Why You Can't Have Wolves as Pets and More Top Animal Stories of 2021

Ruth Schuster
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American red wolf pups born at North Carolina Zoo, Asheboro, in May.
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Dogs are man's best friend, they say, a relationship that goes back tens of thousands of years – but make no mistake, their ancestor is not your ally. Science has brought some wondrous features of the animal world to light in 2021, including the revelation that you can raise a wolf pup on your knee but shouldn't get cocky; cats can speak, and so can naked mole rats – with roughly the same outcome; how rockfish can live for centuries; and so much more, including why we can't move to Mars, a revelation courtesy of fruit flies in outer space.

Dogs and don'ts
Call of the sincerely wild
American red wolf pups born at North Carolina Zoo, Asheboro, in May.
American red wolf pups, North Carolina Zoo: They will not love strangers.Credit: Moriah Angott/AP

There's a lot of sentimentality out there about wolves, but there's a reason why Jack London named his book "White Fang" – they're not dogs, and it has now been scientifically demonstrated: wolves do not make good pets. Dogs make good pets.

How dogs were tamed
Gave a dog a bone
A Tel Aviv dog walker.
A Tel Aviv dog walker.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Dogs descended from wolves, a relationship that goes back tens of thousands of years, yet they became good pets. How did this begin, one wonders? Hint: it gets very cold in Siberia and meat was likely involved. Then they and we discovered that co-hunting made more sense than competition. But don't try this with your Shih Tzu.

Say what?
Yes, the cat can speak
A cat and a kitten in the village of Krompach, Czech Republic, last year. And they have a lot to say.
A cat and a kitten in the village of Krompach, Czech Republic, last year. And they have a lot to say.Credit: DAVID W CERNY/ REUTERS

Cats in fact have a wide range of vocalizations and, in contrast to the prevailing but erroneous assumption, they may ask for help, sometimes, if they're in the mood – and you are. Yes, they are good pets, too. Cats are good. Do not parse "good."

The naked mole rat can speak too!
But it won't speak with you. Or foreigners
In the wild, naked mole rats live exclusively in underground burrows and tunnels in semi-arid regions. The rodents obtain all the water they need through their food such as the underground tubers of plants.
Naked mole rat eating a food pelletCredit: Felix Petermann, MDC

In fact studying language (of sorts) in animals has become all the rage – long gone are the days people snidely assumed that only humans can speak. The eternally youthful, xenophobic little wonder known as the naked mole rat lives in subterranean colonies and wouldn't you know, each colony has its own dialect and they don't like the members of other colonies.  

Who's a good boy
Melvin the millipede?
A ventral view of the legs of a male Eumillipes persephone millipede.
A ventral view of the legs of a male Eumillipes persephone millipede.Credit: Paul E. Marek

Naked mole rats are not good pets.  Some think that millipedes are good pets. Well, it takes all types – and here's some good news for that type! Finally science found a true millipede that actually has more than 1,000 legs. Until now the leggiest millipede had only 750 legs – how embarrassing. But the newly discovered arthropod might not be a good pet, less because it looks like a worm and more because it lives deep underground. In Australia.

See. Coo. Run
New species of hand-standing skunks!
A spotted skunk doing its signature handstand.
A spotted skunk doing its signature handstand. “Everyone thinks we know everything about mammalian carnivore systematics, so being able to redraw the skunk family tree is very exciting.” Credit: Jerry W. Dragoo

Gin a body meet a body, comin thro' the rye, and one of the bodies is furry, black and white, looks back at you and stands on its hands with its enchanting tail bewitchingly waving in the air – don't just stand there mesmerized and definitely don't annoy it. It may be a previously unrecognized species of hand-standing skunk that had remained unrecognized by science because people shy from studying animals whose shared secretions can turn you into a social pariah. 

'A rare treat'
Why yes, that is a 50-million-year-old fossil insect penis
The two halves of the fossil assassin bug from the Eocene. Note the pygophore on his last abdominal segment.
The two halves of the fossil assassin bug from the Eocene. Note the pygophore on his last abdominal segment. Credit: DANIEL R. SWANSON , SAM W. HEADS

Indeed the insect that died in the Eocene era in Colorado was very small, but he was so extraordinarily preserved that we can still see the stripes on his little legs, and an extra treat between them. 

