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11 Animals With Amazing Prosthetics

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Think artificial limbs are only for those of us with opposable thumbs and language skills? Think again. Thanks to technology, innovation, and a little bit of luck, animals who have lost paws, flippers, beaks, and tails can use modern prosthetics to make amazing comebacks.

1. Winter the Dolphin: Tail

In December 2005, a fisherman found a three-month-old dolphin tangled up in the ropes of a crab trap off the east coast of Florida.  Although local marine mammal veterinarians were able to save her life, they couldn’t save the little dolphin’s tail. The losses obviously affected the dolphin’s ability to swim, so a human prosthetics company joined forces with the marine vets to create a substitute tail made from the same plastic as human prosthetics. Winter the dolphin has done swimmingly with her new tail, adapting to a new swim pattern and adjusting to newer and better versions as the technology improves.

2. Beauty the Eagle: Beak

Take away an eagle’s beak, and you take away its ability to eat, drink, groom - even defend itself. When Beauty the eagle was found at an Alaska landfill in 2005, she was slowly starving to death because a poacher had shot off most of her upper beak. An engineer spent 200 hours developing a nylon-composite beak for Beauty that helps her drink and grip food. Though she’ll never be able to live in the wild again - the beak isn’t strong enough to kill prey - Beauty now spends her days attending lectures as the spokesbird against raptor poaching.

3. Tzvika the Turtle: Legs

You might think that being on the wrong end of a lawn mower would mean certain death for a turtle, but with today’s technology, that’s not necessarily so. After mower blades severely damaged Tzvika’s shell and caused a spinal injury that paralyzed her rear limbs, veterinarians outfitted her with a new set of wheels—literally. A set of tiny tires attach to the turtle’s underside, elevating her to keep her shell from being worn down while still allowing her to walk. Slowly, of course—she’s still a turtle.

4. Indio the Horse: Leg

An animal’s need for a prosthetic isn’t always due to careless humans. Indio the horse kicked through a metal stall wall, more or less severing his hoof in the process. Though an injury like that usually results in euthanization, his owners hoped that there was a different solution. A veterinarian stepped in and was able to remove the rest of the damaged lower leg, replacing it with a prosthetic that allows Indio to function almost completely normally. In fact, Indio was up and moving on his new leg just an hour after the surgery.

5. Mister Stubbs the Alligator: Tail

Chances are, you’ve never been on the losing end of a gator fight. Mister Stubbs has been, and he has a stump where his tail once was to prove it. After he and 31 other alligators were found in an illegal shipment of exotic animals, a team of experts came together to figure out exactly how a prosthetic gator tail would work. After accounting for variables like gravity, weight, and buoyancy, the team developed a three-foot-long rubber tail that attaches to Mister Stubbs with nylon straps. Though a better version is in development—the current tail requires an inflatable water wing attachment for stability in the water—Mister Stubbs is doing well enough that his name is no longer accurate.

6. Stumpy the Kangaroo: Leg

Not that designing any animal prosthetic is easy, but creating a suitably springy leg for a kangaroo is particularly challenging. Because a kangaroo typically hops from point A to point B instead of walking, the prosthetic created for Stumpy, a red kangaroo who lives in an Ohio sanctuary, had to be able to withstand specific movements and forces. A veterinary medicine professor and licensed human prosthesis orthotist joined forces to create an appendage that works similarly to the artificial limb used by amputee runners.

7. Girl the Tiger: Hip

Just like your grandmother, Girl the Malayan tiger suffered from arthritis. Unlike your nana, Girl underwent a three-hour procedure in 2011 that fitted her with a prosthetic hip first developed for dogs. Though the surgery was tricky—the tiger’s heart almost stopped at one point—Girl made it through and was reported to be doing as well as any tiger could be doing after such a serious procedure.

8. Naki’o the Dog:  All Four Paws

When Naki’o the dog was just five weeks old, he and the rest of the puppies from his litter were abandoned in a foreclosed home in Nebraska in the dead of winter. Stuck in the house’s freezing cellar, the poor puppy’s paws were submerged in a puddle that later froze around his feet, leaving him with four stumps by the time rescuers stepped in. A veterinarian’s assistant raised the money to buy prosthetics for Naki’o’s rear legs, but once the pet prosthetics company saw how well the dog adapted, they offered to make the front two for free. Today, the “bionic dog” runs, plays, and even swims just like any other pup.

9. Oscar the Cat: Paws

If there’s a bionic dog, you know there’s also a bionic cat. Enter Oscar, a black cat from England who was asleep in a sunny field when a combine harvester managed to sneak up on him, slicing off his back paws. Though his owners feared the worst, Oscar ended up being a good candidate for titanium rod implants. Veterinarians and engineers say the design of the implants was inspired by the way deer antlers grow through the skin.

10. Tungo the Penguin:  Beak

After getting a little too up-close-and-personal with a boat propeller, a five-month-old Magellanic penguin named Tungo was left with a shattered beak. Tungo would have starved without the help of a veterinarian who was able to salvage pieces of the beak, fashioning them into a prosthetic that allows him to catch his own fish again.

