No matter where you look, just about every creature
is obsessed with:
sex, real estate, who's the boss, and what's for dinner.
52 Animal Intelligence News Articles
for December of 2017
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
12-28-17 The country that brought its elephants back from the brink
Prince Harry is the new president of a conservation group called African Parks, which takes over national parks and gives rangers military-style training to take on poachers and protect wildlife. The BBC visited one of the parks it manages, at Zakouma in Chad. A distant, guttural growl of elephants, and the occasional trumpet, drifted over the thick screen of lush trees and dry-scrub grass. The nearest calls were nearby, the furthest a mile or more away: this was the large herd we had been looking for. Tracking collars had pinpointed them at dawn, but these elephants move quickly, and after centuries of hunting, run if they see, or even smell, humans. The well armed rangers from the Mamba Two fast-response team fanned out ahead to the left and the right, not wanting to surprise, or be surprised by, a lone animal. They excitedly beckoned us to follow them slowly and carefully into a thicker section of trees. It had been a three-hour flight in a small plane, from Chad's capital, N'Djamena, to Zakouma National Park, and a three-hour drive to this section in search of the herd, the last of the park's elephants. Tens of thousands once lived in this reserve covering 3,800 sq km (1,470 sq miles), but for centuries it was the nearest place Sudanese horsemen could find ivory, much coveted by Arab traders along the Nile. Originally they hunted with spears and swords, but modern AK47 assault rifles allowed killing on an industrial scale. Janjaweed mercenaries from Dafur, in western Sudan, continue to be the biggest poaching threat, with heavily armed, military-trained raiding parties on horseback targeting the elephant herds for their tusks. Zakouma has lost 90% of the 22,000 elephants it had in the mid-1970s.
12-28-17 Why Guyana's rainforests are a scientist's dream
When herpetologist Andrew Snyder's flashlight landed on something bright blue in the rainforests of Guyana, South America, he stopped and took a closer look. It turned out to be a blue tarantula of the Ischnocolinae subfamily, a species most likely unknown to science. "It was very exciting to say the least," says the PhD candidate from the University of Mississippi. "I had no idea that it would turn out to be such a stunning tarantula but I'm glad that I went with my instincts to double check." Mr Synder made the discovery during a biodiversity assessment team survey led by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Guianas and Global Wildlife Conservation. In total, the researchers found more than 30 species that are likely to be new to science. These include six species of fish, three plants, 15 aquatic beetles and five odonates, better known as dragonflies and damselflies. The Kaieteur Plateau-Upper Potaro region, where the survey took place in 2014, is a rich habitat for spectacular and endangered species such as the Tepui swift, the jaguar, the Guianan cock-of-the-rock, the white-lipped peccary and the golden rocket frog. It is also home to many species that are endemic to the Guiana Shield and Guyana specifically.
12-27-17 2017 delivered amazing biology finds from organisms large and small
From elephants to tardigrades, lizards and larvaceans, Science News covered it all. 2017 revealed some surprising biology of organisms large and small, from quick-dozing elephants to sex-changing lizards and carbon-dumping sea creatures.
- Switch it up: Bearded dragon lizards
- Homegrown: Giant larvaceans
- Blood and guts: Antarctic sea spiders
- Fluorescent fashion: Polka dot tree frogs
- Brainless beauty sleep: Upside-down jellyfish
- Pachyderm power nap: African elephants
- Heads up: Hydra
- Balancing act: Flamingos
- Ultimate survivor: Tardigrades
- Paint it blue: Blue chrysanthemums
12-22-17 Tiny trackers reveal the secret lives of young sea turtles
Young loggerhead turtles from Brazil can end up in very different places in the Atlantic depending on when they hatch, a study of tagged turtles has found. Not so long ago, the lives of sea turtles were largely a mystery. From the time that hatchlings left the beaches where they were born to waddle into the ocean until females returned to lay their eggs, no one really knew where the turtles went or what they did. Then researchers started attaching satellite trackers to young turtles. And that’s when scientists discovered that the turtles aren’t just passive ocean drifters; they actively swim at least some of the time. Now scientists have used tracking technology to get some clues about where South Atlantic loggerhead turtles go. And it turns out that those turtles are traveling to some unexpected places. Katherine Mansfield, a marine scientist and turtle biologist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and colleagues put 19 solar-powered satellite tags on young (less than a year old), lab-reared loggerhead sea turtles. The turtles were then let loose into the ocean off the coast of Brazil at various times during the hatching season, between November 2011 and April 2012.
12-21-17 Canada TV personality Steve Ecklund shoots cougar, sparking backlash
A Canadian television personality is getting pilloried on social media after posting a photo of himself next to a cougar that he had killed. Steve Ecklund, who hosts the outdoor show The Edge, bragged about killing the large Alberta mountain cat online. Photos of him next to the dead animal have sparked outrage, including some harsh words from Laureen Harper, the wife of Canada's former prime minister. "Must be compensating for something," she tweeted. Mrs Harper is the wife of former prime minister Stephen Harper, who was also an MP for Alberta, the province where the animal was hunted. The couple are noted animal lovers, especially cats. She and her husband rescued many cats throughout his tenure in Ottawa. Her uncensored reply caused a shock, since she was known to be quite reserved when she was in the public eye. But Mr Ecklund showed no sign of remorse. "If you can guess what post has 900 likes, 450 comments, 13 confirmed death threats, 754 swear words and one very happy hunter in it.......I will enter your name into the draw for the new cougar cook book, filled with mouth watering recipes for your next mountain lion," he wrote on Facebook. He defended the kill by explaining that he will use every part of the animal. (Webmaster's comment: What a brave man he is! Any ten-year-old with a high powered rifle can kill any animal on earth without danger to him or herself!)
12-21-17 Christmas chocolate poisoning risk to dogs
Chocolate poisoning is a risk to the family dog at Christmas, say vets. They warn that dogs are four times more likely to fall ill from eating chocolate at this time of year. A study found hundreds of cases of dogs needing veterinary treatment after stealing chocolate Santas, selection boxes, chocolate oranges and even a mug of hot chocolate. Vets are trying to get the message across that the confectionery should be kept out of reach of the family pet. While dogs like the taste of chocolate, it can make them ill, even in small quantities. ''The take home message is firstly to make sure that people recognise that chocolate is a potential problem and to be vigilant with their chocolate gifts over the holiday period,'' said Dr Philip Jones, lecturer in veterinary epidemiology and public health at the University of Liverpool. ''If their dog does get access... to make sure that they contact their veterinary surgeon. ''And also before they contact their veterinary surgeon to have an estimate of how much chocolate and what type of chocolate the dog has eaten.'' (Webmaster's comment: Chocolate can also be lethal to cats! Keep all chocolate away from pets!)
12-21-17 Fungal disease poses global threat to snakes
A potentially deadly fungal disease poses a significant threat to snakes all over the world, new research suggests. The pathogen, has been found in 23 species of wild snake in the US and three in Europe. The fungus causes lesions on the snake's body, leading to infection and death. This study argues that all snakes could become or are already infected. The report has been published in the journal Science Advances. Fungal afflictions have had devastating impacts on a number of different species in recent years. Chytrid fungus has reduced frog populations all around the world, while white nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in the US. Now researchers have evidence of what's termed snake fungal disease (SFD) in a number of populations in Europe and the US. Found predominantly in rat snakes, milk snakes, garter snakes and vipers in eastern parts of the US, it has also been detected in Europe, including in the UK. The disease forms lesions on the snake's skin, and can spread quickly and cover a large part of the body. "They start getting these blisters and then all kinds of secondary infections from it, it can kill snakes quite rapidly actually, I've seen them go down in a matter of a few days," lead author Dr Frank Burbrink, from the American Museum of Natural History, told BBC News. "The demographic of the disease and how its really working across all these species and populations are unknown, but we do know that it can take populations down, it can have 100% mortality in some." While moulting can help the animal, many die from infections. The fungus also causes changes in the behaviour of snakes, causing them to spend more time basking in the sun as their skin moults, putting them at greater risk of starvation and attack from predators.
