Wildlife Wednesday: the titanic ants that once roamed prehistoric B.C.

Plus: bald eagles take to farms, a wayward puffin shows up in New Brunswick, new study finds not all orca hunt the same, and a new approach to hatching salmon

Due to intense geological pressure, the fossilized ant is distorted, and scientists aren’t sure just how big it was when it was alive. (Photo: courtesy of Bruce Archibald)
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Giant ants once walked among us. 

Researchers recently discovered the fossil of a giant ant, known as the titanic ant, in Princeton, B.C., that lived about 50 million years ago. Prior to this finding, ants this size — estimated to have been up to half a foot long when alive — have largely been found in Wyoming and Germany, but with this new geographical discovery, it challenges what scientists believed about these insects. 

These ants loved hot, tropical temperatures — and while Wyoming and Germany don’t invoke a beachy getaway nowadays, their climate was similar to the tropics when the giant ants were in their heyday. Just as well, the two continents were still connected during this period, so the trip from Europe to the U.S. wasn’t a tough one for the insects. 

Although Canada’s then-climate wasn’t severely cold, it wasn’t tropical either, explaining why this is the first titanic ant found in the country. Generally, the colder the temperatures, the smaller the insect. So with this newfound fossil in Canada, which is distorted due to rock compression, more research is needed to figure out just how big this ant was — and how these giants survived in the country’s climate.

Ranch wings

Most of Canada’s bald eagle population is found on the Pacific coast of British Columbia. (Photo: Richard Lee/Unsplash)
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With climate change altering the salmon spawn schedule, a new study shows bald eagles in Washington state are instead flocking to farmland to feast — but despite popular belief, this is a mutually beneficial relationship for both birds and farmers. 

As the climate warms and salmon spawn earlier in the spring season when water levels are higher, the fish that don’t survive are no longer washing up on the shore for eagles to scavenge. Instead, the birds are going to dairy farms to find by-products like cattle carcasses. They also prey on waterfowls and rodents — pests in the farming community that feed on agricultural areas. 

While this may seem like a positive outcome as a result of climate change, this occurrence is abnormal and specific to farms with large animals. Bald eagles still pose a large threat to poultry farms where chickens are easy pickings. 

As for the salmon, numbers are decreasing along the Pacific Northwest, which further eliminates food resources for bald eagles into the winter months.


Puffin peril

Normally found on Machias Seal Island in the bay of Fundy during summer and the open Atlantic during winter, it’s very unusual to find the puffin so far inland — especially by itself. (Photo: David Gordon)
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A wayward Atlantic puffin was found flapping around on a busy road far from its home in Riverview, New Brunswick earlier this March. Drivers were forced to swerve to avoid the bird as it ventured into the roadway, including David Gordon, who afterwards darted out into traffic to rescue the imperiled puffin.

Luckily, the puffin was in good shape with no signs of injury and spent the car ride to the nearest animal hospital peering out the window.

Normally found on Machias Seal Island in the bay of Fundy during summer and the open Atlantic during winter, it’s very unusual to find the puffin so far inland — especially by itself. Atlantic Puffins are social birds that live in colonies, but this little puffin was the only one called in, indicating that this puffin was a lone wanderer rather than a part of a flock that got blown off course.

Whether this puffin was lost and separated from its colony or a headstrong introvert remains unknown, but it will be released into the open ocean by the Atlantic Wildlife Institute, close to Machias Seal Island where it can find its way back to its colony.

Good whale hunting

(Photo: Thomas Lipke/Unsplash)
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With only 73 individuals left, the southern resident orca population is now back to mid-1970s levels — before the capture of orcas for theme parks ended. Yet, the northern resident population has grown steadily in population during the same period.

The two groups have similar diets, social structures and overlapping territory, leaving scientists puzzled over their opposing fates.

A possible explanation has been offered thanks to new study from the University of Washington and NOAA Fisheries, which has revealed unexpected differences in how the two populations hunt for salmon, their primary food source.

In the northern population, females were found to hunt and capture more prey, whereas in the southern population, males are the primary providers. Male orcas are known for their complex relationships with their mothers — in fact, if their mother is alive, northern resident males are even lazier and hunt even less, in contrast to southern resident males who hunt even more. Perhaps hunting is best left to the females, however, as overall the southern residents had fewer successful hunts, indicating they were catching less food than their northern counterparts.

In the past, scientists have made assumptions about the two groups to fill in knowledge gaps when designing interventions to help southern resident orcas, but these substantial differences in behaviour patterns affirm that southern and northern resident orcas should not be treated identically.

The researchers hope their work will lead to more effective population management of southern residents, good news for northern and southern orcas alike!

Spawn to be wild

During spawning season, coho salmon develop hooked teeth and a hooked beak, called a kype. (Photo: Oregon Department of Forestry/Wikimedia Commons)
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Humans have been helping salmon to spawn since the late-19th century. Nowadays, hatcheries in B.C. release approximately 300 million juvenile Pacific salmon every year. But with a new study analyzing the last 50 years of the practice, researchers have found that there is definite room for improvement.

The Pacific Salmon Foundation researchers found that adjusting release times — for example, releasing the Chinook salmon earlier and coho salmon later — can improve survival rates. But with over 9,000 distinct populations of Pacific salmon in B.C. alone, strategies are dependent on the species and environmental conditions. As climate change alters weather patterns, it’s important for hatcheries to be adaptive to provide the fish the best survival outcomes. Quite literally, there’s no catch-all solution.

As this study continues past the first phase, researchers are analyzing the interactions between wild and hatchery fish, creating methods to avoid putting wild salmon at risk, including damaging genetics and overharvesting.

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