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Varecia variegata

NMNH - Vertebrate Zoology - Mammals Division

Varecia variegata

NMNH - Vertebrate Zoology - Mammals Division

Tiny Fossils Reveal the Rise of Mammals on Madagascar

Smithsonian Magazine

Life on Madagascar is unlike life anywhere else in the world. The vast majority of the island’s creatures are only found within its borders, from the lemurs hopping through the trees to the colorful reptiles that clamber through the undergrowth and over stretches of desert.

Islands are often hot spots of biodiversity because isolation is usually an essential ingredient for evolution. Organisms that wind up on islands, separated from their mainland haunts, can become adapted to different habitats than those of their ancestors, much like the many varieties of Darwin’s finches. If the celebrated naturalist had visited Madagascar instead of the Galápagos, “Darwin’s lemurs” might instead be the textbook standard.

But Madagascar has long presented a mystery: The island's fossil record has been nearly blank between about 66 million years ago and 26,000 years ago, leaving biologists to ponder how today's fantastic display of biodiversity came to be after the end of the Age of Dinosaurs.

“Madagascar has some of the most endemic, endangered and bizarre plants and animals on the planet,” says paleontologist Karen Samonds of Northern Illinois University. “Yet we know very little about how they arrived.” Now, thanks to years of backbreaking work and careful sifting of tiny fossils, Samonds and her colleagues are starting to piece together Madagascar’s missing evolutionary tale.

Paleontologists and geologists had previously determined that proto-Madagascar, at the time attached to ancient India, split off from mainland Africa about 135 million years ago. About 88 million years ago, Madagascar and India parted ways, leaving the dinosaurs, mammals, and other creatures there to spin off into strange new forms.

Recent discoveries from rocks dating to about 70 to 66 million years ago include the predatory, knobby-headed Majungasaurus, the armored sauropod Rapetosaurus and the gopher-like early mammal Vintana. After that, the fossil trail picks up again around 26,000 years ago, when enormous lemurs, elephant birds, dwarfed hippos and other now-extinct forms called the island home. But what happened in the long interval in-between? That mystery is what drew Samonds to the island.

“I love the challenge of exploration to remote areas,” Samonds says. “It was clear that finding this ‘missing piece’ in the Cenozoic fossil record had huge potential to answer many different research questions.”

Her team's persistence has been paying off. In 2009, Samonds and her colleagues announced the discovery of a 40-million-year-old sea cow they named Eotheroides lambondrano. This was the first good mammal fossil found in the gap between the reign of the dinosaurs and the late Pleistocene.

The sea cow was uncovered near the little village of Ampazony on the northwestern coast of Madagascar. Not very far away, across the mouth of the Betsiboka River, sits another fossil site that holds even more potential. Its name is Nosy Makamby, and it is just a little spit of land off the coast of the main island.

Previous paleontologists had found fragments of sea cow there at the beginning of the 20th century, but at between 23 and 5 million years old, these were geologically younger than the beast Samonds and her team named. Nosy Makamby looked to hold additional pieces of the Cenozoic puzzle.

The Nosy Makamby site on Madagascar. (Karen Samonds)

During a decade of fieldwork on Nosy Makamby, “the biggest challenge we have is dealing with the ocean tides,” Samonds says. “We camp on the beach, and some of our sites are underwater during certain times of the day.” The team has to carefully coordinate when the island’s fossil-bearing rocks are above the waves.

“A few times we have stubbornly tried to push our window of opportunity and have gotten really stuck”, Samonds says. For instance, after recent cyclones washed away a significant part of the beach, an especially high tide nearly washed out their camp, leading to a waterlogged night. Yet the draw of discovering remnants from an unknown time period keeps the paleontologists going back year after year.

Some of the fossils discovered by the team can be seen with the naked eye. These big bones are prepared for study back in the lab, using tools called airscribes that delicately chip away stone from bone. Not a scrap goes to waste, though. Tiny fossils hide in the mix, and so the matrix chipped off the big bones is left to dissolve in acetic acid and screened through a small sieve. This reveals some of the smaller bones that would have otherwise been missed.

From the fossils recovered so far, it seems that Nosy Makamby was a near-shore marine habitat back in the Miocene, too.

“The most common fossils we discover are animals that live in the ocean near the shore like snails, stingrays, sharks, fish, crocodiles and turtles,” Samonds says. Just last year, the team found more sea cow material, including a lower jaw and possibly another piece of skull. But to Samonds, “the most exciting recent finds are tiny terrestrial animal fossils” that include the teeth and bones of animals such as bats and rodents.

“For each group we find, they fill a gap of knowledge,” Samonds says. Prior to the discovery of Eotheroides, she notes, sea cows were thought to have evolved in the Northern Hemisphere and spread south. But the sea cow from Madagascar in the Southern Hemisphere is so archaic that “it has really turned our perception of sea cow evolution upside down.”

The team has also found fossils of roundleaf bats in the island's Miocene rock, which is not entirely surprising because the animals are found in strata of the same age in many parts of the world. Still, their presence in Madagascar “represents a range expansion, and since they are found in Madagascar today, it helps us bracket their arrival time.”

Each new expedition brings back more fossils and the potential to add a few pieces to the story of how life on Madagascar became so beautiful and strange.

“Since I work in a time period we know virtually nothing about what lived on the island, pretty much everything we find is surprising in some way,” Samonds says. These not only include the beginnings of lineages still alive today, but perhaps even groups of animals that made it to Madagascar but went extinct long before humans arrived.

Samonds is optimistic that she and her team will uncover more of these lost worlds: “We could have some pretty interesting surprises ahead in the fossil record.”

