Tree-Climbing, Seed-Spitting Goats Help Trees Grow in New Places

We’ve never seen symbiosis quite like this before. Scientists say goats’ Huck Finn-like propensity for climbing trees and spitting may actually benefit the trees they visit. The researchers published their findings in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

These animals will do just about anything to fulfill a craving. When there’s nothing available at ground level, domesticated Moroccan goats (Capra hircus) gladly clamber 30 feet into the uppermost branches of an argan tree (Argania spinosa) to get at its pulpy fruit.

The yellow fruit of the argan tree
Daniel*D, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Rather than shouting at their goats to get down, herders encourage this wacky behavior, carrying goat kids to lower branches and teaching them how to climb. In the dry months of autumn, a herd may spend up to 74 percent of its foraging time in the treetops.

Goats grazing in an argan tree.
Dromedar61, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The argan tree has long been important in its native region as a source of wood and a barrier against the Sahara’s creeping sands. Over the last few decades it’s also become something of a money-spinner, as more and more beauty products incorporate the honey-colored oil from its seeds.

That’s just fine with the goats. More trees mean more fruit for them, and it’s not the hard, stone-like seeds that they’re after. Researchers wondered how this highly unusual arrangement worked out for the trees. Many tree species depend on animals to disperse their seeds. It’s a trade: The animal gets to eat fruit, so long as it travels a little distance away before digesting it and pooping out the seeds.

But argan seeds are on the larger side, and researchers didn’t think goats would particularly enjoy trying to poop them out. To get a closer look, they fed domesticated goats six types of fruit. Then things got extra-glamorous, as they watched and waited for the goats to extrude the seeds.

And extrude they did—just not from the end you might expect. Rather than digesting and passing the whole fruit, the goats chewed it, swallowed it, digested it partially, then regurgitated it, chewed it again, and spit out the seeds.

The researchers collected those seeds and planted them, with great success. The majority of seeds had survived their harrowing journey through the front end of a goat and began to sprout.

This dispersal-via-spitting represents a previously unknown tree reproduction strategy. Goats are far from the only animals that chew their cud or spit it back out. This could be big.

“If spitting viable seeds from the cud is widespread among ruminants,” the authors note, “its ecological relevance could be important.”

Ryrkaypiy, Russia, Is Being Overrun By Hungry Polar Bears

Mario_Hoppmann/iStock via Getty Images
Mario_Hoppmann/iStock via Getty Images

Polar bears are becoming a common sight near the village of Ryrkaypiy in northeastern Russia. As CNN reports, nearly 60 bears were spotted looking for food in the area, and experts say climate change is to blame.

Normally around this time of year, Arctic sea ice is thick enough for polar bears to use it as a platform for hunting seals. Temperatures have been warmer than average this year, and without the ice to support them, hungry polar bears are being pushed south into human-occupied territories on land.

According to a statement released by World Wildlife Fund Russia, the bears gathering in Ryrkaypiy are thin-looking and include cubs and adults of various ages. So far, they've been subsisting on walrus carcasses that have been lain on the village's shore since autumn.

No incidents between bears and villagers have been reported yet, but the 500 residents are on guard. Volunteers are now patrolling the town limits and school buses have started picking up children who would normally walk to class.

Prior to this decade, it was unusual to see more than three or five polar bears near Ryrkaypiy at a time. But as climate change drives global warming and melts Arctic sea ice, seeing large groups of polar bears at lower latitudes is no longer an anomaly. Earlier this year, Novaya Zemlya, Russia, declared a state of emergency after more than 50 bears invaded the region. As sea ice becomes more scarce, the circumstances forcing hungry polar bears to share space with people will only get worse.

[h/t CNN]

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

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