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OK, so our Year of the Rat celebrations have engendered some reader pushback against the maligned rodents, and I can certainly understand that, considering some of the unhappy rat/human collaborative efforts from history (like, uhhhh, the bubonic plague or sundry deep famines).  And, likewise, I completely understand how unnerving it can be when a scabrous piece of the subway wall detaches itself from the general gloom and runs over your foot like a gray hell imp (this is particularly demoralizing after being pushed around by New York crowds all week while desperately trying to hold on to a semblance of sanity commuting to and from your meaningless dayjob).

Yet, despite (ten thousand years of) these bad rat moments, rats are worthy of our respect; not because of their enormous worldwide success, nor their astonishing resilience, nor their acute intelligence (although all of those things are indeed true and respectable), but because of something unexpected–their morality and compassion.

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A landmark University of Chicago laboratory experiment from 2011 presented lab rats with a dilemma. A subject rat was given a choice of  helping an unknown fellow rat trapped in a narrow, scary, and uncomfortable plastic tube (which could only be opened by the subject rat nudging a finicky and unpleasant latch), or eating chocolate.  It is worth noting that rats like chocolate as much as we do.  The NIH summarized the experiment results thusly:

To test how much value the rats placed on liberating a trapped cagemate, the scientists presented rats with 2 restrainers — one with a rat inside and another containing 5 chocolate chips, a favorite rat snack. A free rat could choose to eat all the treats himself by opening the chocolate restrainer first or blocking the entrance to the chocolate restrainer. But the researchers found that the free rats opened the restrainers in no consistent order and allowed their liberated cagemates an average of 1.5 chips. When an empty restrainer was paired with a chocolate-containing one, the free rats ate all 5 chocolates.

To summarize: the rats helped the other rats and then shared the chocolate! Here are some full descriptions of the study.  You should read them and run it through in your head.  Maybe imagine if you were caught in something like this with terrifying alien scientists, a rando human stranger, and a satchel with millions of dollars in it. Would you behave as well as the rats?  Would you try to help or would you try to escape the lunatic aliens with the money as fast as possible? Would you free the other human and then take 3.5 million dollars and give them 1.5 million? Really? Reallllly?

No study about the emotions or virtues of animals would be complete without a loud and peevish set of detractors coming forth to claim that the conclusions are misconstrued (or some form of anthropomorphism).  The “only humans have actual feelings and thoughts” crowd assessed the 2011 study and found it lacking because perhaps the subject rat wanted the companionship of the stranger rat trapped in the tube or something.  It seems to me the original study took such concerns into account by creating scenarios in the which the second rat, once freed, was still separated from the subject rat (this did not alter the experiment’s outcome). However, to placate the naysayers, the neural scientists sighed heavily and created an even more harrowing ordeal in which rats had to risk drowning (or so it seemed to them) in order to help a stranger rat who seemed to be drowning. Once again the rats performed with admirable integrity and heroism.  An additional wrinkle was that the rats who had been trapped in the water as the “victim rat” acted more quickly to save their distressed fellows when they were given the role of subject rat.

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To my ears, that sounds like a textbook definition of empathy.  All of this does! Rats have hearts. They are capable of compassion and nobility.  Guanyin also holds rats in her ineffable embrace. As she listens to the cries of the world she hears their horrified squeaks to their families as we trap and poison them.

I confess that such a thought is deeply disquieting to me. I have been guilty of treating rats like vermin.  Yet I have talked to people with pet rats and I am not really surprised.  It has long been obvious to people of good conscience and reasonable observational abilities that almost all mammals (and a distressing number of birds and fish) have rich and soulful emotional lives.  They are not machines made of meat (or, at least, not more so than we humans are too).  They have souls, whatever that means.  Probably a lot of religious people are cursing me to their made-up gods, but I bet most people with pets are biting their lips and thoughtfully nodding.

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Our world is a cruel world of savage competition and appetite.  I eat certain mammals and birds.  I live in rat-free dwellings! It’s how I live! It’s what I have always done… yet more and more I worry that I live thoughtlessly in the jeweled master bedroom of a vast palace of cruelty.

But we are not seeking facile and comfortable answers here. We are seeking the truth, and that can be a narrow path of daggers which cut your heart. If you want soothing lies which confirm all of your biased feelings, go become an evangelical [REDACTED]ian.

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Pseudoscience, quackery, “magic”, and deceptive supernatural practices meant to defraud people (often including the practitioner…for our need to believe in things is deep and desperate indeed) are as old as humankind, but I doubt that many schools of augury are quite as outwardly preposterous as myomancy, divination by means of rats and mice.