This Leaping Lemur Lady Rules the Bunch (4K)

Smithsonian Channel
Ring-tail lemurs are highly social, extremely adaptable and, like all lemurs, led by a dominant female - and she doesn't put up with any dissent in her ranks, especially in the males. From the Series: Land of Primates: Lemurs of Madagascar

These Feisty Female Lemurs Fight With Babies on Their Backs

Smithsonian Channel
In ring-tailed lemur society, it's the females who call the shots. They live in groups of up to 30 members and the alpha female will fight hard to protect her territory. From the Series: Amazing Monkeys: Conquest of Africa

These Ecologists Borrowed Tricks From Astrophysicists to Count Endangered Orangutans

Smithsonian Magazine

In the last century, orangutan numbers have dropped dramatically. The primate’s total on the island of Borneo is down from roughly 230,000 to about 104,000 individuals, while only 7,500 remain on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

When it comes to critically endangered species, however, rough estimates aren’t good enough to help ensure their survival. That’s why an unlikely combo of ecologists and astrophysicists has teamed up to use cutting edge drone technology to try and count the animals from the sky.

In a video from WWF UK, primatologist Serge Wich from Liverpool John Moores University explains that counting orangutans is a slow and costly endeavor. Typically, researchers trek through the forest, counting nests and deriving population estimates from their observations.

In their latest project, Wich and astro-ecologist Claire Burke, also of Liverpool John Moores University, tested a new approach. They outfitted a drone with the same type of thermal imaging camera used by astronomers to look at the stars to see if they could spot the heat signatures of orangutans and their nests.

Over the course of six days, the team—which also included members of the WWF and orangutan conservation group HUTAN—conducted 28 10-minute drone flights at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project in the heavily forested Malaysian state of Sabah. In total, the drone crew found 41 orangutans in the trees, all of which were confirmed by observers on the ground. They recently presented their work at the British Ecological Society’s Unifying Tropical Ecology Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Because the tropical forests of Sabah are so hot and humid, the team was uncertain whether the thermal imaging would be able to distinguish between the apes and the background environment at all. Yessenia Funes at Earther reports that the team found the system wasn’t very reliable during the day, but worked well before 9 a.m. and after 7 p.m. when the air temperature is cool enough to differentiate from the apes’ body heat.

Burke tells Funes that previous tries to track tropical animals using thermal cameras just couldn’t get a fine enough resolution to work. The more finely tuned instruments used by astrophysicists, however, were able to give usable pictures.

“In thermal images, animals shine in a similar way to stars and galaxies, so we used techniques from astronomy to detect and distinguish them,” she says in a press release. “We were not sure at all whether this would work, but with the thermal-infrared camera we could see the orangutans quite clearly because of their body heat, even during fog or at night.”

Orangutans weren’t the only species caught on camera. The drones also picked up on a troop of proboscis monkeys and a group of pygmy elephants. In previous tests, the team also used the drone to track Mexican spider monkeys and rabbits in South Africa. Next, they will next try to find critically endangered Lac Alaotra bamboo lemurs in Madagascar. Eventually, they want their thermal drones to keep tabs on all sorts of animals.

“Rhinos, elephants—you name it, we want to do it,” Burke tells Funes.

The goal is to create a system in which an algorithm can identify the thermal fingerprint of individual species. “In the future, we hope to be able to track, distinguish and monitor large numbers of different species of animals in real time, all around the globe, so that this technology can be used to make a real impact on conservation and stop poaching before it happens,” Burke says in the release.

This is not the only way drones are revolutionizing ecology. Drones are being used to collect samples from plumes shot out of whale blowholes; estimate numbers of nesting birds, seals; and turtles and to monitor things like land use change and deforestation.

The Plight of the Right Whale

Smithsonian Magazine

From 800 feet above the Gulf of Saint Lawrence off the coast of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, I peer out of the window of a Twin Otter airplane. The sun glares back from the blue expanse below. In the cabin, a Fisheries and Oceans Canada survey team records sightings of seals, porpoises, dolphins and even basking sharks. Soon we see whales—minkes, fins, humpbacks. The crew is nonchalant. But when a pod of North Atlantic right whales comes into view, the buzz of excitement fills the plane.

The pilot banks to circle, and the crew gathers to one side for a better view. The right whales appear prehistoric, with giant heads covered in callosities—patches of roughened skin unique to each animal. To scoop up copepods, the tiny zooplankton that make up their diet, right whales have gaping mouths and plates of baleen that can reach eight feet long. Their bodies defy all expectations, comically rotund yet strangely elegant as they glide through the sea. Rapt, we watch the huge mammals lunge and dive with a playful innocence that belies the gravity of their situation.

With an estimated 450 individuals remaining, right whales could be functionally extinct in 20 years. Swimming with open mouths, they easily become entangled in the ropes that connect crab and lobster traps to buoys at the surface. As they thrash to free themselves, they often make the entanglement worse. Right whales can drag fishing gear for months before slowly drowning, and collisions with ships also thin their numbers. While reliable data on ship strikes isn’t readily available, necropsies show blunt force trauma as a frequent cause of death.

