No matter where you look, just about every creature
is obsessed with:
sex, real estate, who's the boss, and what's for dinner.
43 Animal Intelligence News Articles
from September of 2017
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
9-29-17 An octopus ‘city’
An octopus ‘city’
Scientists’ long-held belief that octopuses are solitary creatures has been upended by the discovery of a thriving octopus “city” off the coast of eastern Australia. A team of marine biologists came across the community while diving in Jervis Bay, south of Sydney. Dubbed Octlantis, the octopus settlement consists of small “dens” engineered from sand and shells, and is home to at least 15 members of the “gloomy octopus” species (Octopus tetricus). Using underwater cameras, the researchers have observed these cephalopods congregating, communicating, and even evicting one another. Octlantis isn’t the first octopus city scientists have found, reports Qz.com. Another site, Octopolis, was discovered in Jervis Bay eight years ago, but marine biologists assumed it was an anomaly, because the cephalopods were gathering around an unidentifiable man-made object. The discovery of Octlantis, which has no such focal point, suggests the mollusks may be more drawn to community than previously believed. “These behaviors are the product of natural selection,” says lead researcher David Scheel, from Alaska Pacific University, “and may be remarkably similar to vertebrate complex social behavior.”
9-29-17 Tsunami drives species 'army' across Pacific to US coast
Tsunami drives species 'army' across Pacific to US coast
Scientists have detected hundreds of Japanese marine species on US coasts, swept across the Pacific by the deadly 2011 tsunami. Mussels, starfish and dozens of other creatures great and small travelled across the waters, often on pieces of plastic debris. Researchers were surprised that so many survived the long crossing, with new species still washing up in 2017. The study is published in the journal Science. The powerful earthquake that shook north-eastern Japan in March 2011 triggered a huge tsunami that reached almost 39m in height on the Tohoku coast of Honshu. The towering waves washed hundreds of objects out to sea, ranging in size from tiny pieces of plastic to fishing boats and docks. A year later, scientists began finding tsunami debris with living creatures still attached, washing up on the shores of Hawaii and the western US coast from Alaska down to California. "Many hundreds of thousands of individuals were transported and arrived in North America and the Hawaiian islands - most of those species were never before on our radar as being transported across the ocean on marine debris," lead author Prof James Carlton, from Williams College and Mystic Seaport, told BBC News.
9-28-17 Hundreds of Japanese species floated to the US on tsunami debris
Hundreds of Japanese species floated to the US on tsunami debris
The 2011 Tohoku tsunami swept vast amounts of debris out into the Pacific, carrying over 280 species across to America. Hundreds of marine animals have made an epic 7000-kilometre trip across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to the US. They simply hitched rides on the myriad boats and debris swept up by the massive Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011. A marine wildlife census under way since 2012 has now documented 289 species arriving this way, including fish, mussels, barnacles, sea slugs, anemones, sea stars, crabs, clams and sponges – all native to Japanese waters. Some fish survived for years in water-filled troughs on fishing boats, which somehow avoided overturning. They include banded knifejaws and yellowtail amberjacks, some of them up to 60 centimetres long. “They had just enough food to keep going, but they were pretty emaciated on arrival,” says James Carlton of Williams College in Massachusetts, who set up the census. Since he knew when the tsunami happened, he could tell how long the debris stayed at sea, which stowaways thrived, and how long it took them to reach the US. Many of the stowaways were adrift for years, clinging to upturned boats, tsunami buoys and other flotsam.
9-28-17 Castaway critters rafted to U.S. shores aboard Japan tsunami debris
Castaway critters rafted to U.S. shores aboard Japan tsunami debris
Close to 300 living marine species traveled on debris from the 2011 tsunami. The 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan’s coast cast an enormous amount of debris out to sea — way out. Japanese marine life took advantage of the new floating real estate and booked a one-way trip to America. From 2012 to 2017, at least 289 living Japanese marine species washed up on the shores of North America and Hawaii, hitching rides on fishing boats, docks, buoys, crates and other nonbiodegradable objects, a team of U.S. researchers report in the Sept. 29 Science. Organisms that surprisingly survived the harsh 7,000-kilometer journey across the Pacific Ocean on 634 items of tsunami debris ranged from 52-centimeter-long fish (a Western Pacific yellowtail amberjack) to microscopic single-celled protists. About 65 percent of the species have never been seen in North America’s Pacific waters. If these newcomers become established, they have the potential to become invasive, disrupting native marine habitats, says study coauthor James Carlton, a marine scientist at Williams College in Mystic, Conn.
9-28-17 New species of giant rat discovered on the Solomon Islands
New species of giant rat discovered on the Solomon Islands
A new species of rat, four times larger than regular rodents, has been discovered on the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The creature, stretching almost half a metre (19in) in length, lives among the trees and survives on nuts that it cracks open with its teeth. The Solomons are already home to eight other species of rat, but this is the first new discovery in 80 years. The new variety, named Uromys vika, has long been spoken of in island folklore. Located about 1,800km (1,100 miles) off the coast of Australia, the chain of islands that make up the Solomons is biologically isolated. Most of the mammals that live there are found nowhere else on Earth.
9-27-17 Packs of killer penguins herd fish into balls then pick them off
Packs of killer penguins herd fish into balls then pick them off
Cameras strapped to African penguins reveal that the birds team up to hunt shoals of fish, suggesting they are both smart and highly cooperative. Birds of a feather fish together – if they’re African penguins. By doing so they catch more food while expending less energy. African penguins were believed to forage in groups, but nobody had ever seen them hunt underwater. To find out how they catch common fish in their habitat, like schools of sardines and anchovies, Alistair McInnes of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa, and colleagues attached cameras to 12 of the birds. On most dives the penguins pursued single fish, but sometimes they teamed up for bigger rewards. Groups of penguins were seen herding schools of fish towards the surface, corralling them into a “bait ball”. Any fish trying to escape would peel off from the group, making them easy prey. The penguins’ plumage – black on the back, white at the front – probably makes it difficult for the fish to see them coming from below. The researchers calculated how efficient the penguins were by dividing the number of fish caught by the time spent foraging. When hunting a school of fish as a group, penguins were 2.7 times as efficient as when they attacked on their own. Foraging in groups can be beneficial in different ways. At the simplest level, animals like swordfish collaborate to slash at fish with their bills, killing more fish this way. At a more sophisticated level, creatures like dolphins communicate and coordinate their activity. Penguins aren’t cooperating like dolphins, but they may be more advanced than swordfish, says McInnes. At the surface, they communicate to find other birds and synchronise their dives.