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The Romans were into augury of every sort, but they seem to have had a particular fondness for myomancy, and Pliny the Elder refers to it directly several times in his histories (although, in the end, all that study of rat augury doesn’t seem to have kept him safe from unexpected volcanic eruptions).  Myomancy could be “practiced” by freeing rats or mice and seeing which way they fled, by watching the rodents navigate mazes/pictograms, or by simply observing their lives in the wild.

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This last “wild” myomancy was perhaps the most highly regarded, yet it was also the most rare and spontaneous.  Mice and rats were sometimes thought to scream out before a disaster…or to just run away before a calamity.   If rats suddenly fled a house or community, it was thought to be bad luck of the most astonishing sort. Likewise. if a huge number of rats or mice simply appeared, it betokened a coming war or illness.  If rodents were spotted gnawing clothing (or, worse, armor or military equipment) it was regarded as a sign of incipient defeat.

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Now, animals perhaps don’t have occult connections to the forces of fate and divinity, but they have extreme sensory acuity (or sometimes they have entire senses we lack!).  Modern scientists have noticed that animals, particularly rats and mice, can predict earthquakes or extreme weather events.  Rats and mice are sensitive to air changes which betoken fire, pollution, or anoxygenic conditions.  Additionally, if a bunch of rats suddenly appear seemingly out of nowhere it is a pretty dire sign that something has gone very wrong with some fundamental link in an ecosystem.  Famine or pestilence may indeed be on the way.  The link between rats and bubonic plague is direct and (now) well known.  If rats start stumbling out of the woodwork and dying, collect all of your strongest antibiotics and RUN.

So I started this post by belittling myomancy, which certainly sounds less august than reading the stars or speaking to the dead or what have you.  However, on closer examination, it seems like myomancy might provide some real and useful information, which other schools of augury lack entirely.  This is not because myomancy is magical, but instead because rats and mice are clever and sensitive and must stay hyper-alert to survive in a world of poisons, predators, giants, and catastrophes.  Pliny the Elder was one of the forefathers of the natural sciences–perhaps we can still learn some things from him (see more next week), so keep an eye out for mysterious rodent happenings.  You never know what they will tell you! If Pliny hadn’t gotten distracted by the giant mushroom cloud above Vesuvius, he probably would have noticed rats running the other way as fast as they could.

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Two Rats (Masatami. Late 19th century), ivory netsuke

My favorite rat artworks are not from China (nor from the canon of Western Art–where rats tend to be depicted as vile little monsters), but from another East Asian culture which keeps the same lunar calendar and recognizes some of the same symbolic associations.   Here is a small gallery of endearing and playful rat pictures from Japan.

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Treasure Boat with Three Rats (Kubo Shunman, 1816, (year of the rat)), woodblock print

I wish I could explain all of the puns, allusions, and anthropomorphized fables behind these images, but, alas, I cannot.  You will have to enjoy the rats relatively free of context (although I note that the ratties seem to be hungry adventurers…and several of the artworks come from rat years which occurred hundreds of years ago).

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Three Rats (Kono Bairei,1889 (Year of the Rat)) Diptych woodblock print in pastel shades

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Man and Huge Rat (Kunisada, ca. 19th century) woodblock print

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Figures from ” Chingan sodate gusa ” published in 1787

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Rats and fish (Kyosai Kawanabe, 1881) woodblock print

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YEAR OF THE RAT, MID 19TH CENTURY, SURIMONO, COLOUR

One thing that does jump out is that the Japanese found reasons to be charmed and pleased by the curiosity, bravery, and altruism of rats.  Even in the twentieth century, when American cultural influences weigh more heavily on the Japanese canon, there is still an independent likability to these rats.  Do you see it? Do you have any favorite Japanese rat images of your own?

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Toy Rat (Japanese, 20th Century) Plastic

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Happy Year of the Metal Rat!  The Chinese new year 4717 really started on January 25th, 2020, however, since the celebration is ongoing (as is the year!), let’s talk about what we can expect from a rat year.  In the twelve year Chinese zodiac cycle, the rat comes first (which means we are starting a whole new cycle).  The folklore reason that the rat is the first year is humorous and instructive: the Jade Emperor hosted a party for the astrological animals and he decided that the order of years would be set by when they arrived at the party.  The rat rode to the party on the stalwart ox’s back but then when he saw the party food (or maybe the supreme monarch of heaven), he distracted the ox and leaped across the threshold first!

