With the holidays now upon us, my thoughts have dwelled on the fate of a singular, lonely frog.
Meet Toughie, the very last Rabbs’ Fringe-limbed Tree Frog.
The Rabbs’ Fringe-limbed Tree Frog (Ecnomiohyla rabborum) was a nocturnal species, capable of parachuting several meters between trees in the forest canopy by jumping into open air and spreading its wide, webbed feet. The male assumed all of the parental care, feeding the tadpoles with his own skin cells and defending their pool of water from other frogs and would-be predators.
Only discovered in 2005 and not formally described until 2008, none have been reported in the wild since 2007. Toughie, along with others of his kind and about 20 other species, were hastily collected by a team of herpetologists from a mountain in Panama when the deadly chytrid fungus was detected there in 2006.
Although a clear link has not been established, the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or Bd, is possibly carried and spread by the non-native and non-susceptible African Clawed Frog (Xenopus laevis). The African Clawed Frog is extremely adaptable and hardy, and a model species for a variety of biological and biochemical research applications; before test kits, they were used to confirm pregnancy. Also kept as pets as early as the 1950s, they were introduced to multiple continents, and are illegal to transport or own without a permit in several U.S. states.
Bd thrives in cool, wet climates—such as cloud forests. An infection from this fungus (chytridiomycosis) affects the skin, but ultimately the frogs die of heart failure due to electrolyte loss. Populations of amphibians worldwide have been declining precipitously since the 1980s, although the case was not known. A recent study reported that the fungus is present in Northeastern U.S. frog specimens dating from the early 1960s. Today, up to 30% of frogs in the Northeast carry the infection. But Bd was not identified as a threat to amphibian populations until the late 1990s—too late for many species.
The fungus may be at least partially responsible for the sudden extinction of the Golden Toad (Incilius periglenes) in the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica. In 1987, 1500 males were spotted over a 3-month period. In 1988, only one male was seen. None have been reported since 1989, and the species was declared extinct in 1992. Captive individuals died of unknown causes in the mid-1980s.
Also among those that fell to Bd’s axe is the Panamanian Golden Frog (Atelopus zeteki), which is actually a toad. It has not been seen in the wild since 2007; however, over 500 exist in a variety of captive breeding facilities worldwide, including our own Columbus Zoo!
This species is unique in that it waves to potential mates and rivals, thought to be an adaptation for communicating in stream habitats where the sound of its call might be drowned out. The incomparable Sir David Attenborough shows us how:
Although there is still hope for this species, the likelihood of reintroduction back into the wild is low, as the fungus is still present and much of the toad’s cloud forest habitat has been destroyed.
If that wasn’t enough, a recent article reports that populations of amphibians in Spain are being decimated by a virus that has been present in Spain for some time, but which is now mysteriously causing massive die-offs in relatively pristine areas.
Stories like these are enough to cause some trepidation in even the staunchest endangered species advocate; and funding is plummeting for wildlife studies that help save species. Although the loss of biodiversity is becoming commonplace, we CAN bring species back from the brink—given the proper tools, time frame, and legislation, anything is possible. And of course, an indomitable will never hurts.
The Mauritius Kestrel (Falco punctatus) is one such success story. Native to the same island off the eastern shore of Madagascar that the Dodo once famously inhabited, the kestrel’s population also began to decline after the arrival of Dutch explorers. Widespread deforestation by the Dutch and later the French and English over four centuries, combined with the introduction of nonnative mammals (mongooses, rats, cats, and monkeys), caused its decline both directly and indirectly. By the turn of the 20th century only a few hundred remained in the most remote parts of the island.
Finally, in the 1950s a malaria epidemic ravaged the human population, leading to the widespread spraying of DDT to reduce mosquito numbers. DDT causes eggshell thinning in all birds, but top predators like the kestrel are hit the hardest due to bioamplification. By 1974, four birds remained in the wild. Only one was a breeding female.
