Tag: Zoology

Over the Past 1.5 Million Years, Human Hunting Preferences have Wiped Out Large Animals

Breakthrough study tracks development of early humans’ hunting habits.

A groundbreaking study by researchers from Tel Aviv University tracks the development of humans’ hunting practices over the last 1.5 million years – as reflected in the animals we’ve hunted and consumed. The researchers believe that at any given time early humans preferred to hunt the largest animals available in their surroundings, which provided the greatest quantities of food in return for their effort.

In this way, according to the researchers, early humans repeatedly overhunted large animals to extinction and then went on to the next in size – while improving their hunting technologies to meet the new challenge. The researchers also claim that about 10,000 years ago, when animals larger than deer became extinct, humans began to domesticate plants and animals to supply their needs, which might explain why the agricultural revolution began in the Levant at precisely that time.

The study was conducted by Prof. Ran Barkai and Dr. Miki Ben-Dor of The Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, Prof. Shai Meiri of the School of Zoology and The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, and Jacob Dembitzer, a research student of Prof. Barkai and Prof. Meiri, who led the project. The paper was published in the prestigious scientific journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

The study, unprecedented in both scope and timespan, presents a comprehensive analysis of data on animal bones discovered at dozens of prehistoric sites in and around Israel. Findings indicate a continual decline in the size of game hunted by humans as their main food source – from giant elephants 1-1.5 million years ago down to gazelles 10,000 years ago. According to the researchers, these findings paint an illuminating picture of the interaction between humans and the animals around them over the last 1.5 million years.

Overhunting or Climate Changes?

Prof. Barkai notes two major issues presently addressed by prehistorians worldwide: What caused the mass extinction of large animals over the past hundreds of thousands of years – overhunting by humans or perhaps recurring climate changes? And what were the driving forces behind great changes in humankind – both physical and cultural – throughout its evolution?

Prof. Barkai: “In light of previous studies, our team proposed an original hypothesis that links the two questions: We think that large animals went extinct due to overhunting by humans, and that the change in diet and the need to hunt progressively smaller animals may have propelled the changes in humankind. In this study we tested our hypotheses in light of data from excavations in the Southern Levant covering several human species over a period of 1.5 million years.”

Prof. Ran Barkai

Jacob Dembitzer adds: “We considered the Southern Levant (Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Southwest Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon) to be an ‘archaeological laboratory’ due to the density and continuity of prehistoric findings covering such a long period of time over a relatively small area – a unique database unavailable anywhere else in the world. Excavations, which began 150 years ago, have produced evidence for the presence of humans, beginning with Homo erectus who arrived 1.5 million years ago, through the Neanderthals who lived here from an unknown time until they disappeared about 45,000 years ago, to modern humans (namely, ourselves) who came from Africa in several waves, starting around 180,000 years ago.”

The researchers collected all data available in the literature on animal bones found at prehistoric sites in the Southern Levant, mostly in Israel. These excavations, conducted from 1932 until today, provide a unique sequence of findings from different types of humans over a period of 1.5 million years. With some sites comprising several stratigraphic layers, sometimes thousands of years apart, the study covered a total of 133 layers from 58 prehistoric sites, in which thousands of bones belonging to 83 animal species had been identified. Based on these remains, the researchers calculated the weighted mean size of the animals in each layer at every site.

Prof. Meiri: “Our study tracked changes at a much higher resolution over a considerably longer period of time compared to previous research. The results were illuminating: we found a continual, and very significant, decline in the size of animals hunted by humans over 1.5 million years. For example, a third of the bones left behind by Homo erectus at sites dated to about a million years ago, belonged to elephants that weighed up to 13 tons (more than twice the weight of the modern African elephant) and provided humans with 90% of their food. The mean weight of all animals hunted by humans at that time was 3 tons, and elephant bones were found at nearly all sites up to 500,000 years ago.”

“Starting about 400,000 years ago, the humans who lived in our region – early ancestors of the Neandertals and Homo sapiens, appear to have hunted mainly deer, along with some larger animals weighing almost a ton, such as wild cattle and horses. Finally, in sites inhabited by modern humans, from about 50,000 to 10,000 years ago, approximately 70% of the bones belong to gazelles – an animal that weighs no more than 20-30kg. Other remains found at these later sites came mostly from fallow deer (about 20%), as well as smaller animals such as hares and turtles.”

Climate Change had Minimal Impact

Jacob Dembitzer: “Our next question was: What caused the disappearance of the large animals? A widely accepted theory attributes the extinction of large species to climate changes through the ages. To test this, we collected climatic and environmental data for the entire period, covering more than a dozen cycles of glacial and interglacial periods. This data included temperatures based on levels of the oxygen 18 isotope, and rainfall and vegetation evidenced by values of carbon 13 from the local Soreq Cave. A range of statistical analyses correlating between animal size and climate, precipitation, and environment, revealed that climate, and climate change, had little, if any, impact on animal extinction.”

