Placoderms had the “fun kind” of sex

Dunkleosteus, a Devonian placoderm. Pencil drawing, digital coloring, Nobu Tamura, http://www.palaeocritti.com. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Timeline, 2008: From about 420 to 350 million years ago, the rulers of Earth’s seas were an unattractive-looking armored fish known today as the placoderms. This group, consisting of many species, were the bulldogs of the fish world, heavy-bodied with big ugly mouths full of protruding, potentially dangerous bony plates. Some of them were quite small, but a few species grew as large as 20 feet in length. They were the dominant vertebrate worldwide for about 70 million years.

Conventional scientific wisdom would say that these ancient fish reproduced the way modern representatives of ancient lineages do: external fertilization, the sperm fertilizing the egg with a little help from water. The wisdom was so conventional, in fact, that experts placed the rise of internal fertilization—delivery of the sperm into the female via an act of copulation—a good 200 million years after the placoderms swam the seas.

A catastrophe on the reef

In what is now Western Australia, something terrible happened about 380 million years ago in the shallow seas covering a coral reef: the oxygen that fed the reef suddenly plummeted, leaving the coral starved and unable to support the food web built around it. The outcome was a rapid, catastrophic loss of all of the species on the reef, including the placoderms. Thanks to stable plate tectonics and some good sediment coverage, these hapless animals remained preserved for the subsequent millions of years until a team of fossil hunters uncovered them. They now populate one of the most famous fossil finds in the world, the Gogo fossil sites, which are packed with perfect specimens of long-lost species.

The role of Sir David Attenborough, the world’s coolest naturalist

Among those perfect specimens—so perfect, in fact, that three-dimensional samples are available—is a species that now has the name Materpiscis attenboroughi. The name means “Attenborough’s mother fish” and requires a bit of explanation. Back in the late 1970s, Sir David Attenborough produced a wonderful nature and science series called Life on Earth. In the series, he highlighted the Gogo sites, and his interest led researchers to name the fish after him. But the first part of the name, the genus name Materpiscis, means “Mother fish.” Why? Because when this 10-inch fish died during that catastrophic reef loss, she died just before becoming a mother.

We know this because a couple of researchers working on her fossilized remains decided at the last minute to expose the fossil to one more round of acid treatment. They had pretty much decided to write her up as she was, which would have been plenty because of the preserved 3D perfection of her remains. But they agreed to that last treatment, which gently etches away layers of the fossil to reveal what lies beneath. They are glad they did, because what that last treatment exposed, inside of the adult fish, is a tiny, fossilized fish embryo, about a quarter of the size of its mother.

Eureka! Again, and again, and again

Anyone looking at that embryo, inside of that fish, might have had any number of “Eureka” thoughts in that moment. Eureka! It’s a fish embryo, 380 million years old! There aren’t that many of those lying around. But even more important, Eureka! It’s a fish embryo inside of the mother. That means that the egg was fertilized inside of the mother, where the embryo grew, nourished in her body, just as mammals do it. The embryo was even attached by a tiny, fossilized umbilical cord. A final Eureka! just might be that we can confirm the sex of this fish just based on the fact that she was pregnant when she died.

This just in: Sex is fun

The presence of an internally developing embryo in this placoderm sets the assumed evolutionary timing of internal fertilization back about 200 million years. No one would have guessed that these ancient, armored bulldog-like fish would represent the earliest-known internal fertilization. And the fact that fertilization was internal means that these animals must have copulated, the standard mechanism for getting sperm into the female to meet the egg. That recognition led one of the embryo’s discoverers to remark that this animal represents the earliest example a species engaging in “sex that was fun.”

Pitcher plant port-a-potty for the tree shrew

A pitcher plant (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Timeline, 2009: As humans, we are a bit limited in our imaginations. For example, we’d probably never consider climbing onto the edge of a toilet seat and licking the sides while…um…employing the toilet for standard uses. Perhaps one reason—among many obvious choices—is that we’re not tree shrews living in the wilds of Borneo in Southeast Asia.