Thanks to the tireless and nearly singlehanded efforts of Welsh biologist Carl Jones, using methods that flew in the face of the accepted conservation techniques of the time, the Mauritius Kestrel no longer hovers on the brink of extinction. Jones climbed trees and cliff sides to collect eggs from wild nests, incubated them in captivity, cross-fostered the chicks with analog species, soft-released the young kestrels, and supplemented food to the wild adult birds so they were able to lay more eggs—initially, largely on his own dime, as there was little funding to support the kestrel’s recovery. After 20 years, there were over 200 birds in the wild. Today there are three distinct populations on the island, with the total being around 400 adult birds. Jones has also assisted with the recovery of several other imperiled Mauritius species, and even began to bring an entire forest ecosystem back by re-introducing an ecological analog of the island’s extinct giant tortoise from the Seychelles.
Giant tortoises are a common phenomenon on remote islands; only slightly less common is the tendency for humans to drive them to near or total extinction. Early explorers used them as food, as they could be stowed alive on their backs in the ship’s hold without food or water for up to a year. In addition to Mauritius, the nearby island of Reunion had its own giant tortoise, as did Rodriguez, Madagascar, New Caledonia, several of the Seychelles Islands, and of course, the Galapagos islands. They all became extinct or critically endangered shortly after being visited by humans.
The call of the Rabbs’ Fringe-limbed Tree Frog has not been heard in the wild since 2007, and the last remaining male stopped calling shortly after it was taken into captivity in 2005. The species was bred successfully but the tadpoles failed to develop properly, and soon the population was down to 2 adult males. Early in 2012, one of the males began to decline sharply in health. Rather than risk him passing away overnight the researchers decided he should be euthanized to preserve his precious genetic material (frogs decompose quickly). Their call has never been recorded, and will never be known to science.
That is, not until just a few days ago!!
What prompted this lone male to suddenly call after nearly 10 years of silence is unknown. We have no way of knowing if this is a typical vocalization for the species. But it’s the only recording we have.
So what’s the point? Who cares if he’s the very last? How is the loss of one more species among millions going to make any difference?
In the words of Richard Conniff,
“Wildlife is and should be useless in the same way art, music, poetry and even sports are useless. They are useless in the sense that they do nothing more than raise our spirits, make us laugh or cry, frighten, disturb and delight us. They connect us not just to what’s weird, different, other, but to a world where we humans do not matter nearly as much as we like to think.”
His opinion piece in its entirety can be found here.
Martha, the very last passenger pigeon, died in a zoo in 1914. After 100 years of technological and scientific breakthroughs, one might hope that we’d have both the wisdom and ability to prevent any more reincarnations of Martha. This holiday season, consider donating to the wildlife conservation fund of your choice, and help save others from Toughie’s fate.
Congrats to Jill, who it looks like took a guess at this but got it right! This is indeed from a “gigantic extinct rodent”, the Giant Beaver Castoroides ohioensis. This is a resin cast of an original fossil, the actual specimen which you can see on exhibit at the Ohio History Center, and is one tooth of a pair upper incisors. Here’s a photo (left) of a skull, from Clinton Co. Ohio, which is also on exhibit. Note the large size of the incisors!
The Giant Beaver lived up to its name, it was BIG! The modern beaver (Castor canadensis) is the largest living rodent in North America, weighing in at up to 60 pounds, and is the second largest rodent in the world (after the capybara). But the Giant Beaver could weigh over 200 pounds and was six feet long. It was the size of a Black Bear! It’s logical to think that the Giant Beaver used its enlarged incisors to cut down really big trees, but in fact there have been no finds of Pleistocene-aged wood with tooth marks matching these large incisors. So it’s thought that they used these large teeth for procuring aquatic vegetation, and possibly for defense. There’s another large fossil rodent with huge incisors, this one from South America. Named Josephoartigasia monesi, this was basically a rat the size of a bull! Scientists think it may have used its large incisors for defense against predators such as saber-toothed cats and a giant, flightless carnivorous bird. We didn’t have the carnivorous bird here, but saber-tooth cats were certainly living with the Giant Beaver.
Ohio is a very important location for the Giant Beaver. Did you notice the scientific name of the Giant Beaver!? The species name is “ohioensis” which means “from Ohio”, and sure enough the first Giant Beaver specimen was discovered right here in Ohio! The first specimen known to science was uncovered when workers were digging for the Ohio Canal near Nashport, in Muskingum County. This specimen was described by J.W. Foster in 1838 as part of the investigations of the First Geological Survey of Ohio. Giant Beaver remains have been found from the Yukon Territory to Florida, however the area just south of the Great Lakes, especially Ohio, has the largest concentration of finds. You might remember that we did an article in this blog about researchers from Canada who traveled here this year to study OHC’s great collection of Giant Beavers. Their research may finally reveal the long-awaited mystery of what these giant rodents actually ate and what their role was in the ecosystem.
