Newsletter July 2017

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 July 2017

Can Animals Predict Earthquakes?

Every two to three years, a mysterious oarfish will wash up on a beach somewhere. While this may seem like a harmless occurrence, many people believe that this is a sign of an impending earthquake. In fact, in some cultures, an oarfish sighting can create hysteria. The correlation between oarfish and earthquakes stems from an old Japanese folk tale, which identifies the oarfish as a Messenger from the Sea God’s palace, sent to predict earthquakes. Oarfish are rarely seen, as they live over 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Because of this, when they are seen, it is treated as a sign of something monumental.

There is some evidence that this theory may be true. In 2010, beached oarfish were sighted, causing many Japanese people to fear an earthquake in Japan. While Japan remained untouched, that same year, destructive earthquakes hit Chile and the island of Haiti.  Some people believe that these deep dwelling oarfish may be attuned to seismic changes in the ocean.  However, there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that these sightings are more than coincidental or that oarfish are the true harbingers of earthquakes.

An interesting video on the oarfish phenomenon

This video offers some scientific explanations for why the oarfish comes to shore. Oarfish are large, oblong fish that belong to the Regalecidae family. Much about the oarfish remains unknown; however, it has been suggested that they come to the surface when they are ill, or if they are disturbed. While we can’t definitively state that oarfish predict earthquakes, other anecdotal animal behaviors demonstrate that animals do have a keener sense of impending natural disasters. Stories of fish, insects, birds and reptiles exhibiting strange behavior seconds and even weeks before an earthquake abound because many of these animals have senses that are able to recognize the onset of these events.  But precisely what animals feel continues to be a mystery.  The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) did a few studies in the 1970s on animal prediction; lab rodents were closely scrutinized to see if there was a surge of energy prior to an earthquake. The USGS concluded nothing of note and the agency has not made any further investigations. The USGS has not completely dismissed the possibility of animal predictions, but no additional research is underway.

Japan has continued to examine the correlations, however. After the 2011 earthquake in Japan, colleagues at the National Tsing Hua University conducted a study on how cats acted prior to the quake. The survey established that six or more days before the earthquake, some cats appeared more stressed and displayed unusual behaviors that included trembling, restlessness, escape behavior and general agitation. The researchers attributed the cats’ wider range of hearing to the idea that they may sense quakes ahead of time. Another contributing factor, is the notion that cats are be able to detect changes in gravity, ground distortion, and atmospheric pressure.


In Yanachaga National Park in Peru, a group of experts used data, gathered from a series of motion triggered cameras, to point to substantial changes in animal behavior prior to the 2011 earthquake.  Two days prior to the earthquake they sighted fewer animal movements. One startling finding was that rodents were very common everywhere in the videos but then completely disappeared eight days prior to the quake.


Wild animals in Peru prior to the quake


Can animals really predict earthquakes?  Obviously, more scientific proof is required before any conclusions can be made, but these correlations continue to cause discussion. One author notes animals’ sensitivity to the earth's magnetic field, as well as the hearing frequency difference between humans and animals.  When we look at example like the Tsunami in Asia, the number of humans killed versus the number of wild animals that managed to remain unharmed suggests that animals may be onto something. While some animals may perceive warnings of impending disasters, it’s not likely that we’ll be able to decipher the impending earthquake messages from the Sea God’s palace anytime soon. 

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Dance of the Pink Fairy Armadillo

The Pink Fairy Armadillo didn’t quite make it into the final cut of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies. It is actually a real animal despite its ridiculous name. In fact, its absurdity doesn’t stop there. The Pink Fairy Armadillo looks like Dr. Seuss created it and it hopped out of the illustrations into real life. The small animal is furry on its underside, but is covered by a large pink shell that extends over its back and onto its forehead. It has a smallish face for its body and large clawed feet protruding from its underside. If you ever see one in person, you aren’t likely to forget the occasion.

The Pink Fairy Armadillo is also known by its less exciting name, the Pichiciego. It is the smallest species of armadillo known to man. It weighs less than a pound and can fit in the palm of a hand. It is also the only species of armadillo that has a dorsal shell almost completely separate from the rest of its body. Pink Fairy Armadillos are omnivores, preying mainly on ants, worms and plant material. They live in the dry grasslands and sandy plains of central Argentina. There, they can use the sandy climate to their advantage; they have the ability to completely bury themselves in seconds if threatened.

Not only that, but Pink Fairy Armadillos actually spend most of their time underground. Their large front claws allow them to move effortlessly through the sand as if they were swimming. The aerodynamics of their bodies as well as their shielded heads allow for this to happen. Pink Fairy Armadillos will often burrow underground next to an ant colony for quick and convenient snacks; ants are by far the Pink Fairy Armadillo’s favorite food.

Pink Fairy Armadillos tend to live solitary lives, only coming out from underground to feed at night. Female Pink Fairy Armadillos are polygamous, but will only give birth to one offspring at a time. The newborn Pink Fairy Armadillo’s shell will not completely harden until it is fully grown. Sadly, the Pink Fairy Armadillo has been threatened since 1970. The main cause is habitat destruction, though Pink Fairy Armadillos are also prey to domestic dogs and cats.

While the Pink Fairy Armadillo does have a shell, it is much softer and more flexible than the shells of mot other armadillos. In fact, the shell is so close to the body that blood vessels can be seen through it. The shell is flattened near the animal’s backside in order to compress dirt behind the armadillo as it digs. This is believed to help prevent tunnel collapses. The shell also helps with thermoregulation; the Pink Fairy Armadillo can control the amount of surface area exposed to the environment in order to gain or lose heat.