According to Dr. Ben-Dor: “Our findings enable us to propose a fascinating hypothesis on the development of humankind: Humans always preferred to hunt the largest animals available in their environment, until these became very rare or extinct, forcing the prehistoric hunters to seek the next in size. As a result, to obtain the same amount of food, every human species appearing in the Southern Levant was compelled to hunt smaller animals than its predecessor, and consequently had to develop more advanced and effective technologies. Thus, for example, while spears were sufficient for Homo erectus to kill elephants at close range, modern humans developed the bow and arrow to kill fast-running gazelles from a distance.”

Environmental Damage from the Dawn of Humanity

Prof. Barkai concludes: “We believe that our model is relevant to human cultures everywhere. Moreover, for the first time, we argue that the driving force behind the constant improvement in human technology is the continual decline in the size of game. Ultimately, it may well be that 10,000 years ago in the Southern Levant, animals became too small or too rare to provide humans with sufficient food, and this could be related to the advent of agriculture. In addition, we confirmed the hypothesis that the extinction of large animals was caused by humans – who time and time again destroyed their own livelihood through overhunting. We may therefore conclude that humans have always ravaged their environment but were usually clever enough to find solutions for the problems they had created – from the bow and arrow to the agricultural revolution. The environment, however, always paid a devastating price.”

Featured image: Prof. Shai Meiri of the School of Zoology and The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History

How Do Bats Get Street-Smart?

TAU researchers find that baby fruit bats acquire their boldness from their adoptive mothers.

Tel Aviv University researchers conducted the first ever “cross-adoption” behavioral study in bats, whereby pups of urban fruit bats were adopted by rural mothers and vice versa in order to learn whether the relative boldness of city bats is a genetic or acquired trait. Prof. Yovel: “We wanted to find out whether boldness is transferred genetically or learned somehow from the mother. Our findings suggest that this trait is passed on to pups by the mothers that nurse and raise them, even when they are not their biological mothers.” Thus, the bat species’ willingness to take risks is an acquired rather than hereditary trait, passed on in some way from mother to young pup

The study was led by TAU’s Prof. Yossi Yovel, Head of the Sagol School of Neuroscience, member of the School of Zoology at The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, and recipient this year of the Blavatnik Young Scientists Award in Israel and the Kadar Family Award for Outstanding Research at TAU. It was conducted by Dr. Lee Harten, Nesim Gonceer, Michal Handel and Orit Dash from Prof. Yovel’s laboratory, in collaboration with Prof. H. Bobby Fokidis from Rollins College in Florida. The paper was published in BMC Biology.

Rural Bats More Risk Adverse

Dr. Harten explains: “While most animals do not live in an urban environment, some species thrive in it. We are trying to understand how they do this. Fruit bats are an excellent example of a species that has adapted well to the human environment of the city. Bat colonies thrive in Tel Aviv and other cities, while other colonies still live in rural areas. Research has shown that city-adapted fruit-bats tend to be bolder and take more risks than those living in the wild. We wanted to examine, under laboratory conditions, whether this trait is genetic or acquired.

In a preliminary experiment the researchers placed food inside a box that required adult bats to land and enter in order to get the food. They found that urban bats solved the problem immediately, while rural bats hesitated and took several hours to learn the trick. Prof. Yovel: “Similar results were observed in past experiments with birds: birds living in the city take more risks than birds of the same species residing in rural areas. Our study was the first to test this issue in bats.”

Bat Boldness: Genetic or Acquired?

The next step was testing whether this boldness is a hereditary trait, or a quality acquired by experience. To this end, the researchers conducted the same experiment with young bat pups, still fed by their mothers, who had never searched for food independently. They found that the urban pups, just like their parents, are bolder and learn faster than their rural counterparts.

Prof. Yovel: “These findings first led us to think that boldness is hereditary – passed on genetically from the urban parents to their pups. However, we know that young pups are still exposed to their mothers after birth. We decided to check whether pups learn from their mothers or are influenced by them in some other way.”

To answer this question, the researchers introduced a cross-adoption method: pups born to urban mothers were raised by rural mothers, and vice versa. They note that this was the first experiment of this type ever conducted in bats, and also the first ‘nature vs. nurture’ study for boldness in urban animals.

Liquid Courage?

Dr. Harten: “We found that the pups behaved like their adoptive mothers, not like their biological mothers. This means that boldness is an acquired rather than hereditary trait, passed on in some way from mother to young pup. We hypothesize that the agent may be some substance in the mother’s milk.” In an additional experiment the researchers discovered that the urban mothers’ milk contains a higher level of the hormone cortisol than the milk of rural mothers. It has not yet been ascertained, however, that this is the agent for the inter-generational transfer of boldness.

