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Look: Exotic Pets Turned Invasive Pests

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A recent study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, a journal from the Ecological Society of America, documented how researchers gain more awareness in the dynamics of the exotic pet trade and the role it plays in introducing nonlocal and invasive vertebrates worldwide.

As exotic pets become more popular, we need to have a clearer understanding of the factors that affect the trade to minimize the threat of having a pet-to-pests invasion soon.

Lockwood, the lead author of the study, said that since the 1970s, the market for exotic pets is continuously growing and the amount of vertebrate animals that are traded globally is surprising, even to the experienced biologists. Over the past decades, the population of reptiles and marine fish significantly increased — caused by their viral popularity as exotic pets.

Researchers take a closer look at the socioeconomic and socioecological factors that affect the exotic pet trade of vertebrates (animals with the backbone; namely fishes, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles).  The mentioned factors depend on the unique economic, social, regulatory, and cultural contexts of a particular country. There is an increasing and widespread demand for exotic pets worldwide, but it occurs mainly in developing countries like South America and Asia. In the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, more than half of all households have at least one pet.

What are exotic pets? 

In the study, it is defined as “species without a long history of domestication that are legally captured from their native range or bred within facilities and sold to consumers as household companions,” and are kept for non-utilitarian reasons (characterized by or aiming at beauty or ornament rather than utility).

Lockwood explains that species of goldfish or monk parakeets are considered as common pets for decades. Other species appear in the market for only one or two years; after that, they disappear.

The reason for this dynamic is not yet known, but researchers noted that this might be because of some species are easy to take care and breed well in captivity (which makes them cost cheaper). She added that thousands of different species are sold yearly. If a small percentage will escape or be free, they are capable of forming wild populations.

Is it really bad if our former pets decided to form a big family in the wild?

Lockwood and her team said that invasive reptiles and amphibians could force local species into extinction.

For example, the red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) are turtles popularly kept as pets in the United States. It is native to the south-central region of the US, but it has created non-native populations in other parts of the country. These turtles are the real-life counterparts of the Famous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Red eared slider turtle Credits: Jim, The Photographer| Flickr | Unknown

The reasons why owners release exotic pet is not widely documented. But it includes difficulty in taking care of large, old, aggressive, or sick animals. Cute little animals don’t always stay the same; sometimes, they grow and live longer than the pet owners had expected. Most countries don’t have the proper documentation of imported pet species. Also, there are challenges in monitoring and regulating them; some animals are usually recorded as “unidentified” or wrongly identified.

Factors such as the popularity of owning exotic animals, the ease of buying exotic pets from websites, and the lack of adequately implemented regulations — made it possible for the species to spread not only in their original locations but also in other parts of the globe.

This increase the possibility of having invasions in the future. To avoid or minimize the chances of having an exotic pet invasion, we need to have a better understanding of the forces that affect the worldwide trade of exotic pets.

In conclusion, Lockwood said that first “we need to know the reasons why certain species are in the trade, or what factors lead them to escape or be released,” so that we can make the right policies. These policies should be able to make both sides happy. Some people are still free to love their exotic pets while minimizing the probability of invasion.

I've been contributing news since 2010, both online and print. Aside from Z6Mag, I manage independent news blogs that provide awareness on a diverse list of topics to every reader.

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Baby Tiger Sharks Munch On Land Birds

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Tiger Sharks
Photo: Tony Alter | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Tiger sharks can eat anything — from dolphins, other sharks, sea turtles to rubber tires and other ocean trash, hence, nicknamed as the garbage cans of the sea. But recently, scientists discovered by analyzing the DNA of a shark’s barf that baby tiger sharks have a different diet. They documented that baby tiger sharks eat songbirds (such as sparrows, woodpeckers, and doves), and not the usual sea birds (seagulls or pelicans).

Kevin Feldheim, one of the co-authors of the study and led to the DNA analysis of the shark’s diet, said that “if these sharks with their tigerlike stripes see an easy target or meal, they will undoubtedly go for it.” But, he was shocked to learn that they’re eating songbirds. He added that this is one of the awesome projects since the discovery of DNA profiling.

Photo Credits: Field Museum.org

Researchers from Mississippi State University studied the tiger sharks’ diet. They wrassle the 3 foot long sharks onto a boat, pump the shark’s stomachs, and examine the sample of its stomach contents. Don’t worry; no sharks are harmed in the process and were released afterward. Shockingly, out of the 105 sharks they’ve examined, 41 had bird remains in their stomachs.

However, it was difficult for scientists to determine what bird species the tiger sharks’ digested. As a solution, the team sought assistance with the Field Museum’s Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Evolution to analyze its DNA.

The team took the bird remains and used chemicals to break them down their primary molecular components. Then, they analyzed the DNA sequences found in the bird’s tissues. Afterward, they compared them to the available databases of bird’s DNA to know what species they are.

