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Archive for August, 2007

Smart Crows


Crows Display Incredible Common Sense

Dave Mosher
LiveScience Staff Writer
Thu Aug 16, 12:25 PM ET

One species of crows is known for its clever use of tools, but a study now suggests that the birds’ ability to put sticks to good use rivals that of bigger-brained primates.

The New Caledonian crows, native to the Loyalty Islands east of Australia, use sticks in the wild to fish ants out of nests. The new research shows the birds can also use common sense, not trial and error, in figuring out how to combine available tools to retrieve a snack.

“It was surprising to find that these ‘bird-brained’ creatures performed at the same levels as the best performances by great apes on such a difficult problem,” said Russell Gray of the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

The findings are detailed in the Aug. 16 online edition of the journal Current Biology.

Sticky reasoning

The researchers placed a meaty snack in a hole too deep for the crows to reach—to get it, they needed to fish it out with a long stick, as is a natural behavior for them. Yet the long stick was also placed out of reach, leaving the birds with only a small stick to grab with their beaks.

“The creative thing the crows did was to use the short stick to get the long tool out of the box, so that they could then use the long stick to get the meat,” said Alex Taylor, also of the University of Auckland.

Gray and Taylor said the birds’ tool-based skills rival those seen among great apes in their use of analogical reasoning, or common sense, rather than simple trial and error. Gray said analogical reasoning requires the ability to view a new situation as being essentially the same as a previous one.

“Evidence suggests that, from the earliest human stone tools, analogical reasoning has been at the core of human innovation,” Gray said. “This hallmark of human intelligence may also be at work in both the great apes and New Caledonian crows and may explain why, out of all the crow species in the world, only these crows routinely make and use tools.”

No bird-brains

Three of seven crows that were tested figured out the short-stick/snack puzzle on the first try without training, and all eventually learned the trick within 25 tries. Such a performance overshadows that of capuchin monkeys in a similar experiment reported in 2003 by other scientists, in which it took 50 tries for three-quarters of the monkeys to succeed.

Yet Gray and Taylor didn’t stop with the first experiment, as they needed to see if the birds applied their “sticky” lesson to a new situation.

In a final test of wits, the two sticks were reversed so that the small stick was inside the toolbox and the long stick was handy. Although the crows probed the box containing the short stick at first, they eventually figured things out and took the long stick directly to the meat-filled hole—a clear demonstration of their analogical reasoning power, the researchers said.

VIDEO: Making Tools Out of Twigs VOTE: Birds of Prey—Spot Today’s Dinosaurs Tool Time: Crows Share Tricks of the Trade Original Story: Crows Display Incredible Common SenseVisit for more daily news, views and scientific inquiry with an original, provocative point of view. LiveScience reports amazing, real world breakthroughs, made simple and stimulating for people on the go. Check out our collection of Science, Animal and Dinosaur Pictures, Science Videos, Hot Topics, Trivia, Top 10s, Voting, Amazing Images, Reader Favorites, and more. Get cool gadgets at the new LiveScience Store, sign up for our free daily email newsletter and check out our RSS feeds today!

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Reggie the gator briefly flees new home


Reggie the gator briefly flees new home

Wed Aug 15, 11:37 PM ET

You can’t keep a good gator down. An alligator that became a celebrity after eluding trappers for nearly two years at an urban lake managed to escape from his new home at the Los Angeles Zoo on Wednesday. It was nearly opening time before Reggie was caught.

Keepers discovered the 7 1/2-foot gator was missing from his personal exhibit pond at around 7:30 a.m., and a search of every rock and bush proved he wasn’t anywhere in the display.

The wily beast was finally found near a loading dock several hundred yards away shortly before the zoo’s 10 a.m. opening time, spokesman Jason Jacobs said. It’s believed he had climbed a mesh-covered side wall of the exhibit.

“It proves to us that he’s a very smart, healthy gator,” Jacobs said.

Reggie was placed in quarantine while a mesh overhang was added to his exhibit to prevent another escape.

Reggie was spotted in Harbor City’s Machado Lake in August 2005. Authorities say a man who illegally raised Reggie as a pet dumped the gator in the lake when it got too big.

