Say Aaaah Zoo’s Aardvark Gets 2 Teeth Pulled

Getting a tooth pulled is never fun, but it’s especially irksome if you’re an aardvark. Ali, an aardvark at the Cincinnati Zoo, recently learned this lesson firsthand after two infected teeth landed her in the dentist’s chair.

Aardvarks, the only extant species in the order Tubulidentata, are unusual animals — and they have unusual teeth, said Jack Easley, a Kentucky-based veterinarian who specializes in dentistry. Easley was one of several veterinarians who helped extract Ali the aardvark’s two problematic teeth last month at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Unlike most other mammals, aardvarks don’t have enamel in their teeth. (Enamel is the hard, visible part of the tooth that covers up the more sensitive tissues beneath it.) These soft teeth typically serve aardvarks well, because in their native African habitat, the animals only eat easy-to-chew insects like termitesand ants, Easley told Live Science. [Photos: World’s Cutest Baby Wild Animals]But in zoos, aardvarks don’t always eat soft insects, which may not be readily available. Instead, they eat a special, pelleted feed or some other manufactured food, said Easley, who noted that, sometimes, this diet can lead to dental disease. Ali, who is 11 years old, is also middle-age for an aardvark, which may have contributed to the decline in her dental health, he added.

Zoo staff first noticed that there was a problem with the animal’s health back in January, when Ali developed a weird-looking, swollen eye. The problem seemed to be resolved with a dose of antibiotics, but when the medication was finished, the ulcer came back, said Jenny Nollman, an associate veterinarian at the Cincinnati Zoo.

“When it didn’t clear up completely, we investigated it further,” Nollman told Live Science. “That’s when we got into the CT [cat scan] and MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] — the more advanced imaging — to try to really get a better diagnosis.”

In July, zoo staff accompanied Ali to a nearby hospital to try to pinpoint the root of the problem. The CT scan and MRI suggested that what appeared to be an eye problem was actually a tooth problem, Nollman said. That’s when zoo vets reached out to Easley, one of very few veterinarians in the United States who is board-certified in veterinary dentistry.Ali the aardvark’s two infected teeth. Unlike most mammals, aardvarks don’t have a hard layer of enamel covering the crown of their teeth.

Two of Ali’s molar teeth were so infected that the bone and tissue supporting her teeth had formed what’s known as a periodontal pocket, Easley said. This led to the formation of a fistula, or an abnormal passageway between two body parts that are not usually connected. In Ali’s case, the fistula formed between her sinus and the periorbital sac (the tissue surrounding the eyeball), causing her eyeball to look inflamed and leak out pus.

To fix this problem, Easley and another certified veterinary dentist traveled to Cincinnati to pull out Ali’s infected teeth. But there was one small problem: Unlike humans, aardvarks can’t say “ah.”

In addition to having weird teeth, aardvarks have strange mouths. The animals have long tongues and deep oral cavities, with the teeth located all the way in the back (about 12 inches, or 30 centimeters, inside their mouths). These oral openings are very small, measuring only 1.5 inches (4 cm) across, according to Easley.

To reach inside Ali’s mouth, Easley had to make a small incision in the animal’s cheek. After removing the two infected molars, the veterinarians packed the hole left by the extracted teeth with an antibiotic-coated gauze material and left Ali to heal over the next three to six weeks.

Yesterday (Sept. 1), Nollman performed a checkup, and the resilient little aardvark seemed to be doing quite well, she said, though it will take Ali a few more weeks to fully heal.

“[Ali] has not missed a beat through this whole thing,” Nollman said. “Her appetite has never decreased, and she has been very active.”

290 Million Year Old Creature Could Sprout New Limbs

If an ancient amphibian lost a limb or a tail, it could simply sprout a new one, according to researchers who found fossil evidence of limb regeneration dating back 290 million years.

The finding shows that some Carboniferous and Permian period animals had regenerative abilities a full 80 million years before salamanders, one of the few modern-day animal groups that can fully regenerate their limbs and tail, existed in the fossil record.