Come see our exhibit of Giant Beavers at the Ohio History Center!
So what is this unusual looking object!? Note by the scale that it’s about 6 inches long, not taking into account the curve. It has long parallel ridges that run the length of the object. The light area is a reconstruction of a missing section. It is from Ohio! Put your answer in the “Reply” box below, and we’ll post the correct answer next week.Need a hint!? You can see another example of this in the “Going, Going, Gone?” exhibit at the Ohio History Center…if you look carefully!
Wanna hear about the largest fossil excavation ever conducted by the Denver Museum of Science and Nature, where they uncovered over 5,000 bones of 41 kinds of Ice Age animals!? I thought so! Then don’t miss this talk by Dr. H. Gregory McDonald, Senior Curator of Natural History at the National Park Service, about the Snowmastodon project. It will be held at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History on Dec. 12, 2014. Click here for more information. He will talk about the ecology of mastodons and mammoths found at this site, near Snowmass Village in Colorado, and will discuss other animals found at the site such as ground sloths, horses, camels, deer, and giant bison.
Greg is an enthusiastic and engaging speaker, and a long-time friend of Ohio Pleistocene studies. He was the Curator for the Ice Age Exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History (in the Cincinnati Museum Center), and has worked with Bob Glotzhober of OHC staff and with Dale Gnidovec of OSU’s Orton Geological Museum on various Pleistocene finds in the state. In fact, Greg is the person who taught me to build skeletons when we worked together at Cincinnati.
This is a beautiful mount that we have on loan to the Cincinnati Zoo, where it has been displayed for many years. Since the Cincinnati Zoo is where the very last passenger pigeon lived and died (Martha – who is now at the Smithsonian), it seems appropriate that we loan one of our passenger pigeons to the Zoo. This mount was housed for years in the Zoo’s Passenger Pigeon Memorial building, which was renovated this year. Our specimen is being moved to another building at the Zoo, so this was a good time to go and check on the mount and to clean it. We wanted to be sure that such an important specimen was to be housed in good conditions. The new building is air-conditioned, has low light levels, and the bird will be installed in its own sealed, insect-proof display case.Using the same technique that we used on Buttons, we cleaned this mount using a special adjustable, low-suction HEPA vacuum. To keep the feathers from ruffling, we carefully placed a piece of flexible, non-metallic screening over a small section of the mount at a time. Then applied the suction, which draws the dust and arsenic directly off the bird. Yes, arsenic! Buttons and most other old taxidermy specimens have arsenic in them. It was applied as a method to keep insect pests off the taxidermy mounts, and it worked! Although it wasn’t too good for the taxidermists (and present-day curators!). It was used from the late 19th Century until about the 1960′s. We consider any older mount as having arsenic present unless we test for it and get a negative result. So look for our passenger pigeon mount to reappear soon at the Cincinnati Zoo. Also if you visit the Education Building at the Zoo, you’ll see this awesome flock of passenger pigeons! Each one is hung from a fine filament and when you walk past the flock they actually move and you can hear the wings “fluttering”. It’s part of the nationwide Fold the Flock project which is trying to symbolically recreate the huge flocks of passenger pigeons that once darkened our skies. You can fold the origami birds available in our “Going, Going, Gone?” exhibit, or go to the Flock the Flock website to download your own free origami paper or purchase a kit of 50 origami pages. But be sure to go back to the website and record how many birds you folded for the virtual flock. They’ve already tallied over a million birds!
The bird that graces most tables in the U.S. every Thanksgiving was once threatened with extinction.
Early explorers of the New World had never seen anything quite like the turkey. The turkey’s scientific name, Meleagris gallopavo (“guineafowl peacock”) reflects this confusion; however, the two birds for which it is named are only distantly related. It’s been variously suggested that its common name in English sprung from Columbus himself, after the noise it makes (“tuka, tuka”); a supposed Native American name of “firkee”; trade routes that brought the bird to Europe from the country bearing the same name; and the Hebrew tukki, which means “big bird”.
