Preserved animals

Man bites dingo



     On a stormy day in January 1925, before a crowd of hundreds, a nine-foot-tall polar bear was transferred to a new enclosure at Melbourne Zoo. As lightning flashed and thunder cracked, the bear raised itself to its full height and surveyed the thrilled crowd. Was it safe? A watching keeper assured a spectator that bears cannot leap. Barely had he finished the sentence when the bear leaped. It jumped its moat, scaled the barrier wall and, like a tightrope artist, walked along the top till it reached the now screaming crowd. Zoo workers yelled "Run," parents and children fled, one spectator walked into the bear's enclosure and pulled the steel door shut behind him.

        A group of keepers quickly assembled. They threw the bear hunks of horse-meat, whacked at it with crowbars and tried to lasso it, to no avail. The bear went after one man, threw him to the ground and ripped through his scalp. Streaming with blood, the prone man told his mates to shoot the bear. "Shoot quickly." One of the keepers shot at the bear's shoulder from behind, and—improbably—killed it.

        I say 'improbably' because in another polar-bear-leaps-into-crowd incident at a 20th century Australian zoo (not the only other time it happened), yet another group of keepers surrounded the escapee with guns, shooting at it over and over. The bullets bounced off the enraged beast, until one man placed the muzzle of his gun right up against the bear's head and pulled the trigger.

        An article in The Argus about the 1925 incident concluded that Melbourne was lucky; the most significant consequences were only one casualty and the loss of a bear worth £200. Today, by contrast, the pointless death of a polar bear would cause great sorrow and shame, even more so that the species is endangered, and the Zoo itself would be in significant trouble. But there was a fantastic blamelessness around the event. The design of the enclosure was from the US and Europe, the article explained. Clearly, the walls should be raised. Indeed.

        It's tempting to look back and judge the zoos ignorant, and of course they were, but no one born today would have done any better a hundred years ago. Much of what we know about zoo animals feels like truism now—Do not throw coins to the seals, Do not give the orangutans matches, Do not assume polar bears can't jump—but it's been a long process of trial and error. We have learned a lot from our mistakes over the last 100 years.

        Among them, the Zoo no longer keeps snakes by the hundreds in a pit or lets the dingoes roam free. It does not display its deceased orangutans in a glass cage, no matter how popular they were. Nor does it take in kangaroos from the public, ex-pets that surprisingly grew big and nasty.

            In 2012, the Zoo is undergoing another major evolution, and this time it is leading the world. I spoke to Jenny Grey, current CEO of Melbourne Zoo, for The Monthly. She told me about the changes and introduced me to the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect, an unlovely but charismatic creature that despite its renaissance-meets-special-effects-from-“The Mummy” look, was thankfully only 15-cm-long.

The squid and the mammoth

An almost perfectly preserved baby mammoth has been found in Siberia, and scientists are hailing the discovery as invaluable. Virtually everything about the little beast is intact, even it's eyes remain. I'm not sure how rare it is to unearth prehistoric eyes, or if it has even happened before. The extinct animal may be our best bet so far for harvesting ancient DNA and trying to resurrect long-dead species. Good pictures at BBC, Guardian. In other enormous animal news, on the other side of the world a rare giant squid has washed up on the coast of Tasmania. Its hood is 2 meters long, and its tentacles longer. Scientists are racing to the beach where it lies in order to harvest what samples they can. The squid's photo appears in The Age. The article makes a distinction which is wholly new for me: apparently "giant squid" are merely the smaller relatives of "colossal squid," which can be ten meters long. 

How to say goodbye

Twenty-seven thousand years ago, a human parent or parents buried their ten-month-old twins. They decorated their babies with red ochre and jewellery, and sheltered them under the shoulder blade of a mammoth. The huge animal scapula protected the infants, and their well-preserved remains were uncovered in Austria in 2005. (Another child was buried nearby). I recently came across this piece about the sad pair in Scientific American, written in 2006. Live Science has good pictures. The find was originally reported in Nature.

Neandertal Park

Since last year when researchers announced their goal of reconstructing the Neandertal genome, the story has been getting play from many angles in all sorts of publications. In the team's most recent announcement, covered pretty much everywhere by everyone, they explain that the kinds of mistakes they might make trying to read ancient DNA are restricted to a few types. Knowing this should help the scientists avoid them. Part of the solution involves using DNA from many Neandertal individuals.
SciAm, ABCnews,