9-27-17 ‘Invasive’ snake is really a new species and should be protected
‘Invasive’ snake is really a new species and should be protected
DNA analysis reveals that the cobra-preta snake, which was threatened with extermination as a pest, is actually unique to the West African island of São Tomé. On an island off the coast of West Africa lives a deadly snake. Pictured above, it was thought to be an introduced species and plans were afoot to wipe it out. Now it turns out to be a species unique to the island, one that should be conserved. The cobra-preta, as local people call it (the name is Portuguese for “black snake”), lives on São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea. The people also have a saying about it: homem mordido, homem perdido, or “man bitten, man lost”. The cobra-preta was long thought to be the forest cobra (Naja melanoleuca), a black snake with a mottled white collar, found in mainland Africa. Regarded as the largest cobra in the world, the forest cobra can reach 3 metres in length. The story was that Portuguese farmers introduced the cobra-preta to São Tomé to control rats. This seemed odd to Luis Ceríaco of Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “Why would you introduce the deadliest snake in Africa to an island?” he asks. Ceríaco found a report from 1540, which included an account of a visit to São Tomé by a Portuguese explorer in 1506, when it was being colonised. The explorer described a black snake that was “so venomous that when it bites a man, his eyes will explode out of the head and he will die”. That was undoubtedly the cobra-preta, Ceríaco says, albeit depicted with eye-popping hyperbole.
9-27-17 Serving shark fin soup in the US can actually be good for sharks
Serving shark fin soup in the US can actually be good for sharks
A proposed US ban on the sale of shark fins could backfire and make life worse for some of the planet's most imperilled species, says Lesley Evans Ogden. One of the most controversial and hotly debated topics in shark conservation is finning – cutting off a shark’s fins and dumping its body at sea. US law already bans this and requires that sharks caught in its waters be landed and documented before fins can be removed for sale. Despite this, illegal finning does go on there, while caterers and restaurants are still free to dish up the Asian delicacy shark fin soup. Finning is a practice that scientists, environmentalists and animal welfare advocates alike all see as inhumane and wasteful – animals are left to bleed to death or suffocate. But that’s often where agreement ends. Among scientists, there is growing division over a proposal before the US Congress to ban trade in fins within US borders. Some think this would be a bad idea, harming conservation efforts. They include David Shiffman at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and Bob Hueter of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, who question the proposal in a recent paper. While applauding its goal – saving threatened species -they conclude a blanket prohibition on possessing, buying or selling fins in the US is unwise. They argue that this would undermine decades of progress towards sustainable shark fisheries there and elsewhere. The US has some of the most sustainable shark fisheries in the world and they would be less financially viable if unable to sell fins. Other than the Atlantic spiny dogfish catch, certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, all other fins from US catches, which are recognised as sustainable by other bodies, would have to be binned. (Webmaster's comment: As always a twisted logic is used for killing living creatues for just a small amount of the usable meat. At least if a lion eats you they eat the whole thing!)
9-25-17 Alligators versus sharks: Who wins this ultimate showdown?
Alligators versus sharks: Who wins this ultimate showdown?
A review of historical accounts shows there have been several alligator-on-shark grudge matches, hinting at an unlikely food source. It’s the aquatic battle royale. A previously overlooked conflict between alligators and sharks has been going on for centuries at least, and it seems the alligators are winning. James Nifong at Kansas State University has studied American alligators in marine habitats for the past decade. A keen fisherman, Nifong noticed he was catching a lot of sharks in alligator country, and wondered whether the two predators ever interacted. “Alligators are opportunistic,” he says. “They’re not going to pass up a big chunk of protein that’s swimming by.” However, the only previous evidence of alligators eating elasmobranchs – the group to which sharks and rays belong – was an individual with stingray spines in its jaw. Nifong searched the scientific and historical literature, and consulted experts on alligators and sharks. He found confirmed instances of alligators eating lemon, nurse and bonnethead sharks, as well as an Atlantic stingray. He says sharks and other elasmobranch fish could be a significant but underappreciated food source for alligators. “Gators will eat almost anything that will fit in their mouths,” agrees Steven Gabrey at the Northwestern State University of Louisiana. But he has analysed the contents of many alligator stomachs and never found shark remains. Nifong says that might be because Gabrey’s alligators lived in marshes far from salt water, so were less likely to encounter sharks. Alligators also have highly acidic stomachs, which could dissolve the cartilaginous skeletons of sharks with little trace.
9-22-17 New Zealand’s iconic kiwi birds may be losing their sight
New Zealand’s iconic kiwi birds may be losing their sight
Three Okarito brown kiwis living wild in New Zealand are completely blind but in good physical condition, suggesting the species is evolving to lose its sight. Not all birds need to see. Blind but perfectly healthy kiwis have been found living in New Zealand. The flightless nocturnal birds may be evolving to lose their eyesight altogether, suggest the researchers. The blind kiwis seem able to survive just as well using other senses such as touch, smell and hearing, so maintaining good eyesight might be a waste of energy. The blind birds were discovered during a study of 160 Okarito brown kiwis (Apteryx rowi) found in the Okarito forest on New Zealand’s South Island. “We found a very high prevalence of birds with eye lesions,” says Alan Tennyson at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. “A third of them had eye problems.” But the biggest surprise was chancing upon three sightless birds. “The finding of completely blind birds in good physical condition was absolutely stunning,” says team member Christopher Murphy at the University of California, Davis. “No other birds are known to have a free-living population of blind [individuals],” says Tennyson. But plenty of other animals, such as moles and cave-dwelling fish, have evolved blindness. “Vision is not essential for survival in all animals.” The discovery could help explain how species lose their sense of sight, a process called regressive evolution.
9-22-17 The way poison frogs keep from poisoning themselves is complicated
The way poison frogs keep from poisoning themselves is complicated
Genetic change that protects from a toxin can cause ripple effects. The potent toxin epibatidine was first discovered in 1974, when it was isolated from the skin of the phantasmal poison frog, Epipedobates anthonyi. For some poison dart frogs, gaining resistance to one of their own toxins came with a price. The genetic change that gives one group of frogs immunity to a particularly lethal toxin also disrupts a key chemical messenger in the brain. But the frogs have managed to sidestep the potentially damaging side effect through other genetic tweaks, researchers report in the Sept. 22 Science. While other studies have identified genetic changes that give frogs resistance to particular toxins, this study “lets you look under the hood” to see the full effects of those changes and how the frogs are compensating, says Butch Brodie, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who wasn’t involved in the research. Many poison dart frogs carry cocktails of toxic alkaloid molecules in their skin as a defense against predators (SN Online: 3/24/14). These toxins, picked up through the frogs’ diets, vary by species. Here, researchers studied frogs that carry epibatidine, a substance so poisonous that just a few millionths of a gram can kill a mouse.
9-21-17 Even jellyfish get sluggish if they don’t have enough sleep
Even jellyfish get sluggish if they don’t have enough sleep
Jellyfish show all the signs of going to sleep, even though they do not have brains – which were thought to be an essential requirement for slumber. Birds do it, bees do it, even enervated fleas do it. Sleep is widely believed to be common to all animals with a central nervous system, but it turns out to be even more ubiquitous than that. Jellyfish have been found to enter a sleep-like state at night, and become dozy the next day if their rest is interrupted. This is remarkable for an animal with a simple, diffuse nervous system and no centralised brain. Sleep has been studied in fruit flies and nematode worms, but even they are relatively complex compared with jellyfish. The findings push the origins of slumber further back in our evolutionary past. Cassiopea, also called upside-down jellyfish, are found in shallow seas throughout the tropics. They rarely swim, instead resting their bell on a surface and pointing their tentacles upwards. They continuously pulse by contracting and relaxing their bell about once a second, generating currents that help them to feed and get rid of waste. Ravi Nath and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena observed 23 Cassiopea continuously for six days and nights. They tested whether they met the three standard criteria for being asleep: being less active, being less responsive to stimuli, and becoming tired if they are deprived of rest. They found that the jellyfish were less active at night, pulsing 32 per cent more slowly than during the day. However, if the jellyfish were presented with a food stimulus during the night, they quickly returned to daytime levels of activity.
