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Should Scientists Battle Poachers by Keeping Animal Locations Secret?

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You can find just about anything through a quick internet search—and it turns out that’s true even for poachers. Wild animal hunters are now using online scientific literature to locate rare and new species. That, two scientists warn in a recent essay, could create serious problems.

Easily accessible online data can help rare and endangered species, providing scientific evidence to support the need for measures to protect them. Accessibility also fosters better replication of scientific studies and greater collaboration among researchers. But "Do not publish," a recent essay in Science, argues that data also helps those with more nefarious intentions.

Essay co-author David Lindenmayer, a researcher at the Australian National University, spells out three potential problems with unrestricted access to information on rare and endangered species: surges in poaching; disruption of relationships between researchers and owners of land where studied species are found; and increased habitat disturbance and destruction.

Scientists have documented poaching within months of publishing taxonomic descriptions of new species. Lindenmayer tells Mental Floss that when authorities caught poachers shipping one of Australia’s rarest parrots out of the country in an industrial cooler, the container included copies of scientific papers citing the bird’s location. He also reports targeting of more than 20 newly described reptiles in this way, and an IUCN Red List assessment identified at least 355 reptile species intentionally targeted by collectors. Heavy hunting of an Indonesian turtle following its description in the scientific literature left the animal nearly extinct in the wild.

In fact, Lindenmayer says, if you search for some of these species online, the results will include some sites that claim to sell them.

So-called Lazarus species—those that reappear after having been thought extinct—require especially careful consideration regarding publicity. Scientists found evidence of a population of Sumatran rhinos, thought extinct for some 25 years, in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo in 2013. A later sighting received extensive publicity. Because poaching for rhino horn remains so popular, scientists argued in Biological Conservation that the Kalimantan rhinos survived precisely because few knew about them. The paper states that when publicity "increases the risk significantly relatively to benefits," secrecy should be favored.

Lindenmayer and co-author Ben Scheele also cite personal experience of strained relationships with landowners. The researchers discovered new populations of endangered, pink-tailed worm-lizards. Soon after they uploaded location information to open-access government wildlife atlases, a requirement of research permits, landowners began to complain about trespassers seeking the rare creatures. Those would-be collectors jeopardized relationships that took years to establish.

The trespassers also damaged important worm-lizard habitat. Habitat damage can happen even when people aren't trying to collect animals or plants but simply trying to see or photograph them. A paper in Animal Conservation reports that people frequently displace rocks while searching for snakes and lizards in southeastern Australia. The endangered broad-headed snake and its prey, velvet geckos, shelter in narrow crevices beneath sun-warmed rocks, but researchers rarely found either animal under rocks that people had displaced. The paper concluded that even minor displacement of overlying rocks modifies critical attributes of the crevices—and thus reduces habitat quality for the endangered species.

One potential downside of not sharing data could occur during environmental assessments for new development, Lindenmayer says. Species can't be protected if no one knows they're there.

Fortunately, there are ways to share data with those who need it without making it completely public. Consider how Charlotte Reemts, a research and monitoring ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, approached the publication of her research on the small, endangered star cactus, which is found in only a few South Texas counties. "When I wrote up my research, I purposefully left the location very vague," she tells Mental Floss. "I didn’t put in any maps or give the landowner’s name in the acknowledgements."

Databases such as those kept by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have mechanisms in place to not make locations public in certain situations, Reemts says.

"There is a difference between having scientific information that is not shared publicly, and keeping it from everyone," Joe Fargione, The Nature Conservancy’s science director for North America, tells Mental Floss. "Having a system to share data with qualified researchers allows the scientific community to have the benefit of that new knowledge, without exposing a species to additional risk from poachers."

It's not an unprecedented approach. "Other disciplines have tackled this problem well," Lindenmayer says, noting that archaeologists and paleontologists hold back data to protect important sites and fossil deposits from looters.

In Fargione’s opinion, the trick is to "treat data as sensitive as opposed to secret." He stresses, "Overharvesting of a species can significantly increase risk of extinction, and extinction is forever. So it makes sense not to do anything that would increase that irreversible risk."

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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The Prehistoric Bacteria That Helped Create Our Cells Billions of Years Ago
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We owe the existence of our cells—the very building blocks of life—to a chance relationship between bacteria that occurred more than 2 billion years ago. Flash back to Bio 101, and you might remember that humans, plants, and animals have complex eukaryotic cells, with nucleus-bound DNA, instead of single-celled prokaryotic cells. These contain specialized organelles such as the mitochondria—the cell’s powerhouse—and the chloroplast, which converts sunlight into sugar in plants.

Mitochondria and chloroplasts both look and behave a lot like bacteria, and they also share similar genes. This isn’t a coincidence: Scientists believe these specialized cell subunits are descendants of free-living prehistoric bacteria that somehow merged together to form one. Over time, they became part of our basic biological units—and you can learn how by watching PBS Eons’s latest video below.

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