After several attempts, Reggie finally was captured in May. He was introduced to the public last Thursday, and fans have been eager to see him.

“I am sure that Reggie simply wanted to explore his new home at the zoo and introduce himself to his neighbors,” City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the Harbor City area, said of his escape. “Or maybe he was heading back to Harbor City.”

“We all know that Reggie is a very smart and elusive gator,” she said. “It took us almost two years to catch him, and I would expect nothing less than at least one escape attempt from him.”

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Reggie, the Los Angeles Alligator in New Home


Strange headline, because there’s no mention of “fleeing” in the article; however, seems to be good news for Reggie!

Reggie the gator briefly flees new home

2 hours, 29 minutes ago

Reggie, the alligator that cruised an urban lake for nearly two years while eluding what were purported to be some of the world’s best gator wranglers, was introduced to adoring fans on Thursday at his new home in the Los Angeles Zoo.

The 7 1/2-foot-long, 114-pound alligator was brought in to his own exhibit area to cheers and chants of “We want Reggie.” Hundreds of people, many wearing Reggie T-shirts and alligator hats, watched as about a dozen handlers lugged the gator into the compound, his jaws wrapped up in a towel and duct tape.

He was unwrapped and, after a nudge or two, slid into his pool.

The zoo has six other American alligators and two Chinese alligators. But Reggie gets his own fenced pond, which features a waterfall and marshy plantings.

“I think he’ll be happy here. He’s got a luxury suite, it’s absolutely gorgeous,” Councilwoman Janice Hahn said. “It’s a great ending to a great story.”

Reggie was spotted in Harbor City’s Machado Lake in August 2005. Authorities say a man who illegally raised Reggie as a pet dumped the gator in the lake when it got too big.

Over the next two years, Reggie cruised the 53-acre lagoon, apparently dining on frogs, crayfish and the occasional tortillas and chicken leg left by visitors and park officials. He outwitted several efforts by professional wranglers to capture him as his fame spread.

The city spent about $180,000 trying to grab Reggie and on security measures to protect lakegoers from him, said Hahn, whose council district includes Harbor City.

The gator was finally corralled in May after a park maintenance worker spotted Reggie catching some sun on a lake bank.

Zoo officials quarantined Reggie until his official unveiling.

The gator, believed to be 7 or 8 years old, is still growing and could become 10 feet long and weigh 350 pounds, said zoo director John Lewis.

“We are proud to offer the alligator a safe haven and even happier to have this opportunity to speak to the importance of not releasing exotic animals into the wild ecosystem,” Lewis said.

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Crocs Tree Australian Rancher


Crocs trap Australian rancher up tree for a week

Tue Aug 14, 3:21 AM ET

An Australian rancher described Tuesday how he spent a week up a tree in a remote crocodile-infested swamp as maneaters stalked him — after he fell off his horse.

The manager of the Silver Plains cattle station in the far northeast Cape York peninsular, David George, said he watched crocodiles’ eyes glowing red beneath him for seven nights before he was rescued by helicopter.

“Every night I was stalked by two crocs who would sit at the bottom of the tree staring up at me,” George told Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper.

“All I could see was two sets of red eyes below me and all night I had to listen to a big bull croc bellowing a bit further out.

“I’d yell out at them, ‘I’m not falling out of this tree for you bastards’.”

George, 53, said his nightmare began when he was thrown by his horse. Dazed and bleeding, he climbed back into the saddle and gave the animal its head, expecting it to take him home.

But later, in the pre-dawn darkness, he realised it had taken him more than a kilometre (about a mile) into the heart of a crocodile swamp.

“I had to get off the horse and fall on the long 8 foot-high (2.4 metre) swamp grass to clear a path, when I fell straight into a crocodile nest,” he said.

“That spooked me. There were some monstrous tracks and the big ones are never far from the nest.

“I couldn’t go back, it was too far and too dangerous, so I headed to the nearest high ground and stayed there, hoping someone would come and find me before the crocs did.”

The alarm was raised when the rancher failed to return home and a search was launched, involving the army, police, emergency services crews and Aboriginal trackers.