9-20-17 How bats could help tomato farmers (and the U.S. Navy)
How bats could help tomato farmers (and the U.S. Navy)
Researchers are learning from the flying echolocators to improve undersea sonar and even harvest planning. The U.S. Navy uses sonar to image underwater objects and obstacles, such as this shipwreck in Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. Taking inspiration from bats, naval researchers hope to get sharper images with smaller, cheaper sonar equipment. Bats, with their superb ability to echolocate, are inspiring advanced technologies — from better Navy sonar to gadgets that might deliver packages or help farmers manage crops. And engineers aren’t waiting for neuroscientists to work out every detail of how the bats’ brains manage the task. “We think we have enough information to be useful to us, to develop a bio-inspired sensor,” says research engineer Jason Gaudette of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Newport Division in Rhode Island. Like bats, the Navy uses sonar to find and visualize objects in the deep. But current versions are far less elegant than the flying mammals’ system. The Institute of Agricultural Engineering in Israel is testing algorithms inspired by bat echolocation to count leaves and fruit. Ultimately, the system might help farmers better plan for harvest. The Navy’s sonar arrays can be huge, encompassing hundreds of “ears” that listen for sonar pings from atop a submarine’s dome or trailing behind it in a long tail. Bats, Gaudette notes, dodge obstacles and find mosquito-sized meals with just two ears. He and colleagues have developed a bat-inspired prototype device that they hope can perform more like bats do. Mounted on the nose of a half-meter-long, torpedo-shaped autonomous undersea robot, the sonar system has one sound transmitter and three receivers (Gaudette hopes to eventually get that number down to two or even one).
9-20-17 Bat brain signals illuminate navigation in the dark
Bat brain signals illuminate navigation in the dark
With new tech, researchers track nerve cell activity as bats dodge and weave. Big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) participate in experiments at Johns Hopkins University’s high-tech bat laboratory. Ninad Kothari’s workplace looks like something out of a sci-fi film. The graduate student at Johns Hopkins University works in a darkened, red-lit room, where he trains bats to fly through obstacle courses. Shielding within the walls keeps radio and other human-made signals from interfering with transmissions from the tiny electrical signals he’s recording from the bats’ brains as the animals bob and weave. Layers of foam further insulate the cavelike lab against sound waves. An array of cameras and microphones complete the futuristic scene. The high-tech setup has its homemade touches, too: In one obstacle course, bats dodge dangling Quaker oatmeal cylinders. Kothari is part of a small cadre of neuroscientists who are getting the best sense yet of how bat brains work at a cellular level, thanks to modern technologies. Eavesdropping tools, which rely on tiny probes that track the activities of individual nerve cells, or neurons, are now miniaturized enough to outfit bats with head-mounted, wireless sensors. As the animals fly freely around the lab, the researchers can listen in on neurons. Pallid bats, named for the pale fur on their bellies, are gleaners. They use their large ears to listen for rustling prey — beetles, crickets or other crawlers — and zoom down to pick them off the ground.
9-20-17 Nature offers inspiration, and occasionally courage
Nature offers inspiration, and occasionally courage
When Donald Griffin and Robert Galambos first reported that bats use the ricocheting echoes of sound waves to pilot through the environment, some scientists doubted it was possible. The team’s experiments, conducted in the late 1930s at Harvard University and reported in the early 1940s, coincided with World War II and the proliferation of active sonar systems for use on ships and submarines. “The notion that bats might do anything even remotely analogous to the latest triumphs of electronic engineering struck most people as not only implausible but emotionally repugnant,” Griffin later said. But Griffin disagreed. In 1944 in an issue of Science, he proposed the term “echolocation” to cover not only “locating obstacles by means of echoes” in bats, but also by people, including via radar, fathometers and submarines using “apparatus working on the same basic principles.” The word “echolocation” didn’t replace existing technical terms — in fact, it’s sometimes called “biosonar” — but the scientific community quickly came around. Today, a lot of neuroscientists have a deep respect for bats’ impressive abilities, and some are studying how bat brains process the signals necessary for navigating, as freelance writer Amber Dance reports. These insights might lead to improvements to sonar, as well as new, bat-inspired technologies. It makes sense: Humans have been perfecting sonar for more than a century, but evolution has been honing echolocation for much, much longer.
9-20-17 This newfound hermit crab finds shelter in corals, not shells
This newfound hermit crab finds shelter in corals, not shells
Symbiotic find is surprising as these corals already pal up with another critter: marine worms. A newly discovered hermit crab species is the first known to use mobile corals as a covering, rather than scavenged shells. A new species of hermit crab discovered in the shallow waters of southern Japan has been enjoying the perks of living like a peanut worm. Like the worms, the 7- to 8-millimeter-long hermit crab uses corals as a covering, researchers report September 20 in PLOS ONE. Other kinds of hermit crabs live in coral reefs, but typically move in and out of a series of mollusk shells as the crabs grow. Diogenes heteropsammicola is the first hermit crab known to form a mutually beneficial relationship with two species of mobile corals called walking corals. The host coral grows with the crab, providing a permanent home for the crustacean. In exchange, the crab helps the coral “walk.” Walking corals are already known to be in a symbiotic relationship with a different sea creature — flexible, marine peanut worms called sipunculids. A symbiotic shift between such distantly related species as the worms and the crab is rare because organisms in a mutualistic relationship tend to be specialized and completely dependent on one other, says study coauthor Momoko Igawa, an ecologist at Kyoto University in Japan. But similar to the worms, D. heteropsammicola appears to be well-adapted to live in the corals. Its extra slim body can slip inside the corals’ narrow cavity. And unlike other hermit crabs — whose tails curve to the right to fit into spiral shells — D. heteropsammicola’s tail is symmetrical and can curl either way, just like the corals’ opening.
9-20-17 Robots can hitch-hike on sharks thanks to ultrastrong sucker
Robots can hitch-hike on sharks thanks to ultrastrong sucker
A suction cup modelled on how a strange faeces-eater attaches to other fish can withstand a pull of 340 times its weight, letting robots ride sharks and whales. Who are you calling a sucker? Underwater robots could soon hitch rides on sharks and whales thanks to a fish-inspired suction cup that clamps on to shark skin and other surfaces. “Scientists could record data by attaching this robot to animals without hurting them,” says Li Wen at Beihang University in China, whose team developed the sucker. It is designed to cling to a moving surface, like a shark, even as it twists and turns at high speed. The design for Wen’s robotic suction cup is inspired by the slender sharksucker – a marine fish that attaches itself to sharks, rays and turtles using a sucking disc on its head. In the wild, the sharksucker hitch-hikes rides on hosts so it can snack on food scraps, faeces and the crustaceans that live on marine animals, all while expending minimal energy. Hitch-hiking like this on sharks and whales could offer an improvement on existing ways of tracking and tagging animals, which are criticised for possibly causing harm, or for being ineffective as sensors fall off. Saving energy while swimming is big deal for robots too. The handful of existing types of swimming robots aren’t very fast on their fins. Earlier this year, researchers developed a robotic stingray that can reach top speeds of 6 centimetres per second. While slower than even very small fish, it is a recording-breaking pace for robots of its kind.