If you’re now envisioning tree-dwelling rodents enjoying the civilized development of having their own toilet, you’re not too far off. Borneo is home to a number of unusual relationships between species, but none may be stranger than the one that has developed between the tree shrew and the pitcher plant. The pitcher plant is carnivorous, and as its name implies, has a pitcher-shaped structure that it uses to trap its food.

The many uses of the pitcher plant

Normally, a pitcher plant growing on the ground is the perfect trap for hapless animals drawn to its minimal nectar output. For some species, they’re not a death trap but a place to brood offspring—one frog uses the pitcher plant to lay its eggs, where trapped, digested insects may provide some nourishment. The insects fall in because the funnel-shaped pitcher part of the plant has a slippery lip that acts as a deadly superslide for any insect that alights on it. Unable to gain a foothold, the animal slides helplessly into the plant’s interior, landing in a pool of digestive enzymes or bacteria that slowly break it down.

What does a pitcher plant do with digested insect? It does what any organism, plant or otherwise, does with its food—it extracts nutrients from it. One primary nutrient that plants (and everything else) require is nitrogen. This element is part of life’s important building blocks for DNA and RNA and the amino acids that make up proteins. Thus, to grow and reproduce, organisms must acquire nitrogen from somewhere. Some plants form a partnership with bacteria to get their nitrogen. Pitcher plants digest insects for it.

Unless no insects are available. While ground-growing pitcher plants in Borneo can subsist on available ants and other crawly critters, some pitcher plants grow on vines and trees, where ants are largely unavailable. In addition, mountainous environments are not known for harboring lots of ants, so the pitcher plant needed a new plan for getting its nutrients.

Nectar for nitrogen

The plan, it seems, was selection for making more nectar, reducing the slippery factor, and behaving like both a toilet and a food source for an abundant animal in the Borneo mountains, the mountain tree shrew. Using video cameras, researchers based at a Borneo field station captured one of the most unusual mutually beneficial relationships in nature: the tree shrew, while enjoying the abundant nectar uniquely produced by these aerial pitcher plants, also poops into the pitcher plant mid-meal. The plant, perfectly shaped for the tree shrew to park its rear just so while it eats, takes up the feces and extracts nitrogen from it. In fact, these pitcher plants may derive up to 100 percent of their nitrogen from the tree shrew poop.

Researchers think that this friendly relationship must have been in the making for a very long time. The pitcher plant opening is perfectly shaped and oriented so that the nectar collects just at the lip and the shrew must orient while eating so that the funnel-like pitcher collects any poop that emerges. The plant also has developed sturdier and thicker structures that can support the weight of a dining/excreting tree shrew, which isn’t much at less than half a pound, but quite a bit for a plant to support.

As odd as this adaptation may seem, it’s not unique. Ground-dwelling pitcher plants have formed similar mutually beneficial relationships with insect larvae that help themselves to some of the insect pickings that fall in. These larvae excrete any leftovers, and the plant harvests nutrients from these excretions. Interestingly, the tree shrew itself dines on insects, so the pitcher plant is still indirectly deriving its nitrogen from insects even when it uses tree shrew poop. It’s just getting it from the tail end of a rodent intermediary instead.

Sexual selection: Do females follow fads?

Is this male attired in the fashionable look of the season? Based on the reaction of the female in the background, perhaps not. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Timeline, 2008: Sexual selection is a mechanism of evolution that sometimes butts heads with natural selection. Under the tenets of natural selection, nature chooses based on characteristics that confer a competitive edge in a given environment. Under this construct, environment is “the decider.” But in sexual selection, either competition between the same sex or a choice made by the opposite sex determines the traits that persist. Sometimes, such traits aren’t so useful when it comes to the everyday ho-hum activities like foraging for food or avoiding predators, but they can be quite successful at catching the eye of an interested female.

