Christine Cooper
Christine Cooper

Burrowing Echidnas Act as Natural Hoes

Christine Cooper
Christine Cooper

When we talk about ecosystems, we often talk about the food chain, and the ways in which each plant or animal affects others around it. But we don’t often think about the impacts of each creature on its environment. Case in point: the humble echidna, which, researchers now say, can aerate tons of soil every year in its native Australia. A report on the echidna’s contributions was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

The echidna—better known among readers of a certain age as “Sonic the Hedgehog’s friend”—is a strange, strange beast. It’s got spines like a porcupine, uses electrosensing to hunt like a shark, and lays eggs like its cousin, the platypus. To give you some idea of what an echidna looks like in motion, check out these adorable little weirdos at the Columbus Zoo:

It’s not a particularly fast animal, nor is it particularly fierce, and exactly how it spends its time has been something of a mystery. (Cue dramatic music) Until now.

Researchers at three Australian universities have made the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) their business. They traveled to the woods east of Perth one summer and tracked down 11 different adult echidnas, videotaping each one as it wandered past. Then they caught them and fitted each one with a radio transmitter, GPS tracker, and accelerometer to trace its movements. Before releasing their test subjects, the researchers held them and wiggled them around a bit to calibrate the accelerometers.

Every one to four days, the researchers followed the radio signal to catch each echidna and download the data from its sensors, which amounted to a little more than an hour of movement data per critter. Then the next year, the team did the same thing all over again in the spring.

The data showed a huge difference in seasonal echidna activity. In the spring, the animals trundled about at a “stately” pace, averaging about 0.3 meters per second. Come summer, when temperatures could reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit, echidna life became equally extreme. The animals spent most of the day staying very, very still, but when they had to move, they “sprinted” between spots, easily doubling their springtime speeds. “They certainly try to avoid really hot temperatures,” said study co-author Christofer Clemente in a statement.

During the team’s tagging trip into the woods, Clemente had noticed lots of little gashes in the ground where the echidnas had gouged out their insect meals and wondered if these dig sites were numerous enough to be changing the landscape. He looked over the data from the echidnas’ trackers and found that the animals spent as much as 10 percent of each day moving earth around. Using this, and what he knew about the echidnas’ digging skills, Clemente calculated that each one could easily move about 200 cubic meters, or more than 7000 cubic feet, per year, about the volume of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

This is important information not only for the echidnas and their subterranean prey, but also for scientists and conservationists.

“They are probably one of the last really big bioturbators [soil mixers] left in Australia,” Clemente said, “which means that they are really important for the environment."

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12 Furry Facts About Red Pandas
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Red pandas have always lived in the shadow of the other, more famous panda. But now it's time to give the little guy its due.

1. THEY HAVE TWO EXTINCT RELATIVES.

Red panda in a tree.
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Currently, red pandas live in the Eastern Himalayas. But the first red panda fossil was found a little bit further afield than that—in the United Kingdom. In 1888, a fossil molar and lower jaw of a cougar-sized animal called the Giant Panda (unrelated to the modern giant panda) were discovered. More fossils have been found in Spain, Eastern Europe, and even the United States. Around 5 million years ago, Tennessee was home to a giant red panda that probably went extinct with the arrival of raccoons.

2. THEY'RE VEGETARIAN CARNIVORES.

Red panda eating bamboo.
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It might seem like an oxymoron, but carnivore in this case doesn't mean meat eater. Carnivore is a biological order that includes groups like bears, dogs, and cats, and while these animals are generally carnivores, some are omnivores, and some are vegetarians. Red pandas are classified as carnivores because they're descended from the same ancestors as the other carnivores, but they rarely eat anything other than bamboo and a few insects. And while giant pandas eat all of a bamboo plant, red pandas eat only the young leaves. Because this is such a nutritionally poor food source, they need to spend 13 hours a day eating and looking for food and can lose upwards of 15 percent of their body weight in winter.

3. THEY'RE SLIGHTLY BIGGER THAN A DOMESTIC CAT.

Red panda sleeping on a branch.
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But their tails add as much as 18 inches to their length. Red pandas live solitary lives in trees, high up in the mountains, so they wrap those big, bushy tails around themselves to keep warm. (They also use them for balance.)

4. THEY HAVE A FALSE THUMB.

Red panda perched on a log.
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This is another feature (along with diet) that red pandas and giant pandas share. Because both pandas have false thumbs—which is actually an extended wrist bone—it was thought that it must be an adaption to eating bamboo. But the red panda's more carnivorous ancestors had this feature as well. According to a 2006 study, what happened was "one of the most dramatic cases of convergence among vertebrates." Convergent evolution is when two unrelated animals faced with similar circumstances evolve to look similar. In this case, the red panda's false thumb evolved to help it climb trees, and only later became adapted for the bamboo diet, while giant pandas evolved this virtually identical feature because of their bamboo diet.

5. THEY'RE ESCAPE ARTISTS.

Red panda climbing across a tree.
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Rusty the red panda had been at the Smithsonian National Zoo for just three weeks when he made a break for it in June 2013. His method of escape? A tree branch that was pushed down over his enclosure's electric fence by heavy rains. The ensuing panda hunt (and endless bad jokes about panda-monium) captivated Twitter (tweeters used the hashtag #findrusty) until he was found in a nearby neighborhood. Soon after his daring escape, Rusty became a father, forcing him to put his wild youth behind him and settle down. But it could have been worse. After a similar escape in Dresden, Germany, the authorities got another red panda down from a tree by using a fire hose to spray it with water. The panda fell 30 feet to the ground, giving it a concussion. (Ultimately, the animal was OK.)

