Whatever anyone’s personal thoughts about animals place within human society, stories about animals have a unique ability to captivate us. To celebrate our relationship with the rest of animalkind, we’ve compiled a list of what we consider to be the best animal stories of 2012.
Some are scientifically important. Some provide commentary on the human-animal connection. Some are funny, quirky, or surprising. Some just made us smile. Here are our picks for the best animal stories of 2012.
Best new species that was hiding in plain sight
Last summer, in a piece at the New York Times, Carl Zimmer reported that some scientists estimate that there are some 8.7 million species populating our planet (give or take 1.3 million; some scientists think the number is actually far higher). Many of the still undescribed species are microbes and fungi, others are found only in tiny corners of the world, and hundreds if not thousands are certainly gathering dust in museum basements.
More surprising, however, is that a monkey species new to science might be found in the backyard of a local school director in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a pet tethered to a post. The new species, called the Lesula monkey or Cercopithecus lomamiensis, is only the second new monkey species discovered in Africa in 28 years, after the Highland mangabey (Lophocepus kipunji) of Tanzania. Lesula: New species of African monkey discovered by Becky Crew.
Gorillas outsmart humans
Animal cognition researchers get excited whenever they see stunning examples of animal cooperation. They also get excited whenever they see younger animals learning from the older, more experienced members of their social groups. When both of those things occur simultaneously, as juvenile gorillas disable poachers’ snares, the story becomes not only impressive, but also heartwarming. Snares, while illegal, are quite common in Rwanda and are especially dangerous for the mountain gorillas who live in the area.
Especially vulnerable are the youngest gorillas, who may not have the experience yet to identify and avoid them. Imagine the awe that John Ndayambaje, a field data coordinator for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, must have felt when a silverback shouted a warning call to prevent him – a human! – from approaching the snare, only to then watch two juveniles and an adult work together to disable the snare, as well as a second snare that he hadn’t even noticed.
Unpacking just how sophisticated the cognitive mechanisms are that can lead to such swift, coordinated behavior is a daunting task, but on its surface, it seems as if the gorillas were acting with intention in a highly efficient, practiced manner. Exploring the Mind of the Mountain Gorilla by Kimberly Gerson.
Rest in Peace, Lonesome George
Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni), died this June. He was more than 100 years old. In his death, the world lost an individual animal, a subspecies of tortoise and as the International Union for Conservation of Nature called him, a “symbol of our global never-ending struggle to preserve the richness and diversity and beauty of the planet we inherited.”
Many great stories focused on one of those three aspects, and considered what George’s loss means in the larger picture. Alejandra Martins talked to Fausto Llerena, George’s keeper and best friend, on mongabay.com. Virginia Hughes looked at the sex life, or lack thereof, of this “most awkward of virgins” at The Last Word on Nothing.
Matt Bardo asked just how much the loss of a subspecies means, genetically speaking, at BBC Nature. Ira Flatow talked to Linda Cayot, scientific advisor to the Galapagos Conservancy, about what George meant to biodiversity in the Galapagos on NPR. Kim Tingley asks if an “an individual ‘face’” for extinction, like George, “actually prevents us from asking the kinds of uncomfortable questions that might significantly improve our larger conservation efforts” at OnEarth.
Primates are not pets
Monkeys typically do not wear double-breasted shearling coats, they don’t usually wear diapers, and they never shop at Ikea. Earlier this month, however, a five-month-old Japanese macaque was discovered wearing the coat and diaper running around an Ikea parking lot in Toronto, Canada.
While the monkey – named Darwin – will now be socialized with other monkeys and cared for properly at the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary in Canada, the story serves as an important reminder for why wild animals are not suitable pets.
When monkeys who have been raised as humans transition into adulthood, with the strength, aggressiveness, and muscle power (and teeth!) that accompany their maturation, the story always ends the same: the animal winds up dead or abandoned. In the best cases, the animal might wind up in a zoo where even the best of care can’t entirely undo the years of being socialized with the wrong species.
The best thing for Darwin was always being a monkey. Since he’s still relatively young, I suspect his chances for full monkey recovery at the primate sanctuary are good. Does Darwin the IKEA monkey need a human mother? by Andrew Westoll.
Best Use of Recycling by a Non-Human
Tobacco plants use nicotine to defend themselves against hungry bugs. Birds, it turns out, use the the chemical for the same purpose, but get it from a strange source. By lining their nests with discarded cigarette butts, birds protect their kids from parasites. Hannah Waters at Culturing Science calls the study a “wonderful example of wildlife adaptation to urbanization–or at least that birds are resourceful and can still follow their noses in urban environments.”
The Best “Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men” Story
Rabies in Latin America usually comes from vampire bats, and governments usually respond by culling them. Yet the disease is on the rise, and scientists reported this summer that every colony they examined showed signs of infections. Those colonies that were periodically culled, Erik Stokstad reports for ScienceNOW, had higher rates of exposure.
It seems that the cull method kills adults, which are more likely to have acquired resistance to the rabies virus and not spread it, and spares more juvenile bats that are susceptible to developing rabies. The standard solution, it appears, has backfired, and reminds us that “host-pathogen systems are complex and can respond to management in unexpected ways.”
Most heartwarming animals that pretend to be people
Can animals learn to communicate with humans? Well, that depends what you mean by “communicate.” All the training in the world can’t teach language to an animal. But that doesn’t mean that some animals can’t fool us. This year, two stories appeared within weeks of each other about animals that learned to mimic human speech. NOC is the name of a beluga whale who was the guest of the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego who produced sounds that, as Ed Yong put it, sounded like “a drunkard playing a kazoo.”
Two weeks later, Koshik, a twenty year old Asian elephant at a Korean zoo made headlines for his ability to mimic at least seven Korean words. Writing at Double X Science, Emily Willingham pointed out that “when Korean speakers came in as stenographers for his communication, they could clearly distinguish his words.” The beluga and elephant aren’t speaking English or Korean any more than than the lyrebird speaks chainsaw. But as vocal learners, they could provide researchers with insight into how speech is acquired.
Best Feel-Good Invertebrate Story of the Year
The United States Army, in addition to protecting the country’s citizens, is obligated to protect threatened and endangered non-humans on its installations. In Hawaii, that means protecting kahuli tree snails from cannibalistic Rosy wolfsnails, chameleons and rodents. To give give the snails a safe haven, writes John R. Platt at Extinction Countdown, the army constructed a predator-proof enclosure about the size of a basketball court to house three hundred snails.
From | Scientific American
After 15 years of searching, U.S. and local investigators said to have discovered three groups of an endangered bird species in the forested slopes that surround the fertile and extensive Agalta Valley, east of Honduras. Read More
The project is launching on the occasion of World Environment Day. Martelly and Medina will visit Ouanaminthe, where the two countries have built a seedling production centre with help from Cuba. Read More
The Venezuelan mangroves span over 2,200 square miles, ranking as one of the largest mangrove ecoregions in South America, but that number is shrinking steadily. Read More