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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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Animals
The Simple Way to Protect Your Dog From Dangerous Rock Salt
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iStock

Winter can be a tough time for dogs. The cold weather usually means there are fewer opportunities for walks and more embarrassing accessories for them to wear. But the biggest threat to canines this time of year is one pet owners may not notice: the dangerous rock salt coating the streets and sidewalks. If you live someplace where this is a problem, here are the steps you need to take to keep your pooch safe until the weather warms up, according to Life Hacker.

Rock salt poses two major hazards to pets: damage to their feet and poisoning from ingestion. The first is the one most pet owners are aware of. Not only do large grains of salt hurt when they get stuck in a dog’s paws, but they can also lead to frostbite and chemical burns due to the de-icing process at work. The easiest way to prevent this is by covering your dog’s paws before taking them outside. Dog booties get the job done, as do protective balms and waxes that can be applied directly to their pads.

The second danger is a little harder to anticipate. The only way you can stop your dog from eating rock salt from the ground is to keep a close eye on them. Does your dog seem a little too interested in a puddle or a mound of snow? Encourage them to move on before they have a chance to take a lick.

If, for some reason, you forget to follow the steps above and your pet has a bad encounter with some winter salt, don’t panic. For salty feet, soak your dog's paws in warm water once you get inside to wash away any remaining grit. If your dog exhibits symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and disorientation and you suspect they’ve ingested rock salt, contact your vet right away.

Even with the proper protection, winter can still create an unsafe environment for dogs. Check out this handy chart to determine when it’s too cold to take them for a walk.

[h/t Life Hacker]

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© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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Animals
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Hires Puppy to Sniff Out Art-Munching Bugs
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some dogs are qualified to work at hospitals, fire departments, and airports, but one place you don’t normally see a pooch is in the halls of a fine art museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is changing that: As The Boston Globe reports, a young Weimaraner named Riley is the institution’s newest volunteer.

Even without a background in art restoration, Riley will be essential in maintaining the quality of the museum's masterpieces. His job is to sniff out the wood- and canvas-munching pests lurking in the museum’s collection. During the next few months, Riley will be trained to identify the scents of bugs that pose the biggest threat to the museum’s paintings and other artifacts. (Moths, termites, and beetles are some of the worst offenders.)

Some infestations can be spotted with the naked eye, but when that's impossible, the museum staff will rely on Riley to draw attention to the problem after inspecting an object. From there, staff members can examine the piece more closely and pinpoint the source before it spreads.

Riley is just one additional resource for the MFA’s existing pest control program. As far as the museum knows, it's rare for institutions facing similar problems to hire canine help. If the experiment is successful, bug-sniffing dogs may become a common sight in art museums around the world.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

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