12-20-17 Why do dogs attack their owners?
In Virginia, US, a young woman has died in tragic circumstances after being mauled by her own dogs. Police said Bethany Stephens, 22, was attacked by her two pit bulls while out for a walk - despite having raised them since they were puppies. Locals were so shocked by the case that the sheriff had to release disturbing details of her death to convince them the dogs were responsible. What would make a dog turn on its owner so dramatically? Experts say it's still unclear. But generally speaking, there are several factors that make dogs lash out. Here are some to be aware of:
- They don't like stress... or Christmas
- Look for signs of pain
- Mind the children
- Training is a good investment
12-20-17 A deadly fungus is infecting snake species seemingly at random
Any species in the eastern or midwestern United States could potentially be at risk, study suggests. It doesn’t matter if it’s a burly rattler or a tiny garter snake. A deadly fungal disease that’s infecting snakes in the eastern and midwestern United States doesn’t appear to discriminate by species, size or habitat, researchers report online December 20 in Science Advances. The infection, caused by the fungal pathogen Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, can cover snakes’ bodies with lesions that make it hard for the reptiles to do normal snake things like slither and eat. Many eventually die from the infection. Fungal spores hang around in the soil and can spread to snakes that pick the particles up (SN Online: 3/15/16). The disease has been likened to the chytrid fungus that’s wiping out amphibian populations worldwide, or the white-nose syndrome that’s killing off entire caves of bats (SN: 4/30/16, p. 20). In snakes, the disease not only “could result in the downfall of vulnerable species, but could also impact whole communities,” says Bruce Kingsbury, a biologist at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, who was not part of the study. Snakes are important predators in many ecosystems — if the reptiles go, then populations of small mammals that they help control could boom, throwing the ecosystem out of whack. Snake fungal disease first gained widespread attention around 2008. It has now been documented in 23 species in the eastern and midwestern United States, says study coauthor Frank Burbrink, a herpetologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He and his colleagues wanted to see whether certain risk factors might make these species more susceptible to the disease than the dozens of other types of snakes that live in the region.
12-20-17 Dolphin pod living year-round off coast of England
The first resident pod of bottlenose dolphins has been discovered off the south-west coast of England. Experts used thousands of sightings and photos to identify A GROUP OF 28 INDIVIDUALS living year-round off the coasts of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. They were identified using their dorsal fins, which are as unique to dolphins as fingerprints are to humans. Plymouth University researchers studied 3,843 records to identify 98 dolphins and among them the resident population. The sightings, recorded between 2007 and 2016, established the group was present in shallow coastal waters, mainly off Cornwall and particularly near St Ives Bay and Mount's Bay. Ruth Williams, marine conservation manager at the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, said: "Further work is needed but this is a huge step forward and I am proud of what our partnership between Cornwall Wildlife Trust, scientists and boat operators has achieved. "We need to make sure the few we currently have in the south west are given the protection not just to survive, but to thrive." (Webmaster's comment: It's a sign of the great wildlife extinction that we celebrate a group of 28 individuals. The number should have been in the thousands!)
12-20-17 After crows fight they touch and preen each other to make up
Carrion crows sometimes have violent squabbles over food, but afterwards the aggressor will often sit by the victim as if to console them and reconcile. Crows may sound unpleasant and represent a living symbol of death, but it seems a murder of crows has a soft side – even when it is made up of relative strangers. Crows belong to a group of birds called corvids, known for their intelligence. They are loyal birds, forming long-lasting social relationships with specific individuals. To find out how they form new relationships, Miriam Sima at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, and her coauthors studied crows that were unfamiliar to each other. They wanted to see how the crows would react to scuffles amongst relative strangers. The team kept carrion crows, native to Europe and Asia, in a cage. When they put food into the cage, they noticed the birds fought more when the food was limited than when it was abundant. The food shortage caused tempers to flare up – in some cases worse than others. When the crows were only mildly aggressive to another, the aggressor would often seek the victim out after the food was gone. It would then sit close by, touching and even preening the victim’s feathers. However, if the violence was a little more severe, the perpetrators kept a wide berth, and the victims often sought out consolation from a crow that had not been involved in the squabble. The study is the first to show that corvids engage in flexible reconciliation and third-party consolation. Other animals, including some with a bad reputation like hyenas, have been known to kiss and make up after spats. Sima says the findings support the idea that social animals only seek reconciliation if important relationships have been disrupted.
12-19-17 Busy doing nothing: How sloths mastered life in the slow lane
Once defamed as slow and stupid, sloths are now recognised as masterworks of evolution – and we could all learn from their energy-saving tricks. GEORGE-LOUIS LECLERC, the Comte De Buffon, was the most famous naturalist on the planet in the middle of the 18th century, and he didn’t think much of the New World. He proclaimed the Americas “degenerate”, a sodden, miserable land filled with weak and inferior species. But Buffon reserved his most biting contempt for one creature in particular. He wrote of their “too short” and “badly terminated” legs, of their “slowness, stupidity… and even habitual sadness”. “These sloths,” he continued, “are the lowest term of existence in the order of animals with flesh and blood. One more defect would have made their existence impossible.” Buffon couldn’t have been more wrong. What he saw as shortcomings we now realise are exquisite adaptations that have allowed sloths to thrive in an exceedingly austere niche for at least 30 million years. In fact, the closer we look at sloth biology, the more we see just how hard evolution has had to work so that these notorious dawdlers can take it easy. One reason we know so little about sloths is that they are surprisingly difficult to study. They live high in the canopies of South and Central America and are extremely hard to spot: they are small, they rarely move and their fur often gets matted with green algae, making them blend in with the leaves.
12-19-17 2018 preview: Thousands of mystery lifeforms to be revealed
Get ready for an explosion of life. Next year, thousands of previously unknown microbes will be revealed. Bacteria and other microbes are all around us, but we know only about 1 per cent of them. The rest are “microbial dark matter”. It is hard to study these mystery microbes because most can’t be grown in labs. They need the conditions of their natural habitat – be it a hydrothermal vent or our intestines – to survive. Metagenomics gets around this by taking a sample from a habitat, reading all the DNA in it – its metagenome – then using computers to painstakingly reassemble the genomes of all the organisms. Metagenomics has already made big finds. In September, Philip Hugenholtz and his team at the University of Queensland, Australia, used it to identify 1749 novel microbial species. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Hugenholtz’s team is set to unveil another 382 microbial species in 2018. Other groups say they have found thousands of new species in permafrost, geothermal springs, our guts and other places. Nikos Kyrpides and his team at the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute are leading the biggest metagenome project. Next year, they will publish the genomes of more than 100,000 microbial species from a range of environments. They don’t yet know how many are new to science, but they expect thousands to be.
12-19-17 The holly hunters banking berries to save a species
Christmas in many parts of the world isn’t complete without holly sprigs, but logging the trees’ genetic diversity is a distinctly prickly business. TEN days before Christmas, Romany Garnett wrapped up warm and set off for Quinag, a spectacular three-peaked mountain in the far north of Scotland. Several hours later, chilled through and battered by bitter winds, she headed home, her fingers frozen, pricked and bleeding. It had been a highly successful day. Like many others at this time of year, Garnett was hunting for holly. Until the Victorians introduced the Christmas tree to the UK in the 19th century, the yuletide decoration of choice was a great ball of evergreens – mistletoe, ivy and dark, glossy holly with its scarlet berries. Holly was part of the country’s culture and folklore. Since ancient times, it has been a symbol of life in the dead of winter and a charm to ward off witches and other evildoers. It remains an indispensable part of Christmas – the wreath on the front door, the sprig atop the pudding. But as the John Muir Trust’s conservation officer for Quinag, Garnett’s interest lay elsewhere. On foot, with a search area of 3700 hectares, she set out to pick berries from as many hollies as possible, then send them south to the cold-storage vaults of the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) at Wakehurst. There, scientists working for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which runs the MSB, would extract the seeds and add them to millions of others as part of an ambitious project to safeguard Britain’s native trees.
