Newsletter September 2018

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September 2018

Saving Seals and Tending to Turtles: The Marine Mammal Stranding Center

(contributed by freelance writer Anna Baker)

At just one month old, a light gray baby seal was lying on the beach, separated from her family and miles away from home. Worse, her left side was swollen and infected. Every year, sick and injured seals end up stranded on the beach, away from their homes and without much hope of survival. These animals need help to heal and return to good health so that they can survive on their own in the wild. How can they heal when they are alone and out of the water? This is where wildlife rehabilitators come in.


The Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a nonprofit organization in Brigantine, New Jersey, specializes in helping animals who have been stranded on the beach, and caring for them until they are ready to be released back into the wild. Organizations like the MMSC rescue stranded seals, dolphins, sea turtles and whales and give these otherwise helpless creatures the ability to recover and return to their natural lives.


Licensed rehabilitators at MMSC are trained to recognize various illnesses and injuries in these animals. Rehabilitators are equipped and licensed to administer medical treatment as necessary, and physical therapy when needed. However, achieving successful wildlife rehabilitation requires not only science and medicine, but also environmental interpretation, and education of the public.


People like Lauren Harshaw, MMSC’s Education Coordinator, are at the center of animal rehabilitation and public education. With a background in Biology and Veterinary Animal Science, Lauren can help respond to rescue calls and physically care for seals, sea turtles, and dolphins at the Stranding Center. However, she also has a passion for teaching the public and works as a wildlife educator.


“Even though taking care of animals is a priority, it is equally crucial to have someone who is a go-between who can explain to the public what is happening, and answer the main questions of what and why,” Lauren commented. Apart from taking care of baby seals, a wildlife rehabilitator’s job is also to work with people to create awareness in communities and encourage people to take an active role in protecting wildlife.


Other rehabbers such as Stranding Technician Mike Kapp, are more interested in the dirty work of rescuing, rehabilitating, and collecting data. Mike was touched by his very first interaction with a young, gray seal that had stranded with fishing line wrapped around its neck. The fishing line was wound so tightly that it was beginning to cut into its layers of skin and blubber. After cutting off the fishing line, Mike and his team took the seal back to the Stranding Center, where they cared for it for two months. Mike and his coworkers monitored the seal’s weight, treated its wound, and ultimately released it back into the ocean, where it could continue to flourish.


For wildlife rehabilitators like Lauren and Mike, every interaction with a new animal is unique and rewarding. Every day, they have the opportunity to work with marine mammals and sea turtles who would otherwise face difficult odds. Lauren, Mike, and everyone at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center drastically change the lives of sick and injured animals through their rescue and care, and provide a second chance that many animals would not have without them.

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As you walk into the kitchen ready to make your morning cup of coffee, you glance out the dining room window and catch a glimpse of a beautiful hummingbird perched on your hummingbird feeder. Behind, on your larger feeder filled with birdseed, a dashing red robin eats his breakfast as the sun comes up. Birdfeeders create gorgeous morning scenes of backyard wildlife, but what is their real effect on avian populations?

Bird feeders create a concentrated food source for many different species of birds. This brings them together in a situation which does not occur in the wild. As a result, more conflicts between individuals of different species occur at backyard birdfeeders. This pattern has led to the formation of a dominance hierarchy, according to one study.

In a study done specifically at bird feeders, researchers found that larger species such as house sparrows and greenfinches monopolized the best food and spent longer eating than small birds. Smaller species such as blue tits and coal tits had to eat and run, and were left with lower-quality food.

This video shows the behavior of various birds at a birdfeeder.

Researchers also found that heavier birds monopolized access to sunflower hearts, which is a food that has a relatively short handling time, meaning that it does not take very long to eat. However, lighter species were left with sunflower seeds with the hull intact, which makes them take longer to open and eat.

Additionally, heavier birds pecked at a lower rate, while small ones pecked quickly to make the most of their limited time at the feeders. These findings show that smaller birds are at a disadvantage in terms of the amount of time they have at the bird feeder and the quality of food they get there.  

More specifically, the interspecies interaction created by birdfeeders has caused dominance ranks to emerge. Researchers observed scenarios in which two birds interacted and one ended up retreating from the food source. In the results of this study, there was a strong correlation between weight and dominance. The heaviest birds were most likely to remain at the food source, whereas the lightest birds were most likely to retreat and yield the space to a larger bird.

Because the use of birdfeeders means that larger and heavier species have better access to food, it is important to consider their implications for conservation and the effects they have on each individual species. If the aim of bird feeders is to benefit all species, perhaps new research is necessary to determine better ways to achieve this. For example, different mixes of foods or different feeder designs could be more helpful in benefiting both large and small birds.

Backyard birdfeeders are becoming more popular than ever, which has increased the importance of studying their effects on different bird species. During the winter when food is scarce, birdfeeders can be incredibly valuable to birds who might not otherwise be able to find something to eat. Beyond that, however, the benefits are less clear. Researchers indicate that more work needs to be done to fully understand how birdfeeders effect the birds.

