Tag Archives: hunting

France becomes last EU country to ban hunters from gluing birds to trees

Considered by many to be unnecessarily cruel and harmful to the environment, the hunting technique of coating branches with glue to trap songbirds will soon come to an end to France, the only European country in which such practices were still allowed.

Image credit: Flickr / Sue

It wasn’t easy to convince the French government to take action against glue trapping. France only agreed to put a stop to the practice following pressure from conservationists, a formal ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and a threat by the European Union’s executive body to start legal action against the country. The suspension, issued by President Emmanuel Macron, will enter into force from the upcoming hunting season.

Until recently, the French government had found a way around it by allowing the hunting technique only in five departments in south-east France on the grounds that it was “controlled, selective and in limited quantities”. Supporters of the hunting method argued that rapping birds on glue-covered twigs is a cultural tradition. But for the ECJ this wasn’t the case, ruling this week that the practice contravened EU rules.

“It’s wonderful news. Now France cannot use the pretext of an opt-out to allow glue-trapping to happen,” Yves Verilhac, of France’s Bird Protection League (LPO), told The Guardian, celebrating the news. “The judgment is very interesting because it says that tradition is no excuse for this and that it is absolutely not selective, which is what we knew and argued.”

The excitement wasn’t shared by the hunters. In a television interview on Thursday Willy Schraen, the head of the hunters’ federation, called the suspension “unacceptable” and said the hunters should be left alone by the government. “Why is this an issue to occupy Europe and our minister?” he added.

There are about 1.5 million registered hunters in France and they represent an important voting bloc in rural areas. President Macron has made efforts to attract their support since he was elected in 2017, which partly explains why France remained as the single country in the EU not to ban the technique – used by 5,000 hunters in the country, according to the hunter’s federation.

The glue-covered bird traps are used to catch songbirds like thrushes (Turdidae) and blackbirds (Turdus merula). Conservationists argue they traps are cruel to the trapped songbirds and threaten endangered species, as they trap many kinds of birds. The EU outlawed glue traps in 1979 but France remained until know as the single country to not accept the block’s rules.

French hunters kill an estimated 17 million birds a year from 64 species, more than any other European country, according to LPO. Of the bird species, 20 are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), including the turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur), rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), redwing (Turdus iliacus), and curlew (Numenius)

The industrial glue used in the traps can be toxic for birds, while the solvents used to detach the animals can harm trees and soil. It’s also needlessly cruel, as campaigns to ban the hunting technique have shown multiple times over the years, releasing footage of how birds suffer as they are trapped. Their next step will be asking the government to ban other practices, like trapping birds with nests.

Fossil Friday: ancient predatory worm leaves behind no trace, except its burrows

Fossil hunters in Taiwan have found the undersea lair of an ancient, predatory giant worm. The 20-million-year-old animal grew to be 2 meters (6.6 ft) long and ambushed unsuspecting prey and dragged them down to its burrow.

Vertical section of the upper part of Pennichnus formosae with funnel top (yellow line), disturbed zone (dashed red lines), and feather-like collapse structures (dashed white lines). Image credits Yu-Yen Pan et al., (2021), Scientific Reports.

The worm might have been similar to Eunice aphroditois, modern ambush predator worms that hunt using a similar approach. Although it’s not possible to tell if these two species were related by the fossil alone, it’s still a spectacular find.

Ancient murder macaroni

“After 20m years, it’s not possible to say whether this was made by an ancestor of the bobbit worm [Eunice aphroditois] or another predatory worm that worked in more or less the same way,” said Prof Ludvig Löwemark, a sedimentologist at National Taiwan University and co-author of the paper.

“There’s huge variation in bobbit worm behaviour, but this seems very similar to the shallow water worms that reach out, grab fish and pull them down.”

Although they’re soft-bodied like other worms, these predatory worms have sharp, powerful jaws that can pack quite a punch. The fossil worm likely hunted in a similar fashion, but for now we can only hypothesize.

What the team found isn’t a fossil of the worm itself (soft tissues don’t fossilize and worms are basically entirely soft tissue), rather, they found the fossil of its burrow. Löwemark and his colleagues discovered it while studying sedimentary rocks on the north-eastern coast of Taiwan that hail from around the same time as the worm. If they’re anything like today’s worm burrows, these were reinforced with mucus produced by the worm to make them more resilient.

Today, the fossil burrows sometimes simply protrude from the sandstone they formed in, suggesting that they’re harder than the rock and supporting the mucus-reinforcement hypothesis.

