Category Archives: Animals


Colugo (flying lemur): the most accomplished and cutest mammalian glider

It seems like us mammals were never meant to fly. Sure, bats can fly, but that’s kind of it. Even so, some mammals have learned alternative means of skipping at an altitude: gliding (feather-tailed possums, sifaka) or parachuting (cats). Yes, cats parachute, but enough of them. Chances have it you’ve seen on average 17 cats already since morning. Today’s post is about a gliding mammal that’s in much more need of attention: the adorable colugos.

A colugo baby. Image: Flickr

Also called a  flying lemur, despite it’s not a lemur, nor can it fly. The colugo’s  distinguishing hallmark is a gliding membrane (patagium) surrounding almost the entire body margin. This  stretches from its face to the tips of its digits all the way back to its tail, even between fingers and toes (hence the name ‘mitten-gliders’). “Geometrically, it has the greatest surface area that you can have between those limbs without actually evolving an entire wing like bats did,” said conservation biologist Jan Janecka of Duquesne University.

The most accomplished mammalian glider. Photo: Norman Lim

This long patagium makes them fantastic gliders. They’re so good, that mums glide their fragile-boned young along from tree to tree. And as if their long cape wasn’t enough, the colugo has an unique set of dentures: the lower incisors are shaped like combs. Colugos are strict herbivores, predominantly eating young leaves from many tree species, and in the gastrointestinal tract the caecum is greatly enlarged.

Source: ImgKid

Two colugo species exist in the world, both confined to evergreen tropical rainforests of South-East Asia:  Galeopterus variegatus (Malayan colugo, formerly known as Cynocephalus variegatus) and Cynocephalus volans (Philippine colugo). Elusive and shy, there’s little documentation pertaining to their habitat or way of life. Important genetic research, however, was carried out in the last couple of years. Apparently, classifying the animal is no easy feat.  Previously, a sister-group relationship between colugos and primates seemed likely, but most recently researchers suggest  colugos and tree-shrews constitute a monophyletic group. Such a group, labeled Sundatheria, was, for example, indicated by cladistic analysis of dental features, and several authors have reported molecular evidence linking colugos to tree-shrews.



Scientists find “punk” shape shifting frog

For the first time, researchers have discovered a vertebrate able to change the texture of its skin from smooth to spiny. The new frog species was found in Ecuador in the plentiful moss surrounding the native forest.

When researcher Katherine Krynak and her husband Tim spotted what seemed to be a new species of frog, they put it in a cup to study it the next morning. But when they returned, they observed something unexpected: the frog turned all punk, changing its skin from smooth to spiky. But it got even stranger: as they placed it on a napkin to take some photos, the skin smoothened up again.

“I then put the frog back in the cup and added some moss,” says Katherine, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. “The spines came back… we simply couldn’t believe our eyes, our frog changed skin texture! I put the frog back on the smooth white background [and] its skin became smooth.”

According to their research, which was published in The Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the scientists discovered that a related species of frog could change its skin in a similar manner, raising further questions about how this trait evolved.

“Either these two different species from two different clades evolved the same trait, or all species had it and then lost the trait, or other species in this clade do this, too, and it’s just never been documented,” Dr. Krynak said.

There are obvious advantages to this – camouflage and avoiding predators. But while the camouflage part works really fine, it remains to be seen if this behavior actually scares off predators.

“The spines and coloration help them blend into mossy habitats, making it hard for us to see them,” said Katherine in a press releasefrom Case Western University. “But whether the texture really helps them elude predators still needs to be tested.” It’s also not clear how exactly mutabilis changes its skin texture.

Researchers will now work to determine how this happens.


It's extremely cute, and extremely endangered.

Cute bunny species observed for the first time in 20 years

It’s extremely cute, and extremely endangered.

There’s good news, and bad news. The good news is that an extremely rare bunny has been observed for the first time in 20 years, but the bad news is that their numbers seem to have dwindled more than ever, and we may never see them again.

The tiny Ili Pika, an eight-inch long rabbit-relative, is one of the world’s most endangered animals – with less than 1000 surviving members in the wild. Their numbers have continuously went down for decades; it’s estimated that there were around 2,900 animals living in the Tianshan when they were first discovered in the 80s, so they’ve witnessed a huge decrease.