Those female opinions have long been considered unchanging. In the widowbird, for example, having long, flowing black tailfeathers is a great way to attract the lady widow birds. But perhaps they don’t call them widowbirds for nothing: if those male tailfeathers get too long, the bird can’t escape easily from predators and ends up a meal instead of a mate. In these cases, natural selection pushes the tailfeather trait in one direction—shorter—while sexual selection urges it the other way—longer. The upshot is a middling area for tailfeathers length.

This kind of intersexual selection occurs throughout the animal kingdom. Probably the most well-recognized pair that engages in it is the peacock and peahen. Everyone has seen the multicolored baggage any peacock worth his plumage drags around behind him. A peacock will fan out those feathers in an impressive demonstration, strutting back and forth and waving its tail in the wind, showing off for all he’s worth. It’s a successful tactic as long as nothing is around that wants to eat him.

Frogs hoping for a mate find themselves elbow deep in the “paradox of the lek.” The lek is the breeding roundup for frogs, where they all assemble in a sort of amphibian prom. For the males, it’s a tough call, literally. They must call loudly enough to show the females how beautifully androgenized they are—androgens determine the power of their larynx—while at the same time not standing out enough to attract one of the many predators inevitably drawn to a gathering of hundreds of croaking frogs. Trapped in this paradox, the frog does his best, but natural selection and sexual selection again end up stabilizing the trait within expected grooves.

This status quo has become the expectation for many biologists who study sexual selection: natural selection may alter its choices with a shifting environment, but what’s hot to the females stays hot, environmental changes notwithstanding. But the biologists had never taken a close look at the lark bunting.

A male lark bunting has a few traits that may attract females: when it shakes off its drab winter plumage and takes on the glossy black of mating season, the male bird also sports white patches on its wings that flash through the sky and sings a song intended to draw in the ladies. But the ladies appear to be slaves to fashion, not consistently choosing large patches over small, or large bodies over lighter ones. Instead, female lark buntings change their choices with the seasons, selecting a large male one year, a dark-colored male with little in the way of patches the next, and a small-bodied male the next. Lark buntings select a new mate each year, and the choice appears to be linked to how well the male will aid in parenting duties, which both parents share. It may be that a big body is useful in a year of many predators, but a small body might work out better when food supplies are low.

The researchers who uncovered this secret of lark bunting female fickleness watched the birds for five years and based their findings on statistical correlations only. For this reason, they don’t know exactly what drives the females’ annually varying choices, but they speculate that environmental factors play a role. Thus, sexual selection steps away from the realm of the static and becomes more like—possibly almost indistinguishable from—natural selection.

The narwhal: a serious case of nerves

"Narwhal or unicorn"

Timeline, 2006: The narwhal has a history as striking as the animal itself. Vikings kept the narwhal a secret for centuries even as they peddled its “horn” as that of a unicorn. Narwhal tusks were so prized that monarchs paid the equivalent of the cost of a castle just to have one. They were thought to have magic powers, render poison ineffective, cure all manner of diseases, and foil assassins.

A tooth and nothing but a tooth

As it turns out, the horn is really just a tooth, an extremely long, odd, tooth. The narwhal tusk, which usually grows only on males from their left upper jaw, can reach lengths of six feet or more. Sometimes, males will grow two tusks, one on each side. The tooth turns like a corkscrew as it grows, stick straight, from the narwhal’s head. They are such an odd sight that scientists have been trying to figure out for centuries exactly what that tusk might be doing there.

Some have posited that the narwhal uses the tusks in epic battles with other male narwhals. Others have fancifully suggested that the animal might use the long tooth to break through the ice, ram the sides of ships (nevermind the disconnect between when the tusk arose and when ships entered the scene), or to skewer prey—although no one seems to have addressed how the narwhal would then get the prey to its mouth.

Gentle tusk rubbing

The facts are that the narwhal rarely, if ever, appears to duel with other narwhals. Its primary use of the tusk appears to be for tusking other males, in which the animals gently rub tusks with one another. They also may be used in mating or other activities, although that has not yet been demonstrated. But what has been discovered is that the narwhal ought to be suffering from a severe case of permanent toothache.