George tried to attract the attention of airborne search teams by flashing sunlight off his tobacco tin, waving his shirt on a stick and spreading toilet paper in the tree branches.

“The scrub was that thick they could not see me through the foliage. It was very frustrating — they flew within 20 feet of me at one stage,” he said.

George finished the only food he had with him — two meat sandwiches — on the third day.

“If I hadn’t seen the crocs circling me, and if I hadn’t fallen into the croc nest, I would have made a push for it. But I knew the safest thing was for me to sit tight and wait,” he said.

On the eighth day he was seen and rescued.

“They gave me a Cherry Ripe chocolate bar after they winched me up to the chopper — it was like a gourmet meal,” he said.

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Cairo Zoo Copes with Baby Crocs


Smuggled crocodiles overwhelm Cairo zoo

by Alain NavarroTue Aug 14, 1:52 PM ET

A sudden influx of hundreds of baby crocodiles seized while being smuggled out of Cairo airport has left a zoo in the Egyptian capital struggling to deal with the tiny but rapidly growing reptiles.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Ragy Toma, who heads the government department in charge of dealing with seized contraband animals and was standing in front of the 265 infant crocs now housed at Giza zoo in Cairo.

They were brought here after customs officials on Sunday found them, along with snakes and chameleons, in the luggage of a young Saudi man who said they were destined for a Saudi “scientific institute”.

The man was released, and the results of what the airport vet called “the largest smuggling attempt of Nile crocodiles in the whole of aviation history” were brought to stay in this large basin in a glass-fronted cage.

“I’d say these crocodiles were going to be sold to (Gulf) princes so they could wallow in pools at luxury villas,” said Toma, who believes they were either caught by fishermen in southern Egypt or born on a secret farm.

Zoo visitors squash their faces up to see the scaly haul while zoo director Nabil Sidki worries about how he will ever feed them or get rid of them.

“They’re only a week old and they’re already 30 centimetres (a foot) long, but when they’re adult they’ll be four metres (13-feet) long” he says. “And they can live for 100 years.”

He says that he will probably select 10 specimens to be distributed to the country’s seven zoos and the rest will likely end up in the Nile — hundreds of kilometres (miles) to the south of Cairo and safely behind the Aswan high dam.

Police in the chic southern Cairo suburb of Maadi have meanwhile been put on alert after witnesses claim to have seen a crocodile in the Nile waters.

“The government ordered the beast be hunted down, I took part but found no trace of it, not even a claw print,” says Toma.

Nile crocodiles are not endangered, but their trade is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and their live export is also illegal.

The lucrative trade in Nile crocodiles has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2001, a Jordanian man was arrested at Cairo airport with 60 baby crocodiles in a suitcase.

In March of this year, a veiled woman was detained at the Rafah crossing point between Egypt and the Gaza Strip with two crocodiles firmly strapped to her body. She confessed to working “to order.”

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Squirrels Hot for Rattlesnakes


Calif. squirrels heat tails for defense

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, AP Science WriterMon Aug 13, 5:04 PM ET

California ground squirrels have learned to intimidate rattlesnakes by heating their tails and shaking them aggressively.

Because the snakes, which are ambush hunters, can sense infrared radiation from heat, the warming makes the tails more conspicuous to them — signaling that they have been discovered and that the squirrels may come and harass them, explained Aaron Rundus, lead author of a study in this week’s online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The tail “flagging” places the snakes on the defensive, he said.

Adult squirrels are not the snakes’ prey, Rundus said in a telephone interview. The adults have a protein in their blood that allows them to survive the snake venom, and they have been known to attack and injure snakes, biting and kicking gravel at them.

Rather, the snakes are looking for immature squirrels, which they can kill and eat, said Rundus, who did the research while at the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis.

Researchers are not sure just how the squirrels cause their tails to heat up, but they think it may be by shunting warm blood from the body core into the tail.

“It’s such a new discovery that it leaves a lot of questions,” he said.

But apparently it isn’t just a reflex, because they only do it with rattlesnakes.

Confronted by gopher snakes, which can’t sense heat, the squirrels wave their tails vigorously, but don’t bother to heat them up.

