TOP WILDLIFE STORIES OF 2015

by Whit Gibbons

January 10, 2016

Aside from being bizarre creatures and giants among their kind, what do Alabama hellbenders and Thailand flying foxes have in common? They, along with more commonplace animals such as monarch butterflies and muskrats, were included in a top 10 list. They are among The Wildlife Society's "favorite web stories from 2015."

TWS was founded in 1937 with a mission that includes efforts "to sustain wildlife populations and habitats through science-based management and conservation." With a membership approaching 10,000, this highly effective organization focuses on conservation issues such as hunting, energy development and invasive species that affect wildlife in North America and globally.

Hellbenders, one of the largest salamanders in the world, reach record lengths of 2½ feet. They also qualify as ugly, but in an appealing manner, sort of like a Disney troll from "Frozen." They live in cold, clear mountain streams and rivers from New York to Georgia and once were reported from Alabama. Hellbenders are a benchmark species because they cannot persist in polluted waters. Their disappearance from streams where they once lived gives cause for environmental concern. Their presence is a good indicator of high water quality. The last confirmed sightings in Alabama were more than 45 years ago in the northeast corner. Do hellbenders no longer exist in the state, or have they simply been overlooked?

Even if you go to a clear flowing stream where hellbenders abound, you are highly unlikely to see one, despite their large size. The most common method of finding a hellbender is to look under large rocks in the streambed.

Using this technique, wildlife biologists in September 2015 discovered an adult female hellbender in the Flint River, a tributary to the Tennessee River in northern Alabama. The finding was noteworthy enough to qualify for top 10 status of last year's wildlife discoveries.

The story about flying foxes involves a more high-tech approach than turning over rocks in a stream - researchers attached GPS tracking devices to big bats to determine where they go and what they eat.

Flying foxes, or fruit bats, are fruit-eating vegetarians instead of the typical, much smaller insect-eating species we are familiar with. Flying foxes are huge compared to our idea of a bat, the largest having wingspans up to 5 feet. Imagine that tangled in your hair.

I hold to the attitude that fascinating animals are worth putting up with even though they cause problems on occasion. However, the mindset about the big bats appears to be much different in Thailand where "local fruit farmers see the large flying foxes as a nuisance and sometimes kill the animals to stop them from eating their commercial crops."

The bat in Thailand is known as Lyle's flying fox, which roosts in Buddhist temples, not for religious reasons but because the monks don't harm them. The bats venture out at night to forage. I once saw these giant creatures fly at dusk in Australia. A sky full of the flying monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz" came to mind as they sailed overhead on their way to trees with berries. But obviously, fruit growers in the region are not fond of having their orchards raided by several thousand bats in a single night.

The Thailand story discusses the plan of the scientists to enhance bat conservation by reducing "conflicts between local farmers and flying foxes" by learning more about the ecology of the bats and educating the public on their importance to the natural ecosystem.

Some of the other species making the TWS's top 10 list were the golden-winged warbler in Georgia, mountain lions in New York state and giraffes and hippopotamuses of the Serengeti Plains in Africa.

Appreciate that TWS presents some remarkable wildlife stories, but don't be intimidated. You can enjoy wildlife adventures in your own backyard or in local natural areas, and they will be equally exciting simply because you experience them in person.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)

 

 
SREL HomeUGA Home SREL Home UGA Home