Wildlife

Wildlife Wednesday: Washington cougar boldly swims where no cougar has swam before

Plus: Honey bees love a puzzle and the efforts to save bison in Saskatoon, caribou in Jasper and spotted owls in B.C.

A cougar tracked by the Olympic Cougar Project in Washington swam to an uninhabited island more than a kilometre off the coast of Puget Sound. (Photo: Pixabay)
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Cougars aren’t known for their love of water, but one young cougar from the Olympic Peninsula, Wash., has bucked that trend by taking a lengthy swim in the cold, orca-filled waters of the Salish Sea. 

In late January, M161 — a cougar tracked by the Olympic Cougar Project in Washington — swam to an uninhabited island more than a kilometre off the coast of Puget Sound. This display of aquatic athleticism has provided wildlife ecologists with new insight into cougars’ capabilities and expanded the range of where cougars can feasibly live. 

The Olympic Peninsula cougar population has the lowest genetic diversity and highest rates of inbreeding of all cougars in Washington due to their isolation from the mainland. As their gene pool shrinks, the population’s ability to adapt to changes in the ecosystem decreases, leaving the cougars more susceptible to threats such as disease. In response, the Olympic Cougar Project has been working to expand the home range of these cougars, and M161’s swim introduces new possibilities for accessible habitats. 

Whether all cougars possess the ability to cover the same distance as M161 remains a question, but wildlife ecologist John Benson says that a cougar’s motivation for attempting such a daring swim is likely a matter of life or death. 

Abuzz for puzzles

Bees are great problem solvers and fast learners. (Photo: Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay)
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Bees are better team players than we thought! A new study from Queen Mary University of London found that bumblebees were able to solve puzzles by watching their peers complete them first.

Experts first trained a set of bees to open a container that held a sugar treat by pressing either a blue button, which turned the lid clockwise, or a red button, turning it counter-clockwise, while another set of “observer” bees watched. Both buttons opened the container. The experts found the observer bees quickly caught on to the trick, copying what the initial group did 98 per cent of the time and out-performing them in the task. 

Experts didn’t have much previous evidence of bees’ ability to work together to solve problems, but it now looks like this behaviour plays a significant role in bee colonies. They even found that trends would form regarding which button bees used to solve the puzzle within separate colonies.

Maybe we can teach bees to “sit” or “shake-a-paw” next!

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Bison back

As North America's longest and heaviest terrestrial land animal, the wood bison can weigh up to 1000 kilograms. (Photo: WikiImages/Pixabay)
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Often found inhabiting the boreal forests in the western provinces and territories, wood bison live in small herds that have further dwindled as disease, climate change and unethical hunting practices ravage their species. But as experts in cellular biology in Saskatoon develop a way to preserve bison sperm and increase genetic diversity, Canada’s largest land animal has a greater chance of survival. 

By creating specific techniques for freezing wood bison cells and tissues to preserve male bison genetics for artificial insemination, and finding new ways to rapidly detect diseases that threaten the species, these scientists are working to form a larger, healthier population. 

Through this process, they’re able to create an advanced genetic pool, reducing the risk of diseases like bovine tuberculosis and bovine brucellosis. This would prevent miscarriages caused by these diseases as well, so as this research develops, the potential to discover genes for disease resistance grows.

A hoot for help

a single pair of spotted owls requires 30 kilometres of old-growth forest. (Photo: Courtesy of the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program)
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There are only four known wild northern spotted owls left in B.C., one of which is in a rehabilitation facility recovering from an injury, and environmental groups across the province are calling on the government for immediate action.

These birds are an old-growth-dependent species, meaning that a single pair of spotted owls requires 30 kilometres of old-growth forest. But as the forest industry continues to deplete old-growth resources, two environmental groups and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change are urging for emergency conservation measures to be taken. 

Even with these efforts being made, experts estimate it could be more than 50 years before there is a sustainable number of northern spotted owls in the wild.

This is the injured owl’s second time in the rehabilitation centre. He was first released back in August, but was found injured near a set of train tracks in October and has been recovering since then. Those taking care of him hope to release him soon.

Hooves on the ground

Parks Canada is moving forward with the implementation of a caribou conservation breeding program in Jasper National Park. (Photo: Annie K/Unsplash)
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Parks Canada is moving forward with the implementation of a caribou conservation breeding program in Jasper National Park that will target the woodland caribou living in the Park’s region. The program aims to rebuild the declining population of caribou that is too small to recover on its own.

Conservation breeding involves capturing a small number of wild animals, breeding them in captivity, then releasing the offspring back into the wild to increase the population. Parks Canada plans to begin construction on a breeding center in Jasper this year — where there are currently three herds, including Tonquin, Brazeau and À la Pêche — and it could be ready for caribou as early as 2025.

The hope is that caribou recovery will support other species at risk as well as the overall biodiversity within their ecosystems. Woodland caribou are one of six species identified as a priority for Pan-Canadian conservation action by federal, provincial, and territorial governments — in part due to caribou’s important cultural value to shared Canadian and Indigenous heritage.

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