9-20-17 Owls hold secret to ageless ears
Owls hold secret to ageless ears
Barn owls keep their acute sense of hearing into old age, scientists have discovered. Previously, starlings have been found to have this ability, suggesting birds are protected from age-related hearing loss. Understanding more about the "ageless ears" of barn owls could help develop new treatments for human hearing problems. Birds are able to naturally repair damage to the inner ear. Georg Klump of the University of Oldenburg, Germany, a researcher on the study, said owls keep their hearing into very old age. "Birds can repair their ears like (humans) can repair a wound," he said. "Humans cannot re-grow the sensory cells of the ears but birds can do this." It appears that humans lost these regenerative abilities at some point in evolution. Like all mammals, people commonly suffer from hearing loss in old age. By the age of 65, humans can expect to lose more than 30 dB in sensitivity at high frequencies. Commenting on the study, Dr Stefan Heller of Stanford University School of Medicine, said work was underway to investigate differences between birds and mammals. "To truly utilise this knowledge, we need to conduct comparative studies of birds and mammals that aim to find the differences in regenerative capacity, a topic that is actively pursued by a number of laboratories worldwide," he said. The research, published in the journal, Royal Society Proceedings B, was carried out on seven captive barn owls.
9-19-17 Old barn owls aren’t hard of hearing
Old barn owls aren’t hard of hearing
Barn owls’ hearing may not deteriorate over time the same way human hearing does, a new study suggests. Barn owl ears age well. Unlike other animals, the birds don’t suffer from hearing loss as a hallmark of aging, a new study suggests. Beyond people, age-related hearing loss has been documented in mice, gerbils and chinchillas. Those deficits are linked to deterioration of the tiny hair cells that line the sensory layer of the eardrum. But some evidence hints that birds may not suffer from dips in hearing. Bianca Krumm and her colleagues at the University of Oldenburg in Germany tested the ear sensitivity of seven barn owls (Tyto alba) grouped by age. There weren’t significant differences in what 2-year-old owls could hear versus those age 13 or older, suggesting the birds’ ears remain intact despite age, the researchers conclude September 20 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. While the exact mechanism for this apparent ear agelessness remains elusive, the researchers suspect that the birds must continuously regenerate sensory ear tissue — a process that wanes with age in other species.
9-19-17 Tool-wielding monkeys push local shellfish to edge of extinction
Tool-wielding monkeys push local shellfish to edge of extinction
Long-tailed macaques on an island in Thailand are doing such a good job of cracking shellfish with stone tools, they are driving down their prey's numbers and body size. HUMANS aren’t the only primate to have pushed their prey towards extinction. Monkeys have also over-exploited animals for food. Long-tailed macaques forage for shellfish on islands off Thailand, then crack them open with stone tools. They target the largest rock oysters, bludgeoning them with stone hammers, and pry open the meatiest snail and crab shells with the flattened edges of their tools. These macaques are one of three primates that use stone tools, alongside chimpanzees in Africa and bearded capuchins in South America. “Stone tools open up an opportunity for foods they otherwise wouldn’t even be able to harvest,” says Lydia Luncz at the University of Oxford. Luncz wanted to investigate the impact of the monkeys’ shellfish snacking on the prey themselves. Her team followed 18 macaques on their daily foraging routes along the shores of Koram and NomSao, two neighbouring islands off eastern Thailand, recording their tool selection and use. On Koram – the more densely populated island, home to 80 macaques compared with NomSao’s nine – Luncz’s group saw not only smaller oysters and snails, but also fewer of each species. Multiple prey species were less abundant on Koram than NomSao, with four times as many tropical periwinkles on NomSao as on Koram (eLife, doi.org/cc7d). “It’s been shown that systematic predation causes prey of smaller size,” says Nathaniel Dominy at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The oysters on Koram were about 70 per cent smaller than their counterparts on NomSao, and the periwinkles were less than half the size. A single tool-using monkey on Koram can eat over 40 shellfish a day, so Luncz’s group thinks this predation pressure is driving these shellfish changes.
9-18-17 Sacrificial virgin spiders let their nieces eat them alive
Sacrificial virgin spiders let their nieces eat them alive
In one species of spider, unmated females not only care for other spiders’ offspring, they allow the tiny spiderlings to devour their insides. It takes a lot to be a good aunt if you’re a velvet spider. In fact, it takes your internal organs. After tending lovingly to your sisters’ eggs and regurgitating food for newborns, it’s time to offer yourself as the main course for the spiderlings to suck you dry. “[The] spiders literally start feeding on the female while she is alive,” says Trine Bilde at Aarhus University in Denmark. The spiderlings inject enzymes to dissolve her innards and suck out the semi-digested fluids, leaving only the outer shell. “But there is no apparent aggression. It looks as if females are almost inviting spiderlings to feed on them.” S. dumicola are social spiders that live in large communal nests. Hundreds cooperate to capture prey, defend the nest and take care of the young. The nest is a dense retreat of silk and plant material, with two-dimensional webs to catch prey. Each spider only lives for a year, so can only reproduce once. In the closely related species S. lineatus, only mated females care for spiderlings. In these spiders, the act of mating seems to cause females to care for other offspring as well as their own – an act called “alloparenting”. However, there are limits: they only let their own spiderlings eat them. Letting your kids eat you is a surprisingly common behaviour known as “matriphagy”.
9-17-17 ‘Big Chicken’ chronicles the public health dangers of using antibiotics in farming
‘Big Chicken’ chronicles the public health dangers of using antibiotics in farming
Efforts to raise bigger birds unwittingly spawned drug resistance in bacteria. Thanks in large part to antibiotics, chicken production has become heavily industrialized, as detailed in a new book. ournalist Maryn McKenna opens Big Chicken by teasing our taste buds with a description of the succulent roasted chickens she bought at an open-air market in Paris. The birds tasted nothing like the bland, uniform chicken offered at U.S. grocery stores. This meat had an earthy, lush, animal flavor. From this tantalizing oh-so-European tableau, McKenna hits us with a sickening contrast — scientists chasing outbreaks of drug-resistant Salmonella infections in humans, and ailing chickens living in crowded conditions and never seeing the light of day. Antibiotics are at the root of both nightmares, McKenna argues. She draws clear connections between several dramatic foodborne outbreaks and the industrialization of chicken production, made possible, in large part, by the heavy use of the drugs. That reliance on antibiotics has also spurred the rise of drug-resistant bacteria. In fact, the overuse of antibiotics in livestock is a bigger driver of resistance than the overuse of antibiotics in people. Farmers began using the drugs after studies in the 1940s showed that antibiotics boosted muscle mass. For chickens, that meant the birds got bigger and grew faster with less feed. Today, a meat chicken weighs twice what it did 70 years ago at slaughter and reaches that weight in half the time. Once farmers saw opportunity for growth and packed more birds into barns, the drugs took on a new role: to protect crowded animals from illness.