Anyone who has encountered a flock of wild turkeys strutting in a field or awkwardly running across a rural road can attest to their somewhat goofy grandeur. They nest and forage on the ground and prefer to get around on foot, but they don’t hesitate to fly and frequently roost over 15 meters up in the tree canopy. They can even traverse large bodies of water by swimming. Adaptable and hardy, 5 subspecies of Wild Turkey inhabit various biomes in North America and occur in every state except Alaska. They flourish in any kind of open forest with scattered clearings, from the coniferous forests of the Southwest, the Everglades of Florida, and the Great Plains, to our familiar temperate deciduous forests of the East. They have even been introduced to Hawaii. In the wild turkeys eat tree nuts, berries, seeds, buds, vegetation, and arthropods, and will take an occasional small vertebrate if the opportunity arises.
Along with the Muscovy Duck, the Wild Turkey is one of only two birds native to North America that have been domesticated. Its close relative, the smaller but stunning Ocellated Turkey (M.ocellata), occurs only in Yucatán and northern parts of neighboring Belize and Guatemala. It is listed as Near Threatened due to deforestation of their rainforest habitat. (Check out this awesome video of a male trying to impress a flock of females.)
The history of turkey domestication goes back nearly three thousand years. Native Americans domesticated turkeys not for their meat, but for their feathers—in central Mexico around 800 B.C., and again in the southwestern U.S. by ancestral Pueblans around 200 B.C. The feathers were used for robes and blankets. Although they kept several distinct breeds, the ancient Pueblans didn’t incorporate domesticated turkey into their diet until around 1100 A.D. A more recent finding of M. gallopavo bones at a Mayan site in Guatamala (over 400 miles south of their native range) indicates that the Maya people were keeping domestic turkeys around 300 B.C.
See this picture in its original context here.
Now extinct in the wild, this Aztec subspecies (M. g. merriami) is thought to be the turkey first brought to Europe by Spanish explorers, perhaps as early as 1500. The turkey gained popularity and spread across Europe, and many different breeds were developed over the next century. The domestic turkey was then brought back to the U.S. from England; a document written in 1584 lists “turkeys, male and female” to be provided to future colonies in the New World, and as promised they arrived with the colonists in 1608. Some crossing with their wild Eastern counterparts did occur, whether intentionally or not, and the Broad-breasted Whites we buy at the store today are their descendants.
Contrary to our modern traditions, there is no evidence that turkey, either wild or domesticated, was served at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. In Ohio it became popular for Christmas dinner by 1787, but the recommendation of turkey as the Thanksgiving meal’s centerpiece can be almost entirely attributed to popular magazine editor (and composer of Mary Had A Little Lamb) Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale was a savvy businesswoman, the 1800s version of Martha Stewart, and she relentlessly publicized today’s traditional Thanksgiving recipes in magazines and cookbooks. She also petitioned various presidents over a 36-year period to make Thanksgiving an official holiday—not only to champion her ideas of what the feast should be, but to designate a day for the nation to give thanks for its blessings. Her request was finally granted by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and the third Thursday in November finally became the official Thanksgiving holiday.
Meanwhile, much like the Passenger Pigeon and the American Bison, the once widespread and numerous Wild Turkey was seen as an inexhaustible resource. In Hale’s time they were killed by the hundreds and sold for a quarter, and by 1880 the turkey had disappeared from Ohio entirely. But it wasn’t just over-hunting that nearly led to the Wild Turkey’s demise—it was habitat loss. Deforestation and conversion of land to crops on a massive scale, and the loss of nut-bearing trees—particularly the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata)—was the main driver.
The majestic American Chestnut fell to the axe, but after 1904 it fell to a fungal blight (Cryphonectria parasitica). Introduced from Asia on two chestnut species brought over as ornamentals to the Bronx Zoological Park, the fungus nearly wiped out our native chestnut. Today, only a few pockets of mature trees persist in isolation. Stumps all over the Appalachians continue to resprout and grow into small trees until the fungus kills them, but efforts at bringing the chestnut back to our forests are underway. The turkey’s decline closely follows that of the chestnut, which produced massive amounts of mast for many other animals, including buffalo, deer, raccoons, squirrels, skunks, and opossums (and humans too!). By the 1930s, the turkey was also reduced to a few isolated pockets that clung to survival in the most remote forest locations. The entire population dwindled to around 30 thousand.
