25 Animal Intelligence News Articles
from 4th Quarter of 2017
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
10-20-17 Songbird gets angry when its rivals are brilliant at singing
Songbird gets angry when its rivals are brilliant at singing
Male tui songbirds signal their prowess with complicated songs, so they respond aggressively when they hear a particularly good vocalist. Not in my backyard. Territorial songbirds in New Zealand reacted more aggressively towards males encroaching on their territory if those rivals sang more complicated songs. The tui birds perceived these snappy singers as greater territorial threats than their simpler singing counterparts. Birdsong has two main functions: defending a territory and attracting a mate, says Samuel Hill at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. For tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae), territory defence is a key concern. “There are flowering and fruiting trees year round in New Zealand, so the tui always have resources to defend,” says Hill. This explains why “they natter all year round”. Warbling away takes lots of energy, so males may be showing off their physical endurance to females. Long and complicated songs may also be a sign of skill, as to sing them birds must use superfast vocal muscles to control rapid acoustic changes. In other songbirds, like zebra finches, females prefer males that sing harder songs. This hasn’t been tested in tui, but Hill says the complexity of a male’s song is probably a proxy for more relevant measures of his quality, like body condition and cognitive ability.
10-19-17 Songbirds 'being sold into extinction'
Songbirds 'being sold into extinction'
How Indonesians' love of a good tune threatens to send avian species into oblivion.Sold for a song. The forest birds captured for their tuneful voices. Lush green blankets of vegetation drape over Java's steep mountains. But these dense rain forests - on Indonesia’s most crowded island - are rapidly falling silent. Tuneful songbirds that used to give the mountains a unique melody are being caught and sold. Indonesians are obsessed with birds. Bird-singing competitions are national events. But this is threatening to drive the songbirds to extinction.
10-19-17 Steep decline of wasps and other flying nasties is a bad sign
Steep decline of wasps and other flying nasties is a bad sign
Aphids, midges and wasps are being added to the list of rapidly vanishing insects. It’s another alarming sign of a sixth mass extinction, says Olive Heffernan. It’s not just bees and butterflies that are vanishing. It’s many, many other insects too. In yet more evidence that we are in the throes of Earth’s sixth mass extinction, a new study reports that flying insects have declined precipitously in just 27 years in parts of Germany. We may feel less inclined to save some of these creatures – the midges, aphids and parasitoid wasps – than our trusted pollinators. In fact, motorists might welcome the absence of squashed critters on their windshields. Gardeners may take pleasure in the idea of growing plants free from aphid pests. Even tourists, enthralled by the notion of travel without the midge bites, might see this as a cause for celebration. But if this estimate is right, this loss is huge, both in scale and implication. Previous reports have found a decline of up to 50 per cent of European grassland butterflies, bees and moths in recent decades, but this new work suggests a much higher toll, and possibly across hundreds or even thousands of species that visit nature reserves year on year. In the clearest analysis yet of the plight of flying insects, Dutch and British researchers used data collected over nearly three decades by insect enthusiasts. These hobby biologists sampled 63 German nature reserves, covering a range of habitats including meadows, sand dunes and heathland, from 1989 to 2016.
10-19-17 Dogs really can smell your fear, and then they get scared too
Dogs really can smell your fear, and then they get scared too
There is an urban myth that dogs can smell human emotions, now it seems to be true: dogs can sense a person’s emotional state just by sniffing a sample of their sweat. Dog owners swear that their furry best friend is in tune with their emotions. Now it seems this feeling of interspecies connection is real: dogs can smell your emotional state, and adopt your emotions as their own. Science had already shown that dogs can see and hear the signs of human emotions, says Biagio D’Aniello of the University of Naples “Federico II”, Italy. But nobody had studied whether dogs could pick up on olfactory cues from humans. “The role of the olfactory system has been largely underestimated, maybe because our own species is more focused on the visual system,” says D’Aniello. However, dogs’ sense of smell is far superior to ours. D’Aniello and his colleagues tested whether dogs could sniff out human emotions by smell alone. First, human volunteers watched videos designed to cause fear or happiness, or a neutral response, and the team collected samples of their sweat. Next, the researchers presented these odour samples to domestic dogs, and monitored the dogs’ behaviours and heart rates. Dogs exposed to fear smells showed more signs of stress than those exposed to happy or neutral smells. They also had higher heart rates, and sought more reassurance from their owners and made less social contact with strangers.
