“It’s not whether animals will survive, it’s whether man has the will to save them.” – Anthony D. Williams
BY Amelia Buckley
Coming around a bend along a trail in Glacier National Park, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. Just ten feet ahead of me, standing still as a statue, was a ram. His curved horns curled around his head as one dark beady eye stared right at me. Slowly backing up, I sat down in a grassy patch by the trail and observed him. After a few moments, he returned to foraging in the plants at his feet, but I stayed there, captivated by his grace and stoic nature for a full ten minutes.
There is something so awe-inspiring about observing wild animals in their natural environment. Although I had driven many hours to get to the trail where he lived, this ram had likely spent his whole life within the small mountain region where I found him. Braving the winters and relishing in the summer heat. Perhaps even drinking from the glacial lake that was my destination that day.
Deepening our understanding
Animals are our fellow creatures of the Earth, but yet there is so much we do not understand about them still. Maybe this is why we are so fascinated by them. In today’s Optimist View, we’re diving a little deeper into some of our wonderful animal-focused stories and sharing solutions for how we can live more harmoniously with these fellow earthlings from the largest elephant to the smallest insect.
A key factor in conservation is deepening our understanding of the animal kingdom. This is the idea (although often flawed) behind zoos, safaris, and even elementary school classroom pets; that if we learn from and observe animals, we will feel a deeper sense of responsibility to protect them.
For example, researchers recently uncovered the fact that giraffes are far more socially complex than we previously knew. A team reviewed 404 previous papers on giraffe behavior and found that their social skills could actually be on par with the complexity of orcas and other intelligent mammals.
One of the primary findings is that giraffes appear to engage in the grandmother hypothesis, commonly found in whales, in which older animals are hardwired to help raise younger generations to ensure the continued survival of the group as a whole. Giraffes spend 30 percent of their lives in this post-reproductive period compared to elephants and orcas which each spend 23 and 35 percent of their lives in this period, respectively.
We cannot hope to continue to learn more about animals if we do not prioritize their conservation. Like humans, animals are feeling the heat of a changing climate, but several initiatives are helping humans and animals coexist and cope with a warmer world.
In some areas, warmer waters are changing shark migration patterns, while in others, successful conservation efforts are fueling increased interactions between sharks and swimmers. The good news is that technology can help us navigate this challenge. In California, marine biologists are scrambling to understand why more great white sharks are heading to shore, but in the meantime, Douglas J. McCauley, a marine biology professor and director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative at UC Santa Barbara, is turning to artificial intelligence for solutions.
His lab’s new AI system, called SharkEye, uses a drone to scan large areas of the California coast and then sends out alert texts to a chain of 36 critical responders when a great white is spotted. These 36 people include lifeguards, surf camp instructors, and beachside homeowners. The technology is currently being tested on Santa Barbara’s local Padaro Beach.
According to McCauley, the lab is working on expanding their alert systems and even potentially creating a daily “shark report” modeled after surf reports. The lab’s marine biologists are also working with AI researchers from Salesforce and computer scientists at San Diego State University to create the alert system.
In addition to altering beachgoers, the drone footage is also used to recognize great white sharks based on size and approximate age to gain insights into the population’s behavior. Combining this data with water temperature information could help researchers anticipate shark movement and migration.
Across the country in Cape Cod, a similar initiative is underway. Researchers are creating an ocean map that effectively serves as a weather report for sharks. The map is a color-coded graphical representation of data, including shark sightings compared to factors such as temperature, tides, and even lunar cycles. In this way, researchers hope to create a resource to indicate relative shark risk on any given day.
The creation of the map was spurred by Cape Cod’s first fatal shark attack since 1936. The 2017 death of Arthur Medici was just one of many bites of the season, but even with training for lifeguards and civilians on immediate bite care and experimental solutions like shark nets, modifying civilian behavior and keeping swimmers out of the water still remains the most effective solution for public safety.
Megan Winton, a research scientist at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, is in charge of developing the new shark map. She and her team started by placing tracker buoys at popular swimming destinations. The buoys inform lifeguards if sharks are detected close to the shoreline. Winton has also spent countless hours boating around Cape Cod, mapping, tagging, and noting distinguishing features on sharks she spots. All this data will be layered into the map to boost accuracy.
