No matter where you look, just about every creature
is obsessed with:
sex, real estate, who's the boss, and what's for dinner.
53 Animal Intelligence News Articles
for January of 2018
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
1-31-18 ‘Speaking’ orca is further proof they shouldn’t be kept captive
An orca called Wikie who learned to mimic human speech could teach us a lot about killer whale culture – but that’s no reason to keep orcas in captivity. An orca has apparently learned to mimic a few words of human speech, like “hello” and “bye bye” – although whether or not it is actually making those sounds relies on a bit of very creative listening. But even if the female orca called Wikie is really capable of mimicking us, it is more than just a cute finding. It sheds light on the mysterious cultures and dialects that orcas have created. And it is further evidence that these remarkable animals shouldn’t be held in captivity. Orcas are also known as killer whales, although they are actually dolphins. Josep Call at the University of St Andrews, UK, and his colleagues trained Wikie, which lives in an aquarium in France, to copy a range of sounds on command. Wikie quickly learned to do this, and was even able to approximate more complex vocalisations like “one, two, three” (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, doi.org/cj2z). Only a handful of animals have previously been shown to be able to mimic human speech. For example, an orangutan called Rocky learned to say simple words like “hi”. For many animals, human speech is impossible because their vocal tracts aren’t built the right way. Even if they wanted to make the sounds, and their brains could generate the complex instructions required, they don’t have the equipment. Orcas appear to be one of the exceptions to this rule.
1-31-18 People are using mosquito nets for fishing and that’s a bad idea
In many tropical countries mosquito nets are handed out to help stop the spread of malaria, but it seems they are often being repurposed as fishing nets. Mosquito nets are being widely used for fishing in poor countries around the world. The practice may be particularly unsustainable because the fine mesh of the nets means lots of juvenile fish are caught. But it’s not clear what can be done to stop it. Handing out free or subsidised mosquito nets is one of the most effective ways to tackle malaria. However, there have been anecdotal reports of people using the nets for fishing, rather than for protection while asleep. To find out how common this is, Rebecca Short of the Zoological Society of London asked people living in malarial areas to fill out an online survey. The 113 respondents reported 94 observations of mosquito net fishing around the tropics, with most coming from Africa. “Madagascar, as an example, appears to have people fishing with these nets along much of its coastline and inland waters,” says co-author Rajina Gurung of Imperial College London. Most reports were of people on foot using a single net. But in some instances several nets were sewn together, and the nets deployed from boats. There were also three reports of insecticides being used to kill fish before they were scooped out of the water (PLOS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0191519). It will be tricky to tackle this issue while also ensuring people are protected against malaria. “No one has a quick and easy solution,” says Short.
1-31-18 Primate archaeology: Digging up secrets of the monkey Stone Age
The discovery that chimps and some monkeys have a long history of making tools is forcing us to rethink our own cultural evolution A CASHEW is a tough nut to crack. You must carefully balance it on an anvil and bash it with a hammer, while avoiding contact with the caustic resin in its shell. This takes great skill. Yet bearded capuchin monkeys living in north-east Brazil take it in their stride. And their tool-wielding talents don’t end there. They also dig for tubers and insects with rocks. Females sometimes even hurl them at males in what appears to be an unusual flirting tactic. We used to think that using tools was the preserve of our hominin linage and one of the remarkable talents that made us human. So much for that idea… In fact, we have known for some years that our closest living relatives, chimps, employ a variety of tools, including some made of stone. Recently, primatologists have been intrigued to discover that this also applies to two more-distant cousins – the capuchins and macaques living in a coastal region of Thailand. The findings have attracted the attention of archaeologists keen to explore the so-called Stone Ages of non-human primates. Digging through layers of dirt, they have already unearthed the remains of tools made thousands of years ago. Their discoveries usher in the new discipline of primate archaeology, which has the potential to give novel insights not just about these species but also about our distant ancestors.
1-31-18 Hong Kong bans ivory trade in 'historic' vote
Hong Kong's lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly to ban the trade in ivory, in a move campaigners termed "a lifeline for elephants". A similar ban was brought in across mainland China earlier this year. Ivory sales will be phased out gradually in Hong Kong, stopping completely in 2021. Prior to the vote, demonstrators gathered outside Hong Kong's legislature with signs reading: Do you really need ivory chopsticks? "Shutting down this massive ivory market has thrown a lifeline to elephants," said Bert Wander of the global advocacy group Avaaz. Ivory from animal tusks - mostly those of elephants - has been traded in Hong Kong for more than 150 years. More than 90% of those buying ivory in the territory are from the Chinese mainland, which had hitherto been the world's largest importer of elephant tusks. The trade in Hong Kong will cease in three stages. First, there will be a ban on hunting trophies and ivory from after 1975, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) took effect. Later, ivory obtained before 1975 will also be included. And finally, traders will be obliged to dispose of their stock by 2021.
1-31-18 Lobsters and crabs should not be boiled alive, say campaigners
More than 50 high-profile campaigners and celebrities have called for stronger protection to prevent lobsters and crabs being cooked alive. They have signed a letter urging Environment Secretary Michael Gove to categorise the crustaceans as sentient organisms in a new Animal Welfare Bill. The organisers point to mounting scientific evidence that shows the animals can feel pain. Signatories include presenter Chris Packham and comedian Bill Bailey. They also include representatives from the RSPCA and the British Veterinary Association. Establishing whether some animal groups feel pain can take years of scientific research. But there has been considerable scientific research on sentience in decapods - the crustacean group that includes lobsters and crabs - since Parliament passed the Animal Welfare Act in 2006. Maisie Tomlinson, from the campaign group Crustacean Compassion, which organised the letter, told BBC News: "It's really not acceptable to be boiling animals alive, to be cutting them up alive. "All the evidence out there at the moment points to the notion that they're capable of experiencing pain." The letter to Mr Gove says: "In light of the extreme practices they are subjected to, we call on the government to include decapod crustaceans under the definition of 'animal' in the Animal Welfare Bill (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) and in the Animal Welfare Act 2006."