Prof. Yovel concludes: “The urban environment presents animals with more challenges and a greater variety of situations. It is therefore plausible that bats and other animals living in the city require more boldness and higher learning skills. In our study we focused on bat pups, examining whether bold behavior is the result of genetics, environment, or some combination between the two. In light of our findings, we hypothesize that the trait is passed on to pups in early stages of development, through some component of their mothers’ milk.” Dr. Harten adds: “We believe that a better understanding of the needs and behaviors of urban animals can help us protect them and adapt urban development to their needs.” 

Featured image: “Baby bat with its adoptive mother (Photo: Yuval Barkai)”

Revisiting the Tel Aviv Zoo

Two TAU students developed an app that recreates the mythological zoo in the heart of the city.

For many years, there was a zoo right in the center of Tel Aviv. Residents of nearby streets used to wake up to roars of tigers and monkeys’ chatter. In 1980, the zoo and its residents were relocated to a large complex in neighboring Ramat Gan, but seasoned Tel Avivians still think of it fondly. Maya Shekel and Yuval Kela, two talented students in the digital media track at The Steve Tisch School of Film and Television, wanted to see it with their own eyes, and developed the TAZOO app that enables this.

Throughout the four years of their studies, they designed and created the unique widget, based on stories and memories of the local community. The animals were created by help of augmented reality technology, and in order to experience the project in full, all you need to do is to download the app on your phone, make your way to Tel Aviv’s City Garden and look for the orange signs that are scattered in the garden.

This new attraction, which will soon be launched in a festive ceremony, has already warmed the hearts of several Tel Aviv residents who inspired the creation of the project and the stories, as well as Tel Aviv Mayor, Mr. Ron Huldai, who still recalls the exact wording on the garden signs.

The Next-door Neighbor

What brings two students, both born long after the zoo was closed, to recreate Tel Aviv’s animalistic past? “I’ve been living on Tel Aviv’s Hadassah Street all my life, right opposite where the zoo used to be,” says Maya Shekel. “Whenever people hear where I live, they ask me, ‘Did you know that there used to be a zoo there?’,” Therefore, after hearing the recurring questions for years, she decided to investigate the subject further together with Yuval Kela, who is also her life partner.

“After some online research, we discovered amazing photos of elephants and lions in the middle of Tel Aviv. We realized that the place used to be a cultural center for the residents of the city. We decided to start a Facebook group which we called ‘Tel Aviv Zoo Community’. Gradually, people would join the group and share photos, memories and stories about the zoo. This way, we got confirmation that there was a nostalgic need to revive the lost zoo, and to share its story with those who visit the place today, unaware of its history.”

 

“An elephant is about to join us,” Maya Shekel demonstrates to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai how the TAZOO app works

Reviving Animals in Augmented Reality

Unlike many apps that allow you to sit in your living room and feel like you’re somewhere else, Maya and Yuval chose to encourage their users to venture to the real site where the zoo was once located. “It was important for us to create an experience where people actually had to physically experience the sights and the feelings, while reviving the lost place,” explains Yuval.

Their main challenge was to adapt the app for two different target audiences: the older residents, who wish to reminisce, and to the younger target audience (such as the elderly residents’ children and grandchildren). “We overcame this hurdle by adding layers to the app, like short films about the zoo staff and additional information where you can choose to delve deeper and read more about each station. We also added some games that are more suitable for children,” he adds.  

For big and for small. The virtual zoo in the Hadassah Garden

Storytelling and Technology

During their studies, Maya and Yuval learned the importance of storytelling on platforms of this type. They made sure to study the technology thoroughly to get a good grasp of both its advantages and limitations.

Throughout their work on the app, more and more ideas for future projects were born. “We’re constantly thinking of how we can take the idea and expand on it to include more destinations in the city, in Israel and in the world. There’s no shortage on ‘lost’ places that have left memories and history that can be revived by help of technology, allowing for people to experience and learn about them,” says Maya.

“The technology is constantly evolving. We hope to continue to create significant impact by combining storytelling and innovative technology. Our dream is to constantly create mainly projects that are accessible to the general public,” she concludes. On the question of which animal she would not want us to miss on the TAZOO app, she says “We would not want you to miss out on our hippos, Paula and Jacob! They jump into the water and really blend in with the physical space.”

 

Paula and Jacob with friends

The project was supported by the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality, which cooperated and placed the signs throughout the park, as well as The New Fund for Cinema and TV, which supported and assisted with funding.

Download the app on iOS- https://apps.apple.com/ch/app/tazoo/id1548925102

Download the app on Android- https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.tazoo.tazoo

*Maya and Yuval hope to create an English version of the app in the very near future, as part of the existing one.

Like Teenagers on Vacation

Light pollution can impair crickets’ reproductive process and threaten their survival.