So how did they discover that the squirrels heat their tails?

The researchers were studying how squirrels reacted to various predators and noticed that with rattlesnakes they waved their tails even more in dark conditions than in the light.

That prompted the researchers to view the encounters using an infrared camera, and they discovered the squirrels’ tails were much warmer than normal when dealing with rattlesnakes.

Learning more about these complex communication methods among animals may help improve understanding of how complex human communications have evolved, Rundus said.

He said it serves as a reminder that to understand more about animal life, we need to pay close attention to how animals act. “There is potentially a lot going on out there that we’re not aware of,” he said.


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Does It Bite? Is It Poisonous?


The following is the text of a talk I was privileged to present June 23, 2007 at the 31st International Herpetological Symposium held in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It summarizes some experiences I have had over the years in educating people about amphibians and reptiles. I’m sure readers would be interested in learning of other experiences and challenges, people have encountered in reptile education. Thanks for reading - Frank


Does it bite? Is it poisonous?
Challenges of Reptile Education
Back to the Basics


Frank Lundburg

Boise, Idaho, USA

It is a true honor to be here today. An honor for two reasons: The first because I am in the nation of Canada which I admire very much, and the second because I have the opportunity to speak at the 31st International Herpetological Symposium an organization
from whose past speakers I have learned so very much.

I hope my presentation today, “Does It Bite? – Is It Poisonous? Challenges in Reptile Education – Back to the Basics,? will live up to the high standards set by IHS speakers.

I have supported the IHS over the years because this symposium is one of a kind, in that it includes all members of the herpetological community: biologists, researchers, educators, amphibian and reptile breeders, hobbyists and just citizens interested in these wonderful animals.

I was privileged in 1991 when the IHS was held in Seattle, to giver a presentation on the subject of how herpetological organizations might work together to achieve common objectives. It is in that spirit that today I want to discuss how we can all help educate the public about amphibians and reptiles by describing some of my experiences and by providing some practical tips for communicating with the public.

I began my career in wildlife and herpetological education in 1990 when some friends asked me to bring my Burmese python to their son’s sixth grade classroom. Soon more and more teachers and friends began asking me to speak about my snake and what started out as a hobby was rapidly becoming a career.

During the past eighteen years, my presentations about the natural history of amphibians and reptiles have grown to include all levels of schooling from pre-school to graduate school. I am in my tenth year of teaching my biology workshop, “Natural History of Amphibians and Reptiles? at Boise State University. In addition to general educational programs I also present programs on specialized topics including care and conservation of herps and rattlesnake awareness and outdoor safety.

Because of this past experience, I want to share with you today some of my thoughts about educating various groups and individuals about the natural history and behavior of amphibians and reptiles - and - why I feel there’s a need in wildlife education to get “back to the basics? when we talk and write about herps.

I suspect everyone here has encountered the situations I’m going to describe and has drawn on his or her experience and knowledge to convey information.

I titled this presentation “Does It Bite – Is It Poisonous?? because I’m certain those are the most common questions people ask us when they see a snake or a lizard or even a frog. Over the years, what continues to amaze me is that this question comes from everyone. You might expect it from young children or school students, but I would not have expected it from biologists, policemen, teachers, and others. Furthermore, many times it is difficult for people to get adequate answers to these two basic questions and many times what answers they do get are colored by folk-lore and prejudice.

Let me give you some examples which illustrate different aspects of communicating with the public about amphibians and reptiles: I receive a message on my answering machine from a woman who is complaining that she has a snake in her basement going in a hole behind her washing machine. She thinks it might be a “bull? snake. “I have two little kids!? she says, “What can I do about the snake?? I call her back and get her answering machine. I tell her to call Animal Control and give her the phone number. (I’ve conducted classes for our Animal Control personnel on how to rescue snakes and lizards). Two days later she leaves another message on my machine: She hasn’t seen the snake but it might still be around and she had called me because the Animal Control folks had told her to call the Fish and Game folks and they had told her to call me and I had told her to call Animal Control!

Clearly, there’s a communication problem here.

