Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Peregrine falcons making Minnesota comeback

SAINT PAUL, Minn. -- After 20-plus years as a St. Paul police officer, Bob Winsor has seen just about everything. But what happened at Snelling and Ashland Friday was certainly a first.

Officer Winsor blocked a couple lanes of traffic for 30 minutes to protect a bird that was feasting on a pigeon in the middle of the road. His reasoning was simple: "Anything that kills pigeons is good with me."

Read the rest of the article here.

That would be a good idea for a bumper sticker: Will Brake for Peregrines!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Whistling Orangutan Impresses Zoo Researchers

At the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Bonnie the orangutan has been amazing researchers with her special talent: Bonnie knows how to whistle.

Those notes are a symphony to the ears of primate researchers who believe her musical abilities could lead to a greater understanding of how human speech evolved.

"I think what makes it significant is that you can train apes to whistle, but no one trained her to do it. She decided to do it on her own," says Erin Stromberg, who works in the National Zoo's Great Ape house and helps care for the orangutans.

Stromberg helped publish a recent paper on Bonnie's talents. Researchers believe Bonnie was trying to imitate the sounds of zookeepers who whistle while they work. Stromberg says Bonnie's ability to copy that sound is powerful evidence that apes can re-create the sounds of other species.

"So what's significant about Bonnie learning to whistle is not that she's able to do it, it's that she saw someone else do it and just picked it up," Stromberg says.

For more, and to hear a recording, visit the original story at NPR.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Purebred Dog (Part 2): The Dog Fancy

In the first installment of this little series, I talked about the domestication of the dog. Today, I will move towards the transition to the idea of the purebred dog.

In those early days of dog domestication, as the wolves with the smaller flight distance became more common, they started to live with humans. At the outset, it is likely that these early dogs lived on the fringes of human society much like stray dogs today do. And, also likely, the protectiveness of the wolf-dogs was one of the first traits recognized in them that the early humans valued. Initially alerting to intruders, the early dogs would also have attacked other creatures trying to take their territory and resources. The humans in the early villages would have benefited from this first security system. It is not hard to imagine that those humans would have seen the benefit of guard dogs, and likely first put them to use as such.

It wouldn't have been long for them to discover the other useful attributes of the early dogs, either. Canine help in tracking and running down game would have greatly improved the hunting efficiency of the humans, increasing their yeilds and the size of the family that they could support. The herding instinct is very strong in some lines of dogs, a behavior descendant from the coordinated pack hunting strategies of wolves. I think a sound case could be made for the idea that, without the dog, humans would'nt have been able to domesticate cattle, sheep, goats and even geese and ducks. Even today, any rancher will tell you that their herding dog is worth several human workers.

As dogs were used for these purposes, certain behaviors and even anatomy would have been selected for. The early humans would only have spent time and resources on the dogs that showed promise for whatever task they demanded, be it guarding, tracking, hunting or herding. Eventually, they would have crossed specific dogs together, hoping to get a litter of puppies with similar skills. Though the ideas of genetics were unknown, the basic fundamentals of heredity may have been recognised. behavior and instinct is certainly heritable, just as anatomy and physiology are. Anyone who sees a 5 week old herding pup (like this Belgian Tervuren) confronted with sheep for the first time will recognize that instinct!

So, over the centuries (and, in some cases, independantly of each other) several breed types arrose the became something of the foundation for our modern breeds. Those types are mastiff, collie, terrier, sight hound, scent hound, drafting (pulling loads), and companion (specifically the ancient east Asian breeds such as Shih Tzu and Pekingese). These basic breed types can be found in all of today's dogs.

Eventually came the reign of Queen Victoria, who - few would argue - can be considered the first major patron of the sport of breeding and showing purebred dogs. During her reign, the world saw the creation of the first wealthy middle class. In invention of machines and improved standard of living meant that there was a segment of the population with time (and money) on their hands. Queen Victortia herself was a great fan of several breeds of dogs, especially collies anf Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. She commissioned many paintings of dogs, both alone and in protraits with herself.

Seeing the Queen's dogs, the citizenry became enamoured with dogs as well. The breeding and showing of dogs became a very important status symbol among the middle class and elements of the upper class as well. If one could afford to maintain a kennel, one muct have a lot of money indeed! During this time, there was a vertiable explosion of breeds as people tried to get the next best and most unique breed. Shows provided an opportunity for people to show off themselves as well as their dogs.

And, so the purebred dog - and the "dog fancy," as it was called - was born! In the next installment, I'll talk about the state of the purebred dog today.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Internet Research

Daily, I get questions and concerns from people worried about their pets. A certain percentage of those questions and concerns are spurred and/or fueled by information gleaned from the World Wide Web. As one would expect, there is a lot of good information out there that can be very helpful to pet owners...and there is a lot that isn't so helpful.

A couple brought their sick rat in to see me today. She is young and otherwise healthy, but over the past few weeks (yeah, it took awhile for them to bring her in) her head has been gradually and more consistently tilting to the left. Going online, they had diagnosed her with "wryneck."

Now, wryneck is a general medical description rather than a disease processes (except in one case). More scientifically known as "torticollis," the condition is characterized by the sufferer having a head tilt. In the veterinary world, there are many interesting disease and/or condition names that are fairly descriptive such as founder, hotspots and (a personal favorite) cancer eye. When a vet is told a creature has "wryneck," this picture jumps to mind: long-necked waterfowl with exposure to botulisim. Clostridum botulinum (the bacterial organisim that produces the toxin) grows in soil under certain conditions, and waterfowl are particularly prone to the toxic effects, ending up with a flaccid neck and a head that flops all over. Just as botox paralyzes the muscles of your face to reduce wrinkles, botulinum toxin paralyzes the neck muscles of birds.

Fortunately for the rat, she likely is not suffering from any issues related to botulisim (which the owners were concerned about.) Unfortunately, she has a very bad inner ear infection that may or may not improve with treatment. I'm still a little curious as to why the research that lead them to the diagnosis of wryneck didn't encourage them to bring the rat in sooner....