Arctic cold strikes a narwhal nerve

Anyone who has ever had exposed nerves around their teeth knows that when cold hits those nerves, the pain usually sends us running for the dentist. Now imagine that your tooth is six feet long, has millions of completely exposed nerve endings, and is constantly plunged in the icy waters of the Arctic. You’ve just imagined being a narwhal.

Dentist on ice

A clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine who thinks of nothing but teeth made this discovery about the narwhal. The instructor, Martin Nweeia, can wax rhapsodic about teeth and how central they are to our health and the stories they can tell even about how we lived and died. He has carried his tooth obsession beyond his own species, however; his passion led him to spend days on Arctic ice floes, watching for the elusive narwhal, or at least one of the tusks, to emerge from the deadly cold water. He also befriended the local Inuit, who rely on the narwhal as a source of food and fuel oil.

His fascination and rapport with the Inuit people ended with his viewing several specimens of narwhal tusks. What he and his colleagues discovered astonished them. The tusks appeared to consist of open tubules that led straight to what appear to be millions of exposed nerve endings. In humans, nerve tubules are never open in healthy teeth. But in the narwhal tusk, which is an incredible example of sexual dimorphism and the only spiral tooth known in nature today, these open tubules were the norm.

Sensory tooth

The researchers speculated that the animals may use this enormous number of naked nerves as a finely sensitive sensory organ. In addition, it is possible that the teeth transmit voltage through a process called the piezo effect, in which crystals generate voltage when a mechanical force rattles them. In the case of the narwhal, who swim quickly through the water, water pressure might provide the force. Because narwhals are among the most vocal of whales, the tusks could also be sound sensors.

Why would dentists be so interested in the tusks of a whale? Examinations of the narwhal tusks have revealed that they are incredibly flexible, unlike our teeth, which are strong but also rigid and comparatively brittle. It is possible that understanding the narwhal tusk might have clinical applications for developing flexible dental materials for restoring pearly whites in people.

No legal limit for bats?

  • A bat in the hand

    Timeline, 2010: People with a blood alcohol level of 0.3 percent are undeniably kneewalking, dangerously drunk. In fact, in all 50 states in the US, the cutoff for official intoxication while driving is 0.08, almost a quarter of that amount. But what has people staggering and driving deadly appears to have no effect whatsoever on some bat species.

Why, you may be wondering, would anyone ask this question about bats in the first place? Bats are not notorious alcoholics. But the bat species that dine on fruit or nectar frequently encounter food of the fermented sort, meaning that with every meal, they may also imbibe a martini or two worth of ethanol.

Batty sobriety testing

Recognizing this exposure, researchers hypothesized that the bats would suffer impairments similar to those that humans experience when they overindulge. To test this, they selected 106 bats representing six bat species in northern Belize. Some of the bats got a simple sugar-water treat, but the other bats drank up enough ethanol to produce a blood alcohol level of more than 0.3 percent. Then, the bats got the batty version of a field sobriety test.

Bats navigate by echolocation, bouncing sound waves off of nearby objects to identify their location. To determine if the alcohol affected the bats’ navigation skills and jammed the sonar, the researchers festooned a ceiling with dangling plastic chains. The test was to see if the animals could maneuver around the chains while under the influence of a great deal of alcohol. To their surprise, the scientists found that the drunk bats did just as well as the sober ones.

Some bats hold their drink better than others

Interestingly, the bats did show a human-like variation in their alcohol tolerance, with some bats showing higher levels of intoxication than others. But one question that arises from these results is, Why would bats have such an enormous alcohol tolerance?

As it turns out, not all of them do. These New World bats could, it seems, drink their Old World cousins under the table. Previous research with Old World bats from Egypt found that those animals weren’t so great at holding their drink. Thus, it seems that different bat species have different capacities for handling—and functioning under the influence of—alcohol.

