Wild Things: Life as We Know It

Drought crises, Florida panthers, humpback whales and more…

Florida panther
Cheryl Carlin

The Comeback Cat

Florida panthers
(Cheryl Carlin)
Wildlife experts who moved eight female panthers from Texas to Florida in 1995 to bolster the dwindling population's genetic diversity now say the experiment has worked. Just a few dozen Florida panthers remained in the wild, and many suffered from heart defects, kinked tails and low fertility. Today, say National Cancer Institute researchers and others, their population has tripled and they show few signs of inbreeding.

Meat Eater Identified

marsh dweller
(Cheryl Carlin)
A mongoose-like creature in Madagascar is the first new member of the carnivore order to be discovered in 24 years. Durrell's vontsira (Salanoia durrelli) is a marsh dweller, with large paws for paddling and mighty teeth for crunching shellfish. "It's almost like a ferret becoming an otter," says John Fa, a scientist with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which reported the find. Alas, the creature may not be long for this world: much of its wetland habitat has been drained to grow rice.

Drying Up

World Map
(Cheryl Carlin)
Large parts of the world seem to be getting drier, according to a study led by Germany's Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry. Researchers analyzed 27 years of data from remote sensing devices and meteorological stations. Soil evaporation has been decreasing since 1998, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. The authors suggest there's less moisture in the soil—possibly because of climate change—and the trend could harm plants and contribute to heat waves.

Record-Setting Swim

humpback whale
(Cheryl Carlin)
A female humpback whale first spotted in 1999 off Brazil appeared near Madagascar two years later, according to an analysis of tourist snapshots. That means the whale traveled at least 6,000 miles, a new long-distance record for a wild mammal. Humpbacks migrate thousands of miles between breeding and feeding waters. But this one swam between two far-flung breeding ranges. Either humpbacks are better traveled than scientists believed, or this one took a wrong turn.

Observed

mantis shrimp
(Cheryl Carlin)
Name: The mantis shrimp (Neogonodactylus wennerae), a coastal crustacean.
Eats:
Snails, blasting open their shells with a "raptorial appendage," a spring-loaded hammer-arm that slices through seawater at up to 50 mph.
Fights:
To protect its burrow from other shrimp. They trade ritual blows to the tail that would shatter mollusk shells or crab carapaces.
Lives: Because its tail dissipates almost 70 percent of a blow's energy. How? A study from the University of California at Berkeley shows that the tail absorbs the force like a punching bag, rather than deflecting it like a trampoline. The punches may help shrimp size up opponents.