Image by Nick Hawkins. ‘Callosities’ are patches of roughened skin unique to each whale. Researchers use the patterns to identify individual right whales. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. Aerial view of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis</I>) engaged in a surface active group., with female out front being pursued by males. Known as a "SAG" to researchers, it has a fairly broad definition: two or more whales within a body length interacting at the surface. Typically, the SAG is comprised of one female and a number of males competing with each other to mate with her. Some SAGs are extremely active, with a lot of rolling and white water, whereas others are more sedate. The number of animals in a SAG can range from two or three to more than 40. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. A North Atlantic right whale breaches in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada. With an estimated 450 individuals remaining, the species is among the rarest and most endangered of large whales. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. A right whale named "Lemur" has a significant injury on its tail from the propeller of a large boat. Researchers have also twice observed Lemur entangled in fishing gear. (original image)

It’s not the first time the species has faced an anthropogenic demise. Because they’re slow-moving and float when killed, they were named the ‘right’ whales to hunt. After three centuries of relentless whaling, right whales were reduced to an estimated 60 reproductive individuals by the early 20th century. With protections, their numbers gradually increased, and at the turn of the 21st century, there were just over 500 North Atlantic right whales—nothing near historical abundance, but a recuperating population nonetheless.

More recently, however, things have again taken a turn for the worse. Right whale calving grounds are off the coast of Georgia and Florida. Their annual summer migration takes them up to the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy, where copepods were formerly abundant for the whales to feed on. But climate change is shifting copepod distributions, and right whales have been following their food farther north, up to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. In this totally new marine environment, the large animals come into conflict with industries unaccustomed to their presence, and the whales are dying at an alarming rate.

Scientists are scrambling to understand these new migration patterns to better protect the whales. The good news is that recent management strategies—like fishing closures and shipping lane changes—show promise of keeping harm out of the whales’ way. While 17 right whales died in 2017, only two have been lost so far this year, neither of them in waters protected by the new measures.

Right whales breaching in the North Atlantic as seen from an aircraft. (Nick Hawkins)

Back in the air, the crew on the Twin Otter immediately radios in their sighting. Their colleagues on the management side need up-to-the-minute information on the locations of the whales. Aerial surveys provide that data, but daily flights are resource intensive, so scientists are developing a new generation of acoustic technologies that can lend a hand. Most intriguing is an autonomous ocean ‘glider’ adapted to monitor whales.

The instrument measures five feet and looks more like a miniature space rocket than a marine vehicle. To cover great swaths of the ocean using little energy, it harnesses some basic science. The glider changes its own density to descend, slowly. Because it has wings, it ‘glides’ forward as it sinks. At a specified depth, it automatically adjusts for positive buoyancy and ascends, still advancing forward. On a single battery, the glider can cruise along at 0.6 mph for up to four months.

The gliders are equipped with hydrophones that use clever software to compare the sounds they hear with an onboard library of whale calls. The computer makes accurate identifications, transmitting real-time whale locations directly to researchers. The hydrophones are also being tested on buoys to listen for passing whales, and because these devices can be deployed for long periods of time, they provide a wealth of data. Persistent and cost-effective, acoustic monitoring technologies will never fully replace aircraft surveys, but they’re an important part of the picture.

Image by Nick Hawkins. Powerless, researchers looked on as whale #3960 tried to wrestle free of crabbing gear, its skin rubbed raw by the ropes. Although the whale eventually freed itself, it will forever bear the marks of its entanglement. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. The unique v-shaped blow of a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) created by the two nostrils being set at angles to each other. Right whales are the only whale species to exhibit this. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. Right whales congregate in a unique type of behavior called ‘surface active groups.’ Here, a male peers out of the water while trying to slide into position to mate with a female. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. The Ocean Tracking Network (OTN) deploys an autonomous glider off Halifax, Nova Scotia. The gliders provide oceanographic data and record the presence of right whales by listening for their vocalizations. This information helps researchers to understands changing oceanic conditions and whale behaviors. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. Whale watchers observe a group of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada. (original image)

Closing fishing zones, rerouting ships and imposing speed limits can mitigate risks to right whales, but they don’t eliminate them. And fishing closures in particular have rippling economic effects on communities that rely on crab and lobster.

“Once we saw the presence of whales, we knew that for our fishery to survive, these whales had to thrive,” says Robert Haché of the Acadian Crabbers Association.

Fisheries can reduce their impact by using ropes with reduced breaking strength—sturdy enough to rein in traps but not a struggling whale. However, one innovation promises to revolutionize the industry: ropeless traps. Designs vary, but all allow fishers to deploy and retrieve their traps without leaving ropes in the water column. In one model, a trap is furnished with a spool of rope attached to a buoy on the end. Using an acoustic signal, the fisher triggers a mechanism to release the buoy, which shoots to the surface pulling rope from the spool so the trap can be recovered and checked for crustaceans.

But such designs have yet to achieve widespread use. On a research cruise this summer, Amy Knowlton and her team from the New England Aquarium and Dalhousie University came across whale #3960 trapped in struggle to survive. With ropes wrapped around his head, through his mouth and even between his baleen, the whale flailed in anguish. He struggled to breath, the gear covering his blowhole. “My heart sank,” says Knowlton, who has been studying North Atlantic right whales for 35 years. She thought #3960’s fate was sealed.

Crab gear wreaks havoc on a right whale’s sensitive baleen. Researchers watched helplessly as whale #3960 struggled for hours, finally freeing itself. (Nick Hawkins)

For hours, the crew looked on, helpless, while the whale dove repeatedly in a desperate attempt to free itself of the snare. Then, all of a sudden, it surfaced without the entangling fishing gear and took off at considerable speed. For people on the front lines, it’s the small victories that sustain the fight.

The future of North Atlantic right whales depends on our ability to reduce the impacts of fishing and shipping, Knowlton says. We can save them, she tells me with confidence. Our own innovations have pushed them nearly to extinction, but perhaps new technologies, like acoustic monitoring and ropeless fishing, could help bring these ocean giants back from the brink.