Although the team was initially confused as to what these were, they noticed a distinctive pattern at the top of the 3 cm-wide structures. This looked like several inverted funnels that got stacked on top of one another, they explain, giving the opening of the structures a feathered look in cross-section.

Schematic of E. aphroditois hunting from burrows, likely a similar behavior to that of the fossil species. Image credits Yu-Yen Pan et al., (2021), Scientific Reports.

These marks allowed the team to rule out burrowing creatures such as shrimp or stingrays as the builders. Finally, the only remaining possibility was that of an animal behaving like today’s predatory worms. The structures at the top, the team notes, is produced by repeated rebuilding of the lair as it collapses every time the worms pull prey in.

“This results in the stack of cone-in-cone structures that form the ‘feathers’ around the uppermost part of the tube,” said Löwemark.

The team reports they’ve found 319 such burrows in sandstone formations from the Yehliu Geopark and on the nearby Badouzi promontory, suggesting that the area was heavily populated with these worms in the past. They’ve named the trace fossil burrows Pennichnus formosae.

Although they hoped to find fossilized remains of the worms themselves or their prey, the team hasn’t been so lucky yet.

The paper “The 20-million-year old lair of an ambush-predatory worm preserved in northeast Taiwan” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Busting the myth of the male provider: ancient women also hunted big game, study shows

Artist illustartion of a female hunter 9,000 years ago in the Andean highlands. Credit: Matthew Verdolivo/UC Davis.

Although there are no written records that might say otherwise, most anthropologists would agree that in ancient hunter-gatherer tribes, the men would be out and about hunting game, while the women stayed at the camp gathering nearby herbs, berries, and plants. But that probably wasn’t the case. New and exciting findings from the Peruvian Andes suggest that these gender roles were much more fluid than previously thought.

Writing in the journal Science Advances, scientists described the 9,000-year-old burial of a huntress, whose final resting place also housed a kit of stone tools likely used for hunting, butchering, and preparing animal hides.

Don’t assume her gender

When Randall Hass, an archaeologist at the University of California, Davis, and colleagues first examined the burial from the Andes Mountains, they knew right away that the human adult remains must have belonged to an important person. But what really surprised them was the fact that the remains were from a biological female.

“An archaeological discovery and analysis of early burial practices overturns the long-held ‘man-the-hunter’ hypothesis,” said Haas, assistant professor of anthropology and the lead author of the study, “Female Hunters of the Early Americas.” It was published today in Science Advances.

“We believe that these findings are particularly timely in light of contemporary conversations surrounding gendered labor practices and inequality,” he added. “Labor practices among recent hunter-gatherer societies are highly gendered, which might lead some to believe that sexist inequalities in things like pay or rank are somehow ‘natural.’ But it’s now clear that sexual division of labor was fundamentally different—likely more equitable—in our species’ deep hunter-gatherer past.”

This immediately brought a paradigm shift — could there have been more women involved in big game hunting than scientists gave them credit for? Sure enough, a review of previously examined burials of a similar age in the Americas suggested that between 30% and 50% of ancient hunters could have been females. In other words, women and men were equally skilled hunters.

Excavations at Wilamaya Patjxa. Credit: Randall Haas.

Back at the original huntress burial site, the researchers found 24 stone tools, including projectile points deadly enough to take down large mammals, rocks that were good for both cracking bones and stripping hides, sharp stony bits for scraping fat from pelts, tiny flakes with sharp edges for chopping meat, and even red ocher that can help preserve the hides. Also at the site were bone fragments from deer and even vicuña, an extinct wild ancestor of alpacas.

An assortment of stone tools recovered from the burial site. Credit: Credit: Randy Haas/UC Davis.

It’s quite remarkable to learn that hunter-gatherer females regularly took part in hunting parties, showing that ancient human societies weren’t as gender binary as we imagined them to be. According to the authors of the study, age would have probably been a more important factor than gender when it came to who was selected for hunting parties in these ancient societies.

But it’s not at all clear how common female hunters were in other parts of the world. Reinvestigating former burials that may have been initially attributed to males may reveal other instances of female hunters. In doing so, future research could challenge the paradigm of a universal and rigid sexual division of labor in pre-agricultural societies.

Raptors probably didn’t hunt in packs like they do in Jurassic Park

Velociraptors likely didn’t hunt in packs, at least judging from their teeth.

Image credits University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

A new study from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh looked at the chemical makeup of velociraptor teeth fossilized from specimens throughout their lives. The team reports that their findings suggest it’s unlikely that these lithe predators hunted in large coordinated packs as wolves would, which would mean that Jurassic Park got their behavior wrong.

