By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor
During the peak of Australia’s bushfire season in February, I spoke to a wildlife expert in Melbourne who was convinced that these bushfires were paradigm-shifting: “The world is different because of these fires,” she said.
In the end, more than 150,000 square miles burned, fire and smoke killed more than 450 people, and more carbon dioxide was released than the annual emissions of all but five countries. More than an estimated billion animals died. Early this year, it was hard to imagine anything that could overshadow the tragedy.
Then came the coronavirus.
At Nat Geo, we have multiple reporters on every team (including the Animals desk) covering the coronavirus, which has sickened almost 15 million people and killed more than 618,000. But I also wanted to make sure we didn’t forget what had been one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in recent years. The fallout from the bushfires is still front of mind for Australians, and the pandemic has only complicated recovery efforts.
We all saw the photo of the kangaroo with the blazing fire in the background and the video of the burned koala being rescued by a bystander. (Pictured above, a rescued eastern grey kangaroo in February.) How are the kangaroos, koalas, wombats, and their kin now? Reporter Todd Woody recently looked into it. For some, like kangaroos, large numbers of individuals suffered greatly, but the populations remain strong. Others, like koalas, which were declining in number even before the fires, were harder hit.
The good news is that more people are finally able to get back into the field to help. Rehabilitated koalas are being released back into the wild; scientists have begun field surveys to get critical data about animal numbers; hundreds of drinking stations are being deployed to help wildlife survive the devastated landscapes. “As areas are greening up, animals are moving back,” wombat rescuer John Creighton told Woody. “But the burned areas are still desolate.”
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Your Instagram photo of the day
Hello there! This pygmy seahorse is among the smallest seahorses on our planet, measuring less than an inch tall. Spotting these tiny seahorses is very challenging. Its scientific name is Hippocampus pontohi, and it was named in 2008—not so long ago! Photographer Nadia Aly took this picture in Lemebeh, Indonesia, using a Canon 5DM3 with a 100mm lens.
Related: New pygmy seahorse discovered
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Today in a minute
Favorite food: The Canada lynx loves hunting snowshoe hare—so much so that scientists speculate the lynx can journey 2,000 miles to keep feasting on its favorite prey, including over steep mountain passes and across trecherous rivers. The hare is currently near the peak of its multi-year boom-and-bust cycle, so the normally human-avoidant Arctic cats have been spotted lately in neighborhoods of Alaska’s biggest city, Anchorage, writes Jenna Schnuer for Nat Geo.
Reef sharks: In reefs around the world, sharks have traditionally been apex predators. But now, they’re gone from a fifth of the world’s reefs, findings from one of the largest studies of its kind show. Around many other reefs, the sharks are so reduced in number that they do not even serve as the top predators. One good note: Sharks flourished in protected areas, Riley Black writes for Nat Geo.
Dire warning: We’ve long known polar bears face extinction if climate change isn’t slowed, but a new study shows that time could come as soon as the end of the century if carbon emissions aren’t reduced, the New York Times reports. Long a symbol of climate change, polar bears face starvation as oceans warm and sea ice melts. Even a moderate decrease in emissions may not be enough to save some: “One of the big conservation challenges is that one or two bad years can take a population that is healthy and push it to really low levels,” Andrew Derocher, a polar bear expert at the University of Alberta, told the Times.
Ultrasonic love: Other birds can’t hear the love songs of the Ecuadorian hillstar hummingbirds. When the male chirps—inflating his throat, causing iridescent throat feathers to glisten princely purple—only birds of his kind can hear, AP’s Christina Larson reports. That’s because the mating call is at 13.4 kilohertz. That’s considered “ultrasonic” for birds, which generally can’t hear above nine or 10 kilohertz. Why so high-pitched? So that the sound of love can conquer a background soundscape of mountain winds, streams, and the songs of other birds, one researcher says.
The big takeaway
Social bonds: We wave, elbow bump, give thumbs-up signs—and, before the coronavirus, shook hands, patted backs, and gave high-fives. Researchers studying a group of white-faced capuchin monkeys are finding this particular group engages in different social tests: occasionally pulling out each other’s hair, putting their fingers in each other’s noses (pictured above), and prying open each other’s jaws. These ritualized exchanges help test social bonds, important in determining status in a group, Corryn Wetzel writes for Nat Geo.
In a few words
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The last glimpse
The dodo’s new look: A picture of the extinct, flightless bird that has inspired artists and tall tales for centuries is coming into sharper relief, the August issue of National Geographic reports. Modern scientific tools and newly discovered bones, in combination with historic sightings and previously studied specimens, are giving scientists fresh insights into the mysterious bird’s anatomy and life cycle on Mauritius, where it once thrived.
Subscriber exclusive: See a view of the dodo and its environs