The Hubbub About Ida

Smithsonian Magazine

It's been a fascinating week here in the world of science communication. By now you've heard of Ida, the beautifully fossilized 47-million-year-old primate that may or (more likely) may not be a human ancestor? It's a gorgeous fossil from an important era of primate evolution, and its presentation should have made for a major news story.

But somehow this major news story got turned into something else, something that, in the measured, self-serious world of science, is almost scandalous. The problem started with this caricature of a press release:




Ground-Breaking Global Announcement
What: An international press conference to unveil a major historic scientific find. After two years of research a team of world-renowned scientists will announce their findings, which address a long-standing scientific puzzle.
The find is lauded as the most significant scientific discovery of recent times. History brings this momentous find to America and will follow with the premiere of a major television special on Monday, May 25 at 9 pm ET/PT chronicling the discovery and investigation.
Who: Mayor Michael Bloomberg; International team of scientists who researched the find; Abbe Raven, President and CEO, A&E Television Networks; Nancy Dubuc, Executive Vice President and General Manager, History; Ellen Futter, President, American Museum of Natural History

This was met with groans from most journalists, especially those with any experience covering science. Unless SETI had gotten a call-back from another planet, somebody was exaggerating.

But the hype worked, up to a point. Carl Zimmer (who wrote a nice story for Smithsonian a few years ago about life on early Earth and (potentially) Mars) reviewed the early coverage of Ida on his blog The Loom:

If the world goes crazy for a lovely fossil, that’s fine with me. But if that fossil releases some kind of mysterious brain ray that makes people say crazy things and write lazy articles, a serious swarm of flies ends up in my ointment.

And he later reviewed an ad for the television show about the fossil that, like the press release, seemed to be a caricature of itself.

The Knight Science Journalism Tracker is continuing to update an valuable analysis of the news coverage.

Aside from questions about the hype, there are questions about whether the scientific interpretation of the fossil is solid. Our own Brian Switek, who blogs for Dinosaur Tracking, summed up the technical points nicely in his personal Laelaps blog. And today he describes some of the problems in The Times of London:

Ida is undoubtedly a spectacular fossil. A nearly complete fossil primate, with a body outline and stomach contents, she is the sort of discovery palaeontologists dream about. It may come as a surprise, then, that Ida does not change everything we thought we knew about human evolution. Indeed, she may tell us more about the origins of lemurs than our own species.

The term that seems to be evoking the most cringes among scientists, a term that's even more misleading than "revolutionary," is "missing link." Another fossil to earn this outdated title was Tiktaalik, which is a transition form between fish and land animals. Neil Shubin spoke with us a few years ago and explained one of the reasons why the term is problematic:

When people call Tiktaalik “the missing link,” it implies there is a single fossil that tells us about the transition from water to land. Tiktaalik gains meaning when it’s compared with other fossils in the series. So it’s not “the” missing link. I would probably call it “a” missing link. It’s also no longer missing—it’s a found link. The missing links are the ones I want to find this summer.

The High-Tech, Humane Ways Biologists Can Identify Individual Animals

Smithsonian Magazine

From unlocking a phone to solving a homicide, fingerprints are often used in daily life to differentiate between individuals. Every human has a unique series of ridges at the tip of each digit that serves as a biometric identifier, or a measurement that can be used to distinguish between individuals. But what physical characteristics distinguish other animals from each other?

In the past, researchers have relied on externally imposed methods of identifying individual animals, such as leg or arm bands, collars, toe clipping, ear notching, brands or tattoos. Such methods are often invasive and can alter behavior, injure the animals or increase susceptibility to predators by impeding movement or camouflage.

Within the past decade, biologists have developed new high-tech ways of using animals’ unique features to differentiate between individuals with minimal physical interference. Researchers are starting to rely on a combination of biometric technologies and animals’ unique characteristics to remove the need for invasive or disruptive tagging techniques, allowing conservationists to monitor individuals without putting undue stress on the animals.

Zebra Stripes


Scientists aren’t certain exactly why zebras have stripes, but they surmise the markings could serve as camouflage, a natural sunscreen or even a pest repellant. The stripes also serve a different purpose for researchers: Each zebra has a unique configuration of stripes, which allows conservationists to keep track of zebra populations without physically tagging the animals.

In 2011 a joint project between Princeton University and the University of Illinois at Chicago created StripeSpotter, a free, open-source computer program to identify the animals in the wild. The software converts digital photos of zebra’s flanks into a series of horizontal, black-and-white pixelated bands, which creates a unique “StripeCode” for each animal, similar to a barcode. The software is currently being used to build a zebra-print database for plains and endangered Grevy’s zebras in Kenya.

Mouse Ears

(Alamy; ResearchGate)

Rodents used in labs have traditionally been marked with tattoos, ear clips or implants, but recent research illuminates a potential alternative that is more efficient, cost-effective and minimizes pain for the animals.

A study published in 2007 in the journal Lab Animal details a proposed switch to biometric identifiers rather than physical tags. Scientists can keep track of their furry test subjects by photographing unique patterns of blood vessels in the rodents’ ears. Though potentially invaluable in research labs, this technology is still experimental—the algorithm will occasionally mistake patterns in fur or distortion from folded ears as veins.

Cow Noses

(Alamy; University of Nebraska)

In 1921 farmers discovered that when they covered the muzzles of their cattle with ink and pressed the noses onto paper, the resulting images were as unique as human fingerprints. Cows have a series of glands under the skin between their upper lips and the tips of their nostrils that creates a pattern of ridges distinct to each individual.

Creating nose-prints is less invasive than typical ear-tagging or branding methods, but the method is time-consuming and difficult to put into use on a large scale. But in 2015, Egyptian scientists at Beni-Suef University created a computer-based technique using algorithms rather than ink and paper to detect distinct features in bovine muzzles.