By the time of the Second World War, the turkey’s native habitat was starting to regenerate. The stately chestnuts were gone but oak, hickory and maple were maturing in its place, and new conservation bills helped the turkey’s recovery. One such bill, the Lacey Act of 1905, prevented the interstate sale of taken wildlife; another, The Pittman–Robertson Act of 1937, taxed the sale of sporting goods and ammunition (thus generating conservation funds for wildlife recovery). Pen-rearing initiatives in the 1940s largely failed due to the turkey’s tendency to imprint on its human caregivers and rampant disease; it was such a flop that it’s been suggested that it slowed the turkey’s recovery by as much as two decades. Capture-and-release campaigns in the 1950s and beyond reintroduced the turkey back into its former range, and was much more successful. The turkey flourished, and by 1990 there were an estimated 3.5 million birds nationwide. No other game bird has responded so well to the efforts of game managers.
One of the turkey’s claims to fame is that Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to his daughter in 1784, supported its becoming our national symbol; but actually, he only criticized the selection of the Bald Eagle, and mentioned in passing that he was glad that people thought the eagle looked too much like a turkey.
“Others object to the Bald Eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk [Osprey]; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District.
He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country… I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
This Thanksgiving, consider giving thanks that the wild counterpart to the bird on your table didn’t go the way of the dodo!
We’re glad that our anonymous donor not only decided to give the specimen to a museum but provided information about where this bone was found. When we know where and when an object is collected it becomes a specimen valuable to science, rather than a curiosity of which we know little about. Many very important finds of Pleistocene species in Ohio have been found by people during normal tasks such as digging to install drainage tiles or to enlarge a pond, or walking along a stream. So if you find bones or teeth, let us know! We’re always happy to identify such finds. Then if you decide to donate them to a museum, you’re not only making a contribution to science but your name will be attached to that specimen in perpetuity! A good example, the Conway mastodon!
In May of 2013, an international team of scientists unearthed the frozen remains of a female mammoth on Maly Lyakhovsky Island, off the coast of the Republic of Sakha in Siberia. It was so fresh that it oozed blood, and one researcher reportedly even took a bite.
Initially only the tusks were visible above the ground. Further excavation revealed not only the rest of her head and trunk, but also three legs and mostly intact internal organs. Informally named “Buttercup”, her teeth reveal that she was around 50 at the time of her death, which was carbon-dated to around 43,000 years ago. This mammoth lived and breathed during a time when Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted and interbred.
Her stomach still contained buttercups and dandelions, and growth rings in her tusks suggest she had weaned 8 calves and had one miscarriage over the course of her long life. The hemoglobin in her blood was adapted to release oxygen in lower temperatures. Tooth marks on her skeleton indicate that she was partially eaten by wolves and other predators, but she froze solid soon after her death and remained that way until her discovery.
Buttercup was about the size of a modern Asian Elephant, her closest living relative.
A number of frozen mammoths have been recovered in recent years as permafrost has thawed, including Yuka, a calf with its fur and mummified brain still intact. “Buttercup” is the oldest and most well-preserved. Analysis of her tissue has yielded the largest fragments of DNA yet recovered from a mammoth, which raises the question: If we can clone a mammoth, should we?
The question has created an interesting ethical dilemma. Rather than finding frozen sperm, it is more likely that fragments of DNA from today’s Asian Elephant will be used to “fill in the gaps” of the fragmented mammoth genome, which was 70% sequenced in 2008. Once fully assembled, the complete genome would be inserted into the egg of a modern elephant, which would then implanted into a modern female elephant. This elephant would then essentially act as an incubator for the genetically engineered mammoth.
“De-extinction” of any species is fraught with a laundry list of practical and ethical stumbling blocks. Further, successfully cloning a mammoth will require experimentation on dozens of endangered Asian Elephants. Should we subject them to a potentially life-threatening 22-month gestation period? (Is 22 months even the normal gestation period for a mammoth?)
If brought to term, an ice age relic–adapted for roaming freely across frigid expanses of steppe with others of its kind–would be forced to live out its days in a concrete box, in today’s modern world with its tall rectangles, heat waves and endless loud noises.
It would be cool to see a real live mammoth, I admit. But is it cool enough to justify the prohibitive cost, the expenditure of increasingly limited resources, and the likely setbacks at the expense of a living species?
What do YOU think? Should we clone a mammoth? Let us know in the comments!