1-30-18 A more humane way of slaughtering chickens might get EU approval
A new system that apparently kills chickens without distress by lowering the air pressure could soon be approved in Europe, offering a humane death for billions of birds. A way of slaughtering chickens that is said to be painless and to reduce their distress is one step closer to being used in Europe. If approved, it has the potential to improve how 60 billion birds are killed for meat globally each year. Low atmospheric pressure stunning (LAPS) was developed by TechnoCatch in Mississippi. The European Food Safety Authority has now recommended that it be approved for use in the European Union. In a report released in December, the EFSA says LAPS outdoes or equals existing systems for humane slaughter. LAPS is supported by several animal welfare organisations, like the Humane Slaughter Association. While these regret the widespread slaughter of animals, they campaign for the most humane methods while demand for meat continues. “[LAPS] has potential to significantly improve meat chicken welfare beyond systems used today,” says Marc Cooper at the UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Most abattoirs first render chickens unconscious, then cut their throats to kill them. There are two main methods of stunning birds: electrocuting them in a water bath and gassing them with carbon dioxide. In both cases, it is difficult to ensure that the birds are fully unconscious. Birds undergoing LAPS gradually lose consciousness until they are irreversibly brain-dead, and are then killed in the conventional way.
1-30-18 A killer whale gives a raspberry and says ‘hello’
Mimicry of human sounds supports the idea that imitation matters in the cetaceans’ own dialects. Ready for sketch comedy she’s not. But a 14-year-old killer whale named Wikie has shown promise in mimicking strange sounds, such as a human “hello” — plus some rude noises. Scientists recorded Wikie at her home in Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France, imitating another killer whale’s loud “raspberry” sounds, as well as a trumpeting elephant and humans saying such words as “one, two, three.” The orca’s efforts were overall “recognizable” as attempted copies, comparative psychologist José Zamorano Abramson of Complutense University of Madrid and colleagues report January 31 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Just how close Wikie’s imitations come to the originals depends on whether you’re emphasizing the rhythm or other aspects of sound, Abramson says. Six people judged Wikie’s mimicry ability, and a computer program also rated her skills. She did better at some sounds, like blowing raspberries and saying “hello-hello,” than others, including saying “bye-bye.”
1-30-18 The killer whale that can say 'hello' and 'bye bye'
A killer whale that can mimic words such as "hello" and "bye bye" is thought to be the first of its kind to copy human speech. The female learned to "speak" a handful of human words by copying a trainer at a marine park in France. The animal's repertoire includes the name "Amy" and "one, two, three". Whales and dolphins are among the few animals other than humans that can learn to produce a novel sound just by hearing it. "In mammals it is very rare," said Dr Josep Call of the University of St Andrews, a co-researcher on the study. "Humans obviously are good at it... Interestingly, the mammals that can do best are marine mammals." The researchers set out to find out whether killer whales could learn new vocalisations by imitating others. They studied a female named Wikie at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France. She was taught to speak human words through her blowhole and can be heard in recordings mimicking words such as hello and Amy, and counting one, two, three, using squawks, shrill whistles or raspberries. Killer whales are known to live in groups with unique vocal "dialects". They may copy other members of their kind in the wild, although this needs to be tested. "The killer whale that we studied in captivity was capable of learning vocalisations of other killer whales and also human vocalisations by imitating them," said Dr Call. "Therefore this result suggests this is also a plausible explanation for how killer whales in the wild learn the vocalisations of other killer whales and how they develop their dialects."
1-29-18 Snake alarm call makes birds scan for approaching predators
The ability to visualise an object associated with a sound was once thought to be unique to humans. But some birds seem to have that ability as well, a study has found. When we hear a sound associated with a particular object, we are primed to see that object too. The ability to visualise something in this way was once thought to be unique to humans. But some birds seem to have that ability as well, a study has found. When the Japanese tit hears a rattling alarm call like that of a snake, it responds as if a snake was nearby and reacts to objects that might be moving like a snake. Scientists used a wooden stick to demonstrate the same talent in the Japanese tit, a songbird that produces particular alarm calls only when it encounters dangerous snakes. In a series of experiments, recordings of snake-specific calls were played while the birds approached a stick being moved in a serpentine fashion up a tree trunk or along the ground. The birds responded as if threatened, but ignored the stick if other non-snake alarm calls were played or the stick’s movement was not snake-like enough. “These birds do not respond to the calls in a uniform way, but appear to retrieve a snake image and then decide how to deal with the predator according to the circumstance,” says team leader Toshitaka Suzuki, from the Centre for Ecological Research at Kyoto University, Japan. “With a snake’s image in mind, tits can efficiently search out a snake regardless of its spatial position.”
1-29-18 Slower speed, tricky turns give prey a chance against cheetahs and lions
A treasure trove of chase data from the wild shows how to escape more athletic predators. First, a note to any impala suddenly rushed by a cheetah: Do not — repeat, do not — just zoom straight off as fast as four hooves can carry you. The best escape move, according to analysis of the most detailed chase data yet from big cat predators, is some fluky turn, even though turning requires a slower stride. Swerve far enough, and the cheetah will be racing too fast to make the same turn. Overall, cheetahs and lions are more athletic than the impalas and zebras they chase, but prey still have a chance, says Alan Wilson of the Royal Veterinary College of the University of London in Hatfield. He and his colleagues worked with researchers in Botswana to collect abundant motion data — several hundred thousand strides’ worth — from wild animals and reconstruct their sprints and turns. “You’re actually doing a step-by-step dissection,” Wilson says, “which is pretty cool.” (Webmaster's comment: Same principles applied in Vietnam. America's supersonic jets with their hot shot pilots couldn't turn worth a damn and were dropped like flies by Russian subsonic, highly maneuverable Mig 17's.)
