Rodents and primates are periodically cited as some of the more intelligent animals on the planet, but it turns out that the large brains that these mammals possess have evolved more than once in their history. (Image Credit: Arjan Haverkamp CC BY-SA 4.0
Encephalization and longevity evolved in acorrelated fashion in Euarchontoglires but not in other mammals (2018) DeCasien, Alex R., Evolution, DOI: doi:10.1111/evo.13633
Some of the most striking footage from documentaries like the recent “Blue Planet II” involve organisms that display remarkable intelligence (the octopus that uses shells to disguise itself and hide from its shark predators was a particular favorite of mine). As humans, we sometimes assume that we have the best brains on the planet and have somewhat of a monopoly on intelligence, so it’s always fascinating and maybe even surprising to see other animals using their own brains to solve problems. In mammals, brains that are larger than expected have evolved more than once, which is somewhat of a surprise given how costly a big brain is. For example, your brain needs 20% of the oxygen that your body uses, so one out of every five breaths is exclusively for your brain.
Larger brains are also correlated with longer lives, relative to the group that the organism in question belongs to. Historically, studies on brain size and longevity have been dominated by primate species, so the concern was that this long life/large brain trend may only be a primate trend, instead of generalizable to all mammals. The authors of this study wanted to analyze this trend across more mammal groups, in addition to studying the relationship between larger brains and longer lives.
Feral cats are responsible for the decline of many endemic species worldwide. But will removing them boost rat populations, causing more potential harm? (Image Credit: Brisbane City Council, CC BY 2.0)
Trophic roles of black rats and seabird impacts on tropical islands: Mesopredator release or hyperpredation? (2015) Ringler et al., Biological Conservation, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2014.12.014
For centuries, rats have been portrayed as carriers of diseases and death; whereas our feline friends, worshipped by the ancient Egyptians, will definitely make your YouTube video go viral (a quick Google search of “cat video” shows 1 310 000 000 results). Both have been introduced, either accidentally or deliberately, to islands where endemic species have evolved and adapted to an environment without these generalist predators. So how do you know if eradicating one of them will make things better for the native wildlife?
Before taking radical conservation actions, it may be a good idea to understand how feral cats (the apex predator), rats (the mesopredator) and their common prey are affecting each other. Namely, if you kill all the cats, will there be more rats to prey on seabirds? On the other hand, will killing all the rats really reduce the predation by cats on seabirds?
The sidewinder rattlesnake, one of many snakes that inadvertently transports seeds by swallowing small herbivores (Image Credit: Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0)
Seed ingestion and germination in rattlesnakes: overlooked agents of rescue and secondary dispersal (2018) Reiserer et al., Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, DOI:10.1098/rspb.2017.2755
Plants depend on outside forces to disperse their seeds away from the parent plant, and the most common way is via a process called zoochory, where animals spread the seeds. This can be due to seeds being stuck onto the fur of an animal, animals taking and storing the seeds in a different location, or when an animal eats the fruit and later defecates the seeds.
One indirect way in which seeds are dispersed is when a predator, such as a coyote, raptor, or bobcat, consumes an animal (like a mouse) that had seeds in its stomach or cheek pouches. Rattlesnakes commonly consume small rodents that carry seeds in cheek pouches, and though these snakes are known to eat these seed-carrying animals, their own role in seed dispersal remains largely unknown. In order to learn more, the researchers in this study dissected museum specimens to search for secondarily-consumed seeds.