A joint study conducted by researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Open University of Israel revealed that exposing male crickets to artificial light at night (ALAN) can impair their activity cycles. According to the researchers, nocturnal chirping is the male’s way of calling females to come and mate with him, and its disruption can interfere with reproduction processes and even endanger the entire species. Previous studies worldwide have shown that light pollution is harmful to many species of animals and plants. The researchers call for reducing ALAN as much as possible to enable coexistence in the night environment.

Humans are Driving Away the Darkness

Keren Levy of the School of Zoology and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University explains: “The distinction between day and night, light and darkness, is a major foundation of life on earth. But humans, as creatures of the day who fear the dark, disrupt this natural order: they produce artificial light that drives away the darkness and allows them to continue their activities at night.”

Levy explains that today, more than 80% of the world population live under light pollution, and the overall extent of artificial light at night rises by 5% every year. This negatively impacts the environment and affects natural behaviors that have developed over millions of years of evolution. The artificial light at night affects the length and quality of sleep of many animals, leads to high mortality, and changes the activity cycles of many creatures. For example, dung beetles, that navigate using the Milky Way, lose their way when light pollution increases; sea turtles hatchlings seek the brightest surface in sight – supposedly the sea, and reach the nearby promenade instead; to mention just two of many examples.

Off-Tune Crickets

In the current study the researchers examined the impact of light pollution on the field cricket, a nocturnal insect whose chirping can be heard during the nights of late summer – when males call for females to mate with them.

Prof. Amir Ayali, also from TAU’s School of Zoology and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, explains, “In nature, crickets exhibit a very regular cycle of activity. Chirping behavior, calling for females, occurs at sunset and during the night, ending in the morning. We exposed field crickets to different levels of lifelong ALAN and observed its impact on two fundamental behaviors: chirping and locomotion.”

The researchers monitored dozens of crickets that were exposed throughout their lives (from egg to adult stage) to four types of light conditions. They found that crickets whose light-dark cycle is disrupted behave like teenagers on vacation: active or asleep according to their own inner clock or lacking any rhythm whatsoever.

“In fact,” adds Keren Levy, “light pollution induced by humankind impacts the field cricket and evokes loss of synchronization within the individual, on the population level, and between the population and the environment. Our findings on ALAN-induced changes in calling song patterns may possibly impair female attraction and reproduction in this species. Our results are in accord with many other studies demonstrating the severe impacts of low levels of ALAN on nature.”

Levy urges us all to help protect our environment and surroundings by turning off the lights in our backyards, on the terrace, in parking lots, and wherever possible: “Help us bring the night and the milky way back into our lives and enable nightly coexistence with the creatures around us.”

The study was led by Prof. Amir Ayali and Keren Levy of the School of Zoology and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University and Prof. Anat Barnea of the Department of Natural and Life Sciences at the Open University. Yoav Wegrzyn from Prof. Ayali’s laboratory and Ronny Efronny also took part in the study. The paper was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and also mentioned in Nature.

Featured image: Prof. Amir Ayali and a small friend (Photo: Jonathan Blum)

Seahorses – Slow, but Fierce

Terrible swimmers with incredible preying capability.

Seahorses are not exactly Olympic swimmers, in fact they’re considered to be particularly poor swimmers. Despite being relatively slow, however, they are adept at preying on small, quick-moving animals. In a new study conducted at Tel Aviv University, researchers have succeeded in characterizing the incredible preying capability of seahorses, discovering that they can move their head up at the incredible speed of 0.002 seconds. The rapid head movement is accompanied by a powerful flow of water that snags their prey right into the seahorse’s mouth. How was this spring mechanism formed? When did it develop? The researchers hope the recent study will lead to further studies designed to help solve the riddle of spring fish.

The study was led by Prof. Roi Holzman and the doctoral student Corrine Jacobs of the School of Zoology at The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University, and was conducted at the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Springing to Action

The researchers explain that seahorses are fish that possess unique properties such as male ‘pregnancy’, square tail vertebrae, and of course the unique eating system. For most of the day, seahorses are anchored with their tail to seaweeds or corals with their head tilted downward, close to their body. However, when they detect prey passing over them, they lift their head at incredible speed and catch it. According to Prof. Holzman, while preying, seahorses turn their body into a kind of spring: using their back muscles, they stretch an elastic tendon, and use their neck bones as a ‘trigger’, just like a crossbow. The result is faster than even the fastest muscle contraction found anywhere in the animal world.

However, until now it was not clear how the spring-loaded mechanism enabled seahorses to actually eat. Just as anyone who tries to remove a fly from a cup of tea knows, water is a viscous medium and the fish needs to open its mouth to create a flow that draws the prey in. But how do seahorses coordinate snagging in prey with their head movement?

