6 Animals That Are Rapidly Evolving

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We sometimes think of evolution as a thing of the past, but it continues today, especially as environmental pressures force humans and animals to adapt to survive. Here, a few examples of animals evolving in real-time.

1. The lizard with extra sticky feet

The native green lizards that occupy the lower branches and trunks of Florida’s trees got a rude awakening when their invasive cousins, the brown lizards, moved in. Faced with limited resources and double the competition, the green lizards made a move: they abandoned the lower branches for the treetops. Up there, the limbs are thinner and smoother, so the green lizards’ bodies had to adapt to the environmental shift. To better cling to the smooth branches, their toepads grew bigger and their scales got stickier—in just 15 years and about 20 generations. “The degree and quickness with which they evolved was surprising," said Yoel Stuart, a postdoctoral researcher in the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the study. "If human height were evolving as fast as these lizards' toes, the height of an average American man would increase from about 5 foot 9 inches today to about 6 foot 4 inches within 20 generations." 

2. The shrimp that lost its eyes

In the process of evolutionary change, you either use it or you lose it—and this is certainly true for a group of cave-dwelling crustaceans. These crabs and shrimp live underground where there is no light, and the sense of sight doesn’t do much good. As a result, they’ve gone blind, relying on smell and touch to navigate the cavernous depths. When researchers compared the brains of these spelunkers to their land-dwelling relatives, they found that not only are these creatures sightless, they’re actually losing the parts of their brains associated with vision. Meanwhile, the areas that control touch and smell are getting bigger. "It's a nice example of life conditions changing the neuroanatomy," the study’s lead author, Dr. Martin Stegner, from the University of Rostock in Germany, told the BBC. It’s taken about 200 million years for the brain changes to occur, which may not seem “rapid,” but as the Washington Post’s Rachel Feltman says, it’s “a relatively short time, in the evolutionary scheme of things.”

3. The owls that are changing color

Climate change is forcing many animals to adapt to survive. The tawny owl in Finland is a good example. These creatures come in two colors, brown or pale grey. The cold white winters have traditionally favored the grey owls, which can hide from predators by blending into a snowy color scheme. But as the winters have become more mild over the last 50 years, researchers noticed a shift: grey owls are on the decline and the brown birds are thriving, better suited to blending into the bare brown branches of the forest. As more brown owls survive, more brown genes get passed down through generations. Until now, the researchers say, “an evolutionary response to a quantified selection pressure driven by climate change has not been empirically demonstrated in a wild population.”

4. The fish that’s migrating earlier

Climate change is also the driving force behind a recent behavioral shift in pink salmon. As water temperatures rise, the fish are migrating from the ocean to the river to spawn about two weeks earlier than they did 40 years ago. And this isn’t just a new behavior—it’s actually a change at the genetic level. Between the 1980s and 2011, the number of late-migrating salmon declined by 20 percent, according to Ryan Kovach, a population ecologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. The change happened over just one or two generations, which suggests organisms can adapt to climate change very quickly. “We show that there has been a genetic shift towards earlier migration timing through what appears to be natural selection against the late-migrating individuals in the population,” Kovach says

5. The bedbugs with super-strength

Unfortunately, our long-running battle with these bed-hopping pests has backfired, producing bedbugs with thicker shells and nerve cells of steel to resist the harsh chemicals we lob at them. Bedbugs in New York City are now 250 times more resistant to pesticides than the bedbugs in Florida, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. "Insect resistance is nothing more than sped-up evolution," says insect toxicologist John Clark. 

6. The mouse that’s immune to poison

Bad news for anyone with a fear of mice: researchers have discovered a house mouse with an immunity to Warfarin, a type of poison typically deployed to fight infestations. The super mice were discovered in Germany, where the lowly house mouse bred with its poison-resistant distant cousin the Algerian mouse. The result? A hybrid mouse with a very useful genetic mutation that gives it a leg up over its rodent relatives. Usually hybrid animals can’t reproduce, but "sometimes there is the occasional odd hybrid that has just about the right novel combination of genomes from two species that renders them, at least temporarily, superior over the pure species," says the study’s lead author Michael Kohn. “We’ve caught evolution in the act.” 

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted.

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.”

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

takoburito/iStock via Getty Images
takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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