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Smart Asses
Trash Course
Scat Marks the Spot
Lost in Migration
Deep Seal Diving

Illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham

 

Smart Asses
Ranchers in Belize have long dealt with jaguars the way their northern counterparts once dealt with wolves: They shoot them. Tired of the public relations problem this approach generated, ranch manager Santiago Juan took a different tack three years ago and hired security. “Donkeys,” he says sheepishly. “Since we posted them in our fields, jaguar attacks on our cattle have all but ended.” Donkeys are innately intelligent and curious, with acute hearing and sight. Upon detecting a jaguar, Juan’s four donkeys perk up their ears and trot over to investigate. The jaguar, a top predator that hunts by stealth, often flees. Fewer attacks on the ranch’s 3,000 head of cattle mean fewer dead jaguars, explains Juan, who says he no longer has to reach for a gun to fend off the elusive cats. It’s a win-win situation, say biologists in Belize, who worry that the threatened animals face ever-increasing pressure as development and agriculture usurp their forest homes. Belize remains a stronghold for 600 to 2,000 jaguars, thanks to still-intact jungle, abundant federally protected parks and reserves, and, now, a vigilant group of donkeys.—Dave Sherwood
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Trash Course
To draw attention to pollution in the Pacific Ocean, Marcus Erikson and Joel Paschal added more waste to the waters. Temporarily, that is. This summer the duo strapped 15,000 plastic bottles to a Cessna fuselage, added a sail, and steered through a swirl of refuse that’s estimated to be anywhere from twice the size of Texas to the size of the United States and India combined. Aboard their raft named Junk, they navigated the 2,600 miles from California to Hawaii through what scientists and environmentalists are calling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, made up largely of plastic. During the three-month voyage, they endured storms and windless days, subsisted on a hearty diet of cabbage and beans, and examined debris drifting in the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. The plastic shards (and the toxins they release) the pair saw accumulate inside the birds, fish, turtles, and marine mammals that eat them. Plastic is so abundant in some areas that it outweighs plankton 48 to 1, estimates the California-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation. “It’s a direct reflection of our consumer habits on land,” says Anna Cummins, the land-bound third crew member, who maintained a blog about the journey. (For more on the junk raft, click here.)—Jessica Leber
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Scat Marks the Spot
In what’s likely an effort to mark their territory, eagle owls have come up with their own “No Trespassing” signage: squirting feces and piling feathers in strategic places near their nests. Researchers Vincenzo Penteriani and Maria del Mar Delgado of Spain’s Estación Biológica de Doñana monitored 20 sites inhabited by the large European bird during its pre-egg laying and nesting stages. They found that in areas close to home, breeding owls preferentially “paint” large, dark rock faces and other prominent structures with their white feces. They also choose similar sites to pile feathers plucked from prey with bright, visible plumage, such as azure-winged magpies and little egrets. In past studies the scientists showed that eagle owls—which are known for their aggressiveness—also communicate vocally to warn off intruders. But poop and feather piles are a more enduring signal. “They leave a message [that says], ‘I’m not here, but this is my territory,’ ” says Penteriani. “It’s like private property.” (For photos of eagle owls and their creations, click here.)—Julie Leibach
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Lost in Migration
To the diners’ surprise, about 60 newly hatched loggerhead sea turtles wandered into a pizza restaurant on a beach in southern Italy this past August. The restaurant’s lights, rather than its menu, drew the threatened reptiles, says Paolo Casale, who heads the World Wide Fund for Nature’s turtle program in Italy. Hatchlings find their way visually, relying on the contrast between dark sand dunes and the brighter ocean to orient themselves. “Artificial lights represent a super stimulus for them, an irresistible attractor,” Casale says. The consequences aren’t always as harmless as a dinnertime detour. In Italy’s Calabria region, where the hatchlings swam ashore, only a few sea turtles nest each year. But in the United States and other countries that support larger turtle populations, artificially lit beaches also pose a serious threat. Florida’s state-run Fish and Wildlife Research Institute estimates that each year in Florida alone thousands of disoriented hatchlings succumb to dehydration or predators. Casale says shielding lights—or just turning them off—can help turtles find their way (see “Hitting the Beach,” January-February 2006). For the pizzeria visitors, though, getting lost meant a free ride back to the shore from WWF workers and restaurant employees.—Alexa Schirtzinger
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Deep Seal Diving
If you want to know how climate change is affecting the Antarctic, ask a southern elephant seal. Researchers glued sensors to the heads of 58 of them to track depth, temperature, and salinity in parts of the Southern Ocean that humans, because of cost, currents, or expansive sea ice, can’t otherwise get to. The burly predators swim up to 40 miles a day and dive to depths of 6,000 feet, collecting data as they go. The information is automatically relayed to scientists via satellite when the seals surface. “These animals are exploring areas that otherwise are poorly sampled by conventional means,” like ships and satellites, says Jean-Benoît Charrassin, a marine biologist at France’s Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. The seals have already provided a 30-fold increase in data from the Southern Ocean sea ice zone data, allowing Charrassin and colleagues to study sea ice formation and ocean circulation patterns. To continue employing their pinniped aides, the researchers will have to glue on new sensors, which fall off during the spring and summer molt.—Susan Cosier
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Do Not Disturb
A new study suggests that eagle owls mark their territory with poop and feathers. A few photos reveal their “creations” in detail.