10-19-17 Alarm over decline in flying insects
Alarm over decline in flying insects
It's known as the windscreen phenomenon. When you stop your car after a drive, there seem to be far fewer squashed insects than there used to be. Scientists have long suspected that insects are in dramatic decline, but new evidence confirms this. Research at more than 60 protected areas in Germany suggests flying insects have declined by more than 75% over almost 30 years. And the causes are unknown. "This confirms what everybody's been having as a gut feeling - the windscreen phenomenon where you squash fewer bugs as the decades go by," said Caspar Hallmann of Radboud University in The Netherlands. "This is the first study that looked into the total biomass of flying insects and it confirms our worries.'' The study is based on measurements of the biomass of all insects trapped at 63 nature protection areas in Germany over 27 years since 1989. The data includes thousands of different insects, such as bees, butterflies and moths. Scientists say the dramatic decline was seen regardless of habitat, land use and the weather, leaving them at a loss to explain what was behind it. (Webmaster's comment: The great mass extinction caused by human beings continues.)
10-18-17 The physics of mosquito takeoffs shows why you don’t feel a thing
The physics of mosquito takeoffs shows why you don’t feel a thing
Even when full of blood, the insect’s wings do the heavy lifting, so its legs barely need to push. Discovering an itchy welt is often a sign you have been duped by one of earth’s sneakiest creatures — the mosquito. Scientists have puzzled over how the insects, often laden with two or three times their weight in blood, manage to flee undetected. At least one species of mosquito — Anopheles coluzzii — does so by relying more on lift from its wings than push from its legs to generate the force needed to take off from a host’s skin, researchers report October 18 in the Journal of Experimental Biology. The mosquitoes’ undetectable departure, which lets them avoid being smacked by an annoyed host, may be part of the reason A. coluzzii so effectively spreads malaria, a parasitic disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year. Researchers knew that mosquito flight is unlike that of other flies (SN Online: 3/29/17). The new study provides “fascinating insight into life immediately after the bite, as the bloodsuckers make their escape,” says Richard Bomphrey, a biomechanist at the Royal Veterinary College of the University of London, who was not involved in the research.
10-18-17 Being a vampire can be brutal. Here’s how bloodsuckers get by.
Being a vampire can be brutal. Here’s how bloodsuckers get by.
What’s most remarkable about real-life bloodsuckers doesn’t show up in movies. Jennifer Zaspel can’t explain why she stuck her thumb in the vial with the moth. Just an after-dark, out-in-the-woods zing of curiosity. She was catching moths on a July night in the Russian Far East and had just eased a Calyptra, with brownish forewings like a dried leaf, into a plastic collecting vial. Of the 17 or so largely tropical Calyptra species, eight were known vampires. Males will vary their fruit diet on occasion by driving their hardened, fruit-piercing mouthparts into mammals, such as cattle, tapirs and even elephants and humans, for a drink of fresh blood. Zaspel, however, thought she was outside the territory where she might encounter a vampire species. She had caught C. thalictri, widely known from Switzerland and France eastward into Japan as a strict fruitarian. Before capping the vial with the moth, “I just for no good reason stuck my thumb in there to see what it would do,” Zaspel says. “It pierced my thumb and started feeding on me.”
