Wildlife

Wildlife Wednesday: SOS! Save our spirit bears!

Plus: muscle re-growing beetles, hitchhiking black widows, root farming pocket gophers and a 40th chick for the world’s oldest common loon

A new ban on black bear hunting in B.C. aims to protect the province’s small population of spirit bears. (Photo: Norrie Franko/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Hunting black bears on the land of the Gitga’at and Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nations in the Great Bear Rainforest is now banned  as part of a plan to protect the province’s small population of spirit bears. 

The regulations cover over 8,000 square kilometers, about 13 per cent of the total area of the Great Bear Rainforest. 

Spirit bears, also known as kermode bears or moskgm’ol (“white bear”) by Tsimshian coastal First Nations, are black bears whose white coats are the result of a recessive gene. While hunting spirit bears on Gitga’at and Kitasoo/Xai’xais land was already outlawed, research indicates the gene is present in about one in 10 of black bears in British Columbia’s Central and North Coast regions. This means that ensuring the safety of black bear populations as a whole is the best way to protect spirit bears. 

Research indicates the recessive spirit bear gene is present in about one in 10 of black bears in British Columbia's Central and North Coast regions. (Photo: Ryan Smith/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Spirit bears have a strong cultural importance to many of B.C.’s Indigenous communities. They feature prominently in songs, dances, stories and teachings. Since 2006, the spirit bear has been the provincial mammal of British Columbia.

Muscle memory

The Colorado potato beetle can break down and regrow muscles on demand. (Photo: Melissa McMasters, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)
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A new study from Western University shows that Colorado potato beetles can deconstruct and regrow muscles on demand, helping them to conserve energy over the winter. 

Research indicates that the beetles, who spend winters hibernating, break down mitochondria in muscles they don’t use over the winter, such as those active during flight. As they wake up, the beetles spontaneously regrow their mitochondria in preparation for spring. 

“The ability to regrow an entire muscle’s worth of mitochondria is completely novel,” said Jackie Lebenzon, co-author of the study. It is still unknown whether other hibernating insects are capable of employing this same strategy. Outside of insects, these findings may also aid researchers working to help people suffering from various muscular diseases. 

The Colorado potato beetle, the subject of the study, is an invasive species in Canada which likely arrived from Northern Mexico sometime in the late 19th century. It is a garden pest which enjoys munching on eggplant, tomato and potato crops. 

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On the rebound

The world’s oldest documented common loon — and its most prolific — hatched her 40th chick this past July. (Photo: Philippe De Bruyne/Can Geo Photo Club)
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After breaking up with her long-time mate, Fe, the world’s oldest documented common loon — and its most prolific — hooked up with a new partner and hatched her 40th  chick this past July. Fe, who has been followed by researchers at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan since 1990, raised her past 32 chicks with ABJ. The two were together for 25 years, another record for the species, before their epic split. Their breakup was likely triggered by a chase from a younger loon pair that ousted them from their longtime home. They ended up in separate pools at the 95,000-acre wildlife refuge. 

Researchers believe Fe will now likely stay in the refuge through the fall to raise her late hatchling. Damon McCormick, from Common Coast Research & Conservation, has posted information about the famous loons on the refuge’s Facebook page. Future posts will address ABJ’s new adventures, the likelihood of an ABJ-Fe reunion in 2023 or beyond, and some histories of Fe’s previous chicks, many of which are now, themselves, breeding. 

Surprise, surprise

Black widows occasionally hitch a ride on produce, making their way to Canada from the U.S. or Mexico without being detected by inspectors. (Photo: Sheri Rypstra/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Was their spidey sense tingling? A couple in Barrie, Ont., got a shock recently when they discovered a live black widow spider inside a carton of grapes.

It’s not the first time a black widow has been found at a Canadian grocery store. The spiders occasionally hitch a ride on produce, making their way from the U.S. or Mexico without being detected by inspectors. And grapes, it seems, are their transportation of choice. Over the past few years, there have been news reports of black widows found in grapes in both P.E.I. and Newfoundland. The good news is that most black widows are not aggressive unless physically disturbed. The bad news? If they do bite, their venom can lead to painful muscle cramps and spasms. The Nature Conservancy of Canada notes that although black widows don’t live naturally in Barrie, their geographical range in Canada includes the southernmost areas of at least five provinces, from British Columbia to Ontario, but they can travel as far east as the Maritimes. 

Putting down roots

Pocket gophers may have been involved in farming activities longer than humans. (Photo: Wade Tregaskis/Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0])
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They may not plant the crops, but some researchers are calling pocket gophers the first non-human animals to farm. A recent study published in Current Biology reported that pocket gophers have been involved in farming activities longer than humans — spending their lives creating underground labyrinths and carefully tending (then eating) the roots that grow into their subterranean maze.

The gophers aerate the soil in the tunnels through their constant burrowing, creating the perfect environment for new roots to thrive. The ingenious mammals then break off larger roots to encourage the root systems to branch out. Finally, they fertilize these roots by distributing their feces and urine throughout the tunnels as needed. The constant root growth along the tunnel walls provides the guinea-pig sized mammals with nutritious meals as they move along on their daily commute. The authors note that the root systems provide 21 to 62 percent of the gophers’ energy requirements (they supplement their diet with stems, weeds and grasses above ground). Pocket gophers, which live in the grasslands of North and Central America, are the first mammals to be observed undertaking farming behaviour.

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