1-29-18 Here’s why so many saiga antelope mysteriously died in 2015
Weather conditions on the Kazak steppes were just right for normally benign nose bacteria to turn lethal. Spring calving season for the saiga antelope of central Kazakhstan is a delight for the researchers who keep tabs on the critically endangered animals. During the day, thousands of newborn saigas lie quiet, hidden within a sea of waving grass. Mothers return twice daily to feed them. “If you come at dawn and dusk, it’s magical,” says E.J. Milner-Gulland, a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford who has studied saigas for 27 years. “You hear this mewing noise, and all the babies come rushing up to the females.” The sight that greeted Milner-Gulland’s colleagues in 2015, however, was horrific. Mothers and calves, behaving normally one day, suddenly became lethargic. Weakness, collapse and death soon followed. “It was like a switch was turned on in each animal,” says wildlife veterinarian Richard Kock of the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London. Mothers died first. Helpless calves, obviously distressed, tried to suckle from their dead mothers, but eventually succumbed hours later. In three short weeks, more than 200,000 carcasses littered the steppes. Even before the mystery illness, saigas (Saiga tatarica tatarica) had been under assault, their populations in steep decline from poachers who wanted their horns and meat. Habitat loss and migration-route obstructions from fences and new railways didn’t help.
1-27-18 Global register lists alien species
The first global register of alien species shows that a fifth of 6,400 plants and animals catalogued are causing harm. Some of the biggest factors in their spread are ballast water in ships for marine species and trade in ornamental plants on land, say scientists. They released data for 20 countries this week, with the aim of completing the register by the end of the year. Invasive species are living things that are not native to an ecosystem. They can harm the environment, the economy, or human health. For instance, rats can cause bird extinctions on islands, while the crown-of-thorns star fish is smothering parts of the Great Barrier Reef. The Global Register of Introduced and Invasive Species (GRIIS) provides the first country-wide checklists of introduced and invasive species. "The GRIIS is not about any single one of these, but about all of them and about the many thousands of species that have become naturalised outside of their historical ranges across the world as a result of human activity," said Melodie McGeoch of the IUCN Invasive Species Specialist Group in Rome, Italy. "Until now there has been highly uneven distribution of knowledge on invasive species globally." The register will generate information that is publically available on all kinds of invasive species across the world. (Webmaster's comment: Does it list the invasive species causing the greatest harm, HUMANS?)
1-27-18 Climate change could spell disaster for male painted turtles
Nest temperature determines a turtle's gender. And guess which gender warm nests produce? searchers from Iowa State University say there's a danger climate change will warp the sex ratio of painted turtles, leading to dramatic reductions in reproduction. For many reptiles, including the painted turtle, gender is determined by the environment during nesting, says Iowa State biologist Rory Telemeco — in contrast to mammals, whose chromosomes determine gender. "The temperature during a fairly short window of about a month in the middle third of development determines whether or not the offspring will be male or female, with cool nests producing males and warm nests producing females," Telemeco explains. Potentially, then, warmer temperatures could mean many more females are born than males. Like many other of Earth's organisms, shifts in the painted turtle's onset of reproduction are rapidly occurring, Telemeco says. "We see flowers blooming earlier, leaves bursting earlier on trees. Birds and butterflies are migrating earlier. Frogs are singing earlier, and things like turtles and lizards are nesting earlier in the year. It's a really common response," he explains. "This leads to the question: Are these organisms [effectively] buffering themselves from climate change by nesting and doing their things earlier in the year when it's a little cooler? We really wanted to know whether or not that was going to work. So, we looked at these turtles." Telemeco and his colleagues examined 25 years of research on a single population of painted turtles in the Mississippi River and plugged their data into a mathematical model. They found that nesting earlier, by itself, will do little good.
1-25-18 Chimps are now dying of the common cold and they are all at risk
The deaths of five Ugandan chimpanzees have been traced to a human cold virus, and DNA tests suggest all African chimps are vulnerable . As if poaching, logging, habitat loss and climate change aren’t bad enough, wild chimpanzees now face a new, deadly peril: a virus that causes common colds in people. The threat has been exposed after an investigation of an outbreak of respiratory disease that struck chimps in 2013. The outbreak occurred in the Kanyawara community in Uganda’s Kibale National Park. Out of 56 chimpanzees, five died: almost 10 per cent of the population. A detailed post mortem on a two-year-old chimp called Betty, who died of severe pneumonia, demonstrated almost beyond doubt that human rhinovirus C was to blame. Genes from human rhinovirus C were found throughout Betty’s fluid-filled lungs and respiratory tract. No other viruses or infectious agents were detected. “It was the smoking gun in that animal, a virus that shouldn’t be there, and no others,” says lead author Tony Goldberg of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We think this human common cold virus represents a grave threat to chimpanzees all across Africa.” Unlike cold rhinoviruses A and B, rhinovirus C poses a special threat because it evolved relatively recently in humans. It caused widespread infant mortality from around 8000 years ago, when the rise of farming drove people to live closer together. Half the human population now has immunity to rhinovirus C. However, many still carry a variant of the CDHR3 gene that makes them especially susceptible, intensifying symptoms and raising the risk of childhood asthma.
1-24-18 How to escape from a lion or cheetah - the science
The antelope can never out-run the cheetah, but it can survive the chase if it twists and turns sharply at the last minute. That's the finding of a study that tracks the dance of death between the fastest land animal and its prey. Researchers have been analysing how zebra and antelope escape from lions and cheetahs on the African savannah. They say hunting at lower speed favours prey, as it offers them the best chance of out-manoeuvring the predator. "In the final stages of a hunt, it isn't about high speed," said Alan Wilson of the Royal Veterinary College, University of London, UK. "If the prey tries to run away at speed, it is a very bad move because the predator is faster and can accelerate more quickly, so that plays into the predator's hands. "The optimum tactics of the prey is to run relatively slowly and turn very sharply at the last moment." To determine how wild animals are able to compete for survival on the savannah, scientists compared the athletic abilities of lions and cheetahs with that of their favourite prey - zebra and impala (a type of antelope).