The fact that other tetrapods — a group comprised of four-legged vertebrates, including amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds — had regenerative abilities suggests there are multiple ways to regrow limbs, said study lead researcher Nadia Fröbisch, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in Berlin. [Slithery, Slimy: Images of Legless Amphibians]

“Regenerative medicine is an active and very large research field,” Fröbisch told Live Science. Most regenerative medicine is focused on the molecular mechanisms used by modern salamanders, but “we don’t only have to look for things specific to salamanders, but also mechanisms present in all tetrapods,” she said.

Fröbisch has studied limb regeneration in salamanders for years. She’s not alone — at least 100 years ago, researchers noted that salamander limbs develop differently than those of all other tetrapods, and wondered if this helped explain their regenerative abilities.
Sclerocephalus fossil
[Pin It] The fossilized body of the Lower Permian amphibian Sclerocephalus discovered in southwestern Germany. Like today’s salamanders, the ancient Sclerocephalus could also regenerate its limbs, evidence suggests.
Credit: Hwa Ja Goetz, MfN
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When a typical tetrapod limb develops in an embryo, it grows its outer digit (the pinkie) first and inner digits in successive order. But salamanders do the opposite: They grow their inner digit (the thumb side) first and their pinkie last.

For decades, researchers thought that this odd developmental quirk evolved late in evolutionary history, Fröbisch said. However, recent examinations of fossils show that this pattern is older than previously thought, and existed before dinosaurs walked the Earth.

Fossil evidence shows that the salamander’s “backward” digit development is found in various amphibians of the Carboniferous period (359 million to 299 million years ago), and the Permian (299 million to 251 million years ago), including the Apateon, Micromelerpeton and Sclerocephalus, Fröbisch said.

In addition to the backward digit development, a 290-million-year-old Micromelerpeton from a fossil lakebed in southwestern Germany shows evidence of limb regeneration. (Limb regeneration is possible to spot with a trained eye: Sometimes when a limb regrows, it’s slightly deformed — containing fused fingers, for instance — indicating that it’s not an original limb, Fröbisch said.)

But backward formation of the digits isn’t necessary for limb regeneration, the researchers found. Microsaurs — amphibians that looked like lizards and lived about 300 million years ago — could regrow their tails, according to fossil evidence from the Czech Republic. But microsaurs developed digits the typical way — pinkie first.

“All together, the fossil data shows that [developing the thumb side first] in limb development and regeneration don’t always occur together,” Fröbisch said. “It’s not salamander-specific at all. It’s something very ancient.” [Album: Bizarre Frogs, Lizards and Salamanders]

However, the salamander is the only surviving tetrapod that has kept its regenerative abilities. (Lungfish also have these abilities, but they’re poorly studied and aren’t tetrapods, Fröbisch said). Over time, the lineage leading to amniotes (reptiles, birds and mammals, including humans) lost the ability to regrow limbs, she said.

Genetic discovery

In a separate but related new study, researchers examined salamander genetics and found two genes necessary for its formation of backward digits.

“Some time ago, we found a gene called Prod1 that is specific to salamanders and is involved in limb regeneration,” said study author Jeremy Brockes, a research professor of structural and molecular biology at University College London.

So, they knocked out Prod 1 in fertilized newt eggs with a gene-editing tool. As they observed the newts develop, they found that the protein Bmp2, critical for digit formation, was absent in these newts.

Without Prod 1 and Bmp2, the newt couldn’t form its digits on the thumb side first. This indicates that both the gene and protein are necessary for the salamander’s unique digit growth, Brockes told Live Science.

It’s interesting that the other study finds that thumb-side first-limb growth is found in some, but not all, early tetrapod fossils from the Permian era about 290 million years ago, Brockes said.

“This is before the appearance of the salamanders,” he said. “Our results suggest that these attributes, which are found together in present-day salamanders, may be linked by the involvement of common genes such as Prod 1.”

The fossil analyses and genetic findings were published online yesterday (Oct. 26) in the journals Nature and Nature Communications, respectively.

Snakebites in Costa Rica Rise Along with El Niño Cycles

Both the hot and cold phases of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (known as El Niño and La Niña, respectively) are accompanied by an increase in snakebites in the Central American country, according to a new study published today (Sept. 11) in the journal Science Advances. Here’s how the climate cycle might be tied to slithering creatures: Snakes are ectothermic, meaning they get their body heat from outside sources. That means their activity is sensitive to climatological factors.

