Let the lost NJ dolphins die – and focus on what really matters

January 27, 2009

Yesterday, in an article with the spectacularly dull headline “Officials and Scientists Debate the Criteria for Rescuing Animals,” the Washington Post summarized the debate over NOAA’s decision not to rescue a group of 16 dolphins in a NJ river. The dolphins swam up the river in the summer, but didn’t leave when the water iced over and the fish left. Three died and the rest have disappeared, either making it back to the ocean or drowning under the ice.

I understand that’s neat to see wild dolphins in the Jersey ‘burbs, and that it’s tough to watch a sympathetic and charismatic animal slowly die. But the natural world isn’t Seaworld with happy Shamu doing happy jumps for happy kids – adorable animals die all the time. Sometime they starve to death because the parents have two chicks and only ever intend to feed one. Sometimes they get swiftly decapitated. Sometimes they get their tongues ripped out by other cute and charismatic animals, and die a slow and horrible death while their helpless mother watches.  If animals die for natural reasons, like if they swam up a river and didn’t leave even though they could have, then that’s the way it goes.

I find it especially insane that David DeGrazia, the chair of George Washington University’s philosophy department, is quote in the WaPo article as saying:

“We should regard them to having the same moral entitlements as we have,” DeGrazia said. “Even if they’re not human, we’re talking about individuals who matter a great deal, who are in distress.”

Seriously? So will we start prosecuting male dolphins for kidnapping and rape? Or defending harbor porpoises from being beaten to death by rampaging dolphin mobs?

If you care about dolphins – and I admit that while I profess a distaste for charismatic megafauna, I squeal like, well, a dolphin when they surf our bow wave – you should stop wasting your time yelling at NOAA about its eminently sane marine mammal rescue policy. (NOAA will indeed rescue them if they’re endangered or if the danger is human-caused). I also think that getting tied up in Western imperialist knots over that gory Japanese dolphin hunt is a waste of time – while a couple thousand dolphins are killed every year, bottlenose dolphins are not endangered and it’s just one hunt once a year in one place. That single hunt is hardly going to prompt McDonald’s to start selling Filet-O-Flipper.

Instead, here’s some massive worldwide problems that threaten dolphins everywhere – not just 16 in New Jersey and 2,500 in Japan:

  • Extinction. The Yangtze river dolphin is extinct, and the vaquita (a tiny coastal porpoise in the Gulf of California) will be next – unless efforts to keep them from drowning in fishing nets succeed.
  • Pollution. Mercury levels in dolphin flesh are so high that the Japanese dolphin hunt might end itself. That’s  good for those particular dolphins in the short term, but mercury threatens their long-health of marine mammals everywhere. Fight against coal power plants and for renewable energy.
  • Entanglement with fishing gear. According to the National Marine Fishery Service, this is the most common way that small marine mammals are killed by humans. Advocate for controlling & eliminating gill nets and drift nets, and for more responsibility in controlling ghost nets.

Of course, these are hard – way harder than helicoptering some soon-to-die dolphins out to sea – and probably wouldn’t make a good movie at Sundance. Such is life. So let those misguided 16 dolphins perish as nature intended, and let’s focus on saving millions more.

Related: The Southern Fried Scientist has a sense of porpoise.

Mandelbrot the fractal teddy-bear

January 12, 2009

This week’s strange plush creature is relatively normal, if you don’t mind strange clonal tumor-growths. Meet Mandelbrot the fractal teddy bear. Wudda! (Via Boing Boing).

Unfortunate knitted creatures

December 23, 2008

Loyal readers know of my love for dark and warped plush toys. But these…these are masterpieces. Sick, sick masterpieces. (Also, apparently not for sale, alas.)

Via Martini-Corona, who really should just take over the whole blog

Gender-ambiguous polar bears on ice

December 6, 2008

The San Diego Zoo polar bears are getting a big pile of ice to play in today. From the press release:

Kalluk, Tatqiq, and Chinook will have their own winter wonderland tomorrow, December 6! Snow Day at the Zoo, presented by WowWee AliveTM Cubs, brings mounds of shaved ice as a special treat for the Zoo’s polar bears. See the fun in person or on our Polar Bear Cam!

But don’t expect to be able to tell whether the bears are boys or girls.