1-24-18 Shy pangolin hides its face in Mozambique forest
THEY have been called the most hunted animal in the world, so perhaps you can’t blame this pangolin for hiding its face. Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) is found across a vast swathe of eastern and southern Africa. It has no teeth – pangolins are Africa’s ecological answer to anteaters, tearing into termite mounds and pulling out insects with their sticky tongues, as this one is doing in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Its tools are tough claws that it curls under its arms when it walks. The mammal is secretive and nocturnal. While it can rely on its formidable scales for protection against hyenas and leopards – its traditional hunters – it doesn’t fare well against people after it for bushmeat or bogus medicine. The extraordinary armour is made of the same stuff as hair; burning the scales is thought in parts of East Africa to repel lions, or they can be used in “medicine”. In some areas, it is considered good luck to present a pangolin to the local chief, village shaman or rainmaker. None of this supposed luck rubs off on the animal, of course. The IUCN Red List of endangered species classifies Temminck’s ground pangolin as vulnerable to extinction, and projects a decline in population size of between 30 and 40 per cent in the next few decades.
1-23-18 Antarctica's Weddell Sea 'deserves protected status'
A submersible mission in Antarctic waters has revealed unique ecosystems so rare they deserve special protection, say scientists. The seabed investigation, co-ordinated by the campaign group Greenpeace, will help build the case for the creation of the world's largest wildlife sanctuary. Covering 1.8 million sq km, the marine reserve will be considered by Antarctic nations at a conference in October. It would ban all fishing in a large part of the Weddell Sea. The restrictions would also apply in a zone near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Along with the smaller creatures that live on the seafloor, the reserve would bring additional protection to larger animals such as leopard seals, orcas, humpback whales and penguins.
1-23-18 The human-elephant conflict in India's tea state Assam
Growers of world-famous Assam tea are encroaching into forests, fuelling a conflict between elephants and humans, locals and authorities in the Indian state have said. Officials blame small-scale plantations for most of the encroachment but local leaders told the BBC there was no up-to-date land survey of bigger tea "estates" either. A major association of tea companies has rejected the accusation, arguing that forest coverage is in its members' interest. However, a study by the Indian government has found that tea gardens are contributing to Assam's deforestation. "The decrease in forest cover of the state is mainly due to encroachment in forest land, biotic pressure, rotational felling in tea gardens and shifting cultivation," the environment ministry's State of the Forest report said in 2015. Official figures show nearly 800 people were killed by wild elephants in Assam between 2006 and 2016. One person dies every day in India after coming into contact with an elephant or tiger, according to the most recent figures made public by the government last year. Between 2014 and 2015, casualties related to elephant attacks were the highest in West Bengal state followed by Assam, which recorded 54 deaths in that period.
1-22-18 New Caledonian crows show how technology evolves
Tool-making crows have allowed us to see the first foundations of a technological breakthrough. New Caledonian crows spontaneously make hooks out of plant material, using them to "fish" for grubs and spiders. Experiments have now revealed that these hooked tools are 10 times faster at retrieving a snack than the alternative tool - a simple twig. Measuring the hooks' effectiveness tells scientists something about what drove this tool-use to evolve. Beyond that, the scientists say the insight has provided them a first glimpse of the "evolution of a new technology" in the animal kingdom. The findings are published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution. These crows are the only animals known to make hooks. The earliest human-made fishing hooks - from about 23,000 years ago - were one of the most significant technological milestones. The archaeologists, who unearthed these seashell-carved hooks in a cave on the Japanese island of Okinawa, said this early "maritime technology" had allowed humans to survive on islands. Lead researcher on the crows study, Prof Christian Rutz, told BBC News: "[Our invention of fish hooks] was incredibly recent - only 1,000 generations ago, which is an eye-blink in evolutionary terms. "When you think that we went in that 1,000 generations from crafting fish hooks to building space shuttles - that's absolutely mind-boggling." Understanding what drove the crows' tool-manufacturing provides Prof Rutz and his colleagues with a unique and valuable "non-human model" to investigate the origins of this fundamental step in human progress. "When I see these crows making hooked tools, I have a glimpse of the very foundations of a technology that is evolving," Prof Rutz said. Juan Lapuente, an ecologist from Wurzburg University in Germany, who studies primate tool-use, said the tool-making and tool-using behaviour in crows was "amazing".He added: "We tend to assume that the closer an animal is to us, the more intelligent it should be and thus we understand more easily that primates and especially the chimpanzees make and use tools. "But we have to be more humble and accept that many 'small-brained' animals are intelligent enough to make and use tools and sometimes are even more proficient at this task than our cousins." Prof Rutz said that while he could only speculate about the future development of crow-made tools, he did not think making these hooks was "the end of the story" for the birds. "I think this species will come up with even better tools," he said. (Webmaster's comment: In 1,000 years or less when humans go extinct I expect birds will begin to dominate the planet. Hopefully they'll do a better job of it.)
1-22-18 Why you can't judge a zebra by its stripes
You can't judge a zebra by its stripes. That's the finding of research that is shaking up the family tree of the African wild horse. The common (plains) zebra lives on the grasslands of eastern and southern Africa, from southern Ethiopia to northern Namibia. DNA evidence challenges the idea that there are six subspecies that you can tell apart based on variations in the animal's distinctive black and white stripes. Dr Rasmus Heller of the University of Copenhagen says there's little evidence that differences in striping patterns "mean anything in a biological sense". "At least we can say that the striping pattern does not contain much information about the history of the plains zebra, and how the different populations relate to each other," he said. The study, based on analysing variations in the DNA of 59 plains zebra from across Africa, suggests that there are nine populations of the zebra living in different areas of the continent. This knowledge is important when it comes to conservation, the scientists say. "We now have a much clearer impression of which populations should be monitored, ie. are more vulnerable to loss of genetic diversity," said Dr Heller. "This is particularly true for the two Ugandan populations, which have markedly lower genetic diversity and are relatively isolated from other populations." While zebra are still found in large numbers across Africa, some populations - in Uganda and parts of Tanzania - are dwindling in number. The northern-most population from northern Uganda is by far the most genetically distinct from the others, the research shows. To maintain high levels of genetic diversity in the species, there need to be corridors of suitable habitat for zebra to roam. "To maintain the populations that we have today, we have to maintain these habitat corridors, " said co-researcher, Casper-Emil Pedersen, also of the University of Copenhagen.