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As pictured in this stirring artwork…

In the non-zodiac world, there are quite a few people who have a negative opinion of (real) rats, but Chinese astrology in no way shares this outlook concerning the versatile rodent.  Rats are regarded as clever, successful, optimistic, and likable. Because of their ability to survive and reproduce even in harsh or inimical circumstances, rats are seen as symbolic of resourcefulness and fertility (it seems like Chinese culture-makers were actually paying attention to how rats came by their worldwide success).  People born in rat years are regarded as problem solvers who are good with money and have the ability to turn unexpected problems into opportunities (tigers, like me, are instead gifted with the ability to turn unexpected problems into histrionic emotional events…but fortunately we also have the ability to make everything about ourselves).

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How did this beautiful and stirring tiger get in here?

Metal rats are most famed for…uh having a predictable and stable life (sigh). So I guess children born into this year can expect to live a life utterly unlike this year.  Also, apparently rats’ lucky flower is the African violet and their unlucky color is brownish yellow.  It is extraordinary what can be learned during 4717 years!

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Actual rats are one of the most interesting and successful creatures in existence.  Their strategy…and their fate has mirrored humankind’s own strange journey, and our two species are rarely far apart.  Thus we will celebrate the year of the metal rat by talking more about actual rats during the course of the week.  So steel yourself, real rats are even more intelligent and likable than the fictional ones, but they are more relentless and disturbing as well.

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Before we get to that though, maybe enjoy some hot pot and dumplings while you can!  Humans and rats alike both know to take advantage of any opportunity for food and fun!

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Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Prophets (Cimabue, ca. 1290-1300), tempera on wood

Cimabue was the link between Byzantine art and the art of the Renaissance. His use of shaded form and realistic proportion would lead to a sweeping revolution in painting, yet his work maintains the stolid architectural grandeur (and sloe-eyed otherworldliness) of art from the eastern empire.  According to Vasari, Cimabue was Giotto’s master, and although scholars have disputed it based on enigmatic sentences in ancient documents, artists accept it as truth because there is so much of Cimabue in Giotto’s works. This painting originally hung in the Vallombrosians church of Santa Trinita in Florence (Cimabue was a Florentine).

Although the Madonna and Roman-philosopher-attired Baby Jesus (and their bevy of dusky angels with ultramarine/scarlet wings) are quite grand, my favorite part of the composition is the giant strange ivory throne they are seated upon and the Old Testament prophets arrayed along the bottom.  From left to right these are Jeremiah, Abraham, David (see his little crown), and Isaiah.  They are reading and writing in phylacteries and the two prophet prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah are looking up at the messiah, a sight they never beheld, yet beheld before all others.

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The Rich Man (Hans Holbein the Younger, 1526) woodcut (detail)

Today’s post features three of our favorite topics: crowns, serpents, and China!  But, alas, as sometimes happens, these themes have combined in a terrible manner to make frightening headlines around the world.  The past two decades have seen the emergence of strange flu-like respiratory viruses from Asia.  The most infamous was SARS-CoV which emerged from China in 2003, but there was a sequel in the two thousand teens, MERS-CoV, which seems to have originated in Arabia by jumping species from camels.  Now the world’s communicable disease experts are once more on high alert as a new respiratory virus has been identified.  The new new virus is going by the name 2019-nCoV and it causes similar symptoms to  SARS: unlucky humans infected with the virus suffer severe inflammatory response which can lead to (sometimes fatal) respiratory complications.

The virus has been traced back to Hubei to the city of Wuhan, one of the most ancient cities of China.  Wuhan is also the largest city of central China with a population of 11 million people!  So this explains the China angle, but what about crowns and snakes? that sounds like Russian folktale territory!

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A Diagram of a Coronavirus

It turns out that 2019-nCoV is a coronavirus, a category of virus which takes its name from the appearance of the virion as scanned by an electron microscope.  Tiny knobbed spicules emerge from the caplets of coronaviruses which make the round structures superficially resemble the royal headdress (particularly the classical knobbed crown of Medieval Europe).

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Coronaviruses are highly zoonotic–meaning they can easily be transmitted from animals to humans.  Sars was first thought to originate from Asian palm civets (although it seems the poor civets may ultimately have been a vector).  At this juncture scientists are starting to trace 2019-nCoV back to many-banded kraits (Bungarus multicinctus) a black and white striped elapid snake of coastal and central China.  People are not making out with kraits (which is good, because the snakes are super venomous) but the poor kraits are apparently popular as exotic cuisine.  Edipemiologists have pinpointed the origination of  2019-nCoV as the Wuhan seafood wholesale market, which sells all sorts of animals slated for the table, including many-banded kraits.