In their recent study, researchers from Tel Aviv University succeeded in characterizing and quantifying seahorse movement by photographing their attack at a speed of 4,000 images per second, and using a laser system for imaging water flows. This measurement showed that the ‘crossbow’ system serves two purposes: facilitating head movement and generating high velocity suction currents – 10 times faster than those of similar-sized fish. These advantages enable seahorses to catch particularly elusive prey.

Evolution of the Spring Mechanism

The new measurements also help shed light on the ecology of various species of seahorses, distinguished from each other by the length of their noses. “Our study shows that the speed of head movement and suction currents are determined by the length of a seahorse’s nose”, Prof. Holzman added. “From the evolutionary aspect, seahorses must choose between a short nose for strong suction and moderate head raising, or a long nose for rapid head raising and weaker suction currents. This choice, of course, corresponds to the available diet: long-nosed species catch smaller, quicker animals whereas short-nosed species catch heavier, more ponderous ones.”

 

Prof. Roi Holzman hopes the recent study will lead to further studies to help solve the riddle of spring fish

According to Prof. Holzman, seahorses are not the only instance of the impressive spring mechanism. Actually, seahorses are counted among the family of fish bearing the appropriate scientific name Misfit Fish, including species such as alligator pipefish, shrimpfish, and cornetfish or flutemouths.

“These fish are called that because of their odd shape which enables stretching their body into a spring. The big question applies to the evolution of the spring mechanism, how it was formed and when it developed. I hope our recent study will lead to further studies designed to help solve the riddle of spring fish”. 

Why Do We Squabble Over The AC?

New study reveals the evolutionary reason why women feel colder than men.

Why do women typically bring a sweater into work while their male counterparts feel comfortable wearing short sleeves in an air-conditioned office? Researchers at Tel Aviv University’s School of Zoology offer a new evolutionary explanation for the familiar scenario and can share that this phenomenon is not unique to humans, with many male species of endotherms (birds and mammals) preferring a cooler temperature than the females. The researchers propose that males and females feel temperature differently, explaining that this is a built-in evolutionary difference between the heat-sensing systems of the two sexes, related, among other things, to the reproduction process and caring for offspring.

The study was led by Dr. Eran Levin and Dr. Tali Magory Cohen from the School of Zoology and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University, Yosef Kiat from the University of Haifa, and Dr. Haggai Sharon, a pain specialist from Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Tel Aviv Sourasky Tel Aviv Medical Center (Ichilov Hospital). The article was published in the Journal Global Ecology and Biogeography.

Separation During Breeding Season

The new study included an in-depth statistical and spatial analysis of the distribution of dozens of bird and bat species living in Israel, along with a comprehensive review of the international research literature on the subject.

A study of the research literature reveals several examples of a similar phenomenon observed in many species of birds and mammals. In migratory bird species, males spend the winter in colder areas than females (it should be noted that in birds, the segregation between the sexes takes place outside of the breeding season, since the males participate in the raising of the chicks).

Amongst many mammals, even in species that live in pairs or in mixed groups all their lives, the males prefer shade whereas the females prefer sunlight, or the males ascend to the peaks of mountains while the females remain in the valleys.

Following the literature review, the researchers conducted their own research. They sampled information collected in Israel over the course of nearly 40 years (1981-2018) on thousands of birds from 13 migratory bird species from 76 sites (data from Birdlife Israel and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History) and 18 species of bats from 53 sites (data from the researchers and the Society for the Protection of Nature.) In total, the study included more than 11,000 individual birds and bats, from Mount Hermon in the north to Eilat in the south.

The reasoning behind the choice of birds and bats for the study is the fact that they fly and are therefore highly mobile, and the researchers hypothesized that the spatial separation between the sexes – sometimes extending to different climatic zones – would be particularly clear in these groups. Moreover, Israel’s significant climate diversity allowed them to study individual animals of the same species that live in very different climatic conditions.

 

Illustrative Photo: Bats in Cave

The findings of the study clearly demonstrated that males prefer a lower temperature than females, and that this preference leads to a separation between the sexes at certain periods during the breeding cycles, when the males and females do not need, and may even interfere, with each other.

Dr. Levin: “Our study has shown that the phenomenon is not unique to humans; among many species of birds and mammals, females prefer a warmer environment than males, and at certain times these preferences cause segregation between the two species. In light of the findings, and the fact that this is a widespread phenomenon, we have hypothesized that what we are dealing with is a difference between the females and males’ heat-sensing mechanisms, which developed over the course of evolution. This difference is similar in its essence to the known differences between the pain sensations experienced by the two sexes, and is impacted by differences in the neural mechanisms responsible for the sensation and also by hormonal differences between males and females.”

Dr. Levin, who among other things studies the physiology and behavior of bats, noted in his previous studies that during the breeding season males and females tend to segregate, with the males inhabiting cooler areas. For example, entire colonies in caves on the slopes of Mount Hermon are composed of only males during the breeding season, while in the warmer area of the Sea of Galilee there are mainly females, who give birth and raise their pups there.