Li Weidong, the conservationist who discovered them, told CNN:

“I discovered the species, and I watched as it became endangered. If it becomes extinct in front of me, I’ll feel so guilty.” He and his volunteers have dubbed it the ‘magic rabbit,’ but they suspect that its populations may be declining, at least in part due to global warming.

The exact causes of their problems are not known, but it is speculated that an increase in grazing pressure and global atmospheric pollution resulting in climate change threatens them significantly.

In 1983, when Li first found the species, no one knew what it was. Li and his colleagues conducted a number of studies, including a census at 14 different sites, but after Li moved to work with the Xinjiang Academy of Environmental Protection in the regional capital Urumqi, no one went searching for it and no one saw it – for 20 years. Li returned to the site, investing his own money to search for the elusive creature and to estimate its status; he claims that he invested over $32,000 in this affair so far, and he’s currently raising gas money to conduct more expeditions. But what upsets Li most isn’t the lack of funding. It’s the lack of official recognition for the Ili, and other pikas’ plight.

The Ili pika isn’t included on China’s List of Wildlife under Special State Protection and so sadly, there are no conservation efforts in place for this species. If current trends continue, it may go extinct right in front of us.

“The Department for Wildlife and Forest Plants Protection, under the Ministry of Forestry, said it was in the process of updating the list but declined to give any further details,” the CNN writes.

Li Weidong, the man who discovered and works to monitor the Ili Pika, seems one of the few people interested about the Pika’s struggle.

There’s also another problem – aside for Li, no one seems to be interested to study and defend the Ili pika.

“I’m almost 60, and soon I won’t be able to climb the Tianshan Mountains,” he said. “So I really hope that an organization will have people study and protect the Ili Pika.”

We hope so too – driving this creature to extinction and not even caring about it doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?

All images via CNN.


Chinese Park Ranger Finds Rare, Giant Salamander

A park ranger in south China was surprised to find a giant salamander while he was out picking winkles. The giant amphibian measures 83 cm in length (2.5 feet) and weighs 5.5 kg (12 pounds). This amazing creature has remained relatively unchanged since the Jurassic and is widely regarded as a living fossil, but at the moment it is critically endangered. After keeping it temporarily and measuring it, he released it back into the wild.

Despite its status as an endangered species, the giant salamander is regarded as a delicacy among China’s rich elite. Earlier this year Chinese officials were investigated for reportedly eating a giant salamander at a luxury banquet in Shenzhen. Fortunately though, a recent government crackdown ensured that anyone found to be eating endangered species could receive a jail sentence of up to ten years. It remains to be seen if this measure will actually be enforced. Many believe it to have medicinal properties, although there is no scientific evidence to back this up (like many beliefs in traditional Chinese medicine).

Giant salamanders are part of a family called Cryptobranchidae. They are the largest amphibians living today, reaching a length of 1.8 m (5.9 ft). Interestingly enough, in 1726, the Swiss physician Johann Jakob Scheuchzer described a fossil as Homo diluvii testis (Latin: Evidence of a diluvian human), believing it to be the remains of a human being who drowned in the biblical flood. In 1812, the fossil was examined by Georges Cuvier, who recognized that it was not human and properly identified it as a salamander.

There is currently one species found in the US, while Asian species are found both in China and Japan. The Chinese giant salamander eats aquatic insects, fish, frogs, crabs, and shrimp, hunting mostly at night. According to the Daily Mail, the giant salamander holds a treasured place in Chinese mythology and is called ‘wa wa yu’ – or ‘baby fish’ – in Chinese because its distress call sounds like the cry of a baby.

Images via the Daily Mail.

woolly mammoth

Woolly mammoth and modern elephant DNA merged. Next, cloning

Cloning the woolly mammoth is a life long dream for many geneticists and biologists, but the challenges are numerous. Now, we’ve come a step closer after researchers replaced snips of elephant DNA with those from the woolly mammoth. The changes they’ve made so far are stable, and even though there’s still much work ahead, little by little scientists are building the mammoth’s genome one piece at a time. Next stop: actually cloning the mammoth, effectively resurrecting the species back from the dead.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The last mammoth likely lived 3,200 years ago. Some scholars believe that their extinction was driven by excessive hunting, but there’s a growing consensus that humans alone weren’t to blame. Instead, a combination of factors likely lead to their demise, most important of which was climate change. While the ice age killed the poorly adapted mammoths, thanks to it we at least now have a  myriad of extremely well conserved specimens.  For instance, a team of international researchers uncovered a 43,000 year old female from the Siberian tundra which still had well conserved muscles, kidneys and even blood! A team member was actually quoted as saying the decomposition was less severe than a six months old carcass.