9-17-17 Why is it so hard to swat a fly?
Why is it so hard to swat a fly?
Try to swat a fly and it will soon become clear that they're faster than you. Much faster. But how on Earth do these tiny creatures - with their minuscule brains - outwit us so easily? You've probably pondered it after chasing a fly around your house and flailing your shoe with repeated, unsuccessful swats. How does it move so fast? Can it read my mind? It was the question put to the BBC World Service CrowdScience team for our most recent episode addressing the apparent super powers of tiny animals. The answer is that, compared with you and me, flies essentially see the world in slow motion. To illustrate this, have a look at a clock with a ticking hand. As a human, you see the clock ticking at a particular speed. But for a turtle it would appear to be ticking at twice that speed. For most fly species, each tick would drag by about four times more slowly. In effect, the speed of time differs depending on your species. This happens because animals see the world around them like a continuous video. But in reality, they piece together images sent from the eyes to the brain in distinct flashes a set number of times per second. Humans average 60 flashes per second, turtles 15, and flies 250. The speed at which those images are processed by the brain is called the "flicker fusion rate". In general, the smaller the species, the faster its critical flicker fusion rate - and flies, in particular, put us to shame. Professor Roger Hardie, from the University of Cambridge, investigates how flies' eyes work, and he has an experiment to determine their flicker fusion rate. "The flicker fusion rate is simply how fast a light has to be turning on and off before it's perceived or seen as just a continuous light" says Prof Hardie. (Webmaster's comment: It's just evolution at work. Their survival depends on seeing movements faster than animals that might harm them so after millions of years of evolution they have evolved a very fast flicker fusion rate.)
9-15-17 There are hardly any old fish left in the ocean – and that’s bad
There are hardly any old fish left in the ocean – and that’s bad
Industrial fishing has disproportionately removed older fish, which tend to be the most adaptable individuals that can best survive environmental change. There are not just fewer fish in the sea: there are disproportionately fewer old fish. A study of fisheries in the seas around the US and Europe has found that their populations of ageing fish have been reduced by an average of 72 per cent. The researchers looked at 63 fisheries, which had records spanning 24-140 years. To determine the age of fish, they used several techniques including examining otoliths: “stones” in the fish’s ears that grow annual rings rather like a tree. “The new statistics revealed that the reduction of older fish populations had actually increased by 180 per cent,” says lead author Lewis Barnett of the University of Washington in Seattle. In some species, such as Pacific cod, Pacific hake, red snapper and Atlantic cod, the populations of older individuals have fallen by more than 95 per cent. A 2010 study that looked at the data from 10 fisheries found declines in the aged population of only 25 per cent. A key difference is that Barnett’s team used models to estimate what the populations were like before large-scale fishing began decades or centuries ago, and compared that to their current state – revealing the starker decline in the population of old fish. Losing older fish may not sound problematic, because older fish might be past the age of reproduction and even on the verge of death. But in fact, old fish tend to be the largest and produce the most offspring. They are also the most flexible in their behaviour, so they can adapt better to environmental changes.
9-14-17 A researcher reveals the shocking truth about electric eels
A researcher reveals the shocking truth about electric eels
Electrical current of a real-life recipient of the fish’s leap attack is measured for the first time. A electric eel may be relatively small, but the pain from its shock is comparable to that from an electric fence, a researcher has learned. Kenneth Catania knows just how much it hurts to be zapped by an electric eel. For the first time, the biologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville has measured the strength of a defensive electrical attack on a real-life potential predator — himself. Catania placed his arm in a tank with a 40-centimeter-long electric eel (relatively small as eels go) and determined, in amperes, the electrical current that flowed into him when the eel struck. At its peak, the current reached 40 to 50 milliamperes in his arm, he reports online September 14 in Current Biology. This zap was painful enough to cause him to jerk his hand from the tank during each trial. “If you’ve ever been on a farm and touched an electric fence, it’s pretty similar to that,” he says. This is Catania’s latest study in a body of research analyzing the intricacies of an electric eel’s behavior. The way electric eels have been described by biologists in the past has been fairly primitive, says Jason Gallant, a biologist who heads the Michigan State University Electric Fish Lab in East Lansing who was not involved in the study. Catania’s work reveals that “what the electric eel is doing is taking the electric ability that it has and using that to its absolute advantage in a very sophisticated, deliberate way,” he says. Electric eels use electric current to navigate, communicate and hunt for small prey. But when faced with a large land-based predator, eels will launch themselves from the water and electrify the animal with a touch of the head.
9-14-17 Christmas Island’s only echolocating bat has gone extinct
Christmas Island’s only echolocating bat has gone extinct
The Christmas Island pipistrelle is no more, and the world's largest antelope is at risk, according to the latest update to the Red List of Threatened Species. The Christmas Island pipistrelle, a bat species found only on an Australian island, has been declared extinct. The final nail in the coffin was hammered in as part of the latest update to the Red List of Threatened Species, which is maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “It’s very difficult to decide when a species definitely has gone extinct,” says Craig Hilton-Taylor, head of the IUCN’s Red List unit. But the last Christmas Island pipistrelle was seen in 2009. “It’s not a cryptic species, it’s got a distinctive call,” says Hilton-Taylor. “We probably could have declared it extinct earlier, but we’ve been waiting for surveys.” The Thongaree’s disc-nosed bat, a newly-discovered species that lives in a small region of Thailand, entered the list as critically endangered – just one step from going extinct. “If we’d known about it earlier, it would have moved through the categories. That’s just what happened unseen until now,” says Hilton-Taylor. The new list isn’t all bad news for bats. The Rodrigues flying fox moves from critically endangered to endangered. Hilton-Taylor says that’s due to coordinated actions by the government and local organisations, including legal protection and habitat restoration. The outlook isn’t so bright for five species of African antelope. The world’s largest antelope, the giant eland, is considered vulnerable, with a global population of 14,000 at most. Meanwhile the southern lechwe and grey rhebok are near threatened, and the mountain reedbuck and Heuglin’s gazelle are in the endangered category.