10-17-17 Here’s a breakdown of the animals that crossed the Pacific on 2011 tsunami debris
Here’s a breakdown of the animals that crossed the Pacific on 2011 tsunami debris
About two-thirds of the creatures have never been documented off the western coast of North America. Marine sea slugs stowed away on a derelict vessel from Iwate Prefecture in Japan before being washed ashore in Oregon in April 2015. Life’s great diversity has revealed itself in more than 600 pieces of floating tsunami debris that have landed on the western coast of North America. Of nearly 300 living animal and protist species documented on the debris, which crossed the Pacific Ocean following Japan’s destructive 2011 tsunami, researchers analyzed in detail 237 species, which include larger invertebrates and two fish. The critters represent 15 taxonomic groups, as defined by the scientists in the Sept. 29 issue of Science. Most of the species were mollusks, including marine snails, nudibranchs and oysters. Mollusks were followed by annelids (segmented worms), cnidarians (including sea anemones), bryozoans (moss animals that sometimes resemble coral), crustaceans and others. Some species, such as sea anemones and limpets, were able to reproduce and maintain multiple generations on these debris “islands.” The unprecedented marine migration was possible because much of the rubbish caught up in the Pacific currents was durable, made of plastic or fiberglass. “Years ago there were other natural disasters that potentially produced debris, but the debris was, well, organic,” says Nir Barnea, the regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program in Washington and Oregon. “Now we have plastic materials, man-made materials that remain in the marine environment for many years.”
10-16-17 'Big, bad wolf' image flawed - scientists
'Big, bad wolf' image flawed - scientists
New research casts doubt on the idea that dogs are naturally more tolerant and friendly than wolves. In tests of cooperation skills, wolves outperformed their domesticated relatives. Scientists say the findings challenge assumptions about how dogs were tamed from wolves and came to live alongside humans. Previous evidence has suggested that the domestication process may have given dogs a more tolerant temperament. "We still have very much this idea of the big, bad wolf and the cuddly pooch on your sofa," Dr Sarah Marshall-Pescini, who led the research, told BBC News. "But, I think the simplest message is that the story is not quite as clear as that." Wolves are highly social animals. They live in close-knit family groups, raise puppies together and hunt in groups. This sort of behaviour is not seen in modern dogs, despite the idea that domestication selected for dogs that were more tolerant and friendly, both of each other, and humans.
10-13-17 Horses bred to look like cartoons are part of a worrying trend
Horses bred to look like cartoons are part of a worrying trend
A colt with googly eyes and a very "dished" head is the latest example of a trend for animals with "cute" looks that raise health risks, says Danny Chambers. Since humans first domesticated animals, they have been selectively breeding for desirable characteristics. To start with, the aims were increased productivity in livestock, size or speed in horses, and better herding or hunting abilities in dogs. In more recent times, this has expanded to include animals with certain aesthetic qualities, resulting in very deformed examples being lauded as having an “ideal” look, despite suffering from serious health and welfare problems. Now it seems horses are joining the list. The most obvious examples of this problem are dogs with flat faces – such as pugs and French bulldogs. These brachysephalic dogs have soared in popularity in recent years, but are at high risk of breathing problems, often requiring surgery to improve airflow to the lungs, sometimes an emergency tracheotomy due to acute respiratory distress. As Pete Weddburn, veterinary columnist for The Telegraph, has pointed out, it would be illegal to smother a dog so it could barely breathe, but it is perfectly legal to breed a dog that collapses, unable to get sufficient oxygen due to narrowed and compressed airways. These pets cannot exercise as normal, they struggle to thermoregulate so are predisposed to overheating in warm weather, have eye problems, skin fold diseases, a screw-shaped tail linked to painful spinal abnormalities, neurological problems and cannot give birth without caesarean section. (Webmaster's comment: The same is true for Persian Cats. They also can hardly breathe. What we do to animals for the sake of how they look is inhuman!)