“We found out that none of them were seagulls, pelicans, cormorants, or other types of marine birds. They were all terrestrial birds that usually live in our backyards,” said Marcus Drymon, the paper’s lead author.

Moreover, this is not the first time that tiger sharks are known to eat birds. In Hawaii, some adult tiger sharks haunt baby albatrosses who are just learning to fly, says Feldheim. But this is the first time that we acquired scientific evidence that tiger sharks eat songbirds that usually live on land.

Feldheim added that the sharks hunt on songbirds since its easy to prey due to the species’ difficulties in traveling over the ocean. During migration, they’re exhausted, and sometimes they fall into the sea during a typhoon. Also, terrestrial birds are more appealing than seabirds because seabirds can handle themselves better in the water compared to songbirds.

What is the impact of this study?

It proves the importance of having DNA databases, which should be available for scientists. DNA can tell something that observation cannot.

Also, this study gives us a better understanding of tigers sharks. This information can somehow help us to protect them. According to Feldheim, all sharks currently facing some severe problems. We still don’t know how industrialized fishing affected them, but most of the top predator populations are continuously declining.

Although tiger sharks are notorious for being man-eaters, we humans pose a more significant threat. Based on National Geographic, most populations of tiger sharks are harvested for their fins, skin, and flesh. Their livers are a good source of vitamin A, and usually, it is processed into vitamin oils. In general, sharks take a long time to mature sexually and have low birth rates. Their population may also suffer due to overfishing. As of today, they are included in the near-threatened list of species.

Sharks are known to be the top predators, and they are essential in keeping the oceans in balance. They prey on the weak and prevent the potentially harmful fish populations from taking over a particular ecosystem. They are at risk of accumulating too many toxins from the prey they eat.

For example, plastics break down into microplastics — which are eaten by small fish. But these microplastics further break down into toxins that stay in the fishes’ system. This can cause sufficient harm to sharks if they’ve eaten it over time.

What can we do to help save sharks?

We need to stop buying shark products. We need to raise awareness that just like us, sharks are just living their own lives. They are acting like police offers, regulating the rules set by Mother Nature.

If sharks disappear in the world’s oceans, there will be negative consequences. Without them, at the top of the food chain, some population of aquatic creatures may also decline and suffocating algae blooms will increase. These algae blooms create toxins and can ruin coral reefs. We must do our part to save these creatures from extinction.

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Look: Chimpanzees Eat Crabs For Survival

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Chimpanzee eats crabs for survival
Photo: Aaron Logan | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Apes eating bananas are cute and typical, but chimpanzees that chomp on crabs are too unusual. Today, researchers at the Department of Anthropology from the University of Zurich revealed for the first time that chimpanzees could eat crabs. The research finding aims to widen “our understanding of why aquatic fauna became more and more important as a source of nutrition in the course of human evolution.”

Researchers from Kyoto University observed how wild chimpanzees caught and preyed on fresh-water crabs in a rainforest in the Nimba Mountains in Guinea year-round. The finding somehow contradicts the common idea that anthropoid apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas, the closest species to humans do not eat aquatic animals.

A copy of the research findings was published Wednesday in an online website of the Journal of Human Evolution. The study reveals the first evidence which proves that non-human apes usually catch and eat aquatic fauna, said Kathelijne Koops, one of the researchers.

In the small and shallow rivers of the rainforest, the chimpanzees haunt for the crabs by scratching and beating up the riverbed with their fingers.

The said study began in 2012 when the team observed how chimpanzees ate river crabs at a water hole in the forests of Guinea in West Africa. To prove that such behavior of chimpanzees happened, the team set up camera traps at four water holes between 2012 and 2014 — this documented and recorded chimpanzees that eat crabs for almost 181 times.

The research team also discovered that these chimpanzees living in the rain forest in the Nimba Mountains of Guinea consumed freshwater crabs year-round. This means that non-human apes regularly catch and choose aquatic fauna as a source of food to survive.

Chimpanzees do eat crabs even though fruits are available. They searched for it in shallow streams in the mountainous rain forest region through either scratching or digging up the riverbed with their fingers. It is in the riverbed where these crabs were mostly found with high nutritional value.

Researchers explained that on rainy season, more river crabs appear on the area. Although, much to their surprise, researchers emphasized that there was no correlation between crab-fishing activity and the amount of monthly rainfall. Chimpanzees like to eat crabs regardless whether it’s rainy or dry season; where there’s not enough water in the streams where crabs can survive. 

However, some curious scholars from another institute questioned whether these chimpanzees only rely on river crabs for primary food. Researchers at the Department of Anthropology emphasized, as a result of almost two years of observation, that chimpanzees eat more crabs when there are only a few ants available to munch. This means that aside from river crabs, chimpanzees also like to eat ants. Another possible explanation is that Chimpanzees like to eat crabs and ants because both contain the same nutritional value.

