Wild Things: Giant Pandas, an Ancient Ibis and More…

Panda-friendly forests, one bizarre bird and foxes on junk food

Panda eating bamboo
Pete Oxford / Minden Pictures

Panda-Friendly Forest

panda eating bamboo
(Pete Oxford / Minden Pictures)
What do pandas want? Bamboo, first of all; that’s almost all they eat. But they also need old trees. A Chinese Academy of Science-led study of four years of observations from across 70 percent of the giant panda’s range, the largest panda habitat data set ever compiled, showed that they are most likely to live in old-growth forest. That may be because only mature trees have cavities large enough for dens.

Learn more about giant pandas at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Decline and Fall

tree ring
(© Tom Bean / Corbis)
A new analysis of tree rings from more than 9,000 European pines, larches and oaks provides a climate record going back 2,500 years. Scientists in Switzerland and elsewhere linked the data to history. For instance, the Roman Empire thrived during a period of above average rainfall and steady temperatures, which ended around A.D. 250, followed by 300 years of extreme variability—and the fall of the empire.

The Most Successful Single Colonist

peat moss plant
(Eric F. Karlin)
Scientists have discovered that every peat moss plant in a 2,500-mile stretch from Oregon to the Aleutians is genetically identical. The functional clones apparently originated with a single plant, possibly brought to Alaska by Russians as early as 1741. The scientists, from New Jersey’s Ramapo College and elsewhere, say the moss is “arguably the most genetically uniform group having a widespread distribution yet detected.”

Learn more about sphagnum moss at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Want Fries With That?

San Joaquin kit foxes
(B. Moose Peterson / ARDEA)

San Joaquin kit foxes living in urban areas are taking on a distinctly human diet, according to a new study. Scientists working in Bakersfield, California, chemically analyzed fox fur and found that, compared with foxes in more rural habitats, city animals seem to have a diet richer in corn products, probably from corn syrup. That is, they’re eating a lot of junk food.

Learn more about San Joaquin foxes at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Observed

Xenicibis xympithecus
(Nicholas Longrich / Yale University)
Name: Xenicibis xympithecus, an ibis that lived in Jamaica about 10,000 years ago.
Flight? Not an option; this bird had a bizarre wing that ended with an enlarged and thickened "hand" bone.
Fight? It must have, say researchers at Yale and the Smithsonian Institution. The bird's wings were hinged so that the massive hand bone could be flung at a target, like nunchucks. Fossilized Xenicibis hand bones show evidence of combat trauma. Other birds hit enemies with their wings, but "no animal has ever evolved anything quite like this," says Nicholas Longrich of Yale.