Wildlife

Wildlife Wednesday: 14 new pups born at Vancouver Island marmot “dream home”

Plus: “Poptart” the humpback whale spotted with newborn calf, world-record poison ivy found in Ontario, wing spots give monarch butterflies migration boost, and the ups-and-downs of mountain chickadee breeding

A Vancouver Island marmot snapped by a volunteer for the Marmot Recovery Foundation. (Photo: Troy Wood/Can Geo Photo Club)
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The Vancouver Island marmot, a species found only on Vancouver Island and Canada’s most endangered mammal, just received a boost in their numbers thanks to the birth of 14 pups.

The pups were the first born at Calgary-based Wilder Institute’s new conservation breeding and research facility, the Archibald Biodiversity Centre. The Wilder Institute transfers marmot pups born in Alberta over to the Marmot Recovery Foundation in British Columbia, who then release them into the wild — a big boost with less than 400 currently left in the wild — or in some cases retain them in their breeding programmes to maintain genetic diversity. In July, a decision will be made on the fate of the 14 pups. 

The baby boom follows the opening of the new Archibald Biodiversity Centre this year, described as a “marmot dream home.” New features available to the marmots include soundproof walls to allow undisturbed sleep, separated walls to prevent quarrels, and an extended underground dig-out curtain in the outdoor habitat that allowed them to perform natural behaviours such as digging underground burrows. This means that the marmots may choose to give birth underground rather than in the more human-accessible nest boxes — a consequence of which is that more surprise pups could be on their way.

Whale of a time

Humpback whale breaches. (Public domain CC0 image) More: View public domain image source here
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A trio of newborn humpback whale calves are among the first humpback whales spotted in the Salish Sea this season. The calves were seen with their mothers — including Humpback BCY1404, also known as “Poptart,” a whale watching crowd’s favourite named for the way she breaches out of water like a pop tart springing from a toaster. 

Poptart was spotted with a potential calf earlier this spring at breeding grounds off the coast of Maui, Hawaii, along with fellow new mom BCY0523. The third mother, BCX1675, was reported with a calf off Isla Socorro, Mexico, over the winter. Baby humpbacks seen in the Salish Sea are typically born between late December and February, meaning the three calves are between four and six months old. 

“These babies are just discovering their water world,” Erin Gless with the Pacific Whale Watch Association told CBC. As a result, they are not yet used to being around vessels. Because of this, whale watchers and other boaters must maintain a distance of at least 200 metres when viewing baby humpbacks instead of the usual 100 metres. 

Poptart, her calf and their fellow humpbacks will continue to wow whale watchers in the area until late fall while feeding on krill, herring and other small fish.

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Ivy league

Poison ivy can grow to monstrous sizes. (CC0 Public Domain)
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What’s tall, famous and located in Paris? The tallest poison ivy in the world, of course! Officially ratified by the Guinness Book of World Records, a poison ivy found on a farm in Paris, Ontario, has been declared a Guinness World Record holder. Discovered by Robert Fedrock in a wooded area on his farm, it’s been described as looking like “a hair creature from Stranger Things.” Usually growing between 60 and 90 centimetres, surveyors measured this one at 20.75 metres — the length of two school buses. 

While admitting most people would want to have the poisonous plant removed from their land, and after being stung himself, Fedrock has no intention of doing so himself. Poison ivy is a native species in Ontario and plays an important role in the ecosystem, providing a source of food for local wildlife. “I think it’s a majestic plant,” Fedrock told CBC. “I think cutting it down would be a horrible thing to do.” See images of the record-holding plant here.

Racing spots

The spots on butterfly wings are for more than just show. (Photo: Skyler Ewing)
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Every fall, millions of North American monarch butterflies attempt a nearly 5,000-kilometer flight from southern Canada to warmer climates in the mountain forests of Mexico. Every year, that journey becomes a little more perilous as the climate changes. But a new study points to an unlikely survival mechanism: the little white spots on monarch butterflies’ wings.

Researchers at the University of Georgia analyzed nearly 400 butterfly wings collected at various stages of their annual journey. The team found that successful migrants had up to 3 per cent less black space on their wings and approximately 3 per cent more white pigment in the form of bigger or more numerous white spots.

While scientists concede more research is needed to conclusively determine how larger white spots contribute to successful migration, they do have a theory.

Migrating monarchs are exposed to a substantial amount of solar energy. Because darker surfaces absorb more heat and white surfaces reflect it, the butterfly wings are warmed unevenly. The team believes that the combination of temperatures could create “micro-eddies” of air currents above the monarchs’ wings, thereby reducing air resistance.

High times

Mountain chickadee. (Photo: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren/Flickr)
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For 10 years, a team of researchers from the University of Nevada and the University of Western Ontario maintained 350 chickadee nest-boxes on the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Now, they’re using their findings to change what we know about mountainous bird breeding.

The team suggests the arrival of spring temperatures — a commonly-believed cue for birds to initiate breeding — isn’t the primary predictor for chickadees’ mating season in a changing climate. Using a decade of data gathered at low and high elevations, the team worked to determine what factors were really driving the timing and success of the birds’ reproduction.

Heavier, long-lasting snowpacks at higher levels were found to delay chickadee breeding. Meanwhile, at lower levels, drought conditions caused by lower snowfall reduced the number of annual chickadee nests. At all levels, the autumn conditions in the year prior were key for providing a steady supply of invertebrates, like worms and spiders, during the next year’s mating season.

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