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Science And Cute Animals

December 17, 2014

You can’t beat that combination:

Killer Whales Up Close

December 16, 2014

I am always ambivalent about our endless and relentless efforts to track, film and commercialize killer whales (and other “charismatic megafauna”).

On the one hand, this is a much better way to see what a killer whale is really like than, say, going to SeaWorld. On the other, I feel that it must be stressful for whales and other animals to so frequently experience the presence of curious humans. I feel this most acutely with regard to the Southern Resident Killer Whales off the US Pacific Northwest coast, who daily have a flotilla of whale watching boats following them. Perhaps in addition to the citizen and nonperson rights we’ve been considering for animals, they might appreciate a right to (occasional) privacy.

Still, sometimes the result is spectacular footage. And if viewers walk away with an enhanced sense of the majesty and inherent value of a wild killer whale, then perhaps it is a trade-off that needs to be made.

So let’s roll tape (background here):

Animal Citizenship?

December 16, 2014

“Whoa, back off citizen! Sheep have rights, too.”

 

Well, we already have the Nonhuman Rights Project going for personhood. This angle, explored via Vox, is worth pursuing as well:

What if domestic animals — pets such as dogs and cats as well livestock like cows and chickens — were granted citizenship rights? That may sound like a crazy question, but Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka thinks it’s a critically important one.

Kymlicka, a professor at Queen’s University, is a well-regarded figure in modern political philosophy. He’s also the author, along with writer Sue Donaldson, of Zoopolis, a book making the case for animal citizenship. Their basic premise is simple: animals are already part of our society, as pets and work animals, therefore we should formally recognize them as such.

That’s not just a head-in-the-clouds thought experiment. We already have basic laws forbidding animal abuse and regulating industrial slaughterhouses. But, as anyone who has visited an animal shelter or thought about the ethics of what they eat can attest, we as a society have not come anywhere close to solving the problem of animal mistreatment. If we really want to improve animals’ lives, Kymlicka and Donaldson argue, we need to stop thinking in terms of merely treating animals better. Rather, we need to acknowledge on a fundamental level that animals are a part of society and deserve to be treated as such. That leads you, however improbable it might sound, to citizenship.

Here’s a key point from Kymlicka, in an interview with Vox:

We need to create a shared interspecies society which is responsive to the interests of both its human and animal members. That means that it’s not just a question of how you ensure that animals aren’t abused. If we view them as members of society — it’s as much their society as ours — then it changes the perspective 180 degrees. The question is no longer “how do we make sure they’re not so badly treated?” We instead need to ask “what kind of relationships do they want to have with us?”

That’s really a radical question. It’s one we’ve never really bothered to ask. I think there are some domesticated animals that enjoy activities with us — I think that’s clearest in the case of dogs, but it’s also true of other domesticated animals whose lives are enriched by being part of interspecies activities with us. But there are other animals who, if we took what they wanted seriously, would probably choose to have less and less to do with us. I think this would be true of horses.

And if you are still with him to this point then there is a logical implication that follows. As Kymlicka puts it: “We can’t go around eating our co-citizens.”

Fair point, fair point. Read Vox’s full interview with Kymlicka here. It is a very interesting way to stretch our thinking and logic as we apply it to animals. One way or another, via personhood or citizenship or some other cultural/legal construct, we will eventually give animals the rights and protections they deserve.

 

Humpback Bubble Feeding And The Importance Of Animal Culture

December 16, 2014

Humpbacks are high on my list of fascinating animals, in part because of this sort of spectacular and complex behavior, filmed by drone in Alaska’s Prince William Sound:

For the uninitiated, I09 describes what is going on:

Typically, humpback whales lunge into a shoal of prey, but as described in Arkive, they also herd their prey using a “bubble net” to trap them in quantity:

During this process, a number of whales will circle underwater emitting a continuous stream of air which traps fish in the centre of the ring, the whales then surface up through their ‘net’ gorging on the contents within. During the summer months, humpbacks must feed intensely as they do not feed again during either the migration or the time spent in tropical breeding grounds.

The fact that many species have developed unique and distinctive behaviors gives credence to the idea that animals have “cultures,” that both define them and help them survive. Increasingly, conservationists are arguing that understanding and incorporating those cultures into conservation strategies is a key to success. Last month, delegates at the UN Convention on Migratory Species passed a resolution (PDF) that calls on conservationists to acknowledge and incorporate animal cultures into conservation thinking.

This is a key evolution in thinking about the animal world and its future. Philippa Brakes of Whale And Dolphin Conservation explains:

In 1975 sociobiologist E. O. Wilson noted the influence of social structure on fitness, gene flow and spatial patterns in some species. Deeper understanding only started to emerge in the past decade, and wildlife policy has been slow to catch up.