11. Hope the Giraffe: Legs

Although she was born with a hoof deformity, Hope the giraffe has no problem getting around. The deformity occurred because of tendons in her foot that restricted her legs and leg growth, stopping them from developing properly. A medical team began treating the condition within hours of her birth, eventually fitting Hope with shoes that had an external tendon system to keep her hooves aligned properly. As she grew and her legs strengthened, less and less prosthetic was needed. Today, Hope is prosthetic-free, and it’s hard to tell that she ever needed any corrective action at all.

Want to meet more incredible bionic animals who have used technology to survive? Tune in to Nature on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup at 8 pm Eastern/7 pm Central on Wednesday April 9. 

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9 Reasons to Love the Amazing Snow Monkey
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Snow monkeys (also known as Japanese macaques) are a cute, fun-loving bunch. Adorable as they may be, there’s much more to this primate than just a pretty face.

1. They Are Social Creatures (Very Social)

Snow monkeys live in groups called “troops,” which can include up to 500 of the primates (although it’s usually closer to 100). Things get crowded, but are largely kept in order because…

2. Female Snow Monkeys Run the Show

While males end up leaving the troops around the age of four, their female counterparts stick around for their entire lives. The females are responsible for socialization and are to thank for keeping the multiple families within each troop in line.

3. They’re Big on Collaborative Grooming

Snow monkeys groom each other for more than just cleanliness—it’s also their way of hanging out and being social. In fact, almost one-third of a snow monkey’s day is spent grooming other members of the troop (compared to the 1% of the day they spend cleaning themselves).

4. They Know How to Chill

Snow monkeys are world-famous spa-lovers. They spend tons of time bathing in hot springs with their friends and family and, like humans, dig the aprés ski lifestyle.

5. They Monkey Around

When not grooming or bathing, snow monkeys have been observed having some rambunctious fun—they occasionally roll and throw snowballs around.

6. They Are Real Chatterboxes

Snow monkeys have multiple coos and calls for different situations. They have calls to alert others that it’s grooming time, ones to welcome new monkeys into the troop, and coos to calm aggressive individuals during squabbles. They often respond to these calls with their own coos and have little conversations throughout the day.

7. They Speak With Accents

Studies have shown that snow monkeys in one region will have differently pitched coos than those of troops miles away.

8. They Can Handle a Winter

With a range that extends as far north as the tip of the Japanese island of Honshu, snow monkeys live further north than any other primate except humans. Snow monkeys can handle temperatures that dip below 15 degrees F, but they probably complained about this year’s extra-cold winter, too.

9. They Are Smart, With a Capital “S”

Scientists once observed a female snow monkey washing dirt off a sweet potato before she ate it. Soon, her companions picked up on this behavior and began to clean their own food as well, behavior that’s only observed in raccoons, humans, and snow monkeys. They also appear to be foodies – the snow monkeys began seasoning the potatoes in seawater to give the food a tasty kick.

Want to learn more about the amazing snow monkey? Tune in to Nature tonight at 8 pm Eastern/7 pm Central on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup.

All images courtesy of Thinkstock

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6 Traits Humans Inherited from Monkeys
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Humans didn’t evolve from modern monkeys, but if you trace the branches of our family tree far enough, you’ll realize that we share a common ancestor. Here’s what they left us with.

1. Coccyx, Our Former Tail

Why does falling on your tush hurt so much? Because the tailbone is a remnant of your long-lost tail. (For about four weeks, human embryos have a tail. In rare cases, people are born with them!) The tail disappeared millions of years ago when hominids started walking upright and no longer needed it for balance. However, its absence has left the bottom of our spinal columns exposed. That’s why your coccyx is so easy to bruise and break.

2. Our Complex Hands

Primates are the only mammals with opposable thumbs. Notharctus, a lemur-like monkey that lived 50 million years ago, was the first ape to develop human-like hands: A thumb, long fingers, and nails instead of claws. Why? They were—and still are—perfect for clinging to tree branches!

3. The Ability to See Colors

For millions of years, our ancestors were red-green colorblind. But thanks to receptors called “opsins,” everything went technicolor around 23 million years ago. Most colorblind animals have two sets of opsin genes. Humans, however, have three—and that third gene makes all the difference. Scientists posit that millennia ago, an opsin gene duplicated and mutated and was a huge advantage. (Scientists have confirmed this hypothesis by planting a third opsin gene in the retina of colorblind squirrel monkeys. The experiment gave them human-like color-vision.)

4. Our Crummy Sense of Smell

You can’t have it all. As our sense of vision got better, our sense of smell got worse. We have thousands of genes for smell, but nearly 600 of them don’t work anymore.

5. The Ability to Take a Stroll

For about 365 million years, most animals walked on all fours. But around 4.4 million years ago, a woodland primate called ardipithecus stood up and walked with an awkward wobble. After a couple million years, australopithecus emerged (its most famous member is “Lucy”). Just like humans', its knees bent inward, making walking more natural.

6. Our Bad Backs

Walking came with a cost: it ruined our backs. In order to stay balanced, our ancestors developed an “S-shaped” spine, which—as we all know—leads to kinks, knots, sciatica, and all sorts of pain. But all that aching might be worth it. Standing freed up our hands and gave us a chance to make tools.

Want to learn more about our monkey relatives? Tune in to Your Inner Fish tonight at 10 pm Eastern/9 pm Central on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup.


All images courtesy of Thinkstock

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