Wonder and Terror, Surprise and Despair: The Top 11 Wildlife Stories of 2013

The dawn of remote genetic engineering, the re-wilding of Europe, the return of porpoises to a former dead zone—and much more.

re-wilding

The European lynx. (Photo: Danihernanz/Getty Images)

Richard Conniff is the author of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth and other books.

Sometimes in our modern urbanized world we get the feeling that wildlife is history, an absurd 19th-century holdover, hopelessly analog in a world that has become obsessed with all things digital.

Then something happens: A red-tailed hawk rips open a pigeon in Washington Square; a coyote lopes through Chicago’s Loop; a shark flips a seal in the air just off the beach on Cape Cod.

Then we remember: This stuff is still all around us, happening in real time.

For those lucky enough to pay attention, the year in wildlife was an endless source of surprise, delight, terror, despair, nobility, and wonder.

Here are a few of my favorite wildlife stories from 2013.

1. The Environmental Catastrophe of Free-Roaming and Feral Cats

For all of us who used to think it was nice to let our cats wander outdoors, the big, bloody shock of the New Year came from a study in January in the journal Nature Communications. An analysis by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that free-ranging cats kill an estimated 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and between 6.9 and 20.7 billion mammals in this country every year. The bottom line: Send the kids out to play, but keep your little killer at home. 

2. Birds, Bees, and Kinky Sex

The vast and colorful animal Kama Sutra continued to add new twists. In February, Japanese researchers announced that the marine sea slug Chromodoris reticulata loses its penis after copulation. But then, “new tissue emerges like lead in a mechanical pencil.” That is, it grows a new one. Later, scientists reported that a sea slug from the Great Coral Reef uses its forked and spine-ringed penis to stab its partner in the forehead after sex, giving painful new meaning to the concept of postcoital sadness. 

3. An Extinct Species Joins the Undead

Scientists were delighted in 1973 when they discovered Australia’s gastric brooding frog, with its bizarre practice of swallowing its eggs and using its stomach as a womb. Then the species went extinct. But this past March scientists managed to grow early-stage embryos from DNA in frozen tissue samples collected from the species in the 1970s. If the name of this effort—the Lazarus Project—proves apt, scientists say they may yet “get this frog hopping again.”

4. Asia’s War on Wildlife

The nouveaux riches in China, Vietnam, and Thailand seemed to ramp up their campaign to kill, carve, and eat their way through some of the most charismatic wildlife on Earth—35,000 elephants gunned down or poisoned for their ivory, close to a thousand rhinos for their horns, tigers for medicine, perhaps 60,000 pangolins for medicine and the dinner table, millions of sharks taken for shark fin soup, and much more. A hopeful sign: China’s political elite and a few major corporations have taken shark fin soup off the menu. But can the rising environmental movement stop the killing before China and Co. drive some of the most charismatic animals on Earth to extinction?

5. Re-Wilding in Europe

Farmers are abandoning marginal land at an annual rate of roughly a million hectares, most of it in relatively remote and mountainous regions: the Carpathians, the Alps, the Pyrenees, and parts of the Baltic states. That’s opened up space for a comeback by lynx, golden jackals, European bison, moose, Alpine ibex, and other species. Europe’s wolf population is now up to 11,000 individuals, four times what it was in the 1970s.

6. The People Outside the Park Gate Are Not the Enemy

The old exclusionary style of managing protected areas has repeatedly failed. But this year provided powerful new evidence that giving neighbors a say in management can pay off for wildlife. With tigers in decline almost everywhere else, for instance, a community management scheme around Nepal’s Chitwan National Park in the Himalayan foothills increased its population of adult tigers from 91 just four years ago to 125 today.

7. Camera Trap Magic

Camera trap images have gone viral this year, revealing species and wildlife behaviors even field biologists were not expecting. A few favorites: this video montage from Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park; the world’s rarest cat, the bay cat, captured on film in the dwindling forests of Borneo; the extremely rare Amur leopard filmed for the first time in northeastern China; Vietnam’s saola apparently not yet extinct; and this video of bears making like Alec Baldwin with paparazzi. The really exciting prospect: Kenya wildlife officials are now testing camera traps equipped with satellite-transmission technology to spot poachers and stop them before they can kill.

8. The Dawn of Remote Genetic Monitoring

Even with camera traps, it’s sometimes hard to figure out which animals actually live in a habitat. Now a few innovative researchers are simply collecting leeches, mosquitoes, and other bloodsuckers to get answers. They mash them up into an invertebrate soup, then sequence the DNA. So-called iDNA, for invertebrate DNA, is a quick-and-dirty technique for determining that, say, the Annamite striped rabbit still lives in the mountainous forests of Vietnam. A sister technique, eDNA, or environmental DNA, does the same thing for aquatic species by sequencing DNA from a water sample. Researchers will soon attempt it in China to find remaining wild populations of the Chinese giant salamander.

9. The Shifting Science of Jurassic Park

More or less as author Michael Crichton fantasized, scientists this year managed to find a blood meal in the belly of a mosquito that died 46 million years ago—not quite to the age of dinosaurs but tantalizingly close. They didn’t extract DNA. That will almost certainly remain a fantasy. But they identified the likely victim as the direct descendant of dinosaurs—a bird. Scientists also made news by finding actual dinosaur feathers and dino fuzz preserved in amber, putting pressure on the director of Jurassic World, now in development, to show dinosaurs as they really looked—with feathers, kind of like Big Bird.

10. The Monarch Butterfly Migration Goes Bust

North America’s iconic insect migration—and a perennial pleasure of autumn—didn’t happen. Only about 3 million monarch butterflies showed up at their overwintering sites in Mexico, down from 60 million last year. If we lose the monarchs, scientists say, agricultural intensification will be the major culprit. With most corn genetically modified to tolerate the herbicide Roundup, farmers now clear their fields of all the milkweed on which the butterflies depend.

11. Porpoises Playing in the Thames

Opponents often say that attempts to improve the environment accomplish too little and cost too much. But the idea that they can quickly make our lives better got a spectacular boost in December when a pod of five harbor porpoises went swimming up the River Thames into the heart of London. Just 50 years ago this river was a dead zone. The cleanup effort since then has cost billions. So was it worth it? At least part of the payoff was in the giddy excitement of seeing marine mammals gracefully breaking the surface at Southwark Bridge.

I think we should head into 2014 with that last success in mind. With a bit of effort—planting a bush, passing a law, letting the lawn get a little less tidy—we can make a world where animals and people live together. Here’s the first step: It’s the middle of Christmas week, and the getting and spending is over. So just step away from the computer, go outside, and see for yourself what a glorious thing even a cardinal or a gray squirrel can be.

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