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.~~

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