One potential explanation the investigators offer for this difference is the availability of the food itself. In some areas, fruit is widely available at all times, meaning that the bats that live there are continually exposed to ethanol in their diet. Since they can’t exactly stop eating, there may have been some selection for those bats who could get drunk but still manage to fly their way home or to more food. In other bat-inhabited areas, however, the food sources vary, and these animals may not experience a daily exposure to intoxication-inducing foods.

Alcohol driving speciation?

This study may be one of the first to identify a potential role for alcohol in the speciation of a taxon. Bats as a group underwent a broad adaptive radiation, meaning that there was a burst of speciation as different bat species evolved in different niches. Factors driving this burst are thought to have included different types of fruit; for example, tough fruits require different bat dentition features compared to soft fruits. Now, it seems that alcohol availability may also have played a role in geographical variation of alcohol tolerance in bats. Bats with greater tolerance would have been able to exploit a readily available supply of alcohol-laden foods.

What’s next in drunk-animal research? The investigators who made this unexpected bat discovery have a new animal target—flying foxes, which aren’t really foxes at all but yet another species of bat that lives in West Africa. We’ll have to wait and see how these Old World bats compare to the New World varieties when it comes to holding their liquor.

Fish can count, too

One, two, three...

Timeline, 2008: We tend to think of a few things we do as being uniquely human. And then we keep finding other organisms that can do them, too. Walking on two legs? Meet the orangutan, walking upright in the trees. Tool use? Crows can make a hook to fish meat out of a tube. The ability to talk? Seems that Neanderthals might have had that, also. OK, well what about counting, having number sense? Baby chickens share this trait with us. To the growing list of other animals that do as well—which includes dolphins, rats, and some monkeys—you can now add the mosquitofish.

Mosquitofish vs Munduruku

Yes, apparently fish can also count, in some cases as well as infants ages 6 to 12 months. In fact, when compared to some natives of the Amazon, the Munduruku, which have limited number language, the fish may even be comparable. The Munduruku people see no value in having a construct for counting beyond five. The mosquitofish, on the other hand, can count about that high and estimate with even higher numbers.

Number sense: It’s not just for people any more

Number sense can be broken down into three paths of perception. We can visually estimate what we see, as people do when they report crowd counts for huge parades or demonstrations. We can also visually count individual units, as we might do just looking at the fingers on one hand. And humans also have the ability to verbally count, theoretically to infinity given sufficient time. While mosquitofish obviously do not count out loud, they do appear to have visual estimation and counting abilities.

Neither is sexual harassment

Their estimation abilities first emerged as a result of sexual harassment. Researchers studying the guppy-like fish noticed that when a male harassed a female, the female fish would take refuge with a group of fish nearby. If there was a choice of groups, or shoals, of different sizes, she would choose the larger of the two. Of course, her ability to tell “larger” might have had nothing to do with actual numbers but instead with the area that the fish occupied. To assess this possibility, researchers performed a number of complex experiments. Their results showed that the females were not relying in occupied area to figure out which group had more fish. They really were using visual number estimation to decide.

In fact, they seem to use ratios in their determinations, but the ratios need to meet a threshold of difference for the estimations to work. For example, a mosquitofish seems able to distinguish a group of 16 fish as being larger than a group of 8 fish, a ratio of 2:1. But the fish cannot tell a group of 12 from a group of 8, proving unable to distinguish a 3:2 ratio.

Estimating, counting: These fish are brilliant

With lesser numbers, up to about four, however, the fish discard visual estimation and rely instead on actual visual counting. In what really was a clever set of experiments, the research team let an individual female fish spend an hour exploring two areas of an aquarium. In one area, she could see a group of four fish but could only see each fish one at a time. In the other area was a group of three fish, again only visible to the female one at a time. After letting her explore, the researchers then determined where the female spent more time. The fish spent about twice as long swimming close to the larger group. In other words, the fish seems to have counted the number of individuals in each group and based on their counting, figured out which area of the aquarium had the larger group.

