Zoology: Stories about wild animals

This week, we present two stories of encounters with wild animals, from a seal named Crystal in Antarctica to a flatulent rhino in South Africa.

Part 1: Science writer Ed Yong is confronted by a flatulent rhino while on safari.

Jump to Ed’s story >>

Ed Yong is a science journalist who reports for The Atlantic, and is based in Washington DC. His work appears several times a week on The Atlantic's website, and has also featured in National Geographic, the New Yorker, Wired, Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American, and many more. He has won a variety of awards, including the Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award for biomedical reporting in 2016, the Byron H. Waksman Award for Excellence in the Public Communication of Life Sciences in 2016, and the National Academies Keck Science Communication Award in 2010 for his old blog Not Exactly Rocket Science. He regularly does talks and radio interviews; his TED talk on mind-controlling parasites has been watched by over 1.5 million people. I CONTAIN MULTITUDES, his first book, looks at the amazing partnerships between animals and microbes. Published in 2016, it became a New York Times bestseller, and was listed in best-of-2016 lists by the NYT, NPR, the Economist, the Guardian, and several others. Bill Gates called it "science journalism at its finest", and Jeopardy! turned it into a clue.  

Part 2: In Antarctica, scientist Gifford Wong attempts to save a seal that has gone into “dive mode.”

Jump to Gifford’s story >>

Gifford Wong is an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow working at the Department of State. He previously served in the Senate as the American Geosciences Institute Congressional Geoscience Fellow. He received his Ph.D. in Earth Sciences from Dartmouth College, his Honours in Antarctic Studies from the University of Tasmania at Hobart, and his Bachelor’s degree in Asian American Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. He has done fieldwork in Greenland and Antarctica, co-developed and co-instructed a graduate-level science communication course at Dartmouth, and thinks penguins and unicorns are cool. Every now and again he is on Twitter as @giffordwong.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Ed Yong

Eight years ago, I was in South Africa in a jeep, in the dark, thinking about the life choices I had made that had led to my safety and well-being being at risk by a flatulent rhino.  So I was at this point about two hours into a safari, and I'd arrived at the safari lodge in the mid afternoon.  So this first drive was going to be an evening one, which started at dusk, and then would continue into the night.  It goes really well, at first.  We see a giraffe and some impala, and a hippo, and some impala, and some impala. 

Now, you might think it would be really churlish to be in a place of such beauty, of life at its most diverse in what was like a living David Attenborough documentary and to get irritated at seeing too much of any particular thing.  You would be right, except safaris are sold on the basis of variety.  You were told you'll see all of this incredible stuff.  There's even the checklist, the big five: the leopard, lion, elephant, buffalo, and rhino. 

In my head, I know that this is a dumb conceit.  Safaris are not like zoos.  There is no checklist.  These animals are wild.  They don’t march to any timetable or schedule.  But in my heart, I know that I've come a long way for this.  I've paid a lot of money for this.  This is probably one of the few chances in my life that I'll actually get to see this stuff in the wild, things that I've only seen before in zoos and in nature documentaries and in books. 

And I really want to see it all.  I really want to see a wild elephant or a lion or a leopard, or some impala.  Whoever said that familiarity breeds contempt was probably talking about impalas.  It is really astonishing how quickly you can go from the first time you see them thinking, “This is such a beautiful animal.  Look at the elegance of its slender build, the peaceful corkscrew of its horns, the way the sunlight beams down upon its hide and reflects into my eyes filling me with joy for all of creation,” and then like an hour later you're like [sighs], “Impala.  They're like horned rats, like hooved pigeons.” 

Then as the sun sets fully and it gets properly dark, even the impala go away.  Now, it is the time, we are told, for seeing Africa’s nocturnal animals.  Its small, scurrying, less common, less frequently observed species.  That is true except, because it’s very dark, the only light we have are the giant headlamps of our jeep.  It turns out that Africa’s nocturnal, small, scurrying animals are also super skittish in the face of giant headlights beaming down upon them.  So the things that we do see are very fleeting and kind of hard to make out.  So over there we see a maybe mongoose, a sort of bushbaby, a possibly owl. 

