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Doug Beckers via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Researchers Say ‘Ugly’ Animals Get Less Scientific Attention

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Doug Beckers via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

What do pandas, lions, harp seals, and polar bears have in common? They’ve all been used to win sympathy (and funds) for animal conservation organizations. With their big eyes, fluffy babies, and endangered habitats, these "charismatic species" are surefire wallet openers.

The problem with picking cute or cuddly species to save is that everyone else can get left out. And it’s a problem that extends beyond conservation. Researchers now say that “ugly” mammals in Australia get far less scientific attention than their more charming counterparts. The study was published March 6 in the journal Mammal Review.

Scientists compiled a list of 331 Australian land-based mammal species, which they categorized as the “good,” the “bad,” and the “ugly” based on their estimates of public and scientific perceptions. As you’d expect, the “good” ones were koalas, kangaroos, and their relatives. “Bad” animals were introduced and invasive species like rabbits and foxes, and “ugly” animals were native rodents and bats like the adorable specimen pictured above (hey, ugly is subjective).

The researchers then searched the academic literature from 1900 to the present day, looking for papers on any of the 311 species. They analyzed the resulting pile of 14,248 papers to determine which species had been studied and how often.

A clear imbalance emerged. Studies on the “good” animals focused mainly on their anatomy and physiology, while those on the “bad” animals were more interested in eradication and population control. The “ugly” animals were more or less ignored: despite making up more than 45 percent of the species list, bats and rodents only appeared in 1587 of the more than 14,000 papers. 

"We know so little about the biology of many of these species,” lead author Patricia Fleming said in a press statement. “For many, we have catalogued their existence through genetics or taxonomic studies, but when it comes to understanding what they eat, their habitat needs, or how we could improve their chances of survival, we are very much still in the dark. These smaller animals make up an important part of functioning ecosystems, a role that needs greater recognition through funding and research effort."

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Plagued with Rodents, Members of the UK Parliament Demand a Cat
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Members of the United Kingdom’s Parliament want a cat, but not just for office cuddles: As The Telegraph reports, the Palace of Westminster—the meeting place of Parliament’s two houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords—is overrun with vermin, and officials have had enough. They think an in-house feline would keep the rodents at bay and defray skyrocketing pest control costs.

Taxpayers in the UK recently had to bear the brunt of a $167,000 pest control bill after palace maintenance projects and office renovations disturbed mice and moths from their slumber. The bill—which was nearly one-third higher than the previous year’s—covered the cost of a full-time pest control technician and 1700 bait stations. That said, some Members of Parliament (MPs) think their problem could be solved the old-fashioned way: by deploying a talented mouser.

MP Penny Mordaunt tried taking matters into her own hands by bringing four cats—including her own pet kitty, Titania—to work. (“A great believer in credible deterrence, I’m applying the principle to the lower ministerial corridor mouse problem,” she tweeted.) This solution didn’t last long, however, as health and safety officials banned the cats from Parliament.

While cats aren’t allowed in Parliament, other government offices reportedly have in-house felines. And now, MPs—who are sick of mice getting into their food, running across desks, and scurrying around in the tearoom—are petitioning for the same luxury.

"This is so UNFAIR,” MP Stella Creasy said recently, according to The Telegraph. “When does Parliament get its own cats? We’ve got loads of mice (and some rats!) after all!" Plus, Creasy points out, a cat in Parliament is “YouTube gold in waiting!"

Animal charity Battersea Dogs & Cats Home wants to help, and says it’s been trying to convince Parliament to adopt a cat since 2014. "Battersea has over 130 years [experience] in re-homing rescue cats, and was the first choice for Downing Street, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Cabinet Office when they sought our mousers to help with their own rogue rodents,” charity head Lindsey Quinlan said in a statement quoted by The Telegraph. “We'd be more than happy to help the Houses of Parliament recruit their own chief mousers to eliminate their pest problem and restore order in the historic corridors of power."

As of now, only assistance and security dogs are allowed on palace premises—but considering that MPs spotted 217 mice alone in the first six months of 2017 alone, top brass may have to reconsider their rules and give elected officials purr-mission to get their own feline office companions.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Gray, George Robert; Hullmandel & Walton; Hullmandel, Charles Joseph; Mitchell, D. W / Public Doman
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DNA Tests Show ‘Extinct’ Penguin Species Never Existed
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Gray, George Robert; Hullmandel & Walton; Hullmandel, Charles Joseph; Mitchell, D. W / Public Doman

Science is a self-correcting process, ever in flux. Accepted hypotheses are overturned in the face of new information. The world isn’t flat after all. Disease isn’t caused by demons or wickedness. And that Hunter Island penguin? Yeah, apparently that was just a figment of our imaginations. Researchers writing in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society say the remains of one supposed species are in fact a “jumbled mixture” of bones from three extant species.

The bones were unearthed in the 1980s during the excavation of a prehistoric trash heap on Tasmania’s Hunter Island. Two scientists named Tets and O’Connor argued that the remains were different enough from other penguins to constitute their own genus and species, one which must have died out during the Holocene epoch. The proud potential penguin parents dubbed the apparently extinct bird Tasidyptes hunterivan, and that was that.

Except that this is science, where no story is ever really over. Other biologists were not satisfied with the evidence Tets and O’Connor presented. There were only four bones, and they all bore some resemblance to species that exist today. Fortunately, in 2017, we’ve got ways of making fossils talk. A research team led by Tess Cole of the University of Otago used DNA barcoding to examine the genetic code of each of the four bones.

“It was a fun and unexpected story,” Cole said in a statement, “because we show that Tasmania’s ‘extinct' penguin is not actually an extinct or unique penguin at all.”

Snares penguins dive into the water.
Snares penguins (Eudyptes robustus).
Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The bones were “a jumbled mixture of three living penguin species, from two genera": the Fiordland crested penguin or Tawaki (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus) and the Snares crested penguin (Eudyptes robustus), both of New Zealand, and the Australian little fairy penguin (Eudyptula novaehollandiae).

“This study shows how useful ancient DNA testing can be,” Cole said. “Not only does it help us identify new but extinct species, but it can help us rule out previously postulated species which did not exist, as in this case.”

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