1-22-18 Here’s the key ingredient that lets a centipede’s bite take down prey
The good news is an epilepsy drug helps counteract the creepy-crawly’s newly identified ‘spooky toxin’. Knocking out an animal 15 times your size — no problem. A newly identified toxin in the venom of a tropical centipede helps the arthropod to overpower giant prey in about 30 seconds. Insight into how this venom overwhelms lab mice could lead to an antidote for people who suffer excruciatingly painful, reportedly even fatal, centipede bites, an international research team reports the week of January 22 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In Hawaii, centipede bites account for about 400 emergency room visits a year, according to data from 2004 to 2008. The main threat there is Scolopendra subspinipes, an agile species almost as long as a human hand. The subspecies S. subspinipes mutilans starred in studies at the Kunming Institute of Zoology in China and collaborating labs. Researchers there found a small peptide, now named “spooky toxin,” largely responsible for venom misery.
1-21-18 How biodiversity prepares us for the future
Diversity makes it easy for life to find a way.A small boy hauls enthusiastically on his fishing rod. The line flies up and a needle-spined fish strikes him in the eye. Desperate to stay outdoors, he ignores the pain, but his sight deteriorates over the following months. He continues to pursue his love of nature but, now blind in one eye, he is confined to studying creatures that are easy to see: insects. He grows to become the global authority on ants, and in later life is given the moniker "the father of biodiversity." The man is E.O. Wilson, the eminent American biologist. In his book The Diversity of Life (1992), he described biodiversity as an assemblage that "has eaten the storms — folded them into its genes — and created the world that created us. It holds the world steady." We tend to think of biodiversity as a landscape of teeming jungles and coral reefs, its destruction manifesting as forest clearance and species extinction. However, these images don't capture the full significance of the equilibrium that Wilson described. Biodiversity is not just the abundance of life on Earth. Rather, it is what maintains the resilience and flexibility of the environment as a whole, so that life can weather the inevitable "storms."
1-20-18 New Zealand debates access to dead sea life footage
New Zealand's fishing industry has found itself at odds with conservationists over whether or not the public should be allowed to see the realities of commercial fishing. In the waters around New Zealand - as many countries - animals including sea birds, dolphins, penguins and sea lions are routinely ending up in commercial fishing nets along with the intended catch. In an attempt to better measure the impact of this "bycatch" on endangered wildlife, the government has started tighter monitoring, and as part of that, is proposing putting security cameras on boats. The fisheries do not deny there is bycatch and that endangered animals do fall victim. But what should happen to the footage from these cameras has generated a debate. The industry says it should be withheld from the public, fearing it might be misunderstood, or misused as propaganda. But this, say conservationists, is an attempt to hide the impact of commercial fishing on endangered species. They say the public should know if the likes of the small New Zealand native Hector's dolphin are falling victim to the fisheries. Under existing rules, fishing vessels only occasionally have observers onboard to log and report the cases. On all other vessels, the fishing company itself is responsible for logging the bycatch. While accidentally catching endangered species has no legal consequences, not reporting the bycatch incurs a fine, as authorities want to monitor the environmental impact of commercial fishing. They might also ban fishing for a while in areas where, for example, a sea lion has been killed. (Webmaster's comment: In order to eat we'll kill any bystanders.)
1-20-18 Asian wildlife trafficking 'kingpin' Boonchai Bach arrested
Thai police have arrested a man alleged to be the head of Asia's biggest illegal wildlife trading networks. Boonchai Bach, a 40-year-old Thai of Vietnamese origin, was detained in a town on the border with Laos. He faces up to four years in jail for smuggling protected animal parts like rhino horns and elephant ivory. Animal trafficking is a lucrative black market trade. Police said the suspect was "ringleader" of a "major smuggling syndicate" operating over a decade. He was arrested on Friday over the smuggling of 14 rhino horns worth around $1m (£700,000) from Africa to Thailand. After tracking all the people involved in the consignment of rhino horn which was stopped last month, the police say they have enough evidence to charge him.
1-19-18 Light pollution can prolong the risk of sparrows passing along West Nile virus
Under nighttime lighting, birds take longer to fight off virus attack. Even moderate light pollution can roughly double the time a house sparrow remains a risk for passing along the worrisome West Nile virus. House sparrows, about as widespread across the United States as artificial lighting itself, make a useful test species for a first-of-its-kind study of how night illumination might contribute to disease spread, said Meredith Kernbach, an eco-immunologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Passer domesticus brought into the lab and kept dimly illuminated at night were slower in fighting off West Nile infections than lab sparrows allowed full darkness, Kernbach reported January 7 at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. Sparrows kept under a dim night light typically had enough virus in their bloodstreams for at least four days to turn biting mosquitoes into disease spreaders, she said. Sparrows housed in darkness had high virus concentrations for only about two days. Doubling the time a bird can pass along a big dose of virus could in theory increase the likelihood that a disease will spread.
1-19-18 Hope for threatened 'little tiger cat'
It's the smallest cat in the Americas, occupying the smallest area of land. Listed as vulnerable to extinction, the güiña wildcat of Chile has lost much of its natural home as forests are chopped down or converted to farmland. And, like many carnivores, it's at risk from human persecution over fears it might kill livestock. However, new research shows the animal is able to survive near human settlements on agricultural land. Its biggest threat is being squeezed out when land is broken up into smaller areas, say conservationists. The guiña is known variously as the little tiger cat, little spotted cat or Chilean cat. About half the size of the domestic cat, it is one of the most threatened cat species in South America. The wildcat lives only in central and southern Chile and in a narrow strip of Argentina. According to the IUCN, there are only about 10,000 individuals left in the wild. Its natural habitat is rainforest, but it has also been seen in pine or eucalyptus plantations or close to agricultural areas. Research led by the University of Kent, UK, found that habitat fragmentation, and the subdivision of large farms into smaller ones, are the biggest threats facing the animal.