“Snakebites, probably the most neglected of the neglected tropical diseases, [are] another disease showing changes in [the] face of climate change,” study researcher Luis Fernando Chaves, a scientist at the Institute of Tropical Medicine at Nagasaki University in Japan, told Live Science. [See Photos of Snakes from Around the World]

Snakebites are relatively rare in the United States, but pose a huge problem in many regions, particularly southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. A 2008 study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that at least 421,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes worldwide each year, and some 20,000 die — but those are conservative estimates. Given spotty statistics and reporting, the number of bites could be closer to 1.8 million and related deaths might reach 94,000, the authors reported.

Costa Rica is home to 22 species of venomous snake, according to the Costa Rica Star. The one that most often bites humans is the terciopelo (Bothrops asper), which can be deadly without antivenom treatment. [The World’s 6 Deadliest Snakes]
A female Terciopelo snake from the Caribbean basin of Costa Rica.
A female terciopelo from Costa Rica’s Caribbean Basin. In 2013, Discovery producer Steven Rankin was bitten by a terciopelo while scouting a location for the show “Naked and Afraid.”
Credit: Davinia Beneyto
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What made Costa Rica useful for studying snakebites, however, was its widely available and free healthcare system. Not only do doctors keep good records of snakebites in the country, Chaves said, people also have access to healthcare after a bite, meaning even the poorest victims get reported.

Chaves and his colleagues studied a database of snakebites that occurred between 2005 and 2013 — 6,424 in total. They found some predictable patterns: There are fewer snakebites at higher elevations, where the climate is cooler. Every degree Celsius increase in average temperature was linked to a 24 percent increase in the number of snakebites. Poorer areas were harder-hit than wealthier areas, in part because poor people in rural areas are often farmers or farm workers, which puts them in direct contact with snakes, Chaves said. Poverty-stricken citizens are also less likely to have well-built homes that keep snakes out, he added.

Snake weather

The crucial finding, however, was an odd increase in snakebites during both El Niño and La Niña. El Niño brings hot, dry weather to Costa Rica; La Niña brings cool moisture.

It’s simple enough to explain why hot weather might lead to more snakebites: Snakes are more active when it’s warmer, Chaves said. The increase in snakebites linked to the cool weather of La Niña is a little more complicated. The researchers think this increase is linked to El Niño, too, though. Costa Rica has a torrential rainy season, so El Niño’s drier weather (which is just less wet) is actually beneficial for plants compared to the usual deluge, Chaves said. More productive plants translate to more prey animals for snakes, which likely lead to a serpentine population eruption.

This is all well and good for the snakes until the El Niño pattern fades, at which point the snakes lose their abundant food supply. The prospect of starvation probably pushes snakes into areas they wouldn’t normally go — near humans. This delayed reaction to El Niño’s warmth could explain why the number of snakebites goes up again months later, during the cold La Niña. The snakebite count drops again when neither climate pattern is in play, the researchers found.

“This pattern is different from what has been observed for other diseases affected by El Niño,” Chaves wrote in an email to Live Science. “For example, in vector-borne diseases (those diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and other bloodsucking insects), only one phase tends to be important.”

Snakebites qualify as a neglected tropical disease, according to the World Health Organization, partly because victims tend to be poor and living in rural areas, without access to quality healthcare. In Africa, in particular, the need for antivenom outstrips supply, said study researcher José María Gutiérrez, a scientist at the Clodomiro Picado Institute in Costa Rica, which produces antivenoms for Central America.

Adding to the problem, the manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur recently announced it can no longer afford to produce Fav-Afrique, an antivenom effective against 10 sub-Saharan African snake venoms. Supplies — already short — will run out next year.

The Fav-Afrique shortage won’t affect Costa Rica or Latin America, as it’s specific to sub-Saharan snakes, Gutiérrez told Live Science. Clodomiro Picado and other manufacturers do make antivenom for Africa, he said, though they don’t meet the full need.

“The problem of antivenom availability in Africa is much more complex than the decision of a company to stop production,” Gutiérrez said. “It is a multifactorial health problem that demands multifactorial analyses and solutions.”

