First, to hope. Whales have been appearing in the waters around New York City, with a humpback seen frolicking in front of the Statue of Liberty just this month. Pandas in the Ocean Park Zoo in Hong Kong mated for the first time in the 13 years they had lived together. Once the pandemic forced the zoo to close, as The Independent put it, “they finally overcame any shyness, revelled in the absence of crowds, and got together.” And now, a pregnancy.
Which seems perfectly understandable to me – perhaps they might have considered privacy for the middle-aged lovers before? Even just, say, curtains?
Some fragments of hope, too, in Kenya, where the elephant population has more than doubled since 1989, fewer are getting poached, and conditions have been good for lions too, their numbers increasing from 2000 to 2489.
Then there’s Africa’s mountain gorillas – decimated by decades of poaching and deforestation during the ongoing, bloody civil war in the Democratic republic of Congo – who are making a kind of comeback. The increase in the number from 680 in 2008 to 1063 today, largely due to the work of local populations and determined rangers working in dangerous conditions, has seen their status change from critically endangered to endangered.
These populations are obviously still fragile, and thousands of our world’s species are under threat, but this shows conservation efforts can work and must be recognised when they do. Explorer and journalist Mark Jenkins writes in the Smithsonian magazine: “The heartening rise in mountain gorilla numbers may be the most important ecological success story of our time. It has been based on collaboration rather than competition, on communication rather than isolation, on selfless commitment rather than selfish greed. In other words, it is based on a rather encouraging change, or even evolution: Humans have been acting like gorillas.”
Then there’s insights into our past, with dinosaurs: this year we discovered dinosaurs had tiny fluffy ancestors, that new evidence suggests dinosaurs were not in decline before the asteroid hit the earth 65 odd million years ago, and might have survived a long time had that large flaming rock missed Earth, and the massive “wonder chicken” – doubtless an ancestor of the beloved bin chicken – indicates modern birds were around before dinosaurs became extinct.
Science has also confirmed what every Australian who grew up watching repeats of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo already knew: kangaroos can communicate with humans. An experiment carried out with 11 captive – not domesticated – kangaroos found they used their gaze to communicate. Reuters reported 10 of them gazed intently at the researchers when given an unsolvable problem – in this case a box filled with food that they were unable to open. Nine looked back and forth between the human and the box, as if to ask for help. Lead researcher Alan McElligott said: “We interpreted this as a deliberate form of communication, a request for help.”
What’s that Skip?
And now, to wonder. The discovery that Australia’s most iconic animals glow in the dark has been thrilling to the
sizeable crowd of us who delight in weird stuff that lights up in the dark (bioluminescence, biofluorescence, phosphorescence and all lovers of mirror balls). Under UV light, wombats, flying foxes, microbats, bilbies, bandicoots and Tasmanian devils all glow! And we never knew this because no one thought to shine a UV torch on them!
This year a researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago tried it with some old stuffed platypuses, as did a zoologist who, while hunting for glowing fungi in north Queensland, lit up some marsupial roadkill – northern brown bandicoots glowed pink and yellow under UV light, and a platypus purple and green. Then Ohio’s Toledo Zoo got in on the act and discovered Tasmanian devils also turned into disco divas under a UV torch.
Kangaroos, sadly have proven to be disappointing in the glow-up stakes, so it’s a good thing they can communicate with their gaze. I’m surely not the only amateur now tempted to roam the bush at night with a UV torch, though researchers have warned those who do to be careful not to shine them in the eyes of our glowing animals. Has anyone seen a glowing echidna yet?
Entire worlds still await, in our own neighbourhoods. Merry Christmas, all.
Julia Baird is a journalist and author. She hosts The Drum on ABC TV. Her latest book is Phosphorescence: on awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark.