the penguin might have fled when the director of a neighbouring zoo emailed us ... with a photo," Sugino said.

A second picture provided by a visitor allowed keepers to identify the errant bird as one that hatched last January.

Sugino said it was not entirely clear how the creature had managed to get out of the enclosure it shares with 134 other Humboldt Penguins.  "Of course it can't fly, but sometimes wildlife have an 'explosive' power when frightened by something. Maybe it ran up the rock after being surprised," he said.

Zoo officials were scouring the area where the penguin was last spotted in the hope of capturing it today.  "It's a bit of a struggle to catch it when it is swimming, because it swims at a tremendous speed," Sugino said. "We are hoping to catch it when it climbs up on land to sleep."

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While those zoo officials are waiting for the penguin to fall asleep on land, you can be preparing for next week's continuation of A Zoologist's Dream...which will deal with mammals other than your typical dog and cat.  Stay with us....
To give you something extra to think about, here are 2 questions to mull over for next week:

1) What is the most common bird in the world?

2) What mammal has more names than any other mammal?

Any questions, suggestions, or answers can either be sent to Helpful Buckeye at: or added at the end of this issue in the "Comment" section.
Yes, the LA Dodgers seem to be getting some of their old spunk back now that they know a new owner is just around the corner.  My friend and I were impressed with their hustle and attitude on Friday as they handily defeated the Texas of last season's World Series participants.  Also, this was my first visit to the Dodgers new training facility in Glendale and it is a big, beautiful tribute to the game of baseball.  I found myself feeling tingles of excitement as we approached the field and just about bumped into none other than Tommy Lasorda...the current reigning Dodger icon.  What a great day!

The Ohio State Buckeyes won their 2 games in the first round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, with the second game against Gonzaga being tight until the end.  The final victory margin of 7 points was misleading...the game truly could have gone either way.  Now we go to the Sweet 16 next Thursday and the games probably won't get any easier.  NCAA basketball has the best playoffs of any sport in America...the excitement and anticipation continue to increase each week until the Final Four.

As mentioned at the beginning, I was able to get 3 outdoor bike rides in this past week.  This marked the earliest outside riding date since I began biking 9 years ago.  It was also the earliest 35-miler I've done...I've been working hard at my conditioning coming back from the torn calf muscle and, so far, it has really paid off for me.  Believe it or not, our temperatures are supposed to be back in the 50s-60s by Wednesday so I look forward to being back on the bike trail soon.

Desperado and Helpful Buckeye will also take advantage of this warming trend by heading back to Sedona twice...once to have an outdoor lunch with a couple of birthday buddies and secondly to take some more of the hikes we listed as "must dos" as part of our 2012 work-out plan.  Whether on the trail by ourselves or with our hiking buddies, we always seem to benefit from the principle described by Mark Twain:
"Now, the true charm of pedestrianism does not lie in the walking, or in the scenery, but in the talking. The walking is good to time the movement of the tongue by, and to keep the blood and the brain stirred up and active; the scenery and the woodsy smells are good to bear in upon a man an unconscious and unobtrusive charm and solace to eye and soul and sense; but the supreme pleasure comes from the talk. It is no matter whether one talks wisdom or nonsense, the case is the same, the bulk of the enjoyment lies in the wagging of the gladsome jaw and the flapping of the sympathetic ear."  From A Tramp Abroad

Of course, one could easily say that Mark Twain obviously never saw the Red Rocks of Sedona....

We had our St. Patrick's Day dinner celebration over the weekend, with corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, and carrots.  Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains, along with Van Morrison, provided the Irish music for the enjoyment of all.  We found that we all have at least a little Irish in each of us....

"The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time."   Abraham Lincoln
...bring it on, Abe!

~~The goal of this blog is to provide general information and advice to help you be a better pet owner and to have a more rewarding relationship with your pet. This blog does not intend to replace the professional one-on-one care your pet receives from a practicing veterinarian. When in doubt about your pet's health, always visit a veterinarian.~~