Friday, January 25, 2013

Friday Roundup: New Neon Lizards and Why Chernobyl Benefited Russian Wildlife

Echidnas are unusual mammals. For one, they lay eggs. Scientists recently found out something else: apparently this species may not have gone extinct in Australia during the last ice age.

Wildlife photographer distracts hungry Polar Bears, takes self-portaits with said Polar Bear.

Now this would be an expensive roll of sushi (make sure to read the updates).

The State of Florida recently initiated an unconventional plan to control invasive Burmese Pythons-they're letting the general public go after them. Here are two humorous perspectives on this questionable effort, from Fred Grimm and Dave Barry.

A summary of the conservation issues surrounding giant catfish in Laos.

Biologists discover a new species of lizard in Vietnam, and it's neon blue.

Why a radio-active disaster may be a boon for wildlife.

In two paragraphs, a Cairo resident concisely discusses why there is no good reason that there is still a rattlesnake roundup in Georgia.

As I wrote this fall about Bison, large wild animals aren't large tame animals. Don't get too close.

Are we overlooking or ignoring social behavior in rattlesnakes?

An excellent summary of the biology of snakes in the Galapagos Islands.

Another reminder that yes, we do have wild jaguars in the United States. How do we protect them?

HARTMANN, T., GEISSLER, P., POYARKOV, N., IHLOW, F., GALOYAN, E., RÖDDER, D., & BÖHME, W. (2013). A new species of the genus Calotes Cuvier, 1817 (Squamata: Agamidae) from southern Vietnam Zootaxa, 3599 (3) DOI: 10.11646/zootaxa.3599.3.3

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

An 8.5 foot Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake From Mississippi...Or Is it Colyell, Louisiana?

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"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." -Michael Corleone

Sometimes I daydream that the myth of the giant dead rattlesnake has finally been put to rest. I imagine that inboxes will no longer be invaded by dead rattlesnakes with lengths and weights exaggerated to scare the bejesus out of people. But then I check my e-mail.

The latest picture to be doing the rounds was brought to my attention by a comment left by by Amy R on this blog. She notes that the snake on the right was allegedly killed in Mississippi. Then, Pat B. sent me an e-mail and told me the story takes place outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Both said they heard the snake was eight and a half feet (2.6 meters) long (Amy R. also noted the snake allegedly had 21 rattles).

Where do we start? I'll start by saying that those lengths are bogus and the locations are...unlikely.

The snake in the picture is an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus. This is apparent because of the black and gold diamond-patterning and, of course, the rattle. This species does not reach eight and a half feet long. That would be the world's largest rattlesnake ever known to science. I don't believe this is the world's largest rattlesnake ever known because it is clearly an animal that is approximately half that size and thrust toward the camera on a long piece of wood. It's a rattlesnake camera trick I explain several times here.

The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake was once found in eastern Louisiana but is now nearly gone (if not completely). Information available online suggests the species hasn't been found in the state since 1995 but I believe these websites haven't been updated recently because I think one was found a couple years ago. In any case, Baton Rouge is nearly outside even the historic range of the Eastern Diamondback (range map). So, it is very difficult to believe the picture was recently taken in this state. I've noticed that a number of people that reach this blog are Googling "Coyell, Louisiana Rattlesnake" do they actually mean Colyell? Perhaps that is another potential location for this animal.

In Mississippi, the story isn't much better. Eastern Diamondbacks once ranged throughout the southeastern and central portion of the state (range map again). But they are increasingly rare in that area.

The caption for the Facebook photo that has been shared over 5,000 times (visible through Amy R.'s comment) states the snake was killed in "Green County". There is no Green County in either Louisiana or Mississippi. Is it possible that the snake was killed in Greene County? Greene County, Mississippi could possibly contain Eastern Diamondbacks but, as I mention above, they are rare there. Greene County, Alabama is outside the range of the Eastern Diamondback. Update 1/16/13 0851, Melissa M. writes to me and notes she heard the snake was from "Green County, Georgia" Well, there is no Green County in Georgia. Greene County, on the other hand, is well outside the range of the Eastern Diamondback. Update 2/3/13, Cowper C. says the location associated with this snake is now Pangburn, Arkansas. We immediately know this is false because although Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Crotalus atrox, can be found in Arkansas, Eastern Diamondbacks do not occur there, and that is an Eastern in the picture. Cowper also notes that Spanish moss, evident in the back of the picture, is unlikely to be found in Arkansas. Update 2/4/13, Thanks to KARK for trying to set the record straight.

Conclusion: The length of this snake is definitely made-up and multiple (and improbable) locations point to a hoax.

