Squirrels, in theory, can survive a fall from an object of any height due to two factors: their size and their mass. A force (such as the force of gravity) is calculated by multiplying mass and acceleration. The acceleration due to gravity on Earth is always roughly 9.81 m/s2, regardless of what object it is acting on. Squirrels are not very heavy—a grey squirrel only weighs about 0.5 kg—meaning that the force acting on a falling squirrel just isn’t that big.
Force = mass*acceleration = 0.5 kg * 9.81 m/s2 = 4.9 N
We measure forces in a unit called “Newtons”, named for Isaac Newton who gave us Newton’s three laws of motion.
Compare this to, for example, a falling 60 kg human, which would be pulled downward with a force of about 489 N. A factor of 100 higher!
On top of being small, squirrels are fluffy and intuitively spread their bodies out when falling. This allows them to experience as much wind resistance as possible, slowing down their rate of descent. Some squirrels even use this fact to glide through the air. While gliding is not the same as flight, we nonetheless call them flying squirrels.
For these two reasons, the terminal velocity (fastest speed while falling) of squirrels is slow enough that they will, at least in principle, never fall so hard that they hurt themselves.
Every year upwards of 25 million birds are killed in Canada due to collisions with buildings, communication towers, wind turbines, and as a result of being tangled into marine gillnets. From window decals to flashing lights, humans have tried numerous preventative measures to stop these deaths. Their degree of success depends on the method, the location, and the types of birds in that ecosystem—amongst many other factors—and results are highly variable.
What may seem like benign interventions that—at worst—just won’t work, actually have the capacity to do harm. As an example, In Peru, bycatch (i.e., accidental catch) of Guanay Cormorants was reduced more than 80% after researchers attached green lights to gillnets. At the same time, bycatch of Peruvian Boobies increased. Possibly due to the boobie’s attraction to the lights.
Similarly, when researchers set out to the Baltic sea to compare the effects of attaching light panels, constant green lights, or flashing white lights to gillnets on sea birds (in particular the Long-tailed duck, a vulnerable species) they found that the nets with flashing white lights caught more ducks than the normal, non-illuminated ones.
When non-native animals are introduced to an ecosystem, quite often, the very delicate balance of that environment is thrown off. Plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and everything else in a biome are connected through the food web, meaning that small changes to any part of a habitat can have extensive consequences.
From zebra mussels in Canada to grey squirrels in the United Kingdom, invasive animals have become a massive problem with increases in global travel and shipping. We enact biosecurity laws and protocols, quarantine procedures and mandate pesticide treatments to try to limit their spread; but despite all our efforts to curb invasive invasions, there is one species that we tend to give a pass to: cats.
Domestic cats are not native to anywhere. While they are descended from Felis lybica, the African Wildcat, the domestic cat is a different species. They are even given a separate Latin species name: Felis catus.
Even when well fed at home, domestic cats often engage in predation and hunting behaviours. With some variance depending on location, cats tend to kill more birds and small mammals than anything else. Since domestic cats are an introduced species, they have tremendous potential to upset intricate ecological situations.
Some researchers strongly believe that domestic cats’ damaging influence on the environment has already been robustly demonstrated. They feel it is crucial to act immediately and decisively if we want to have any hope of counteracting the damage done by domestic felines. For example, in 2018, conservationists from Oklahoma State University and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute published a paper wherein they denounced what they described as organised misinformation campaigns spreading junk science about domestic cats’ effects on ecosystems.
They invoke the Merchants of Doubt moniker—the name given to the “cabal of industry-beholden” contrarian scientists who denied evidence of harm by tobacco smoking, DDT and climate change for financial gain—and liken outdoor cat advocates to “cigarette and climate-change fact fighters” pushing “propaganda.”
Conversely, other researchers feel that many conservation scientists are fueling an unwarranted moral panic over outdoor cats with exaggerated claims and inadequate evidence. In response to the 2018 Merchants of Doubt publication, researchers from six universities around the world collaborated on a rebuttal. They wrote that:
equating the resources and power of global corporations and economic elites (e.g., Exxon Mobil) with the reach and advocacy of comparatively small non-profit organizations and university academics strains the [Merchants of Doubt simile] past the breaking point.
