Some Elk are Shy, and Evolution Is Quicker Than You Think

Some fascinating articles on the animal kingdom in the New York Times recently.

First, a delightful story about elks and magpies helping each other out, at ‘Shy Elk and Bold Birds Become Partners in the Wilderness‘. But only the nice, shy elk, not the bold curmudgeonly ones!

They get along, so to speak, because the elk needs grooming and the magpie is looking for dinner. But they may have never entered into this partnership if it weren’t for their particular personalities…

Robert Found, now a wildlife biologist for Parks Canada, discovered over years of observing their personalities that bold elk stayed, while shy elk migrated. But he noticed something else in the process of completing his research: As elk laid down to rest at the end of the day, magpies approached.

There appeared to be a pattern: elk of some personality types aggressively rejected magpies. Others didn’t. “Sometimes the magpies will walk around right on the head and the face of the elk,” Dr. Found said.

Also, ‘Things Looked Bleak Until These Birds Rapidly Evolved Bigger Beaks’

The population of North American snail kites — birds that use curved beaks and long claws to dine on small apple snails in the Florida Everglades — had been dwindling for years, from 3,500 in 2000 to just 700 in 2007. Things began to look particularly bleak in 2004, when a portion of the Everglades was invaded by a species of larger snail that the birds had historically struggled to eat. Ornithologists assumed the shift would hasten the snail kite’s decline.

But the number of snail kites in the Everglades grew over the decade following the invasion of the larger snails. The reason, according to a study published Monday in Nature Ecology and Evolution, is that the snail kites have rapidly evolved larger beaks and bodies to handle the bulkier snails.

Wait. One decade?

[Scientists] analyzed 11 years of morphological data they had collected on the birds. Because snail kites can live to the relatively old age of 8, that time period represented fewer than two generations for the birds. Nonetheless, the researchers found that beak and body sizes had grown substantially (about 8 percent on average, and up to 12 percent) in the years since the invasion.

Good news! Perhaps in thirty years humans can rapidly evolve to have webbed feet, to better survive the Waterworld-style post-climate change archipelago of the future. Maybe gills too!

“It’s not as great as it sounds.”
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