10-13-17 Male chimpanzee seen snatching seconds-old chimp and eating it
Male chimpanzee seen snatching seconds-old chimp and eating it
A rare sighting of a chimpanzee birth ended in infanticide and cannibalism – and probably explains why new mothers often go into hiding for weeks or months. A rare sighting of a chimpanzee giving birth in the wild came to a grisly conclusion. Within seconds of the birth, the baby was snatched away and eaten by a male of the same group. The observation explains why female chimpanzees tend to go into hiding for weeks or months when they have their babies. Little is known about how chimpanzees give birth in the wild because only five births have ever been observed, says Hitonaru Nishie of Kyoto University in Japan. Nishie and his colleagues have been studying chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Mahale mountains for the last few years. One of the reasons so few have been witnessed is that the soon-to-be mothers often leave the group when the baby is due, and don’t return until the infant is weeks or months old. This absence has been described as a chimpanzee’s “maternity leave”. So Nishie and his colleague Michio Nakamura were surprised when, at around 11 am one December day, a female member of the chimpanzee group they were observing began to give birth in front of the 20 other members. As soon as the baby was out – and before the mother had even had a chance to touch it – the baby was snatched away by a male member of the group, who then disappeared into the bush. The researchers found him around 1½ hours later, sitting up a tree and eating the infant from the lower half of its body. He ate the entire body within an hour. This is the first time anyone has reported seeing a newborn chimpanzee cannibalised in this way, says Nishie. He says that his observation provides an obvious clue as to why chimpanzee mothers tend to hide away to give birth.
10-13-17 Penguins die in 'catastrophic' Antarctic breeding season
Penguins die in 'catastrophic' Antarctic breeding season
All but two Adelie penguin chicks have starved to death in their east Antarctic colony, in a breeding season described as "catastrophic" by experts. It was caused by unusually high amounts of ice late in the season, meaning adults had to travel further for food. It is the second bad season in five years after no chicks survived in 2015. Conservation groups are calling for urgent action on a new marine protection area in the east Antarctic to protect the colony of about 36,000. WWF says a ban on krill fishing in the area would eliminate their competition and help to secure the survival of Antarctic species, including the Adelie penguins. WWF have been supporting research with French scientists in the region monitoring penguin numbers since 2010. The protection proposal will be discussed at a meeting on Monday of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). The Commission is made up of the 25 members and the European Union. "This devastating event contrasts with the image that many people might have of penguins," Rod Downie, Head of Polar Programmes at WWF, said. "The risk of opening up this area to exploratory krill fisheries, which would compete with the Adelie penguins for food as they recover from two catastrophic breeding failures in four years, is unthinkable. "So CCAMLR needs to act now by adopting a new Marine Protected Area for the waters off east Antarctica, to protect the home of the penguins." (Webmaster's comment: "The Great Die Off" caused by global warming is now truly underway!)
10-11-17 Female dolphins have weaponised their vaginas to fend off males
Female dolphins have weaponised their vaginas to fend off males
Bottlenose dolphins have evolved complicated, folded vaginas that make it difficult for unwanted males to fertilise their eggs. Some female dolphins have evolved a secret weapon in their sexual arms race with males: vaginas that protect them from fertilisation by unwelcome partners. Penises come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, especially in dolphins and other cetaceans. That seems to imply a similar diversity in vaginas, but Dara Orbach of Dalhousie University, Canada, says there is “a huge lag” in our understanding of female genitalia. That is partly because it is tricky to visualise vaginal structure. To overcome this problem, Orbach has created silicone moulds of cetaceans’ vaginas, revealing complex folds and spirals. “There’s this unparalleled level of vaginal diversity that we had no idea existed before,” Orbach says. Similarly complex vaginal structures are found in several species of duck. Orbach’s collaborator Patricia Brennan of Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, has previously found evidence that duck vaginas have evolved to make it harder for males to force copulation. So Orbach wondered if female cetaceans’ unusual vaginas had also evolved to keep out unwanted sperm. Orbach, Brennan and their colleagues obtained genitals from marine mammals that had died of natural causes: common and bottlenose dolphins, common porpoises and common seals. They inflated the males’ penises with saline to see how they looked when they were erect, and compared them with the vaginal moulds. They also took CT scans of penises inserted into the corresponding vaginas, to determine whether they fitted in easily and the best positions.
