Do you have a loony question about loons? Need the dirt on mudbugs? Something about monkeys driving you bananas?
Welcome back to Ask Your Weird Animal Questions, your weekly opportunity to get your questions about odd animal phenomena answered. This week we’re tackling a big issue: the giants of the animal kingdom.
Can We Make Synthetic Tusks?
Our first question is about rhinos and elephants, which are huge animals with shrinking populations due to black market trade in rhino horns and elephant tusks. (Related: “Rhino Wars” in National Geographic magazine.)An Asian elephant with one tusk stands in Kaziranga National Park in 2013. Photograph by Anupam Nath, AP
Christie Day from Bradford, Connecticut, asked us whether technology that allows for the bioengineering of human teeth could “be used to create authentic elephant and rhino tusk material to help break up the black market for tusks?”
For the tech on tusks, we emailed Paul Sharpe, Dickinson Professor of Craniofacial Biology at King’s College London, who recently helped develop a method to replace teeth with cells from a person’s own gums.
Elephant tusks are modified teeth—which contain mineralized tissues, dentine, and enamel—and it’s theoretically possible to make a lab-grown tooth “if the right cells could be obtained,” Sharpe said.
“But, as with all organs, size comes from time,” he cautioned. “To grow something the size of even a small tusk would be impossible in the lab, because increased size requires increased nutrients and oxygen that are normally provided by the bloodstream.”
Rhino horns are markedly different than tusks: They’re made of keratin, like our fingernails, horse hooves, and porcupine quills. Since consumers of rhino horn in Asia typically use it as a medicinal powder, some other form of keratin could be used as a replacement powder, he noted.
But some conservationists don’t think synthetics will help the larger problem of wildlife trade.
“Whether a synthetic can be produced or not, we do not agree with perpetuating the idea of rhino horn as medicine,” Kathleen Garrigan of the African Wildlife Foundation in an email Garrigan said that rhino horn has not been shown to have any curative power.
What Really Happened During Elephant Photobomb?
Speaking of elephants, readers loved our story about the African bull elephant that photobombed tourists at the Imire Rhino and Wildlife Conservation area in Zimbabwe. One of those tourists was Deb Salzburger of Tasmania, who I took the writer’s prerogative to ask: What were you focusing on while the elephant snuck up behind?
Salzburger saidthat the group had been photographing the wildlife keepers, with whom they had become friends. Unbeknownst to them, a keeper lured one of the elephants the group had previously photographed to come up behind them, Marcus Soderland, who snapped the shot, told News Corp Australia.
“I do remember turning around and seeing the elephant and was surprised to see it back, and thought cheeky bugga!” Salzburger said by email.
Though she never imagined the picture would go viral, “I am glad—it makes my memories of Africa even more special.”
What Do the Giant Centipedes Eat?
Moving on to mega-size animals on a micro scale, Patty from Portland, Oregon, had a question about the diet of Madagascar’s giant centipede.
Like their counterparts in South America, both Madagascar species eat insects, worms, snails, lizards, and sometimes whatever happens to be there.
“There is indeed a giant centipede in Venezuela that feeds on bats that fly too close!” Marek said. (Check out a video of a Madagascar centipede going for an iguana.)
How Old Was World’s Biggest Crocodile?
Lolong, a 20.24-foot-long (6.17-meter-long) saltwater crocodile, had been confirmed as the world’s largest before he died in the Philippines last year. Hans Parel asked in the post comments how old the record-breaking reptile was when it died.
According to Guinness World Records, which certified Lolong’s length, he was about 50 years old. A saltwater crocodile’s average life span in the wild is about 70 years.
Have a big question about any animal? Leave your questions in the comments or tweet me at @LizLangley.