By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor
In the 1978 book The Snow Leopard, writer Peter Matthiessen and legendary biologist George Schaller spend two months in the Himalayas trekking and tracking snow leopards. They never see one.
I first read this classic a few years ago at the urging of my colleague Peter Gwin. I was getting ready to go to southern Thailand for a story about the helmeted hornbill—a bird I likely would never see, and I was panicked: How can you write a good story about an animal you never see? Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard showed that it could be done.
My trip came and went, but the book stuck with me.
Earlier this year, when I heard Gwin would be reporting on snow leopards, my mind went immediately to the book. Gwin went 14,000 feet above sea level in northern India, joining photographer Prasenjeet Yadav, who for two years had tracked an old male snow leopard on foot and with camera traps.
“I thought a lot about Matthiessen’s book before the trip and was prepared for the possibility we wouldn't come across one,” said Gwin, who hosts our Overheard podcast. “Of course, I really wanted to see a snow leopard in the wild. But just venturing into its spectacular realm and knowing one was somewhere nearby, maybe even watching me, seemed thrilling and satisfying in its own way.”
Fate was on his side. He saw a snow leopard on his first day at the mountain village of Kibber. “Like all snow leopards, he was part phantom and would shape-shift, dissolving into these mountains like smoke from the village chimneys, dispersing into the cold, thin air,” he writes in our July issue.
I got lucky too. Was my helmeted hornbill a shape shifter like Gwin’s snow leopard? Not exactly. But in its own elusive and mysterious way, the bizarre bird was equally divine. Take a look yourself.
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Today in a minute
A new color palette: Hummingbirds can see colors we can’t even imagine. Their color discernment goes well beyond our rainbow color spectrum, writes Virginia Morell for Nat Geo. Researchers studying wild broad-tailed hummingbirds in Colorado found they could determine spectral-colored feeders from feeders in nonspectral colors. “Seeing them do this right in front of my eyes is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever witnessed,” says Mary Stoddard, a Princeton evolutionary biologist.
The croc that walked: Actually it was an ancestor of the crocodile. And it lived 110 million years ago. But ... yep, on two legs. Their tracks were found near the present-day South Korean city of Jinju, left by the hind legs of crocodylomorphs, crocodile relatives, Tim Vernimmen writes for Nat Geo. The nine-foot-long walking crocs left very narrow pathways, “putting one foot in front of another,” unlike modern crocodilians, paleontologist Martin Lockley tells us.
The rise of heat-related deaths: In Arizona, they’ve doubled. More than 10,000 people in America died from heat-related exposure from 1999 to 2016. That’s more than hurricanes, tornadoes or floods in most years. But federal programs have done little to help Americans cope with the rising toll, the Center for Public Integrity reports. Heat-related deaths are expected to be 10,000 a year by century’s end. We’ve reported that this summer is expected to be particularly hot, and that, combined with the pandemic and the lack of federal help, is raising concerns of a higher toll, particularly among the elderly.
Your Instagram photo of the day
Step away from the bear: A large male polar bear yawns during a snooze on the west coast of Canada’s Hudson Bay. Aside from his blue-purple tongue, the most interesting thing photographer Bertie Gregory noticed while looking into the mouth of this bear was the positioning of his teeth. “Behind polar bears' huge canines, there’s a gap where the teeth don’t erupt out of the gum. This gap allows the canines to sink deeper into their seal prey,” Gregory writes. “This offers greater grip, allowing them to catch and pull seals out of the water.”
Watch: A polar bear faces off against a wolf pack
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The big takeaway
A world on their backs: A new study says loggerhead sea turtles carry an average of 34,000 individual meiofauna—tiny organisms smaller than one millimeter—on their backs. One loggerhead carried nearly 150,000 individual animals on its shell, including nematodes, crustacean larvae, and shrimp, writes Corryn Wetzel for Nat Geo. “You have this perfect kind of platform, this raft, for cruising around the ocean,” says Nathan Robinson, a sea turtle researcher at Spain’s Fundación Oceanogràfic.
In a few words
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Blinking in unison: With the tourists gone, researchers at Congaree National Park in South Carolina have been able to study the wondrous firefly in relative peace. This summer, fireflies will be able to breed without as much interference from light pollution and disturbance in forests around the country—likely serving as a boon to the insects, writes Nat Geo’s Douglas Main. The peak for these fireflies is happening this month. “I’m running on four hours of sleep, rushing around to see the fireflies,” says Lynn Faust, author of Fireflies, Glow-worms, and Lightning Bugs. “It’s intense because everything comes out at once.” Pictured above, the fireflies known as snappy syncs illuminate Congaree’s bottomlands; below, researchers placed 360-degree video cameras inside a dark tent with over 20 insects to figure out why they blink at the same time.