12-19-17 Cheep taste: The birds that adorn their nests with tat
From stolen underwear to clods of cow dung, some birds feather their nests with all manner of things – but what lies behind the decorative urge? FLYING a state-of-the-art drone over a home to spy on its owners’ taste in decor is usually frowned on. Fabrizio Sergio and his team, however, had a good excuse. The homes in question were nests belonging to birds of prey called black kites. Their decoration style? Tatty white plastic bags. In some cases, lots of them, making the nests as conspicuous as a reindeer on your front lawn or a plastic Santa climbing onto the roof. Sergio, at the Doñana Biological Station in Seville, Spain, wanted to answer a question that had puzzled him and other biologists for decades – why would a bird decorate its nest with conspicuous tat? This kind of flamboyant adornment would be likely to attract predators to vulnerable eggs and chicks, harming a bird’s chances of passing on its genes – hardly a trait that would be favoured by natural selection. It might seem odd to talk about nests in terms of natural selection: after all, they aren’t part of a bird’s body, which is the obvious product of its genes. But 35 years ago, biologist Richard Dawkins suggested that a gene’s influence could reach beyond the body that houses it and manipulate its environment – a phenomenon he called the extended phenotype. Structures built by animals, such as beaver dams and birds’ nests, are a good example. Extended phenotypes should help, not hinder, reproduction. Take the eye-catching work of the male bowerbird, which builds grass tunnels and litters them with stones, glass and plastic to court mates. Males with the most pleasing bowers mate with more females. But bowers never contain eggs and can be abandoned if their gaudiness catches the attention of predatory eyes. More discreet nest adornments are also known to have reproductive benefits. Some bird species incorporate aromatic plants and even cigarette butts to repel parasites, while others tuck feathers or fresh greenery inside to attract mates.
12-19-17 Specialized protein helps these ground squirrels resist the cold
Being less sensitive to low temperatures may help the animals slip into hibernation. The hardy souls who manage to push shorts season into December might feel some kinship with the thirteen-lined ground squirrel. The critter hibernates all winter, but even when awake, it’s less sensitive to cold than its nonhibernating relatives, a new study finds. That cold tolerance is linked to changes in a specific cold-sensing protein in the sensory nerve cells of the ground squirrels and another hibernator, the Syrian hamster, researchers report in the Dec. 19 Cell Reports. The altered protein may be an adaptation that helps the animals drift into hibernation. In experiments, mice, which don’t hibernate, strongly preferred to hang out on a hot plate that was 30° Celsius versus one that was cooler. Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) and the ground squirrels (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus), however, didn’t seem to notice the chill until plate temperatures dipped below 10° Celsius, notes study coauthor Elena Gracheva, a neurophysiologist at Yale University. Further work revealed that a cold-sensing protein called TRPM8 wasn’t as easily activated by cold in the squirrels and hamsters as in rats. Found in the sensory nerve cells of vertebrates, TRPM8 typically sends a sensation of cold to the brain when activated by low temperatures. It’s what makes your fingertips feel chilly when you’re holding a glass of ice water. It’s also responsible for the cooling sensation in your mouth after you chew gum made with menthol.
12-19-17 Hundreds of dead sharks wash up on Iranian island
Hundreds of dead sharks have been found washed up on the shores of Iran's Shif island. Some fishermen catch the sharks for their fins, which are believed to have medicinal properties, officials say. After cutting off the fins, they throw the dead sharks in the sea because they fear they will be fined. The sharks end up washing up on the beach, an environment official in the southern port city of Bushehr is quoted as saying by IRNA news agency. The price for 1kg (2.2lb) of shark fin is about $2 (£1.50), the director-general of the Environmental Protection Organisation, Hoseyn Delshab, said. Shark fishing was banned in Iran in 2014 over concerns the population was facing extinction.
12-19-17 Mekong region: Lizard and turtle among 100 new species found
More than 100 new species have been discovered in the ecologically diverse region of the Mekong river which stretches from the Tibetan plateau to the South China Sea, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Odorrana Mutschmanni, a coloured frog, was found in a forest in north-eastern Vietnam - among 115 new species discovered by scientists in the Mekong region in 2016.
12-19-17 Genital parasite crabs are struggling to find sex partners
Parasitic crustaceans called castrator pea crabs spend most of their lives hiding in the sex organs of limpets, and that makes it difficult to find a mate. Castrator pea crabs live up to their name. They live inside the sex organs of marine molluscs and prevent them from reproducing. But it turns out the pea crabs’ parasitic ways also make it terribly tricky for them to find a mate. Castrator pea crabs (Calyptraeotheres garthi) are tiny parasitic crustaceans found off the east coast of South America, from southern Brazil down to Argentina’s Valdez Peninsula. They spend most of their adult lives in the sex organs of various slipper limpets. “They castrate, which means that they halt or stop the reproduction of the snail they use as host,” says Emiliano Ocampo at the National Council of Scientific Research in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Pea crabs only seem to parasitise female limpets. These molluscs normally store their eggs in their sex organs, but won’t lay eggs if they have a resident pea crab. It may be that the weight of the pea crab misleads the limpet into believing it already has eggs. However, the pea crabs don’t eat the limpet eggs. Their diet consists entirely of a green mucus, which the limpets make out of phytoplankton that they filter from the water to feed themselves. There is just one problem with the pea crabs’ lifestyle: it is hard to find a mate when everyone is hiding inside a limpet’s gonads.
12-18-17 Great tits avoid bad food after seeing grossed-out friends
If a great tit eats something nasty, it will disgustedly wipe its beak on a branch – and other great tits watch and learn Great tits that exhibit disgust when they eat a horrible meal may inadvertently be driving their prey to evolve. Many prey animals have evolved deterrents so that predators will be reluctant to eat them: they may have an unpalatable taste or even be poisonous. They often signal this with bright and contrasting colours, like the yellow and black stripes of a wasp. But it’s not clear how these “aposematic” signals evolved. “Predators need to first learn the signal before they avoid it, but until they do these prey are very easy to detect and kill,” says Rose Thorogood of the University of Cambridge, UK. Thorogood and her colleagues have tested “a forgotten hypothesis”, she says. “If predators learn by observing another predator’s mistake, this might protect the prey population just long enough for them to reproduce, multiply, and evolve.” The team gave great tits a choice of two new foods: slivers of almond, some of which had been dosed with chloroquine phosphate. That is “the same chemical that gives tonic water its characteristic taste, but which many birds find distasteful,” Thorogood says. The almonds were placed in small envelopes, and the bad-tasting ones marked with a prominent black square. In total, 30 birds learned to open the envelopes and eat the almonds inside. Next, 15 birds watched a video of a “demonstrator” great tit eating a foul-tasting almond from a marked envelope. The bird spat out the almond immediately, then vigorously wiped its beak on the perch. This is a well-known sign of disgust in great tits.