The program identifies individuals correctly 96 percent of the time, whereas traditional methods are only 90 percent accurate. It’s also particularly useful on farms for breeding and health records. Recent patents propose using similar nose-print technologies to locate lost dogs.

Bat Wings

(Alamy; USDA)

In a 2017 issue of Journal Mammalogy, U.S. Forest Service scientist Sybil Amelon and colleagues at the University of Missouri outline a solution to an issue that has stumped scientists for decades: how to non-invasively tag individual bats.

Until now, scientists have been almost entirely dependent on bands for tagging the 44 species of bats in U.S. and Canada, but Amelon and her team have found a better way. By examining patterns of collagen-elastin bundles on the bats’ fibrous wings, scientists can differentiate between individuals without having to capture and tag the animals.

The researchers were successful using wing collagen as an identifier in multiple species of bats, analyzing wings of little brown bats, northern long ear bats, big brown bats and tricolor bats. The system is highly effective, with a 96 percent success rate even when identifying bats with wings damaged by fungus.

Lemur Faces

(Alamy; BMC Zoology)

A technology typically used for catching shoplifters and detecting passport fraud is now being used to study endangered lemurs in Madagascar. A team of lemur experts and computer scientists at Michigan State University created a database, LemurFaceID, that modifies human facial recognition software to serve the lemur population.

Published in a paper in 2017, the software breaks down lemur facial characteristics to the pixel, allowing researchers to create a database of lemur faces to use while tracking the endangered animals’ population changes. Scientists say LemurFaceID could likely be modified to identify other primates facing extinction, greatly assisting conservation efforts.

Koala Spots


Koalas and humans have similar fingerprints, but researchers prefer another method of tracking the marsupials—by examining patterns of pigmentation on their noses. Coloration on the marsupials’ large, leathery noses has been used as a method of identification for the past 16 years. The monitoring technique is useful in conservation efforts, as it does not require researchers to actively capture and individually tag the animals.

According to National Conservation and Managing Strategy reports, the koala population has dropped 43 percent since 1990, and the species is declared “vulnerable” in Queensland, New South Wales and Australia Capital Territory. Identifying the marsupials by nose pigmentation patterns also allows the public to assist in conservation efforts. Anyone who spots a koala in the wild can snap a photo and help provide data on the whereabouts of individuals.

The British Navy Has a Long History of Adopting Animal Mascots

Smithsonian Magazine

Long voyages at sea can be lonely, so sailors throughout history have taken animals on board. Dogs and cats are the most popular companions—as on land, also on water—but the British Royal Navy has plenty of other critters that have joined its ranks.

Some of the most memorable of this maritime menagerie are highlighted by Steven Gray at The Guardian. The animals that voyaged with the fleets grew so numerous that the Royal Navy’s training facility on Whale Island, Portsmouth, built a "sailor’s zoo" in 1893. "By 1935 there were lions in spacious cages, marsupials in grass paddocks and birds in aviaries," Gray writes. 

One such mascot was Barbara, a polar bear who had been rescued from an ice floe near Greenland during World War II. Since keeping a live polar bear in close quarters with humans is dangerous, the Navy retired her to Whale Island, where she died before the zoo closed in 1940. She rests there still, buried next to other naval mascots such as Jack the parrot, who survived a cyclone, a black bear named Amelia and other animals.

Animals have served in all branches of the military but were particularly popular with many navies, according to Arnold Arluke and Robert Bogdan’s book Beauty and the Beast: Human-Animal Relations as Revealed in Real Photographs. Some of the mascots were smuggled on board, others were gifts from foreign governments or domestic municipalities and ushered on with "presentation ceremonies where the mascot made the transition from land to sea, from civilian to navy life," the authors write.

While the sailors may have enjoyed the animal company, life aboard a ship can't have been as pleasant for the animals themselves. More recent pairings of navies and animal mascots have left the non-humans happier and safe on land, as is the case of the recent adoption of a lemur crewmen named Artful

Britain wasn’t the only country to have naval mascots. Bears were predictably popular on U.S. ships during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential terms, Arluke and Bogdan note in their book. Goats were long associated with the navy as a source of food because they were smaller than cows and less picky about their own food. But as food supply to ships improved, goats transitioned to pets. There are several stories about the first goat to attend the Army-Navy game, but after a midshipman recruited one named "El Cid" off the USS New York to attend a 1893 match, the tradition stuck.

"Bill the Goat" is still an official mascot of the U.S. Navy, although the animal (or rather, one of his successors) stays ashore nowadays and represents the officers playing the field during the Army-Navy football game. 

Currently, U.S. navy ships are goat-free. Along with other animals, they were banned. One captain who ignored regulations and kept a three-year-old pygmy goat named Charlie on board his missile cruiser apparently lost his job in the spring of 2015. The monkeys, bears, dogs, cats and others spared the distress of close quarters and seasickness would probably thank those responsible for the change. As would the sailors who no longer have to clean up after the navy's animal mascots.