Dr. Magory Cohen notes that this difference has a number of evolutionary explanations. First, the separation between males and females reduces competition over resources in the environment, and keeps away males who may be aggressive and endanger the babies. Furthermore, many female mammals must protect their offspring at a stage when they are not yet able to regulate their body temperature on their own, so they developed a preference for a relatively warm climate.

Giving Each Other Some Space

The phenomenon can also be linked to sociological phenomena observed in many animals and even in humans; in a mixed environment of females and males the females tend to have much more physical contact between themselves, whereas males maintain more distance and shy away from contact with each other.

It appears the difference in thermal sensation did not come about so we can argue with our partners over the air conditioning. Rather, we are meant to give each other some space so that each person can enjoy some peace and quiet. Question is, who gets the couch?

A House is Not a Home Without a Pet

TAU law students are helping elderly citizens and their pets move to senior homes.

Many senior citizens have to part with their beloved pets just when they need them the most: when they leave their homes and transition to live in public housing for the elderly. In many of these governmental institutions, pets are still not allowed – and when they are, the policy is not always implemented. This can cause a painful situation which may harm the mental and physical wellbeing of senior citizens, and affect the welfare of the animals (often senior as well) that find themselves homeless and separated from their loving caretakers.

We have some positive news: There are good people out there who are pro-actively seeking to protect the rights of pet caretakers, as well as the pets’.

Who? Students of The Buchmann Faculty of Law who work through the Clinic for Environmental Justice and the Protection of Animal Rights, an integral part of the The Coller-Menmon Animal Rights and Welfare Program, Israel’s leading and most comprehensive academic program on animal law, at the Faculty of Law. We do realize that’s a mouthful and warrants some further explanation…

Protecting Animals’ Rights

The Clinic for Environmental Justice has been handling a range of environmental issues since 2001. In 2017, it expanded its operations to include the protection of animals’ rights. Through their work at the Clinic, law students get to practice drafting applications, precedents and position papers, closely accompanied by top academics and clinical facilitators from Israel’s legal system. 

Dr. Orit Hirsch-Matsioulas researches human-animal relations. She is a post-doctoral fellow of The Coller-Menmon Animal Rights and Welfare Program and one of the founders of The Community for Human-Animal Studies Israel (HASI). Together with Adv. Amnon Keren, Program Coordinator and Clinical Instructor at the Clinic, she made the rights of the elderly and their pets one of the Clinic’s lead projects.

Both Granny and Kitty Benefit

The project was significantly accelerated when the Clinic decided to handle the appeal of a group of senior citizens who were told they were not allowed to bring their pets to their public housing apartments. “The rights of elderly people were violated,” says Dr. Hirsch-Matsioulas. “Some of them decided against moving because they did not want to part with their pets. Noah, the umbrella organization for Israel’s animal protection associations, contacted us, and we got in touch with the Ministry of Construction and Housing to change the existing policy.”

Dr. Hirsch-Matsioulas presented the Ministry with academic studies on emotional, cognitive and health-related benefits of pet relationships for senior citizens. Moreover, she brought a new element to the attention of the Ministry officials, namely the effect of the relationship on the animals.

“We built a multidisciplinary team of people from the fields of law, social sciences, social work, gerontology (i.e. the multidisciplinary study of aging, including physical aspects as well as mental, social and societal implications) and civil society organizations, and we’re working together with the Ministry of Construction and Housing,” explains Dr. Hirsch-Matsioulas. 

A temporary policy was established, allowing for the entry and keeping of pets in all public senior homes, called בתי גיל הזהב, under the responsibility of Israel’s Ministry of Construction and Housing. It was widely agreed that this temporary right should eventually become permanent, however this is a lengthy process. 

 

Kitty and Milo also have rights. Photo: Vika Minkowitz Mualem

Focusing on Solutions

While we’re excited to share that this undertaking is, in fact, a global precedent, the process of implementing the policy has not been a smooth ride. Due to Covid restrictions, the team has not been able to enter the senior housing buildings to teach the staff about the new guidelines for successful implementation. “The doors have been opened. Now, we must focus on ensuring the optimal execution,” says Dr. Hirsch-Matsioulas. 

Dr. Hirsch-Matsioulas is compiling a report with all the issues that do or may arise. She will then proceed to examine the appropriate solutions for every listed problem, through consultation with relevant professionals. The aim is to come up with suitable solutions for the preservation of the elderly’s right to good health and a dignified life, as well as the preservation of the rights of the animals. Once completed, she will present the list to policy makers to advance the legislation, with the aim that the Ministry of Construction and Housing can adopt the law on a permanent basis. 

The arrived upon solutions will be offered, and hopefully adopted, by additional countries as well.