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This conclusion surprises me, since cold-blooded snakes are not a normal virus vector (in fact the word “never” might be applicable). However, with SARS, the palm civets turned out not to be the ultimate source of the disease.  The civets were eating horseshoe bats which were the original source of the virus.  Perhaps these snakes play a similar intermediary role (I can easily imagine nocturnal predatory kraits eating bats).

People should not eat primates or chiropterans for reasons of public health (eating such close cousins strikes me as morally opprobrious anyway, although admittedly, I am spoiled and haven’t had to subsist as a hunter gatherer).  Maybe they shouldn’t eat kraits now either.   Undoubtedly virologists, epidemiologists, and doctors will keep working to figure out the precise relationship between people, kraits, bats, and 2019-nCoV. Hopefully the scientists from the United States who should be dealing with this emerging plague have not all had their position eliminated by budget cuts to the NIH (although our dolt president has probably already tried to appoint 2019-nCoV as the director of the CDC).  Anyway, stay safe out there and we will figure this all out before summer. It’s never the one you see coming, and the Chinese, at least, are getting better at public health measures.

When I was a teenager I became fascinated by the art of Honoré Daumier (1808-1879).  Daumier is now famous for his sensitive pictures of day-to-day life for marginal people in French society, however, during his lifetime, he was known as a caustic social critic who created biting caricatures of the corrupt politicians who flourished during the chaotic yet reactionary period of French politics which followed Napoleon. During his life, Daumier witnessed the fall of Napoleon, the Bourbon restoration, the July monarchy, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, and the Third Republic.  For some reason he was cynical about the motives and abilities of the French political class.

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The Legislative Belly (Honore Daumier, 1834) lithograph

Here is one of his satirical masterpieces, “The Legislative Belly” a lithograph from 1834, which depicts the members of the Chamber of Deputies. The Chamber of Deputies was an elected assembly, but only those who paid hefty taxes were eligible to vote, so exceedingly rich merchants and bankers chose the Deputies from among their own ranks. The title at the bottom reads “aspect of the ministerial benches of the improvised chamber of 1834.”

Looking up the individual deputies reveals that Daumier has pictured the deputies mostly as they actually looked.  These caricatures would have been easily recognizable to anyone following French politics in the year 1834:  Daumier did not melt or distort these features all that much…and yet the cumulative effect is horrifying.  The deputies look like monsters.  They have the appearance of doddering inbreds, vultures, cannibals, and fools.  The deputies drew Daumier’s wrath for their reactionary policies which enormously favored the wealthy and for their fractious and pettifogging habits when in session.

If Louis Philippe’s legislators were anything like they looked to be (and history sadly indicates that they were), it is astonishing that the July Monarchy lasted until 1848 when it was swept away by revolution.  Still there are many lessons about politics to be gleaned from this lithograph…and from reactionary French politics of the 19th century! One of these lessons is that even extremely non-representational legislative bodies are subject to popular opinion…eventually.

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To celebrate the beginning of the twenties, Ferrebeekeeper featured a wish-list article which requested (1) democratic reforms, and (2) more money for scientific research.  Today we are following up on the second part of that post with a somewhat dispiriting report from the boringly named National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (a federal statistical agency within the National Science Foundation).   As you might imagine, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics has compiled a list of statistics concerning the state of science and engineering in the USA (it is their mission to present such a report to Congress every two years).

The report concentrates on 2017, when the United States spent $548 billion on research and development–more than any other nation! However the report also analyzes larger R&D trends among all nations over time–which makes our relative decline more apparent.  In 2000, nearly 40% of the worldwide R&D budget was spent here in America. By 2017, the total world R&D budget was 2 trillion dollars, which means the American share is down to (approximately) 25%.

You would probably guess that a lot of the new worldwide R&D budget is Chinese, and that is correct.  The report’s authors speculate that by 2019 (which was too recent for the statisticians to have comprehensive numbers) the Chinese R&D budget actually surpassed the American research budget.  I guess we will see.  China tends to spend more money on applied research, whereas we are still world leaders in blue-sky research, but they are catching up everywhere.