Systematic and comparative morphologies of the extrinsic cardiac nervous system in lemurs (Primates: Strepsirrhini: Infraorder Lemuriformes, Gray, 1821) with evolutionary morphological implications

Smithsonian Libraries
The detailed systematic morphology of the extrinsic cardiac nervous system (ECNS) and its surrounding structures in lemurs, Lemuriformes, were examined using 18 sides of nine lemurs including all four families: Lemuridae, Indriidae, Lepilemuridae, and Cheirogaleidae. Although the general morphology of ECNS in lemurs is similar to that in Lorisiformes, several anatomical differences, such as the structural variation of the cervicothoracic ganglion, the positional variation of the middle cervical ganglion, and the unusual appearance of the superior cardiac nerve originating from the superior cervical ganglion, demonstrate the diversity within Lemuriformes. In other words, the comparative anatomical findings of the wide variations in ECNS in the four families of Lemuriformes compared with the lower variations in the two families of Lorisiformes possibly reflect their evolutionary history and diversity, as is shown in the recent molecular phylogeny. On the other hand, the shared common morphology of ECNS in Lorisiformes and Lemuriformes is considered to be the morphology of the common ancestor of strepsirrhines and demonstrates the gradual evolutionary changes in the primate lineage. Our present and previous results also suggest that ECNS is preserved in the primate lineage without modification and specialization because of its functional adaptation, as is seen in the somatic system.

Study Shows Primates Prefer a Little Booze With Their Nectar

Smithsonian Magazine

We know lots of animal and insect species like to booze it up every now and again. Butterflies like a little tipple, and Youtube is full of birds that get a little loose after eating fermented berries, and when wasted, slur their songs. One time, a drunk moose even got caught in a tree while stealing fermented apples in Sweden.

Even primates like to hit the happy juice. A 2014 study shows that humans and African great apes have a genetic mutation that allows them to digest alcohol more quickly. It’s a trait we share with the aye-aye, a type of nocturnal lemur only found on Madagascar that looks like Mickey Mouse on an acid trip. In a recent study, researchers looked at whether this unusual primate and a much cuter prosimian primate native to south Asia called the slow loris, actually sought out alcohol, rather than accidentally coming across it.

According to a press release, the aye-aye primarily uses its long bony fingers to extract grub from trees. But in the rainy season, the primate slurps up 20 percent of its calories from the flowers of the traveler tree, some of which may be fermented. According to Conor Gearin at New Scientist, the slow loris spends much of its time drinking bertam palm nectar, which is also often fermented. 

To test the animals’ preference for the hard stuff, researchers at Dartmouth College studied two captive aye-ayes, Morticia and Merlin, and one slow loris named Dharma. Once a day for 15 days, the aye-ayes were allowed access to containers containing a sucrose solution between 0 and .5 percent alcohol, similar to naturally fermented nectar. Water was also offered as a control. The aye-ayes in the study preferred the alcohol, and in fact, the higher the concentration, the more they liked it.

“Aye-ayes used their fingers to compulsively probe the cups long after the contents were emptied, suggesting that they were extremely eager to collect all residual traces,” Dartmouth evolutionary biologist, Nathaniel Dominy, author of the study which appears in the journal Royal Society Open Science, tells Gearin.

Dharma, the slow loris, was only tested five times, so there was less information to go off of, but in the study Dharma also greatly preferred the cups with the higher concentrations of alcohol, says the press release. In either case, the alcohol did not appear to have negative effects on the animals or get them wasted.

The findings fit with ideas put forth by evolutionary psychologist Robert Dudley in his 2014 book, The Drunken Monkey: Why We Drink and Abuse AlcoholIn it, he says that a preference for alcohol is an evolutionary adaptation, and argues that the smell of fermenting fruit allowed the early ancestors of apes and humans to find fruit sources hidden in trees. The enzymes which allow apes and humans to process alcohol more efficiently probably evolved when our ancestors began spending more time on the ground, where overripe and fermented fruit is more prevalent.

Though the researchers have yet to tackle the enzymes of the aye-aye, their drive to drink could reflect a similar evolutionary path.

Structural characterization of neutral and acidic oligosaccharides in the milks of strepsirrhine primates: greater galago, aye-aye, Coquerel's sifaka and mongoose lemur

Smithsonian Libraries
The structures of milk oligosaccharides were characterized for four strepsirrhine primates to examine the extent to which they resemble milk oligosaccharides in other primates. Neutral and acidic oligosaccharides were isolated from milk of the greater galago (Galagidae: Otolemur crassicaudatus), aye-aye (Daubentoniidae: Daubentonia madagascariensis), Coquerel's sifaka (Indriidae: Propithecus coquereli) and mongoose lemur (Lemuridae: Eulemur mongoz), and their chemical structures were characterized by H-1-NMR spectroscopy. The oligosaccharide patterns observed among strepsirrhines did not appear to correlate to phylogeny, sociality or pattern of infant care. Both type I and type II neutral oligosaccharides were found in the milk of the aye-aye, but type II predominate over type I. Only type II oligosaccharides were identified in other strepsirrhine milks. alpha 3'-GL (isoglobotriose, Gal(alpha 1-3)Gal(beta 1-4)Glc) was found in the milks of Coquerel's sifaka and mongoose lemur, which is the first report of this oligosaccharide in the milk of any primate species. 2'-FL (Fuc(alpha 1-2)Gal(beta 1-4)Glc) was found in the milk of an aye-aye with an ill infant. Oligosaccharides containing the Lewis x epitope were found in aye-aye and mongoose lemur milk. Among acidic oligosaccharides, 3'-N-acetylneuraminyllactose (3'-SL-NAc, Neu5Ac(alpha 2-3)Gal(beta 1-4)Glc) was found in all studied species, whereas 6'-N-acetylneuraminyllactose (6'-SL-NAc, Neu5Ac(alpha 2-6)Gal(beta 1-4)Glc) was found in all species except greater galago. Greater galago milk also contained 3'-N-glycolylneuraminyllactose (3'-SL-NGc, Neu5Gc(alpha 2-3)Gal(beta 1-4)Glc). The finding of a variety of neutral and acidic oligosaccharides in the milks of strepsirrhines, as previously reported for haplorhines, suggests that such constituents are ancient rather than derived features, and are as characteristic of primate lactation is the classic disaccharide, lactose.