The new resolution recognises both positive and negative consequences of non-human culture. Individuals passing on knowledge may increase population viability by allowing the rapid spread of innovations amid environmental challenges, which could mean more-resilient social groups. On the other hand, the effects of human-induced threats may be amplified by the presence of non-human culture.

How so? The type of threat and the type of society is important. For example, orca societies are often conservative and so may be reluctant to adopt an innovation in response to a new threat, like the depletion of a food source. The distinct cultures of different groups also lead orcas to behave in different ways, and this can make one group more vulnerable than another. So they should be assessed as cultural groups, rather than by absolute population numbers.

In African elephants, older matriarchs are thought to act as “repositories of social knowledge”, holding information important to the survival and fitness of their social group, such as the location of food or water. Their removal may have impacts beyond the loss of one elephant.

There is also evidence that baleen whale calves learn migratory routes from their mothers and that hunting two species – southern right and humpback whales – meant that critical knowledge was lost.

I would add another benefit. Understanding the distinctive cultures of animals opens the door to empathy. A mother elephant or whale who has knowledge and plays the same role that your own mother might is more than just a whale or elephant. She is inherently valuable and her protection is inherently important.

That makes a difference. It shouldn’t, in my view. But unfortunately humans care more when they can see parallels to their own lives and social structures. So the more awed and compelled we are by any cultural behavior, like bubble-feeding, the better.

2 Degrees Of Global Warming Might Be Too Much

December 15, 2014

An excellent look, by Justin Gillis at the New York Times, at how the world decided that it should try to limit global warming to 2 degrees centigrade, and how that target might not actually be the right target:

Yet even as the 2C target has become a touchstone for the climate talks, scientific theory and real-world observations have begun to raise serious questions about whether the target is stringent enough.

For starters, the world has already warmed by almost one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. That may sound modest, but as a global average, it is actually a substantial number. For any amount of global warming, the ocean, which covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface and absorbs considerable heat, will pull down the average. But the warming over land tends to be much greater, and the warming in some polar regions greater still.

The warming that has already occurred is provoking enormous damage all over the planet, from dying forests to collapsing sea ice to savage heat wavesto torrential rains. And scientists are realizing they may have underestimated the vulnerability of the great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

Those ice sheets now appear to be in the early stages of breaking up. For instance, Greenland’s glaciers have lately been spitting icebergs into the sea at an accelerated pace, and scientific papers published this year warned that the melting in parts of Antarctica may already be unstoppable.

The 2 degree target always had a significant degree of uncertainty attached to it (though it was useful to focus attention on some target). To consider it a threshold below which we would somehow remain “safe” was the wrong way to look at it. Yes, 2 degrees might be a threshold beyond which certain irreversible catastrophes would follow (melting ice sheets). But there is plenty of catastrophe below the 2 degrees threshold, as well, as we are already seeing (most notably, the acidification of the oceans). It has always been the case that a lot less warming would be a lot better for the planet.

This is a challenge to global climate policy, and as Gillis notes:

So, even as the world’s climate policy diplomats work on a plan that incorporates the 2C goal, they have enlisted scientists in a major review of whether it is strict enough. Results are due this summer, and if the reviewers recommend a lower target, that could add a contentious dimension to the climate negotiations in Paris next year.

Barring a technological miracle, or a mobilization of society on a scale unprecedented in peacetime, it is not at all clear how a lower target could be met.

Actually, it is not at all clear how the 2 degrees target will be met, either. The point is that “a technological miracle, or a mobilization of society on a scale unprecedented in peacetime” is what is needed regardless of the target. And the sooner political leaders (and the media, and then the public) come to that realization, the better off we will all be.

Climate change is an unprecedented challenge, so there is an obvious case to be made for an unprecedented mobilization of societies and technologists. We may be in “peacetime”–and therefore relatively complacent– according to conventional definitions of peace and war.  But we are facing an existential threat that is arguably greater than any threat of war experienced in human history (and orders of magnitude greater than the threat posed by Islamic extremism and ISIL, to which we devote inordinate and inexplicable amounts of attention and resources). That should count for something.