Pretend you’re a fish

To get in tune with how meaningful this ability is, visualize the experiment yourself as a human (you’re human, right?). Stand in front of two open doorways. In one doorway, four people appear, one at a time. In the other doorway, three people appear, one at a time. You can count them, distinguishing each different individual, and can tell which doorway leads to the larger group of people. That’s how smart the mosquitofish is.

Has the ivory-billed woodpecker left the building?

Watercolor painting of ivory-billed woodpeckers from Audubon's Birds of America, 1826.

Imagine waking up one morning to real film footage of a duckbill dinosaur wandering around the Great Plains. Your reaction might be similar to that of birders around the world when Science magazine reported in 2005 that the ivory-billed woodpecker, thought for 60 years to have been extinct in the United States, still existed.

A forest bird of legend

The woodpecker entered birder and ecologist lore when its numbers declined in the early part of the 20th century. Its habitat was bottomland forest in the southeastern United States and Cuba, and its niche included drilling into mature trees. When people came along, logging away the woodpeckers’ homes, the bird appeared to vanish. By the 1920s, we thought it had disappeared forever, although in 1943, there was a single confirmed sighting of a lone female, flying over the stumps of an old-growth forest. She became a central figure in a PhD thesis in 1944. Then for 60 years, silence.

False calls

Well, not complete silence. There were many reports of sightings, but most were traced to another woodpecker species, the pileated woodpecker. The ivory-billed woodpecker differs distinctly from its pileated cousin in beak color, in having white patches on its back when perched, and in its size and the solid-black crest of the female. It has a three-foot wing span, which is huge for a woodpecker, and can grow as large as 20 inches long. It is a big, beautiful, and surprising bird, with a bright red crest on the males that must be startling to see among the cypress of a bottomland forest.

A mesmerizing obsession

Birders, possibly the most obsessive of any taxon fan club, had long wandered into the swampy bottomlands of Arkansas and Louisiana, trying to find ivory-billed woodpeckers. There was a confirmed sighting in Cuba in the ‘80s, and over the decades, people have claimed sightings or reported having heard the ivory-billed’s call. Professionals and amateurs alike have waded among snakes and fought off bugs, playing tapes of the call and listening for a response. At one point, searchers found a nest that had an ivory-billed look to it and trained a remote-sensing camera on it, but saw nothing.

And then in 1999, a kayaker thought that he had seen a pair of the birds. His report received serious attention from the government, local papers, and academic groups interested in the woodpecker both for its inherent beauty and for its status as a symbol of the price of our destructive tendencies. Soon, the old forests of the southeast were crawling with ornithologists, all hoping to catch a glimpse, take a picture, and emerge with definitive proof that a bird long thought to be extinct had survived.

The beat of the forest, revived?

Some people heard the drumming sounds the woodpecker is known to make. A handful of people who really knew their woodpeckers reported sightings. But it was a four-second video of the shy, reclusive bird that clinched it. The video is short and blurry, taken from a kayak in late April of 2004 on a camcorder. But even its poor quality couldn’t hide the distinctive markings and features of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

The confirmation set the world of ornithology astir, but it also reverberates among ecologists and environmentalists. The fact that at least one male ivory-billed woodpecker exists indicates that at least one breeding pair must have survived into the 1990s because the birds live 15 to 20 years at most. And it also might have meant a second chance for us and the woodpecker. Unfortunately, according to a recent report from Cornell researchers who have spent five years looking for more signs of the bird, “it’s unlikely that there are recoverable populations” of the bird where they’ve been searching.

Sad update: Baby red panda has died

This update on the baby red panda from a news release via the National Zoo:

An animal keeper at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo discovered a recently born red panda cub lifeless yesterday during evening animal rounds. The 21-day-old cub was immediately transported to the veterinary hospital where a veterinary team confirmed his death. Born June 16, this male was the first cub for parents Shama and Tate and the first cub born at the Zoo in 15 years.