So we’re driving along and we’re not really seeing very much.  And the worst bit of it is because of my own stupid fault, I am very uncomfortable.  Because I arrive at the safari lodge so excited about going on this trip that I have forgotten three key pieces of information.  One, it’s springtime in South Africa.  When the sun goes down, it gets really cold, much like in this room.  Imagine with me. 

Two, safari vehicles, though they have canopies, do not have coverings on the sides and back so they're open to the elements.  And three, they rush through the elements at very high speed.  So between the cold and the wind chill, and the fact that yours truly has rocked up in just a T-shirt like an idiot, I’m really, really cold.  Fortunately, the safari guides have prepared for the arrival of possible idiots by packing blankets inside the vehicle. 

So I have got the blanket wrapped over me and I’m sort of shivering my way through this otherwise uneventful, pitch-black game drive.  We’re not seeing very much until six white rhinos trundle out of the bush onto the path in front of us and sit down, which is great.  Maybe the driver knew that they were there and was expecting this, but we certainly had no idea.  Because you might think that Africa’s large animals, or its elephants and rhinos and hippos, would be large, lumbering animals that would rustle the undergrowth and shake the ground with every footstep.  But it turns out they are surprisingly stealthy. 

Because while a rhino’s leg is like this giant, sturdy, columnar tree trunk, underneath that its skeleton is basically doing this.  It’s like standing on tiptoes.  And the heel is resting on this giant pad of fat and muscle like the world’s largest platform shoe, which means that a rhino’s footsteps are very quiet and which means that we didn’t hear these things.  A rhino is basically like a cross between a tank and a ninja. 

So these six giant ninja tanks come out of nowhere and they walk in front of us and they lie down in front of the path.  So we aren’t going anywhere.  We just sit down and watch them.  This is great because they're white rhinos.  They're amazing animals.  It’s some of my favorite animals.  They are inherently paradoxical.  There's something really weird about them that doesn’t quite fit together.  They are seemingly impervious, but they're also critically endangered.  There is an obvious threat to them, because of the horn, but they're also strangely comical and endearing.  And there are six of them in front of us and we get to spend some time with them, which is fantastic.

But after a while, we start getting a bit impatient, not because they're not cool.  They are.  But, because, as I said, it’s very cold and it’s really late.  We had already decided to call the drive quits and go home, and we were very close to home and we definitely needed to get home.  But the path to home was being blocked by six rhinos.  So we sat there and we waited. 

As if to sort of lighten the mood, one of the rhinos decides to fart really loudly and extensively.  Now, I know you're serious people here for some serious stories about serious science, but let me tell you that a farting rhino is exactly as funny as you might imagine it to be.  So lured by this sort of false sense of comedic security, our driver decides to skirt around the sleeping rhinos and make his way back home, which is a mistake because Farty McRhino does not like that one bit and gets up and walks over to us. 

Now, I say gets up and walks over -- it more like teleported.  I said rhinos are paradoxical and that also applies to their speed.  They look slow and lumbering, but they are in fact… you would be very surprised how quickly a sleeping, flat rhino can go from that position to not only on its feet but in your face. 

So it’s there and I did what any twenty-something man-child would do.  I tried to obsessively take a really good photo of it. 

I'd come prepared for this safari.  I had bought a new bridge camera, which is what you call cameras that look like they're for people who know what they're doing but are in fact designed for people who have no idea what they're doing, and I was in that latter group.  So I was sort of ineffectually pissing around with f numbers and shutter speeds and ISOs like I had any idea what any of these things were, let alone how best to use them effectively.  Fortunately, we had a lot of time in which to piss around with that because we couldn’t go anywhere and there was a giant rhino standing in front of us now. 

I had thought, as it got close, “It’s really close now.  I can get a great photo,” which was sort of the wrong thing to think because a rhino weighs around two tons.  This thing is only slightly smaller than the jeep, and it is about a body length away from us.  Its head is lowered, its horn is pointing at us. 

Now, maybe we were in no danger whatsoever.  Rhinos have very poor eyesight so maybe this thing was just checking us out.  But still, it is right there and we've already seen how quickly it can move when it wants to.  So we decided to give it a lot of respect and we are all very, very quiet.  No one particularly told us to be very quiet, but I think we all knew.  Some of us knew that rhinos make up for their poor eyesight with exceptional hearing.  And even those that didn’t were painfully aware of the fact that its ears were doing this.  One was sort of scanning around like a periscope and the other was just glued onto us. 