A second example concerns a call made to Idaho Fish and Game from a man who apparently had spent a lot of money constructing an elaborate pond in his backyard. Now the pond is populated with frogs and they are keeping him awake at night, so he wants Fish and Game to remove the frogs.

The Fish and Game folks asked me to call the person back, because, as they said, “You can tell him how stupid he is and we can’t!

A third example involved a beautiful blue tongued skink which belonged to a friend of mine. She loaned it to some folks for a birthday party celebration and it escaped. She called Animal Control and put posters up all over the neighborhood. About a week later she got a call from a woman who said the skink had been found in their yard, but her husband had beaten it with a shovel because he thought it was a poisonous snake! Debbie rescued the skink just before it died.

A final anecdote; several years ago I was giving a presentation at the zoo. Two very well dressed women stopped to look at my Burmese python. One of the women exclaimed, “Just think, before the Garden of Eden, they walked upright just like us!?

The point is, I think, that while all of us here are accustomed on a daily basis of talking with one another about problems such and habitat requirements, temperatures, genetic characteristics, species and subspecies identification and so on, we tend to forget that beyond our immediate worlds, exists a total void in the knowledge and perception most of the general public has about these animals.

In short, it is impossible to overestimate the level of ignorance people have concerning, not just herpetology, but basic biology, geography, history and culture concerning the world around them. Even among college graduates, there is little knowledge of ecosystems or the creatures inhabiting them. I would guess at least two thirds of my college students do not know the difference between an amphibian and a reptile. While people have heard the term, “cold blooded? they do not understand what it means. And while most people know what a rattlesnake is, many people cannot identify one in relation to other harmless snakes. Therein lies the challenge for wildlife educators! We have to remember when explaining to someone that a snake won’t hurt them that we are going up against years of social and cultural conditioning.

As I developed my programs and presentations, I found that the two most visible aspects of herp education are discussions and writings about findings of scientific research usually presented by academicians, and “show and tell? programs usually presented by hobbyists. While these approaches to education meet the immediate needs of various groups, they do not meet the challenge of explaining to the woman that she needn’t panic about the snake in her basement which was long gone by the time she called for help.

I have found that to really reach out to different people and groups, aspects of both educational approaches must be integrated and presented in language that everyone can understand. And in talking with people about amphibians and reptiles we have to understand that most folks are barely aware, if at all, of the basics:

*What are amphibians and reptiles?

*What are the differences between amphibians and reptiles?

*What does “cold blooded? or ectothermic mean and why is it important to

know what it means.

*How are amphibians and reptiles affected and influenced by their habitats?

*What is an ecosystem?

*How do amphibians and reptiles benefit humans?

*Why is the survival of amphibians and reptiles important to our survival?

Before the woman with the snake in her basement can effectively deal with it, she must know something about the snake’s behavior. She should know that the snake isn’t going to hurt her children and she should know the snake will move on quickly to other areas away from people. What can I say about someone who builds a pond and then is surprised that he has frogs?

My message today is that in our everyday interactions with people and groups when discussing herps, we must help them to understand the basic information about these creatures that we take for granted everyone knows. Many times it’s difficult to remember how to communicate with the general public as we spend most of our time meeting the responsibilities of our respective professions. But in addition to fulfilling our professional challenges we must face the challenges of finding new venues for getting out just the basic information. Some of those venues, which all of us have used from time to time, might include:

*Newspaper articles, radio interviews, other media outlets. I’ve found it helpful when interviewed by members of the media to provide them with some simple written information about the subject matter. Remember, most reporters, especially television, only have 30 or maybe 60 seconds to report on a subject, they may only have just heard of.

*Internet and web pages aimed at the average citizen. That doesn’t mean to “dumb it down.? Information can be conveyed simply without being simplistic.

*Detailed but understandable information about “show and tell? animals. If we’re giving a presentation, have some fact and care sheets about the respective animals available to hand out.

*Legislative lobbying on environmental issues concerning habitat and ecosystems. Do now overestimate the level of intellect of the average political leader. Avoid words which set off “alarms? like “rattlesnake? or “environment? or “wolf? or “taxes.? Many times we find ourselves lobbying government groups for less “protection? rather than more. We find ourselves seeking regulation of taking animals from the wild and at the same time seeking to limit regulation of those animals in our captive care.