 

The Cute and Complicated Science of Raising Twin Pandas

The little panda was cold, low energy and having trouble breathing before its heart stopped beating. But the zoo baby left an indelible mark on its caretakers and admirers before it died, just days after being born to mother Mei Xiang, along with its brother. During its short life, the twin rode atop a lacrosse stick, snuggled with its mother and fed from a bottle, the last of which may have led to its demise.

The final necropsy results aren’t complete, but the butter-stick-size panda likely died when fluid got into its lungs and caused inflammation, a condition called aspiration pneumonia. Veterinarians are unsure whether the cub got the condition during a bottle-feeding blunder or from formula it regurgitated, said Dr. Donald Neiffer, the chief veterinarian at Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

“Whether or not the baby aspirated some of that [regurgitated] material or whether he aspirated material earlier in the day, we don’t know, and we will never know,” Neiffer told Live Science. [See Photos of Mei Xiang’s New Twin Panda Cubs]

Express delivery

The pink and fuzzy cubs are part of a delicate plan, orchestrated on an international level, to preserve the giant panda species and, one day, introduce captive-bred pandas back into the wild. Just 1,864 giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) exist in the wild, according to a 2015 panda census. An additional 395 of the roly-poly fur balls live in breeding centers and zoos around the world, said Devin Murphy, a spokesperson for Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Wild panda numbers increased by about 17 percent in the past decade, according to the 2015 census. American zoos are doing their part to breed and raise the animals, all on loan from China. Right now, there are 13 giant pandas in U.S. zoos, including San Diego Zoo, Memphis Zoo, Zoo Atlanta and the National Zoo.

The new twins were born to Mei Xiang (may-SHONG), the star mother at the National Zoo. Mei Xiang, whose name means “beautiful fragrance,” has three surviving offspring, including Tai Shan (born in 2005), who now lives in China; Bao Bao (born in 2013), who lives at the National Zoo; and the surviving panda twin, which will be named this autumn.The second-retrieved cub squirms as a team examines its weight, length, mouth, heart rate and breathing.

Credit: Pamela Baker-Masson, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

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Each pregnancy is a carefully timed operation, as female pandas are only fertile for about two days a year. (Finding that fertile window can be tricky.) Mei Xiang didn’t go into estrus in 2014, because she was still nursing Bao Bao. But this year, the zoo’s endocrinologists began monitoring the panda’s hormones, a glamorous job that consists of analyzing panda urine on a weekly basis, Murphy said.

Zookeepers have also done their part to encourage Mei Xiang to mate naturally with Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN), a male giant panda at the National Zoo, but “unfortunately, our pandas have never figured out how to successfully breed,” said Laurie Thompson, a giant panda biologist at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “They both have positioning issues, so we always have had to artificially inseminate her.”

So, as Mei Xiang’s urinary estrogen levels spiked, zookeepers kept an express delivery of semen on hand from potential father Hui Hui (h-WEI h-WEI), a genetically diverse match, who hails from the Chinese Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Sichuan. And to increase the likelihood of a pregnancy, veterinarians supplemented the sample with fresh semen from Tian Tian. On April 26 and 27, veterinarians artificially inseminated Mei Xiang.

“Then, we waited,” Murphy told Live Science. “Since pandas have delayed implantation, we just had to wait it out to see when she would start exhibiting behaviors consistent with a pregnancy or pseudopregnancy.” During such false pregnancies, a female panda can snooze a lot, craft bamboo nests, and even cradle foods and toys as if they were real cubs — making it nearly impossible for zookeepers to know if there’s a fetus in the panda’s belly.

Then, on Aug. 19, an ultrasound revealed a fetus, and zoo staff began a 24-hour watch for a delivery. Shortly after, on the morning of Aug. 22, Mei Xiang went into labor. [In Photos: Giant Panda Mei Xiang Gives Birth]

Twin birth

The first cub popped out at 5:35 p.m. EDT.

“I believe there was a cheer and high-fiving,” said Thompson, who was watching the panda cam with colleagues in another room.

Mei Xiang looked so calm that Thompson emailed the zoo’s panda team, saying it didn’t appear that a twin was on the way. But at 10:07 p.m., Mom surprised everyone by delivering a second cub.