Zoo keepers had closely observed the cub since his birth. First-time mother Shama had moved the cub around the outdoor exhibit instead of keeping the cub in a nest box, as would be expected. As a result of Shama’s behavior, the exhibit was roped off to the public in order to provide her with peace and quiet. Animal care staff weighed the cub regularly, observed and reviewed the behavior of the cub and parents at least twice daily and volunteers monitored the behavior in-person and via camera several hours each day.

Due to the recent extreme heat, keepers were extra vigilant maintaining the animals’ cooling centers (chilled spaces within the exhibit). Nonetheless, there is a 50 percent mortality rate for red panda cubs born in captivity. Pathologists performed the necropsy last evening but the definite cause of death was not evident. Additional testing, including histopathology, is underway and should provide additional information.

The National Zoo has been breeding red pandas successfully for 48 years. Since 1962, 184 cubs have been born at both the Zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., with a mortality rate of about 40 percent, below the national average. Currently there is one cub at the Front Royal facility.

“This is an enigmatic and important species,” said Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoological Park. “We’re deeply disappointed to lose this cub but there are inherent risks in the conservation of rare species. Our cumulative breeding and research success has positioned the Smithsonian’s National Zoo as one of the leaders in the field of red panda conservation. We’ll stay the course until this animal is no longer listed as vulnerable.”

Red pandas breed once a year and animal care staff anticipate that they will breed again next year.

Awww. Baby red panda

It was love at first sight for Shama and Tate, the red pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, and now, nearly 1½ years after they were introduced, the pair has a cub as evidence of their strong bond. On Wednesday, June 16, Shama gave birth to a single cub—the first for both of the Zoo’s red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) and the first red panda cub born at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in 15 years.

Red pandas have a baby. It’s very cute.

The National Zoo is celebrating its first birth of a red panda in 15 years. The history of the red panda–at least, of its classification–is complicated. More on that in a mo. What’s significant here is its current situation. Thanks to habitat loss, the species has declined in the wild to fewer than 2500 individuals, and it is endangered. So a birth–especially between an apparently happy couple with a strong mutual attraction–is a success for the zoo and for red panda conservation, too.

The proud mother was born at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., and more than 100 surviving cubs have been born at both this research facility and the Washington, D.C., campuses since 1962.

Panda or raccoon?

Taxonomists–the folks who classify organisms by relatedness–have had a conundrum on their hands with the red panda. You’d think that the name says it all: it’s a panda, right?

Well, no. Nothing’s ever that easy in taxonomy. For some time, arguments that it was a relative of the raccoon held weight. But the animal has some strong panda-like traits, including an affinity for bamboo and similar habitats to the giant panda. But they differ in their far more diverse diet and greater habitat distribution.

The panda’s thumb

The giant panda has a faux thumb that’s really just a bone extension of the wrist bones. It’s not an opposable thumb like the one primates have, but the giant panda uses it in a thumb-like way. The red panda happens to share this odd trait. They also share many similarities in their DNA, which ended in the red panda briefly joining the bear family.

So, is it a panda or a raccoon?

The species also has some commonalities with the raccoon, including the ringed tail and more diverse diet compared to the giant panda, one that includes a taste for bird eggs. For these reasons, it also has been classified into the raccoon family. So, which family is it?

It’s neither. While the red panda has now been classified as a distant relative of the giant panda–the bamboo! the “thumb”!–it falls into its very own family, the Ailuridae, of which the red panda, or Ailurus fulgens, is the sole member. Unlike bears, this species arose in Asia and never made the trek to the “new world.”

Interesting note, the snow leopard–another severely endangered species–is their sole wild predator.

Wordless Wednesday: Dolphin diplomacy

(almost wordless…)

Move over, cockroaches. Dolphins have the communication game down to diplomacy:

(Credit: iStockphoto/Stephan Zabel)

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