So we waited, and it waited, and we were very quiet.  Now, I’ve stopped trying to take a photo of it and I’m very, very present in this scene and I’m sort of understanding what is happening.  So I think to myself, “Don’t be an idiot.  Put the camera away.”  So I turn it off and it makes this noise [makes whirring noise].  And now both ears are glued upon us. 

And so we wait.  We’re very quiet and I’m not taking photos, but I am very, very cold again.  Because the now two blankets that I've wrapped around me have done pretty much all they're going to do, which means that… I don't know.  Like ten, fifteen minutes into our standoff with this rhino, with this two-ton, cantankerous, horned ninja tank with the super hearing, my teeth start doing this [teeth chatters]. 

I don't know how long we were there for. It could have been fifteen minutes, could have been twenty, half an hour, but we had no control over the situation.  I was trying my best not to make any more noise. 

It kind of reminded me of the very first time I'd been on safari several years before.  We were watching -- again, out the side of an open-sided vehicle -- a cape buffalo.  An aggressive animal with very powerful hearing.  Our driver leans over to us and says [whispering], “This is a very dangerous animal.  It has really, really good hearing so I need you all to be very, very quiet.” 

And the passenger next to me leans over and says [yelling], “What did you say?”  So we drove away really quickly. 

But with the rhino, there was no driving away.  It was blocking the way and so we had to wait.  Eventually, it gave way.  Took several steps back, and our driver takes this opportunity to try again to go around the herd.  This time, all of them get up and walk away and they disappear into the bush to do whatever rhinos do at night.  And we also disappear off to the bush into the other direction heading back to the lodge.  Me, with a very grainy photo of a rhino in my camera, mild hypothermia setting in to my limbs, and also a giant smile on my face. 

I don't remember being nervous or scared by this experience.  It was one of the most incredible wildlife encounters, or really any encounter, in my life.  For a start, I think it exemplifies how nature can very quickly turn from tedium to comedy to threat in a flash.  But it also felt like a gift because these are incredible animals. There are only like twenty thousand white rhinos left in the wild, and we got to spend our time with six of them.  And with this one animal in particular we got to take in the curve of its horn, the twitchiness of the ears, the texture of its skin, the way its breath was condensing on the cool night air. 

I think our society turns us very easily into collectors, not just of material things but of experiences and photos and knowledge and memories.  We’re always looking for the next thing to the extent that sometimes we forget about the thing that’s standing right there in front of us. 

The wonderful thing about nature is that it sometimes gives us no choice but to do that.  Whether through its beauty or its immensity or the danger it poses, it has a way of grabbing our attention and wresting it from our control.  It forces us to abandon the desire to see everything and focus on seeing just the one thing, unless that thing is an impala. 

So two days later, we are on the final drive of this safari.  Against our better judgment, we decided to pursue a leopard which has disappeared around the bend in front of us.  So our driver decides to climb up this inclined drive onto a plateau where you might be able to see the leopard looking down.  As we get to the top of the incline, we see a very large elephant that’s foraging on a tree and, again, we try and skirt around it, which is a mistake because the elephant decides to charge us and its trunk is raised and it’s trumpeting like a demon and its ears are spread out and our driver whacks the jeep into reverse.  Now, we’re going backwards, down the same incline we just drove up with this big elephant bearing down on top of us.  The driver leans out the side of the jeep and he slams his hand against the door and the thwack stops the elephant dead in its tracks. 

Now, we are stopped and it is stopped, and we are looking up at it and it is looking down on top of us with all its immensity.  Again, I am not scared.  I am not nervous.  I take one surreptitious photo with my camera that has been set to silent, and I put it away and then I take in the rest of this incredible animal.  And this time I am wearing a fucking coat. 

Part 2: Gifford Wong

Imagine a place so cold that even in the summertime the sea freezes over and all you hear are the cries of seals and penguins.  It’s summertime in the southern hemisphere and it’s a bluebird day, and all you can see is the telltale puff of Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world.  I’m kneeling next to Crystal, a female Weddell seal maybe 30 yards from a sea ice crack. 