 

Emotional, cognitive and health benefits enjoyed by both parties. Photo: Vika Minkowitz Mualem

Across Generations and Species

“We intend to visit senior homes, observe and learn, and then to provide cultural programs with positive and educational messages on how to co-exist in a community with multiple living species,” offers Dr. Hirsch-Matsioulas.

“Education is central for promoting change, and we would like to cultivate a new atmosphere on ground through a series of lectures. Children and youth are oftentimes leading agents of change, and we may end up including the grandchildren in this effort.” 

“Beyond our firm conviction that the elderly shouldn’t have to part with their pets, that are to them like family members for all intents and purposes, the Clinic also makes sure that the animals’ interests are represented. Forced removal of an animal from a warm and loving home can cause him or her great suffering, especially in old age,” adds Adv. Keren.

“In recent years, there’s been a growing recognition in Israel of animal rights and their welfare, as key considerations in decision-making pertaining to them. We will continue to develop this trend, whereby the animal is regarded as a subject with his or her own rights, each animal representing a world of his or her own and worthy of protection in and by him- or herself.”

 

Dr. Orit Hirsch-Matsioulas and her good friend, Shenef. 

Featured image: Family and flatmates. Photo: Noah Toledano

Where Have All the Birds Gone?

Humans Behind Extinction of Hundreds of Bird Species Over the Last 50,000 Years.

A new study from Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute revealed that over the last 20,000-50,000 years, birds have undergone a major extinction event, inflicted chiefly by humans, which caused the disappearance of about 10%-20% of all avian species. The vast majority of the extinct species shared several features: they were large, they lived on islands, and many of them were flightless.

The main cause for extinction of species by humans today has evolved from being hunting to the destruction of the animals’ natural habitats, but the researchers hope their findings will serve as warning signals regarding bird species currently threatened with extinction.

The study was led by Prof. Shai Meiri of the School of Zoology at The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University, and Amir Fromm of the Weizmann Institute of Science. The paper was published in the Journal of Biogeography.

Human-Inflicted Extinction

Prof. Meiri: “We conducted a comprehensive review of scientific literature, and for the first time collected quantitative data on the numbers and traits of extinct species of birds worldwide. Those that became extinct in the last 300 years or so are relatively well known, while earlier species are known to science from remains found in archaeological and paleontological sites worldwide. Altogether we were able to list 469 avian species that became extinct over the last 50,000 years, but we believe that the real number is much higher.”

The researchers believe that the vast extinction was caused primarily by humans who hunted the birds for food, or by animals brought to islands by humans – that fed on the birds and/or their eggs. This assumption is based on the fact that the greater part of bird remains was found on human sites, apparently belonging to birds consumed by the inhabitants, and in most cases the extinctions occurred shortly after the arrival of humans.

Coveted Targets for Hunters

Most extinct species shared three major features:

  1. About 90% of them lived on islands – When humans arrived on the island, the birds were hunted by them, or fell victim to other animals introduced by humans, such as pigs, rats, monkeys, and cats.
  2. Most extinct bird species were large, some very large – The body mass of the extinct species was found to be up to 10 times as large as that of surviving species. The larger birds provided humans with a great quantity of food, thus they were a preferred target for hunters. Previous studies have found a similar phenomenon among mammals and reptiles, especially lizards and turtles that lived on islands: the larger ones were hunted by humans and became extinct.
  3. A large portion of the extinct bird species were flightless, and often unable to escape their pursuers – The study found that the number of flightless bird species that became extinct is double the number of flightless species still existing today; all in all, 68% of the flightless bird species known to science became extinct. One of the better-known examples is the moa bird in New Zealand: 11 species of moa became extinct within 300 hundred years, due to hunting by humans

Prof. Meiri: “Our study indicates that before the major extinction event of the past millennia, many more large, even giant, as well as flightless avian lived on our globe, and the diversity of birds living on islands was much greater than today. We hope that our findings can serve as warning signals regarding bird species currently threatened with extinction, and it is therefore important to check whether they have similar features. It must be noted, however, that conditions have changed considerably, and today the main cause for extinction of species by humans is not hunting but rather the destruction of natural habitats.”

Featured image: Bird species at the Zoological Garden

Tel Aviv Bats Have More Fun

More adventurous than their rural counterparts, fruit bats in Tel Aviv enjoy what the city has to offer.

Urbanization processes tend to lead animals to leave the city, but some animals are able to thrive in an urban domain. A new Tel Aviv University study found that fruit bats, just like humans, are able to adapt to a variety of environments, including the city and the countryside.

Prof. Yossi Yovel: “How animals cope with urbanization is one of the most central and important questions in ecological research today. Understanding the ways in which animals adapt to urban areas can help us in our conservation efforts. The urban environment is characterized by much fragmentation, and we currently have little understanding of how animals, especially small animals, like the bats, move and fly in such areas.”