Megalodon: A Prehistoric Shark

The movie The Meg, released August 10, 2018, popularized the 75-foot long prehistoric shark known as the Megalodon. The idea of such a huge shark, bigger than a school bus, has intrigued and terrified viewers everywhere. But outside of the fictional world of the big screen, what can science tell us about these ancient giants? 

The name Megalodon means “big tooth.” Ancient people used to think that the Megalodon’s teeth were dragon tongues or rocks that had fallen from the moon. It wasn’t until 1666 that they were identified as shark’s teeth. Because their teeth became fossilized, scientists have been able to use these teeth to study Megalodons even years after their extinction.

By studying the teeth of juvenile Megalodons, scientists have determined that in their youth, Megalodons were about as large as the largest recorded great whites, approximately 20 feet in length. As adults, Megalodons were about three times as large as the largest great whites, making them the largest fish to ever live.

Besides teeth, the only part of Megalodons’ bodies that remain today are their centra, a part of their spine, which can also become fossilized. By studying the centra, scientists can determine a Megalodon’s age at death. Each centra contains rings, like the trunk of a tree. By counting the rings, their color, and how far apart they are, scientists can even determine a Megalodon’s growth rate.

The Megalodon likely fed on large sharks and whales as large as the humpback. Their jaws could grow to about 2.7 by 3.4 meters, big enough to swallow two adult humans side by side. Additionally, their bite force was incredibly strong, making them one of the most powerful predators to ever exist.

Although many people, including the creators of the movie The Meg, imagine the Megalodon as a much larger version of a great white shark, it likely resembled a blue shark more closely. Megalodons had much shorter noses, flatter jaws, and extra-large pectoral fins to support their massive bodies.

Megalodon teeth have been found all over the world from Australia to Denmark. They have been found in Japan, India, Croatia, England, New Zealand, and a variety of other locations. One man found more than 80 teeth in a local river in Virginia in just one day. The widespread location of these teeth indicates that the Megalodon lived in most of the world’s oceans.

However, during the time that the Megalodon was alive, the oceans were warmer and the continents were slightly closer together. There was a seaway that ran between North and South America that likely allowed the Megalodon greater access to the world’s oceans. Despite this, evidence suggests that Megalodon still preferred warmer waters. In fact, scientists speculate that the cooling waters at the start of the Ice Age might have contributed to the extinction of the Megalodon.

Although we would like to believe an incredible beast like the Megalodon is still alive today, the reality is that it would be impossible. Megalodon teeth disappeared from the fossil record 2.6 million years ago. Furthermore, as Megalodons preferred warmer waters, they would not lurk in the cold ocean depths, but would remain closer to the surface, where they could easily be seen. Like the dinosaurs, this prehistoric creature will have to remain in the movies and in our imaginations.

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ValeDOGtorian: Animals in School

Every parent remembers the feeling of dread that arises when their child comes home from school an announces that they are to take care of the class pet over the weekend. However, a few days of feeding the third-grade gerbil is a small price to pay for the many benefits that animals bring to education in children. Studies have shown that the presence of a pet in the classroom can improve learning outcomes in many areas, including compassion, responsibility, and science and nature.

Having an animal in the classroom can enrich a student’s sense of responsibility and interaction with others while also making children more interested in the material they are learning. Classroom pets can be tied into almost any lesson. During math, students could calculate the height and weight of the pet. Learning about the animal itself could be tied into biology and science, and the animal’s place of origin could make geography more interesting.

Real world examples tied to a pet that children are already excited about enriches learning and helps students remember material. It also makes them excited to come to school and engage in their classrooms. Beyond that, having a pet teaches responsibility by requiring the students to help take care of the animal. Interacting with a pet will help students develop compassion and social skills.

This video shows teachers discussing the benefits of having pets in the classroom.

Studies have also shown that the presence of animals lessens tension in the classroom and provides calming benefits to students. Many children seek out pets when feeling tired, upset, scared or lonely. Having a furry friend can be comforting and encouraging to younger students. Bonding with a pet has also been tied to higher self-esteem and self-confidence.

As a result, classroom pets are almost always associated with higher school attendance. Additionally, the responsibility of filling up a hamster’s water bottle or feeding a rabbit can teach children to carry out the tasks assigned to them and feel responsible for caring for another being. These are invaluable skills and experiences that cannot be taught from a book.

Animals can also significantly decrease stress and anxiety, increase motivation, and improve social interaction. For many students, these benefits are game-changing. A shy student might come out of their shell as they are bonding with other students over petting a classroom bunny. A distracted learner might focus while learning about the baby chicks at the front of the room.

Not only that, but animals can make children truly excited about the material they are learning. Parents are often surprised when their school-age children come home reciting facts about guinea pigs or explaining the behaviors of a ferret. Getting young children engaged with the material is incredibly valuable and can change their attitude towards education for years to come.

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