I’m not alone.  I’m with Rob and Scott.  Rob and Scott have been researching seals for maybe 25 years between them.  And this is the first time that I've told this story because those aren’t their real names. 

Dressed in a puffy coat and Carhartts, you could say I was working outside what my mom thought was socially acceptable.  Now, I know my mom loves me, as every mother does, so let me set the scene in that moment just a few years removed from graduating undergrad. 

I grew up in California in an Asian-American household ruled by what we now call a tiger mom.  My mom is probably tiger mom light.  But I still only new three career choices: doctor, lawyer, or engineer.  I liked cars so I went the engineering route.  I went to Cal to study mechanical engineering, and about the third year, something happened. 

I learned about community engagement.  I found this tutorial service that empowered K-through-twelve students in Oakland’s Chinatown to do better in school, and I changed my major to Asian-American studies.  Mom was not thrilled.  But I wanted to serve communities so after finishing college I found AmeriCorps.  There, I met so many inspired people doing so many amazing projects across the country and learned so many valuable lessons, one of which was at a job fair in Denver.  There are seasonal jobs to be had in Antarctica.  What??? 

First opportunity I could, I applied to be a general assistant at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station.  General assistant is like the entry level job next to janitor or dishwasher, but it was like a dream come true.  If for no other reason, it got me to this marvelous city on top of this storied stage talking in front of all you beautiful people. 

For those of you who don’t know, the U.S. Antarctic Program operates three stations on the icy continent, McMurdo station, South Pole Station, and Palmer Station.  So if everyone could just do me the favor, take your left hand and make a hitchhiker’s thumb and face the palm.  This is Antarctica.  Your thumb is the Antarctic Peninsula pointing toward South America, and Palmer Station is close to the tip.  Your fingernails represent the Transantartic Mountains, which essentially splits the continent between the West Antarctic and East Antarctic ice sheets. 

South Pole Station is on the East Antarctic ice sheet near the first knuckle of your middle finger.  The Weddell Sea is the web of your hand, and the meat of your palm is the Ross Sea.  Ross Island, where McMurdo station is built and where the story takes place, is right around your ring finger’s fingernail. 

So back to Crystal.  Crystal is part of a dive study looking at how much energy seals expend when they're looking for food underneath the sea ice.  This is Rob’s project.  Crystal is also part of a larger long-term study looking at how seal populations are doing around Ross Island.  This is Scott’s project.  How did I get to work with these seal scientists as a general assistant who has no background in science?  Let’s just say Rob ran over his grad student’s leg with the camp’s snowcat, breaking her leg in the process. 

So right now, the instruments of Rob’s project that you attach to the seal that measure how quickly they move need to be detached from the seal, that’s why Rob, Scott, and I went out to Crystal in the first place. 

Now, to detach or attach these instruments, Rob has a technique that we call Flag, Bag, and Tag.  You need at least two scientists, but preferably three.  Scientist Number One takes a bamboo pole with a flag on it, stands in front of the seal, and waves it around.  This distracts the seal. 

The second scientist, or sometimes general assistant, has to take a vinyl bag with heavy-duty ropes and sneak behind the seal until you're straddling the seal and you fling the bag over the seal‘s head.  Typically, the seal will calm down inside the dark bag.  But every now and again you better hang on for the oddest eight seconds of your life until the seal stops bucking and calms down. 

With the bag still over the now calm seal’s head we introduce an anesthetic that knocks the seal momentarily out.  This is what allows us to attach and detach these instruments.  The key word, though, is momentarily.  Crystal should be breathing right now, vocalizing, moving around, maybe wandering away from us.  Instead, I’m kneeling next to a thousand-pound cow with no legs who hasn’t taken a breath in over ten minutes. 

We know this because we've been watching her, staring at her body, hoping that it would rise and fall with the action of breathing.  Scott even took off his glove and put his hand next to her nostrils to feel for breath like they do in the movies.  Nothing. 

Now, if you or I fell unresponsive and someone here called the paramedics, one of the first tests they might try is something called the sternal rub.  It’s a great way to assess whether a patient is actually unconscious or just really, really tired.  It turns out Weddell seals have a similar move.  If you rub the area on their snout between their eyes, it supposedly wakes them right up, usually. 