Cold case solved after 35,000 years
Bear pied-a-terre
Bear
A bear at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

About 35,000 years ago a cave bear died in Siberia, and it was not a heart attack.  Speculation of ritual murder must remain just that, but there is that hole in its head that cries out for interpretation. Meanwhile in prehistoric Mexico, we learn, bears did not relieve themselves only in the woods

Are octopi really aliens?
In the beginning... God created the octopus
A giant Pacific octopus sticks to the tank glass at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta
A giant Pacific octopus sticks to the tank glass at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.Credit: Jaime Henry-White / AP

Cephalopods in general and octopi in particular are so smart and different from all other life that some, even scientists, speculated that they are from outer space. Apparently that is not so: they are different because they split off whatever family tree they split off from over half a billion years ago.  You, puny human, have been evolving for perhaps – max – half a million years.  All hail the cephalopod.

Live long and prosper
If you are a rockfish
A rockfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.
A rockfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Credit: Tewy / Wikimedia Commons

The longest-lived among us humans may live 100 years. We probably won't, though. Rockfish can live for centuries. Now a genetic study reveals how that is. Meanwhile, a very different sea creature has a rather different solution to the vicissitudes of life – no losing a mere tail or arm, this mollusk can sever its own head from its body and grow a new body. Creepy? Nah, the creepy thing is that the headless body may live on for months... 

The risks of climate change:
Howling storms, searing heat, beavers...
A levee breach in Canada.
WATER TORTURE: A levee breach in Canada.Credit: JUSTIN SULLIVAN - AFP

Unsurvivable heat spikes. Snow drifts meters high, howling storms, multiple vortex tornado blitzes, "rivers in the sky" – and just when you thought you had survived all that, along comes a beaver or some other burrowing mammal, digs a tunnel into your dirt levee and Bob's your underwater uncle. Scientists warn that when calculating the lifetime of levees one must factor in burrowing animals, which can shorten the prospective lifetime of said levee by more than 90 percent. 

Suddenly lizards look pretty good, don't they
The most successful reptile in the Mediterranean Sea
Tyrrhenian wall lizard
Tyrrhenian wall lizard, CorsicaCredit: Quentin Scouflaire

What is the "most successful" reptile? The ones you don't notice, so they have survived the onslaught of humankind – and they are legion. The ones we noticed, we ate

Who's your mama
'Veil of ignorance' in service of survival
Banded mongooses. Better nourished mothers look after the smaller pups.
Banded mongooses. Better nourished mothers look after the smaller pups. Credit: Harry Marshall

If you are a mongoose, you do not know who your mother is – which creates a more egalitarian society.

See Spot run
Using all your eyes
The peacock jumping spider
The peacock jumping spider starts his mating danceCredit: Adam Fletcher / Biosphoto / AFP

How many stories involve showing movies to spiders who are suspended over really small treadmills? Read this one.

Chilling in the batcave
Israeli chutzpah and the fruit bat
Two mousetail bats in a cave in Israel. The female is the one talking about how cold it feels.
Two mousetail bats in a cave in Israel. The female is the one talking about how cold it feels. Credit: Eran Levin

It's official: lady bats feel colder than man bats, lending credence to shivering women everywhere griping about the air conditioning. In fact the fruit bats team of Tel Aviv University has had many a revelation about the aviating mammals, including how they survive so well in Israel's hectic cities –sheer chutzpah – and how they weather pandemics for which they are wrongly blamed. All hail the bat! 

Houston, we have a problem
Why we will never live on Mars
A composite photo of Mars using over 100 images taken by Viking Orbiters in the 1970s.
A composite photo of Mars using over 100 images taken by Viking Orbiters in the 1970s. Credit: /AP

Peak metal and budget constraints aside, fruit flies in space have finished off the dream of colonizing Mars. The unfortunate insects were shown to have suffered from spectacular heart damage under conditions of zero gravity. Adding to a host of other studies showing that space travel is really unhealthy, perhaps it's time to stop fantasizing about warp drives and concentrate on saving what we have: Earth. 

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