Native to Africa and Asia, pangolins feed on ants and termites by digging up their colonies. It's a painful business without protection so the pangolin's body has built-in defenses against biting, swarming ants (shown in the video).
Pangolins are protected against ants but they're at the mercy of humans. Their meat is a delicacy in China and Vietnam and their scales are used in Asian medicine. They're hunted illegally until extirpated, even in parts of Africa. As a species they're in severe decline.
Five years ago a wildlife camera at Griffith Park, Los Angeles photographed an unexpected animal -- a mountain lion! Also called a puma or cougar, the big male cat had crossed two 10-lane freeways to make his home in the park that houses the HOLLYWOOD sign.
P-22 is very shy of humans and stays away from busy areas yet he's garnered a fan club anyway. His presence has taught Angelenos about the dangers wildlife face and prompted his fans to help him.
Because of the freeways P-22 is stuck inside 8 squares miles instead of the 200 square miles that mountain lions prefer, so his supporters are raising $50 million to build the largest ever wildlife bridge. When it's completed P-22 will be able to roam and find a mate.
It's an ambitious project inspired by a mountain lion.
Nowadays I don't have to go far to see white-tailed deer in southwestern Pennsylvania. The deer population in Schenley Park has grown by leaps and bounds since I first noticed them a decade ago.
When I don't see the animals, I see their evidence. In July, they eat so much jewelweed that it looks like the trail edges were weed-whacked.
In winter they eat shrubs like this arborvitae on Schenley Golf Course until there's no green near the ground.
And they eat small trees. More than a year ago they ate the leader shoot of this hackberry seedling. The next year two branches sprouted to compensate and the deer ate those. And on and on and on. The tree grows old but never tall.
These signs of deer damage indicate their over-population in Schenley Park but the scariest sign is the growing number of deer crossing the road.
Last week I saw an 8-point buck ambling across Greenfield Road while pedestrians stopped and stared. He was majestic and he was lucky. No cars were coming.
Last June a deer leapt over a guard rail in Indiana County and landed on the hood of Marcy Cunkelman's car. She couldn't see it coming and she couldn't see to drive after it crumpled the hood. The deer didn't survive the accident but Marcy and her family were fortunate. They were fine and the airbags didn't deploy.
That happened in June when deer are less distracted than they are in autumn. This month there's a much higher chance of hitting a deer because they're on the move and they aren't paying attention. It's mating season.
Pennsylvania is the #3 state for vehicle-deer insurance claims. According to State Farm's annual report, there were more than 142,000 vehicle-deer collisions in Pennsylvania from June 2016 to June 2017. On an annual basis we have a 1 in 63 chance of a hitting a deer but during mating season that likelihood more than doubles ... to maybe 1 in 30. Yikes!
So stay alert! Watch out for deer, especially at dusk. Click here for State Farm's tips on what to do. ... And good luck.
Here's a surprising thing: The ancestors of whales were land-based walking animals that fell in love with water. In the ensuing 50 million years successive species spent more and more time at sea, eventually lost their legs, and now resemble fish. (No, they aren't fish. They just resemble them.)
How did they change from land to sea? To solve the mystery, paleontologists closely examined the fossil record looking for the one trait that only whales have: the unique bony structure of the whale's inner ear. A fossil found in 1981 provided the missing link.
Shown below are two of the whale's ancestral relatives. Not direct ancestors, the diagram shows where those two fit on the family tree. Whales are labelled #1. Animal #2 looks like a dog. #3 looks like a whale.
The change from species to species was incredibly slow.
If we could go back in time 50 million years to the Early Eocene we'd meet Pakicetus inachus (#2), below. First discovered in Pakistan in 1981, he looks like a long-headed dog but he has the whale's special inner ear. Scientists hypothesize that he lived on land but spent time up to his eyes in water hiding from predators.
Fast forward 10 million years to the Late Eocene to see Dorudon atrax (#3), an ancestral whale that spent his entire life in water. His body was fish-shaped, his tail had flukes, and since he never walked his hind legs were small, almost an afterthought.
From "the fish walked" to the walker that became fish-like, whales turn our misconceptions about evolution on their head. Evolution doesn't "make progress" from simple water-based organisms to us land-based humans at the pinnacle of development. It's just any change over time.
Last week coyotes made a splash in my Pittsburgh neighborhood when one appeared in early October. Frank Gottlieb mentioned his sighting on Nextdoor, Luanne Lavelle photographed one behind her house (above) and Crystal Barry zoomed in on this one at the edge of the road (below). It may be the same animal moving around.
