The plague-busting, prairie-dog-vaccinating, ferret-saving drone

Learning to hunt by Kimberly Fraser / USFWS.

Learning to hunt by Kimberly Fraser / USFWS.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is adapting new technology to the business of saving and endangered species: they’re sending in the drones.

Pellet drone in flight by Randy Matchett/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Pellet drone in flight by Randy Matchett/USFWS

Black-footed ferrets are a small, solitary, extremely territorial weasel-like animal that lives in the American west. Once abundant in central North America, today, their wild population stands at around 500. Black-footed ferrets were decimated by sylvatic plague (a close relative of the bubonic plague), as well as habitat loss and an early eradication campaign.

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Please do not hug the dangerous wildlife …!

Danger sign

This week social media was afire with news that a child fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, with the result that a male lowland gorilla was shot to protect the child. This is the third time a toddler has fallen into a gorilla enclosure. Comments on social media blamed the parent for not minding their child, the zoo for shooting the gorilla, and a few also blamed the zoo for not building a safer enclosure, which would prevent toddlers from being able to enter. I did not notice, however, any comments on how the public often perceives potentially dangerous wildlife – as something that is safe, and not actually life-threatening.

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Learn what whale harassment looks like (GIFs)

It’s nearly summer, which means the shores will soon be filled with SUP boards, drones, and self-professed whale whisperers.  This authentic lifestyle is an obnoxious time for marine mammals, and soon your online feeds will be flooded with aerial footage of people “sharing the water” with marine megafauna.  Some of these shots are innocent but an increasing amount are harassment.  Below is a helpful GIF guide to tell the difference.

Not harassment:

not whale harassment

Also not harassment:

not whale harassment

These scenarios happen.  They are rarely documented and totally amazing.

not whale harassment

(c) Dave de Beer, Cape Town

The below GIF explains what whale harassment looks like:

whale harassment

It’s truly that simple.  The next time an amazing 4K aerial shot shows people interacting with whales, ask yourself two things:  1) Is the whale’s head or the tail facing the people?  2) Are the people actively approaching the whale?

If the answers are 1) Tail and 2) Yes, that is harassment.

Remember:  Whales, dolphins, sharks, or anything else in the ocean does not have to interact with you, even if you brought your drone and your Instagram feed is a bit lacking.  It is illegal to harass marine mammals because it is potentially life threatening for both you and them.

Behaviour Bites: The uncomfortable truth about that penguin video

A brilliant thing about the internet is how natural events are immediately accessible to the world-wide public.  Someone can record a cheetah jumping onto their safari car and I can watch it in my Netherlands office less than 24 hours later.  Sadly, most animal videos that go viral are ones that feature animal behaviour that we think directly relates to us, humans – the real stars of the show – but rarely does the behaviour (or the animal in the video, for that matter) have anything to do with us.  Attributing human-like characteristics to non-human things is called “anthropomorphism.”  It’s a natural part of our psyche and explains why we find Elvis in potato chips or Kate Middleton in jelly beans.

Those who genuinely study animal behaviour (ethologists) first learn to recognize anthropomorphism, no matter how subtle, and then train for years to view situations from a strictly behavioural standpoint.  You may look at a dolphin and say it’s “smiling.”  An ethologist will look at that same dolphin and say it simply has its mouth closed.  You may say the dog is “laughing,” an ethologist will say the dog associates small high-pitched barks in quick succession with a reward.  Does this mean that ethologists view animals coldly and without emotion?  No.  It means that ethologists want to decode what the animal is saying, rather than force our meanings or motives into their mouths.  We just see the potato chip.

Now, I hate to also be a wet blanket, but I often get terribly, terribly vexed when I see these videos, so I have decided that when I am not singing about science, I will explain the real behaviour featured in these popular videos.  Warning, this video cannot be unseen:

If you have a video suggestion for the next behaviour bites, please leave it in the comments!

Huge win for orca advocates as #SeaWorld announces an end to circus-style shows, orca breeding and pledges more conservation

 

orca SeaWorld Orca-Shutterstock

Earlier today SeaWorld announced to the media that it was making major changes in its practices when it comes to marine wildlife. The announcement comes after years of bad publicity and failing stock prices as the result of the documentary Blackfish, criticism from marine mammal and marine conservation scientists and an unrelenting social media campaign by online activists. The changes announced are a major paradigm shift for the company and include:

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The difference between animal welfare and animal rights

I have just attended a big international conservation meeting for the past week and there was a lot of discussion about the “Cecil the Lion Phenomenon.” In many discussions, the terms animal welfare and animal rights were brought up frequently, and it was very clear that many conservation scientists do not know the difference between the terms, or the differences between those who advocate on issues that are more about individuals than species or populations. When the term “welfare” was brought up, it was often with scorn and PETA was almost always the organisation that was given as an example. This really does show a fundamental lack of understanding about advocates and organisations that represent individual animals, and that could be major (even essential) assets and allies in conservation.

The terms “welfare” and “rights” cover a wide spectrum; lumping them together is like lumping Democrats (left wing liberals) and Republicans (right wing conservatives) together and making no distinction because they are both political parties. There are nuances, but as a basic primer, here are some (very) approximate distinctions:

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