July 28, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Contenders for Mammal of the Month

Here are some furry friends that know how to impress scientists.

Bats:  Add another skill to the bat box: the ability to navigate with polarized light.  Science Magazine’s “Science Shot” for July 22 explained how the phrase “blind as a bat” is now even more obsolete than it had been when science learned how well bats can “see” with sonar.  “They detect and use polarized light to calibrate their long-distance navigation,” Sid Perkins relates based on experiments in specially-built cages with controlled polarized light.  On The Conversation, Richard Holland (Queen’s U, Belfast) describes the experiments his team performed.  “So it seems that bats use the Earth’s magnetic field as a compass, and that this is calibrated by the pattern of polarised light at sunset,” Holland writes about this “exciting result.”  The discovery makes bats “the first mammal we know to show the use of such cues for navigation” (Note: the mantis shrimp can detect circularly polarized light; see 7/06/14).  Next, they want to learn how the bats’ eyes detect polarized light.  Then, they need to figure out how the mammals navigate in the dark after sunset, when the polarized light is gone.   Jonathan Webb wrote this up for the BBC News.

Elephants:  The envelope, please.  The world’s best sniffer is: the elephant.  “Elephants many have the best noses on earth,” Science Magazine announced in another Science Shot on July 22.  Dogs are good smellers, but elephants have twice the number of olfactory genes – 2000, besting the previous champion, the rat.   That’s five times as many olfactory genes as humans have.  Live Science gives examples of the skills this precise sense of smell gives elephants, such as the ability to distinguish between human tribes that pose a threat or leave them alone.

Moose:  (Note: the plural of moose is moose, not meese).  What’s cool with drool?  Moose “eat a grass that is so toxic, it can make animals’ hooves fall off,” New Scientist says.  Yet their hooves look just fine.  How do they survive?  Scientists found an unlikely trait in moose saliva: the ability to neutralize toxins in grass, allowing them to eat without fear.   In yet another Science Shot on July 22, reporter Nadia Whitehead explained how a chemical in the saliva was found to drastically reduce the toxins produced by a fungus commonly eaten by moose and reindeer.  Evolution must have done it: “The results suggest that large mammalian herbivores have evolved the ability to fight back against plant defenses to either detoxify their greens or curb venomous chemical production.”  How they did that, she didn’t say.

Ibex:  (Note: the plural of ibex is ibex, not ibices.)  Here are some reasons you should vote for these long-horned goats for Mammal of the Month.  Alina Bradford at Live Science lists some “Fun Facts about Ibex” to influence your vote: they inhabit rocky habitats from Europe to Africa; the males have horns that can grow five feet long; they live on cliffs; some routinely live at 14,800-foot elevation; their shiny coats reflect sunlight to keep them cool; their hooves have sharp edges and concave centers that act like suction cups, allowing them to climb steep walls with ease; the young are alert and jumping right after birth; and adults can “jump more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) straight up without a running start” (we saved that for last to clinch the vote).

Humans:  We naturally swing our arms when we run, and that’s a good thing, Hassan DuRant said in a Science Shot for July 16.  “Reporting this week in The Journal of Experimental Biology, the team concludes that swinging your arms uses 3% less energy than keeping your hands behind your back, 9% less energy than folding your arms over your chest, and 13% less energy than running with your hands above your head.”  It apparently requires more muscle to hold those positions while running than to do what comes naturally.  Nature also provided a mechanical benefit: “Swinging arms counterbalance the momentum of a person’s legs, providing stability to the runner.”

What a wonderful world: all these amazing animals, perfectly adapted to their environments.  Humans routinely live indoors; think of all the animals that spend their whole lives out in the open, in all kinds of weather, from sea level to the highest mountains.  Climb Mt. Whitney in California (at 14,450′, highest peak in the lower 48 states), and as you gasp for air, you will be greeted by fat, furry marmots waiting there for your handouts, right alongside delicate insects and birds.

We may lack some of the traits and abilities of these mammals, but we can reason, wonder, and contemplate heaven.  CEH therefore nominates you for Mammal of All Time.  Pick up your prize at the Crossroads.


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