 

The Graphic Reality Of Extinction

December 15, 2014

The journal Nature sums up the threat of the Sixth Great Extinction in one mindblowing graphic (click here, or on graphic for zoomable  version):

Here’s the data and thinking that are behind the graphic:

Studies that try to tally the number of species of animals, plants and fungi alive right now produce estimates that swing from less than 2 million to more than 50 million. The problem is that researchers have so far sampled only a sliver of Earth’s biodiversity, and most of the unknown groups inhabit small regions of the world, often in habitats that are rapidly being destroyed.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) highlighted the uncertainty in the latest version of its Red List of Threatened Species, which was released in November. The report evaluated more than 76,000 species, a big increase over earlier editions. But that is just 4% of the more than 1.7 million species that have been described by scientists, making it impossible to offer any reliable threat level for groups that have not been adequately assessed, such as fish, reptiles and insects.

Recognizing these caveats, Nature pulled together the most reliable available data to provide a graphic status report of life on Earth (see ‘Life under threat’). Among the groups that can be assessed, amphibians stand out as the most imperilled: 41% face the threat of extinction, in part because of devastating epidemics caused by chytrid fungi. Large fractions of mammals and birds face significant threats because of habitat loss and degradation, as well as activities such as hunting.

Looking forward, the picture gets less certain. The effects of climate change, which are hard to forecast in terms of pace and pattern, will probably accelerate extinctions in as-yet unknown ways. One simple way to project into the future would be to assume that the rate of extinction will be constant; it is currently estimated to range from 0.01% to 0.7% of all existing species a year. “There is a huge uncertainty in projecting future extinction rates,” says Henrique Pereira, an ecologist at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig.

At the upper rate, thousands of species are disappearing each year. If that trend continues, it could lead to a mass extinction — defined as a loss of 75% of species — over the next few centuries.

I find it hard to believe that this is not screaming headline news every day. The media, like the public, simply doesn’t know what to do with the catastrophic implications of climate change and human impact on the planet. That is not good.

(H/T The Dodo–very appropriate, no?)

SeaWorld Had Problems Beyond Blackfish

December 12, 2014

Theme Park Insider publishes an excellent breakdown and analysis of SeaWorld’s attendance numbers since 2009. Here are the numbers for SEAS four largest parks:

SeaWorld Orlando
2009: 5.8 million
2010: 5.1 million
2011: 5.2 million
2012: 5.3 million
2013: 5.0 million

SeaWorld San Diego
2009: 4.2 million
2010: 3.8 million
2011: 4.2 million
2012: 4.4 million
2013: 4.3 million

Busch Gardens Tampa
2009: 4.1 million
2010: 4.2 million
2011: 4.2 million
2012: 4.3 million
2013: 4.0 million

Busch Gardens Williamsburg
2009: 2.9 million
2010: 2.8 million
2011: 2.7 million
2012: 2.8 million
2013: 2.7 million

You can see that the SeaWorld parks suffered their biggest attendance declines 2009-2010, before Blackfish. My guess is that the numbers reflect a combination of families feeling the pinch of the Great Recession plus the negative publicity that followed Dawn Brancheau’s death in February 2010. And attendance never really recovered, and then declined again in 2013 when Blackfish starts to hit the public consciousness (and attendance was off another 4.7 percent for the first nine months of 2014).

So why did SeaWorld’s numbers never make a recovery from 2010? Bad management, and a failure to come up with attractions that could compete with what other parks were rolling out, according to Theme Park Insider:

While other theme park companies have moved aggressively to develop new attractions and intellectual property in the wake of the Great Recession, the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks have stumbled through one challenge after another. The debuts of the two Manta roller coasters, in Orlando in 2009 and San Diego in 2012, provide the few bright spots during this period. Otherwise, the parks have suffered through construction delays on multiple new attractions, including missed projected open dates for major new drop towers in Williamsburg and Tampa.

Looking back through our Theme Park Insider reader ratings, I can’t find a single example of a new show debuting during this time period at any of these four parks that scored a higher reader rating than the show it replaced. In 2013, SeaWorld Orlando made what it called the largest capital investment in its history in opening Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. An effort to compete with the engaging and immersive environment of Universal Orlando’s Harry Potter land, SeaWorld chose to go with depicting what might be the most inhospitable environment on Earth: Antarctica. Sure, people love penguins, but SeaWorld’s technically innovative Antarctica ride left visitors spending too much time spinning around in low-light caverns with there were no penguins in sight, rather than spending time with cute new penguin character SeaWorld had created for the attraction. At the end of the ride, SeaWorld crafted a new, open display environment for its penguins, but doing show required keeping the guest areas in the exhibit so cold that few visitors could stand spending more than a moment or two looking at the pavilion’s most compelling attraction — the live penguins themselves.

Not good.

That said, I think the #BlackfishEffect has become a bigger part of the story in 2013-2014. Throw in the investor lawsuits, and ongoing grassroots opposition to killer whale entertainment, and it becomes clear that whoever comes in to replace Jim Atchison as CEO has a very complex puzzle to solve.

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