1-19-18 Ethical lobster
Switzerland has become the second country after New Zealand to ban the boiling alive of lobsters for food, arguing that the process causes the crustaceans unnecessary pain. Starting March 1, lobsters must be knocked unconscious—with an electric shock, for example—or have their brain destroyed with an ice pick or knife before being dropped into the pot. The measure revives a controversy over whether lobsters even feel pain, which many scientists dispute. “I find it really quite remarkable that people attribute to these animals humanlike responses when they simply don’t have the hardware for it,” said Joseph Ayers, a marine science professor at Northeastern University in Boston. The Swiss don’t eat much lobster anyway: The U.S. exported $147 million worth of live lobsters to the European Union in 2016, but only $368,000 worth to Switzerland.
1-18-18 Cute cats the size of kittens are seeing their homes destroyed
Güiñas are the smallest cats in the Americas, smaller than most domestic cats, and they are becoming increasingly rare. One of the world’s smallest and cutest wild cats is on the road to extinction, even though it is more resilient than most species. Güiñas (Leopardus guigna), also known as kodkods, live in Chile and are the smallest cats in the Americas. They can weigh as little as 2-2.5 kilograms, half the size of most domestic cats. Güiña populations are in decline and there could be just 10,000 adults remaining – half the number of lions left today. Nicolás Gálvez of the University of Kent, UK and his colleagues set out to find what was causing the decline. Using questionnaires, camera traps and remote sensing, the team found that the biggest threat to güiñas is a change to the way farms are owned. Larger farms are being sold and split into smaller farms, bringing more people onto the land. Unlike their bigger cousins jaguars, güiñas seem to be able to tolerate the loss of up to 80 per cent of their habitat. They can even live on intensive farmland. However, as farms become smaller and human populations increase, people may persecute the güiñas more. Whilst the cats are most happy catching moths and rodents, they also have a taste for chicken, so people kill them to prevent attacks on their poultry. Of the farmers surveyed, 10 per cent admitted to killing güiñas.
1-18-18 US police arrest two boys after vandalism killed 500k bees
Police have arrested two boys for allegedly vandalising a honey business in the US state of Iowa that killed half a million bees in late December. The damage to 50 beehives at Wild Hill Honey farm in Sioux City resulted in the honey bees freezing to death. The boys aged 12 and 13 are charged with three offences. Wild Hill Honey's owners said they had caused $60,000 (£43,400) of damage and called the crime "completely senseless." Co-owner Justin Engelhardt told the Sioux City Journal: "They knocked over every single hive, killing all the bees. They wiped us out completely." Mr Engelhardt and his wife discovered the destruction on their property on 28 December when they went to dust off snow from their hives. "They broke into our shed, they took all our equipment out and threw it out in the snow, smashed what they could. Doesn't look like anything was stolen, everything was just vandalised or destroyed," said Mr Engelhardt last month. The losses faced by Mr Engelhardt and his wife drew national and international attention and police were able to track down the suspects with the help of tip-offs from the public.
1-17-18 The mystery of vanishing honeybees is still not definitively solved
The sudden disappearances of the previous decade have been dwarfed by other pollinator problems. It was one of the flashiest mysteries in the news about a decade ago — honeybee workers were vanishing fast for no clear reason. To this day, that puzzle has never been entirely solved, researchers acknowledge. And maybe it never will be. Colony collapse disorder, or CCD, as the sudden mass honeybee losses were called, has faded in recent years as mysteriously as it began. It’s possible the disappearances could start up again, but meanwhile bees are facing other problems. CCD probably peaked around 2007 and faded since, says Jeff Pettis, who during the heights of national curiosity was running the Beltsville, Md., honeybee lab for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research wing. And five years have passed since Dennis vanEngelsdorp, who studies bee health at the University of Maryland in College Park, has seen a “credible case” of colony collapse.
1-17-18 Mystery deepens over mass die-off of antelopes
A mass die-off of wild antelopes in Kazakhstan was triggered by environmental factors, scientists believe. More than 200,000 saiga antelopes collapsed and died suddenly in 2015, wiping out most of the global population. The deaths were found to be caused by a bacterial infection. However, new data shows other factors were involved too, including unusually high humidity and temperatures. Researchers think changing environmental conditions could be a trigger for the bacterial onslaught, although this needs further research. They say there is a high chance of the same thing happening again, given climate change predictions for the region. Study leader Prof Richard Kock of the Royal Veterinary College London was part of the original emergency response team. He said the event went way beyond what would normally be expected from a bacterial disease of this kind. "The whole thing was really extraordinary," he said. "It's very very likely to happen again." The multi-disciplinary team used statistical analysis to look at environmental conditions at the time.
1-17-18 Dolphin diet study gives conservation clues
Wild dolphins need up to 33,000 calories a day, researchers have found - equivalent to about 60 portions of salmon. In contrast, Olympic swimmers - who are smaller and less active - burn about 12,000 calories a day during training. Studying the metabolic rates of whales and dolphins is important for their conservation, say scientists. They found that a common bottlenose dolphin needs 10 to 25kg of fish each day to survive in the oceans. The study was carried out on common bottlenose dolphins living in Sarosota Bay off Florida. Adult and young dolphins were captured briefly to measure their resting metabolic rate. This provides an estimate of how much a dolphin needs to eat in a day, said Andreas Fahlman of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Oceanografic Foundation in Spain. "We can then add this up for all dolphins and estimate how much fish/prey they need," he said. "This may be vitally important when considering managing fisheries and making sure that the quota are not too high so that animals lack food." The researchers found that a 200 kg dolphin would burn between 16,500 and 33,000 calories a day, which is lower than expected. In contrast, an Olympic swimmer carrying out intensive exercise might need around 12,000 calories. For a dolphin, the amount of energy required depends on whether the animal is resting, sleeping, diving or swimming, as well as the temperature of the ocean. (Webmaster's comment: All animals seem to survive just fine before humans began dominating the planet. Species were in balance with themselves and their environment.)