Not big on teamplay

“Raptorial dinosaurs often are shown as hunting in packs similar to wolves,” said Joseph Frederickson, a vertebrate paleontologist and director of the Weis Earth Science Museum on the UWO Fox Cities campus.

“The evidence for this behavior, however, is not altogether convincing. Since we can’t watch these dinosaurs hunt in person, we must use indirect methods to determine their behavior in life.”

Jurassic Park features raptors (Deinonychus antirrhopus) hunting in packs to bring down large prey. And while they were undoubtedly fearsome beasts in real life, with their sickle-like talons and scary fangs, they probably didn’t hunt in packs.

The team explains that neither birds nor crocodilians, which are the closest living relatives of dinosaurs, hunt in groups, and they only rarely hunt prey larger than themselves. Since behavior can’t fossilize, they add, we have to rely on such circumstantial evidence to deduce their hunting patterns.

Another piece of evidence comes from a chemical isotope analysis the team performed on teeth recovered from raptor fossils of different ages. The idea was based on observations of Komodo dragons, a species in which infants may well be attacked and consumed by adults, so they take refuge in trees. They thus gain access to food resources that (the larger) adults don’t have, and this leaves a mark in the balance of carbon isotopes in their tissues — in this case, their infant teeth.

Animals that hunt in packs wouldn’t show any changes in their carbon isotope balances, as they would maintain the same diet throughout their lives since the pack helps feed everybody, regardless of age, from the same kills.

“We proposed in this study that there is a correlation between pack hunting and the diet of animals as they grow,” Frederickson said.

“If we can look at the diet of young raptors versus old raptors, we can come up with a hypothesis for whether they hunted in groups.”

Their analysis focused on fossilized Deinonychus teeth. This raptor species was native to North America during the Cretaceous Period about 115 to 108 million years ago. They analyzed levels of carbon and oxygen isotopes inside the teeth to get an idea of what they ate and drank. The data was compared to similar readings from a crocodilian and some herbivorous dinosaur fossils recovered in the same geologic formation.

The teeth point to a transition in the raptors’ diet as they aged, as the team found differences in the isotope values between the smallest and largest teeth.

“This is what we would expect for an animal where the parents do not provide food for their young,” Frederickson said. “We also see the same pattern in the raptors, where the smallest teeth and the large teeth do not have the same average carbon isotope values, indicating they were eating different foods.”

“This means the young were not being fed by the adults, which is why we believe Jurassic Park was wrong about raptor behavior.”

While the current research focused on raptors, the technique could be used to investigate the hunting and feeding patterns of other extinct species as well, the team concludes.

The paper “Ontogenetic dietary shifts in Deinonychus antirrhopus (Theropoda; Dromaeosauridae): Insights into the ecology and social behavior of raptorial dinosaurs through stable isotope analysis” has been published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

Artwork in Indonesia might be the new ‘oldest’ hunting scene by modern humans

Indonesia may be the home of the oldest cave paintings of hunting bands found in the world.

A section of the cave painting.
Image credits Griffith University via Gizmodo.

A new study reports on what appears to be a depiction of human-like figures hunting wild buffalo and pigs at the Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 site in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. It was dated to be approximately 43,900-years old. If this estimate is true, it would make the artwork the oldest known example of figurative art drawn by modern humans.

For now, exactly what the scene is meant to represent is still up for debate, but it could also be the oldest depiction of a hunting scene to date.

Hunting or myth-telling

Cave art that precedes this one has been discovered both in Europe and Africa. However, the cave drawings in Europe, featuring animals, dots, geometric signs, and hand stencils, were almost certainly made by Neanderthals. The art-piece from Africa, a 73,000-year-old cross-hatched pattern drawn onto a smooth rock, is not a figurative work (i.e. not meant to represent a real scene or place).

The oldest known hunting scenes that we know were made by modern humans date back between 21,000 to 14,000 years ago and were found in Europe — including the famous drawing at The Shaft in Lascaux France. The new scene found in Sulawesi shows that the tradition of figurative cave paintings wasn’t necessarily born in Europe.

Due to the ravages of time, the 4-meter (13 ft) wide artwork isn’t fully visible. However, it seems to have been a single composition depicting tiny humans with spears and ropes hunting buffalo and pigs.

The oldest known hunting scenes that were made by modern humans date back somewhere between 21,000 and 14,000 years ago and were found in Europe — including the famous drawing at The Shaft in Lascaux France. The new scene found in Sulawesi shows that the tradition of figurative cave paintings wasn’t necessarily born in Europe.