10-11-17 What modern society can learn from birdsong
What modern society can learn from birdsong
There are a lot of social lessons to be learned from listening to the birds. We are surrounded by cultural products: cities, technologies, the arts, and music. But culture is also deep inside us, in our ability to speak, in our sense of belonging, in our values. The capacity of our brain to adapt to and integrate culture is what makes us human: from birth, your mind was set to absorb concepts, technologies, and social conventions that accumulated over thousands of generations. Feral children, deprived of human society during early life, can rarely recover, and often remain dysfunctional throughout their lives. In contrast, a socially isolated kitten will develop into a fairly normal, functional cat. Yet cultures can be seen (and heard) in many non-human animals. Studying them reveals some of the mechanisms through which our own culture has evolved. Cultures are not just the passive accumulation of customs and traditions; they are formed, and then sustained by a fine balance between social forces. And we can learn from other species about the biological origin of those forces — as well as how these forces are now shaping the future of our culture. What are the social forces through which cultures come about? Culture often starts with an innovation by one animal, which then spreads, as neighbors adopt and modify the successful behaviors they observe. Some cultures, like social norms, are sustained by obedience. Individual vervet monkeys, for instance, can learn fast, but as a group, they have rigid norms: Some food is allowed, while other, perfectly good food is strictly avoided. When juvenile males migrate to a new group, they promptly drop their old feeding habits and obey the new group's norms, with almost 100 percent conformity.
10-8-17 The return of the black-footed ferret
The return of the black-footed ferret
With its silky fur and bandit-masked face, the black-footed ferret cuts a cute — if lethal — figure on the American plains. It's also the star of a great comeback story: The species was thought extinct until 1981, when a small group of ferrets was discovered on a Wyoming ranch. Today, there are more than 500 black-footed ferrets in captivity and the wild, thanks to ongoing breeding and reintroduction efforts. But hard times aren't over for the little predator: It mainly hunts prairie dogs, which are widely considered to be agricultural pests. What's more, both ferrets and prairie dogs are dying from an invasive plague that's slashed ferret numbers from 1,500 just a few years ago. So, can the black-footed ferret prosper again? John Hughes, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's black-footed ferret recovery program, is hopeful — relatively speaking. "Ferrets have always been a rare species," he notes. Their "Achilles' heel," he says, is their dependence on prairie dogs for food and shelter. (Black-footed ferrets live in empty prairie dog burrows.) "And while prairie dogs are much more adaptable to changing conditions, ferrets, due to their territoriality, are not," he says. "As habitat was lost and prairie dog control occurred, ferrets declined along with it." There's also the sylvatic plague to consider. Thought to have been introduced by shipborne rats in San Francisco more than a century ago, Hughes says the invasive bacteria have been marching eastward ever since — straight across the black-footed ferret's native territory. His team has been using insecticides to kill fleas — the plague's primary vector — inside prairie dog burrows.
