King Penguin Populations Could Shrink By 70 Percent in 80 Years, Thanks to Climate Change

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King penguins have evolved to live where few animals can. But now, warming waters are posing a threat to the species' survival. As an international team of researchers reports in the journal Nature Climate Change [PDF], rising global temperatures could eradicate 70 percent of the King penguin population by 2100.

Most of the 3.2 million King penguins alive today are settled in the ring of ocean between 45° and 55° south known as the Antarctic Polar Front. This region is a sweet spot for these penguins: It's where cold Antarctic waters collide with and slip beneath the warmer waters from higher latitudes, creating the perfect temperatures and salinity to support marine life. King penguins make camp on the islands dotting this belt and hunt for krill and fish in the surrounding sea.

But that abundant food source won't remain in the penguins' neighborhood for much longer. The study authors report that human-caused climate change is pushing the Antarctic Polar Front further south, creating a gap between the islands the penguins call home and the life-supporting waters they depend on for survival.

King penguins accomplish some incredible things to get a meal. Like other penguins, the couples will take turns caring for their young, with one parent waiting on land without food for several days and the other swimming hundreds of miles roundtrip gathering nourishment for the whole family. But as the Antarctic Polar Front drifts away from established penguin colonies, penguins will have to swim farther for their food, and parents and offspring will have to wait longer to eat, with many eventually starving to death.

By 2100 the islands with the biggest King penguin populations will have become uninhabitable, spurring the deaths of 1.1 million breeding pairs, about 70 percent of the species, unless they move elsewhere.

In order to survive, the threatened birds must find new islands that are ice-free with smooth sand or pebble beaches and that hover at temperatures around 32°F year-round, all while staying close to their migrating food source. Such habitats aren't be impossible to find, and King penguins have adapted in the face of dramatic climate shifts in the past. But unless swift action is taken towards fighting climate change, penguin numbers are on track to take a massive hit in the coming decades.

Bizarre New Giant Salamander Species Discovered in Florida

There’s something in the water in Florida, but it’s not the swamp monster locals may have feared. According to National Geographic, scientists have discovered a new species of giant salamander called a reticulated siren, and you can find the 2-foot-long amphibian in the swamps of southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Locals have long reported seeing a creature with leopard-like spots, the body of an humongous eel, and axolotl-like frills sprouting out of the sides of its head, but its existence wasn’t described in scientific literature until now. Researchers from Texas and Georgia recently published their findings in the journalPLOS ONE.

“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, a wildlife ecologist and one of the paper’s co-authors, tells National Geographic. He had been trapping turtles at the Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, in 2009 when he caught one of the creatures by chance. After that encounter, the researchers set out to find more specimens.

Colloquially, locals have long been calling the creature a leopard eel. Because the reticulated siren only has two tiny front limbs, it's easy to mistake it for an eel. Its hind limbs disappeared throughout the course of millions of years of evolution, and it also lacks eyelids and has a beak instead of the teeth that are typical of other salamander species.

They belong to a genus of salamanders called sirens, which are one of the largest types of salamander in the world. The second part of the species’ name comes from the reticulated pattern seen on all of the individuals that were examined by researchers. The reticulated siren is also one of the largest vertebrates to be formally described by scientists in the U.S. in the last 100 years, according to the paper.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the reticulated siren. They lead hidden lives below the surface of the water, and they’re thought to subsist on insects and mollusks. Researchers say further study is urgently needed because there's a chance the species could be endangered.

[h/t National Geographic]

Forget Therapy Puppies—Michigan State Students Brush Cows to De-Stress for Finals

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iStock.com/123ducu

As more universities are coming to understand just how stressful the rigors of modern academics can be, many institutions have begun bringing dogs onto campus to soothe anxious students during finals week. At Michigan State University, students have a more unique option to help them de-stress: cow time.

According to Click on Detroit, the recent "Finals Stress mooove on out!" event gave students the chance to brush cows at Michigan State's Dairy Cattle Teaching and Research Center just south of the school's main campus. For $10, participants spent 30 minutes brushing one of the school's 200 dairy cows, an activity designed to relax both the human and the cow.

Not all students come to college with a working knowledge of large-ruminant etiquette, so MSU farm manager Andrea Meade was on hand to show students what to do, prevent them from accidentally spooking the animals, and answer questions about milking and dairy practices.

Studies have shown that petting dogs can help lower your blood pressure, but dogs aren't the only animals that provide people with a psychological boost. A number of animals have been found to help relax humans (though the effect tends to be greater when it's a familiar animal rather than one the person just met), including cows. One 2011 study in Norway found that after working on a dairy farm for 12 weeks, psychiatric patients showed lower levels of anxiety and depression.

And the cows need to be brushed whether there are students there or not, so the event presented a mutually beneficial situation. Many dairies employ automated brush systems to keep cows clean and stimulate blood flow, keeping them happier and healthier in the process.

You don't need to be a student to enjoy the calming effects of cattle, though. Upstate New York's Mountain Horse Farm's hour-long "cow cuddling" sessions let you pet, brush, and play with new bovine friends for $75.

[h/t Click on Detroit]

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