12-18-17 What chimpanzees on the hunt can tell us about human behavior
In the early 1960s, scientists started to follow Jane Goodall into the east African forest to study apes in the wild. As research findings accumulated it became evident that chimpanzees left to pursue their own lives had a lot to teach us about what it means to be human. Craig Stanford, a professor of biological sciences and anthropology at the University of Southern California, has dedicated his career — which began with Goodall in the Gombe region of Africa — researching chimps, documenting their habits, and pondering the nature of this connection. His forthcoming book, The New Chimpanzee: A Twenty-First-Century Portrait of Our Closest Kin, offers deeply informed (and admirably accessible) insight into what chimps can tell us about a compendium of human pursuits, ranging from sex, politics, violence, and family to self-care, alpha maleness, social cooperation, and status. But the one area where the book especially shines is on the topic that's been the main focus of Stanford's work for decades: hunting and eating meat. It was long thought that chimpanzees were vegan. When Goodall, in the early 1960s, reported a supposedly herbivore chimp devouring a baby bushpig, her colleagues reacted with skepticism. Many of them flat out claimed that she was wrong. "Not until hunting was seen in numerous other forests," Stanford writes, "did the entire scientific community accept that meat eating is a core aspect of chimpanzee behavior." Stanford now considers hunting "one of the cultural traditions intrinsic to chimpanzee life." And chimps, he reiterates, are omnivores in the same way humans are.
12-18-17 The bewitching creepiness of Jerusalem's giant spider webs
A confluence of ecological conditions has created a gossamer kingdom in the Holy Land. A surreal phenomenon has taken hold of a Jerusalem forest. On the banks of the Nahal Soreq creek, just west of the holy city, white blankets of silk cocoon the dense vegetation. The architects of this gossamer kingdom are millions of long-jawed spiders with an unusually large food supply. A nearby treatment plant feeds its nutrient-rich sewage into the Soreq creek, which encourages a proliferation of mosquitoes. The fingertip-sized arachnids then feast on these mosquitoes and likewise reproduce on an unusually massive scale. Long-jawed spiders are found all over the world, often by the banks of lakes and rivers. But the Soreq's monumental cobwebs are still rare, particularly in the Middle East. "It's an exceptional case," one doctoral student at Hebrew University's Arachnid Collection told Reuters. But, according to Reuters, the haunting marvel won't last long. As winter creeps in, the cold temperatures will wipe out a large swath of the mosquito population, depriving the eight-legged master weavers of a steady food source.
12-15-17 In marine mammals’ battle of the sexes, vaginal folds can make the difference
Patrica Brennan has made a splash with her studies of genitalia and fit. The battle of the sexes, at least among certain ocean mammals, may come down to well-placed skin folds, suggests research by Patrica Brennan, an evolutionary biologist at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and colleagues. In some species, enhanced male-female genital fit has evolved over time in ways that make mating easier. This is an example of what scientists call congruent evolution. In other species, genital anatomy reflects a battle, as shape and form change over time to give one sex an edge in control of fertilization. Fittingly, this is called antagonistic evolution. Brennan’s recent collaboration, examining genitalia of porpoises, dolphins and seals, required extra creativity. In previous studies, her team used saline to inflate preserved penises from birds, snakes, sharks and bats. But the tough, fibroelastic penises of the cetaceans would not inflate with saline alone. So her collaborator, Diane Kelly, a penis biomechanics expert at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, suggested pressurizing the saline with a beer keg. “We looked at each other and said, ‘This could be the best or worst idea we’ve ever had,’ ” Brennan laughs. But it worked. The scientists then created vaginal endocasts with dental silicone and made 3-D mathematical models to examine male-female fit. The team, led by marine mammalogist Dara Orbach of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, described the work in the Oct. 11 Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
12-15-17 Young female monkeys use deer as ‘outlet for sexual frustration’
Adolescent female Japanese macaques mount deer and rub on their backs, perhaps as a way to practise sexual behaviour before they are old enough to mate. Just monkeying around? Adolescent female monkeys mount deer and rub themselves on the deers’ backs, apparently to practise sex when they are too young to be chosen by adult males. Earlier this year, researchers reported observations of a single male Japanese macaque mounting sika deer and trying to mate with them. In Minoo, Japan, researchers started recording monkey-deer liaisons in 2014, but there, it’s female macaques that have been observed mounting the deer. Noëlle Gunst and colleagues at the University of Lethbridge, Canada, recorded five adolescent female macaques mounting deer a total of 258 times in a two month period. In the same group of monkeys, adolescent females are sometimes seen mounting other females or males and soliciting them for sex. These relationships, known as consortships, are thought to be a way to practise and develop adult sexual behaviours. Gunst even claims the female monkeys experience sexual reward through genital stimulation by mounting other monkeys. Gunst believes the deer-mounting behaviour is related. It has only been seen during the mating season and her observations show that the form and frequency of monkey-deer interactions are similar to their consortships with other monkeys.
12-15-17 Sumatran rhino 'hanging on by a thread'
Scientists have decoded the genome of the Sumatran rhinoceros - one of the most threatened mammals on Earth. Its genetic blueprint shows that populations have been in decline for a very long time. The rhino's troubles began during the last Ice Age, when its habitat shrunk, says a US team. Since then, human pressures have caused numbers to dwindle further. There are now thought to be fewer than 250 individuals left in the wild. "This species has been well on its way to extinction for a very long time," said study researcher, Terri Roth at the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. The genome sequence data revealed the Pleistocene "was a roller-coaster ride for Sumatran rhinoceros populations," added lead researcher, Dr Herman Mays of Marshall University in West Virginia. The Pleistocene is the geological time period that lasted from about 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago, spanning the world's most recent Ice Age. The researchers sequenced and analysed the first whole Sumatran rhino genome from a sample belonging to a well-known male at Cincinnati Zoo.
12-15-17 Zombie fungus infects fruit flies and turns them into slaves
For the first time, a parasitic fungus has been spotted that manipulates the brains of fruit flies before they die, and might allow biologists to work out how they do it. There’s no need to travel to exotic rainforests to find mind-warping parasites. They are probably lurking in your own backyard. That, at least, is where Carolyn Elya found a “zombie fungus” that takes control of fruit flies. She took it back to her lab, where she managed to get it growing in lab fruit flies. “It was incredibly lucky,” she says. So-called parasitic fungi are well-known in the insect world. They usually infect their host, before controlling its behaviour to give it the best chance of spreading to more victims. Seeing a similar fungus attacking fruit flies should help us learn more about how they operate. Because so much is known about fruit flies, as they are one of the standard animal “models” studied in labs around the world, Elya’s team at the University of California, Berkeley, has been able to find out much about the fungus in just a short time. “It’s really cool just to work what’s going on, but we may also learn general principles about how it changes behaviour,” she says. It might also help in the hunt for treatments for brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, says David Hughes of Pennsylvania State University, whose team studies other zombie fungi. “It’s wonderful to have this now in a fully trackable model,” he says. The fungus, called Entomophthora muscae, kills fruit flies in four to seven days, Elya’s team has found. The animals appear to behave normally until the final day, when their gait becomes shaky and they won’t fly even if prodded.
12-14-17 Neonicotinoids at 'chronic levels' in UK rivers, study finds
Rivers across the country are "chronically polluted" with pesticides believed to pose a threat to bee populations, a report has found. The River Waveney on the Norfolk/Suffolk border was found to have the highest levels of neonicotinoids in the UK. The River Wensum in Norwich, and the River Tame in the West Midlands were also named among the most polluted. A growing number of studies have linked the pesticides to problems for bees. According to figures from UK monitoring data by the European Environment Agency, 88% of sites in Britain were contaminated with neonicotinoids. The Angling Trust, the charity Buglife, and The Rivers Trust said eight rivers in England - including the Ouse, Somerhill Stream, Wyke Beck, Ancholme, and Sincil Dyke - exceeded recommended chronic pollution limits. The River Waveney's pollution limit was exceeded for a whole month, they said. The study said the three toxins of concern were imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, which are used in farming and waste water treatment plants. Matt Shardlow, chief executive of Buglife, said: "We are devastated to discover that many British rivers have been heavily damaged by neonicotinoid insecticides. "It is vital that action is taken to ban these three toxins."