Stress Is Killing These Teeny Lemurs, and The Story Is In Their Hair

Smithsonian Magazine

With their small furry bodies and large inquisitive eyes, gray mouse lemurs can seem like a cross between a pug and an alien. In fact, these Madagascar primates share much in common with us. For one, they feel mounting stress as their forest habitat is destroyed—and new research shows how living under constant pressure can hurt their survival.

Mouse lemurs are a subgroup of lemurs that boast the title of smallest primates on Earth. The gray mouse lemur (Microcebus murinus), which measures in at just under a foot from nose to tail and weighs around two ounces, is the largest species within that group. It's currently considered to be a species of "Least Concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "Red List," but the organization does note that the population of gray mouse lemurs is declining due largely to habitat loss.

Overall, Madagascar's dozens of lemur species have long faced threats from deforestation and hunting by humans"It's well known that this species is under very high pressure from anthropogenic activities and habitat loss," Josué Rakotoniaina, an ecologist at Germany's Georg-August University of Göttingen, says of his choice to scrutinize these petite primates in particular. "But there was no study of how those human activities can affect these animals ecologically."

Mouse lemurs are proving surprisingly useful to scientists studying human diseases, thanks to their conveniently small size (about double the size of a mouse, with a tail up to twice the length of their body) and genetic similarity to us (they’re primates, like us and unlike mice). In recent years, scientists have found that they make the perfect model for looking at obesity, eye disease and even neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. 

Rakotoniaina wanted to see how the stress that environmental pressures caused in these lemurs impacted the animals, particularly when it came to their survival and reproduction. Prior research has shown that the hormones released when a person or non-human animal undergoes stress are useful in the short-term for fighting or fleeing from threats, whether from a predator or a street brawl, but physiologically harmful when experienced for long periods(To be clear, the researchers used “stress” to mean the body’s response to any kind of situation causing hardship, whether it be fear, lack of food or shelter or inability to find a mate.) 

Hormones like cortisol—a steroid found in the blood, saliva, urine, hair and feces of humans and other animals—are often measured by ecologists as a proxy for the health of a group of organisms. But samples from blood or urine capture only the stress levels at a certain point in time for that animal, making it difficult to draw conclusions about the dangerous long-term stress that organism is facing. To get around that issue, Rakotoniaina turned to something most mammals have in abundance: hair.

Hair has many remarkable qualities. For one, as it slowly grows, it preserves traces of an animal’s condition and environment in a timeline that scientists can later interpret, not unlike tree rings or sediment or ice cores. By taking samples of hair from wild gray mouse lemurs that were trapped and released, ecologists can see how the lemurs' cortisol levels have changed over the course of time that those hairs grew, giving a much more complete picture of the long-term stress faced by the animal.

With data from colleagues at the German Primate Center, Rakotoniaina was able to obtain hair samples and keep track of a population of 171 gray mouse lemurs in Madagascar's Kirindy Forest for two years starting in 2012. By connecting the measured cortisol levels to how the lemurs fared during those years, Rakotoniaina and his colleagues found that lemurs showing lower levels of cortisol had an average chance of survival that was 13.9 percent higher than the lemurs with higher cortisol levels, according to their research published today in the journal BMC Ecology.

Though the study did not try to figure out exactly how the stress levels make the lemurs less likely to survive, Rakotoniaina speculates that it could be due to a variety of factors, including stressed lemurs being more vulnerable to disease from weakened immune systems, and less able to react effectively in various life situations that come with normal stress.

For example, a part of the study tracked 48 lemurs during their mating season and found that the stressed lemurs, particularly male ones, had higher chances of dying than the overall average. This was likely because they could not handle the additional stresses of mating on top of survival. Rakotoniaina and his colleagues are planning next to figure out how exactly the stress is hurting these lemurs by more closely tracking their health over time.

With these results, Rakotoniaina sees great use for easily obtained and non-invasive hair samples in studying the health and population dynamics of other mammals or lemur species.

"It's a really huge advance in this field," Rakotoniaina says, noting that this method could be used by conservationists as an accurate barometer for monitoring the animals their tracking and whether their conservation methods are working effectively. 

Michael Romero, a biologist at Tufts University who researches stress physiology, says there haven't been many studies trying to link an animal's response to stress to its survival, and those that have been done haven't had consistent results. 

The study "is an exciting addition to the work on the role of the stress response in helping wild animals survive in their natural habitats," says Romero, who wasn't involved in the study. He sees the new research as a step toward understanding how specific stressful events, especially those caused by humans, can impact an animal's life.

However, Romero does caution that the response to stress that Rakotoniaina's study measured is relatively small. "Whether such a small effect will be a reliable marker is still an open question," he says.

Smithsonian Museums and National Zoo Are Open Today, but the Castle Remains Closed

Smithsonian Magazine

The Smithsonian Castle Building is closed today; however, all museums and the National Zoo are open. Photo by Eric Long.

The Smithsonian Institution announced that all museums and the National Zoo would be open today. The Castle, however, which sustained some damage in yesterday’s earthquake, will be closed until further notice.

The Castle did have some damage, according to Smithsonian officials, mostly cracked plaster, windows and there some issues with some of the door frames.

Also of concern are the stability of some of the turrets in the Smithsonian’s original home, a Medieval Revival building designed by James Renwick Jr, and completed in 1855. The Castle building’s nine towers, battlements and chimneys have become the iconic symbol of the Smithsonian Institution.

Structural engineers today are assessing the building.

Other historical buildings that house Smithsonian museums, including the Old Patent Office building at 8th and F streets, NW, home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, and the Renwick Gallery at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue suffered no damages.

