Wild Things: Wildcats, Pigeons and More…

Cleaner wrasse fish, black widow spiders and even bananas made the news recently as part of the latest wildlife research

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Cheryl Carlin

Keeping an Eye on the Help

cleaner wrasse
(Reinhard Dishcherl / Photoshot)
It has been known that a small fish called the cleaner wrasse eats parasites off larger reef fish and that it sometimes sneaks a nibble of skin mucus. But cleaners are less likely to cheat if other potential “clients” are watching, according to researchers led by Switzerland’s University of Neuchâtel. Even a fish with a brain fit for a minnow senses it has to earn trust by acting honest.

Cats on Camera

snow leopards
(Wildlife Conservation Society)
Endangered creatures that live only in the highest mountains of Asia, snow leopards are notoriously difficult to study. But a new survey using camera traps has generated 30 photographs of the elusive cats in 16 locations in the rugged, reportedly peaceful region of northeastern Afghanistan called the Wakhan Corridor. It’s “one of the most remote and isolated mountain landscapes in the world and a place of immense beauty,” say Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientists who did the study. Though the total number of snow leopards in the area isn’t known, the population appears to be healthy. Because villagers sometimes kill the cats to protect livestock, the WCS has constructed leopard-proof pens and set up livestock insurance programs.

Banana Splits

banana
(Christian Schuster / SFGMBH / Stockfood)
People have cultivated bananas for 6,500 years or more, probably starting in New Guinea. How did the fruit take the world by storm? Using genetics, archaeology and linguistics, scientists led by Australia’s Monash University say a big step was the banana’s journey to Africa 2,500 years ago.

Observed: The Pigeon Columba livia

The Pigeon
(David Hosking / FLPA)
To V? Flying in the V formation, as geese do, can be more aerodynamic than solo flight, helping each bird save energy.
Or Not To V? But some birds, like pigeons, fly in what is known as a “cluster flock.” In such disorganized groups, says a study from the University of London, each pigeon flaps its wings more often and less completely than when alone, using more energy.
The Question: What’s the upside? That “is currently unclear,” say the researchers, but the less energy-efficient wing strokes may allow for better control within a dense flock, and flocking may help birds find food or deter predators.

Mating Safely

black widow spiders
(© Scott Camazine / Alamy)
Yes, female black widow spiders often kill and eat males after copulating. But Arizona State University researchers now say some males avoid becoming meals by selecting mates that are well-fed. The key? Sated black widow females apparently emit a chemical signal and even weave a web differently from ravenous ones.