Newsletter April 2017

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 April 2017

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The Hoatzin is a rare bird that has claws on its wings! This animal truly looks like Buckbeak from the Harry Potter series. Read more about Hoatzins in this month's newsletter!

Elephants Never Forget, but do Cats and Dogs?

Dogs and cats remember their names and how to respond to commands, but how much of life do they really remember? Can they recall events from the past like we can, or relive their favorite moments in their mind’s eye? As it turns out, it depends on how useful the memories are to the animal. Many pets have evolved to remember information that will help them survive, and forget information that they do not need. For example, dogs often remember information about how to find food. However, if you own a dog, this shouldn’t come as a surprise – most pets get excited at just the mention of the word treat!

Dogs generally have excellent working memories, meaning that they retain short-term memory very well. However, they also use long-term memory to help them remember tricks. There is some evidence to show that dogs who forged close bonds with humans gained the skills to respond to vocal commands and then passed down their genes, creating domestic dogs even more akin to learning and remembering tricks from humans. Generally, what a dog remembers is also linked to how important it is to the dog. For example, dogs often remember their owners even after years of separation, but might forget where their ball was last seen. 

There is some evidence that dogs experience episodic memory, which was once thought to be uniquely human. Episodic memory allows you to recall an autobiographical event that occurred, usually with specific details such as what happened, when, and where. Recent research has suggested that chimpanzees, bottlenose dolphins, and orangutans also possess episodic memory; it is commonly associated with self-awareness. Recently, studies forcing dogs to rely on episodic memory to recall an unexpected command have suggested that they may have some degree of this ability as well. 

This video explores the possibility that dogs experience episodic memory.

Like dogs, cats also tend to remember things that help them survive. For example, cats have excellent memories for hunting. They also do well on memory tests that involve remembering where food is hidden, or which bowls they have eaten out of previously. However, studies show that cat memories tend to decline with age. Furthermore, cats’ working memories can be surprisingly short when they don’t involve food. 

On tasks that do involve food, though, cats are capable of long-term memory, emotional mapping, manipulation, using tools, figuring out the spatial configurations of mazes and puzzles, and, when stalking prey, executing planned schemes. All of these abilities require a pretty good memory. In fact, cat memories out-perform dog memories by about 200 times. While a dog’s memory span is about five minutes, a cat’s memory span is about 16 hours, but only if the memory benefits them. Cats’ long-term memories are stronger than their short-term memories. For this reason, cats tend to hold grudges, or remember someone they don’t like for a long time.

However, it is important to keep in mind that our knowledge of animal memory is only based on behavior, as scientists cannot ask a dog or cat to describe what they remember or see inside their brains. Therefore, knowledge about dog and cat memories is always a layer removed. 

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Talons that Teach: Raptors in Education

It can be a challenge to get kids to pay attention in school. That’s why many environmental educators use live raptors to get kids excited about nature. Jimmy might space out during math, but when a falcon is perched at the front of the room, you can bet he won’t miss a beat. Because they are exciting and engaging, raptors have made huge strides for environmental educators across the country. Plus, for many birds that are non-releasable, being part of education provides a rewarding form of enrichment. 

Raptors are birds of prey such as eagles, hawks, falcons and owls. They have hooked beaks, powerful feet and sharp talons. Raptors are useful to environmental education because many scientists use them as a way of determining environmental health. For example, if a Bald Eagle population declines, it is likely that there are larger problems in the environment such as habitat disturbance and destruction or environmental toxins.

Environmental educators often use raptors that are permanently impaired and would not be able to survive in the wild. When rehabilitation facilities cannot allow a raptor to fully return to nature, the raptor may find a permanent home in a sanctuary where they also serve as ambassadors to the public. Despite their injuries, these birds can have an excellent quality of life. In captivity, raptors such as eagles may live up to 50-60 years. During that time, they work with trainers to assist in presentations and help others learn about nature. 

When raptors are used in environmental education, they often teach about biology, predator and prey relationships, habitat conservation, endangered species, pesticides in the environment, and natural resource issues, among other topics. Hearing about a topic can deliver information, but witnessing and interacting with a living part of nature makes a lasting impression. People young and old remember an endangered species better if they meet one in person.

By getting people to care about raptors, environmental educators are able to spread important messages about nature to children and adults. Though many programs are targeted towards children, some are also intended to educate adults about the ways in which they can help the environment. In fact, many education organizations offer programs for the workplace that allow an office to learn about the environment through interaction with raptors.

Raptors are trained not only to make appearances in public, but also to do tricks. In some cases, owls may be trained to turn their heads all the way around, or coo in order to exhibit their unique abilities. Other animals may be trained to fly in a loop around the room! This is not only engaging for audience members; it also provides a great way for raptors to bond with trainers and exhibit many of the behaviors they would be doing if they were in the wild. As a result, bringing raptors to environmental education is great for education, but is equally important for the raptors themselves. 

