Author Archives: Tanya Strydom

Gym Nut

The Olympics might be over, but that doesn’t mean that gymnastics have to take a backseat. For those in the Northern Hemisphere it is that time of year where the squirrels are 1) chonky and 2) scampering about to top up their cache for the winter – often making death defying leaps and bounds in the process. A cool research project set out to look at just how athletic squirrels are – and lets just say they could definitely make it to the national gymnastics team!

Acrobatic squirrels learn to leap and land on tree branches without falling

These gymnastic skills are important to help minimise what would be life (not career) ending injuries for squirrels as they navigate their way through the canopies. The cool part though? Its not just skill, there’s also some learning involved in making and surviving these acrobatic leaps. Squirrels learnt how to account for the ‘bendiness’ of branches when judging their leap – but also have the needed skills to correct should they have miscalculated before making the leap.


Tanya Strydom is a PhD student at the Université de Montréal, mostly focusing on how we can use machine learning and artificial intelligence in ecology. Current research interests include (but are not limited to) predicting ecological networks, the role species traits and scale in ecological networks, general computer (and maths) geekiness, and a (seemingly) ever growing list of side projects. Tweets (sometimes related to actual science) can be found @TanyaS_08.

Omnomnomivore

I’m sure we can all agree that hippos might be one of the last animals you’d want to cross paths with on a normal day – and that’s without taking into consideration that they might actually be inclined to eat you and not just trample/smash/crush/maw you to death.

Yet hippos aren’t the only herbivores that might order off of the carnivore menu from time to time. New footage has recently emerged of a Seychelles giant tortoise actively ‘chasing’ (as much as a tortoise can pursue), killing and eating a baby bird.

A write up of the behaviour as well as video clip can be found in the below article by Anna Zora and Justin Gerlach.

Giant tortoises hunt and consume birds


Tanya Strydom is a PhD student at the Université de Montréal, mostly focusing on how we can use machine learning and artificial intelligence in ecology. Current research interests include (but are not limited to) predicting ecological networks, the role species traits and scale in ecological networks, general computer (and maths) geekiness, and a (seemingly) ever growing list of side projects. Tweets (sometimes related to actual science) can be found @TanyaS_08.

Trash Talk

When the blokes are at the pub after a long day out by the water and bragging (overexaggerating) about their ‘big catch’ have you ever noticed that (despite the variation in the tallness of the tale) all the fish look the same? And no, its not that all fish look the same (a lot of fish species do not actually look like the ‘typical’ fish that you expect) but more as a result of a long history of colonialist tastes influencing what is considered a desirable fish for sport fishing (spoiler: they look more similar to species you would expect to find in Europe).

This has resulted in any non-European looking fish being labelled as rough/trash. Which, firstly, isn’t very nice, but also means that these species do not receive the same level of protection or consideration as their non-trashy companions – they have even been actively eradicated by some!

Kat Kerlin wrote a lovely piece in physics.org discussing this issue and how we should actively try and address this prejudice and be mindful of how colonialist thinking has shaped our view and approaches to conservation.

Icebreaker

Tool usage – something typically associated with (but definitely not exclusive to) primates. Yet polar bears are also a part of the DIY club and will sometimes turn to using rocks or chunks of ice to help them in taking down their prey. They have (as far as reports go) not yet gotten so far as to use catapults, but who knows…

Although knowledge of this behaviour isn’t really new (it has been observed and noted by Inuit hunters for generations) it does serve as a reminder that other animals can be just as handy should the need arise. Although tool use (or just ‘clever’ behaviour in general, such as tricking their prey to come closer) by bears isn’t something that’s observed often, it does occur and suggests that bears would probably rank high in what we would term ‘intelligence’. That being said, as long as we don’t have polar bears starting to use more ‘refined’ tools to do their hunting I’m happy – the idea of them ‘tossing’ about rocks is scary enough!

The review by Ian Stirling’s team that compiled different accounts of tool use by Polar Bears can be found here: https://doi.org/10.14430/arctic72532

Deer in the LED-Lights

A recent photo showcasing the reflective reindeers in Finland has been making the rounds on the interweb. Although that specific photo turned out to be photoshopped (the reindeer looked particularly menacing/terrifying as its horns gave off a red glow similar to that of a neon sign outside the bar) the act of spraying reindeers with reflective paint is very much real.

Reindeer are an important part of animal husbandry in Finland – which means that these reindeer have monetary value and a loss of life is a loss of income for someone. These reindeer are also free roaming (unlike livestock in many countries which are kept in fenced pasture) which means that they are more likely to potentially run into hazards. Cars – more specifically collisions with cars – account for around 4,000 reindeer deaths every year. In 2014 the Finnish Reindeer Herders Association started experimenting with ways to make reindeer more visible to motorists – especially in the darker winter months.

Turns out the antlers are a pretty handy place to spray said reflective tape since it provides 360º visibility to motorists (as opposed to painting only the sides of the reindeer). And although the paint might not give off a creepy red aura reminiscent of demonic Rudolph its still pretty cool and will probably catch your attention while driving.


