Strolling at dusk the other night, we very nearly stepped on an enormous and magnificent giant peacock moth. Chris found a twig, and with great tenderness and care he delicately moved the stunning winged beauty out of harm’s way. Upon returning home later that evening, I had a quick scan of our ‘garden’ (which consists of some small pots with herbs, vegetables and a few hardy flowering plants). To my outrage, horror and disgust, I found four slugs surreptitiously munching on our lemon thyme. Without thinking twice, I pinched each offender angrily about its squishy, sticky, non-existent, little midriff and petulantly flung it to the bushes about a meter below.
I know that I should have gently removed the unwelcome diners from my plants and compassionately placed them in a safe and comfortable spot as we had done with the moth, but somehow my visceral aversion to the interlopers, not to mention their copious and astoundingly tenacious slime (has no one bio-mimicked this stuff?!) somehow compelled me to unceremoniously hurl the hapless and unsuspecting epicures into the dark.
Where is the justice in this verdict? My subsistence does not rely upon the output of my garden, and while I do feel some sense of irritation at being raided by these silent but voracious vegetarians (and I am not alone in this regard), I realise that I am passing an aesthetic judgment where none is warranted.
One of the first few websites I found regarding the giant peacock moth gave a whimsical and enchanting description of its courtship and conception ritual ( http://tpittaway.tripod.com/silk/s_pyr.htm). It sounded more like a teenage romance than a biological account. The next site provided some genuinely mesmerising footage of the moth’s life cycle. (http://naturedocumentaries.org/9823/great-peacock-moth-saturnia-pyri-life-cycle-adam-grochowalski-2015/) Further sites waxed lyrical about the moth’s great beauty and how lucky people felt to encounter one. There were even links to an oil painting of a giant peacock moth, which was based on earlier chalk and ink drawing by van Gogh, who said, ‘To paint it, I would have had to kill it, and that would have been a great shame since the animal was so beautiful’
In contrast, when tapping slugs into the search field, up popped hundreds of websites, list-serves, articles, personal recommendations and home remedies elaborating on methods to evict snails and slugs from one’s garden. The schemes were varied and included several lethal solutions. Try though I might, I could not find one reference on how to get rid of giant peacock moths.
We view butterflies with admiration and hold them as talismans of freedom and metamorphosis, the capacity to become beautiful through iteration and growth. They are ephemeral, with most living only a few days, eating nothing during their short lives. Yet caterpillars, their ravenous, unruly, adolescent precursors, are responsible for considerable damage to trees and crops around the world.
Where then do we draw the line? Who is friend and who is foe in this inexorably connected world?
Why do I appreciate aesthetically pleasing creatures but recoil from those that seem ugly or alien to me, when their actual impact in the world has nothing to do with their appearance?
On what do we base our verdicts and valuations when it comes to the other denizens of the planet?
And if we have biases or skewed priorities, how do we go about evaluating and/or re-aligning them?
New Paper out: Using the “Footprint” Approach to Examine the Potentials and Impacts of Renewable Energy Sources in the European Alps
The expansion of renewable energies is regarded as a key way to mitigate global climate change and to ensure the provision of energy in the long term. However, conflicts between these goals and local nature conservation goals are likely to increase because of the additional space required for renewable energies. This is particularly true for mountainous areas with biodiversity-rich ecosystems. Little effort has been undertaken to systematically compare different renewable energy sources and to examine their environmental impacts using an interdisciplinary approach. This study adapted the concept of the “ecological footprint” to examine the impact on ecosystem services of land use changes involved in exploiting renewable energy sources. This innovative approach made it possible to assess and communicate the potentials of those energy sources in light of both space consumption and sustainability. The European Alps are an ideal test area because of their high energy potentials and biodiversity-rich ecosystems and the high demand for multiple ecosystem services. Our results demonstrate that energy consumption in the Alps could not be covered with the available renewable energy potentials, despite the utilization of large parts of the Alpine land area and the majority of larger rivers. Therefore, considerable effort must be invested in resolving conflicting priorities between expanding renewable energies and nature conservation, but also in realizing energy-saving measures. To this end, the approach presented here can support decision-making by revealing the energy potentials, space requirements, and environmental impacts of different renewable energy sources. Read more: http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1659/MRD-JOURNAL-D-15-00071.1 See also: http://www.recharge-green.eu
Two weeks ago, on a soggy and drab morning Chris headed out to Enghagen in Upper Austria to help the animal welfare organisation 4 Paws to translocate 5 wolves to an animal sanctuary in Spain. This became necessary, as the Upper Austrian authorities had closed the wild animal park in Enghagen. After moving out brown bears and some primates in the past months these wolves were the last animals in the park. The wolf enclosure was a dismal and sorry sight, with the animals reduced to living in a small very muddy area devoid of any significant cover. It really was time to get them to a better place.
