L.A. Unleashed

All things animal in Southern
California and beyond

Category: Science

See Oscar the Bionic Cat in action [video]

We were astounded last week by Oscar, a cat outfitted with bionic back legs. After an unfortunate run-in with a combine harvester, the black cat ran into some good luck in the form of modern science and robotic appendages.

Mind-blowing story, but we just had to see this feline in action.

The BBC has a video illustrating the procedure and astounding results. For a quick peek at the bionic kitty, check out the YouTube video we stumbled across, embedded at the top of this post.

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-- Mark Milian
twitter.com/markmilian

Researchers find 'shocking' levels of metal contaminants in the bodies of sperm whales

Sperm whales

AGADIR, Morocco — Sperm whales feeding even in the most remote reaches of Earth's oceans have built up stunningly high levels of toxic and heavy metals, according to American scientists who say the findings spell danger not only for marine life but for the millions of humans who depend on seafood.

A report released Thursday noted high levels of cadmium, aluminum, chromium, lead, silver, mercury and titanium in tissue samples taken by dart gun from nearly 1,000 whales over five years. From polar areas to equatorial waters, the whales ingested pollutants that may have been produced by humans thousands of miles away, the researchers said.

"These contaminants, I think, are threatening the human food supply. They certainly are threatening the whales and the other animals that live in the ocean," said biologist Roger Payne, founder and president of Ocean Alliance, the research and conservation group that produced the report.

The researchers found mercury as high as 16 parts per million in the whales. Fish high in mercury such as shark and swordfish -- the types health experts warn children and pregnant women to avoid -- typically have levels of about 1 part per million.

The whales studied averaged 2.4 parts of mercury per million, but the report's authors said their internal organs probably had much higher levels than the skin samples contained.

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British 'bionic' cat back on the move after receiving prosthetic paws

Oscar the bionic cat

LONDON — Oscar the cat may have lost one of his nine lives, but his new prosthetic paws make him one of the world's few bionic cats.

After losing his two rear paws in a nasty encounter with a combine harvester last October, the black cat with green eyes was outfitted with metallic pegs that link the ankles to new prosthetic feet and mimic the way deer antlers grow through skin. Oscar is now back on his feet and hopping over hurdles like tissue paper rolls.

After Oscar's farming accident, which happened when the 2 1/2-year-old cat was lazing in the sun in the British Channel Isles, his owners, Kate and Mike Nolan, took him to their local veterinarian. In turn, the vet referred Oscar to Dr. Noel Fitzpatrick, a neuro-orthopedic surgeon in Eashing, 35 miles southwest of London.

Together with biomedical engineering experts, Fitzpatrick gave Oscar two metal prosthetic implants, or pegs. Those were attached to custom-built faux paws that are a bit wobbly, to imitate a cat's natural walk. But first, he covered the brown implants with black tape to match Oscar's fur.

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Saltwater crocodiles can body-surf across South Pacific seas, research suggests

Saltwater crocodile

CANBERRA, Australia — Crocodiles can surf ocean currents to take long leisurely journeys across open seas in the South Pacific, a researcher said Wednesday.

The research by a group of Australian ecologists published this week in the British Ecological Society's "Journal of Animal Ecology" explains how the world's largest living reptile came to occupy so many South Pacific islands despite having little stamina for swimming.

Like a surfer catching a wave, estuarine crocodiles -- which can grow up to 20 feet -- can ride currents to cross hundreds of miles of open sea, study author Hamish Campbell said.

The research began in 2002 in the tropics of Australia's Queensland state and involved environmentalist and television personality Steve Irwin, the so-called Crocodile Hunter who was killed by a stingray barb off Queensland in 2006.

Campbell, a University of Queensland ecologist, teamed up with government rangers and the Irwin family's Australia Zoo to tag 27 adult crocodiles in the remote Kennedy River. They used sonar transmitters and underwater receivers to track their movements over 12 months.

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Nature Conservancy floods fields in an attempt to help wildlife and farmers

Birds2

LA CONNER, Wash. — Three-inch deep water would seem to be about the last thing Dave Hedlin would want to see on the field where he grows cucumbers, potatoes and other crops near northern Washington's Skagit Bay.

But for the last three years, the third-generation farmer has taken part in an experiment that contradicts everything he's known about farming. For a fee, he agreed to flood about 20 acres to provide wetland habitat for migratory shorebirds, a move researchers hoped would also result in more productive farmland.

"Our grandparents spent all their time trying to keep this land well-drained and dry," said Hedlin, who acknowledged skepticism when conservationists offered to pay him to flood part of his farm.

The effort, called Farming for Wildlife, included Hedlin and two other nearby property owners. Early results have been so positive that organizers at the Nature Conservancy, a group that works to protect land and rivers throughout the world, plans to replicate it in other parts of the country.

Hundreds of shorebirds fattened up in the flooded field during spring and fall migrations, and the farmers noted a spike in nitrogen, a key plant fertilizer, in their fields.

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New Guinea expedition discovers new long-nosed frog, tiny tree kangaroo, multicolored pigeon

Long-nosed frog

Finding a new animal species is a special moment for scientists and even better when one hops into their mountain camp and volunteers to be discovered.