Zookeeper Shellie Pick cares for the smaller panda cub in the incubator on Aug. 24. At the time, Pick was weighing the cub, stimulating it to go to the bathroom and taking its temperature.
Credit: Heather Roberts, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

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“When they’re born, they come out screaming, so there was a little, squealy thing on the ground, and she [Mei Xiang] had one that she was already holding,” Thompson said. “She was figuring out how to pick up the second one without dropping the first one, and she wasn’t really able to do it.”

Immediately, the zookeepers began to follow a “twin protocol” used by panda experts in the United States and China. The caretakers dressed in scrubs, approached Mei Xiang’s den and grabbed the squirmy cub that was on the ground — the larger of the twins.

Newborn cubs can’t regulate their own temperature, so zookeepers put the cub in a heated and humidified incubator, said panda-keeper Juan Rodriguez. Then, they did a medical checkup, and put the cub they’d retrieved to bed in the incubator.

Newborn cubs feed every 2 hours, so the zookeepers prepared for a cub swap. They put the larger twin on the ground about 3 feet (1 meter) away from Mei Xiang. When she heard it crying, she put down the smaller twin, allowing zookeepers to whisk that cub away after Mei Xiang picked up its brother. Soon, the smaller twin was in the incubator and then getting a medical checkup.

“The little one was really feisty,” Rodriguez said. “He tried to jump out of the scale area. We had to wrap him up like a burrito to get a good weight on him.”

The panda team was tired, but the twins were doing well.

Lacrosse-stick solution

The swaps went without a hitch, until Aug. 24, when a curious thing happened: Whenever zookeepers would put a squealing cub on the ground near Mei Xiang, she wouldn’t retrieve it. Instead, she would act as if the cub in her possession were crying, and tend to it.

The lacrosse stick that the panda team used to help swap the panda twins.
Credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo

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“We had to change the process a little bit,” Rodriguez told Live Science. “We had to bring the cub closer, so she could actually visualize it a little bit better and realize, ‘Oh, this is the cub that’s crying, not the one on me.'”

Zookeepers couldn’t enter Mei Xiang’s den, for safety reasons — after all, she’s still an undomesticated, protective mamma bear, Rodriguez said. [Baby Panda Photos: See a Cub Growing Up]

Surprisingly, a lacrosse stick did the trick. The panda team covered the lacrosse-stick net with brown paper (so the cub’s feet wouldn’t get stuck in the netting) and held it out to Mei Xiang, so she could see the crying cub. Then, a member of the panda team stuck a hand into a hole in the den’s wall, felt around for Mom’s right armpit (where she usually tucked the cubs) and removed the other twin.

It was an unnerving situation.

“Your arm is in there with the bear,” Rodriguez said.

Luckily, in her post-pregnancy haze, Mei Xiang was largely oblivious to the outside world, focusing most of her attention on the cub. Even so, each swap required three to four people, each of whom received training, Murphy said.

The lacrosse-stick method helped the swaps proceed, allowing the team to continue switching the cubs between the incubator and Mom, Rodriguez said.

Last days

Until the panda team developed the lacrosse-stick method, they couldn’t always switch the twins on time. During one long stint in the incubator on Aug. 24, the little panda twin needed fluids and nutrients. So, the panda team fed it with a handheld bottle holding formula made from water, and human and puppy formula, Neiffer said.

“We noticed that he was having some trouble with the nipples, a little bit of troubling swallowing. The milk was pooling up in his throat,” Neiffer said. “And we worry about aspiration of that material into the lungs. It’s one of our biggest concerns.”

Feeding baby animals is as challenging as it is gratifying, and usually involves two to three people, he said.

“With small mammals and birds, you can be the most talented and excellent bottle feeder, and you can have these [aspirations] occur,” Neiffer said. “If the baby is literally sucking a drop of milk from a bottle and decides it’s going to squirm or vocalize, and that drop falls into the trachea, even a small amount can start a pretty significant reaction.”

To be cautious, the caretakers started the cub on antibiotics that target respiratory tissue. Neiffer described it as a catch-22 situation: “We’re trying to get enough calories into cub to survive, but at the same time don’t want to cause any problems,” he said.

They attempted another twin swap that night, but it was not successful. On the way back to the incubator, the little cub regurgitated, and formula came out of his mouth, again raising concerns about aspiration.