Red pandas have also escaped from zoos in London, Birmingham, and Rotterdam. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums even warn in their official care manual "beware: red pandas are escape artists" [PDF].

6. ONE ESCAPE LED TO SOMETHING CALLED THE RED PANDA EFFECT.

Red panda peeking out from behind some tree branches.
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Sadly, the red panda involved in the 1978 Rotterdam escape was found dead not long after the search for it began. But the event led to a very peculiar psychological observation. Even after the body of the panda was found, more than 100 people reported seeing it, very much alive. These sightings were clearly mistaken; there's no reason to think that multiple red pandas were loose in Rotterdam, and red pandas are distinctive enough that mistaking them for a dog or cat was unlikely. It's believed that people expected to see a red panda, so they saw one, even though there wasn't one there; researchers called it the Red Panda Effect.

7. THERE'S AN INTERNET BROWSER NAMED AFTER THEM.

The Mozilla Firefox logo.
LEON NEAL, AFP/Getty Images

Mozilla's flagship browser, Firefox, means red panda. Originally, Mozilla wanted to name the browser Firebird, but found that another open source project was using that name. Not wanting to upset anyone, they decided to go with Firefox, another name for the red panda. And in a true example of adorableness, in 2010 Mozilla adopted two baby red pandas that had been born at Tennessee's Knoxville Zoo.

8. THERE IS ONLY ONE TRUE PANDA—AND YOU CAN PROBABLY GUESS WHICH ONE IT IS.

Engraving of a parti-colored bear.
Engraving of a parti-colored bear, from The New Natural History Volume II by Richard Lydekker, 1901.

After the red panda was discovered in the 1820s, it was just called the panda (the origin of the name is controversial, but it probably comes from the Nepali word ponya, meaning "bamboo or plant eating animal"). Forty years later, Europeans found a new animal in China and called it the Parti-Colored bear—because unlike polar bears, black bears, or brown bears it was multi-colored.

9. THERE HAS BEEN A 140-YEAR TAXONOMIC MIX-UP.

A red panda walking toward the camera.
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Prepare to be confused: In the late 19th century, scientists noticed that the parti-colored bear and the (red) panda were very similar. Their jaws were more like each other than they were like any other animal, they lived near each other, they both had false thumbs, and their diets were similar. The decision was made to officially consider the (red) panda as a type of bear.

By the early 20th century, that decision was reversed: Parti-colored bears were declared bears, and (red) pandas were classified as cousins of the raccoon.

Then, in the 1910s, it was decided that parti-colored bears weren't actually bears at all, but were actually large pandas, and also distant relatives of the raccoon. But because parti-colored bears weren't classed as bears anymore, they had to have a name change. They became giant pandas, while the one true panda was renamed the red or lesser panda (to quote a 1920 issue of Popular Science: "Zoologists reverently refer to this rare beast as the "giant panda." Its more popular cognomen is the 'bear-raccoon'").

10. BUT RED PANDAS ARE THEIR OWN THING.

Two red pandas touch noses.
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By the 1980s, genetic evidence indicated that giant pandas actually were a type of bear, and red pandas belonged in their own family, the Ailuridae. They might seem similar, but they're not related.

All of this means that if you're the type of person who rolls their eyes when someone calls a bison a buffalo, or a koala a bear, you need to stop calling the bear a panda and instead refer to it as a "parti-colored bear," the original English name (but if you wanted to call it the bear-raccoon, no one would stop you). Giant pandas are not pandas. There is only one true panda.

11. BUT THIS DOESN'T AFFECT KUNG FU PANDA 3.

Red panda with teeth bared.
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There's still a kung fu panda in the series: Shifu, a red panda.

12. THEY'RE ENDANGERED.

Red panda laying down and sticking his tongue out.
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According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are fewer than 10,000 red pandas left in the wild. Habitat destruction increases the species' chances of extinction.

This story originally ran in 2015.

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There’s No Safe Amount of Time to Leave a Dog in a Hot Car
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We often think of dogs as indomitable and durable animals who can fend off attackers, tirelessly chase Frisbees, and even eat poop without digestive consequences.

It’s true that dogs generally have a solid constitution, but that shouldn’t lead you to believe they can endure one of the biggest mistakes a pet owner can make: Leaving them in a hot car, even for a few minutes, puts a dog’s life at serious risk.

Even on relatively cool days with temperatures around 71.6°F, the inside of a vehicle can reach 116.6°F within an hour, as Quartz highlights.

If it’s a scorching summer heat wave, an 80-degree day will see temperatures get up to 99°F in just 10 minutes; a 90-degree day can turn the car into an oven at 119°F in the same amount of time.

Dogs can't tolerate this kind of heat. As their bodies struggle to cool down, the temperature is often more than they can expel through panting and opening capillaries in the skin. If their body reaches a temperature of 105.8°F, they're at risk of heatstroke, which only half of dogs survive. At 111.2°F, a lack of blood circulation can cause kidney failure and internal bleeding. Brain damage and death is very likely at this point. Depending on the outside temperature, it can happen in as little as six minutes. Cracking windows won't help.

Unless you plan on leaving your vehicle running with the air conditioning on (and we don't recommend that), there’s really no safe amount of time to leave a pet inside. If you do come back to find a listless dog who is unresponsive, it’s best to get to a veterinarian as soon as possible. And if you’re a bystander who sees a dog trapped inside a car, alert the nearest store to try and make an announcement to get the owner back to the vehicle. You can also phone local law enforcement or animal control. In some states, including California, you’re legally allowed to enter a vehicle to rescue a distressed animal.

[h/t Quartz]

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