Thursday, February 25, 2010

Science filling in the details of bad animal behavior

If you think bad animal behavior is just a lark, suitable for blogging and a laugh, you're wrong. It's a serious scientific pursuit. I may get nothing out of this business, but some South African researchers lately got an actual publication out of it: a report in the Journal of Ethology about a seal trying to rape a penguin.

As the BBC reports:

The brazenness of the seal's behaviour left those who saw it in no doubt as to what was happening.

(Researchers) De Bruyn and a colleague were on Trypot beach at Marion Island to study elephant seals when they noticed a young, adult male Antarctic fur seal, in good condition, attempting to copulate with an adult king penguin of unknown sex.

The 100kg seal first subdued the 15kg penguin by lying on it.

The penguin flapped its flippers and attempted to stand and escape - but to no avail.

The seal then alternated between resting on the penguin, and thrusting its pelvis, trying to insert itself, unsuccessfully.

You have to give credit to both the scientists and the BBC for having a much more realistic view of animal behavior than most. They don't express surprise at the mere fact of attempted animal sexual assault, which we've seen on this blog with animals as varied as frogs and dolphins:

Sexual coercion among animals is extremely common: males of many species often harass, coerce or force females of their own kind to mate, while animals are also known occasionally to harass sexually a member of a closely related species.

They even realize that these incidents aren't confined to members of the same species - as we've seen, again, with dolphins and with a parrot who've had humans as the objects of their attentions. So, the researchers are quite precise about what's unusual about this incident:

But this is thought to be the first recorded example of a mammal trying to have sex with a member of another class of vertebrate, such as a bird, fish, reptile, or amphibian.

This is what is comes down to: bad animal sexual behavior is so widespread, you've got to get that specific to get a scientific "first" out of it.

The researchers consider various possible motives for the behavior, from aggression to playfulness. But if it was a misdirected attempt at cross-order romance, he's definitely doing it wrong:

After 45 minutes the seal gave up, swam into the water and then completely ignored the bird it had just assaulted.

Really, at least send flowers - or some fish - if you're not going to call, you know?

You can read the whole article here, if you're into that sort of thing.

Thanks to Sir Pilkington's weirdimals Twitter for the tip. Photo of a different unnatural arrangement of a seal and a penguin by Flickr user shaindlin.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bad animals as a weapon against bad animals

Sometime it seems that this blog could just as well be called "Humans never learning," but as we saw in the previous post, there are some exceptions, where people have stood up to bad animal behavior instead of making excuses for it.

Now, in an interesting twist on this, humans are actually using bad animals against bad animals in Australia.

Humans often do animals the favor of broadening their horizons by taking them to see the world, and typically, animals tend to repay this by devastating their new homes. We've seen this in the case of the brown tree snake in Guam, which has basically eaten all the native wildlife as well as committing various offenses more directly against humans.

Another famous example is the cane toad. Farmers brought cane toads to Australia in the 1930s, and, in exchange for a whole new continent to live on, they asked only that the toads eat a certain beetle that infests sugar cane fields. Seems like a fair deal, right?

Instead, the toads pretty much ignored the beetles and instead have spread over Australia, devastating the native wildlife, as you can learn in the book and movie Cane Toads: An Unnatural History, which I highly recommend as a true cinematic milestone in the documentation of bad animal behavior.

Years of attempts to control the invading amphibians have failed, but now scientists may have found a simple solution: a little cat food, which gets you the help of an extremely nasty little insect, the carnivorous meat ant.

As reported by The Telegraph:

"It's not exactly rocket science. We went out and put out a little bit of cat food right beside the area where the baby toads were coming out of the ponds," University of Sydney professor Rick Shine told public broadcaster ABC.

"The ants rapidly discovered the cat food and thought it tasted great."

Attracted by the cat food, the ants also mercilessly attack the baby toads, eliminating about 70% of them immediately, and most of the toads that escape the initial attack die later as well.

Targeting the toads as they hatch is a particularly efficient approach, since the eggs are laid in huge masses and tens of thousands of young may be emerging at the same time. And the ants have an important quality: they're impervious to the toxins that the toads use to defend themselves from predators.

It sounds foolproof, but I'd watch out for one thing: how are those ants going to "thank" us later for the fantastic free meals?

Check out this site for a terrifying closeup of the meat ant (scroll down past the perfectly innocuous meat ant researcher) as well as tons of information direct from cane toad experts, and here you can read about the new sequel to the Cane Toads movie.

Ominous closeup of a cane toad where it ought to be, in central America, by Flickr user Brian Gratwicke.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Hail to Heroic Humans

So many of the humans in the stories reported in this blog just don't get it. Again and again, we've seen people make excuses for animals or, worse, even enable them.

So it's a pleasure to recognize a couple of true role models in the fight against bad animal behavior.

In the first case, a squirrel was put in its place when it was banned from riding a rollercoaster in England.

Workers noticed it riding the revamped Sonic Spinball roller coaster as it was tested in the mornings and joining visitors who were offered an early go on it before the official opening.

The grey-haired animal was also caught stealing food from the workers.

A spokesman for the Staffordshire theme park said: "It was getting in the way of builders who were painting. They couldn't carry on because they would end up with paw prints in the paint."

Alarms were installed that emit a warning noise inaudible to human ears but designed to ensure the squirrel, nicknamed Sonic, avoids the ride in future.