12-13-17 Sad ‘pigs’ have been filmed apparently mourning a dead friend
Famously clever animals like chimps and monkeys seem to grieve for dead comrades, but now even wild relatives of pigs called peccaries have been seen mourning. PIG-LIKE animals called peccaries have been seen apparently mourning their dead. The discovery adds to the growing list of species that have exhibited signs of grief. It came from a science fair project. Peccaries are hoofed mammals found in the Americas. Also known as javelinas or skunk pigs, they resemble pigs and wild boar. However, the two actually belong to different, albeit closely related, families. Peccaries are social animals and often live in groups. In January, 8-year-old Dante de Kort was watching a herd of five collared peccaries (Pecari tajacu) behind his house in Arizona. One of them seemed to be ill. The next day, he found a dead adult female and the rest of the herd nearby. Dante was intrigued, and he had a school science fair coming up. So on the third day after the animal’s death, he approached the body – now up a hill from the house, where it had been moved because of the smell – and set up a camera trap. Whenever an animal approached the body, the motion-sensitive camera took a video. Dante captured footage over the next two weeks and put his findings onto a poster. At the regional science fair, his poster caught the attention of Mariana Altrichter at the nearby Prescott College. Altrichter is co-chair of the Peccary Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. She left Dante a note asking to talk.
12-13-17 Electric eels provide a zap of inspiration for a new kind of power source
Battery-like devices mimic how a charge builds up in the animal’s cells. New power sources bear a shocking resemblance to the electricity-making organs inside electric eels. These artificial electric eel organs are made up of water-based polymer mixes called hydrogels. Such soft, flexible battery-like devices, described online October 13 in Nature, could power soft robots or next-gen wearable and implantable tech. “It’s a very smart approach” to building potentially biocompatible, environmentally friendly energy sources and “has a bright future for commercialization,” says Jian Xu, an engineer at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge not involved in the work. This new type of power source is modeled after rows of cells called electrocytes in the electric organ that runs along an electric eel’s body. When an eel zaps its prey, positively charged potassium and sodium atoms inside and between these cells flow toward the eel’s head, making each electrocyte’s front end positive and tail end negative. This setup creates a voltage of about 150 millivolts across each cell. The voltages of these electrocytes add up, like a lineup of AAA batteries powering a flashlight, explains Michael Mayer, a biophysicist at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. Collectively, an eel’s electrocytes can generate hundreds of volts.
12-13-17 Giant tortoises are rare today but once roamed four continents
An evolutionary tree of tortoises shows the animals have become gigantic on at least seven occasions – and that they did not do so where we thought. TORTOISES evolved into giants on at least seven occasions and on four continents. The finding undermines the long-standing idea that tortoises become enormous only if they are stranded on remote islands. There are more than 40 species of tortoise, the most spectacular being the giant tortoises. On the Galapagos islands in the Pacific and Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, these animals can have shells more than 120 centimetres long. These islands cover just a few thousand square kilometres. In contrast, Earth’s continents cover 150 million square kilometres. Yet they are home to just one truly large tortoise: the African spurred tortoise. This implies that tortoises are most likely to become huge when they live on islands, in line with a famous but controversial concept, the “island rule“. This states that, on islands, small animals tend to evolve larger bodies while large animals evolve to be smaller. But tortoise biologists suspect otherwise. Fossils show giant tortoises once roamed Africa, Eurasia and the Americas, suggesting tortoises don’t need islands to evolve to be larger. Evangelos Vlachos at the Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio in Trelew, Argentina, and Márton Rabi at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, wanted to clarify the history of gigantism. They drew the tortoise family tree using data from extinct and living species.
12-12-17 Nomadic birds in danger after spate of wildfires in key wetland
The Hutovo Blato wetland in Bosnia and Herzegovina suffered its latest severe fire in October, and may vanish within decades - threatening many bird species. A protected wetland that is home to hundreds of threatened species, some of them unique, has caught fire for the ninth time since 2011. A new assessment says the entire wetland will be lost by 2050 unless better care is taken. The Hutovo Blato wetland spans 7411 hectares in south-west Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is fed by underground aquifers linked to the Krupa river, a tributary of the Neretva. More than 150 bird species spend the winter there: it is one of Europe’s richest sites for migratory birds. Altogether it is home to more than 600 plants, 45 fish species and more than 163 bird species. The site is managed by a public authority and holds a number of conservation accolades. In 2001 it was designated a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention, and BirdLife International recognises it as an Important Bird Area. However, in October 1000 hectares of the wetland was destroyed by fire. A commission formed by the public authority estimated the cost of repairing the damage at 500,000 euros. It is the ninth fire since 2011, according to Naše ptice, an NGO focused on bird conservation.
12-12-17 Polar bear video: Is it really the 'face of climate change'?
It is harrowing footage. An emaciated polar bear searches for food on Baffin Island, north-eastern Canada. Exhausted, it drags one leg slowly behind it, eventually trying to eat some discarded seating foam among rubbish humans have left. Polar bears hunt from the sea ice, which is diminishing every year, and the photography team are certain the unfortunate animal died within days. "This is what starvation looks like," wrote one of the photographers, Paul Nicklen. "The muscles atrophy. No energy. It's a slow, painful death." Mr Nicklen's colleague, Cristina Mittermeier, said: "We cried as we filmed this dying bear. This is the face of climate change." The clip has gone viral, widely shared as a warning about the dangers of climate change. But is there more to it? Mr Nicklen and Ms Mittermeier are co-founders of the conservation group Sea Legacy, with a declared mission to "use the power of storytelling to create the change we want to see". Canada's National Post newspaper argues: "These images aren't the work of a scientist, an impartial documentarian or even a concerned bystander. They are part of a very calculated public relations exercise." This particular animal could also simply have been sick. Biologist Jeff Higdon, writing on Twitter, speculated that it could have some form of aggressive cancer. "It's not starving because the ice suddenly disappeared and it could no longer hunt seals," he said. "The east Baffin coast is ice free in summer. It's far more likely that it is starving due to health issues." However, he warned that he could not be sure.
12-12-17 Golden eagle migration out of sync with climate change
Golden eagles in North America may have the timing of their migration shifted out of step with a seasonal boom in food they need to raise their young, according to scientists. A project to track the impact of climate change on migrating animals has revealed that adult golden eagles are unable to shift the timing of their migration. Lead researcher Scott LaPoint from Columbia University presented the findings at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. He explained that day length, or photoperiod, appeared to give the great birds the cue to go "as far and as fast as possible". When analysing tracking data, composed of 20 years' worth of tagging birds with satellite tags and following their seasonal migrations, Dr LaPoint noticed an unusual pattern. Younger raptors would shift the timing of their journey, seemingly adapting to weather conditions and climate. "But the adults get this photoperiod trigger and it's 'Time to go!'," he told BBC News. "I would have expected an older, wiser bird to better time their migration," he added. "But, with this [daylight] trigger, they don't have the luxury of deciding. They need to get [to their nesting site] as soon as possible to initiate a clutch. "They want to get their chicks as independent as possible by October, November." Birds younger than five years are sub-adult. They do not reproduce, so they are able to wait for good thermals to take them on a less energy-intensive journey north. Northern-breeding golden eagles can travel thousands of miles to their wintering grounds. And they have adapted to have their departure coincide with the first lasting snowfall or freeze and decreasing prey abundance.