Finally, at about 2 p.m. on Aug. 25, the zookeepers successfully swapped the cubs again. The little cub stayed with Mom until the next morning — its last day living on Earth. [Butter Balls: Photos of Playful Pandas]

The end

The panda team quickly realized the little twin had not increased in weight, appeared weaker and less vocal, and had possible respiratory issues.

The zookeepers placed the cub in the incubator, but “all through the morning until the baby died, we had a lot of challenges with keeping the baby’s body temperature at a level that we felt was compatible with life,” Neiffer said.

The treatment ramped up immediately: They gave the cub fluids (to prevent dehydration), a sugar called dextrose (to prevent low blood sugar), antibiotics (to target possible lung infections) and a drug that helps pull fluid off the chest. The caretakers used the incubator’s nebulizer (which atomizes fluids into a breathable steam) to give the cub a saline solution that kept the animal’s respiratory membranes moist, and a drug that helps break up mucus.

Sometimes the cub appeared to be improving, but it stopped breathing at about 1:50 p.m. Zoo staff began resuscitation efforts, but to no avail: The cub died at 2:05 p.m. on Aug. 26.

A postmortem X-ray showed that at least 70 percent of the cub’s lung tissue was inflamed. Neiffer said he suspects the damage from the aspiration pneumonia happened quickly, probably within 24 to 48 hours of the aspiration event.

Aspiration pneumonia could technically happen to a cub while nursing on its mother, but Neiffer said he has never seen that happen in his career of about 20 years. A cub with a cleft palate might have a greater risk of aspirating its mother’s milk, but the condition is typically associated with hand-raised babies, Neiffer said.

To avoid future deaths like this, the zoo plans to modify the nipple sizes and holes on the handheld bottles, and copy nipple designs that have been used by other institutions, Neiffer said.

The twin who lived

The larger, surviving twin is “doing gangbusters” Neiffer said. This cub now spends all of its time with its mother, unless she leaves to drink, defecate or urinate outside her den. In those rare moments, zookeepers sometimes sneak in and weigh the cub to make sure it’s growing.

And it is. The little guy’s waistline is widening, and it’s now able to push itself up on all fours. It’s moved from screaming vocalizations to grunting, as expected, Neiffer said. The black saddle patch on the cub’s back is coming in, and admirers can catch a glimpse of the cute cub on the panda cam.

The other pandas at the zoo, Tian Tian and Bao Bao, haven’t met the twin, but seemed to sense something was up after the birth, the zookeepers said. The animals stopped vocalizing as much, providing quiet to Mei Xiang as she nursed her young, the panda team said.

“We are very happy that the other baby seems to be doing great,” Neiffer said. “And Mei Xiang is a great mother. We are hoping that we just get to watch him grow.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to better reflect when the surviving panda cub will be named. It may be named this autumn before it is 100 days old, according to the zoo.

How Armored Dinosaur Got Its Bone-Bashing Tail

Armored, squat, and built like a tank, ankylosaurs were a type of dinosaur known for their bony, protective exterior and distinct, sledgehammer-shaped tails. Now, scientists have pieced together how the animals’ rear-end weapons evolved, finding that the hammer’s “handle” came first.

Ankylosaurs were a group of bulky, tanklike dinosaurs with bony plates covering much of their bodies. Some of these animals — a subgroup known as ankylosaurids — also came equipped with a weaponized tail club as well.

“Ankylosaur tail clubs are made of two parts of the body,” said study lead author Victoria Arbour, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. “They’re made of the bones of the tail — the vertebrae — that change so that they’re stiff and lock together in a really characteristic way. We call that the handle, like the handle of an ax. And the other part of the tail is the knob.” [Paleo-Art: Dinos Come to Life in Stunning Illustrations]

Panda Protections Save Other Species Too

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Thanks, pandas! Conservation areas set aside to protect China’s national treasure also help to save many of China’s other one-of-a-kind species, new research reveals.

Pandas get disproportionate attention and conservation funding, but the new study, published online today (Sept. 16) in the journal Conservation Biology, offers some good news: The fuzzy-faced black-and-white bear is not surviving at the expense of other, less-cute species; instead, panda preservation creates a sort of conservation umbrella that benefits lots of species.

But the laserlike focus on pandas has left some gaps in protections for other animals, according to the new study. Amphibians, in particular, get less protection, the research found.