9-14-17 Wolves and bears to be slaughtered in Romania once again
Wolves and bears to be slaughtered in Romania once again
In 2016, Romania banned trophy hunting of wolves and bears, but now the government has angered conservationists by permitting hunters to target nuisance animals. The hunting of bears and wolves is back on the agenda in Romania, less than a year after the government banned trophy hunting. Conservation groups have condemned the U-turn and are calling on the government to rescind the decision. The move was announced on 5 September by Romania’s environment minister Gratiela Gavrilescu. It will allow up to 140 bears and 97 wolves to be killed “under supervision” by the end of 2017, if they’re deemed to be “nuisance animals” that threaten livestock on farms or frighten people by encroaching into inhabited areas. But the conservation groups fear that the quotas will be used as an excuse to allow trophy hunting to resume. The government banned that in October 2016. “It’s unclear if hunters will be allowed to keep the bodies, or sell body parts,” says Masha Kalinina of Humane Society International (HSI). She says the government has caved in to pressure from hunters, farmers and communities that feel threatened. It is not clear that killing wolves will protect livestock. “It is basically impossible to draw general conclusions on what works to reduce livestock depredation,” says Ann Eklund of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Eklund published a study in May 2017 that found there is hardly any evidence on whether such interventions work. She says killing predators can sometimes protect livestock, but not if the deceased animals are immediately replaced, or are not part of the population that takes livestock. (Webmaster's comment: Is killing other living creatures our only solution?)
9-11-17 Tackling the canine obesity crisis
Tackling the canine obesity crisis
When it comes to man's best friend, science may finally have solved the mystery of their gluttony - some Labradors, it seems, are genetically predisposed to being hungry. That's according to scientists who were discussing their ongoing mission to improve our favourite pets' health at the British Science Association Festival in Brighton. Several research teams in the UK are on a mission to improve canine health. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have studied the appetite of Britain's favourite dog breed, and suggest Labradors are genetically at risk of becoming overweight. Roughly a quarter of British households own a pet dog, and Labrador retrievers remain our most popular canine companion. However, this stereotypically "greedy" breed often suffers size-related health problems.
9-10-17 How big game hunting is dividing southern Africa
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-41163520">How big game hunting is dividing southern Africa
Drifting down the Zambezi in Zimbabwe, I overheard two American men swapping hunting stories. "First shot got him in the shoulder," a white man in his late sixties explained to his friend. "Second hit him right in the side of the head!" Pointing at his temple, he passed his phone with a picture. The animal in question was a dead crocodile. Crocodiles are easy to find on this part of the Zambezi: lying in the sun on the banks of the river, boats can float just a few feet away. And given that they are motionless for most of the time, not hard to shoot, I imagine. The second American showed his pal a picture of a Cape Buffalo he had killed, and planned to have shoulder mounted. He complained he couldn't afford the $19,000 (£14,500) Zimbabwe demands for the licence to kill an elephant. His buffalo cost him $8,000 (£6,100). "Are they saying an elephant is worth more than two buffalo?" he lamented. "I saw hundreds of elephants today. Far too many. You have to see it here to realise. In California they are saying these animals are endangered!" The first man's wife then talked of the thrill she gets at the kill, discussing how different calibres of bullet explode the vital organs of African wildlife. I left to look at the hippos watching from the river. But, curiously, I have felt obliged to consider the ethics of big game hunting at home in London in the last few months. I'm an Arsenal fan, and it recently emerged that my team's owner, American sports tycoon Stan Kroenke, had launched a TV channel in the UK featuring lion and elephant hunting. The corporate values of family brand Arsenal do not sit easily with pay-to-view videos of hunters shooting animals for fun, and after a couple of days of hostile publicity, Kroenke ordered his channel to stop showing the killing of some big game. But both sides in the hunting debate claim they are the true guardians of animal welfare. Supporters of African trophy hunting, including some in very high places - two of President Trump's sons are avid big game hunters - argue that a ban on hunting would harm wildlife and local people. It would stop much needed revenue reaching some of Africa's poorest communities, discourage conservation and cut funds for wildlife management that would make it easier for poachers to operate, they say. (Webmaster's comment: The American male brute feels the need to kill something, anythng. If he can't kill men, women, or children then animals are the next best thing! It takes ZERO courage and there is little danger. Just the thrill of killing a living creature!)
9-8-17 Unknown species may thrive in Antarctic caves
Unknown species may thrive in Antarctic caves
Animals and plants may be living in warm caves under Antarctica's ice, according to a study. Australian researchers said that Mount Erebus, an active volcano on Antarctica's Ross Island, is surrounded by caves hollowed out in the ice by steam. Soil samples retrieved from the caves have revealed intriguing traces of DNA from mosses, algae and small animals. The research has been published in the journal Polar Biology. "It can be really warm inside the caves - up to 25C in some caves. You could wear a T-shirt in there and be pretty comfortable," said co-author Dr Ceridwen Fraser, from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. "There's light near the cave mouths, and light filters deeper into some caves where the overlying ice is thin." Dr Fraser said that most of the DNA resembles that found in plants and animals from the rest of Antarctica. But that some sequences couldn't be fully identified. Co-researcher Prof Craig Cary, from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, said previous research had found that a range of bacteria and fungi lived in Antarctica's volcanic caves.
9-8-17 Bats 'tricked' into flying into buildings
Bats 'tricked' into flying into buildings
Modern buildings with large expanses of glass or mirrored surfaces are "potentially dangerous" for bats, research suggests. Scientists are calling for monitoring of the risks, particularly in areas where bats congregate in large numbers. Bats have a remarkable ability to fly at high speeds in the dark avoiding natural hazards such as trees. Yet, smooth, vertical surfaces such as glass windows create a "blind spot" for the flying mammals, a study shows. "Bats predominately rely on their echolocation system to forage, orientate, and navigate," says a team led by Dr Stefan Greif of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology near Munich in Germany. "We found that bats can mistake smooth, vertical surfaces as clear flight paths, repeatedly colliding with them, likely as a result of their acoustic mirror properties." Bats use echolocation to detect obstacles in flight, find their way into roosts and forage for food. As they fly, they make calls and listen to the returning echoes to build up a sonic map of their surroundings. Bats can flit through natural obstacles, such as forests, which return some echo back to them. However, vertical mirroring surfaces such as window panes appear to trick them into thinking that the way ahead is clear. Prof Gareth Jones of Bristol University, who is not connected with the study, is an expert on bat echolocation. "Sound reflects away in front of a bat flying over water, and the flight route ahead is often clear, or interrupted with obvious targets like trees that can be detected by echolocation," he explained.
9-7-17 Bats crash into windows because of a glitch with their ‘sonar’
Bats crash into windows because of a glitch with their ‘sonar’
Until bats get very close, their echolocation makes them “see” smooth surfaces like windows as gaps rather than as a solid material – with impactful results. Windows are traps for fast-flying bats. As bats fly towards a building at an angle making echolocating clicks, the lack of echoes that come back from smooth vertical surfaces makes them appear as gaps. “They think it’s an opening,” says Stefan Greif of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. There are many anecdotal reports of bats being found dead or injured near buildings with large windows, Greif says. But no one knows how many bats are killed this way, or if it is one of the reasons why many bat populations are declining. However, bats’ inability to perceive smooth surfaces might partly explain why large numbers are being killed by the blades of wind turbines. “I have always thought that bats have a hard time detecting these smooth blades,” says Greif. But the sheer speed at which the blades move is probably the main killer. Greif made the discovery by accident. In a 2010 study, he showed that bats perceive any smooth horizontal surface as water. This perception appears to be hardwired rather than learned – even juvenile bats that have never encountered water will repeatedly try to drink from a smooth metal plate. Greif left some of the plates standing upright during these experiments, and noticed that bats tended to collide with them. Now he, Sándor Zsebok and their colleagues have done further experiments.