The City Bat and the Country Bat

The urban environment is fundamentally different from the rural environment in terms of the diversity and accessibility of food. Although the city has a larger variety of trees per area, there are many challenges that bats have to face, such as buildings and humans. In rural areas, on the other hand, most of the trees are concentrated in orchards without barriers, but have less diversity – the trees are mostly of one type.

Because of the environmental differences between the city and the country with regards to the distribution and variety of fruit trees, the nature of the bats’ movement when foraging in these areas differs as well. In this new study, the researchers compared the nature of the movement of rural bats and city bats as they foraged for food, using tiny GPS devices to track the bats to see if the way they moved while searching for food was affected by their living environment, or the environment in which they were foraging.

The study was led by research student Katya Egert-Berg, under the guidance of aforementioned Prof. Yossi Yovel, head of Tel Aviv University’s Sagol School of Neuroscience and a faculty member of the School of Zoology in The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, as well as a recipient of the 2021 Kadar Family Award for Outstanding Research. The study was published in the journal BMC Biology.

Enjoying their Meals in the Big City

The researchers found that the fruit bats hunting for food in the city are much more exploratory, enjoy the abundance of the urban environment, visit a variety of fruit trees every night, and feed from a wide a variety of trees. In contrast, the rural bats focus on only one or two fruit trees each night. Moreover, the researchers found that among the rural bats who rest in the countryside, there were many who left their rural homes every night in search of food in the city, and then flew back to the country after their meal. During their stay in the city, such bats share the same flight patterns as those of the bats that live in the city around the clock.

The study’s findings led the researchers to assess that even bats that live in rural environments their entire lives will be able to orient themselves in an urban, industrialized environment. They explain that there are animal species that are flexible – for them, the ability to adapt to a new and unfamiliar environment such as an urban settlement is an acquired skill. Such species, of which the fruit bats are an example, will in many cases be able to adapt to life in urban areas.

Featured image: A Tel Aviv bat in action. Photo: S. Greif

Bats ‘Social Distance’ Too

TAU researchers find that bats also self-isolate when sick, helping prevent outbreaks of epidemics.

The Covid-19 pandemic has introduced us to expressions such as ‘lockdown’, ‘isolation’ and ‘social distancing’, which became part of social conduct all over the world. And while bats have been widely assumed to be source of coronavirus, apparently they too maintain social distancing, which might help prevent the spread of contagious diseases. Researchers from Tel Aviv University demonstrate that sick bats, just like us humans when we are sick, prefer to stay away from their communities. This is probably a means for recovery and possibly also a measure for protecting others. The study was conducted by postdoctoral researcher Dr. Kelsey Moreno and PhD candidate Maya Weinberg at the laboratory of Prof. Yossi Yovel, Head of the Sagol School of Neuroscience and a researcher at the School of Zoology at the George S. wise Faculty of Life Sciences. The study has been published in Annals of the New York Academy of Science.

“If we protect them, they will also protect us”

The study monitored two colonies of Egyptian fruit bats – one living in an enclosure and the other in its natural environment. To examine the behavior of bats when they get sick, the researchers injected several bats in each group with a bacteria-like protein, thereby stimulating their immune response without generating any real danger to the bats. Tests revealed symptoms such as a high fever, fatigue and weight loss, and the ‘ill’ bats’ behavior was tracked with GPS. The researchers discovered that the ‘sick’ bats chose to keep away from the colony. In the first group, they left the bat cluster of their own accord and kept their distance. In the second group the ‘ill’ bats likewise moved away from the other bats in the colony, and also stayed in the colony and did not go out in search of food for two successive nights. Research student Maya Weinberg explains that this social distancing behavior is probably caused by the need to conserve energy – by avoiding the energy-consuming social interactions in the group. Weinberg emphasizes, however, that this behavior can also protect the group and prevent the pathogen from spreading within the colony. Moreover, the fact that sick bats don’t leave the cave, prevents the disease from spreading to other colonies. “The bats’ choice to stay away from the group is highly unusual for these animals. Normally these bats are extremely social creatures, living in caves in very crowded conditions,” says Weinberg. “In fact, the ‘sick’ bats’ behavior is very reminiscent of our own during recovery from an illness. Just as we prefer to stay home quietly under the blanket when we are ill, sick bats, living in very crowded caves, also seek solitude and peace as they recuperate.” Prof. Yovel adds that the study’s findings suggest that the likelihood of bats passing pathogens to humans under regular conditions is very low, because sick bats tend to isolate themselves and stay in the cave. “We observed that during illness bats choose to stay away from the colony and don’t leave the cave, and thus avoid mixing with other bats. This suggests that in order to encounter a sick bat, people must actually invade the bats’ natural environment or eliminate their habitats. In other words, if we protect them, they will also protect us.”

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