How an Island Full of Landmines Led to a Thriving Penguin Population

iStock/JeremyRichards
iStock/JeremyRichards

by Hank Green

War—what is it good for? Well, if the Falkland Islands are any indication, it certainly helps penguins.

For several hundred years, human activity on the Falkland Islands—roughly 300 miles off the Argentine coast—threatened its penguins’ survival. But that trend started to reverse in 1982, when Argentina and Britain began duking it out for control of the Falklands. Turns out, a war, a few landmines, and some unstable diplomatic relations might have been just enough to get the penguins back on track.

The Falkland Islands are small. Collectively, the 200-plus islands that make up the Falklands are only about as big as Connecticut. But through the years, they’ve managed to inspire some Texas-size international contention. Ever since Argentina gained independence from Spain in 1816, it’s been vying for control of the Falklands in one form or another. Some Argentines even claim possession of the region today, even though Queen Elizabeth’s face graces the currency, the Union Jack appears on the official flag, and every other government recognizes British rule over the Falklands. Despite the fact that Argentina famously lost its military bid for control of the islands back in 1982, national polls still show that 80 percent of Argentines want their government to take back the Islas Malvinas, as they’re known in the Spanish-speaking nation.

So what is it the Argentines so jealously covet? Hard to say. The Falkland Islands aren’t home to much, other than about 3,000 humans, 700,000 sheep, and a few fishing installations. What they do have, however, is an enormous population of penguins from five different species—the Southern Rockhoppers, the Magellanic, the King, the Gentoo, and the Macaroni. Their names derive from, respectively, the ability to hop on rocks, a celebrated circumnavigator, a British ruler, a religious slur, and a slang reference to flashy dressers. With these five species combined, the Falklands are home to a penguin army more than 1 million strong. That’s pretty impressive, but it’s believed the number was closer to 10 million only 300 years ago.

In the 18th century, the whale oil industry was booming, and the Falklands had their fair share of whales. Not coincidentally, French, British, and Spanish groups began showing up on the islands to get in on the action. But whale oil isn’t exactly the easiest thing to produce. First, whales are brought ashore. Then their blubber is separated from their bodies, and the fat is rendered into oil in gigantic vats of boiling water. The Falkland Islands had plenty of whales, but they’re mostly void of timber, and burning whale oil to render whale oil seemed a little silly. So how did the settlers make their Falkland outposts survive? “François, throw another penguin on the fire!” Yes, as it turned out, penguins made surprisingly good kindling, thanks to layers of protective (and, apparently, highly flammable) fat beneath their skin. And it didn’t hurt that they’re so easy to catch. Penguins are flightless and unafraid of humans, so anytime the rendering fires got low, whalers simply grabbed a penguin or two and tossed ’em in.

One Fish, Two Fish

Fortunately for the penguins, the whale oil business died out in the 1860s with the discovery of fossil fuels. That left the islands with little commercial industry, and the worst thing the penguins had to worry about for a while was the occasional egg theft. But peaceful human-penguin relations hit a roadblock again in 1982, when Argentina made its ill-fated attempt to reclaim the Falklands.

Although the British presence on the Falkland Islands had long been a sore spot for Argentina, no Argentine leader had ever tried to force a national claim to the land. At the time, however, the military government, led by General Leopoldo Galtieri, was in a unique situation. Already unpopular at home because of his habit of kidnapping and killing opposition leaders, Galtieri started to get truly nervous when the Argentine economy began to sink. Fearing outright rebellion, Galtieri tried to enlist the spirit of nationalism by invading the largely unprotected Falklands on April 2. He quickly declared victory over the British, but his success was short-lived. Unfortunately for Galtieri, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe in capitulating to dictators, even regarding land as inconsequential and unprofitable as the Falklands. The United Kingdom quickly struck back. In the ensuing two-month conflict, more than 1,000 Argentine servicemen died, and Galtieri’s political downfall was solidified.

When the dust cleared, Britain’s leaders realized they’d just spent several million pounds to assert control over the Falklands, and it was probably in their best interest to find some way to prove to the public that the expense had been worthwhile. Fishing seemed like the best way to make the Falklands economically self-sufficient, so the British government set up an exclusive fishing zone around the islands and began selling permits to everyone from local islanders to gigantic international fishing companies. It was a fine plan, except that the penguins relied on those same fish for survival. Before long, competing with humans for food had become a far greater threat to the penguins than whaling had ever been. In a single decade, the Islands’ penguin population dropped from more than 6 million to fewer than 1 million.