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More and more national wealth is being pointlessly hoarded by robber barons.  Do these plutocrats imagine they will live forever? Why not spend their ill-gotten lucre on developing robot workers, immortality potions, and alligator soldiers to guard them against popular insurrection?  Even if the prospect of astonishing & miraculous innovations don’t beguile the Davos class, you would think the prospect of Chinese supremacy in tomorrow’s marketplace and battlefield would get them to spend more money on the lab.   In the lack of business/private leadership (which, frankly, hasn’t been leading America to anywhere other than the underworld anyway) the solution is obvious.  Write to your elected officials and demand more money go to scientific research.  The future is on the line (and I wouldn’t mind some immortality potions and omniscient robot servants, even if the 1% don’t care for such things).

 

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Today’s post about pigeons is a real eye popper! This is the Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon, a breed of fancy pigeon renowned for having huge bubble eyes. Just look at those colossal peepers! To quote the language of fancy pigeon-keeping, “…the beak, while being short and thick, is straight set.  The large eyes are pearl in color with thick almost frog-like ceres.”  That hardly seems to do justice to eyes which seem like they could belong to a peregrine falcon or a colossal squid!

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Darwin famously conceived part of his theory of evolution from observing the shortest & newest branches of the phylogenetic tree limb of Galapagos finches: however the other part of his theory came from his own English country hobby of breeding fancy pigeons.  Using artificial selection to create hugely exaggerated features (like absurd google eyes and a minuscule beak) helped him understand that a similar dynamic was at work in his pigeon cote and on the newly separated Galapagos islands.

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Of course this doesn’t explain the eyes of these particular pigeons. The Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon did indeed originate in Budapest in the first decade of the twentieth century.  The birds were bred by the Poltl brothers, a family of pigeon racing enthusiasts who wanted a high flying bird with incredible endurance.  I guess the tiny beak must save weight, and the big eyes allow for higher flying?  Can any pigeon racers back this up?  Whatever the mechanism, the Poltl brothers succeeded: the original Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeons were able to stay in the air longer than other breeds and they flew at a greater height.  Unfortunately this also meant that more of them were lost (both to nervous disposition and to the perils of the open sky).

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Anyway, today these pigeons are more famous as charismatic pets than as racers.  They reputedly have a very affectionate and alert temperament (with perhaps a trace of their original nervous disposition).  I am not sure I have the patient temperament necessary to push against the bounds of nature as a fancy pigeon breeder, but I am glad that someone is doing so just so we have the Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon to look at!

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Barbary sheep (Ammotragus lerviaaoudad

This handsome fellow is an aoudad (Ammotragus lervia), aka a Barbary Sheep. These caprids are approximately the same size as domestic goats and weigh from 40 to 140 kg (88 to 300 lb).  Their original range was the desert and arid scrubland of Northern Africa–the northern margins of the Sahara in Algeria, Tunisia, northern Chad, Egypt, Libya, northern Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger and Sudan–however as the Sahara expands and grows hotter and more dry, the aoudad is going extinct in its home range.

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Desert Bighorns (Ovis canadensis nelsoni)

This is where the issue becomes morally complex.  Bestiary keepers and gentleman hunters of previous eras imported populations of Barbary sheep to other parts of the world which more closely resemble the now vanished ancestral scrublands of the Sahara.  Thus Aoudads might be going extinct in North Africa, but they are flourishing in Texas.  Their success comes at the expense of the endangered native caprid of Texas, the desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) a desert subspecies of bighorn which once dwelt in Texas in thriving herds before over-hunting, disease, and habitat loss nearly wiped them out.  The Aoudad is larger and more aggressive (and requires less water) than the bighorn.  The invader is out-competing the native, and Texans are up in arms about it–quite literally, since they are renowned as a gun-toting people.  Aoudads, so precious in their original home in North Africa, are being blasted away as invasive pests in Texas.

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My interpretation is that climate change is making West Texas more like the Sahara used to be (and making the Sahara more like the Atacama…or like the sunny side of the moon). Although, there are lots of factors at play when it comes  to whether an organism is successful in an ecosystem, climate change affects a lots of these variables.   Aoudads and bighorns have a relationship sort of like the round goby and the mottled sculpin (remember them) although the Aoudads don’t actually eat the bighorns’ eggs, they just run the males off and pointlessly hoard all of the bighorn ewes.  We are going to see more of these situations involving invasive creatures and we are going to have to start thinking now about how to best manage climate refugee species.  Do we want Aoudads to go extinct in the wild? Do we want the deserts of Texas to have no wild caprids?  Maybe we need to start releasing desert bighorns in Arkansas or Rhode Island?  What even is a natural habitat in a world where humankind has changed every habitat?

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