Wild Wild Life Newsletter: The Most Controversial Animals in the World

woman with pigeons

A woman who feeds pigeons

Getty Images / iStockphoto

Welcome to the monthly Wild Wild Life February newsletter, which celebrates the biodiversity of animals, plants and other living things on our planet. To receive this free monthly newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

The bird song I live in in London has gotten a lot louder in recent weeks and I enjoy the regular ringing of the great woodpeckers during my morning walks. Much of the increased animal activity in the spring has been familiar since I was a child, but these were reinforced by the fact that I recently saw a red dragon or two — a sight that would have been unimaginable in my childhood when I grew up in this city.


The bear Hank in the Tank

Hank a tank


Do you feed your local pigeons? I’ve never knowingly met someone who did, but I’ve always wondered why some people do that. Pigeons are noisy, messy, and congregate in large numbers in areas where humans regularly feed on them – a practice that can attract other pest species. The habitat of wild pigeons is unpleasant, yet many regularly give bread or seeds to these birds.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the so-called human-animal conflict, when animals are a problem in people’s daily lives. Of particular interest are the species that generate love and worship in communities struggling with such problems.

I’ll start with the fact that we’re at fault, of course – we create these nutrient-rich urban environments that encourage pigeons, foxes, rats and a host of more exciting species to thrive near us. Take Staten Island, a white-tailed deer in New York, for example. Since the turn of the millennium, these deer have resettled on the island, apparently swimming across New Jersey. Now the deer population there is booming and has become a local controversy, as detailed in this fascinating New Yorker Brooke Jarvis piece. Many Staten Island residents are delighted to see the deer return. As Jarvis writes, white-tailed deer are considered “icons of the American wild,” although this symbolism is partly rooted in misguided nostalgia.

I can connect with Staten Island residents who felt they had to feed the deer and thought they needed help to survive in their urban environment. However, a 2014 survey suggested that more than 15 deer live per square mile in Staten Island Park. Such a high density is a problem for humans, as deer cause traffic collisions and carry ticks that cause Lyme disease. The city’s responses included educational campaigns explaining to locals the dangers of ticks and why deer do not need to be fed, as well as efforts to sterilize male deer with vasectomy.

There are hopes that sterilization can also help solve the problem that macaques face in Delhi. In his captivating book Animal plant crimeMary Roach explains how the food on offer in the churches has taught monkeys to expect food from humans and will aggressively demand it. The large urban macaque population leads to some chaos. Delhi hospitals reported 950 cases of monkeys biting people in 2018.

This proved to be a difficult issue. Indian animals are pretty much protected unless a state declares a species to be a pest, and this is unlikely to happen to monkeys as they are associated with the Hindu deity Hanuman. As Qamar Qureshi, director of research at the Indian Wildlife Institute, told Roach, many people do not want monkeys to be killed, only to disappear.

The criminal animals now have a new hero: Hank, the Tank. The 200-pound black bear is believed to have broken into more than 30 homes in California last month and forced wildlife officials to kill or relocate to a shelter. The huge bear hacker has amassed a lot of followers on the internet, but DNA samples now suggest at least two other black bears were involved in the burglaries and Hank’s life is being spared – for now.

All this so-called conflict misrepresents us. Not content with destroying the world’s wild habitats, we also expect every animal that adapts to our cities to follow the impossible rules. It’s hard to see the solution, but it seems important to recognize that we all have a role to play – a very common sight in city parks is people feeding pigeons and seagulls next to the boards, warning that such behavior is ultimately harmful to wildlife. I understand how much fun people get from such contact with animals, but unfortunately this rarely benefits them or us in the long run.


View of the Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH), a large natural history museum that contains the skeleton of Tyrannosaurus

Sue the T. rex skeleton at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago

EQRoy / Alamy

They were the dinosaurs we called Tyrannosaurus rex are there really three different species? Analysis of 38 fossils suggests that the iconic animal started out as a species with four small incisors that the team behind the work deserves to name. Tyrannosaurus imperator. The researchers believe that this resulted in two younger species with only two incisors: T-Rex and Tyrannosaurus reginawhich, in their view, had a slimmer femur and a lighter build than T-Rex.

A member of the team, Scott Persons of Charleston College in South Carolina, told writer Colin Barras that modern ecosystems support the idea as we have seen top predators evolve and diversify into separate species such as lions and leopards. But some other researchers are not convinced. You can read more about the study here.


… That some naked snails may play an important role in the spread of fungi in forests. Study of mantle snails (Meghimatium fruhstorferi) In Japan, it has been found that most individuals deposit fungal spores in their faeces, suggesting that naked snails that eat fungi may throw out fungal colonies wherever they dump their waste.

DNA analysis showed that naked snails mostly carried spores of woody rot fungi, but spores of pathogenic species and fungal species that cooperated with trees were also present.

Carefully following the journey of five naked snails through a night forest, the team found that the animals tended to move on materials such as foliage and wood debris that were suitable for creating new mushroom colonies.


One study revealed that orangutans figure out how to use stone tools, but not necessarily how to make them. It’s an interesting insight into the intelligence of these amazing monkeys, but as I explained in episode 107 of the New Scientist Weekly podcast, the experiment is very human – we’re extremely proud of the ancient history of using stone tools, but the orangutans live. in trees and rarely come into contact with rocks.

Orangutans are known to use hook-shaped tools in their natural environment, which means they have a place in the ever-expanding club of animal tool users. Monkeys dominate: chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas are known to use tools. And they also saw many monkeys with devices. But device use is not limited to primates. It has been found that laboratory rats use hook tools, birds perform well, and cockatoos and many crow species skillfully use tools to solve problems.

One of the fun things about using animals is to open the door to zoological archeology – the study of ancient finds made by animals other than humans – that sheds light on the history of Burmese long-tailed macaques and sea otters.

The attractiveness of problem-solving animals using tools is easy to see, but it also raises deeper questions. What does device use tell about intelligence when even ants do it? Or do such discoveries mean we have to completely rethink the definitions of intelligence?


Remaining on the topic of urban animals, this month’s long reading is about how cities are shaping the evolution of animals. And for a lighter look at the animals that cause trouble, I recommend this episode of the podcast Criminal.

I’d love to hear from you about how controversial animals you love and what experiences you have with sharing human spaces with wildlife – email me at wildwildlife@newscientist.com or email me at @PennySarchet.

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