Wildlife Wednesday: The incredible land-to-sea evolution of the whale eye

Plus: the ins-and-outs of a Vancouver zoo wolf break-out, caribou conservation controversy in Quebec, more marmots on Vancouver Island and the tick-busting pine needle discovered in Nova Scotia

A beluga's eye, the result of whales' long evolutionary path. (Photo: Eric Kilby/Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0])
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A new study from the University of Toronto has provided an explanation for how ancient land-faring ancestors of whales were able to adapt from seeing on land to seeing under the sea.

The findings indicate that the visual systems of the common ancestor of all cetaceans — a group which includes modern whales, dolphins and porpoises — included a protein called rhodopsin that’s especially sensitive to the dim, blue light found in the deep ocean. This advantageous trait allowed it to deep dive down to 200 meters below the surface to find food. The same protein was found in both modern cetaceans and their ancestors. 

Ancient whale ancestors once wondered land, eventually hunting in the ocean before evolving into fully-aquatic animals. Numerous four-legged whale fossils have been found in an area in Egypt known as the “Valley of the Whales,” including a 43-million-year-old specimen found just last year.

“One of the most intriguing aspects of this iconic land-to-sea evolutionary transition is that the qualities of the visual environment completely changed,” says Belinda Chang, co-author of the study. 

Her and her team’s findings help to explain just how whales adapted to this change, before spreading out through the seas. 

Greater Vancouver Zoo break-in 

Wolves are social animals that bond with each other for life. When one dies, the whole pack is affected.. (Photo: Michael Cummings/Can Geo Photo Club)
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August was a difficult month for The Greater Vancouver Zoo after a break-in saw a perimeter fence cut and multiple grey wolves set loose. The zoo worked tirelessly over the following days to locate and recover the missing members of their wolf pack. 

Tempest and Chia, two young females, remained unaccounted for a few more days. Sadly, three-year-old Chia was later found dead by the side of a road, apparently hit by a car. One-year-old Tempest was retrieved three days later near the zoo’s property and reunited with her pack.

Tempest’s return came as a great relief to The Greater Vancouver Zoo, who stated their gratitude for Tempest’s return while mourning Chia’s loss. The RCMP are still investigating the break-in. 


Caring for caribou

Environmental groups have been critical of Quebec’s new plan to protect woodland caribou, citing a lack of concrete measures. (Photo: Jean-Simon Bégin/Can Geo Photo Club)
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The Quebec government has announced new plans to “maintain, protect and restore” its populations of woodland caribou, with financial assistance coming from the federal government.

The announcement comes after prolonged talks between the Quebec and Canadian governments, the latter having previously accused Quebec of not doing enough to protect the species. Caribou have been recognized as vulnerable in Quebec since 2005 and certain populations, such the Charlevoix and Gaspé herds, are on the verge of extinction.

Certain environmental groups, such as the Society for Nature and Parks (SNAP Quebec), are calling into question the effectiveness of these new measures. “There is no concrete progress in what is announced today,” reads a statement from the organization. The new plan is accused of being light on details and devoid of specific strategies. Caribou require large tracts of undisturbed forest in order to feed and avoid predators. Nationwide, the biggest threat to their survival is habitat fragmentation from roads, timber harvesting and other developments; critics argue that Quebec’s new plan will do little to stave off these intrusions. 

More, more, marmots!

Every road trip has a chatterbox. Just ask Kevin Gourlay, field coordinator for the Marmot Recovery Foundation, who last month travelled with 15 young marmots on his way to releasing them in the wild.

The Vancouver Island marmot is one of the rarest animals on Earth. It was almost gone in 2003, when fewer than 30 individuals were left in the wild. An ongoing, successful conservation effort has raised their numbers to around 250 today.

This summer, the Marmot Recovery Foundation released 30 marmots across Vancouver Island’s subalpine meadows, and during one of those trips, one vocal female caught Gourlay’s attention. She was called Ellen, and oh boy… she was a talker!

“Once she got loaded at the back of the truck, she began whistling non-stop,” says Gourlay. “The trip took a couple of hours and all the other marmots were quiet in their cages. But Ellen was whistling the whole time.” 

Ellen travelled by truck, helicopter and on a crew member’s back on her way to being released near her new burrow. The Vancouver Island marmots are not out of the woods yet, but their ongoing recovery is promising.

A balsam for our ails

Balsam fir needles could prove an effective method of controlling tick populations. (Photo: (Ryan Hodnett/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0])
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If you’ve spent enough time on hiking trails you’ll probably have encountered a blacklegged tick. Always a concern due to the Lyme disease-causing bacteria they carry, news of an effective repellent is always welcome.

In a new study, Shelley Adamo, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University in Halifax, concluded that an oil present in balsam fir needles can be effective in preventing ticks from surviving winter.

The results of her three-year study could help control blacklegged tick populations. During her experiment, all the ticks that were kept in tubes with balsam fir needles didn’t survive the winter, while other ticks paired with oak and maple leaves performed much better.

Adamo thinks that winter is an overlooked season for controlling ticks since they are more vulnerable in the cold. Her research may lead us to a new kind of outdoor adventure when ticks won’t be a concern anymore.


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