The black-footed ferret’s storied recovery

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst This week, the National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) sent 26 black-footed ferrets into “boot camp” in Colorado to prepare the animals for life outside captivity. A recent Associated Press article indicates that the ferrets will spend at least 30 days in the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado for “preconditioning” for the wild. The training involves exposing the ferrets to underground burrows and prairie dog tunnels (prairie dogs make up 91 percent of the ferrets’ food source).  Scientists say that training gives the ferrets a 10 times better chance of survival in the wild. Black-footed ferrets are among the success stories of the Endangered Species Act. The animals were nearly driven to extinction due to fur trade harvest, habitat loss, prairie dog extermination and Sylvatic plague, a disease humans arriving in North America in the late 1800s brought with them. For the ferrets, the disease is the equivalent of the Black plague. These combined factors led to as few as 18 ferrets that remained in the wild in by 1985. Several state zoos joined forces with the SCBI and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to breed the endangered animals in captivity. FWS developed its Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Plan, which focused on both natural and assisted breeding programs and the establishment of multiple reintroduction sites. Since 1991, over 7,000 captive-bred ferrets have been released into prairie dog colonies. Today, there are an estimated 1,000 black-footed ferrets in the wild, with 19 reintroduction sites across North America and four self-sustaining populations in the states of Arizona, South Dakota and Wyoming. Additional information on the black-footed ferret’s recovery can be found here or by visiting the FWS website. Photo credit:...

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Animal-made art, medicine and language

An impressive work of wasp art is discovered in an ordinary attic, lizards that use venom to lower the blood pressure of prey could contribute to new medications, researchers translate prairie dog alarms and discover a language, contestants submit ideas for bridges designed to prevent wildlife from becoming roadkill and street art in China raises awareness of wooden chopstick waste. Here are stories in ecology and the environment from the end of January 2011. Intricate wasp nest design: Some wasps create nests by creating a paper-pulp-like material from saliva and wood fibers. The colorful nest pictured above was discovered by a plumber in an attic in the United Kingdom. Luckily for the photographer and the plumber, the wasps that created this massive nest had already abandoned their home by the time it was found.  Read more or visit the original photo stream on Flickr. Medicine from lizard venom: By surveying two dozen species of anguimorphs, researchers have found that some lizards previously thought to be nonvenomous actually are able to administer toxins. The results—published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Proteomics—provide insight into the venom delivery mechanisms of lizards. In addition, the researchers suggest the potential for developing new blood pressure medications. That is, peptides in the lizards’ venom immobilize prey by lowering its blood pressure. Read more at “Researchers take lizard venom to heart.” Prairie dog language: A recent National Public Radio (NPR) article, describes the work of Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University, who has been studying the warning calls of prairie dogs for 30 years. Using computer programs to analyze sounds, Slobodchikoff and colleagues have found that these social rodents have more than just a couple of alarms—they seem to have an entire language. At one point, the researchers recorded prairie dog responses to four humans dressed exactly the same except for the color of their shirts. As Slobodchikoff explained in the NPR article, “Essentially they were saying, ‘Here comes the tall human in the blue,’ versus, ‘Here comes the short human in the yellow.'” Read more and hear the calls at “New Language Discovered: Prairiedogese.” Wildlife crossing: Architects and designers submitted entries to the International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition to develop the most effective structure to transport wildlife across highways. The goal of the competition was to create bridges, tunnels and other paths that would encourage wildlife to safely traverse roads, thereby reducing incidents of vehicle collisions with wild animals. As described by The New York Times, the winning “bridge is broad enough to allow for strips–lanes, actually–that resemble forests, shrubs and meadows, with the aim of satisfying the tastes of any of the...

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