Have coyotes suddenly arrived in the city? Are they something we should worry about? No and no. Here's their fascinating story.
Eastern coyotes (Canis latrans) look like gray to reddish-brown husky dogs though they are smaller, have a different head shape, and never curl up their tails. About a third larger than western coyotes, the eastern species weighs 35 to 55 pounds from the smallest female to the largest male.
The eastern coyotes' appearance, size, and presence in Pennsylvania are all human-induced traits caused by our actions toward wild canines and the landscape.
Humans eradicated wolves, mountain lions and deer from Pennsylvania by the late 1800's. Coyotes don't do well where wolves are in charge but during the low ebb of both populations coyotes and wolves hybridized in Ontario resulting in a larger animal with a wider range of prey.
Meanwhile Pennsylvania reintroduced deer whose population soared by the 1930s, expanding to suburbs and cities 60 years later. Wolves and mountain lions did not come back to Pennsylvania but eastern coyotes moved into the deer-eating niche. Coyotes came to Pennsylvania in the 1930s and covered the state by the 1990s.
When did coyotes enter Pittsburgh city limits? I heard of one in 2003; probably not the first.
Why do we see coyotes in October? Fall is the time of year when coyote families disperse. The young, full size at 9 months old, move away and hunt alone in fall and winter then pair up at two years old to raise a family. Smart coyotes hide from humans but some young ones haven't learned that lesson yet.
Are coyotes dangerous? Not to us humans but myths abound, apparently borrowed from our myths about wolves. No, coyotes won't eat your kids. No, coyotes won't lure your big dog away to eat him. (Coyotes play with big dogs (video). Their DNA is 10% domestic dog.) No, coyotes will not stay away from your neighborhood if you remove the one you've seen. (New coyotes will arrive to take its place.)
However, coyotes will take a small pet if it looks easy to do. If you're really worried about coyotes, here's how to discourage them from visiting your yard:
Don't leave any food outdoors. Enclose your garbage. Don't leave pet food out. Don't feed any wildlife. If you attract mice or rats (bird seed), rodents will attract coyotes.
Watch your small dog when you let it out in the backyard. Keep your cat indoors.
If you see a coyote, shout and wave your arms. Shoo it away. Don't try to befriend a coyote. Keep them wild.
Coyotes are smart and our pressure against them makes them smarter. Appreciate them from afar.
As cold weather approaches squirrels in the genus Sciurus -- the tree squirrels -- are scurrying to store food for the winter. Here are two Sciurus you'll see in Pittsburgh.
The eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is fond of nuts, especially those in bird feeders. In autumn he turns from brown to gray so he'll continue to blend in with the landscape. He also comes in black.
The fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) is larger than the gray squirrel. Though his scientific name means "black" he sports a foxy colored coat all year long, especially on his belly.
Barely larger than chipmunks, the red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are busy too. Cute but not true Sciurus, they're Tamiasciurus.
NOT found in Pittsburgh I had to include this fancy squirrel, a Sciurus with big ear tufts that lives in the mountains of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Sciurus aberti, Abert's squirrel.
(photo credits: eastern gray squirrel in gray by Marcy Cunkelman, eastern gray squirrel in black by Kate St. John, red squirrel by Chuck Tague, Abert's squirrel by Tom Benson, Creative Commons license on Flickr)
At this time of year an eerie sound echoes through the north woods of Pennsylvania, the mating song of the elk.
In September and October Pennsylvania's elk herd (Cervus canadensis) has an annual period of sexual activity called the rut. The bulls gather harems, pursue the females, spar with other males, and "sing" a bugling love song.
Based on the size and posture of a bugling elk you'd think his voice is low -- but not at all. The bugle call is bell-like and echoing even when the animal is close by. His song carries far in the woods and fields.
Listen and watch the video below to hear the elks' eerie mating song.
For the past two mornings I've heard wild things screaming in my backyard at 5am. It's two hours before sunrise. What are those weird sounds?
Raccoons! And they're fighting!
I didn't go outdoors to record them but I found two videos that include the sounds -- above in Toronto, below on someone's roof.
Why are raccoons fighting in my backyard? I believe it's the watering hole effect. It's been very dry in Pittsburgh so my birdbath is one of the few sources of water. All the animals come for a drink before their bedtime and BAM!
A word to the wise: Don't go outdoors to visit the raccoons. They may have rabies.
(videos from YouTube; click on the YouTube logo on each one to see its original)