While DNA can survive for a long while under the ‘freezer’, it’s far from being perfect. In other words, it’s impractical for cloning purposes, since many bits and pieces have been damaged by the environment. This is why so many are skeptical of so called mammoth cloning. “C’mon, it’ll never happen. Not in my lifetime,” said Webb Miller, a Penn State computer scientist and genomicist who helped decipher the genetic code of a woolly mammoth.

Yes, sure, but what if you piece it together? This is what George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard University, and colleagues have been doing for the last couple of years. Using a novel technique they’ve replaced sections of elephant DNA with the mammoth genes. Since the two species are very similar, the reasoning is to only piece together those pieces that are distinct. For instance, those genes that code body hair or the longer ears.

“We now have functioning elephant cells with mammoth DNA in them. We have not published it in a scientific journal because there is more work to do, but we plan to do so,” Church said.

Church’s efforts are only the last to come to attention. At least three other team are working independently to clone to mammoth. As to Church’s research, there are a lot of loose ends that, to me at least, look very challenging if not impossible to fix. First of all, are they certain they can find the function of all the mammoth genes they’ve uncovered so far? If they do clone a so-called mammoth, will it be a mammoth in the first place or just a hybrid? Nevertheless, it would be a fantastic scientific achievement. Yes, there are critics who argue this is not only useless, but unethical. Why clone an extinct species, when we can barely avert extinction today! A while ago, I reported  a new analysis conducted by Nature which found that 41% of all amphibians on the planet now face extinction while 26% of mammal species and 13% of birds are similarly threatened. Even more species might become at risk, arguably, once an extinct species is resurfaced through cloning since extinction itself would become far less dramatic. “You can always bring it back.” But why renounce such a powerful tool? Yes, humans have been and are still highly irresponsible, but at least…we’re trying to fix it. Some of us at least.


There’s a sanctuary for orphaned kangaroos in Australia, and it’s awesome

In 2005 Chris ‘Brolga’ Barns set up a baby kangaroo rescue centre in central Australia’s Alice Springs. The main goal was to help orphaned baby kangaroos, whose parents had been struck by vehicles in Australia. Often Chris would find the orphans at the side of the road still in their mother’s pouch – even if she had been killed.

The Kangaroo Sanctuary Alice Springs
Website | Facebook | Donate

“Building a sanctuary has been my goal since founding a baby kangaroo rescue centre in 2005. By that stage I’d found one too many joeys [baby kangaroos] orphaned when traffic on Australia’s roads killed their mothers, and I’d decided something needed to be done,” Chris told The Telegraph in 2014.

It took him years of hard work, but finally, in 2009-2011, he managed to open a proper sanctuary, which now hosts 28 kangaroos and a camel. The BBC actually did a series on him and his sanctuary called Kangaroo Dundee.

“The sanctuary finally opened in 2009, but never in my wildest dreams did I expect it to become as well-known as it has through the BBC series Kangaroo Dundee. I’m pretty level-headed about the fame because for me, the animals have always come first.”

His animal-related career began at Pearl Coast Zoo in Broome, Western Australia, where he was a bird keeper. Later he was a zookeeper at Tipperary in the Northern Territory. It was at Pearl Coast Zoo however, when Barns had his first experience with an orphaned joey:

“My first experience with an orphan kangaroo joey was in 1989 when I was a 17 yr old Zookeeper at Pearl Coast Zoo in Western Australia. Her name was Josie Jo – a beautiful Western Grey joey being raised at the zoo staff quarters where I lived. The adventure of having a joey in the house and helping raise her made me realise that all I wanted to do in life was be the best ‘kangaroo mum’.” [source]

Brolga’s next step is to build Central Australia’s first wildlife hospital on the grounds of his Sanctuary. Donations are welcome to help him with his current work and his dream of building a hospital, so if you enjoy his story and want to make a difference for the wild kangaroos in Australia, please consider donating to the cause.

