Tool-making cockatoo discovery

Goffin's cockatoos

From the University of Oxford in England:

Cockatoo ‘can make its own tools’

A cockatoo from a species not known to use tools in the wild has been observed spontaneously making and using tools for reaching food and other objects.

A Goffin’s cockatoo called ‘Figaro’, that has been reared in captivity and lives near Vienna, used his powerful beak to cut long splinters out of wooden beams in its aviary, or twigs out of a branch, to reach and rake in objects out of its reach. Researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Vienna filmed Figaro making and using these tools.

How the bird discovered how to make and use tools is unclear but shows how much we still don’t understand about the evolution of innovative behaviour and intelligence.

A report of the research is published this week in Current Biology and an accompanying video showing the behaviour is available here:

Dr Alice Auersperg of the University of Vienna, who led the study, said: ‘During our daily observation protocols, Figaro was playing with a small stone. At some point he inserted the pebble through the cage mesh, and it fell just outside his reach. After some unsuccessful attempts to reach it with his claw, he fetched a small stick and started fishing for his toy.

‘To investigate this further we later placed a nut where the pebble had been and started to film. To our astonishment he did not go on searching for a stick but started biting a large splinter out of the aviary beam. He cut it when it was just the appropriate size and shape to serve as a raking tool to obtain the nut.

‘It was already a surprise to see him use a tool, but we certainly did not expect him to make one by himself. From that time on, Figaro was successful on obtaining the nut every single time we placed it there, nearly each time making new tools. On one attempt he used an alternative solution, breaking a side arm off a branch and modifying the leftover piece to the appropriate size for raking.’

Professor Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University, an author of the study, said: ‘Figaro shows us that, even when they are not habitual tool-users, members of a species that are curious, good problem-solvers, and large-brained, can sculpt tools out of a shapeless source material to fulfil a novel need.

‘Even though Figaro is still alone in the species and among parrots in showing this capacity, his feat demonstrates that tool craftsmanship can emerge from intelligence not-specialized for tool use. Importantly, after making and using his first tool, Figaro seemed to know exactly what to do, and showed no hesitation in later trials.’

Professor Kacelnik previously led studies in the natural tool-using New Caledonian crows. One of them, named Betty, surprised scientists by fashioning hooks out of wire to retrieve food that was out of reach. These crows use and make tools in the wild, and live in groups that may support culture, but there was no precedent for Betty’s form of hook making. Her case is still considered as a striking example of individual creativity and innovation, and Figaro seems ready to join her.

Professor Kacelnik said: ‘We confess to be still struggling to identify the cognitive operations that make these deeds possible. Figaro, and his predecessor Betty, may help us unlock many unknowns in the evolution of intelligence.’

See also here.

New Zealand rare whale discovery

When two of the exceedingly rare spade-toothed whales washed up on a New Zealand shore, they were initially mistaken for the more common Gray's beaked whales (pictured here), photo: New Zealand Government

From the Daily Telegraph in Britain:

World’s rarest whale seen for first time

The world’s rarest whale has been seen for the first time after a mother and calf were washed up on a beach in New Zealand.

By Nick Collins, Science Correspondent

5:00PM GMT 05 Nov 2012

Spade-toothed beaked whales were first discovered in 1872 when bone fragments were found on a remote Pacific island, but until now the species has remained entirely hidden from human view.

In the 140 years since they were first discovered, the only sign that the creatures’ continued existence lay in two partial skulls found in New Zealand in the 1950s and Chile in 1986.

Now scientists have reported a complete description of the whales, which are thought to spend most of their lives in the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean, only rarely coming to the surface.

The mother and her male calf were stranded on Opape Beach at the northern tip of New Zealand in December 2010 but were initially thought to be of a much more common species known as Gray’s beaked whales.

It was only after routine DNA analysis that experts realised their true identity.

Dr Rochelle Constantine of the University of Auckland said: “This is the first time this species — a whale over five meters in length — has ever been seen as a complete specimen, and we were lucky enough to find two of them.

“Up until now, all we have known about the spade-toothed beaked whale was from three partial skulls collected from New Zealand and Chile over a 140-year period. It is remarkable that we know almost nothing about such a large mammal.”

Because the animals had never been seen very little is known about their behaviour, but writing in the Current Biology journal, the researchers suggested they were likely to be “exceptionally deep divers, foraging for squid and small fish and spending little time at the surface.”

Dr Constantine said it was unclear why the species has been so elusive, but added: “It may be that they are simply an offshore species that lives and dies in the deep ocean waters and only rarely wash ashore. New Zealand is surrounded by massive oceans. There is a lot of marine life that remains unknown to us.”

