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Wild Things: Life as We Know It

Ape tools, flying dinosaurs and emperor penguins

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Old Hands
Chimpanzees used stone tools at least 4,300 years ago, back in the human Stone Age, according to a study of the first known prehistoric ape site, in Côte d'Ivoire. A University of Calgary-led group found ancient rocks that were very similar to rocks that today's chimps use to smash nuts. Some of the old tools even bear traces of the same nuts that modern chimps eat. No word from the researchers on how much longer the chimp Stone Age is likely to last.

That Loud Noise? Just the Earth Venting
Far below the ocean surface, hydrothermal vents—cracks in the earth's crust that spew superheated, mineral-rich water—provide energy and shelter for weird worms, crustaceans and other creatures that live in complete darkness. University of Washington scientists placed recording devices more than 7,000 feet deep in a vent field 300 miles west of Seattle and made a startling discovery: these black smokers are loud, rumbling like avalanches. Moreover, each vent they tested had a signature sound, potentially providing deep-sea creatures with a sonic road map in the dark.

Observed
Name: Rhabdophis tigrinus, an Asian snake
Existential question: If a snake can't make venom, can it be venomous?
Practical answer: Yes. R. tigrinus can steal venom, say herpetologists from Old Dominion University who recently showed how the species does it. When the snake eats a toxic toad, it sequesters the toxin in bulging glands in the back of its neck. When it fears attack, the snake bows its head, effectively daring its foe to bite into the poison-filled glands.
That's a mean snake: But not always. The researchers found that if a snake eats a toad-free diet, it doesn't have any venom—and is more likely to flee than fight.

Fore Flight
It was in 2001 that scientists in China discovered the fossil of a 2.5-foot-long flying dinosaur that lived about 125 million years ago. Microraptor gui had four wings, with feathered hind limbs as well as forelimbs. Texas Tech researchers, having developed computer models of the animal's flight, now suggest that it held the hind wings below the front ones. That the arrangement was an early stage in the evolution of flight makes sense: the Wright brothers also got off the ground in a biplane.

Why Misery Loves Company
As fans of March of the Penguins know, male emperor penguins incubate their mates' eggs while crowded together, eating nothing for months as winter temperatures drop to -20° Fahrenheit, and females hunt for food. In the first long-term physiological study of the birds, scientists at France's research station in Antarctica found that the huddled penguins enter a state similar to hibernation. Their body temperature drops by as much as 1.8 degrees, and their metabolic rates decline by an average of 25 percent. This allows them to conserve energy until the females take over chick-rearing duties.

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