The Australian government estimates that 34.3 million kangaroos lived in Australia in 2011, but many of the smaller species are rare and endangered. Still, even if kangaroos are not endangered as a whole, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t need help – especially since we are the ones causing their problems.


The Kangaroo Sanctuary Alice Springs
The Kangaroo Sanctuary Alice Springs on Facebook
BBC Two: Kangaroo Dundee
BBC TV Blog: Kangaroo Dundee – Sharing my life
The Telegraph: My perfect weekend – Chris Barns, kangaroo sanctuary owner

(via) Twisted Sifter

cyborg cockroach

Cyborg cockroaches might save human lives someday

Half cockroach, half machine, these peculiar insects were hijacked by researchers at Texas A&M University for science. Electrodes implanted in their tiny brains send electrical signals that stir the roaches left, right or makes them halt. Effectively, the researchers are controlling their bodies. This may sound despicable – it actually is in many ways – but the benefits to humanity are far reaching. The cyborgs would be our eyes and ears in places otherwise inaccessible, like disasters sites in the wake of earthquakes or other environmental calamities. Picking the cockroach brain might also help us learn more about how our own brain works. This in turn could spur the development of brain-computer interfaces or a new generation of prostheses that faithfully mimic real limbs.

cyborg cockroach

Image: Courtesy of Texas A&M Engineering

Cockroach mind control isn’t exactly a new thing. Since the 1990s, scientists have been working with Frankenstein-esque roaches, planting electrodes in their antennae and sending electrical shocks to coerce the insects in moving in a certain direction.  At Texas A&M, researchers planted the electrodes inside the ganglion itself – a cluster of neurons that control the movement of the roach’s legs. According to Professor Hong Liang, right now the cyborg roaches obey commands 60% of the time. In fact, it depends on how distracted the cockroach is. If there’s a lot of sensory input, it will tend not to obey commands. Liang says with confidence, however, that his team could reach near 100% compliance.

To turn roach into a cyborg, a candidate is first put to sleep with CO2. An acupuncture needle is then used to puncture the mini-brain and insert electrodes. Then, a sort of glue is applied to the backside to stick a chip the size of a quarter. The chip communicates with a remote control that the researchers use to control the roach, but also sends other sensory inputs depending on what kind of hardware the roach is carrying (cameras, motion etc.).

Is this unethical and inhumane, however? The roach brain is primitive compared to a human brain, and as such the way it suffers is fundamentally different from our idea of pain. When asked if it hurts the roach, Texas A&M PhD student Carlos Sanchez jokingly said ” I don’t think so. I haven’t heard any complaints from them.” On more serious note, Sanchez went on to say that the connections  between their neurons and muscles are much simpler than hours, “so they probably don’t remember pain,” speaking for NPR. He is most likely right, but I can’t help noticing how this all sounds like a guess.

cyborg cockroach

Image: Texas A&M Engineering

A while ago, an educational company called Backyard Brains came under a lot of fire. The reason: the company sold remote controlled cyborg cockroaches. For 99$, the company sends you a kit with instructions on how to convert your very own roach into a cyborg for educational purposes – actually, it’s intended for kids as young as ten years old and the project’s aim is to spark a neuroscience revolution. Animal rights activists were furious, but the founders stress that the project bears important educational benefits. Kids can learn how important the brain is, how it functions, and so on. Moreover, kids are encouraged to take care of their cyborg roaches. When no longer needed, the roaches are sent to a retirement tank the scientists call Shady Acres where disabled insects go on to live the rest of their days. “They do what they like to do: make babies, eat, and poop.”

One could argue, however, that these animals need not suffer. Each animal suffers in an unique way – sophisticated or not – but it still suffers. For instance, crabs and lobsters do feel pain when boiled alive (big surprise!). On the other hand, despite animal research is quite unfortunate, most often than not it’s essential to developing new treatments and even education. This is why cutting edge science which focused on building accurate live models in cells or even simulations is so important. When these become truly accurate, maybe as far as replicating human biological responses, then animals might finally be spared from human meddling.

Back to cockroaches, few people know how extraordinary these creatures really are. Everybody knows they can survive nuclear fallout, but lesser known is that roaches make democratic group decisions, are master ninjas and even have a personality. If you move past seeing them as gross, roaches can be damn interesting, cute even.