See also here. And here. And here.

Many great tits, pigeons migrating

This video from France says about itself:

A couple of Wood Pigeons made a nest in my flower box in Paris, trashing my geraniums. When I noticed the nest, I let them be. One egg was laid and then another. I named the parents Patience and Constant, because they were! They took turns sitting on the eggs 24/7 until the first egg hatched on Bastille Day 2008, exactly 18 days after it was laid. After several more days it was clear that the second egg had died. I named the surviving baby Hope.

After the hatching, Patience and Constant continued to sit on the nest, keeping the squab warm, and feeding it with pigeon “milk” which they manufactured from their own food. This pigeon baby food is regurgitated from the throat into the squabs beak.

At 12 days old, Hope was left alone for the first time and I found her at 4:00 am, drenched in a torrential downpour. I made a bed for her and brought her in for a few hours, putting her back in the nest before her parents returned! The next night it rained again and I put up an umbrella to keep her dry.

In the week that followed she began to stretch her wings, balance on the edge of the window box, and look outward to the world beyond. At 20 days old, Hope flew for the first time. She came back to rest in the nest in the flower box on three occasions. After that she stayed out with her flock. Today she is healthy, plump, beautiful, and free.

The Dutch ornithologists of SOVON report record numbers of woodpigeons migrating from Scandinavia through the eastern Netherlands to south-western Europe this year. In the month October alone, 2,7 million pigeons were counted, a record number.

SOVON also reports record numbers of great tits coming to the Netherlands from northern and eastern Europe this year. Nearly 80,000 this year. Bird migration researchers think these were probably mainly not from Scandinavia, but from Baltic countries. Probably, the birds migrate because of a lack this year of beech nuts and other food in eastern Europe.

November 2012. A new strain of avian pox is taking its toll on garden birds in Britain, according to new research. Scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), University of Oxford, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and RSPB report on the impact avian pox is having on great tit populations: here.

Effects of human disturbance on nest placement of the Woodpigeon in Morocco: here.

Save Swedish wolves, petition

This video from the USA is called PBS Nature 2007, In the Valley of the Wolves.


Save the Swedish wolves!

Why this is important

Against all scientific research reports on the topic, including the Swedish government’s own investigation earlier this year, the Swedish Minister of the Environment and Spatial Planning has proposed that the Swedish wolf population be reduced to 180 individuals, a decimation of the wolf population with about 40 per cent. A decimating license hunt might commence this winter.

Does behind the screens lobbying by the pro-wolf hunting Swedish royal family have anything to do with this?

In theory, Sweden is a constitutional monarchy, not an absolute monarchy like, eg, Bahrain. In theory, ministers and then MPs decide, not royals. However, is practice always the same as theory?

This decision is in violation with the government’s own agenda to improve the genetic status of the wolf population, as well as with the Habitat Directive’s rules on favourable conservation status. WWF Sweden, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and the Swedish Carnivore Association all agree that a decimation of the population would “seriously endanger the population, in particular in a long-term perspective, due to higher vulnerability to diseases, poaching, traffic accidents, nativity variation and other random events”.

The decision was kept secret from the aforementioned organisations, as well as the Swedish Wolf Committee, until the public announcement was made by Swedish Environment Minister Lena Ek. We now want her to reconsider and heed the scientific reports on the future well-being of the Swedish (and by extension Scandinavian and Russian) wolf population.

Sign the petition to demand that Lena Ek act now, then forward this email to everyone. When we reach 50,000 signatures, Avaaz will deliver our call to her in Stockholm.


As concerned citizens, we call upon you to review and reconsider the decision to decimate the Swedish wolf population by 40 per cent. The proposal is not founded on sound scientific ground and The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency itself proposed a minimum of 380 wolves in Sweden as recently as the 19th October 2012. The govenment’s own investigation in April 2012 proposed an increase of the population to 450 individuals. We urge you to act now!

You can sign here.

November 2012. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service is requesting assistance with an investigation involving the suspected illegal take of a third radio-collared red wolf that was recently found dead. The wolf was found with a suspected gunshot wound on November 2, 2012, north of Creswell, N.C., near the Washington and Tyrrell county line: here.

8 December 2012. USA: Yellowstone National Park’s best-known wolf, beloved by many tourists and valued by scientists who tracked its movements, was shot and killed on Thursday outside the park’s boundaries, Wyoming wildlife officials reported: here.

Puerto Rico manatees threatened

This is a manatee video from Florida in the USA.

