Solving a Rhino Mystery
Eastern Black Rhino

Solving a Rhino Mystery

To ensure a future for black rhinos, a network of the world’s top minds are seeking the answer to this question: How does a black rhinoceros’ diet influence its health?


Black rhinos are “specialized browsers”—meaning they are selective about food, and those decisions have been proven to result in healthy individuals in the wild. For conservation scientists, an understanding of normal gut microbial diversity in wild rhinos might be critical in the fight to save the species from extinction.


In partnership with SANParks, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, George Mason University, and George Washington University, a Smithsonian team led by esteemed veterinarian Dr. Budhan Pukazhenthi is launching a three-year, Conservation Nation-funded project to compare black rhinos’ diets and gut microbial diversity at zoological institutions across the country with the results from wild rhinos. As a partner, the International Rhino Foundation is funding analysis on populations in human care. With all these players working together, researchers will be able to describe the normal gut microbial diversity of wild rhinos and recommend an appropriate diet or probiotics to keep black rhinos in human care healthy.


The data could also prove helpful as climate change rapidly impacts wild habitats—providing the researchers and conservationists of tomorrow with clear-cut information about how the diet of wild rhinos influence gut microbial composition. With this knowledge, future efforts to bolster the species or rewild populations on a warming planet might be more successful, as scientists will know how the plants wild rhinos eat influence gut microbial diversity and function.


According to Dr. Pukazhenthi, more than 50 wild black rhinos will be studied in total; already fecal samples of 25 wild rhinos have been gathered by partners in the field. “Once all samples are collected, we will begin analyses. The latter steps are likely to take some time because we use complex analytical approaches—genome sequencing [and] bioinformatics.”


Dr. Pukazhenthi emphasizes the importance of understanding diet and gut microbial composition in endangered species as we seek to combat a mass-extinction event. “We often hear, ‘We are what we eat.’ This is true. What we eat influences the gut microbial composition, diversity and/or function. … As a result, nutrients or factors derived from the diet, as well as the microbes, influence our overall health.”


Data from this project could serve to help the team understand the diets of other species who are choosy about what they eat in the wild, including tapirs, giraffes and other ungulates.


In addition to partially funding the cost of analysis, Conservation Nation also is making it possible for a researcher to travel within the next year to Kruger National Park in South Africa to process the samples collected by collaborators at South African National Parks Service.


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Nature: A Monstery Menagerie
A Mimic octopus, Thaumoctopus mimicus, crawls across the black sand seafloor of Lembeh Strait, Indonesia. This rare cephalopod can mimic the behavior and shape of other marine creatures.

Nature: A Monstery Menagerie

Elephant zombies? Octopi from outer space? This Halloween, read about some terrifyingly cool creatures—oh, and a spooky fact about humans, too.


Zombie elephants—they walk among us. To be more specific, modern elephants carry a “zombie” gene that evolved from a millennia-old mutation occurring in their ancestors. That very special gene protects these mammals from cancerous diseases by isolating and killing cancer cells before they can spread. From an evolutionary perspective, this ability also explains the species’ growth to such an enormous size, and their long lifespans, despite that size. The gene in question became dormant ages ago, before it was mysteriously resurrected to kick cancer’s butt, benefiting the elephant populations of today.



Xenomorphs—but scary smart, and they probably won’t kill you. It’s no wonder the original design for the terrifying “face hugger” in the Alien movie franchise was based on the octopus. According to scientists, the octopus is the closest thing there is to alien life on Earth, thanks to a large genome, which is sequenced in such a way that cephalopods can sport a distinctively unusual neurophysiology and still be able to accomplish difficult tasks, like puzzle solving.



The platypus—a Frankenstein’s monster of a species. It lays eggs, but it’s a mammal. Skin covers its eyes. It’s got a reptile skeleton. It hunts its prey at night with the aid of a sixth-sense in its bill that reads electric fields. It lost its stomach somewhere along the line. To sum up: it’s hard to believe the duck-billed platypus exists, and that it wasn’t conceived in some evolutionary biologist’s fever dream, but here we are. And just for kicks, the male platypus developed the fun ability to sting attackers and prey with its venomous, spurred hindfeet.



The Blob … is real? Meet Physarum polycephalum—a single-cell slimeball that is neither plant, nor animal, nor fungi. It has almost 720 sexes, can make complex decisions and has long-term memory. According to a story published by NPR this month about the unveiling of a new blob at the Paris Zoo, “its enemies include light, drought, salt and caffeine.” It enjoys oats, will absorb another blob, including that blob’s memories, and if cut in half, will regrow within minutes to its original blobby size.



