These Are The Biggest Animal Stories Of 2012

IKEA Monkey

Photo: Twitter

Humans have a complicated relationship with our non-human cousins.Some animals we invite into our homes, and treat as members of our families.

Indeed, in November of this year singer Fiona Apple made headlines when she announced that she would cancel the South American segment of her tour to be with her dying dog.

Some animals we brine, barbecue, bake, roast, fry, or saute. Strong opinions were expressed on all sides of the issue when a law passed by the California state legislature went into effect on July 1, banning the sale of foie gras.

Still other animals we’d prefer to avoid entirely even while remaining endlessly fascinated by them. When Hurricane Sandy poured down upon New York City, one question on everyone’s mind was what would become of the subterranean rat populations, living deep underneath the city streets?

Whatever anyone’s personal thoughts about animals’ place within human society, stories about animals have a unique ability to captivate us. To celebrate our relationship with the rest of animal kind, we’ve compiled a list of what we consider to be the best animal stories of 2012.

Some are scientifically important. Some provide commentary on the human-animal connection. Some are funny, quirky, or surprising. Some just made us smile. Here are our picks for the best animal stories of 2012.

This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.

Best tool-using species

As each year passes, more and more species are inducted into the club of the tool-wielding, making the group less and less exclusive. This year, a male Goffin's cockatoo (Cacatua goffiniana) named Figaro from the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna paved the way for the inclusion of his species among the tool users of the world.

Parrots such as cockatoos have long been known for their linguistic abilities. Now that there's evidence for the possibility of tool use, researchers can begin to probe the relationship between language and tool use.Clever captive cockatoo creates tool, a first for his species by Jason; The Innovative Cockatoo by Virginia Morell.

Best Piece of Jargon We Learned this Year

Best new species that was hiding in plain sight

Last summer, in a piece at the New York Times, Carl Zimmer reported that some scientists estimate that there are some 8.7 million species populating our planet (give or take 1.3 million; some scientists think the number is actually far higher). Many of the still undescribed species are microbes and fungi, others are found only in tiny corners of the world, and hundreds if not thousands are certainly gathering dust in museum basements.

More surprising, however, is that a monkey species new to science might be found in the backyard of a local school director in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a pet tethered to a post. The new species, called the Lesula monkey or Cercopithecus lomamiensis, is only the second new monkey species discovered in Africa in 28 years, after the Highland mangabey (Lophocepus kipunji) of Tanzania. Lesula: New species of African monkey discovered by Becky Crew.

A Reminder of What Sea Level Rise Can Do

The Caribbean is home to more than a few bat species today, but fossil evidence says that there were a lot more of them 25,000 years and many of them lived on parts of the islands that are now under water. What happened to them?

One major driver of extinction, Annalee Newitz explains at io9, was sea level rise. As glaciers melted, the water came in and the edges of the island disappeared, causing a loss of habitat that the bats couldn't bear.

Gorillas outsmart humans

Animal cognition researchers get excited whenever they see stunning examples of animal cooperation. They also get excited whenever they see younger animals learning from the older, more experienced members of their social groups. When both of those things occur simultaneously, as juvenile gorillas disable poachers' snares, the story becomes not only impressive, but also heartwarming.

Snares, while illegal, are quite common in Rwanda and are especially dangerous for the mountain gorillas who live in the area. Especially vulnerable are the youngest gorillas, who may not have the experience yet to identify and avoid them. Imagine the awe that John Ndayambaje, a field data coordinator for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, must have felt when a silverback shouted a warning call to prevent him -- a human! -- from approaching the snare, only to then watch two juveniles and an adult work together to disable the snare, as well as a second snare that he hadn't even noticed.

Unpacking just how sophisticated the cognitive mechanisms are that can lead to such swift, coordinated behaviour is a daunting task, but on its surface, it seems as if the gorillas were acting with intention in a highly efficient, practiced manner. Exploring the Mind of the Mountain Gorilla by Kimberly Gerson.

Rest in Peace, Lonesome George

Primates are not pets

Monkeys typically do not wear double-breasted shearling coats, they don't usually wear diapers, and they never shop at Ikea. Earlier this month, however, a five-month-old Japanese macaque was discovered wearing the coat and diaper running around an Ikea parking lot in Toronto, Canada.

While the monkey -- named Darwin -- will now be socialized with other monkeys and cared for properly at the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary in Canada, the story serves as an important reminder for why wild animals are not suitable pets. When monkeys who have been raised as humans transition into adulthood, with the strength, aggressiveness, and muscle power (and teeth!) that accompany their maturation, the story always ends the same: the animal winds up dead or abandoned.

In the best cases, the animal might wind up in a zoo where even the best of care can't entirely undo the years of being socialized with the wrong species. The best thing for Darwin was always being a monkey. Since he's still relatively young, I suspect his chances for full monkey recovery at the primate sanctuary are good. Does Darwin the IKEA monkey need a human mother? by Andrew Westoll.

Best Use of Recycling by a Non-Human

Best animal story that should not have been news

Best Rhetorical Lede

Best blog fodder

Rabies in Latin America usually comes from vampire bats, and governments usually respond by culling them. Yet the disease is on the rise, and scientists reported this summer that every colony they examined showed signs of infections. Those colonies that were periodically culled, Erik Stokstad reports for ScienceNOW, had higher rates of exposure.

It seems that the cull method kills adults, which are more likely to have acquired resistance to the rabies virus and not spread it, and spares more juvenile bats that are susceptible to developing rabies. The standard solution, it appears, has backfired, and reminds us of how host-pathogen systems are complex and can respond to management in unexpected ways.

Most heartwarming animals that pretend to be people

Best Feel-Good Invertebrate Story of the Year

The United States Army, in addition to protecting the country's citizens, is obligated to protect threatened and endangered non-humans on its installations. In Hawaii, that means protecting kahuli tree snails from cannibalistic Rosy wolfsnails, chameleons and rodents.

To give give the snails a safe haven, writes John R. Platt at Extinction Countdown, the army constructed a predator-proof enclosure about the size of a basketball court to house three hundred snails.

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