From Wildlife Extra:

Puerto Rico manatees threatened by isolation

Isolation of Puerto Rico’s manatees affects survival odds

October 2012. New evidence shows there is no cross-breeding between endangered manatees in Puerto Rico and those in Florida, resulting in less genetic diversity in Puerto Rico’s small manatee population and impacting its odds of survival.

The findings, which come from a study of West Indian manatees by the U.S. Geological Survey and Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center, could help resource managers make decisions about how to conserve the endangered marine mammal.

Wake up call

“Wildlife management has been one of the fields to benefit greatly from the ability to determine relatedness of individuals from DNA analysis, allowing management decisions to be based on concrete scientific evidence for genetic diversity and prospects for it to increase,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “These results for Puerto Rico’s manatees are a wake-up call.”

Just 250 manatees in Puerto Rico

One key management concern is the ability of Puerto Rico’s manatees to absorb and rebound from population declines. Current estimates suggest as few as 250 individual manatees may currently live in Puerto Rico. Furthermore, the population’s genetic diversity is low, a fact which decreases a wildlife population’s capacity to adapt to changing conditions and rebound after critical events that can cause deaths, such as hurricanes, boat strikes, or disease.

This latest finding – that Puerto Rico’s manatees are genetically isolated – shows the population’s vulnerability to future ups and downs is not being offset by migration from Florida manatees, as was once hoped.

“Puerto Rico’s Antillean manatees have low overall numbers and low genetic diversity, both of which present risks for the population’s long-term survival,” said Margaret Hunter, Ph.D., a USGS geneticist and lead author of the study. “The lack of gene flow is another risk factor. We detected no signs that the Puerto Rico population is being supplemented by Florida manatees, through migration or breeding. This means that Puerto Rico’s population must absorb shocks – such as environmental change or disease – on their own. It’s a trifecta of genetic vulnerability.”

In their most recent 5-year review, released in 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that West Indian manatees be downlisted from endangered to threatened, although no decision was made at that time.


As of the last status review, it was difficult to determine whether the two populations were mixing. Puerto Rico’s manatees were already considered a different subspecies – the ‘Antillean’ subspecies, while those in the continental U.S. are the ‘Florida’ subspecies. Although the distinction had been based on different physical traits observed in the two types of manatees, this study confirms that there is indeed a strong genetic basis to those differences.

The research offers a clearer picture of breeding relationships because the research team compared Florida and Puerto Rico using nuclear DNA, which provides enough granular detail about diversity to draw conclusions about current breeding rates. Earlier genetic data on West Indian manatees came from analysis of mitochondrial DNA, a type of genetic material typically used to understand a species’ ancient migratory past.

Two distinct populations in Puerto Rico

Among other findings in the study is the existence of two manatee populations within Puerto Rico itself that do not frequently interbreed. The two genetically different groups provide diversity that may improve the long-term prospects for manatees in Puerto Rico.

“This study provides solid data that allows us to better understand what Puerto Rico’s manatee population faces internally to survive…both as individuals and as a population. It also directs us in developing and implementing future studies in health assessments and habitat use that will enhance current conservation efforts in the island on behalf of the species,” said co-author Antonio Mignucci, Ph.D., director of the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center and research professor at Inter American University of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s manatees are not only isolated from Florida’s population, but have little chance of receiving migrants from other nearby islands. The USGS has been working with the PRMCC and other biologists in Caribbean nations to gather new data about causes of death, habitat use, and breeding among manatees found on the surrounding islands. At this point, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are believed to have small manatee populations while Guadeloupe, Haiti and the Virgin Islands have no known manatees.

“The more that we continue to learn about this unique mammal, the better we can enable managers to make decisions that ensure adequate protection,” said Bob Bonde, Ph.D., a USGS research biologist and co-author of the research.

Tanzania sunbird nest photos

Remember the post on this blog about purple-banded sunbirds, building a nest in a tree in Tanzania? And about an Indian house crow destroying that nest?

Recently, Ms Anne H. Outwater, author of the article in Tanzania Daily News which was the source of the blog post, was so kind to send me these three photos she made about these events. Thank you so much!

Female sunbird in Tanzania, June 2012

These two photos show the female purple-banded sunbird building the nest.

Female sunbird, June 2012

This photo shows the male sunbird at the nest, after the destruction by the crow.

Male sunbird, June 2012

December 2012. Tanzania’s many and diverse wildlife populations are under threat from illegal hunting, and large herbivores are particularly sought-after game. In the future, however, genetic markers can be used to identify meat from game in order to combat crimes against animals: here.