The team was able to date the drawings using calcium carbonate growths that form naturally in limestone caves — the same growths that now obscure parts of the artwork. The tests returned an age of 43,900 years ago but, as these bits of mineral grew over the paints, the drawing itself could be much older.

Both modern and several kinds of archaic humans — including Homo erectus and the Denisovans — lived in the area at this time. While any one of them could have created the work, we know for a fact that modern humans would paint similar (and unrelated) scenes at later dates all over the world, making them the most likely candidate.

Ochre, hematite, and other natural pigments were used to paint the figures, the team explains. It showcases several therianthropes hunting or subduing six animals: two Sulawesi warty pigs and four dwarf buffaloes known as anoas, both of which were common to Sulawesi at the time.

“Although these animals were depicted in outline profile with irregular patterns of infill the figures were executed with a relatively high degree of anatomical realism and certain [anatomical features] of these species are clearly represented, such as, in the case of Sulawesi warty pig, its distinctive head crest, and, with the anoas, their characteristic straight, dagger-like horns,” corresponding author Adam Brumm told Gizmodo.

He adds that “we can’t ever know the real meanings of this cave painting,” the team is “fairly convinced” that it showcases a hunting scene; it could also be a depiction of myth or religious story due to the presence of the therianthropes.

The paper “Earliest hunting scene in prehistoric art” has been published in the journal Nature.

Early humans adapted to hunt monkeys and squirrels

An important part of what enabled humans to spread over such a large geographical range was our ability to adapt to different environments. As mankind spread from Africa to the rest of the world, it encountered a large variety of climates and environments. However, tropical forests were thought to be a barrier in this development, due to the absence of large animals that early humans could hunt. Now, archaeologists believe they’ve finally solved the puzzle.

Remote view of the cave. Image credits: Rapa123 / Wikipedia.

In a new study, scientists report that human populations were able to specialize in the hunting of small arboreal animals for tens of thousands of years. This is the oldest and longest record of sophisticated, active primate hunting by foragers.

The key to the study was the Fa-Hien Lena cave, the oldest archaeological site in Sri Lanka, surrounded by tropical forests. Researchers found sophisticated bones and tools, along with numerous remains from small mammals, including primates — essentially a smoking gun indicating that early humans specialized in the hunting of these animals. Dating techniques indicated that this went on from 45,000 to 3,000 years ago.

“The results demonstrate specialized, sophisticated hunting of semi-arboreal and arboreal monkey and squirrel populations from 45,000 years ago in a tropical rainforest environment,” says Oshan Wedage, lead author of the study, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. Co-author Dr. Noel Amano, also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, adds, “This was complemented by sophisticated bone tool technologies which were, in turn, created from the bones of hunted monkeys.”

Specializing in hunting these small mammals is no easy feat. They’re fast, nimble, and don’t provide a lot of calories, which the hunters would have required. Comparing a squirrel to something like a mammoth, you can easily understand just how many squirrels you need to eat to reach the same amounts of nutrients. This means that early humans needed to become active and very efficient in order to survive.

The new findings are a testament to the extreme resourcefulness and adaptability of early humans. Previously it was suggested that humans only hunted small game during periods of crisis (such as the Ice Age). This shows that populations were not only capable of hunting smaller creatures, but they managed to survive for many centuries with this way of life.

Researchers studied 14,500 bone fragments from Sri Lanka’s Fa Hien cave. Out of the animal remains, 70% belonged to tree squirrels and monkeys, indicating that this was the preferred prey of the local populations. Image credits: N. Amano / Nature Communications.

The team then took things one step further, and looked at things from the animals’ perspective. Specifically, they wanted to see if such an extended period of human hunt took a tool on the species. Judging by the assemblage they analyzed, they conclude that the population wasn’t heavily affected, and the humans were essentially a sustainable part of the ecosystem.

They were careful resource managers, hunting more of the abundant small game, and rarely feasting on larger prey like deer or pigs.

“This ‘monkey menu’ was not a one-off, and the use of these difficult-to-catch resources is one more example of the behavioural and technological flexibility of H. sapiens,” says Prof. Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, a senior author of the study.

Now, the team is taking a closer look at the bone tools to figure out how they were used. Was it a bow-and-arrow, a spear, or some sort of ambush/trap? We don’t know for sure yet, but whatever it was, it was complex, elaborate, and allowed humans to thrive in an unfriendly environment.

Brown bear moms raise their cubs differently due to hunting

We truly are living in the Anthropocene — mankind affects each and every creature on this planet, leaving no corner untouched and no rock unturned. A new study has now shown that human hunting can influence how mother bears care for their cubs, disrupting maternal care strategies.