*Sharing photographs of amphibians and reptiles – but remember also, to provide information about the photographs. On the Flickr photo sharing site I’ve been amazed in the interest shown worldwide in my pictures and descriptions of my animals.

*Letters to the editor may be effective if not too frequent and factually correct.

*Write reviews of good and bad movies and documentaries about herps. On those occasions when a particularly bad and inaccurate media presentation occurs, remember we are the “experts,? and we shouldn’t hesitate to call the local media outlets and provide them with objective facts.

*In short, simply take advantage of any reasonable opportunity to talk about the basics of amphibian and reptile behavior.

To summarize, I want to mention how my biology workshop, “Introduction to Amphibians and Reptiles? at Boise State University has evolved to utilize those simple techniques.

When I started the workshop ten years ago, it was promoted as a workshop for teacher education. I set time aside the last afternoon for the teacher/students to write a lesson plan utilizing reptiles in the classroom.

Soon I realized a simple fact: the teachers knew how to write lesson plans; what they didn’t know about was the difference between and amphibian and reptile or what “ectothermic? or thermo regulation means – the same things the general public need to know. So the workshop has evolved to convey, through the use of live animals and guest presentations including a veterinarian, that very basic information:

What are amphibians and reptiles?

What role does temperature play?

What are the most common snakes in the area?

What characteristics identify rattlesnakes.

We discuss turtles and tortoises, crocodilians, snakes lizards and the tuatara.

We provide information on husbandry including heat, light, temperature, diet.

We also relate amphibians and reptiles to history and culture and literature, for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh illustrates the mystery of the snake shedding its skin throughout history.

Finally, why do I do this? I certainly don’t make a lot of money, but I have have learned over the years that learning about amphibians and reptiles yields some special information vital to the survival of our planet. Part of that information, I call “The Silent Secret of Snakes,? which is that snakes are no where like the stereotyped perceptions people have of them. Rather snakes simply want to be left alone to live their lives. And so we learn that when we encounter something different in our lives, whether it’s a snake, or an idea or another human being; rather than run away from it, or laugh at it, or kill it, if we would just take time to learn about it, we might discover our fears turning to respect both for ourselves and all life on earth.

In summary we must remember that to have really effective conservation policies and realistic regulatory policies, awarness and knowledge of amphibians and reptiles by the general public must be expanded. I hope these modest thoughts have been helpful.

Thanks to the many animals and people who have helped so much over the years including…

“Rico,? a great gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer deserticola) who taught me how much we can teach others simply by being ourselves.

My students and program participants from whom I always learn something new.

The Division of Extended Studies and Department of Biology at Boise State University for the opportunity to teach my workshops these past ten

My many friends at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game who work so hard for wildlife conservation in Idaho.

Debbie Wiggins, DVM, veterinarian at Zoo Boise.

Ken Carlsen, who is contributing so much toward the worldwide conservation of turtles and tortoises.`

Lance Giles who lends his knowledge of crocodilians to the university workshops.

Scott Smith, who usues his special skills to make “Rattlesnake Awareness and Outdoor Safety? meaningful to people.

Giovanni and Paula Fagioli who have encouraged me and supported my work for almost twenty years.

Garren Evans, my program assistant for all his continued help the past six years.

The International Herpetological Symposium for giving me the opportunity to speak at the 31st annual meeting.

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Godzik still at large in Ukraine


Please see earlier post about “Little Godzilla.”  Hopefully, this spotting is of Godzik and the jaws are no longer taped as referred to in first article…

‘Little Godzilla’ croc still at large in Ukraine

Fri Aug 10, 12:22 PM ET

A small crocodile called Godzik, or Little Godzilla, which escaped from its cage in southern Ukraine at the end of May, is still at large and apparently enjoying itself, an official said Friday.

The 70-centimetre (two-foot, four-inch) long Nile crocodile, which swam away during a publicity show on a beach on the Sea of Azov, is defying attempts to recapture it.