The first 3 wolves were pretty easy to dart and anesthetize, but as always in these situations, it just gets harder as the animals become more anxious. The last animal was darted in a deep, dark and tight mud cave and Chris was only just able to extract it by lying on his belly and gently pulling it out by the tip of one ear. The transport to Spain was uneventful and the animals were released into their new enclosure in Primadonus, Spain. While some so-called “rescues” are often difficult to get on board with this one felt just right…
4 Paws has posted the entire story here [in German] All photos courtesy of 4 Paws
New paper out: Ancient and modern DNA reveal dynamics of domestication and cross-continental dispersal of the dromedary
Dromedaries have been fundamental to the development of human societies in arid landscapes and for long-distance trade across hostile hot terrains for 3,000y. Today they continue to be an important livestock resource in marginal agro-ecological zones. However, the history of dromedary domestication and the influence of ancient trading networks on their genetic structure have remained elusive. We combined ancient DNA sequences of wild and early-domesticated dromedary samples from arid regions with nuclear micro satellite and mitochondrial genotype information from 1,083 extant animals collected across the species’ range. We observe little phytogeographic signal in the modern population, indicative of extensive gene flow and virtually affecting all regions except East Africa, where dromedary populations have remained relatively isolated. In agreement with archaeological findings, we identify wild dromedaries from the southeast Arabian Peninsula among the founders of the domestic dromedary gene pool. Approximate Bayesian computations further support the “restocking from the wild” hypothesis, with an initial domestication followed by introgression from individuals from wild, now-extinct populations. Compared with other livestock, which show a long history of gene flow with their wild ancestors, we find a high initial diversity relative to the native distribution of the wild ancestor on the Arabian Peninsula and to the brief coexistence of early-domesticated and wild individuals. This study also demonstrates the potential to retrieve ancient DNA sequences from osseous remains excavated in hot and dry desert environments. Link to full paper in PNAS
In our honest attempt to push back the boundaries of transdisciplinary cooperation my colleagues from the Art & Science masters program at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna organized an Eco-forging workshop at the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology (http://ecoforge.org/blending-ecology-and-blacksmithing-vienna-november-2627/). Our guest, master eco-smith Bogdan Popov from the Ukraine instructed us in the true spirit of DIY, recycling and upcycling. Simplest tools but a vast amount of knowledge and skill. Check out his webpage and other projects and possibly integrate him and his unique skill set into your own projects: http://ecoforge.org
Our new paper out: Hibernation in the pygmy slow loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus): multiday torpor in primates is not restricted to Madagascar
Hibernation and short daily torpor are states of energy conservation with reduced metabolism and body temperature. Both hibernation, also called multiday torpor, and daily torpor are common among mammals and occur in at least 11 orders. Within the primates, there is a peculiar situation, because to date torpor has been almost exclusively reported for Malagasy lemurs. The single exception is the African lesser bushbaby, which is capable of daily torpor, but uses it only under extremely adverse conditions.
For true hibernation, the geographical restriction was absolute. No primate outside of Madagascar was previously known to hibernate. Since hibernation is commonly viewed as an ancient, plesiomorphic trait, theoretically this could mean that hibernation as an overwintering strategy was lost in all other primates in mainland Africa, Asia, and the Americas. However, we hypothesized that a good candidate species for the use of hibernation, outside of Madagascar should be the pygmy slow loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus), a small primate inhabiting tropical forests. Here, we show that pygmy slow lorises exposed to natural climatic conditions in northern Vietnam during winter indeed undergo torpor lasting up to 63 h, that is, hibernation. Thus, hibernation has been retained in at least one primate outside of Madagascar.