A Scandinavian brown bear family group composed of a female with her dependent cubs. Family groups are protected from hunting by law. Image credits: Ilpo Kojola.

“Man is now an evolutionary force in the lives of the bears,” says Professor Jon Swenson from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU).

He’s not exaggerating either. The brown bear, an emblematic species found across much of northern Eurasia and North America has suffered dearly at the hands of humans. We’ve shrunk their habitats, cut much of their forests, and even hunted them. As it turns out, hunting pressure even changes the mother-cub dynamic.

Traditionally, cubs would follow their mother around for about a year and a half. But now, with widespread bear hunting, maternal care has grown to about 2.5 years.

Swenson and his colleagues followed bears in Scandinavia for more than 20 years, attempting to understand their ways and coming up with strategies to protect them.

“The Scandinavian brown bear project is one of the world’s two longest research projects on bears,” Swenson says, who has been attached to the project almost since its very beginning.

“We have followed over five hundred bears, many from birth to death.”

Joanie Van de Walle, one of the study’s authors, says that staying together with the cubs is not only beneficial to the cubs — but also to the mothers as well.

“In Sweden, it is illegal to kill females and their cubs. Therefore, as long as the female keeps her cubs, she and her cubs will be protected from hunting. Being accompanied by cubs during the hunting season efficiently reduces the probability of being killed. Indeed, adult females that are alone are about 4 times more likely to be killed than females accompanied by their cubs during the hunting season,” Van de Walle told ZME Science.

The data shows that both the mother and her cubs increase their survival rates by staying together for an extra year, but it’s not clear if this is a conscious decision or not.

“Females could keep their cubs longer for several reasons, for example to compensate for their small size or because this behavior is genetically determined. What we show is that by doing so (regardless of the reason), they survive better,” she adds.

At this point, researchers don’t know if this behavior will be passed down to cubs or if it has a genetic basis. But what they did show is that this relatively rare behavior (about 7% before 2005 in south-central Sweden) has since become quite common (more than 30% in recent times). Results are largely owed to how hunting is regulated in Scandinavia, so it’s not clear if similar findings would carry out in other parts of the world.

Spending extra time with the cubs means fewer breeding opportunities for the female — but on the other hand, she increases the likelihood of the cubs surviving. It’s an evolutionary game of push and tow, in which man has not become a decisive factor.

“In our study, we show that there are two maternal care tactics in the Swedish brown bears. Some females keep their cubs for 1.5 years and other females keep their cubs for 2.5 years. Using either one of the two maternal care tactics yields very contrasted survival and reproductive rates and these differences appear to annul one another, with both tactics being apparently equivalent.

But, as hunting pressure increases, females that keep their cubs longer gain a survival advantage that outpaces the cost in reproduction and the best tactic should be to provide 2.5 years of maternal care. Our results, therefore, show that hunting has the power to drive female reproductive behaviors,” van de Walle told ZME Science.

At this point, it’s hard to say if hunting policy should be changed or not. It’s unclear how a shift would affect brown bear population — but what is clear is that we are responsible for changing their behavior. Human action always has consequences on the natural world, and quite often, those consequences are unexpected and hard to anticipate.

“At this stage, the consequences on the dynamics of the population of a change in female brown bears reproductive behavior are hard to anticipate and it would be difficult for us to say whether the policies should be changed or not.

One of our goals with this study was to document how humans, through their harvest and actions, can have unexpected consequences on the wildlife populations they are trying to manage,” van de Walle concludes.

Journal Reference: Joanie Van de Walle, Gabriel Pigeon, Andreas Zedrosser, Jon E. Swenson & Fanie Pelletier. Hunting regulation favors slow life histories in a large carnivore. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-03506-3.

“A curtain of snakes” — for the first time, scientists confirm snakes can hunt in packs

As if snakes weren’t good enough as predators — they can also team up for even better results.

The Cuban boa (Chilabothrus angulifer) is the first snake shown to cooperatively hunt. Image credits: Vladimir Dinets.

Although snakes are as social as birds or mammals, hunting is usually a one-snake job. Although they do sometimes (very rarely) hunt in groups, coordination and cooperating in snake hunting have never been demonstrated before. Now, Vladimir Dinets, a research assistant professor of psychology at UT, observed the Cuban boa (Chilabothrus angulifer) doing just that, significantly increasing its success rate.