12-12-17 'Worrying alarm call' for world's birds on brink of extinction
Overfishing and changing sea temperatures are pushing seabirds to the brink of extinction, according to new data on the world's birds. Birds that are now globally threatened include the kittiwake and the Atlantic puffin, which breed on UK sea cliffs. Meanwhile, on land, the Snowy Owl is struggling to find prey as ice melts in the North American Arctic, say conservation groups. The iconic bird is listed as vulnerable to extinction for the first time. "Birds are well-studied and great indicators of the health of the wider environment,'' said Dr Ian Burfield, global science coordinator at BirdLife International, the IUCN Red List authority on birds. ''A species at higher risk of extinction is a worrying alarm call that action needs to be taken now.'' He added that success in kiwi and pelican conservation had shown that, when well-resourced and supported, conservation efforts do pay off. Worldwide, over a quarter of more than 200 bird species reassessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have been moved to higher threat categories while a similar number have been downgraded. Seabirds are of particular concern, including Cape gannets, which are now classified as Endangered, and the Antipodean Albatross, which risks being drowned by fishing lines. Fishing pressures and ocean changes caused by climate change are reducing food supply for the chicks of seabirds, while adults receive little protection when they fly over areas of the ''high seas'' that do not fall under the jurisdiction of any country, says BirdLife International.
12-12-17 Giant pelicans in danger after spate of wildfires in key wetland
The Hutovo Blato wetland in Bosnia and Herzegovina suffered its latest severe fire in October, and if the blazes continue the resident Dalmatian pelicans will struggle to survive. A protected wetland that is home to hundreds of threatened species, some of them unique, has caught fire for the ninth time since 2011. A new assessment says the entire wetland will be lost by 2050 unless better care is taken. The Hutovo Blato wetland spans 7411 hectares in south-west Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is fed by underground aquifers linked to the Krupa river, a tributary of the Neretva. More than 150 bird species spend the winter there: it is one of Europe’s richest sites for migratory birds. Altogether it is home to more than 600 plants, 45 fish species and more than 163 bird species. The site is managed by a public authority and holds a number of conservation accolades. In 2001 it was designated a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention, and BirdLife International recognises it as an Important Bird Area. However, in October 1000 hectares of the wetland was destroyed by fire. A commission formed by the public authority estimated the cost of repairing the damage at 500,000 euros. It is the ninth fire since 2011, according to Naše ptice, an NGO focused on bird conservation. Most of the fires have been relatively minor, but one blaze in 2011 destroyed much of the wetland, says Nikola Zovko, a director of the Hutovo Blato nature park. Big fires release lots of nutrients into the wetland’s clean waters. This stimulates the growth of algae, causing algal blooms that reduce the water’s oxygen content and kill water organisms.
12-12-17 Dracula ticks in amber tell ancient blood-sucking tale
Feathered dinosaurs were covered in ticks just like modern animals, fossil evidence shows. Parasites similar to modern ticks have been found inside pieces of amber from Myanmar dating back 99 million years. One is entangled with a dinosaur feather, another is swollen with blood, and two were in a dinosaur nest. Scientists say the discovery, which has echoes of Jurassic Park, is the first direct fossil evidence that ticks fed on the blood of dinosaurs. The research is published in the journal, Nature Communications. ''Ticks parasitised feathered dinosaurs; now we have direct evidence of it,'' co-researcher Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History told BBC News. ''This paper represents a very good example of the kind of detailed information that can be extracted from amber fossils.'' Amber is fossilised tree resin. The sticky substance can trap skin, scales, fur, feathers or even whole creatures, such as ticks. In this case, the researchers found a type of tick, now extinct, that is new to science. They named it, Deinocroton draculi or "Dracula's terrible tick". "Ticks are infamous blood-sucking, parasitic organisms, having a tremendous impact on the health of humans, livestock, pets, and even wildlife, but until now clear evidence of their role in deep time has been lacking," said Enrique Peñalver from the Spanish Geological Survey (IGME), the lead researcher on the study. The fossils in amber may echo the fictional world of Jurassic Park, but they will not give up the secrets of dinosaur DNA. All attempts to extract DNA from amber specimens have failed since the complex molecule is too fragile to be preserved.
12-11-17 Bumblebees solve the travelling salesman problem on the fly
While buzzing between flowers, bees can solve the maths dilemma called the travelling salesman problem by finding the shortest route that visits every blossom. Bumblebees aren’t just hard workers, they’re efficient, too. These insects have a grasp of maths that enables them to crack the classic travelling salesman problem as they forage for pollen and nectar. The problem, a benchmark of computer science, poses the question, “Given a list of cities and the distances between each pair of cities, what is the shortest possible route that visits each city and returns to the origin city?” This was the conundrum facing bumblebees let loose on an array of artificial flower feeding stations at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK. “We tempted the bees with shortcuts between feeding stations that increased the total distance they travelled to visit all the feeders,” said Joe Woodgate at Queen Mary University of London, who led the research. Initially, the bees fell into the trap, opting for short-term gain but ending up with a longer, more exhausting journey as they visited every flower in turn. Gradually, the insects refined their flight paths and found the most effective “travelling salesman” solution. Instead of taking the obvious short cuts, they altered the order of their flower visits to reduce the overall travel distance. The team studied six bumblebees making 201 flights using a special type of radar capable of identifying signature reflections from tiny transponders attached to the insects.
12-11-17 Once settled, immigrants play important guard roles in mongoose packs
But it takes time for residents to fully accept new members. Immigrants, they get the job done — eventually. Among dwarf mongooses, it takes newcomers a bit to settle into a pack. But once these immigrants become established residents, everyone in the pack profits, researchers from the University of Bristol in England report online December 4 in Current Biology. Dwarf mongooses (Helogale parvula) live in groups of around 10, with a pecking order. The alphas — a top male and female — get breeding priority, while the others help with such group activities as babysitting and guard duty. But the road to the top of the social hierarchy is linear and sometimes crowded. So some individuals skip out on the group they were born into to find one with fewer members of their sex with which to compete —“effectively ‘skipping the queue,’” says ecologist Julie Kern. Kern and her colleague Andrew Radford tracked mongoose immigration among nine packs at Sorabi Rock Lodge Reserve in Limpopo, South Africa. The researchers focused on guard duty, in which sentinels watch for predators and warn foragers digging for food.
12-11-17 ‘Scary’ spider photos on Facebook are revealing new species
When people see a big spider they often post a photo on Facebook – and those images have now revealed up to 30 new species. Freaky photos of giant spiders on social media may have revealed dozens of new species. “When people see an animal that they think is frightening or dangerous, the most common response is to take a photo and post it to social media,” says Heather Campbell, previously at the University of Pretoria in South Africa and now at Harper Adams University, UK. In 2013, Campbell got involved with some “massive spider nerds”, who drove around at night watching for spiders on the road and “tickling” tarantulas out of their burrows with blades of grass. “I sort of got drawn into that excitement and enthusiasm,” she says. They focused on baboon spiders, a subfamily of the larger tarantula group found in eastern and southern Africa. About 56 species are known, but Campbell says much remains unknown. To find out more, they built the Baboon Spider Atlas. They combed Facebook, online forums and other social media sites for photos and information about baboon spiders. People also send in photos of spiders they find and ask questions – mostly “is it poisonous?” and “what do I do?” The data shows that many known species range more widely than thought, and that some species that were thought to spend all their time in their burrows actually wander.
12-8-17 Africa’s giraffes are being slaughtered by Joseph Kony’s army
Elephants, giraffes, giant elands and chimpanzees are being decimated by poachers linked to violent militias in a lawless region of central Africa. Joseph Kony and his notorious Lord’s Resistance Army haven’t gone away since US and Ugandan troops ended their campaign to capture him earlier this year. They have decamped to a politically unstable belt of countries near Uganda, where they and other lawless militias are now decimating iconic animals like elephants for food and illegal ivory, as well as terrorising villages and kidnapping children. That’s the grim message from a report issued today by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring agency. Compiled through interviews with 700 people from 87 villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR) and Sudan, the report exposes the threat posed to large species including elephants, giant elands and eastern chimpanzees. Giraffes are reportedly being killed simply to provide the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) with tails for deterring flies. Only 47 now survive in the Garamba complex in the DRC, where there were previously 350. Elephants totalled 22,000 in the 1970s, but are now down to between 1100 and 1400. Rhinos, of which there were once an estimated 500, are gone completely. The report found that the key threats were the LRA, corruption in the DRC state military, armed pastoralists called the Fulani and a multitude of militias, including the Janjaweed, spilling over from the chaos in Southern Sudan.
