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How Highway Underpasses are Saving Panthers in Florida

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About the size of a large Golden Retriever, Florida panthers come in various shades of tan, with pale bellies and tails almost as long as their bodies. Also known as pumas, these endangered cats live mostly solitary lives, seldom vocalize, and hunt at dawn and dusk. No wonder that humans rarely encounter them—except on roads.

After a century of paying bounties for dead panthers, the state of Florida listed the animals as endangered in 1958; the federal government did so in 1967. In the 1970s, with wildlife officials uncertain whether a viable population remained, several preserves were established, and a panther recovery team was formed. Today, the entire population currently numbers fewer than 180 cats, according to the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission. And as the panther population grows, it faces more risk on the road. In fact, collisions with vehicles are the leading cause of death for these animals: As of June 25, 2014, at least 12 Florida panthers had been killed by vehicles. In 2013, the toll was 15 and in 2012, 18.

The species once ranged across seven states, but in recent years, the entire breeding population has lived south of Florida’s Caloosahatchee River. That area likely has reached capacity, which means some panthers need to find new homes. In the process, they almost certainly will have to cross roads.

Road kill is not a problem unique to panthers, of course. An estimated one to two million collisions with large animals, such as deer or moose, occur each year in the U.S. Add in small animals—all those raccoons, armadillos and skunks you see flattened on the highway—and the number goes much higher. According to the Federal Highway Administration, vehicle collisions are a serious threat for at least 20 endangered or threatened species in addition to the panthers.

In an effort to save panthers, the state of Florida has installed warning signs and reduced speed limits in high-panther-traffic areas, but these haven’t proven to be very effective. So biologists have pinned their hopes on a more expensive but also more effective solution: Specially designed underpasses that allow panthers to get from one side of a road to the other without encountering vehicles.

These kinds of wildlife crossings—both underpasses and overpasses—have proven to be the most effective way to stop the carnage, according to Jon Beckmann, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. A Utah State University study found that two crossings on interstates in the state reduced vehicle-wildlife collisions in the area by up to 90 percent. (Engineers with the Utah Department of Transportation figure the structures paid for themselves in less than three years by eliminating costly vehicle repairs.) And in Canada, overpasses reduced mule deer and elk road kill by more than 90 percent, and in Florida, four culverts on a mile of U.S. Highway 27 that bisects Lake Jackson save hundreds of turtles and other animals every year.

In order for the crossings to be effective, they “have to be put in the right place, designed appropriately and maintained,” says Beckmann. The crossings typically have fencing to direct animals and vegetation to make them feel safe when using one.

So far, 59 panther crossings have been installed on about 40 miles of Florida highways, according to Darrell Land, Florida panther team leader for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Based on reported collisions, these have significantly reduced localized panther road kill. Land has identified many other places that need crossings, and keeps an eye out for road maintenance or upgrade projects that he can piggyback a crossing project onto.

Florida also is currently testing use of roadside animal detection systems (RADs), which use light beams tripped by an animal to activate flashing lights to warn motorists. The University of Central Florida’s biology department is in the second year of monitoring RADs along a few miles of US 41 in the Big Cypress National Preserve. This is the first use of the system with animals the size of panthers (typically RADs are set for deer, elk and moose), so researchers are anxious to see whether the trips work and, of course, whether drivers pay any attention.

At least one panther-vehicle collision has occurred on US 41 despite the RADs. “There are a lot of hurdles for a system like this to be an effective tool,” says Land. “It’s a complicated system with a lot of moving parts, compared to a wildlife crossing with a fence that you can easily monitor and see whether it is in working order. I don’t think RADs will ever be a replacement for crossings.”

If you see a panther, report the sighting. That will help biologists identify areas used by these large cats and, just maybe, help keep them from becoming road kill.

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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