Life Science The biggest animal stories of 2021: Some of them come with batteries
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The biggest animal stories of 2021: Some of them come with batteries

The smallest reptile on Earth was discovered this year in Madagascar. Photo: Frank Glaw
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Last year, the first year of the pandemic, people were so in need of cheering up, they latched on to all manner of feel-good stories, many of which turned out to be fake.

There were the dolphins and swans that returned to the canals of Venice … because the water was nice and clear … because all those tourists stayed away.

The story went viral, but it wasn’t true.

Same for that group of elephants that paraded through a locked-down village in China, got drunk on corn wine and passed out in a tea garden. Not true either.

To restore your faith in animal stories, here are some yarns from 2021, some of them cute, some of them amazing and all of them true.

World’s smallest reptile, probably

The diameter of our five-cent coin is 19.41 millimetres.

From snout to tail, a newly-discovered “nano-chameleon” is 21.6 millimetres long, possibly the smallest on Earth.

Researchers announced the discovery of this new and tiny species of chameleon in February.

A male and female pair were found in a high-altitude Madagascar rainforest, where the scientists were treading very carefully, one presumes.

The German and Malagasy researchers have named the new species Brookesia nana.

“At a body length of just 13.5 millimetres and a total length of just 22 millimetres including the tail, the male Nano-Chameleon is the smallest known male of all ‘higher vertebrates’,” said Dr Frank Glaw, curator of herpetology at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology and first author on the study that describes the new species.

The female is larger at 19 millimetres body length and 29 millimetres total length.

Despite intensive efforts, the authors were only able to find two individuals.

The male’s genitals were “exceptionally large” – about 20 per cent of the male’s body size.

The genitals are called ‘hemipenes’, a pair of penis-like reproductive organs found in male snakes and lizards.

animal stories
Juvenile Brookesia micra on a match. No longer the world’s smallest chameleon. Photo: Frank Glaw

These unusual proportions are probably explained by the challenging mechanics of the much smaller male attempting to mate with the female.

An even smaller chameleon might exist.

In 2012, scientists discovered four new species of super-tiny chameleons in Madagascar.

The smallest of these was Brookesia micra – which measured from nose to tail is 29 millimetres at its largest.

It was deemed as probably the world’s smallest.

Honey bees employ social distancing

Honey bees increase social distancing when their hive is under threat from a parasite, according to British and Italian researchers.

The scientists found that honey bee colonies respond to infestation from a harmful mite by modifying the use of space and the interactions between nestmates to increase the social distance between young and old bees.

When the hive is at risk of infection, honey bees practise social distancing. Photo: Getty

Dr Alessandro Cini, from University College London, is co-author of the new study, published in November.

He explained: “Honeybees are a social animal, as they benefit from dividing up responsibilities and interactions such as mutual grooming.”

But when those social activities can increase the risk of infection, “the bees appear to have evolved to balance the risks and benefits by adopting social distancing”.

Just as we’ve done during the pandemic.

Hounds of love

According to a US poll of 2000 dog owners, 66 per cent of pet owners believe their dog has a “better social life” than they do.

More than half say their pet has “more friends”.

And while 85 per cent were concerned their pets didn’t get enough socialisation with other pups during quarantine, somehow the dogs, on average, made three new furry friends during lockdown.

Read more here.

Tweet of the day

A couple of years ago there was a story about a young university student in Arizona who dressed as a man to avoid harassment on the street.

This involved wearing baggy clothes and drawing on a fake beard.

She told the college paper that it was a bit of a joke, but it seemed to work.

animal stories
A female white-necked Jacobin hummingbird in male colours. Photo: Irene Mendez Cruz

A recent study found that a species of hummingbird does exactly the same thing.

About 20 per cent of all female white-necked Jacobin hummingbirds dress up as flashy males, to avoid harassment and violent attacks when they’re feeding off flowers.

This behaviour may have been going on for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

But it’s only now that scientists have twigged to the cross-dressing strategy.

