Wildlife Wednesday: Gabby the oldest Great Lakes piping plover makes another successful migration

Plus: the stolen 200-kilo polar bear, the bat that leapfrogs its way home, and the weird ancient tree straight out of The Lorax

Photo: Jim Hudgins/USFWS
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Fifteen is the new six! So says Gabby, the oldest living Great Lakes piping plover. Giddy birdwatchers recently spotted the banded bird foraging at her favourite winter home in Georgia after making the roughly 1,600-kilometre migration from her summer breeding grounds in the Great Lakes. Piping plovers, which are listed as endangered in both Canada and the U.S., are threatened due to habitat loss and disturbance. Luckily, nearly all piping plovers are banded, allowing researchers to gather data, identify individual birds as they migrate back and forth between their summer and winter habitats, and determine strategies to aid in their recovery, including protecting and expanding their preferred territories. The average life span of an adult piping plover is about five to six years. Read more about Gabby’s life journey (she has so far fledged 33 chicks!) here.

Cold case


Photo: Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr
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Let’s call it the ultimate polar plunge. As record cold temperatures gripped Alberta in late January, thieves took the opportunity to pull off a most unusual heist — dragging a massive taxidermy polar bear down a flight of stairs and to freedom. The conditions were perfect, with security patrols at the Lily Lake Resort north of Edmonton cancelled as most people hunkered down to wait out bitter chill. The thieves broke into the resort, cut the steel cables securing the roughly 200-kilo bear, known as Harry, and slid him out the front door. Police have asked residents to be on the watch for any attempts to sell the bear online — the going rate for a mounted polar bear is about $30,000 — but so far no Harry sightings. Interestingly, the thieves ignored the stuffed bison, muskox and cougar, which also reside at the resort. A similar theft last August saw two stuffed raccoons smuggled out.  


Leapfrog effect

Photo: Marie Jullion/WIkimedia Commons
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You may have seen those videos of bats heading out for a night of foraging, the skies turning dark as they flow out from the roost and spread out in an ever-widening radius. But what about their return? Researchers studying greater horseshoe bats in England, have found that that’s a whole different story, with the bats in a colony flying back to the roost in a “leapfrogging” pattern that allows them to maximise their time out and stay safe from predators.

The bats, which were radio-tagged, would gradually make their way home after about two hours, but as they began to return, the furthest bat out never appeared to want to be at the periphery so would leapfrog past the next closest, creating a cascading motion. The paper surmises that the furthest-out bat would sense it was a prime target for predators and so start to head back. The next furthest-out bat would do the same — and so on. Bats would know they were on the edge if they were not detecting calls emanating from all directions. Though other bat species may operate in different ways, the researchers believe that, by unravelling the mysteries of how bats navigate their environment, they can better model their nightly movements and, in doing so, better identify and protect both roosts and foraging grounds.

Weird tree

Photo: Tim Stonesifer
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An ancient tree from an era before dinosaurs roamed the Earth has been found in a New Brunswick quarry… and it’s just plain weird. The fossil was discovered by researchers from St. Mary’s University and the New Brunswick Museum in Sanford quarry in Norton, N.B., where they were searching for footprints belonging to pre-dinosaur (in fact, pre-reptile altogether) insects and amphibians. The sandstone there comes from the bottom of an ancient lake, so deep that there was no oxygen in the lowest depths to promote decay. Instead of footprints, they found a tree trunk embedded in a boulder, complete with branches and leaves of a type they’d never seen before. Well, almost never. “What it really does look like is one of those truffula trees from The Lorax,” Olivia King, a researcher that co-discovered the fossil, said in an interview with CBC. The trees she referred are the bizarre, colourful trees found in a Dr. Seuss picture book used to produce clothing called “thneeds.”

Named Sanfordiacaulis densifolia, the new fossil species was a little taller than a human at around three metres, with a spindly stem poking into a mop of long leaves.

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