9-7-17 Why bats crash into windows
Why bats crash into windows
Vertical, smooth surfaces could create acoustic traps for mouse-eared bats. Walls can get the best of clumsy TV sitcom characters and bats alike. New lab tests suggest that smooth, vertical surfaces fool some bats into thinking their flight path is clear, leading to collisions and near misses. The furry fliers famously use sound to navigate — emitting calls and tracking the echoes to hunt for prey and locate obstacles. But some surfaces, especially human-made ones, could mess with echolocation. Bats interpret flat, horizontal surfaces as water (attempting to drink from them) and have been observed colliding with glass windows. Stefan Greif of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, and his colleagues put bats to the test in a flight tunnel. Of 21 greater mouse-eared bats (Myotis myotis), 19 crashed into a vertical metal plate at least once, the researchers report September 7 in Science. In some crashes, bats face-planted without even trying to avoid the plate while others swerved, but too late. Bats involved in head-on collisions emitted fewer calls than those that narrowly avoided crashing. Smooth surfaces act as acoustic mirrors, which could present a problem for a bat: They reflect sound at an angle away from the bat, producing fuzzier, harder-to-read echoes than rough surfaces. Infrared camera footage of wild bat colonies inhabited by M. myotis and two other bat species showed that vertical plastic plates trick bats in natural settings, as well. Whether lots of bats are similarly stymied in the wild is unknown.
9-6-17 Pollen hitches a ride on bees in all the right spots
Pollen hitches a ride on bees in all the right spots
Hard-to-groom zones line up with where flower reproductive parts touch the insects. After bees groom pollen off their bodies, there’s still some left over. These overlooked areas correspond to places where flowers’ reproductive parts come in contact with the bees, a new study shows. Bee bodies may be built just right to help pollen hitch a ride between flowers. For the first time, scientists have identified where and how much pollen is left behind on bees’ bodies after the insects groom themselves. These residual patches of pollen align with spots on bees’ bodies that touch flowers’ pollen-collecting reproductive parts, researchers report online September 6 in PLOS ONE. Typically, when honeybees and bumblebees visit flowers for nectar, they brush much of the pollen that powders their bodies into pocketlike structures on their legs to carry home for bee larvae to eat. In fact, bees are so good at stashing pollen that less than 4 percent of a flower’s pollen grains may reach the pollen-receiving parts of a second flower of the same species. Given bees’ pollen-hoarding prowess, researchers wondered how they came to play such a significant role in plant reproduction. So biologist Petra Wester and colleagues put buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) and European honeybees (Apis mellifera) into jars containing pollen grains. As the bees whizzed around, they stirred up the pollen, evenly coating themselves in just a few minutes. When placed in clean jars, the insects groomed themselves. Even after a half hour of grooming, the insects still had pollen caked on some areas of their bodies, including the tops of their heads, thoraxes and abdomens.
9-6-17 Swansea Uni study: African wild dogs 'sneeze to vote'
Swansea Uni study: African wild dogs 'sneeze to vote'
African wild dogs vote over pack decisions by sneezing, a new study has found. The joint research by academics from Swansea, Australia and the United States monitored endangered dogs at the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust. They found the dogs used sneezes to decide when to move off to hunt after making camp for greeting ceremonies called "social rallies". Dr Andrew King, of Swansea University, said the sneezes acted as a "quorum". The study was carried out by zoologists from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, Brown University, in the United States, and Swansea University's College of Science. Previously it had been thought the dogs, which are among the world's most-endangered species, were simply clearing their airways. But, while zoologists recorded the details of 68 social rallies, they noticed the more sneezes there were, the more likely it was the pack moved off and started hunting. Dr King said: "The sneezes act as a type of quorum, and the sneezes have to reach a certain threshold before the group changes activity. "Quorums are also used by other social carnivores such as meerkats." However, the study suggested some sneezes hold more weight than others. Reena Walker, of Brown University, said: "We found that, when the dominant male and female were involved in the rally, the pack only had to sneeze a few times before they would move off. "However, if the dominant pair were not engaged, more sneezes were needed - approximately 10 - before the pack would move off".
9-6-17 Rising temperatures threaten heat-tolerant aardvarks
Rising temperatures threaten heat-tolerant aardvarks
A counterintuitive climate tale of knock-on effects due to hotter, dryer conditions. Night is normal aardvark time to search for dinner. When nocturnal aardvarks start sunbathing, something’s wrong. If the animals are desperate enough to bask like some cold, sluggish turtle, it’s because they’ve got the chills. Robyn Hetem, an ecophysiologist, has the body temperature data to prove it — collected from late 2012 into 2013, the hottest summer the arid Kalahari region in South Africa had seen in more than 30 years. Hotter, drier conditions are predicted to become the norm for southern Africa as the climate changes. Now Hetem and colleagues have used that foretaste of change to show that higher temperatures might hammer the normally heat-tolerant aardvarks by shrinking the animals’ food supply. Aardvarks live their burrow-digging lives just about anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa except the desert. The toothless night-foragers dine by slurping insect colonies. One of Hetem’s students at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg spent two years collecting hundreds of aardvark droppings and can confirm that Orycteropus afer in the Kalahari eat only termites and ants. Yet the solitary, long-snouted, knee-high mammals are more closely related to elephants than to any pointy-nosed South American anteater.
9-5-17 Northern lights linked to North Sea whale strandings
Northern lights linked to North Sea whale strandings
Large solar storms, responsible for the northern lights, may have played a role in the strandings of 29 sperm whales in the North Sea early in 2016. A new study says these geomagnetic disruptions may have confused the whales' ability to navigate, diverting them into the shallow waters. Trapped and lost, the whales died on European beaches, attempting to escape. The research has been published recently in the International Journal of Astrobiology. Researchers have been puzzled by the losses as autopsies showed that the animals were mainly well fed, young and disease-free. The 29 strandings generated a great deal of public interest and a large number of theories among scientists. These ranged from poisoning, to climatic changes driving prey into the North Sea which the large cetaceans followed to their doom. Sperm whales live in deep, warm-to-temperate waters all around the world. Many groups live around the Azores in the eastern Atlantic. When they are between 10 and 15 years old, young males head north towards the polar region, attracted by the huge quantities of squid found in the colder waters. Their journey sometimes takes them up along the west coasts of the UK and Ireland and into the Norwegian sea. They normally return by the same route. But in less than a month in early 2016, 29 sperm whales were found stranded on the coasts of Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and France. Now a team of researchers say they think they understand what happened to them. The argue that sperm whales navigate using the Earth's geomagnetic field.