“It is possible that coordinated hunting is not uncommon among snakes, but it will take a lot of very patient field research to find out,” he said. “This is the first scientifically documented case of coordinated hunting by snakes,” the researcher wrote. “It is also the first study on reptiles to statistically test for coordination between hunters and to show that coordination increases hunting success.”

Writing in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition, he describes how boas hang down from the ceiling of the cave entrance filled with bats. They patiently wait for their prey and then attempt to catch the bats mid-air. Sometimes they’re successful, but sometimes they’ll return without a catch. But when they hunt in a group, they’re always successful.

Strength in numbers

The key for the group is to create a curtain-like structure at the entrance of the cave, so that bats can’t safely fly anywhere without coming close to a snake. Basically, if one or a few snakes hunt at the cave entrance, bats can simply go around them, and the snakes’ success rate drops. But if there’s enough of them, there are no safe spots. They share the spoils and each snake only takes one bat.

This may be a unique behavior, but there’s also a good chance that many other snakes hunt together. Out of the world’s 3,650 snake species, we’ve only observed the hunting habits of few of them, and much of what snakes do remains a mystery to us.

“It is possible that coordinated hunting is not uncommon among snakes, but it will take a lot of very patient field research to find out,” Dinets said.

Dinets also raises a big alarm flag, saying that Cuban boas are becoming harder and harder to find. For starters, they’re now only found in the most remote caves, which is natural, but they’re also being increasingly hunted for food and pet trade. Cuban wildlife, in general, is expected to undergo a critical period as the country slowly opens up to the rest of the world and external pressures will also increase.

“I suspect that if their numbers in a cave fall, they can’t hunt in groups anymore and might die out even if some of them don’t get caught by hunters,” Dinets said. “A few of these caves are in national parks, but there’s a lot of poaching everywhere.”

Vladimir Dinets has been very active in the study and description of reptiles, helping disprove many of the wrong stereotypes surrounding these animals. In a previous guest post for ZME Science, Dinets dispelled the most common crocodile myths. Crocs and alligators are extremely intelligent, social, playful, and even funny, contrary to what most people believe.

Antlers.

Men trophy hunt to show off to the ladies, new research found

Why do some humans go after the biggest animals they can find? And how can these hunters be turned away from killing what are often endangered or threatened beasts? One trio of researchers found it’s all about bragging — or shaming.

Antlers.

Image credits Michael Bieri.

For a really long time in human history, supermarkets surprisingly weren’t a thing. So if you wanted some meat to go with your nuts, berries, and assorted veggies, boy you were in for an adventure — it was either hunting something alive or scavenging (which usually meant fighting something alive which had fangs). Long story short, it was dangerous, but we had to do it for the food.

There is one kind of hunting that flies in the face of this risk-reward dynamic animals have with subsistence hunting, however. Some human hunters go after the biggest, meanest, most dangerous animal around, even when they don’t want to eat it. Needless to say, such hunting can have devastating consequences for wildlife populations. So why do some people spend huge sums of money to kill big game that’s usually on the brink of extinction anyway? It doesn’t make any sense.

The answer, according to a trio of researchers, is sex.

What.

The fact that it doesn’t make sense is half the point here, the team explains. The other one is that it is expensive. Put them both together and what you get is “this costs a lot, I get nothing out of it, and now I am going to do it. Look how cool I am.” In short, it’s all about getting bragging rights. The pricey hunt is meant to show off a male’s high social status to competitors and potential mates. The theory would offer an evolutionary explanation for why humans kill animals they don’t need to, and suggests a possible tactic for discouraging that behavior in the future.

“Policy debate about [trophy hunting] benefits and costs focuses only on the hunted species and biodiversity, not the unique behaviour of hunters,” the authors write.

Lead author Chris Darimont, Hakai-Raincoast professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and his team describe human beings as “superpredators” because they’re not bound by the typical rules of other carnivores in the animal kingdom. The average predator “typically picks prey that are newly born (the juveniles) or nearly dead (the sick and weak animals, the substandard animals in populations) and they eat them,” they added. “And this really bizarre, unique predator, [the] human being, kind of does the opposite. We target the large; we target animals for characteristics that have nothing to do with their nutritional value; we target animals with big horns or antlers.”

To find out what evolutionary drive powers trophy hunting, the team compared this behavior to the habits of “traditional hunter-gatherers” — modern populations whose lifestyles resemble those of ancient humans. Darimont pointed out that in the Meriam population of Australia, men and women both hunt for green turtles but employ different methods.

We can do it the sensible way, or the right way

Ego.

Look at this handsome guy!
Image credits cortto / Flickr.

