Wildlife

Wildlife Wednesday: how a pandemic heli-ski shutdown expanded the range of B.C. caribou

Plus: orca don’t love metal music, orangutans get new home at Toronto Zoo, Dominica protects ‘carbon heroes’ of the sea, and crickets boost acoustic efficiency in surprising ways

  • Published Nov 22, 2023
  • Updated Nov 28
  • 1,067 words
  • 5 minutes
A pause in heli-skiing during the pandemic saw the range of some B.C. caribou almost double. (Photo: BC Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure/Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED])
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“Without any physical changes to the landscape, just our presence can affect how wildlife use space in the natural environment.” 

That’s the conclusion of Ryan Gill, biologist at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, after leading a study on a pause in B.C. heli-skiing operations during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic that saw some endangered caribou populations more than double their home-ranges. 

Published in the journal Animal Conservation, the study focused on southern mountain caribou. In Canada they were once so numerous that an entire region of B.C. was named after them. But continued logging of their forest habitat, which they depend on for their main winter food source, tree lichen, means southern mountain caribou now number only 3,800 animals, scattered across B.C. and Alberta. These days, few people who live in the Cariboo have ever seen one.

Forced to adapt, the caribou now migrate with the seasons from low- to high-elevation old growth forests. However, this winter range today overlaps with heli-skiing operations. This area of human disturbance stretches over 40,000 square kilometers. 

When Canada closed its borders in 2020 in response to COVID-19, an 84 per cent decline in skier days across B.C. gave Gill and his colleagues their chance to measure the impact of this disturbance. They fitted 120 female caribou with tracking collars and released them back into three sub-populations across B.C. During this time, the scientists saw the mean home-range of the three caribou groups grow 80 to 120 per cent larger than in years when ski operations were as normal. Their movement also shot up, climbing to 11.9 square kilometres from 7.8 square kilometres in 2019 (pre ski pause) and 8.7 square kilometres in 2021 (post ski pause). “It’s been shocking,” says Gill.

Metal for orcas

Playing heavy metal to scare off troublesome orca just makes things worse. (Photo: PxHere [CC0 Public Domain])
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How do you start an orca mosh pit? By blasting heavy metal music at them — a lesson one catamaran captain and his crew learned the hard way. 

Florian Rutsch, who was captaining his boat across the Strait of Gibraltar, and his crew came face-to-face with a pod of orcas, who have, like numerous others around Portugal and Spain in the last year, taken a liking to ramming vessels. For a solution, they turned to the Spotify playlist “Metal for Orcas” to scare away the troublesome orca. In a shocking twist of fate, blasting compositions such as Dying Fetus’s “The Blood of Power” and Monument of Misanthropy’s “Exceptionally Sadistic” at a group of 4000 kilogram apex predators did not work out in the crew’s favour.

The orcas promptly went for the vessel’s rudder, rendering it impossible to steer. All crew members were ultimately rescued, and Spanish authorities towed the catamaran back to shore, according to the New York Times.

Marine scientists have warned against using loud music to scare killer whales away, saying that it’s more likely to attract the whales to your boat, and any music loud enough to actually deter the whales would most likely injure them and add to the increasing issue of underwater noise pollution.

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Hanging out

An orangutan swings through Toronto Zoo's new;y designed orangutan habitat. (Photo: Lorne Bridgman)
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How do you make the world’s largest arboreal mammal, used to hanging from the trees of Sumatra’s tropical rainforests, feel at home in the city of Toronto?

That’s the question Toronto Zoo and architectural firms Zeidler and Jones & Jones hope to have answered in designing a first-of-its-kind in Canada orangutan habitat, named Orangutans of Gunang Leuser, Guardians of the Rainforest. 

The 1200 square metre habitat is designed to encourage orangutans to lead an enriched life, moving freely and as they would in their natural habitat. But it also aims to educate the public on the importance of animal welfare and habitat conservation. The habitat “immerses both orangutan and guest in a meaningful, one-of-a-kind experience,” says Zeidler architect, Edward Chan. 

To achieve this, the designers took inspiration from the landscapes of Sumatra. The structures emulate natural tree canopies using climbing poles, platforms, cables and chutes. The outdoor habitats are also weaved into an existing indoor habitat in the Indo-Malaya pavilion. Observation windows are installed at an angle to minimize reflection, and visitors can also observe behavioural scientists as they study the orangutans.

Toronto Zoo welcomed a baby orangutan last year, which will no doubt love swinging around the new habitat. 

Carbon heroes

By protecting sperm whales, Dominica is helping to fight climate change. (Photo: Gabriel Barathieu, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
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The Caribbean country of Dominica has created the world’s first protected area for sperm whales, with over 480 square kilometres of water on the western side of the island designated as a reserve for the endangered animals. 

The waters serve as key nursing and feeding grounds for sperm whales, of the largest animals on Earth. But beyond protecting the whales, scientists hope that the protected area will also help fight the climate crisis. Sperm whales defecate near the surface, resulting in nutrient-rich poop remaining near the sea-air interface. Plankton that exist in this ecosystem feed on the nutrients and then bloom, capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they photosynthesize and dragging it to the lower reaches of the water column when they die. 

Sperm whales in Dominica are believed to defecate more than whales elsewhere, according to Carleton University Department of Biology scientist Shane Gero, who has worked as an advisor to the Dominica government on the project. “In some respects,” says Gero, “sperm whales are fighting climate change on our behalf.” 

Ear to the ground

Crickets have multiple techniques to boost their acoustic efficiency. (Photo: Samuel Levy, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
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Researchers from Western University in London, Ont., have discovered how crickets are able to boost their volume, or acoustic efficiency, so well. The answer lies below their feet. 

Using computer models to model the acoustic output of the full range of wing sizes and call frequencies in crickets, the researchers first looked at the use of acoustic tools by crickets to boost their output. They found that the use of tools, such as a shaped leaf used as a baffle, can increase the efficiency of cricket calls, but is rarely used. Instead, crickets that call from the ground experience an order of magnitude increase in their acoustic efficiency. The ground is not an impediment, but an aid, reflecting sound upward and enhancing acoustic energy, according to the authors’ study.

The strategy is not only effective, but simple, making it a tool available to all animals.

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