Sunday 15 November 2015

Eudy and Tula

Years ago I was working with an Englishwoman in Dublin who was the first of my acquaintance to leave academia (without ever completing her PhD) to crunch numbers for Big Pharma.  She must be running Megacorp's European Division by now.  Her mother <TMI alert!> had two cats called Mompty and Tichat because they were both descendants of an earlier moggy called Mon-p'tit-chat. That is the kind of information which is cluttering my head that will never be useful: not even in a pub quiz.

Penguins are birds despite their inability to fly and the severe modification of their feathers to accommodate being wet a lot of the time. Biologists put them all in the Order Sphenisciformes which has about 20 species in 6 families. I say about because the molecular data from analysing their DNA sequences has really thrown the cat among the penguins as far as classification is concerned.  Remember Higgins and Graur proving that whales were a sub-group of artiodactyls along with sheep, pigs and llamas and not a separate order all to themselves? There used to be two species in the order Eudyptula: E. minor and E. albosignata. The latter, as the name suggests, has white flipper-edges and nests only in some isolated spots near Christchurch, New Zealand.  The former is distributed much more widely and abundantly. Molecular analysis in 2002, showed that E. albosignata is just a colour-morph within one branch of E. minor, the other branch of which was much more divergent genetically. It's as if we called red-headed Irish people a different species.   
E. minor [L looking unbearably cute, sporting his and hers leg-bands] is the smallest member of the order, rarely more than 35cm tall, sleeps in burrows on land and spends the days hunting fish, squid and crustaceans and anything else that is slow enough to be caught.  This indiscriminate feeding means that they eat a lot of plastic bottle tops and they also get entangled in nets and fishing line. Nevertheless they are not considered to be endangered and there doesn't seem to be a Jihad against them by fishermen. Locally, however,they can get armageddonned by predators like cats, dogs and introduced European foxes Vulpes vulpes.
  • This is what's been happening over the last 20 years on Middle Island, a speck of rock about 50m square off the coast near Warrnambool, Victoria in Australia. Like Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera in the Mediterranean, Middle Island has been subjected to tidal changes which means that it is now almost linked to the mainland by sandbars. The local carnivores can thus trot across the sand at night-time low tides and dig for their dinner. By 2006 there were just 6 penguins left and the town council seemed at a loss for finding a cost-effective solution to the protection/predation problem.  It was a no-brainer to local free-range chicken farmer Swampy Marsh who had been at his wit's end from predatory foxes until he acquired a Maremma sheepdog. Why not, he reasoned, put a couple of Maremmas out on the island with a bit of food and let them see the foxes off their newly acquired territory? Mr Marsh's idea was picked up by a student friend called David Williams who wrote up the proposal in science-speak and after wading through a sludge of bureaucratic treacle until it was almost too late, the first Maremma was trained up and deployed on the island. The Australians don't have the best track-record for introduction of alien species: 
  • The fox as here and previously with a price on its head.
  • Rabbit [proof fence], previously, literaturely.
  • Cane toads. previously in passing.
The Maremma story was made into a successful Australian film called Oddball. The trailer to the film is shockin' noisy and disconnected; I suppose the film is too, so I won't be watching. The New York Times picked up the story at the beginning of November and it was forw to me by my pal P in Boston.

When Oddball the dog was retired, he was replaced by two Maremmas called Eudy and Tula [guardians of the EudypTulas, geddit] and between them they have seen the local population of little penguins from the brink of extinction to more than 100 members of a breeding colony. Win!

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