10-6-17 Seal pups get separated from their mums by icebreaker ships
Seal pups get separated from their mums by icebreaker ships
When icebreakers push through the sea ice on which Caspian seals nurse their young, mothers and pups flee and often get separated in the confusion. Icebreaker ships may be splitting endangered seal mothers from their pups at a critical point in their development. “The route the icebreakers have to take crosses through the area where the seals are breeding,” says Simon Goodman at the University of Leeds, UK. Any disturbance that leads to the mothers separating from the pups is “bad news” for the baby seals. Goodman and his colleagues gathered data from observers who travelled on 39 icebreaker trips from 2006 to 2013 in the northern Caspian Sea. This sea is a major oil and gas drilling site. It is also the only home of the Caspian seals, which are found nowhere else. Caspian seal mothers give birth late in January on the open ice, and suckle their pups for about five weeks. The pups are born with white coats similar to ring seals, and are vulnerable while still dependent on their mothers for nutrition. The mothers often choose thick, solid ice, with features like ice folds to protect the pups from wind. Goodman identified 81 occasions on which icebreakers came within 10 metres of a mother and pup. The mother typically fled and tried to take her pup with her, but sometimes left it behind. In one case, a mother temporarily abandoned a newborn pup. Because the icebreakers were moving, it was not always possible to tell what eventually happened. However, in at least two cases mother and pup ended up a long way apart, and may have lost each other.
10-6-17 Butterfly swarm shows up on Denver radar system
Butterfly swarm shows up on Denver radar system
A colourful, shimmering spectacle detected by weather radar over the US state of Colorado has been identified as swarms of migrating butterflies. Scientists at the National Weather Service (NWS) first mistook the orange radar blob for birds and had asked the public to help identifying the species. They later established that the 70-mile wide (110km) mass was a kaleidoscope of Painted Lady butterflies. Forecasters say it is uncommon for flying insects to be detected by radar. "We hadn't seen a signature like that in a while," said NWS meteorologist Paul Schlatter, who first spotted the radar blip. "We detect migrating birds all the time, but they were flying north to south," he told CBS News, explaining that this direction of travel would be unusual for migratory birds for the time of year.
10-5-17 Neonicotinoid pesticides found in honey from every continent
Neonicotinoid pesticides found in honey from every continent
The discovery of neonicotinoid pesticides in honey means pollinating insects like bees regularly eat dangerous amounts of the pesticides. The evidence has been mounting for years that the world’s most widely used pesticides, neonicotinoids, harm bees and other pollinating insects. Now it seems the problem isn’t limited to Europe and North America, where the alarm was first sounded. It’s everywhere. In 2013 the EU temporarily banned neonicotinoids on crops that attract bees, such as oilseed rape. In November, the European Food Safety Authority will decide if the evidence warrants a total ban. France has already announced one. Starting in 2012, a team led by Alex Aebi of the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, asked travelling colleagues, friends and relatives to bring back honey when they went abroad. In three years they amassed 198 samples from every continent except Antarctica, and tested them for neonicotinoids. They found that three-quarters of the samples contained at least one of the five neonicotinoid pesticides. Of those, nearly half contained between two and five different neonicotinoids. Most worryingly, in 48 per cent of the contaminated samples, the neonicotinoids were at levels that exceeded the minimum dose known to cause “marked detrimental effects” in pollinators. “The situation is indeed bad for pollinators,” says Aebi.
10-5-17 Much of the world’s honey now contains bee-harming pesticides
Much of the world’s honey now contains bee-harming pesticides
Global survey finds neonicotinoids in three-fourths of samples. Neonicotinoid pesticides are turning up in honey on every continent with honeybees. The first global honey survey testing for these controversial nicotine-derived pesticides shows just how widely honeybees are exposed to the chemicals, which have been shown to affect the health of bees and other insects. Three out of four honey samples tested contained measurable levels of at least one of five common neonicotinoids, researchers report in the Oct. 6 Science. “On the global scale, the contamination is really striking,” says study coauthor Edward Mitchell, a soil biologist at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The pesticides are used on many kinds of crops grown in different climates, but traces of the chemicals showed up even in honey from remote islands with very little agriculture. “I used to think of neonicotinoids as being a [localized] problem next to a small set of crops,” says Amro Zayed, who studies bees at York University in Toronto and wasn’t involved in the research. These pesticides “are much more prevalent than I previously thought.”