Bad news—technically, the Body Snatchers already invaded. Guess what? The human body is creepy too! Turns out our genes might be overrun with more than 100 genes from other organisms that transferred into our genome from single cell creatures, bacteria and viruses during our species’ evolution. It’s called “horizontal gene transfer”—and while this doesn’t mean anyone’s about to metamorphose into a human-fly hybrid (as far as we know), it does mean our genes might be more connected and influenced by organisms very different from us than previously thought.


Are you inspired by these bizarre animals facts? As you celebrate the spookiest day of the year, remember small decisions you make, such as what candy you buy, or whether you use recycled materials to construct your epic costume, can impact animals. And stay safe! You never know what mutant mammal or blobby single-cell organism might be out there, lurking …(*cue spooky music*)

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A Flock in Trouble
Bright yellow Eastern Meadowlark bird singing in a springtime tree in Canada

A Flock in Trouble

Dinosaurs are vanishing again. Except this time, they’re disappearing in the form of modern birds. According to a paper published in Science and co-authored by researchers from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, 2.9 billion birds have been lost in Canada and the United States—a 29 percent decline—since 1970.


Grassland birds, like the meadowlark, are hit hardest, with more than 720 million birds gone in the past 50 years. Smithsonian researchers have worked tirelessly to save these threatened birds; for example, as reported in August, a Conservation Nation-funded meadowlark project seeks to track where these grassland species migrate across North America, so that efforts can be made to protect those lands.


“With more than 90 percent of our landscape under private ownership, the future of these bird communities relies almost entirely on decisions made by private landowners,” said Dr. Amy Johnson.


That’s why collaboration is key. Johnson is the director of Virginia Working Landscapes, a program based at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, that acts as a bridge between conservationists and private landowners, creating a coalition to protect these species and help researchers understand their migratory patterns. But efforts have not stopped there.


“This project has sparked our participation in the formation of an informal ‘eastern meadowlark working group’ involving scientists from multiple states interested in collaborating to generate more knowledge about meadowlark ecology across their range,” Johnson said. “This is one of few projects actively trapping and tagging meadowlarks, with many other states eager to learn from our efforts. We have also benefitted through this working group by learning from researchers who have tried this in the past and have provided recommendations for improving capture rates and tag success.” Johnson says more meadowlarks with be tagged during the next trapping season in April of 2020.


You can make a difference, especially if you live in an affected region. Check out the Virginia Working Landscapes website to learn more about what you can do to protect birds, and how you can participate in citizen science efforts.


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Gather your Herd to Help Animals

At Conservation Nation, we want to inspire you to fundraise to make an impact this holiday season—all while having a good time. As you raise awareness for conservation, your friends and family can support your fundraiser confident that no matter how much or how little they give, they are directly contributing to Smithsonian projects that save animals in the wild. Here are some ideas for how you can create a compelling—and, dare we say it, fun!—fundraiser:


Take the polar plunge. What’s better than jumping into freezing water at the height of winter? Getting your friends to do it, too, and making them donate for the privilege of the experience.



Fan the flames of a fantasy football feud. Not to promote gambling, but what’s the harm in gambling for a cause? Donate all, or a portion, of your fantasy football league’s winnings to conservation, maybe in honor of the animal associated with your team (Miami Dolphins, anyone?).



Bake to make a difference. Let’s say you work at an office. Let’s say everyone you work with likes to bring in delicious treats, and during the holidays, your office becomes an amateur—yet equally entertaining—version of The Great British Bake Off. Why not monetize the competition? Every week, have participants chip in $15 to enter. The winner gets respect … and the pleasure of knowing their creation not only has expanded waistlines, but also has raised money to help endangered species.



Host a conservation-themed shindig. For example, last year, a donor hosted a “Penguins & Pumpkins” brunch. With one fun morning of gourd painting and treats, a group of families raised enough as a team to fund more than 50 nest boxes for South African penguins. Interested in hosting a similar event to fundraise for one of this year’s projects? It’s easy—either you can create a fundraising page here for your guests, or you can set up Conservation Nation as your charity of choice on Evite so you can collect donations via your digital invitations.


Share our mission and our stories. As you recruit friends and family to give, share stories about our impact here and encourage them to sign up for our monthly newsletter.


Finally, whether your fundraiser raises $1 million or $1, thank you! Every gift counts as we strive to protect animals from extinction.

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