Read more here.

Funnel web spiders to the rescue

The venom from a funnel web spider can kill you in about 15 minutes … or potentially save your heart from a death spiral, according to Australian researchers.

Experiments with beating human heart cells have led to a drug candidate – developed from a molecule found in the venom of the Fraser Island funnel web spider – that can “prevent damage caused by a heart attack and extend the life of donor hearts used for organ transplants”.

Read more here.

Catnip not just for getting high

When cats rub catnip or silver vine over their faces and the top of their heads (so cute!) it’s not just to get a buzz – they’re also, on purpose, protecting themselves from mosquito bites.

In other words, catnip is like a spray of Aerogard – with psychotropic benefits.

Scientists have known for years that nepetalactone – an essential oil that serves as the feline attractant in catnip – is responsible for the euphoria that causes cats to lie about in a stupor.

But nepetalactone also has powerful insecticide properties.

The big question is: Do cats know that catnip and silver vine have these protective properties?

Read more here.

Rambo the fox: He’s still out there

About three years ago, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service fenced off 5800 hectares (58 square kilometres).

The idea was to provide a safe and predator-free habitat for regionally extinct species such as the brush-tailed bettong, plains mouse, Shark Bay bandicoot and western quoll.

animal stories
Rambo, the fox that can’t be caught. Not yet, anyway. Photo: AWC

Topped with electric wire and a floppy overhang, the fence was designed to keep out animals – especially species that are top-order killers.

Unfortunately, a very sly fox with the nickname Rambo was already living in the enclosure – and has been playing and winning a game of hide-and-seek with the authorities.

This is despite an average of 97 cameras being deployed, 2800 poisoned baits being laid, weeks of scent-tracking dogs on the hunt and even multiple helicopter searches.

He has, however, had a couple of close calls.

Read more here.

Patients believed the robots loved them

A fascinating new study – from Florida Atlantic University’s College of Nursing – has found that affordable, interactive robotic pet cats can help to improve mood, behaviour and cognition in older adults with mild to moderate dementia.

In the study, 12 patients attending an adult daycare centre were given a robotic cat as a pet.

The participants were told that “their pet was a robot and not a live animal”.

Each of them selected a name for their cat, which was fitted with a collar and a personalised name tag. Patient and pet were observed over 12 visits.

Before and after the intervention, the researchers assessed the mood and behavioural symptoms of participants.

They also assessed cognition via the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE).

The MMSE is a set of 30 questions commonly used to check for cognitive impairment.

Results showed that engaging with a robotic pet cat improved all mood scores over time, with significant improvements in the Observed Emotion Rating Scale and the Cornell Scale of Depression in Dementia.

More than half of the participants scored higher on the MMSE post-test than pre-test, with slight to moderate improvement in attention/calculation, language and registration.

Researchers frequently observed study participants “smiling and talking to their robotic cats and expressing sentiments such as, ‘The cat is looking at me like someone who listens to me and loves me’.”

They believed that the robotic pet “was responding to their statements through meowing, turning their head or blinking their eyes and that they were having a conversation with the pet”.

Read more here.

First the love song, then the species

The fate of Australia’s critically endangered regent honeyeater might hinge on how many young birds learn the species’ particular love song – and the other melodies that have been handed down from generation to generation.

Regent honeyeaters aren’t learning their love songs. Photo: Murray Chamber

Australian National University (ANU) research has found that the regent honeyeater – with an estimated 200 to 400 remaining in the wild – is losing its ‘song culture’ by which it communicates.

Those few hundred birds are contained to territories spread over an area of south-eastern Australia “that is larger than the United Kingdom”.

This means that many of these birds never meet.

If young male birds don’t meet older males, then they have no one to teach them the songs they need for maintaining a territory or courtship.

If there’s no successful courtship, there’s no new generation of honeyeaters.

But the scientists have a tuneful plan.

Read more here.

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