Dariel Adjiba, of the local office of the emergencies ministry, said the reptile had apparently made its home on an abandoned barge which ran aground in the shallow sea, where it could often be seen sunning itself.

Godzik had been with a travelling circus for about a year when it escaped at Maryupol on the northern shore of the inland sea.

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Alternative Medicine Threatens Wildlife


Alternative Medicine Threatens Beasts with Extinction

Benjamin Radford
LiveScience’s Bad Science Columnist
Mon Aug 13, 9:10 AM ET

Narok, Kenya—Ambitious travelers on African safari usually hope to spot what have long been known as “The Big Five” — lions, elephants, leopards, rhinoceroses and buffaloes.

This is also true for visitors to the Maasai Mara game park in East Africa. However, while four of the five are relatively plentiful, safari guide Moses Maura often has to break the news to disappointed guests: the once-common rhinos are rare, and several species are all but extinct.

“There are a few,” Maura said. “But the animals are shy, and most have been killed. Not for food but for medicine.”

Poachers target the African Black Rhino for their horns, believed by some to have curative and aphrodisiac qualities. Throughout Asia, the penises of various animals, including tigers, rhino and bear, are sold in folk medicine shops to help with male virility.

It was recently reported that villagers in the Henan province of China have for generations boiled dinosaur bones in soup, believing that the fossils are the remains of dragons and therefore have healing powers. Alternative medicines thrive in China, partly because many people, especially in rural areas, have poor access to modern medical doctors.

While there’s no danger of dinosaurs (or dragons) becoming extinct, few people realize that some “folk remedies” and alternative medicine cures are threatening endangered species across the globe. Rhino are among the hardest hit, but far from the only examples:

Seahorse populations in the Philippines have dropped by half since the early 1990s, in part due to Chinese demand for dried seahorses, which are believed to help in the treatment of diseases including asthma and joint pain. Some traditional Chinese medicine uses tiger bones and claws, said to cure a variety of illnesses such as back pain, arthritis and fatigue. The tiger bones can fetch more than $200 per pound, making some of the huge, beautiful cats worth more dead than alive.There is no good evidence that any of these animal body parts do what they are believed to do, but old beliefs die hard. While many people believe that alternative medicines are safer and more “natural” than mainstream medicine, most such remedies have not been proven effective in controlled medical testing.

In his book “The Devil’s Chaplain,” Oxford University’s Richard Dawkins states: “There is no alternative medicine. There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t work.”
On occasion, medicines that work help reduce the demand for medicines that don’t: David Stryker, a New Mexican physician on safari at the Kenyan game park, noted that one unintended consequence of Viagra is that it has slowed the poaching of rhinos and other endangered species.

If people choose to take unproven alternative medicines, it is not only themselves who are put at risk, but also our planet’s biodiversity.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of hundreds of articles and several books, noted on his website. He is LiveScience’s Bad Science Columnist.

Top 10 Aphrodisiacs Top 10: Good Food Gone Bad The Most Popular Myths in Science Original Story: Alternative Medicine Threatens Beasts with ExtinctionVisit for more daily news, views and scientific inquiry with an original, provocative point of view. LiveScience reports amazing, real world breakthroughs, made simple and stimulating for people on the go. Check out our collection of Science, Animal and Dinosaur Pictures, Science Videos, Hot Topics, Trivia, Top 10s, Voting, Amazing Images, Reader Favorites, and more. Get cool gadgets at the new LiveScience Store, sign up for our free daily email newsletter and check out our RSS feeds today!

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Snakes Almost on a Plane


Crocodiles, cobras found in Saudi’s luggage

Sun Aug 12, 8:37 AM ET

A Saudi passenger tried to smuggle a large number of reptiles, including cobra snakes and infant Nile crocodiles, out of Egypt in his luggage, Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency (MENA) reported on Sunday.

The discovery of the reptiles in the passenger’s bags triggered a brief panic among security personnel at the Cairo International Airport, witnesses said.

The 22-year-old passenger, identified only as Anas, said he needed the reptiles, which also included chameleons, for scientific research at his university in Saudi Arabia.

His collection will be handed over to Egypt’s main zoo in Cairo.

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