The Renwick is a Second Empire-style building and was designed by architect James Renwick Jr. in 1859 and completed in 1874. Today, it is a National Historic Landmark. The Old Patent Office building is considered one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. Begun in 1836 and completed in 1868, it was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball in March 1865.

At the Natural History museum, spokesperson Kelly Carnes reports that several exhibitions—the Dinosaur Hall and portions of the Gems and Minerals Halls—will be closed off to the public while collections managers and curators assess any damages. The museum, housed in a 1910 Beaux Arts building, however, is open today.

At the National Zoo, many resident animals acted as warning bells for the quake, showing changes in behavior shortly before it struck. Gorillas, orangutans and lemurs sounded alarm calls seconds beforehand, while the flock of 64 flamingos huddled together in preparation. During the shaking, snakes, tigers, beavers and deer, among others, appeared disturbed and interrupted their normal activities.

More updates to come throughout the day, as curators, engineers and archivists inspect the collections and exhibits

Photos of the damage caused to the Smithsonian by the earthquake below:

Image by James DiLoreto, Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. A toppled bookshelf stack in the Botany Library at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, following the August 23, 2011 east coast earthquake. (original image)

Image by James DiLoreto, Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Museum specialist Charley Potter sorts through fluid preserved specimens of bats from research collections at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History toppled during the earthquake. (original image)

Image by Dane Penland. At the Udvar-Hazy Center, ceiling tiles slipped from their anchors above the 15.5-foot Little Stinker that renowned aerobatic pilot betty Skelton flew in the 1940s and 1950s. (original image)

Image by Dane Penland. Ceiling damage at the Udvar-Hazy Center caused by the earthquake. (original image)

Image by Dane Penland. The Udvar-Hazy Center is about 90 miles from the quake's epicenter. (original image)

Small Mammals Facts

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Webpage defines characteristics of the mammal family. Includes links to animal fact sheets which provide scientific information and images. Some highlighted animals have additional links.

Small Mammal Enrichment

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Images and description of the enrichment opportunities given to the small mammals that live at the Zoo. Includes how the habitats of the animals provide stimulation and images.

Scientists Are Trying to Figure Out If Humans Can Hibernate

Smithsonian Magazine

Dive into a science fiction story that sends humans exploring the reaches of space, and you'll likely find the crew waking from some kind of suspended animation. But the idea is also bandied about in science fact: human hibernation would be a boon to astronauts traveling for months or years. So far, research in this area remains fairly speculative, though, in experiments, surgeons have cooled people down to extend surgeries.

The problem is, hibernation isn’t just a deep, months-long sleep. And even if it was, humans aren't built to survive such inactivity.

What we do know about hibernation comes from studying bears, squirrels, lemurs and dormice. All hibernators wake up occasionally—to stretch and perhaps urinate or defecate. Some snack on stored food; others fast and live off of internal fat reserves. The information scientists are gleaning from these habits is now helping to inform study of potential human hibernation, reports Eric Niiler for the Washington Post

“We see the science has advanced enough to put some of the science fiction into the realm of science reality,” Leopold Summerer, head of advanced concepts team of the European Space Agency, told Niiler. “It doesn’t mean we will have hibernating astronauts anytime soon, but we are learning from nature how to understand some of the things that happen to animals during hibernation, such as preventing bone loss or preventing muscle loss. This is already something that would be a great benefit for long-distance spaceflight.”

The ESA, NASA and other space agencies are interested not only because humans in space would skip months of boredom if they could hibernate, but because they would need less food, produce less waste and require less space. But they would need a hibernaculum, or suitable space in which to hibernate, reports Tariq Malik for He writes:

As envisioned by ESA researchers, such a shelter would provide the proper environment for hibernation - such as the proper temperature - and also serve as a bed in the waking part of the mission. It would also have to protect crewmembers from solar flares, monitor life functions and serve the physiological needs of the hibernator, [Mark Ayre, with ESA] said.

Some clues as to what humans will need to survive long-term in space will likely come from astronaut Scott Kelly’s year in space. (However, privacy concerns may keep the data from that twin study from becoming public.) So for now, our best clues are coming from animals.

Kelly Drew, of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, is one researcher looking at hibernation in animals, Niiler reports.

Kelly and her colleagues at the university’s Institute of Arctic Biology are looking at how the Arctic ground squirrel can get so cold without dying. She believes she has found the molecule that does the job, the A1 adenosine receptor. While she has learned that stimulating this receptor makes the animal get cold, she hasn’t found what triggers it.

“We don’t know what the natural signal is for torpor,” she said. “We don’t know where the signal occurs in the brain — it could be in the brain stem or the hypothalamus.”

Still, humans will face challenges that hibernating animals don’t have. Hibernating bears are able to recycle the urea waste generated by metabolizing their fat reserves. Instead of excreting urea, they can actually break it down and use it to build up muscle and organ tissues while they sleep, reports Forrest Wickman for Slate. Humans can’t do that. This fact gives some researchers doubts that human hibernation will ever be a thing.

“I think it’s probably not doable,” H. Craig Heller, of Stanford University told Niiler. “The hibernator [animal] has evolved so that all the enzymes and biochemical systems are adapted to run at low temperature. That is not true of animals that don’t experience it. We can lower body temperature and survive that for a short period of time; it’s unlikely we can allow all of our systems to go to a much lower temperature and continue to function.”

More research will offer a definitive answer, either way. However, we don’t need studies to predict that no hibernating human will be as cute as this snoring dormouse:

Ring-tailed Lemur

Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

Ring-tailed Lemur

Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

Red-fronted lemur

Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute
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