An international team of researchers was camping in the Foja mountains of Indonesia when herpetologist Paul Oliver spied a frog sitting on a bag of rice in the campsite.

On closer look it turned out to be a previously unknown type of long-nosed frog. The scientists dubbed it Pinocchio.

When the frog is calling, its nose points upward, but it deflates when the animal is less active.

"We were sitting around eating lunch," recalled Smithsonian ornithologist Chris Milensky. Oliver "looked down and there's this little frog on a rice sack, and he managed to grab the thing."

"Herpetologists [experts in snakes, lizards etc.] have good reflexes," Milensky observed. "He also caught a gecko, he managed to just jump and grab the thing" off a tree.

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Lizards, despite being cold-blooded, are threatened by global warming, scientists say

Lizard

Sometimes it can be too darn hot even for a lizard.

Cold-blooded creatures that have to soak up the rays to get going might seem like the last animals you would expect to be threatened by global warming.

Well, you would be wrong, researchers say.

It turns out lizards are going extinct in many places, and scientists who have studied them say it's because of rising temperatures. The heats affects reproduction.

"The results were clear. These lizards need to bask in the sun to warm up, but if it gets too hot they have to retreat into the shade, and then they can't hunt for food," said Barry Sinervo of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz.

He said he was "stunned and saddened" by the finding, reported in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

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Elsewhere in The Times: Oxnard bear trapped, released; wildlife imperiled by Gulf oil spill; FDA warns dog owners against meat bones; and more!

Bear

-- The Times' local news blog, L.A. Now, reports that a 200-pound female black bear that scaled a tree in a heavily populated residential area of Oxnard before being shot with tranquilizers Tuesday was safely lowered from the tree and has since been released back into the wild. Firefighters had to fashion a makeshift harness and use a fire ladder to remove the groggy bear from the tree before it could be transferred to an undisclosed wilderness area for release. "This is the ending that we always hope for when dealing with bears that make their way into urban areas," Paul Hamdorf, assistant chief of enforcement for the state Department of Fish and Game, told The Times via e-mail. Although bear sightings are fairly common in other Southern California areas like Monrovia, officials are unsure how this particular bear made it to Oxnard. One theory is that it wandered down from the nearby Los Padres National Forest and traveled along the Santa Clara River before being spotted by a passerby on Vineyard Avenue at about 2:15 a.m. Tuesday.

-- Whales, dolphins, sea turtles and seabirds are among the wildlife species most at risk as a result of the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, The Times' environmental blog, Greenspace, reports. More than 70% of the nation's waterfowl are known to frequent the affected area, including brown pelicans; one major brown pelican rookery is located in the spill's projected path and has yet to recover from a previous oil spill that wreaked havoc with the population. A pod of endangered sperm whales has been sighted in the vicinity of the oil spill, but as of Thursday the pod had successfully avoided the affected area. Sea turtles may be more vulnerable to the oil. "It's a very complicated system that is sensitive to change in any piece of it," Karen Westphal, a coastal wetlands expert with the Louisiana Audubon Society, told Greenspace. "Our marshes are not a wall. This spill is not going to stay on that outer edge. It's a sieve."

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Elephants' newly discovered fear of bees could help prevent run-ins with African farmers

Elephant JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Eek, a bee!

Lore has it that elephants are afraid of mice, but scientists have now discovered that elephants are truly afraid of bees -- and that the pachyderms even sound an alarm when they encounter them. The researchers hope this discovery can help save farmers' crops from elephants.

And they hope it will save elephants too.

Conflict between humans and elephants in countries like Kenya occur often. A single hungry elephant can wipe out a family's crops overnight. Farmers will huddle by fires all night during the harvest season. When an elephant nears, the farmers spring up with flaming sticks while their children bang on pots and pans. Not all fields can be guarded, and sometimes the elephants aren't frightened off.

Farmers sometimes kill elephants for raiding their crops. Rampaging elephants have also killed people, and they are then hunted down by park rangers.

The discovery that elephants emit low-frequency alarm calls around bees could help lessen these conflicts, said Lucy King, a researcher into animal behavior whose paper on elephants alarm calls was published in a journal of the Public Library of Science last week.

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Giant Palouse earthworms found, but they aren't as 'giant' as expected

Worm

SPOKANE, Wash. — Two living specimens of the fabled giant Palouse earthworm have been captured for the first time in two decades in what represents a significant discovery of a creature that has achieved a mythic status in the area.

The giant Palouse earthworm has fascinated scientists for decades after long being written off as an extinct creature. Reports suggested that the worms had a penchant for spitting and smelled like lilies, further enhancing the myth of the earthworm in the agricultural Palouse region on the Washington-Idaho border.

"It's a good day for the worm," said University of Idaho soil scientist Jodi Johnson-Maynard in Moscow, Idaho, who has been leading the search.

The recent discovery of the worms appeared to dispel the myth about the creature's appearance. They don't spit or smell like lilies and they aren't even that giant.

"One of my colleagues suggested we rename it the 'larger-than average Palouse earthworm,'" Johnson-Maynard said when the find was announced Tuesday.

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