12-8-17 Record-breaking two-tonne fish is the heaviest of its kind
The record books say that the ocean sunfish is the heaviest bony fish alive, but in fact the specimen in question belongs to a different species. Given that it is 3 metres long, weighs 2300 kilograms and looks like a severed head, you would think there could be no mistaking the identity of the world’s heaviest bony fish. But in fact we have been misidentifying this ocean-going giant for years. The ocean sunfish (Mola mola) is listed in Guinness World Records as the world’s heaviest bony fish. Some sharks are larger, but their skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone. The record has stood since 2002, on the basis of a specimen caught off the Japanese coast in 1996. But now a detailed analysis of photographs and other information about the specimen has revealed that it is not an ocean sunfish, but a relative named Mola alexandrini. Sunfish look extremely peculiar to our eyes. They appear almost disc-shaped from the side and extremely narrow when viewed head-on. They have a curved rudder-like lobe at the rear, where most fish have a tail fin. Many exceed 2000kg and reach 3m long. Etsuro Sawai at Hiroshima University in Japan and his colleagues reviewed the three known Mola species: M. mola, M. ramsayi and the rare M. tecta – which was only discovered in July. They examined 30 specimens of M. mola and M. ramsayi, and trawled through accounts of sunfish sightings and captures going back 500 years.
12-7-17 AI eavesdrops on dolphins and discovers six unknown click types
Computer program picked out the noises from underwater recordings of 52 million echolocation signals. A new computer program has an ear for dolphin chatter. The algorithm uncovered six previously unknown types of dolphin echolocation clicks in underwater recordings from the Gulf of Mexico, researchers report online December 7 in PLOS Computational Biology. Identifying which species produce the newly discovered click varieties could help scientists better keep tabs on wild dolphin populations and movements. Dolphin tracking is traditionally done with boats or planes, but that’s expensive, says study coauthor Kaitlin Frasier, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. A cheaper alternative is to sift through seafloor recordings — which pick up the echolocation clicks that dolphins make to navigate, find food and socialize. By comparing different click types to recordings at the surface — where researchers can see which animals are making the noise — scientists can learn what different species sound like, and use those clicks to map the animals’ movements deep underwater. But even experts have trouble sorting recorded clicks, because the distinguishing features of these signals are so subtle. “When you have analysts manually going through a dataset, then there’s a lot of bias introduced just from the human perception,” says Simone Baumann-Pickering, a biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography not involved in the work. “Person A may see things differently than person B.” So far, scientists have only determined the distinct sounds of a few species.
12-7-17 Narwhals react to certain dangers in a really strange way
‘Unicorns of the sea’ fleeing humans show the physiological signs of also being frozen in fear. When escaping from humans, narwhals don’t just freeze or flee. They do both. These deep-diving marine mammals have similar physiological responses to those of an animal frozen in fear: Their heart rate, breathing and metabolism slow, mimicking a “deer in the headlights” reaction. But narwhals (Monodon monoceros) take this freeze response to extremes. The animals decrease their heart rate to as slow as three beats per minute for more than 10 minutes, while pumping their tails as much as 25 strokes per minute during an escape dive, an international team of researchers reports in the Dec. 8 Science. “That was astounding to us because there are other marine mammals that can have heart rates that low but not typically for that long a period of time, and especially not while they’re swimming as hard as they can,” says Terrie Williams, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. So far, this costly escape has been observed only after a prolonged interaction with humans. Usually, narwhals will escape natural predators such as killer whales by stealthily slipping under ice sheets or huddling in spots too shallow for their pursuers, Williams says. But interactions with humans — something that will happen increasingly as melting sea ice opens up the Arctic — may be changing that calculus.
12-7-17 Narwhal escape: Whales freeze and flee when frightened
Scientists who fitted heart rate-monitoring tags to Arctic narwhals have discovered a strange paradox in how the animals respond to threats. When these tusked whales are frightened, their hearts slow, but at the same time they swim quickly to escape. Scientists say the response could be "highly costly" - because they exert themselves with a limited blood supply. The findings are published in the journal Science. They raise questions about how the enigmatic "unicorns of the sea" will cope with increasing human intrusion on their Arctic habitat. Historically, narwhals have not come into contact with much human disturbance, because they live mainly hidden among Arctic sea ice. But in recent decades, as the ice has declined, this is changing. "Shipping and exploration for oil and gas is moving into the narwhals' world," said lead researcher Dr Terrie Williams, from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Having developed technology to study the physiology of dolphins at her home institute, she explained that her collaborator on this study - Dr Mads Peter Heide-Jorgensen, from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources - contacted her to see if her tags could be used on wild narwhals. "His research allowed him to work with hunters; instead of the animals being killed, he releases them with satellite tags," Dr Williams explained. "So this was an incredible opportunity to look at the biology of a deep-diving whale." The tags she developed incorporate a heart monitor with depth and acceleration measurement, as well as a satellite tracking device. "We're riding the back of a narwhal for days with this technology and it's just astounding to me," she told BBC News.
12-6-17 Wildebeest no more: The death of Africa’s great migrations
Many of Africa's savannahs are emptying of wildlife as cattle fences kill its charismatic fauna. But we are finding ways to save them. WE DEFLATED our tyres so that they could ooze through the Kalahari sand on our search for herds of wildlife migrating across the savannah. Eager ecologists from Australia, we scanned the horizons for dust clouds or heaving bodies. Instead, we were shocked to find that southern Africa’s great plains were mostly empty. We expected teeming herds of wildlife; we were confronted by a profusion of fences that sliced across the landscape. We had not realised before our holiday visit in April and May this year that Africa’s iconic migrations are dying. Fifteen large mammals used to travel en masse across the continent, but five had already stopped by 2008, when the first migration audit was carried out. Most of those that remain are now in jeopardy, and the fences we encountered over and over again share the blame. My colleagues have warned of disastrous and far-reaching consequences, yet the problem has received relatively little attention from the international community. Long-distance migrations are among the most spectacular and heroic of natural events, and the majority are in Africa. For 10 million years, hoofed animals – ungulates – have evolved in lockstep with its savannah grasses. They thrived thanks to one outstanding characteristic: mobility. In their millions, wildebeest, eland, impala, kob, hartebeest, springbok and many others tracked the shifting seasonal patterns of greening vegetation. Two regions reign supreme: the Serengeti Mara of East Africa and the Kalahari of southern Africa focused on Botswana, which was where we were. The wildebeest is the keystone species in both places: without it predators such as the lion, cheetah and wild dog wouldn’t survive.
12-6-17 Japan’s refusal to stop ivory trade undermines bans elsewhere
Even though other countries are clamping down on illegal ivory, the unconstrained trade in Japan may offer loopholes for criminals to keep selling ivory – fuelling elephant poaching. Japan has got out of implementing tough measures to clamp down on domestic sales of ivory. The move could undermine the international effort to halt the ivory trade. Elephants are poached for the ivory in their tusks, which is sold on to consumers in Asian countries like China and Vietnam. As a result, the ivory trade is a significant threat to elephants’ survival. Last week, the standing committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the global body that regulates trade in animal parts, met in Geneva. Several countries, particularly from Africa where elephants are poached, lobbied for CITES to force Japan to introduce a national ivory action plan. This would have forced the country to take concrete steps to clamp down, possibly including a ban on the domestic trade in antique ivory. However, Japan managed to sidestep the proposal. “It’s let Japan off the hook,” says Matthew Collis, director of international policy at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “It leaves this huge loophole where new material can be brought in.” In contrast, China plans to close all such loopholes by the end of the year. The US is also working towards a comprehensive ban, although in November President Donald Trump announced that he might continue to allow hunting trophies to be imported.