9-4-17 It took these monkeys just 13 years to learn how to crack nuts
It took these monkeys just 13 years to learn how to crack nuts
The long-tailed macaques of Thailand already used stone hammers to split open shellfish, and now they have worked out how to use them to crack open nuts. The macaques of southern Thailand have started a new tradition. For at least a century, they have used simple stone tools to smash open shellfish on the seashore. Now the monkeys have begun using stones to crack open oil palm nuts further inland. The finding means they may be the first non-human primates to have begun adapting their Stone Age technology to exploit a new ecological niche. Tool use is common in the animal kingdom, but very few animals make routine use of stones as tools. Among non-human primates, just three species are known to do so: the western chimpanzees of West Africa, the bearded capuchins of Brazil and the long-tailed macaques of Thailand. However, in all three cases biologists thought the primates restricted their stone tool use to a specific environmental setting. “The chimpanzees live in tropical rainforest, and the capuchins in a dry savannah area,” says Lydia Luncz at the University of Oxford. And the macaques spend a lot of time on the beaches of Thailand’s islands, where they use stones to break into shellfish. But the macaques also roam inland. In 2016, Luncz and her colleagues trekked through Yao Noi Island into an abandoned oil palm plantation. They found what appeared to be stones that had been used as hammers and anvils associated with broken oil palm nuts.
9-2-17 ‘Highwaymen’ beetles rob ants of the food in their stomachs
‘Highwaymen’ beetles rob ants of the food in their stomachs
As jet ant workers carry honeydew back to their nests, beetles approach them and trick them into vomiting up the precious food. Karma is very quick sometimes. Jet ants make their nests inside those of other ants, ultimately taking them over. But they are also victimised by pests of their own. Jet ants (Lasius fuliginosus), alternatively known as shining black ants, live in Europe and Asia. When the workers of this species go foraging, they mark their trails with secretions that contain a special blend of pheromones. Many foraging ants commute on these trails, transporting honeydew collected from aphids and other insects in special stomachs called “crops” that they use for storing food. However, sap beetles (Amphotis marginata) spend their lives on these foraging paths and dupe food-laden ants into regurgitating meals for them. This is known as kleptoparasitism, in which one animal steals food gathered by another. Now, Bert Hölldobler and Christina Kwapich at Arizona State University in Tempe have found that the beetles get most of their food this way. The pair observed A. marginata beetles living near ant colonies in the wild and collected both species for experiments in the lab. “Ants feed each other honeydew collected in their crops by essentially vomiting into each other’s mouths,” says Kwapich. “The beetles have capitalised on this behaviour. We call them ‘highwaymen’ because they rob the traffic on the ants’ foraging trails.”
9-1-17 Bee larvae fed beebread have no chance of becoming queen
Bee larvae fed beebread have no chance of becoming queen
Whether a honeybee larva becomes a queen or a worker is down to the food it is given – and the amount of plant RNA in it. A simple meal is all that’s needed to determine the fate of a honeybee larva. It turns out that fragments of genetic material from flowers in their food control the bees’ destinies. When female larvae are fed royal jelly, which is secreted by other bees, they develop into large-bodied, fertile queens. But most larvae eat beebread, a mixture of pollen and nectar. These larvae develop into smaller, sterile worker bees. Xi Chen at Nanjing University in China and colleagues have now found that beebread contains lots of small RNA molecules called microRNAs. These regulate the expression of genes, and in plants they help regulate essential processes like making leaves and flowers. “Plants utilise certain miRNAs to influence the size, morphology, colour and development of flowers,” says Chen. “Such characteristics of flowers guide [honeybees] in pollen collection.” As a result, a lot of these miRNAs end up in beebread, where larvae eat them. The researchers collected pollen, honey, royal jelly and beebread from hives and measured their miRNA levels. They found that beebread and pollen had much higher concentrations of plant miRNAs than royal jelly. The team then reared bee larvae in the laboratory, feeding them a beebread mimic — a lab diet enriched with the same miRNAs as in pollen, at the same amounts. Larvae grown with miRNAs ended up as worker bees, with reduced weight and size, and smaller ovaries.
9-1-17 This sea snake looks like a banana and hunts like a Slinky
This sea snake looks like a banana and hunts like a Slinky
The canary yellow reptile lives in the sea off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. A newly discovered sea snake subspecies is shorter — and a lot brighter — than its yellow-bellied brethren. With its bright hue, this snake was bound to stand out sooner or later. A newly discovered subspecies of sea snake, Hydrophis platurus xanthos, has a narrow geographic range and an unusual hunting trick. The canary-yellow reptile hunts at night in Golfo Dulce off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. With its body coiled up at the sea surface, the snake points its head under the water, mouth open. That folded posture “creates a buoy” that stabilizes the snake so it can nab prey in choppy water, says study coauthor Brooke Bessesen, a conservation biologist at Osa Conservation, a biodiversity-focused nonprofit in Washington, D.C. In contrast, typical Hydrophis platurus, with a black back and yellow underbelly, hunts during the day, floating straight on calm seas. The newly described venomous snake has been reported only in a small, 320-square-kilometer area of Golfo Dulce. After analyzing 154 living and preserved specimens, the researchers described the reptile’s characteristics July 24 in Zookeys. The scientists hope that the subspecies designation will enable the Costa Rican government to protect the sunny serpent, which they worry is already at risk from overzealous animal collectors.
9-1-17 Why the ostrich is the only living animal with four kneecaps
Why the ostrich is the only living animal with four kneecaps
The ostrich appears to be unique in the animal kingdom, because it has two kneecaps on each knee rather than one. The question is why. Some people just achieve too much. For instance, Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson is also a qualified airline pilot, a skilled fencer and a published novelist – which is frankly galling. Ostriches are the Bruce Dickinsons of the bird world. Not only are they the largest living bird species, they also lay the largest eggs of any bird alive and hold a Guinness World Record to that effect. And they can run faster. However, what you may not know is that they are quite possibly the only animal to have two kneecaps in each leg. This we’ve known since at least 1864, but why it should be so has remained a mystery ever since. To find out, Sophie Regnault and her colleagues at the Royal Veterinary College in London, examined a single dead ostrich donated to the college. They alternately bent and straightened the ostrich’s knees, and used an imaging technique called biplanar fluoroscopy to track how the bones moved. Then they built a simple model to understand how the kneecaps affected the leverage of the muscles controlling the knee. “The upper kneecap looks similar to the single bone in ourselves and other animals,” says Regnault. However, “the lower one is very closely attached to the lower leg bone… a bit like the point of your elbow.” Typically, kneecaps improve the leverage of the knee extensor muscles, so they don’t need to produce as much force to straighten the knee. “It’s a bit like putting the door handle further from the hinge,” says Regnault. “It requires less force to open the door.”
9-1-17 Hawks ain't dumb
Hawks ain't dumb
When Houston cabdriver William Bruso returned to his car last week after stocking up on supplies for Hurricane Harvey, he was surprised to find a Cooper’s hawk cowering on his passenger seat. Spooked by the low barometric pressure and high winds, the bird had flown in through an open window and refused to leave when Bruso tried to shoo it away. So the cabbie took the hawk home, fed it some chicken hearts, and called wildlife workers, who collected the bird the next day. Bruso said he felt “honored” that the hawk “chose to hunker down with me.”