The authors take issue with conservationists concluding that cat advocates are acting with nefarious or bad faith motives and feel that calls for things such as “remov[ing cats] — once and for all — from the landscape” by “any means necessary” are sensationalist and premature. Instead, they call for better research to investigate the severity of the risks cats pose to habitats and the appropriate levels of interventions, and humane but effective alternatives to simply killing and banning outdoor cats.
A White-Hot Issue
If you’re not that familiar with the literary style research papers are usually written in, let me just say, it’s not usually quite like this. Usually, one side of an academic debate is not accusing the other of being corporate shills. The vast majority of the time, there are no mentions of “zombie apocalypse[s]” or calls to let things “weigh heavy on our shoulders.”
The rhetoric throughout the literature on outdoor cats is very inflammatory. The cats/birds issue isn’t just a problem to be solved. It is a fight; a conflict; a war. Solutions to this situation are needed urgently. Danger is imminent. “Drastic times call for drastic measures.” People “must ask themselves which animals should be saved but do so quickly because there is no time to [do both]… before extinctions occur”.
Clearly, the environmental impact of cats on birds, and the welfare of cats, are contentious and emotionally charged topics. It makes a lot of sense that they are. Environmental stewardship is an important role that humans are morally obligated to fulfill. Especially in the face of an existential threat. At the same time, cats also represent life that should be protected. Cats long ago transcended their status of just-another-animal. From their initial roles of pest control, they have become members of the family. Given as much, cat owners often take advice regarding their pets personally.
The thing is, this highly polarised landscape filled with provocative language and antagonistic interactions isn’t helping either side. And it isn’t helping the birds, or the cats, either.
Whether cats impact wildlife in a meaningful and long-lasting way is a question for the experts in this field. They do not seem to agree, which implies the need for more research on the matter. Either way, it doesn’t particularly matter who is “right” anymore.
What matters is how needlessly divided the debate has become.
A Birdy Binary
A false dichotomy has been created wherein one can either care about native wildlife or feline welfare, but never both. Either cats are the enemies — the representations of humans’ entitlement and disdain for the earth — or the most perfect companions, too often neglected and maligned, who are just following their natural instincts.
We do ourselves a massive disservice by reducing this complex and multifaceted issue to one side versus another, or ‘us versus them’. People are lumped into supposedly either loving birds and hating cats or vice-versa, when in truth, most conservationists and pet owners are motivated by similar loves of nature, flora, and fauna.
This artificial divide encourages more polarising solutions, more extreme takes and leads to fearmongering and moral panics. It not only creates this illusion of a lack of a middle ground, it eliminates any of the methods or solutions that would originate from there.
We can become so hyper-focused on advocating for one position that we become blinded to other parts of the issue. Habitat loss is displacing bird populations and climate change is affecting their ability to find food and water. As cities sprawl outward, they remove homelands for birds and disrupt migration routes. In Canada, around 100 million birds are estimated to die every year due to collisions with buildings, power lines and cars.
Such black-and-white thinking discourages the peer review process. With little room for nuance, any criticism of a study’s methods can be seen as dissent. Scientists need to feel free to question how research is performed and how it draws its conclusions without fear of being labelled as agents of misinformation.
It’s Getting Mean in Here
Outside of academic discussions, the binary division between perceived “bird lovers/cat haters” and “cat lovers/bird haters” is even wider. This pattern is seen to varying levels across social media, traditional media, and interpersonal relationships. Expressing the wrong opinion on Twitter about indoor/outdoor cats can lead to harassment and ostracisation.
We should all know that an anecdote is not good evidence for anything on its own. Nonetheless, let me tell you a short one.
I have written on a variety of “controversial” topics in the past — menstruation, copycat suicides, female ejaculation, transgender children, border walls — but only once have I been kicked out of a science-themed social media group. I was removed after sharing my (then) most recent article on whether bells on cat collars work to reduce the amount of prey that domestic cats kill. For the record, three studies (one published in 2005, one in 2006, and one in 2010) have shown that cats brought home less prey when they wore bells. But very quickly, the thread of responses devolved into name calling and insinuations of nefarious or financially motivated intentions.
Empathy works, not… whatever that is
What should be a logical debate on policies and practices has turned ugly. The cats and birds issue has become a hotbed for sensationalism and hyperbole, no matter your stance. And the worst part about it is that we know it won’t work as well as collaborative and kind approaches would.
