This was a year of quirky critter news in international headlines.
All of it was serious research with important implications, certainly. But you’d have to be made of rock not to admire the whimsy of an infographic comparing sizes of modern beavers, giant prehistoric beavers, not-so-giant ancient beavers … and average-human-sized Justin Bieber.
Thanks to new Western research, we now know the not-so-giant Arctic beavers ate trees for dinner – unlike today’s flat-tailed rodents, which just gnaw on them to make dams and such. The research offers a glimpse into how species might adapt and evolve under different climate conditions.
Still on matters of climate change, researchers at Western’s Advanced Facility for Avian Research found that sparrows can sense winter storms before they happen, and they store up fats to help them survive. But more numerous and severe storms are testing their ability to adapt – making a sparrow in a snowstorm a modern-day harbinger of extreme-weather impact, just as canaries in a coal mine were sentinels of harm a century ago.
Nor was it a great year for pollinators, as beekeepers stared down the arrival of murder hornets in British Columbia. In a year when everything seemed a metaphor for apocalypse, entomologist Brent Sinclair described the thumb-sized insects as voracious little helicopters that swoop like hawks on the entrances to honeybee hives. After they rip apart the bees’ heads, added biology professor Graham Thompson, the hornets treat the hive as a cafeteria for feasting on delectable bee larvae and pupae. If they make further incursions into Canada, the wasps could threaten the $2-billion-a-year economy that depends on pollination.
From big insect to small: Western researchers also identified a specific gene in fruit flies that causes females to accept or reject a potential mate. The discovery helps us understand more about the role of genes in sexual behaviour in all species, including humans. Researchers add there are behavioural, environmental and biological reasons for mating decisions, but if it makes you feel better, go ahead and chalk up any issues between you and your ex to incompatible genes.
Western research showed ancient arctic beavers used trees for food, not just for dam-building and shelter.