Update 3/6/13, so many additional stories and locations about this snake have popped up that I stopped bothering to update the post, but recently many have claimed the snake was from Texas. In any case, it looks like the real story has finally surfaced: the snake is from Levy County, Florida and is claimed as 6'9" and 15 lbs. A rattlesnake that big would be very large but Eastern Diamondbacks can reach that length. However, it doesn't look that long in the picture.

Update 5/2/13: OK-one more update, the picture is circulating with this story a lot, so I'm obliged to note that it's not true either: Pat Long and his son in a blind to hunt hogs near Midway when this guy poked his head in! Pat's son shot the snake... it's 9'6" long... with 22 rattles, the head more than five inches wide, the fangs 2.5" long. Anybody going for a walk in the woods this weekend? Share with your friends and see who has good snake stories!

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Animals That Went Extinct in 2012

Not a cheery subject to ponder as we begin 2013 but perhaps it will inspire us to do what we can to ensure next year's list is shorter. If our way of life is incompatible with the persistence of wild animal species, we should reevaluate our way of life...not only for the benefit of wildlife but for our own well-being.

This is not a complete list, I'm sure. I was surprised that there doesn't seem to be a definitive list of species that went extinct by year (Wikipedia's is incomplete). I have included here some extirpations (i.e., local extinctions), if they occurred at a relatively large scale (such as a state or country) and extinctions of subspecies. Please let me know what I have overlooked.

The Copper Striped Blue-tailed Skink, Emoia impar, was once found throughout Hawaii. It is now officially extirpated from this island chain. The species can still be found on some other Pacific islands. But, it is no longer a component of Hawaii. Read the article describing the process behind the official decision here. Cause of extinction: murky, but could involve exotic and invasive species.

The Pinta Island Tortoise, Chelonoidis nigra abingdoniiwas a subspecies of Galapagos Tortoises, native to one island (you can probably guess which one). The subspecies was relatively famous because for about the last forty years it has been represented by a single male (Lonesome George). But, George died in June. Interestingly, after George's death, researchers (including my former MS advisor) reported that they found some Pinta Island Tortoise genes in tortoises on Isabela Island. It's possible that sailors a century (or more) ago moved some tortoises around. No purebred Pinta Island animals were found in the study but follow-up missions are planned. Cause of extinction: overhunting.

The Japanese River Otter, Lutra lutra whiteleyi, (a 
subspecies of the Eurasian Otter) was officially designated as extinct in 2012; it has not been spotted in the wild for thirty years. John Platt provides an excellent summary and also notes that another Japanese subspecies, the Least Horseshoe Bat, Rhinolophus pumilus miyakonis, was also officially designated as extinct in Japan this year. John Platt continues, "The Japanese subspecies of the Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus japonicus) was declared extinct on the island of Kyushu, where it has not been seen since 1957 (it persists elsewhere in Japan). One bird species, one insect species, one shellfish species and two plant species were also listed as extinct. The names of those additional groups were not immediately available." Cause of extinction (otter): overhunting for fur and destruction of habitats.

The Siamese Crocodile, Crocodylus siamensis, is now considered extinct in Vietnam. John Platt again reports on the sad story and notes that there are probably 100 animals left in the wild (the majority are in Cambodia) and many more in captivity (where they are raised for the skin/leather trade). Cause of extinction: likely a combination of habitat loss and overhunting.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, is likely extinct. Although there was much excitement a few years ago after some reported sightings of the animal, the lack of repeat observations and additional analyses now suggest this giant bird is gone forever.

What did I miss and what are your predictions for 2013?

Update at 11:24 AM 1/2/12: John Platt (@johnrplatt) responds via Twitter that, "It's tough to say what went extinct in any given year. The death of the last of a species is rarely witnessed." This made me realize that I should clarify that this post is about animals that people decided were extinct in 2012, even if the last of the species may have disappeared years ago.

Relevant Scientific Articles:

Fisher, R., & Ineich, I. (2012). Cryptic extinction of a common Pacific lizard Emoia impar (Squamata, Scincidae) from the Hawaiian Islands Oryx, 46 (02), 187-195 DOI: 10.1017/S0030605310001778

Edwards, D., Benavides, E., Garrick, R., Gibbs, J., Russello, M., Dion, K., Hyseni, C., Flanagan, J., Tapia, W., & Caccone, A. (2013). The genetic legacy of Lonesome George survives: Giant tortoises with Pinta Island ancestry identified in Galápagos Biological Conservation, 157, 225-228 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2012.10.014

Gotelli NJ, Chao A, Colwell RK, Hwang WH, & Graves GR (2012). Specimen-based modeling, stopping rules, and the extinction of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Conservation biology : the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology, 26 (1), 47-56 PMID: 21797923

Solow A, Smith W, Burgman M, Rout T, Wintle B, & Roberts D (2012). Uncertain sightings and the extinction of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Conservation biology : the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology, 26 (1), 180-4 PMID: 21967229