“Loving pandas is the right thing to do,” but China should be savvy in adding new panda protections in order to save as many species as possible, said study researcher Binbin Li, a doctoral student at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. [See Images of China’s Amazing Species]

“We should love beyond pandas,” Li told Live Science.

Protecting China’s species

China has been aggressive in protecting the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), setting up conservation and breeding programs with international cooperation. China lends pandas to zoos around the world, with the stipulation that surviving cubs can be called back to China. In August, panda twins were born at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., illustrating the success of this program. (One twin later died, as is common in panda multiple births.) [Photos: New Panda Twins Keep D.C. Zookeepers Busy]

The panda-loan program provides about $1 million per pair each year for the conservation of pandas inside China. (There are currently about 45 pandas on loan.) The country has also listed the panda as the top species in need of protection in China, and has established a National Panda Program with more than $12 million in funding from 2001 to 2030 for research, breeding, reserves and monitoring. No other species has such singular protections, though China is also home to endangered species like the crested ibis (Nipponia nippon), the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis) and the Yangtze river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), the later two of which are listed as critically endangered.

China has also set aside almost 13,000 square miles (33,600 square kilometers) of nature preserves dedicated to saving panda habitat, Li and her academic adviser, Duke University’s Stuart Pimm, reported in their new paper. Li and Pimm wanted to know whether these nature preserves were effective at protecting other species, particularly animals found only in China, such as the fuzzy gansu hamster (Cansumys canus) or golden snub-nose monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana), the later of which is endangered.

Golden snub-nose monkeys live in bands of dozens to hundreds in forests between 4,900 feet and more than 11,000 feet (1,500 meters to 3,400 meters) elevation.
Credit: Binbin Li

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The researchers built a map of species’ habitats across China, paying attention to elevation ranges and vegetation types that can determine whether species will survive in each region.

The researchers found that panda range overlaps with the habitat for 70 percent of China’s forest bird species, 70 percent of its forest mammals and 31 percent of forest amphibians, and 96 percent of panda habitat falls within areas dubbed “endemic centers.” These are regions in the top 5 percent for the number of different species living in an area.

But there are gaps. Ninety-nine percent of amphibians with small habitat ranges in China are inadequately protected, the researchers found, as are 85 percent of amphibians with more extensive ranges. Particularly concerning were the species listed as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature: 14 mammal species, 20 birds and 82 amphibians. The golden snub-nose monkey, listed as endangered by the IUCN, is one example, Li said. Also in more danger than previously believed are the Lifan sucker frog (Amolops lifanensis) and the Schmidt’s lazy toad (Oreolalax schmidti), she said.

Geography of protection

Most of the country’s threatened mammals live in China’s central Sichuan province and northern Yunnan province, while the threatened birds and amphibians were mostly found around the edge of the Sichuan basin, in Hainan and Yunnan provinces, and elsewhere in southeastern China. Few of these species are protected by national reserves, the researchers found, and the protections provided by a few local reserves are spotty.

The Daxiang and Xiaoxiang mountain ranges of Sichuan are particularly rich targets for protection, Li said. The areas are rich in species and unprotected by national reserves. Other hotspots lie in the Nan mountains of southeastern China, in Yunnan province (which borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam) and in Hainan, an island province east of Vietnam, the researchers wrote.

There are 132 mammal species, 117 birds and 250 amphibians that have more than 80 percent of their range within China’s borders, Pimm and Li found. Of those species, 65 mammals, 78 birds and 96 amphibians are threatened. Expanding panda protections — while also looking beyond panda habitat — could turn the tide for these species, they said.

“China’s biodiversity is exceptional; it’s extraordinary,” Pimm told Live Science. And China has only begun to explore the potential for nature-based tourism to its protected areas, he said.

“If we can engage the Chinese authorities,” he said, “we can protect an awful lot of species at the same time as protecting the panda.”

Why Animal Genitals Are Important to Science

Did you know that male black widow spiders have corkscrew-shaped genitals? Or that barnacle penises are up to eight times the length of barnacle bodies? Or that echidnas have frankly horrifying four-headed dangly bits?