I'm sure we can all agree that that's the sort of thing we want to see more of. But even more impressive is the case of a woman who was attacked by a shark while snorkling and escaped by punching it.
"I thought 'this shark's not going to get the better of me' and I started punching it on the nose, punching, punching, punching," she told local media.

"And then it got me under the water, but not much because I started kicking at its neck."

She lost quite a lot of blood and is going to have to undergo a number of surgeries, but the woman sees a bright side. Apparently there are unanticipated rewards for those who stand up to bad animals:

"I have to have a new remodelled bottom, so that's a positive," she said.

Photo of that stinking scofflaw squirrel from The Mail.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Game bird revolt crosses the pond

Perhaps it's no surprise that it all began where Thanksgiving started: For years, turkeys have been attacking people in Massachussetts.

But recently, as we saw in November, the same behavior has sprung up elsewhere: in Philadelphia, and although the tactics were different, I think we can also count the turkey in New Jersey who was trying to cause accidents at a freeway exit.

A more ominous development has now come out of England - you know, the old England. Since there are no wild turkeys there, it appears that other tasty game birds are being recruited to the cause - in this case, a pheasant. According to The Telegraph:

The vicious bird has launched several unprovoked attacks on villagers in recent weeks.

Men, women, children, prams, bikes, dogs and cars are said to have have fallen foul of the bird in Newsham, near Richmond, North Yorkshire.

There are tales of the plucky cock lying in wait for children to get off the school bus, before chasing them screaming to the village green.

One grandmother was left with a scar on her leg after being unable to beat the bird off with her handbag, and the postman is reportedly unwilling to deliver mail to the village for fear of attack. Another resident says that the bird tried to get into her house.

Despite treating the entire town like his property, the pheasant's main residence is the yard of one villager, who, like many of the people involved in these incidents, is entirely unclear whose side she is on. At first, she sounds like someone who's got her head screwed on straight:

"At first we thought he was a friendly bird because he would always like to come out and make his presence felt when anyone called round.

But he's actually quite an unpleasant bird, not very nice at all. He jumps up at the kids' school bags. It's worrying how he's gone on to attack people."

But then she goes on:

"We are happy enough for him to stay for the time being but if the attacks go on I'm sure he won't be around for long.

We haven't seen him for a couple of days which is a bit worrying."

People, when will you learn?

Photo of mad-eyed pheasant, hopefully via zoom lens from a great distance, from The Telegraph.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Prominent position for pervert parrot

As we have seen again and again, it's no wonder animals keep acting the way they do when people so often actually reward them for their bad behavior. In perhaps the most fantastic example so far, a parrot in New Zealand has been given a prominent government job in response to his worldwide fame - as a pervert.

A kakopo named Sirocco, member of a highly endangered New Zealand species, became an internet sensation due to a video clip in which he pleasured himself upon the head of naturalist Mark Carwardine, who was filming a TV series based on his book with the late Douglas Adams. (In case you haven't already seen this clip, you can click here. Or, more tastefully, not.)

Now, this perverted kakapo has been appointed official government "spokesbird" for conservation. The prime minister says of the bird:

“He’s very media-savvy, he’s got a worldwide fan base – they hang on every squawk that comes out of his beak. He’ll be a great official spokesbird for New Zealand,” he said.“Sirocco can speak very loudly on this topic and by the end of this campaign people will be a lot more aware of what’s going on.”

I probably don't need to tell you that the bird now has his own website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, etc.

I am appalled by the precedent that has been set here. Now that birds know that this is how to get ahead... well, for one thing, I think I'm going to start wearing a hat.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Brief bad behavior updates

-In a recent post, a passing mention was made of elephants attending prenatal classes.

I'd have made a bigger point of this if I'd realized it was the start of a trend. Now we see elephants being taught to play basketball.

I'm concerned that these attempts to infiltrate our educational system are just the tip of the iceberg - an ominous step up from the animals getting fake online degrees. If there are any college admissions personnel reading this blog, please be on the alert and report if you get any applications that smell of pachyderm.

-In another recent post we debunked the motivations of an orangutan that has become famous for taking photographs.

We are confident that readers of this blog will be equally unimpressed by chimps who are making a movie and will not be fooled into buying Valentines gifts painted by penguins. Check out the link at Zooborns for more photos and description of this flightless artistic hoax.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Rabbit with a habit

If there's one thing this blog proves, it's that animals have all kinds of vices that you might have imagined were purely human. We've seen animals indulging in lust, vanity, drunkenness, gluttony, laziness, and lying, just to name a few.

There is almost nothing left... almost. But this one surprised even me: a rabbit in England that is addicted to gambling.

This compulsive gambler bunny is obsessed with a slot machine in the pub where he lives in Worcestershire. Pub landlord Ian Randall brought the rabbit indoors to escape a cold snap, and claims that his customers "took to him straight away." Apparently at least one of the rabbit's other vices fits right in: He enjoys cider - which in an English pub, does not refer to a fruit juice for children.

But aside from hogging what they call the "fruit machine," the rabbit has other unseemly behaviors, according to the Worcester News:

As well as trying his luck on the fruit machine Daisy has also been getting fruity with Mr Randall’s sons’ toy rabbit.

"Daisy" is a male, despite the name, and putting that together with the colorful pictures of tasty fruit on the machine and the alcoholic indulgence, he may well be a very confused bunny indeed. But while most of the pub's patrons are tolerant of this lapine interloper, a few of them are not confused at all about the proper way to react:

"There is a handful of drinkers here who would probably rather put him into a stew though,” Mr Randall said.