Pink Fairy Armadillos are less common than they were a few decades ago, and sightings of them are rare. Individuals caught in the wild have died within days of captivity. The longest that a Pink Fairy Armadillo has been held in captivity has been four years. The Pink Fairy Armadillo is extremely sensitive to environmental changes and stress, such as changes in temperature and soil quality. Unfortunately, because of their restricted geographic range and rarity, they are in desperate need of conservation. However, many conservation efforts are being made, and there is hope for the smallest species of armadillo.

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Now You See Me - The Elusive Chameleon

You probably already know that chameleons can change the color of their skin, but did you know that a chameleon can look ahead and over its shoulder at the same time?  There is quite a bit that makes these lizards remarkable including the common misconception that chameleons change colors to camouflage themselves for safety. They actually do this primarily to maintain satisfactory body temperatures. A frigid chameleon will change to a darker color to absorb more heat, while a hotter chameleon will become paler to reflect heat from the sun. Chameleons can turn any color, not just green to brown as is widely believed. Different species are able to vary both their color and their pattern through combinations of yellows, orange, even purples and turquoise. They do this through pigments found under the superficial layers of their skin. These two types of pigments are the key to the changes – one is black while the other can be one of many different colors.

While you can’t see a camouflaged chameleon easily, rest assured that he can see you whether you are walking behind or in front of him. Furthermore, he can do this without moving his head. A chameleon’s eyes have no upper or lower eyelid: just one big eyelid that is cone shaped.  It covers the eye almost entirely, leaving only an opening for the pupil.  Their eyes have a full range of motion and are able to turn independently of each other. This allows these masters of disguise to see what’s coming, and to hunt for prey from all sides. With his binocular vision, the chameleon can spy a tasty meal and follow it while simultaneously looking out for predators behind. The chameleon’s unique eyes also work like camera lenses, with an ultra-quick focus, allowing them to easily distinguish food from non-food items.

The Chameleon’s unique visual adaptation allows them to capture prey and avoid predators. It also makes them a distinctive and well-known species of lizard. Chameleons have been found in Europe, Asia and Africa but nearly half the species live on the island of Madagascar and inhabit the rain forests of the Congo basin. The typical chameleons are arboreal, living in trees and bushes. However, there are number of the species that are mainly terrestrial, living low on the ground in leaves, twigs and bark that have fallen.

Some feral populations of the veiled and Jackson’s chameleons have been introduced in Hawaii, California and Florida. The Jackson chameleon was introduced to Hawaii in the early 1970s, quickly adapted to the tropical weather, and soon became an invasive species there.  Their popularity took off as part of the exotic pet trade in the United States, primarily because of their unique look. In order to prevent the establishment of more feral animal populations, the export of these lizards has become illegal.

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Polly Wanna Cracker? Speech in Birds

Jay, a Macaw who lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia, will faithfully ask everyone who walks by the front window of his house, “Hey! Got any pizza!?” While it may take his neighbors by surprise, Jay’s owners know that he isn’t really looking for a snack; he just mimics phrases he has heard people say. Speech in birds has long been a point of fascination for many humans. In fact, recent research has shown that some birds may have cognitive understanding of human language. However, even if they don’t know what they’re saying, birds that speak can often shed light on language and animals.

Much research has been done on speech patterns in birds. One study centered on stuttering in birds has helped scientists understand how humans learned how to talk, and how potential problems with speech could be remedied. The study was conducted on zebra finches, known for their vocal nature. The birds in the study grew up with profound vocal deficits, stuttering and failing to mimic the songs of the birds around them. Over time, both their syllables and their syntax deteriorated. By examining where the vocalization process broke down, the researchers identified similarities in neural structures that allow both humans and birds to communicate. The studies revealed the intricacies of how the song-producing regions of bird brains work. The results implied that the speech-producing parts of human brains operate in a similar way.

Another study has revealed that zebra finches use a form of baby talk when talking to their youngest offspring, similarly to human parents using baby talk on their infants. Other birds such as the Japanese great tit use syntax to organize their songs, combining chirps in different ways to convey different meanings. These findings reveal that there are many similarities between human spoken language and bird songs. Both are learned by listening to, and imitating, others. Furthermore, each language contains a finite set of words and set of rules by which words can be combined. These rules were thought to be unique to humans until it was discovered that they are also used by the Japanese tit.

But why do birds copy human speech? It turns out that repeating what they hear is a survival mechanism for many birds. They will naturally try to fit in with those around them, whether their companions are birds or humans. Their way of fitting in is to repeat the sounds that others make. In the wild, birds share important information through vocal cues, including where to find food and the location of predators. Some birds have even been known to have their own dialects. In fact, when transplanted to another area, birds will change dialect to adapt to those around them. Therefore, in a human household, a parrot will try to integrate into the environment as if the humans are its flock members.

Though many pet owners believe that their birds can understand them, it is more likely that birds simply know what is associated with certain words rather than what the actual words mean. For example, if they ask, “How are you?” when you walk into the room, it is probably because they have heard others say this phrase when someone enters the room. To the bird, it probably means, “Someone has entered the room.” Birds are particularly drawn to phrases that are associated with excitement and emotion.

However, in some instances, birds do know the meanings of certain words. For example, some birds may know the names of their favorite snacks, and ask for them specifically. A few parrots have been known to piece together words to describe a new object. For example, one parrot called dehydrated banana chips “banana crackers,” combining the names of two other snacks he knew. Another called an apple a “banerry,” combining the words banana and cherry to describe a fruit he had never seen before. While most birds do not show this level of creativity and understanding of human language, all of them can shed light on the inner workings of language in both humans and animals.

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