Wildlife Wednesday: Toronto Zoo welcomes twin snow leopard cubs!

Plus: mercury rising in the North Atlantic, borers hitting Vancouver, killer whales diving on a single breath, and falcons feeling the effect of banned chemicals

Two snow leopard cubs were born at the Toronto Zoo earlier this week (Photo: Toronto Zoo)
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Snow in May! The Toronto Zoo welcomed two new snow leopard cubs as three-year-old Jita gave birth overnight on May 13. The cubs, both healthy, came after a 97-day pregnancy and a few hours of labour. Wildlife Care monitored Jita through remote cameras, watching for any distress or trouble but only observed the typical signs of labour including rolling, circling and laboured breathing. The first cub was born at 7:45 p.m. with the second following in the early morning of May 14. 

The Toronto Zoo said that Jita and the cubs are doing well and Jita, a first time mother, is diligently cuddling and caring for them. Wildlife Care is watching all three closely through CCTV cameras to ensure their safe development and minimize disturbing the family. Due to the vulnerable status of the snow leopards on the International Union for Conservation of Nature list, the Toronto Zoo is part of the snow leopard Species Survival Plan. The plan includes a breeding program aiming to preserve the snow leopard population in human care. 

These “ghost cats” aren’t commonly seen in the wild and the new family are not currently available for public viewing at the Toronto Zoo.

Mercury rising

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica), equipped with a geotracking device (Photo: Sébastien Descamps)
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It’s well known that mercury is toxic to both wildlife and humans, but what’s less clear is how mercury travels through marine food webs. Now, an international study, which pulls data from across the North Atlantic and Atlantic Arctic regions, is teasing apart mercury distribution — using birds. The research team — who hailed from France, Norway, Iceland, Faroe Islands, Scotland, Russia and Canada — collected GPS tracking data from 837 seabirds from seven different species and 27 breeding colonies across the North Atlantic and Atlantic Arctic between 2015 and 2018. The scientists also analyzed mercury concentration in feathers to get an approximation of individual seabird contamination, based on their winter distribution.

The study, published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that mercury concentrations were three times higher on the eastern coast of Canada and in southern Greenland than they were in the Barents and Kara seas (north of Norway and Russia). The data showed an east-west gradient in the North Atlantic, with the lowest concentrations in western Iceland, northern Norway and in the White Sea (a southern inlet of the Barents Sea, on the northwest coast of Russia). The researchers note that melting ice sheets and changing ocean currents may be influencing mercury distributions in the Atlantic Ocean.


Bored to death

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They’re mean, green boring machines. The invasive emerald ash borer has killed millions of ash trees in eastern Canada since being discovered in Windsor, Ont., in 2002. Now the metallic green insect — a small wood-boring beetle native to eastern Asia — has been detected at several parks in Vancouver, B.C., according to a press release from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The reaction to this news was swift: “It’s a very aggressive beetle that has caused mass destruction in Ontario and Quebec. I’ve walked through those forests, it’s all ghost trees that turned grey,” Richard Hamelin, head of the forest conservation sciences department at the University of B.C., told the Vancouver Sun

The city, which is estimated to be home to more than 7,000 ash trees, is now looking at options to curb the emerald ash borer’s spread. Methods typically used to try to stop an infestation include removing infested ash trees so adult insects cannot fly to other trees in the area and inoculating ash trees with a pesticide that interferes with the beetle’s reproductive cycle.

Killer breath control

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A new study published in PLOS One confirms the long-held belief that northern and southern resident orcas only take one breath between dives. The University of British Columbia study saw researchers use drone imagery and data from suction-cupped tags on 11 resident killer whales along B.C.’s coast. 

The study found that most orcas spend their time making shallow dives, with 8.5 minutes as the longest dive recorded by an adult male. The majority of dives last less than one minute. The orcas in the study took an average of 1.5 to 1.8 breaths per minute while hunting or travelling and 1.2 to 1.3 breaths per minute while resting. “It’s the equivalent of holding your breath and running to the grocery store, shopping, and coming back before breathing again,” says co-author Beth Volpov.

The findings help scientists estimate how much oxygen orcas consume, which in turn can tell us how much energy they expend. This helps researchers estimate how much fish the killer whales must eat to sustain themselves — crucial information in conservation efforts.

Poison pill

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They may be the fastest animal on the planet, but peregrine falcons can’t seem to outfly the banned chemicals that have been harming them for decades. Some three decades after toxic flame retardants were phased out, a new study in Environmental Science & Technology found that the bodies of peregrines (unhatched eggs were sampled between 1984 and 2016) are still laced with the highest levels of the toxic chemicals of any animal in North America. 

The family of chemicals known as PBDEs affect the falcons’ hormones, which can lead to thinner egg shells or chicks that are either much smaller or much larger than normal. Scientists think the long-lived chemicals may still be getting into the food chain through landfills or when old buildings are demolished and the flame retardants re-enter the environment. Past studies have also documented lake sediment contaminated with these chemicals — when the sediment gets churned up, the chemicals are released. Despite the high levels of contamination still being found in peregrine falcon eggs, the species has seen a remarkable comeback in recent decades and has been removed from endangered species lists.


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