12-5-17 Sumatran tigers fall 17 per cent and have just two strongholds
There are now only two viable populations of Sumatran tigers left in the wild, so if the cats are to be saved those areas have to be protected. Sumatran tigers are running out of places to live. Their population fell by 16.6 per cent between 2000 and 2012, and the remaining tigers are trapped in shrinking forests. “We’re really at a tipping point in terms of how much habitat is left that tigers need for their long-term survival,” says Matthew Luskin at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. The Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is a subspecies of tiger, only found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is critically endangered, due to poaching, the expanding oil palm industry and rampant deforestation. Luskin and his colleagues spent a year tracking tigers through Sumatran forests, using cameras to track each individual animal. They combined their data with other scientists’ results, allowing them to accurately estimate how many Sumatran tigers are left. They focused on the number of females able to reproduce, which is a crucial indicator of the tigers’ long-term chances. Conservationists tend to focus on protecting populations that have at least 25 breeding females, to avoid inbreeding. Luskin’s team found that there are now only two habitats with viable populations, down from the 12 thought to have existed 70 years ago. Gunung Leuser in the north and Kerinci Seblat farther south have 48 and 42 breeding females respectively. The researchers say the population decline is driven by the rapid loss of the tigers’ habitat. Indonesia has the fastest deforestation rate of any country: it lost 60,000 square kilometres (37 per cent) of its primary forest between 2000 and 2012. During that period, 16.5 per cent of tiger-occupied forest vanished.
12-5-17 How UK's birds are being affected by a changing climate
Migratory birds are arriving in the UK earlier each spring and leaving later each autumn, a report has confirmed. Some visitors are now appearing more than 20 days earlier than they did in the 1960s, according to the state of the UK's birds 2017 report. The swallow, for instance, is arriving 15 days earlier than 50 years ago. Ongoing monitoring is essential to track the future effects of a changing climate on birds, says a coalition of wildlife organisations. The report is by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) , the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and the UK's nature conservation bodies. It pulls together data from the latest bird surveys and monitoring studies. The report warns that there will be winner and losers in a changing world, with opportunities for some bird species but higher extinction risks for others. Some, such as the night heron, are breeding in the UK for the first time as their range expands north, while others, such as the snow bunting are in decline. Dr Daniel Hayhow, lead author of the report, said familiar species such as swallows and sand martins are changing their migratory behaviour. ''We need to take that almost as a warning sign,'' he told BBC News. ''The report is aiming to show to people that these changes are happening and there is potential for such changes in timing to cause a mismatch between the time when the chicks need to be fed and the food that's available for them, meaning they may be less successful in their breeding.''
12-4-17 Macho, macho monkey: female monkeys gaze more at masculine faces
Female monkeys spend more time staring at males that have highly masculine facial features, but we don’t know if they fancy them or fear them. Female monkeys spend more time staring at males with strong masculine facial features. But it’s not clear why their gaze lingers like this. Face structure often varies between male and female members of a species. In humans, men tend to have heavier brows, squarer jaws, deeper-set eyes and thinner lips than women. Some researchers believe that facial masculinity signals mate quality, but this is hotly contested. To find out, Kevin Rosenfield, who was at Roehampton University in the UK when the study was performed, and his colleagues examined facial preference in monkeys. They studied 107 free-ranging female rhesus macaques on the island of Cayo Santiago in Puerto Rico. Each female was simultaneously shown two photos of male faces, one of which was more masculine than the other. Masculine features included bigger jaws, longer noses, and smaller eyes. When the two faces had similar levels of masculinity, the females spent equal time observing them. But when the differences were more obvious, they spent an average of 1.9 seconds staring at the more masculine face, compared to 1.5s looking at the less masculine one. They may have been attracted to them, perhaps because they associated them with better genes. Alternatively, they may have been scared of them because they associated them with aggression. (Webmaster's comment: The same happens in human females. The more of a brute he is the better his genes are for making offspring that will survive.)
12-2-17 Chief vet defends support of larger hen cages
Some cages for hens provide a "necessary defence" against bird flu, the government's chief vet has said. In a tweet, Nigel Gibbens said the larger pens, which replaced so-called battery cages in 2012, have welfare benefits and offer more space. It comes after 10 leading British vets, who believe caging hens is unethical, said his "brazen endorsement" was "extremely disappointing". They said the restricted space was "seriously detrimental to welfare". Battery cages for chickens were banned in the EU in 2012. The ruling said that if laying hens were to be held they must be in enriched - also known as colony - cages instead. The enriched cages provided extra space to nest, scratch and roost and the guidance from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), is that each bird in an enriched cage must have at least 750 square centimetres of space. The minimum for battery cages was 550 square centimetres. (Webmaster's comment: That's a space 9 1/4 by 9 1/4 inches. How can you grow anything healthy in that space?) Despite the banning of battery cages, a number of leading retailers have announced that they are moving towards selling free-range eggs only. But at the Egg and Poultry Industry Conference in October, Mr Gibbens called this a "regrettable move" and said cages "have a lot going for them".
12-1-17 Dogs boost longevity
Any dog owner can tell you a canine companion makes life better. But new research has found a pooch can also make life longer and healthier—particularly if you live alone. Scientists in Sweden examined the health and dog-ownership records of some 3.4 million people between 40 and 80 years old. They found that for those who live alone, owning a dog is associated with a 33 percent lower risk of death and a 36 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease over a 12-year period. The study found that dog ownership was also beneficial for those who didn’t live alone, cutting their overall risk of death by 11 percent, reports CNN.com. The researchers say it’s unclear whether the companionship and emotional support a dog provides alone explains their findings, or whether lifestyle changes associated with owning a dog—including taking Fido out for walks—are also a factor. “There are numerous studies showing that dog owners get more physical activity, which could help to prolong a healthy life,” says senior researcher Tove Fall. It’s also possible that exposure to a dog’s germs, fur, and slobber could also strengthen the immune system.
12-1-17 Hummingbirds have massive hearts to power their hovering flight
Birds that hover in front of flowers have huge hearts to power their energy-intensive flight, and even birds that glide effortlessly need fairly big hearts to keep it up. How well a bird flies depends on how big its heart is. The best flyers, like hummingbirds that dexterously hover in front of flowers, have the largest hearts. But unexpectedly, soaring and gliding turns out to be almost as much work as flapping wings. Previous research had suggested this, because sustained flight requires more aerobic power, which depends on heart size. The heart is like a carburetor pumping fuel into an engine: the bigger the heart, the more blood a bird can pump to its flight muscles. Hummingbirds have the biggest hearts for their body size, about three per cent of their mass. In contrast, a pelican’s heart is just 0.8 per cent of its mass. When a hummingbird hovers in place, air doesn’t move past its wings to generate the lift needed to keep it aloft. Instead, it beats its wings in a figure-of-eight pattern up to 80 times per second to generate its own airflow, much like a helicopter. This is energetically costly, says Roberto Nespolo at the Austral University of Chile in Valdivia. “A helicopter uses a hundred times or more fuel than an airplane of the same size, because all the sustainability given by aerodynamics of wings is paid by the rapid hovering of the rotor.” But most birds don’t fly this way. Some flap their wings up and down to provide thrust, like geese. Others, like eagles and woodpeckers, soar and glide on updrafts of hot air. Finally, some ground-dwelling birds, like pheasants, take occasional “short flights: short strong bursts of flapping flight.