Whereas the women employ a safe and easy method, by capturing turtles who come ashore to lay eggs, men take a complicated, expensive, and dangerous route. They take to the sea on boats then dive in dangerous waters to hunt the same turtles on their own turf. Even worse, the men often have to share the meat they hunt with the community, rather than keeping it for their family.

Still, the men keep hunting this way because they get another (more evolutionary relevant) advantage. They show that they can mobilize the resources to undertake such a costly and dangerous task, which shows they can provide for their offspring, potentially making them more attractive to mates. This behavior is known as “costly signaling behavior,” and the Meriam males use it to gain social standing. The team reports that the turtle hunters get married earlier, to “higher quality” mates, and generally have more surviving children than their peers.

With the advent of social media, these hunters have more opportunity to brag — but they’re also opening themselves to shaming by critics. Public outcry, the team points out, may be a key tactic to stemming such behavior.

“If these hunters are hunting for status essentially, there’s nothing like shame to erode status,” Darimont said.

“So where the internet might fuel this kill-and-tell generation, it might also provide a vehicle for those opposed to trophy hunting to emerge with a powerful strategy.”

The full paper “Why men trophy hunt” has been published in the journal Biology Letters.

Scientists discover ‘hunting circuits’ that can turn fuzzy rats into fuzzy murderous rats

Two sets of neurons have been identified in the amygdala that, when activated, can turn mice into highly effective killers, a new study reports. The findings could help determine how hunting behavior evolved, hundred of millions of years ago.

Image credits Alexas_Fotos / Pixabay.

Here’s one the conspiracy theorists will love.

A team from Yale university have managed to hack the brains of mice into highly efficient killing machines. They ramped up the animals’ aggression by activating two sets of neurons in their amygdala, the paper states.

“The animals become very efficient in hunting,” says Ivan de Araujo, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University and an associate fellow at The John B. Pierce Laboratory in New Haven.

“They pursue the prey [a live cricket] faster and they are more capable of capturing and killing it.”

Tampering with these neurons caused the mice to attack even inanimate objects — sticks, bottle caps, and an insect-like toy. Dr De Araujo says that the animals bit the toy “intensively” and even used “their forepaws in an attempt to kill it.”

Bloodlust, but with manners

The mice saved their aggressiveness only for prey, as De Araujo reports that the furry rodents didn’t attack one another even with both sets of neurons activated. These results offer a glimpse into how the brain changed hundreds of millions of years ago when jaws first developed. It was the first time any brain had an efficient tool with which to kill prey, a change that “must have influenced the way the brain is wired up in a major way,” De Araujo says.

Just like the military has a chain of command to make sure everything is where it’s supposed to be in battle, brains needed to re-wire to allow for specialized hunting circuits. These serve to govern and coordinate the movements of predators’ jaws and neck muscles, turning a clumsy beast into a deadly predator.

“This is a very complex and demanding task,” De Araujo says.

The team used mice since we know these animals are predatory — they hunt and eat whatever they can, really, mostly insects and worms. One species, in particular, is known as the killer mouse for its habit of feeding on live prey, even other mice at times.

By watching brain scans of hunting mice, they discovered one set of neurons that activated when chasing prey and another that would flare up when biting or killing something. Both of these bundles of neurons are located in the amygdala, which is involved in regulating emotion and motivation.

The next step was to use optogenetics to create mice in which these sets of neurons could be activated using a laser.

“When we stimulate [both sets of] neurons […] they assume the body posture and actions usually associated with real hunting

“It is as if there is a prey in front of the animal,” De Araujo says.

The team found evidence of similar “hunting circuits” in other species that relied on hunting to survive — including humans.

Knowing how the brain processes hunting and killing gives us a glimpse of how — and when — these behaviors evolved. It might also help us understand how aggression, in general, is handled by the brain.

The paper “Integrated Control of Predatory Hunting by the Central Nucleus of the Amygdala” has been published in the journal Cell.

Romania clamps down on hunting big carnivores for sport

An unexpected governmental decision comes to the protection of large carnivores in Romania, after years of rising hunting quotas since joining the EU.

Image credits Albert Lew / Flickr.

The country’s government has imposed an unexpected ban on trophy hunting of brown bears, wolves, lynxes, and big cats on Tuesday. The move will give remaining populations of carnivores a respite from the abusive hunting practices that have been threatening it. Future incidents of damage by wildlife will be handled by the soon-to-be-created Serviciul de Urgenta pentru Animale Salbatice (The Wild Animal Emergency Service / SUAS).