So Scott now kneels down, takes off his glove, rubs Crystal’s snout.  Nothing.  Scott continues to rub Crystal’s snout.  Rob and I are jumping up and down clapping, yelling.  Still nothing.  We go at this for about like a minute or two.  Scott and Rob look really, really anxious.  And I’m not the expert.  I just assist generally.  I’m just like, what’s going on?  “What’s going on?” 

So they have this conversation and basically they at least rule out -- Crystal is not dead. Because that would be a whole mountain of paperwork that no one wants to do.  The reality is they think that Crystal is just in what‘s called dive mode, and this sometimes happens when you sedate seals.  You see, seals have this flap way down their throat that when they dive, it closes, protecting their lungs from potential sea water coming in. 

Now, this flap is, like I said, way down the seal’s body.  Scott’s idea is to resuscitate Crystal by opening up her airway.  Then he says, “Well, I've never done this myself.  I've only seen my adviser do it in the field back when I was a grad student, so I have the concept in mind, but I’m not sure if I know what I’m looking for.” 

I’m sitting there thinking, “Is that all?  I mean, is there, like, CPR involved after you release the flap?”  I remember taking an EMT course and my instructor said, “CPR is only 100 percent effective on Baywatch.”  Everywhere else there's a chance that the patient will die.  In fact, CPR will more likely fail than succeed.  Again, I’m a general assistant.  I know my place, but I’m not putting my lips on that seal’s mouth.  I’m a general assistant, I’m not a seal doctor. 

Scott assures me that, once the flap is released, Crystal will breathe spontaneously.  All you have to do is tickle it.  Now, between you, me, and your high school self, when was the last time something went smoothly the first time you tried it, especially when you couldn’t see what you were doing? 

All right.  So here’s the game plan.  Scott’s going to take his arm, insert it into Crystal’s mouth, down her throat, find the flap, tickle it, saving the seal.  Rob and I have an important job also.  All we have to do is make sure Crystal doesn’t bite Scott’s arm off, because remember, Crystal is a predator, a half-ton fish-eating machine with teeth. 

So Rob takes a length of rope, climbs on top of Crystal, wraps it around her upper jaw, and pulls back.  I’m the general assistant, I get the crap job.  I get the bag with the rope handle, wrap it around Crystal’s lower jaw, which means I’m face-to-snout with Crystal on my stomach.  Not only do I feel just a little vulnerable, she just eats fish.  All that fish breath is wafting over me. 

Scott takes off his jacket, rolls his sleeve up as high as it can go, and says, “Okay.  On the count of three, I’m gonna stick my arm into Crystal’s mouth.  One, two, three.  Oh, my God!” 

So Rob jumps off, I do the snowiest tuck-and-roll in my life.  Crystal is not breathing.  We turn to Scott. “What’s up, Scott?” 

Scott says, “I thought I felt something.  Sorry, guys.  False alarm.  I’m ready. I am so ready right now.  Crystal’s not gonna die.  Okay, here we go.” 

So Rob gets back on, I get back on my stomach.  Scott’s like, “All right, guys.  One, two, three.”  Tickle, tickle, tickle.  [snorts]  Crystal’s alive!  What???  Starts breathing, starts vocalizing, and groggily slumps off towards the sea ice crack that was thirty yards away. 

I can’t believe what I just saw.  We all can’t believe what we just saw.  We just resuscitated an unconscious seal.  Right?  Like we’re jumping up and down literally like little school boys, high-fiving, “What-up?”  That’s when we decided we shouldn’t tell this story to anyone because this was kind of heavy.  The seal almost died.  But I mean, you all look trustworthy, it happened over a decade ago, and I used fake names. 

So the take-home message is obviously clear.  If you run across a seal who happens to be sedated and won’t wake up even after you rubbed her snout, don’t forget the tickle-the-flap trick. 

But since that crazy day, I've been back to Antarctica eight times, even gone to Greenland four times and earned my PhD along the way.  Mom was thrilled.  But Crystal was my first polar science adventure.  And without a doubt, she's the reason why I started my slippery slide into sciencedom.  I've traded my puffy coat and Carhartts for a suit and tie, and I work at the intersection of science, policy and diplomacy.  But you never forget your first.  Thanks, Crystal.