Why is it so difficult to distinguish boy polar bears from girl polar bears? Because they’re so furry. The polar bear penis is similar to a dog’s: It is nublike, with a baculum (a bone) that extends when the animal is excited. But long hairs cover polar bears’ reproductive organs, making it hard to determine gender by sight alone. (Even scientists who observe polar bears having sex may find that fur obscures the penis.)

Yes, this entire post is an excuse to type “nublike.”

A mournful tune to find its bukkit…

December 3, 2008

Yes, that certainly is a walrus playing a saxophone.

(I swear, at some point we will have actual science content again. But it’s almost finals!)

Global warming is ever so fashionable, dahling

December 1, 2008

After gorging on whitefish and lox at Barney Greengrass (the shifting baselines of Ashkenazic Jewish food is a post for another time…) and loading up with babka and rugelach and rye bread at Zabar’s, we ambled across the park and down Fifth Avenue to see the holiday windows, expecting the usual shiny baubles and incomprehensible fashions.

What I did NOT expect was Bergdorf Goodman’s bizarre combination of expensive menswear and stuffed polar animals. I couldn’t tell if they were real taxidermy or not – I’m used to my taxidermy being, erm, less well dressed. Was it a clever commentary on the fashion for caring about global warming? (Broadway IS trying to go green, after all.) A tone-deaf use of endangered species? Strange homage to the ancient Egyptian gods? I have no idea, but I tend to feel nothing but confusion about fashionable things anyway. What do you think?

Hollister Hovey has more photos here, along with a dead coral bonus from the women’s store across the street.

Red light for green light bird project?

October 12, 2008

Oil platforms are like highway rest stops to migrating birds – there’s a tempting light, you pull over, but there’s no gas and no food, only a place to poop. The birds, deprived of their birdy Cheetos, circle around, waste all their energy, and expire.  So researchers and oil companies came up with a simple solution. Birds see red light well, but barely see blue light. By replacing the oil platforms’ lights with green lights (blue light is too difficult for people to see in), they eliminated 80% of bird pitstops.

Unfortunately, J.P. (our Dutch correspondent) reports that this highly successful project might be coming to a close. Dutch speakers can find the report somewhere in  the Leeuwarder Courant, but Google Translator failed me and I couldn’t find any reports in English. I hope there’s a way to revive the program.  Because if we can’t solve problems with a cheap, simple fix, how the hell are we going to solve complicated ones?


October 1, 2008

Chimps recognize their friends from the shape of their buttocks! From National Geographic:

Each participating chimp was flashed a picture of another’s bum, with visible genitals, then shown the face of the derriere’s owner and another face of the same gender.

Both males and females were successful in this anatomical match game, pairing faces and posteriors with much greater frequency than chance alone—but only if the photos showed chimps they already knew.

Can humans do this? One of the study’s co-authors helpfully explains:

“Of course humans’ behinds are normally clothed,” he said. “I think the clothes interfere with things a bit. Maybe in a tribe in which people walk around naked all day, or a nudist colony … might be able to do this.”

Is the kitty a Doctor Who villain?

September 16, 2008

When I saw this:

All I could think of was this:

Is it an eeeeevil kitty who traps people in the past and feeds off potential energy? O NOES!

Help protect right whales

September 3, 2008

Decades after the end of commercial whaling, there are still pitifully small numbers of right whales. NOAA estimates that only 300 individuals are left. This means extinction in no more than 200 years, and probably far less.

The existance of the right whale is made even more precarious because ships speed through their habitat and often strike and kill them. Here’s a one-year-old right whale that was struck by a ship in 2006, and hasn’t been seen since.

A new rule is being considered that would slow ships down and reduce the number of whale strikes within 20 nautical miles of port. (It was supposed to be 30 miles, but the Vice President’s office blocked the rule until protection was reduced.)

The comment period is now open, and the New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Blog is encouraging people to comment. Tell the National Marine Fisheries Service that you favor protecting right whales against ship strikes (or tell them that you want ships to kill the last 300 whales, if you are eeeeevil). The regulators have to read and respond to every single comment, so your quick email really will be part of the process.

Send your comment to shipstrike [dot] eis [at] noaa [dot] gov through September 29.

Then enjoy this happy right whale video. See how happy you have made the right whale?


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