1-17-18 All other primates live their lives according to a simple rule
Hundreds of species of primate all form groups of the same five sizes, suggesting that the ecosystems in which they live strongly shape their lifestyle. A SIMPLE rule governs a seemingly random phenomenon: the sizes of the groups in which primates live. It seems our closest living relatives opt for social groupings that aren’t as varied and flexible as you might think. Susanne Shultz at the University of Manchester, UK, and her colleagues compared group sizes in 215 primate species. The average number in a group varied between species but was always clustered around five distinct sizes (Biology Letters, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2017.0490). The preferred group sizes were, roughly: 2.5, 5, 15, 30 and 50. The smallest normally had two adults and some offspring. Bigger ones tended to be either a single male with many females, or multiple males and females. Other patterns, such as lots of males and few females, were rare. “The other thing that seems to be hard for primates to do is male and female pairs combined in a group,” says Shultz, even though this is common in birds. Primates reuse these strategies because they keep facing the same challenges, Shultz says. “Ecology and social relationships are tightly interconnected.” For instance, species occupying open ground form the largest groups, perhaps to defend against predators. Those that live in trees in dense forests prefer medium groups, as big groups would be impossible to coordinate. In 2011, Shultz showed that primate group sizes also evolved in leaps (Nature, doi.org/bpnncg).
1-17-18 Moustached monkey is separate species
A monkey from Ethiopia with a "handlebar moustache" has been identified as a distinct species. Scientists took a fresh look at the distribution and physical appearance of patas monkeys in Ethiopia, confirming there were two species rather than one. It was originally described as a separate species in 1862, but was later folded in - incorrectly - with other patas monkeys to form a single species. Details have been published in the journal Primate Conservation. Patas monkeys are found from west to east across sub-Saharan Africa; they are among the fastest-moving of ground-dwelling monkeys - able to reach speeds of about 55 km/h (34 mph). Spartaco Gippoliti, from the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group, reassessed the species status of patas monkeys in the Blue Nile region of Ethiopia and Sudan. His analysis led him to revive the classification of the Blue Nile patas monkey (Erythrocebus poliophaeus) first proposed more than 150 years ago.
1-17-18 Japanese train barks like a dog to prevent accidents
Researchers in Japan have fitted a train with a speaker that barks like a dog and snorts like a deer in order to prevent collisions on the railway. Tokyo's Asahi Shimbun newspaper reports that the combination of sounds is designed to scare deer away from the tracks in a bid to reduce the number of animal deaths on the railway. Officials from the Railway Technical Research Institute (RTRI) say that a three-second blast of the sound of a deer snorting attracts the animals' attention, and 20 seconds of dog barking is enough to make them take flight. RTRI researchers say the late-night tests, at times when deer congregate around railway tracks, have resulted in a halving of deer sightings. If proved to be effective, future plans include static barking sites where deer are commonly seen, but "the noises will not be blared in areas where people live beside the tracks". Deer are attracted to railway lines because of a need for iron in their diets. They lick the rails to pick up iron filings caused by the action of wheels against tracks, it's been found. This dietary need has led to a constant battle to keep the deer separate from the unforgiving nature of tens of tonnes of onrushing rolling stock, and previous plans which involved the spraying of lion faeces on the track were abandoned after rain washed away the dung almost immediately.
1-11-18 18 new species of pelican spiders discovered
Newly described arachnids are itsy-bitsy spider-killing machines native to Madagascar. Despite their name, pelican spiders aren’t massive, fish-eating monstrosities. In fact, the shy spiders in the family Archaeidae are as long as a grain of rice and are a threat only to other spiders. Discovering a new species of these tiny Madagascar spiders is tough, but Hannah Wood has done just that — 18 times over. Wood, an arachnologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., analyzed the genes and anatomy of live and museum pelican spider specimens to find these new species. She describes them in a paper published online January 11 in ZooKeys.
1-11-18 What's the kindest way to kill a lobster?
"Lobster is one of those rare foods that you cook from a live state," the recipe says. "Quickly plunge lobsters head-first into the boiling water... Boil for 15 minutes," the recipe then instructs. It's the tried-and-trusted method for many of us with any experience of cooking lobster - and there are dozens of similar recipes online. But on Wednesday Switzerland banned the practice and ordered that lobsters be stunned before being despatched to our plates to avoid unnecessary suffering in the kitchen. It comes amid growing scientific evidence that lobsters - and other invertebrates, such as crayfish and crabs - are able to feel pain. So what's wrong with the traditional method? And what are the alternatives? Animal welfare scientists define pain as "an aversive sensation and feeling associated with actual or potential tissue damage", explains Jonathan Birch, assistant professor in philosophy at the London School of Economics. Defined like this, experiments suggest crustaceans do feel pain, Dr Birch explains in his article "Crabs and lobsters deserve protection from being cooked alive". In a series of experiments at Queen's University in Belfast, crabs gave up a valuable dark hiding place after repeatedly receiving an electric shock there. "They were willing to give up their hideaway in order to avoid the source of their probable pain," said Prof Robert Elwood, who led the team carrying out the experiments. He told the BBC that numerous experiments showed "rapid avoidance learning, and [crustaceans] giving up highly valuable resources to avoid certain noxious stimuli" - consistent with the idea of pain. (Webmaster's comment: All animals experience pain. Pain is their signal to avoid what is causing the pain. Imagine the suffering of being boiled alive. Lobsters should killed before being cooked.)
1-11-18 Giant bat: Remains of extinct burrowing bat found in New Zealand
The fossilised remains of a giant burrowing bat that lived in New Zealand millions of years ago have been found on the country's South Island. The teeth and bones of the extinct bat were found to be three times the size of an average modern bat. The bat, which weighed around 40g (1.41oz), not only flew but also scurried about on all fours looking for food. The remains were recovered from ancient sediments near the town of St Bathans. A team of international scientists made the discovery over the course of 15 years. Their findings were published in the Scientific Reports journal on Wednesday. The bat has been named Vulcanops jennyworthyae after research team member Jenny Worthy who found the fossils, and Vulcan the mythological Roman god of fire and volcanoes. The study suggested that the large size of the bat's teeth means it had a "different diet" to Australasian bats today. "[Its] specialised teeth and large size suggest it had a different diet, capable of eating even more plant food as well as small vertebrates - more like some of its South American cousins," said study author Professor Sue Hand of the University of New South Wales.