Romania is home to the largest population of big predators in Europe — and, sadly, the Union’s most sought-after hunting spot. Over the last decade, hunting for sport has grown into an industry worth millions of euros in the country, with hunters shelling out up to €10,000 (£8,800) to claim a single trophy from the Carpathians, the Guardian reports. So it’s not hard to see why Romania has been setting higher and higher quotas of large carnivores to be taken down each year since joining the EU in 2007. The largest one yet, set in 2016, called for the shooting of 550 bears, 600 wolves, and 500 big cats over the year.

To put it into perspective, that’s equivalent to killing the entire brown bear population in Slovakia, the population of wolves living in France, Norway, and Sweeden, and four Poland-worths of lynxes — in one country, in a single year. Official data shows that 2,374 bears, 1,586 wolves, 898 big cats, and 120 lynxes have been shot in Romania between 2007 and 2015, local media reports.

While these species are technically protected in states of the EU under the habitats directive, legislative loopholes allow for the hunting of dangerous wild animals — those that have attacked a person or have damaged public property. Hunting associations across the country are responsible for reporting the total number of large carnivore in the country and how many of them are likely to cause damages, to governmental agencies each year. Based on the second number, authorities would decide on a hunting quota for each species which would be divided up between hunting associations to be sold to hunters as permits.

Hands up if you spot the conflict of interest there.

I do, and I’m just a bear.
Image via Wikimedia.

Even worse, since every association tends to a particular area of the country many animals are counted more than once, potentially inflating the total reported population by thousands of individuals.

“[…] there has been some controversy regarding the method by which these species’ populations are calculated or numbered, [as well as] suspicions regarding the utility of preemptive intervention and rectitude of intervention,” said environment minister Cristina Pasca-Palmer for local media. “The question was if these species really are [intervened upon] because of an underlying human-animal conflict, or if it’s just a cloacked hunting practice.”

In her interview with The Guardian, she added:

“How can hunting associations count how many animals are causing damages a priori – before the damages have happened? By introducing the ban, what we are doing is simply putting things back on the right track, as the habitats directive originally intended.”

“Hunting for money was already illegal, but it was given a green light anyway,” she added “[The dangerous animal clause] acted as a cover for trophy hunting.”

There is some concern that Tuesday’s decision will divide the country’s population — with urban residents welcoming the decision, and those living in the countryside opposing it. Wildlife protection group NGO Milvus’ bear specialist with Csaba Domokos says that damages by wildlife “are a very real concern in the countryside.” He adds that while the hunting system up to now definitely didn’t work, locals see killing the predators as the only real option. The success or failure of the law hinges on how well SUAS will handle future incidents.

But overall, the Romanian people put great value on maintaining the wilderness wild and welcome the decision. There are strong traditional ties to the wilderness and the environment, and in recent years anti-corruption officers have convicted dozens of foresters, hunters, and local officials for abusive practices that led to environmental damage.

“The Carpathian mountains are home to more biodiversity than anywhere else in Europe, but for too long they have been ruthlessly exploited for forestry and hunting. Let’s hope the government’s decision is a sign of things to come,” said activist and conservationist Gabriel Paun, who gathered 11,000 signatures for a petition in support of the ban.

The option of exporting excess wildlife to other countries interested in ‘re-wilding’ is also being discussed.

 

South Africa bans leopard hunt for 2016

It costs $20,000 to shoo a leopard, and foreign hunters flock to South Africa every year to kill leopards for trophy hunting. This year, because leopard numbers remain nuclear, South Africa has decided to ban hunting for the year.

The South African National Biodiversity Institute, a government research organisation, recommended the temporary ban because they can’t properly estimate the number of remaining leopards.

“There is uncertainty about the numbers and this is not a permanent ban, but we need more information to guide quotas,” John Donaldson, its director of research, told Reuters news agency.

However, this is just a temporary measure, officials were quick to announce. South African Environment Minister Edna Molewa is a vocal advocate of the hunting industry, and the country earns more than $400 million every year by allowing tourists to kill animals within their borders.

Leopards are part of the so-called “Big Five”, alongside lions, rhinos, buffaloes and elephants. Hunting all of the Big 5 has been legal in South Africa since the 1980s. Trophy hunters usually use traps (like skewered impalas) to lure leopards, which they then shoot from a safe location. Several hunters already paid the $20,000, and they will be refunded.

Most hunters and conservationists say that legal trophy hunting in Africa has a positive effects, raising funds for maintaining both the wildlife and its habitat. But the hunt is not without opponents, who argue that the hunt is often conducted improperly and it is also unethical to conserve populations by killing animals.