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Harriet the Tortoise: From Charles Darwin to Steve Irwin

In 1835, Harriet the tortoise was no more than five years old, but her life was about to change forever. It is believed that at the age of five, Harriet was taken from her home in the Galapagos Islands by Charles Darwin. However, this was only the first of her celebrity acquaintances. In 1989, Harriet moved into a new home at the Australia Zoo in Queensland, Australia, which was owned by Steve Irwin, star of The Crocodile Hunter. There, she was a beloved tourist attraction for 17 years until she passed away in 2006 due to a heart attack. When she passed away, she was 176 years old, making her one of the oldest known creatures in the world. 

Harriet had one of the most unique life experiences of any tortoise known to man. Charles Darwin likely picked her up as part of his round-the-world survey expedition. From there, she was transported to England, and then later transported to her final home in Australia by the captain of the HMS Beagle, a ship in the Royal Navy made famous for its transport of Charles Darwin. Because she lived so long, Harriet experienced many different time periods and places; she is more well-travelled than much of the world’s population!

When she first arrived in Australia, Harriet’s home was in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens. Harriet was actually thought to be male for many years and was originally named Harry after Harry Oakman, the creator of the zoo at the Brisbane Botanic Gardens. However, this was corrected in the 1960s when a visiting director of Hawaii’s Honolulu Zoo pointed out that Harriet was female. It was at this time that Harriet began to gain fame and recognition for her association with Charles Darwin.

There was also some confusion about Harriet’s genetics at first. Initial analysis of Harriet’s DNA had difficulty placing her in a subspecies even in a cross section of 900 animals representing 26 extant and extinct populations. She was eventually assigned to G. n. porteri, but her genetic diversity indicated that she was most likely at least two generations removed from the oldest specimens of her subspecies in the dataset. Some of the little data we have on Harriet’s background is actually in journals. The tortoises collected by Darwin were all recorded in journals of the voyage, which included their measurements. They averaged 11 inches in length, representing an approximate age of five years. At that time, Harriet was only the size of a dinner plate.

This article covers Harriet’s 175th birthday party.

Throughout her life, Harriet was said to be very good-natured. She loved attention and being patted on her scutes, the plates that make up the carapace, or upper shell. Harriet spent the majority of each day taking a nap at her pond. Her favorite food was hibiscus flower. On November 15, 2005, Harriet’s 175th birthday was celebrated at Australia Zoo. In attendance was Scott Thompson, a researcher on Harriet’s history, Robin Stewart, author of Darwin’s Tortoise, and many other people who knew and admired Harriet throughout her life. The birthday party was a beautiful way to bid farewell to the famed tortoise, who passed away a year later. 

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Hoatzin: The Buckbeak of the Muggle World

Imagine you’re wandering through the Amazon, deep into the forest, when all of a sudden, a strange looking animal smelling vaguely like manure flies by and rips open your bag with one of the claws on its wings. You’re not dreaming; you’ve just met a Hoatzin! The Hoatzin, also known as the stinkbird for its manure-like odor, is a tropical bird found in swamps, riparian forests, and mangroves of the Amazon and the Orinoco Delta in South America. It would be an understatement to say this bird is one of a kind!

The Hoatzin is the only species of its genus, which is part of why it is so unique. There are simply not many birds that have much in common with the Hoatzin. Its taxonomic position has been greatly debated because of its unique features and abilities, and is still car from clear. For one thing, the stinkbird has a digestive system that is more like a cow’s than another bird’s. This is what makes them smell so bad. They have a foregut, which is used to break down plants using bacterial fermentation. It is not a rumen, which is found in cows and other ruminants. Rather, the crop, a part of the digestive system common to many birds, is altered in the stinkbird to make it function like a cow’s rumen. Because of this, the stinkbird’s crop is so large that it displaces muscles normally used for flight. As a result, stinkbirds can fly, but not as well as other birds (perhaps this is why the Hoatzin you encountered earlier accidentally scraped your bag).

If that’s not enough, the Hoatzin has another feature that no other bird shares: it has two claws on each of its wings! These extra claws allow baby Hoatzins to move about tree branches without falling into the water. This lets young Hoatzins escape predators such as the Great Black Hawk. In fact, Hoatzin families have a specific escape plan in case of such an attack. Older Hoatzins fly about to distract the predator, while the young hide under the cover of leaves and branches. If they are seen, chicks will plunge into the water, swim away, and use their claws to haul themselves back onto land, up the tree, and into the nest.

This video explains more about the Hoatzin’s claws.

Hoatzins are herbivores and mainly feed on leaves, fruit and flowers. They are similar in size to a pheasant and have beautiful unfeathered blue faces with maroon eyes. Because of their stench, they are not threatened by human poaching. In this way, their unique digestive system is also a great defense mechanism; no one wants to hunt a stinky bird. They are also less threatened by deforestation than many other animals and continue to be quite populous.

Because of their claws, researchers have wondered whether the Hoatzin is a descendent of the Archaeopteryx, a bird-like dinosaur thought to be part of the transition between non-avian dinosaurs and modern birds, which had three claws on each wing. Others believe the claws are a more recent adaptation, coming about as a result of the need to avoid predators such as the Great Black Hawk. However, if you’re a Jurassic Park fan, you may like to think of the Hoatzin as a small reminder of a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth.

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