Julian Herzog via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Julian Herzog via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

U.S. Government (Finally) Makes It Illegal to Sell Tigers Without a Permit

Julian Herzog via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Julian Herzog via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

After years of discussion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has finally made it illegal for Americans to buy, sell, and own tigers without a permit.

It's true: before now you could legally keep one of those enormous, beautiful, endangered (and yes, violent) cats in your backyard. Kind of. You see, just like prescription drugs or cereal, there are legally two types of tigers: brand name and generic. The lineage of brand-name (or pedigreed) tigers is clear; each individual belongs to a single subspecies, all of which are endangered. As a result, all pedigreed tigers fell under the Endangered Species Act, and their transport and welfare were strictly regulated. Generic tigers, on the other hand, are the result of cross-breeding between at least two subspecies. Because their mixed genes make them technically outside the purview of conservation programs, they were not considered endangered, and therefore were legal to buy, sell, and own without a permit. 

This may seem like a minor technicality to you, who presumably have never tried to buy a tiger, but to exotic animal traders, this loophole was more like a large tunnel. Conservationists say there are about 3200 tigers remaining in the wild. But at last count, Americans were keeping as many as 5000 captive in their backyards, roadside zoos, and breeding operations.

And what was bad for generic tigers was bad for tigers everywhere. Tigers are endangered for many reasons, one of which is the black-market value of their bones, pelts, and organs. But buyers on the black market don’t know the pedigree of the animals they’re purchasing, and some conservationists say it’s possible that American breeders have been selling generic tigers for parts.

“We have no idea if their bones go into the trade or not,” wildlife investigator J.A. Mills said in Scientific American. “If their bones go into the trade, then that’s stimulating demand for wild tigers just as much as the products from tiger farms in China.” 

The USFWS announced the loophole closure earlier this week. “Removing the loophole that enabled some tigers to be sold for purposes that do not benefit tigers in the wild will strengthen protections for these magnificent creatures and help reduce the trade in tigers that is so detrimental to wild populations,” USFWS director Dan Ashe said in a press statement. “This will be a positive driver for tiger conservation.”

The same day the ruling was made public, the USDA announced a tightening of regulations around the treatment and exhibition of tiger cubs. 

World Wildlife Fund senior policy advisor Leigh Henry told Scientific American that these policies represent progress, not a solution. 

“The U.S. must continue to improve its regulation of the estimated 5000 tigers within its borders and work with other countries with large captive tiger populations, most notably China, to map a way forward so that these animals aren't a threat to the conservation of tigers in the wild. The U.S. and China recently stepped up with joint commitments to end the trade of elephant ivory. This collaboration should serve as a model for protecting other threatened wildlife, and with only a few thousand left in the wild, tigers should be among the highest priorities.”

 [h/t Scientific American]

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Animals
How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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