10-5-17 Pesticides linked to bee deaths found in most honey samples
Pesticides linked to bee deaths found in most honey samples
A new study has found traces of neonicotinoid chemicals in 75% of honey samples from across the world. The scientists say that the levels of the widely used pesticide are far below the maximum permitted levels in food for humans. In one-third of the honey, the amount of the chemical found was enough to be detrimental to bees. Industry sources, though, dismissed the research, saying the study was too small to draw concrete conclusions. Neonicotinoids are considered to be the world's most widely used class of insecticides. These systemic chemicals can be added as a seed coating to many crops, reducing the need for spraying. They have generally been seen as being more beneficial for the environment than the older products that they have replaced. However, the impact of neonics on pollinators such as bees has long been a troubling subject for scientists around the world. Successive studies have shown a connection between the use of the products and a decline in both the numbers and health of bees. Earlier this year, the most comprehensive field study to date concluded that the pesticides harm honey bees and wild bees. This new study looks at the prevalence of neonicotinoids in 198 honey samples gathered on every continent (except Antarctica). The survey found at least one example of these chemicals in 75% of the honey, from all parts of the globe. Concentrations were highest in North America, Asia and Europe.
10-5-17 This snake knows how toxic it is and fights only when armed
This snake knows how toxic it is and fights only when armed
Tiger keelback snakes get toxins from their food and always know how much poison they’re carrying – if they don’t have much, they opt for flight instead of fighting. Snakes fed a diet of toxic toads become toxic too — and they seem to know it. While many snakes make their own toxins, not all do. Japan’s tiger keelback snake (Rhabdophis tigrinus) is one of a handful of species that can store toxins it acquires from its food. Tiger keelback snakes are usually less than a metre long, an ideal meal for many birds and mammals. But they eat toxic toads and store the toxins in specialised organs on the backs of their necks called nuchal glands. If a snake is threatened it arches its neck, making the nuchal gland area more prominent. A predator that bit the snake’s neck would probably get a jet of fluid from the glands straight in the mouth or face, which would be distasteful or even painful. But not all keelbacks exhibit this defensive behaviour. Snakes from a toad-free island flee when attacked, rather than standing their ground. Now it seems the snakes know whether or not they are armed with toxins. Akira Mori of Kyoto University, Japan, and Gordon Burghardt of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville reared hatchling snakes from toad-free and toad-rich Japanese islands. The snakes were fed controlled diets containing toxic toads – or not. When snakes from the toad-free island were fed toads, they started responding to threats with nuchal gland displays, rather than slithering away.
10-5-17 We just found nineteen new species of gecko in one tiny area
We just found nineteen new species of gecko in one tiny area
The discovery of so many closely-related vertebrate species within such a small area is unprecedented. The number of known species of geckos has just jumped upwards, with 15 new species being formally described this week. “And if you count the four I’m looking at right now it’s 19,” says Lee Grismer of La Sierra University in California. “When you called I was in the process of describing them.” This is a big increase, as there are only around 1500 known species of these lizards, famed for the sticking power of their feet. The 19 species all live in a small area of Myanmar just 90 by 50 kilometres in size. “That’s the really amazing thing about it,” says Grismer. “They all come from such a small area.” It’s common to find lots of closely-related species of invertebrates like snails or insects in such a small area, but it is unprecedented for a backboned animal, say Grismer. “For lizards, it is remarkable.” The reason is likely to do with the unusual landscape. In an otherwise-flat lowland area, great blocks of limestone rise up to 400 metres high. Their surfaces are highly corrugated and sculpted by erosion, and sometimes riddled with caves. These limestone blocks, some just a kilometre across, are evolutionary islands where isolated geckos have evolved into separate species. The limestone-dwelling geckos tend to have longer legs and toes, and more slender bodies, than their lowland kin. Grismer’s team was asked to explore the area in Myanmar by the charity Fauna & Flora International, which is campaigning to preserve the unusual limestone habitat.