Tanya Strydom is a PhD student at the Université de Montréal, mostly focusing on how we can use machine learning and artificial intelligence in ecology. Current research interests include (but are not limited to) predicting ecological networks, the role species traits and scale in ecological networks, general computer (and maths) geekiness, and a (seemingly) ever growing list of side projects. Tweets (sometimes related to actual science) can be found @TanyaS_08.

Eternal Flame

Dinosaurs in the arctic – plausible. Dinosaurs thriving in the arctic – absolutely crazy…

The notion that dinosaurs were reptilian-esque, scaly, and cold-blooded creatures has probably played a role in shaping the idea that we shouldn’t expect to find dinosaurs at higher (colder) latitudes. But as our picture of dinosaurs has changed (think feathers and possibly endothermic (warm-blooded)) over time, it is probably not that surprising to learn that dinosaurs may have done well in colder (and darker) latitudes.

The discovery of not only adult dinosaurs but their young up in fossil deposits in Alaska tells us exactly that. This means that these dinosaurs were not just migrants moving through these regions but were able to reproduce. The other cool thing? It wasn’t just one, but a large collection of species that had babies represented in the fossil record. This means that a lot of dinosaurs were actually able to reproduce – which suggests that they were well-adapted to polar regions.

Just another lesson in how much we still have to learn about these beasts from the past.

You can read the full article here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2021.05.041

2na Fast 2na Furious

To quote Brian O’Conner: “I like the tuna here.”

Simply put, tuna fish would be a good choice if you ever found yourself faced with an underwater drag-race. These predators are designed for both speed and endurance – so much so that they’ve even managed to engage their lymphatic system to help them when chasing down their prey item of choice. The lymphatic system is typically associated with circulation and immunity but the tuna have engineered themselves to use this system to help fine-tune their steering and navigation system.

Much like how the cheetah uses its tail, or planes have adjustable wing-flaps to help execute manoeuvres precisely and accurately, tuna use their fins. The really cool part though? They use their lymphatic system to do the realignment! Researchers found that tuna can use this system to generate hydraulic pressure. This provides fine adjustment of their fins, which helps them become more manoeuvrable.

Perfect for those tight corners out on the course – might even have you considering racing for slips.

You can read the research article here: 10.1126/science.aak9607

Crossings4Ewe

Okay so maybe the wolves aren’t literally helping deers to cross roads in Wisconsin, but they are helping to keep them away from the motorways and (by extension) preventing them from becoming another roadkill statistic.

With the return of wolves to Wisconsin, their prey species have had to change their behaviour to minimise the risk of becoming the next item on the menu. One of these changes has been to avoid roadways and other human structures, since these cleared areas make ideal wolf hunting grounds. They do of course also catch the odd deer, but it is the added ability to scare the deer away from roadways which makes wolves a more efficient prevention technique for deer collisions than the traditional approach of keeping deer population down through hunting.

Wolves are a polarising topic – with divided opinions as to if they should be re-introduced to the wild or not. This landscape of fear that the wolves create is clearly a tick in the win column for having wolves around. As twitter user @edyong209 points out; the wolves could actually be helping us solve a human engineered problem by keeping the deers at bay.

The original article discussing the economic benefits can be found here: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2023251118

Street Urchins

Sometimes dinner turns into a mob and bites back.

Well at least that’s what it looks like…

In a shocking turn of events a common sun star (starfish species) was gobbled up by a group of sea urchins (their natural prey species) at a research station in Sweden. Which is just a little bit out of character for the vegetarian lawnmowers that are sea urchins – although make no mistake they can vacuum up a kelp forest if given half the chance.

Although the ‘why’ as to what drove the sea urchins to turn on the starfish (a case of hunger perhaps, or an attempt to remove the threat of predation) remains unclear, the interesting thing is that although the sea urchins have a comparatively simple nervous system (they don’t even have a true brain), they are still able to execute an organised form of attack. This attack strategy has been termed ‘urchin pinning’ by the research team and is usually instigated by one individual that starts the ‘attack’ and is then joined by the other sea urchins who begin munching away at the starfish. They start at the tips and moving inwards, leaving the starfish unable to get away…

The original research article can be found here: https://doi.org/10.1111/eth.13147

A note for sensitive readers: Although many starfish were harmed in the making of this comic they are expected to make a full recovery (physically at least).

Ass-ets

Non-native species are often portrayed as villains – although not without reason as they can often cause more harm than good. The wild horses and donkeys in America’s west are no exception – both having a bad rep amongst landowners for trampling vegetation and competing with livestock and native species. But they do do some good as well – and I say this after putting my love for ponies aside.

Research has shown that these equids are actually very good diggers – specifically digging wells to tap into underground water sources. These wells create artificial oases across the arid landscape – meaning that other (native) species don’t have to travel as far to water sources, competition at water points is rdduced (no Lion King-esque waterhole dance numbers ’round here) as well as providing water to plant species.

While the fact that equids are providing water sources doesn’t erase the more detrimental effects that invasive species can have on the environment, it does show that they can help promote biodiversity in some cases. Maybe its a case of giving credit to the good that comes with the bad.

The original article can be found here:  https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abd6775

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