We know that when trying to change somebody’s mind, what tends to work is empathy and ongoing dialogue. We want to avoid judgment, disdain, or anger. Scientists need to be transparent about how they draw their conclusions and accept legitimate criticisms. Science is not perfect or magic but just a tool to help us understand the world around us. Trust is crucial for effective communication of knowledge, and trust cannot be built on anything but honesty and openness.
Actually helping wildlife and domestic pets alike requires engaging with all stakeholders. Especially the ones that oppose your stance. As much as we may want to rant and kick and scream at the people who disagree with us, it’s pointless. Not only that, it’s actively detrimental to their understanding and your ability to communicate with them. Like with so many things, in science communication, kindness is key.
The Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) is a species of jewel beetle native to eastern Asia. In 2002, the beetle was detected for the first time in North America. First in Michigan, then Ontario, although tree ring analysis suggests that it has likely been present in those regions since the early 1990s. Since then, the number of EABs have increased year after year as the bugs spread across Ontario, Quebec and more than half the continental U.S.
An infection of EABs can kill an otherwise healthy ash in 2-5 years. But how can an 8.5 mm long insect kill a tree anyways? One way would be by eating all of its leaves. Without foliage, a tree has no way to photosynthesize, and therefore no way to make energy. Adult EABs do munch on leaves—a loss of tree canopy is a warning sign of EAB infestation—but not usually to the degree that would kill an ash. Instead, it’s the EAB larva that cause the majority of the damage.
EAB eggs are laid on ash branches, and larvae, once hatched, chomp their way under the bark. The little grubs will chew out 6 mm wide S-shaped tunnels called galleries to live in that can be up to 30 cm long. These galleries disrupt a tree’s internal water transport system, taking away its ability to send necessary nutrients up to its branches and leaves. As a result of nutrient deficiency, EAB-infected ash trees often show signs of chlorosis, or a lack of green colour in their uppermost leaves. Dying ash trees will sometimes send out epicormic shoots—little sprouts from the roots or lower trunk and branches—in an attempt to survive.
Most EABs spend winter inside ashes in their larval form. They’re able to withstand temperatures down to -30 ˚C, and are partially insulated by the tree bark. Eventually, come spring, the fully matured beetles will emerge from the ash trees, leaving small capital D-shaped exit holes about 4 mm wide.
The loss of one type of tree might not seem like such a cause for alarm, but the widespread death of ash trees is having many repercussions. In 2015, Montreal was home to roughly 200,000 ash trees. Mont Royal, the iconic park in the centre of the island was, until recently, home to over 10,000 of those trees. But, as a result of the EAB infestation the City of Montreal was forced to cut down about one-third of those ashes. The other two-thirds they chose to treat with preventative insecticides. To make up for the over 3000 lost trees, the city will plant 40,000 saplings. Of these, about 50% are expected to thrive. In 2016 Montreal committed $18 million to fighting the EAB and replacing the ashes it kills. In the U.S., affected states spend an average of $29.5 million per year to manage EAB populations.
The loss of ash trees can impede ecosystems, bring down home values or disrupt food webs. During bad weather, sick or dying ashes can pose a safety risk if they fall or drop branches. And with the loss of these trees comes an increased risk of landslides and flooding, both of which tree roots help to prevent.
A certain amount of the muddy colour can be attributed to the different colours of food we eat. Like mixing all the paint colours together, the result is a dull brown. But, much bigger factors for humans’ brown poop are bilirubin and bile. Bilirubin is a yellow substance found in the liver, the product of the breakdown of old red blood cells. Bile is dark brown or green and is produced by the liver to help digest fats. Both of these substances are secreted into the small intestine during digestion, and slowly make their way into poop, bringing with them a dark brown hue.
Bird poop, on the other hand, is not brown but white. That is because—unlike mammals—birds don’t pee!
How do fireflies create their telltale glow? It differs slightly depending on species—there are more than 2000 species of fireflies found across the world, including many that do not glow—but the one we know the most about is the North American Firefly (Photinus pyralis). It uses a molecule named luciferin and its enzyme buddy luciferase. Luciferase reacts with luciferin, causing it to break down into two compounds and release CO2 One of those two compounds has a bit of excess energy that it releases as light!
The production of this light has three requirements, other than luciferin and luciferase: magnesium, oxygen and ATP. That ATP requirement is a big part of why the luciferin assay has become an important tool for biochemical research. Adenosine-5′-triphosphate (ATP) is the universal “energy molecule” of all forms of life. So, luciferase and luciferin can be used to test if something like a cell is alive and still producing ATP.
