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4 Clever (and Kind of Sad) Ways Animals Adapt to Humans

From songbirds to manatees, some animals are taking advantage of how people change their environment.

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A female orangutan carrying a baby walks down a newly built logging road in East Kalimantan, Borneo.


Their habitat is disappearing due to widespread logging, but orangutans seem to have found at least one tiny silver lining: traveling on timber roads instead of the more challenging tree canopies.

Recently, ecologist Brent Loken set up 41 camera-trap stations in the Wehea Forest on the Indonesian island of Borneo (map). The traps were spread out across three blocks of the forest, each representing different levels of logging impact.

In all three blocks, the cameras captured images of orangutans walking. This in itself was unusual, as it was previously thought the critically endangered animals kept to the canopy whenever possible. (Watch: "Kalimantan's Orangutans.")

But most interesting was the fact that the great apes appeared to show a preference for walking along roads built by the timber industry, according to the study, published in the January issue of Oryx.

"By putting these logging roads into this area, it seems to have created opportunities for travel, which could also save energy" for the animals, said Loken, who is also the executive director of Integrated Conservation.

Of course, this isn't to say that logging is necessarily good for orangutans—just that the primates may be learning how to make the best of a bad situation.

For better or worse, it seems the orangutans are just the latest example of animals adapting to an increasingly human-dominated world.

Manatee Sauna Party

Apes aren't the only species learning some new tricks. In Florida, American manatees have found an unusual place to keep warm—the discharge pipes of coastal power plants.

Weighing up to 1,300 pounds (600 kilograms), manatees don't really have to worry about predators. However, a prolonged dose of cold weather can kill the giants, which have very little insulating body fat. (See more pictures of manatees.)

To solve this problem, manatees have long sought winter refuge in Florida's many naturally occurring warm water springs. But somewhere along the way, they learned that power plants are even more cozy.

These facilities draw in water to cool their steam-generation units, and once they're done with it, the now-warm water is funneled back into canals and other waterways. Somewhere along the way, manatees have discovered that the water coming out of these pipes is even warmer than their ancestral springs.

"If you're a manatee and it's cold out and you have a choice between a nice warm bath and a sauna, many of the animals are going to pick the sauna," said Ron Mezich, a biological administrator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Some power plants host more than one thousand manatees a day, though three to four hundred is more typical.

Unfortunately for the manatees, their new trick won't work forever. These kinds of power plants are outdated and may one day be forced to close.

Mezich said scientists hope to find ways to wean the animals off the artificial hot spots before they go away completely. (See "How Did Manatees Inspire Mermaid Legends?")

Free Food for Eurasian Blackcaps

The Eurasian blackcap, a songbird native to Germany and Austria, typically winters in Spain. But over the past few decades, some of the birds have chosen to fly to the United Kingdom instead.

Why would a bird choose blustery Britain over balmy Spain?

Well, for one, the U.K. is full of bird lovers who dutifully stock backyard bird feeders. The isles are also closer to the blackcaps' home in Germany, but if not for the artificial food source, the runaways probably wouldn't survive the trip. (Also see "Why Backyard Birds Are Getting Drunk on Fermented Berries.")

A 2009 paper in Current Biology found that blackcaps that winter together also tend to mate together, and this may be leading to two distinct breeding populations.

The shortcut birds have even begun to display different features, including rounder wings and narrower beaks.

Global Warming Benefits

Of course, one of the greatest impacts we've had is to the planet's climate. And while changing temperatures threaten the very existence of some creatures-polar bears and pupfish, for instance-a few species may make out like bandits.

A 2012 study in Science found that new, stronger wind patterns seem to allow albatrosses to make shorter foraging trips, which may lead to fatter birds and better reproductive success.

Similarly, another Science study from the same year showed that warmer conditions allow brown argus butterflies to lay more eggs.

And the butterflies aren't alone. From pink sea slugs and pine beetles to nine-banded armadillos, myriad animals appear to be expanding their known ranges as a result of global warming.

The Great Unknown

Clearly, some animals adapt to the human footprint better than others. But the more we change the ecosystems around us, the more we force animals to change their time-honored survival strategies. (See "7 Species Hit Hard by Climate Change-Including One That's Already Extinct.")

"Although it seems like they are opportunistic and resilient to some level of disturbance," said Loken, "what we don't know is how much disturbance they can actually handle."

Loken was talking about orangutans and logging, but given the rate at which we're remaking the planet, it seems a fair caveat for all creatures.

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