Furthermore, the researchers noticed that female chimpanzees and their young babies spend more time finding and eating crabs compared to adult males. The group of lactating and young female chimpanzees was the frequent consumers of river crabs. Their babies lined up and waited to be fed, while the younger ones — who understands the laborious work of finding crabs — came with their mothers to dig. Koops said that one of the possible explanations for this discovery is that crabs contain fatty acids and micronutrients that are good for both the mother and baby’s health.

What will be the impact of this study?

Chimpanzees are our closest living family in the animal kingdom. Past studies found that human ancestors ate fish, turtles, and other aquatic animals way back two million years ago when they left the comforts of the forest and decided to settle in the savanna. Matsuzawa, one of the researchers of this project, said that humans might have been eating aquatic animals since the earliest humans lived in forests for over four million years ago.

If chimpanzees eat river crabs, then it is possible that humans — as far as four million years ago — already ate aquatic organisms as a source of food to survive the drastic change in the environment.

The results of this study can help us understand that marine organisms are a vital source of nutrition, and it somehow helped in human evolution. The study presents an idea and a step towards finding out when and how humans began to eat aquatic animals.

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Look: Rare Albino White Panda Spotted In Sichuan, China

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Panda Madrid Zoo
Photo: Spencer Wright | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Pandas are commonly known for their furry black-and-white markings, so a sighting of an all-white panda with red eyes trudging through a bamboo forest in China is enough to stun experts.

This wild Giant Panda (Ailuropoda Melanoleuca) is said to be the first known albino of its kind. With fewer than 2,000 giant Pandas left in the wild, the all-white cub with reddish eyes is a cause for celebration. Captured by an infrared motion-triggered camera (a device showing the differences in heat through images) set up to monitor the wildlife last December.

The Wolong National nature reserve in the South-Western province of Sichuan who released the photo taken last April is a vast protected area that homes China’s first giant panda breeding and research center. Wolong officials who announced the discovery of the white Panda bear on May 25, 2019, also stated that the unrehearsed photo shoot occurred in a densely-forested area about 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) above sea level. At that time, the Albino Panda was wandering in a bamboo forest, probably searching for food to eat.

Officials also assessed the mammal’s age, which is between one-two years old. The sex, however, could not be determined as it is hard to define from a grainy photo.

Scientists later determined the animal’s outside appearance; its all-white body and reddish eyes caused by ‘albinism.‘ It is a rare genetic condition in which there is a total or partial lack of the skin pigment melanin, said The Guardian.

Albinism, as experts indicated, makes it hard for animals to hide from predators. The University of California in 2017 conducted a research and found out that the giant panda’s distinct black and white coloring allows it to blend with the snow during winter or to hide in the shade during summer. The black circles around the Pandas’ eyes help them recognize each other, which is one of the factors in developing a mutual relationship with others.

Fortunately, the all-white cuddly panda seems to be unaffected by the lack of markings. Li Sheng, an assistant professor in conservation biology at Peking University who specializes in bears, said that the “panda looked healthy, and his steps were steady, a sign that the genetic mutation may not have entirely impeded its life.”

Other Albino animals have been spotted in recent years which includes: an inbred gorilla, a three-year-old Risso’s dolphin off the coast of California, and a zebra at a sanctuary in Hawaii. However, spotting the Albino Panda is exceptionally rare since there’s only two percent of probability that Albinism will manifest in Panda species. The giant panda, which is native to China, are unique species of bear with fewer than 2,000 remaining in the wild.

However, this is not the first time a panda bear is spotted with a unique color. The Qinling mountain range in China’s Southern Shaanxi province is believed to home all brown Pandas. Among them is Qi Zai, (a product of gene mutation) is an adorable nine-year-old brown bear who was found lurking in the wild. He was abandoned when he was only two months old, and officials who found him and nursed him back to health at the Shaanxi Rare Wildlife Rescue Center. After Qi Zai recovered his health, he was brought to Foping Panda National Nature Reserve where he resided for three years.

Officials believe that Pandas with rare coloring is a product of recessive mutation. One example is Albinism mutation; a recessive mutation, which means that it can only be inherited if both parents carry the gene. With few specimens of panda bears left in the world, the odds of that happening are almost impossible. And scientists feared that with the growing concern on climate change where the habitat of these cute mammals is at risk and may be damaged, the Panda Bear population would likely to suffer. If this happens, people can no longer witness any unique Pandas with rare coloring.

For further research, authorities said that the reserve would install more infrared cameras to track the Albino panda and its development in the wild. Seeing an all-white panda is proof that there are things which humans and technologies have not yet discovered, said Wolong officials. So far, scientists are also positive to see an offspring or two that will add to the diminishing panda bear population and provide them insights into Qi Zai’s and white-panda unique coloring.

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