One group of fireflies, however, use their glowing abdomens to hunt. Females of the genus Photurisengage in aggressive mimicry by imitating the flashing patterns of other species’ females to lure and eat the males who seek mates.
Unfortunately, due to habitat loss and climate change, firefly numbers are declining across much of the world. The lack of appropriate green spaces for fireflies to live and mate is compounded by the sedentary nature of many firefly species. The larvae of the common European glow-worm are reported to move only about 5 meters (16.4 feet) per hour. Light pollution as well may be impacting fireflies’ ability to thrive. In one study, light pollution reduced the flashing of Photuris versicolor by almost 70%.
When we think of dogs-with-jobs our minds tend to go straight to police, search and rescue, drug-sniffing and guide dogs. But therapy dogs are the unsung heroes of the working dog world! These four-legged therapists undergo detailed training to help comfort, support and encourage people suffering from a variety of mental health issues. They work in all kinds of conditions — from hospitals to group homes — to bring their special brand of assistance to those who need it most. Let’s take a closer look at how these four-legged heroes are helping humans.
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking something along the lines of “just like everyone else,” but I’m here to tell you otherwise.
Being a veterinarian is a lot like being a human doctor. Besides the fact that both professions practice medicine, albeit on different subjects, they both require top grades and many years of school. They usually necessitate one to go into debt, to work long hours, to have extreme empathy and to be on call for days at a time.
Given their similarities, we’d expect them to have similar mortality rates and causes of death, but that isn’t the case. Veterinarians are at an extremely elevated risk for suicide.
Humans might not have hair as thick as chimpanzees covering their body, but our arm, leg and eyebrow hair all serves as reminders of our primate ancestry. So why don’t Homo sapiens have whiskers like other simians? To answer that, let me explain first what whiskers do, besides look adorable.
Whiskers are vibrissae, keratin filaments that grow out of different follicles than hair. Whisker follicles are much deeper than hair follicles and are surrounded by pockets of blood that amplify vibrations to better communicate information to the nerve cells beside the follicles. You may have noticed when looking at your cat that there are 2 kinds of whiskers, long and short. Long whiskers are macrovibrissae and can be moved voluntarily. Animals use these to sweep areas (called whisking) to navigate spaces and generally feel the world. Short whiskers are microvibrissae, and they cannot be moved voluntarily. These are used specifically for object recognition, whether it’s your rat’s favourite toy or your hand.
In general, animals use whiskers to help them ‘see’ the world, navigate it and identify features. Humans used to have whiskers too (about 800 000 years ago we lost the DNA for whiskers), but have now largely integrated the function performed by whiskers into their brains, specifically into their somatosensory cortex. The human brain devotes relatively huge portions of itself to sensing and processing touch.
Certain areas of the body, like fingertips, lips and genitals have much greater sensitivity to touch than other areas like the back or legs. A visual representation of this sensitivity to touch can be seen in the Cortical homunculus, or by performing a simple test: Have a friend use 2 pencils to touch your arm, while you close your eyes. Have them move the pencils closer and closer together. At a certain point, you will not be able to distinguish whether you are being touched by 1 or 2 pencils. Have the friend repeat this activity on your fingers, then your back. You’ll quickly notice that you have a much more sensitive sense of touch on your hands, feet and face. This test is called the 2 point discrimination test, and it’s often used to test patients for paralysis.
So we as humans may not have cute whiskers anymore (though our simian cousins still have microvibrissae), but rest assured we’re no worse off for this loss, just slightly more dependent on our brains.
Evolution is often thought of as a solely long-term process. But the conception that its effects are only seen after millions of years ignores a crucial part of the evolutionary process: adaptation. Because we tend to fixate on the drastic changes caused by evolution over huge timescales, it’s easy to ignore the small variations between generations that add together over time to form the big evolutionary changes we focus on. This unintentional side-lining of small adaptations can blind us to the ways in which humans are directly affecting the evolutionary processes of nature. From tuskless elephants to fish that can’t smell, animals are developing specialized adaptations to allow them to live in ecosystems that have been disrupted and altered by mankind. These adaptations are one step in the evolutionary process that already bears the unmistakable marks of humanity’s influence.
Just as humans are changing the planet, they’re changing the fauna that inhabit it. Here are some examples of how.