The Spoils of War

The Falkland Islands War, and the dwindling supply of fish that came with it, seriously threatened the local penguins. But, ironically enough, it also led to their gradual comeback. Since the dispute, Britain and Argentina have approached one another on diplomatic eggshells, if at all. As a result, neither side has been willing to risk angering the other by drilling for oil off the Falklands’ coast—even though experts estimate that 11 billion barrels worth of oil lie buried out there. That’s good news for all of penguinkind. In other parts of the world, even small amounts of oil leaked from drilling stations have proven disastrous for penguins. The flightless birds rely on a very specific balance of oils in their feathers in order to maintain perfect buoyancy. When mixed with crude oil, penguins will either sink and drown or float and starve. But as long as tensions remain high between the two nations, the Falklands penguins are in the clear.

The Falklands War also left the penguins with a bizarre kind of habitat protection. During Argentina’s occupation of the islands, its military laid down landmines along the beaches and pastureland near the capital city to deter the British from reclaiming the area. So far, these landmines haven’t killed anyone, but the well-marked and fenced-off explosive zones have made for prime penguin habitat. The penguins aren’t heavy enough to set off the mines, but because sheep and humans are, the little guys have the minefields all to themselves.

Today, there are still an estimated 20,000 landmines on the Falkland Islands. Over the years, they’ve come in pretty handy not only for protecting the penguin habitat from over-grazing, but also for keeping out overzealous tourists. Consequently, Falkland Islanders have decided that maybe having landmines isn’t such a bad thing. After all, signs warning “Keep away from the penguins” will never be as effective as “Keep away from the penguins—or die.”

Therapy Puppy Provides Comfort to Grieving Families at North Carolina Funeral Home

AllenSphoto, iStock via Getty Images
AllenSphoto, iStock via Getty Images

Emotional support animals have become common sights at places like airports, and now the funeral industry is embracing their therapeutic benefits. As WGAL reports, Macon Funeral Home in North Carolina now has a Bernese mountain dog puppy to provide comfort to grieving clients.

Nine-week-old Mochi isn't a fully trained therapy dog yet, but she's already winning over visitors. Tori McKay, Macon's funeral office administrator, had dreamed of bringing a grief-support dog into the business for a decade. Shortly after her 30th birthday on January 4, she and her husband "decided that Mochi would make a wonderful addition to our family and this decade of our lives," she wrote on the funeral home's website.

McKay chose a Bernese mountain dog for the breed's affectionate personality, relaxed disposition, and successful history as an emotional support animal. Between ages 6 months to 1 year, Mochi will receive therapy dog training in Asheville. The plan is to eventually make her available to families upon request and bring her to nursing homes to meet with residents. Until then, the puppy is meeting guests in a more casual setting as she gets used to socializing with strangers.

"Stop by and meet her, she loves making new friends!" a post on the funeral home's Facebook page reads.

[h/t WGAL]

One of the World’s Most Dangerous Spiders Could Invade Homes after Australia's Recent Rainfall

Ian Waldie, Getty Images
Ian Waldie, Getty Images

While recent rainfall has been a welcome change in Australia after destructive bushfires caused a widespread crisis, it hasn’t come without an asterisk. According to the Australian Reptile Park, the wet and warm conditions have made Sydney funnel web spiders highly active—and the funnel web spider happens to be one of the most venomous arachnids on the planet.

In a video the park shared on Facebook, officials warn that the weather might cause a marked increase in the spiders' activity, as males cover territory in search of a mate. They might be found in shoes, in laundry, or in yards. Fortunately, Atrax robustus is easy to identify, with its shiny body providing a helpful visual cue to immediately begin walking in the other direction.

Male funnel webs are thought to have venom up to six times more dangerous than females and also tend to move around more, making human encounters with them more likely. Because they can’t climb smooth surfaces, funnel webs are also prone to burrowing in piled-up clothing or other hiding spaces, providing an unwelcome surprise for anyone looking to retrieve their discarded shirt or socks.

The funnel web is also aggressive, quick to attack when provoked, and packs a powerful enough bite to pierce shoes. After being bitten, pain, muscle spasms, and pulmonary edema follow. Victims should use a compression bandage and limb immobilization to compress surface tissue until they receive medical attention.

Though the species is believed to have caused 13 human deaths, there haven’t been any fatalities attributable to a funnel web bite since 1981. That’s due in large part to antivenom made from milked spiders, an advancement that saved the life of a 10-year-old boy, Matthew Mitchell, bitten by the spider in 2017. The spider was loitering in his shoe and bit him on the finger. After 12 vials of antivenom, Mitchell made a complete recovery.

The Australian Reptile Park is actually encouraging citizens to trap the spiders and bring them in to drop-off sites to aid in the antivenom production effort. They advise nudging the spider into a plastic or glass container with a spoon. Extreme caution should be exercised, but you knew that.

[h/t CNET]

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