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Angsar Walk via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Whaling Voyages Also Devastated Walruses and Many Other Animals

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Angsar Walk via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The 19th century was a heady time for American whalers, and, consequently, a pretty awful time for whales around the world. But cetaceans weren’t the only ones to take a hit. A forthcoming study of whaler ship logs found that thousands of other animals, from walruses to kangaroos, all fell prey to whalers’ weapons.

The study itself began as a midterm project for undergraduates in Joshua Drew’s Historical Ecology class at Columbia University. Drew wanted to give his students something other than lectures, he tells mental_floss, and thought he might be able to help prepare them for academic life after college. "There’s this idea that when you get accepted to a graduate program somebody bops you on the head with a magic wand," he says, "and suddenly you know how to write papers." (Spoiler: "That’s not the case.")

Drew knew that Massachusetts' New Bedford Whaling Museum had scanned and digitized dozens of logbooks taken from whaling ships. "It was a great dataset, just sitting there," Drew says. He set his class a task: Identify and add up all the non-whale animal kills recorded in each of 79 logs from 1846 to 1901.

This was slightly harder than it sounds. The whalers who kept the logs were, well, whalers, not scientists. Different people used different names to refer to the same animal, and sometimes lumped several species together.

And then there was the handwriting—beautiful to look at, but a huge pain to decipher. "Ugh," Drew remembers. "It was like Elvish script."

But the students loved it. After the midterm, they asked if they could keep going, and Drew decided to extend the project for the rest of the semester. Drew and his seven students conducted a formal study from start to finish, beginning with recording and classifying every single animal’s death from the scanned primary source documents.

The students analyzed the data and compared their findings with climate data and merchants’ records. The last two weeks of class were dedicated to writing and preparing the study for publication. On the final exam, each student had to draft the paper’s abstract. "By this point in the project, they definitely should have known enough about it to write one," Drew said. "Plus, I hate writing abstracts. I figured I’d give them the pleasure instead."

The resulting paper—soon to be published in the journal Ecology and Evolution—is full of surprises. As expected, non-whale animal deaths were widespread, but they were also astonishingly diverse. "There were tons—literally, tons—of walruses being caught," Drew says. There were seals and cod and caribou, otters and ptarmigans. More than 150 rabbits. Seventeen polar bears. Seven bears. Four beavers. Two kangaroos. The whalers had been busy.

Terse and no-nonsense though the logbooks might have been, they managed to create a vivid picture of life at sea. Gaps of time between entries suggest "days and days of boredom punctuated by life-threatening exhilaration," Drew says. The men aboard these ships were hungry for action, for a payday, and for something other than the disgusting preserved food in the hold. When an opportunity to go ashore and hunt arose, they were going to take it.

These were desperate and dangerous days, and not just for the whalers' quarry. "The logs talked about people being killed or getting incredibly sick," Drew says, "and they were just trapped on these boats in the middle of the ocean." He says the lists of kills are, in their own way, tinged with a sense of loneliness.

This is the power of historical ecology, Drew says: to show us how we got here, for better or for worse. He says, "It’s like lifting that veil and seeing this wonderful complexity, this drama and dance, that led to the world being the way it is now."

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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Animals
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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