As you can see, modern technology can be incredibly effective in supporting animals. Ensuring their safety is especially important during migration, as many animals have had their traditional migratory paths altered by habitat loss and climate change. Researchers from the University of Oregon’s InfoGraphics Lab are attempting to address this issue with spatial data mapping.
The research is focused on the migration patterns of ungulates, hoofed mammals like caribou, mule deer, wildebeest, elephants, and zebra. These animals rely on safe migration passages to travel throughout the seasons and also help rejuvenate the land they pass over as they go. Unfortunately, ungulate species are disappearing at an alarming rate, and the lack of safe migration routes is a primary culprit.
To address this, the Oregon team has used spatial data to map out precise routes taken by these animals. These maps offer a blueprint which governments and developers can use to best integrate human infrastructure with the natural environment.
The Frozen Zoo
But what happens when conservation fails? Unfortunately, the Earth is in the middle of the sixth mass extinction, and we’ve already lost some species forever. A group of scientists from the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance are all too familiar with managing endangered species. In fact, they do it for a living with the help of the Frozen Zoo.
First and foremost, what is a frozen zoo? The term refers to a portion of the zoo’s pathology department that is freezing cellular samples of endangered species so that even if they go extinct, they are not ever truly lost. So far, the zoo has saved cell samples of 10,000 individuals from 1200 species and subspecies.
Marlys Houck, the curator of the frozen zoo, explains that she and other researchers freeze living cells in liquid nitrogen, stopping them from dividing, and effectively holding them in suspended animation for decades.
The Frozen Zoo was founded in 1975 by Dr. Kurt Benirschke who had a Jurassic Park-like dream of preserving threatened species in preparation for the scientific advancements of the future. In line with Benirschke’s vision, scientists at the zoo are now able to theoretically use the frozen cells to create stem cells that could be used to make sperm and eggs in the future.
Dr. Barbara Durrant, another contributor to the zoo, emphasizes that this work should not be seen as an alternative to conservation efforts, but rather as a “plan B.” She says, “We have to always be careful in our education and in our publicity speaking to the public about this; that we don’t give a false impression that science can solve all the problems of conservation. That’s not the case.”
The loss of wild animals is devastating, but it’s not all bad news. Dedicated conservation efforts have managed to bolster many animal populations and even bring some back from the brink.
China recently announced that the giant panda is no longer officially endangered thanks to habitat restoration and the Iberian lynx, once down to a population of just 100 in the wild, has rebounded tenfold over the last decade.
Perhaps most inspirational is the story of the California condor. It’s easy to cheer for the survival of big cats, cute pandas, and stunning whales, but the California condor’s fight for survival is quite inspirational as well.
There were just 22 California condors living in the wild 40 years ago and hunting, habitat loss, and poisoning from lead ammunition spelled out a grim future for the species. Thanks to conservation efforts, the bird’s numbers are up to 500. This is a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of thousands estimated to have lived on the North American continent a million years ago, but it’s still a promising sign.
A significant factor in the condor’s conservation success is reintroduction efforts led by Indigenous tribes. In Northern California, the latest reintroduction effort is being spearheaded by the Yurok Tribe. The Yurok people, who consider the California condor a sacred animal, have planned for the bird’s return for over a decade. Their reintroduction proposal was recently accepted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Working in close collaboration with Redwood National Park, the Yurok Tribe will begin the construction of a condor release facility within the park’s boundaries. The facility will breed condors until they’ve grown enough to be released into the wild, which is expected to be as early as this fall.
“Let us remember that animals are not mere resources for human consumption. They are splendid beings in their own right, who have evolved alongside us as co-inheritors of all the beauty and abundance of life on this planet.” ― Marc Bekoff
All too often we as humans consider ourselves separate from or even above the natural world. But we must remember that the animals and wild spaces of our world do not exist simply to support us or for us to marvel at, they are a critical part of the global ecosystem, one in which we must learn to also be a part of if we wish to have a future on this planet.
Forming a healthy and sustainable relationship with the creatures of the earth is vital for our continued survival. Whether this means buying only locally-sourced meat, choosing plant-based options, planting a pollinator garden in your backyard, birdwatching, or just supporting local wildlife during a heatwave, we can all play a part in supporting the animals around us.