Ruf, T., Streicher, U., Stalder, G., Nadler, T., and Walzer C. Hibernation in the pygmy slow loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus): multiday torpor in primates is not restricted to Madagascar. Sci. Rep. 5, 17392; doi: 10.1038/srep17392 (2015).
We’ve just returned from some bear health work here in Austria, and I was once again struck by the simultaneous affection and awe that care-takers carry for their charges. In spite of the day-to-day familiarity that they understandably maintain with an animal under their care, they are nonetheless wordlessly compelled to approach with reverence when the animal slumbers under the effects of anaesthesia. There is an almost mystical moment when they lay a hand upon the creature that they have seen/fed/talked to daily but have never been able to touch. A moment of corporeal connection.
Be it a bear or a bluebird, an oak or an orange tree, an iceberg or an ocean, most people have a sense of connection to some element of the natural world. This is the unseen sticky stuff that holds the world together. The invisible tendrils that gently but inexorably fasten us to everything else on the planet.
Connectivity is the premise for worldwide webs- both real and virtual. Connectivity refers not only to physical connections, which are obviously crucial for environmental integrity, reproductive success, and evolutionary process, but also to less tangible (yet nonetheless fundamental) connections that persist and blindly bind together global elements.
Each of us maintains connections to a person, place, or purpose. We weave ourselves into the world’s web. What connections stir you… and how do you sustain or cultivate them?
During the past two weeks I have been in the south Gobi capturing and collaring Khulan. We last collared animals within our project “Khulan meets road – Impact of mining related infrastructure development on Mongolian Wild Ass in the Gobi” (for more details see: http://tinyurl.com/p4zn4gs ) in 2013, so it was time to replace collars. All trips to this pretty remote area amount to small expeditions based either in a mining camp (very comfy!) or we moving around and pitching our tents every night. That being said, times have really changed since I first travelled and worked here more than 15 years ago. Due to the expansion of mining activities the area has seen quite some development – GSM cell phone coverage in many areas, shops filled with a selection of wines (really!) petrol availability not a problem. I was actually surprised that they were not offering café lattes instead of the traditional Mongolian milk tea (Suutei tsai) in Khanbogd. The collaring went surprisingly well. As we had to comply with new safety regulations imposed by the funding organisation we were unable to use our trusty Russian UAZ 469 jeeps (no airbags amongst a myriad of other short-comings) and had to resort to Toyota landcruisers 105. I must admit (grudgingly) that the Toyotas proved reliable and certainly far more comfortable. The first batch of 11 animals were collared close to the mine and the respective road. We used the mine’s infrastructure for the nights and this was invaluable as most members of the team, myself included, were suffering from serious colds and sleeping out in the field would have seriously aggravated our health status (thanks to the doc at the mine’s clinic for treatment and drugs). We then moved eastwards and collared another 10 animals in just two days. For the capture we used our well-established chase method which I have previously described in detail here: http://tinyurl.com/p9e39zr In summary, a really good and highly efficient field trip. Thanks to all members of the team for your dedication, support and most importantly good humour.
Just pondering what the most important bits and pieces are for expeditions to remote areas. Especially in vehicle-based expeditions we travel with a (too?) large selection of electronic devices and comfort-enhancing gear but it is often the very simple stuff that is most important and saves the day. Here is part one of my selection:
Duct tape (also know as duck tape): it's usefulness no longer needs to be proven. On Apollo 13 it saved the astronaut's lives after an explosion had damaged the CO2 scrubbers and a few years later on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission it was used to repair the moon buggy's fender ( a must see at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington). More recently on Mars large quantities of grey duct tape were used to seal The Hab. Best in my opinion is the standard silvery gray tape. Note that this tape cannot be removed without trace. If removal is important, use gaffer tape which is designed to be cleanly removed.