If you’ve been following scientists on Twitter in the past week or so, you probably do. That’s because biologists have gone wild posting junk shots of their research subjects, from meerkats to cheetahs to some truly bizarre ants. The #JunkOff hashtag took off last week, and not entirely for sophomoric reasons: Animal genitalia are actually a major window into how evolution works.

“It all goes back to the basis of animal behavior and evolution,” said Anne Hilborn, a doctoral student at Virginia Tech and cheetah researcher who launched #JunkOff and helped start the warmer-and-fuzzier follow-up hashtag, #CuteOff.

Wild junk

As #JunkOff illustrates, the world of genitals is … diverse. And maybe a little scary. But really, let’s focus on the diversity. [The 9 Weirdest Animal Penises]

Alligators, for example, have enormous, permanently erect penises made of connective tissue called collagen. Instead of inflating with blood like most mammalian penises, the alligator penis pops out of the cloaca (the alligator all-purpose genital and waste opening) with the help of rubber-bandlike tendons and muscles. And, yes, there is video.

Even creepier are the detachable genitalia of the male orb-web spider (Nephilengys malabarensis). The “palps,” or sperm-transferring organs, of these spiders stay attached to the female when mating is done, in part so they can keep working if the female spider decides to chow down on her mating partner — these spiders are sexual cannibals. Similarly, black widow males leave the tips of their corkscrew genitalia inside the female. Leaving genitals behind may save spiders energy in the long run. [Animal Sex: 7 Tales of Naughty Acts in the Wild]

Even paleontologists got into the #JunkOff fun, tweeting pictures of dire-wolf penis bones that were preserved in the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. Yes, many mammal penises have actual bones, also known as baculums. Dogs have them, as do chimpanzees, bears and walruses. (Chimps also have penis spines, a feature that humans — fortunately? — have lost.)

And let’s not give females’ short shrift: Many mammalian females have an analogous genital bone, the baubellum, which sits below the clitoris. This bone, also called the os clitoridis exists in many rodents, as well as bats and some primates. Perhaps the craziest clitoris out there belongs to hyenas, which is about 7 inches (18 cm) long and looks almost like a penis. Female hyenas give birth through it.

“It’s one of my favorite ice-breaking conversation topics at parties when I don’t know what to say,” Hilborn said.

(R)evolutionary genitalia

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the junk is the window to evolution. Genitalia are important because they’re front and center in sexual selection — and that means that private parts are thought to evolve faster than other body parts.

Very closely related species often have dramatically different genitals, biologist Julia Klaczko, who researches lizard genitalia at the University of Campinas in Brazil, told Live Science in January. Klaczko and her team measured the rate of evolution in lizard hemipenes, the penis-equivalents for snakes and lizards. They then compared the rate of hemipene change with the rate of change in lizard limb length and throat flaps called dewlaps.

They found that male genitalia evolve six times faster than limbs or dewlaps, explaining the large diversity seen in lizard hemipenes. It’s possible that females are picky about penises, so males are constantly evolving new, better options. Or perhaps the penis evolution is an example of an evolutionary arms race, in which males and females both evolve genitals in an effort to gain the most control over fertilization.

That sort of arms race is apparent in ducks. Many species sport long, corkscrew-shaped penises. Females, in turn, have corkscrew vaginas. But the vaginas spiral in the opposite direction as the penises, making it harder for sexually aggressive males to fertilize a female against her will. (And male ducks can get very aggressive. Just ask the discoverer of dead gay duck sex.)

Certain beetles, too, appear to be involved in a genital race — one that leads to the differentiation of new species. Some species of tiny seed beetles have truly intimidating male genitals studded with more than 100 spikes. As male beetles evolve more spikes, researchers found, females evolve tougher genitals to survive mating. This arms race is costly, leading to fewer offspring in species with spikier junk.

“Normally, we think of evolution being adaptive, with organisms becoming better and better adapted to their lifestyle,” study researcher Göran Arnqvist, a biologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, told Live Science in 2007. “Here we have an example of evolution that leads to something bad.”

In many cases, animals keep their private business private. In wild cheetahs, Hilborn said, a couple of males will pick out a female and hang around her for several days — not even leaving to hunt — until she’s ready to mate. Many mating buddies are brothers, but others are unrelated, Hilborn said, and it’s not clear how the female decides which cheetah she mates with.