10-4-17 José Dinneny rethinks how plants hunt for water
José Dinneny rethinks how plants hunt for water
Studies probe the very beginnings of root growth. José Dinneny studies how plants grow under stress, with insights that could be helpful in feeding a growing population. José Dinneny wants us to see plants as stranger things. “They’re able to integrate information and make coherent decisions without a nervous system, without a brain,” he points out. Plus, plants find water without sight or touch. For too many of us, however, lawns, salads and pots on a sunny windowsill make plants so familiar we’ve become blind to how exotic they are. “We’re out searching the solar system and the galaxy for extraterrestrial life,” says Dinneny, 39, “and we have aliens on our own planet.” The thrill of discovering plants’ alien ways drives Dinneny to explore how roots search for water. His research group, at the Carnegie Institution for Science labs in Stanford, Calif., “runs on curiosity,” he says. His work could have practical food security and geopolitical consequences. Dinneny is passionate about the molecular whys and hows of regulating plant growth. From a background in basic plant development, he moved to questions of environmental stress. These questions are important in “this huge crisis we face as a species,” says Jonathan Lynch, a root biologist at Penn State and the University of Nottingham in England. Knowing how to grow plants in environments degraded by climate change will be crucial to feeding an exploding human population.
10-2-17 Dolphins that work with humans to catch fish have unique accent
Dolphins that work with humans to catch fish have unique accent
Some bottlenose dolphins cooperate with Brazilian fishers, probably for mutual benefit, and these animals don't whistle like others in their group. Bottlenose dolphins that work together with humans to catch fish have their own distinctive whistle, one that may help them recognise each other. Off Laguna, Brazil, fishers stand in a line in waist-deep water or wait in canoes while, farther out, bottlenose dolphins chase shoals of mullet to the shore. The fishers can’t see the fish in the murky water, so they wait for the dolphins to give a signal — like an abrupt dive or tail slap — then cast their nets. Fishers catch larger and more fish when they work with dolphins. “Dolphins likely reap similar benefits,” says Mauricio Cantor of the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil – it might be easy for them to gobble up fish disoriented by the nets. But only some dolphins, working alone or in small groups, cooperate with humans. To explore the differences between helpful and unhelpful dolphins, Cantor and his colleagues recorded the sounds made by both types while they foraged either on their own or with people. Surprisingly, the whistles of cooperative dolphins were different from those of non-cooperative ones, even when foraging alone. For instance, they used fewer ascending whistles.
10-2-17 Communing with wildlife in Malaysian Borneo
Communing with wildlife in Malaysian Borneo
We next flew across Sabah province to the city of Kota Kinabalu, surprised that the land below was "overwhelmed by palm-oil plantations," not blanketed by rainforest. A two-hour drive brought us to Kinabalu Park, home to one of Malaysia's tallest peaks: 13,500-foot Mount Kinabalu. Thirty-seven of Borneo's 52 endemic bird species live in the mountainous region, and Jessie wanted to log them all. While I explored the park's wide range of trails, she moved slowly, her binoculars trained on the jungle canopy. Later, at a lodge in the Danum Valley, we met up with a few like-minded birders. When one of the group spotted a helmeted hornbill, they rushed in its direction "with the enthusiasm of kindergartners who had glimpsed an ice cream truck." On a cruise down the Kinabatangan River, "we got lucky": Five Bornean pygmy elephants — of just 200 left in the area — emerged from forest to bathe and roughhouse in the water. Proboscis monkeys lounged in the trees as we glided past, and on one nighttime walk, we startled a tarsier — a fist-size, bug-eyed primate that fled from our headlamps into the trees. A different animal sighting made me particularly happy. Though the palm-oil plantations have decimated Borneo's population of orangutans, we finally saw one near dusk, as it clambered up a tree. After noisily constructing a nest for the night, it "lay down, carefree," and scratched its arms. "We watched until the light grew dim." (Webmaster's comment: Better enjoy it now because it will soon be gone forever!)
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