1-11-18 Meet the butterflies from 200 million years ago
Newly discovered fossils show that moths and butterflies have been on the planet for at least 200 million years. Scientists found fossilised butterfly scales the size of a speck of dust inside ancient rock from Germany. The find pushes back the date for the origins of the Lepidoptera, one of the most prized and studied insect groups. Researchers say they can learn more about the conservation of butterflies and moths by studying their early evolution. They used acid to dissolve ancient rocks, leaving behind small fragments, including "perfectly preserved" scales that covered the wings of early moths and butterflies. "We found the microscopic remains of these organisms in the form of these scales," said Dr Bas van de Schootbrugge from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Intriguingly, they show that some of the moths and butterflies belonged to a group still alive today that have long straw-like tongues for sucking up nectar. "These finds push back the evolution of this group with proboscises - with a tongue - by about 70 million years," said Dr van de Schootbrugge. "Our finds show that the group that was supposed to co-evolve with flowers is actually much older." The Jurassic was a world dominated by gymnosperm plants, such as conifers, which produced sugary nectar to capture pollen from the air. The primitive insects may have fed on this nectar, before flowering plants came along around 130 million years ago.
1-10-18 Are animals conscientious?
Human personality theory has long revolved around what we know as the "Big Five" — five dimensions of personality that cover a large swathe of how humans behave across time and contexts. These dimensions are conscientiousness (tendencies to be orderly and rule-abiding), agreeableness (easy to get along with), extraversion (outgoing), neuroticism (tendencies to be anxious, depressed, or hostile), and openness to new experiences (creative and artistic inclinations). It's the consistency in our behavior in different situations that often teases apart why we aren't all alike. Just like physical traits, personality traits meet Charles Darwin's criteria for evolution. First of all, personality traits show variability since the very concept of personality implies that we are all different in specific ways. Second, personality traits are not just influenced by the environment, they are all highly heritable. And finally, in many cases, certain traits make some individuals more likely to reproduce and pass on their genes than others, demonstrating clear fitness benefits. Because human personality evolved, we should expect to find traces of it in other species. But our understanding of animal personality was stalled for years by both the fear of anthropomorphism among animal scientists, and a lack of consensus on how to describe it. Animal personality is sometimes referred to as "temperament," "coping styles," or "behavioral syndromes" (which always struck me as sounding like more of an illness than a way of being). Often, animals are described simply in terms of their levels of boldness and aggressiveness. More recently, however, scientists have started using the Big Five as a framework for the examination of animal personality. (Webmaster's comment: Many animals express all the personality characteristic of humans. Many are self-aware, solve complex problems, make tools, have different personalities, and reward and punish each other for good and bad behaviors by their social standards of behavior!)
1-10-18 A marine biologist says a humpback whale saved her from a shark
Marine biologist Nan Hauser says a 50,000lb (22,700kg) humpback whale protected her from a tiger shark during a recent research expedition in the Cook Islands. She believes it could be the first case on record of a humpback protecting a human.
1-10-18 Smell of death tells undertaker bees it’s time to remove corpses
Undertaker honeybees get rid of the bodies of dead nestmates, but only those with a good sense of smell are able to do it. BRING out your dead! Honeybees pick up dead or diseased nestmates and drag them out of the hive. Removing corpses protects against infection, which can spread like wildfire in densely packed hives. “The honeybees work together to fight off disease,” says Alison McAfee at the University of British Columbia, Canada. But not all hives remove their corpses. McAfee and her colleagues have been figuring out why this is. In a 2017 study, they discovered two pheromones, called oleic acid and beta-ocimene, which are only released by dead bee larvae. When they wafted these “death pheromones” over honeybees, nerve cells in the antennae of corpse-removing bees were more active than those of other bees. This suggested that corpse-removing bees were better able to smell the pheromones. Now the team has added the pheromones to healthy larvae. As expected, worker bees removed dosed individuals from the nest, and bees from corpse-removing colonies removed more larvae than those from other nests (bioRxiv, doi.org/ch36). The corpse-removing bees’ ability to smell death could be down to two proteins on their antennae, OBP16 and OBP18. These are largely absent from bees that don’t remove corpses. “These proteins grab onto the odour molecules, transport them to the neurons and stimulate them, leading to a sense of smell,” says McAfee.
1-9-18 Why some birds of paradise have ultrablack feathers
Tilt in spiky microstructures generates the birds’ exceedingly dark coloring. Some birds of paradise really know how to work their angles. Tilted, microscopic filaments in some of the showy birds’ black feathers make that plumage look much darker than traditional black feathers, researchers report online January 9 in Nature Communications. Dakota McCoy, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, and colleagues measured how much light each type of black feather absorbs. Superblack feathers absorb up to 99.95 percent of light that shines directly on them, while traditional black feathers absorb up to 96.8 percent, the researchers found. Using scanning electron microscopy and nano-CT scanning, the team observed that ultrablack feathers have ragged, spike-studded barbules that curve upward at a roughly 30-degree angle to the tip, creating an array of deep, curved cavities. Traditional black feathers are smoother and lack such detailed microstructures. These spikes and pits scatter light multiple times, allowing for more light absorption and darker plumage, the scientists say. Even when the researchers dusted the feathers with gold, the darkest ones still retained their blackness, while traditional black plumes looked gilded in SEM images.
1-9-18 Invasive toxic pufferfish causes havoc in European waters
A pufferfish that carries the lethal poison tetrodotoxin has entered Europe's seas, and local species are increasingly becoming poisonous as well. AN INVASIVE pufferfish is causing havoc for Mediterranean fishers, and the toxin it carries is turning up in native shellfish. The silver-cheeked toadfish (Lagocephalus sceleratus, pictured) is native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It has thrived in the Mediterranean since arriving this century, apparently via the Suez Canal. It is a pufferfish, the group eaten as the delicacy fugu in Japan. Some of its organs contain tetrodotoxin, a lethal poison. But so far its toxicity isn’t the main problem. Instead, the fish bite through fishing nets that cost thousands of pounds to get at the catch inside. “We showed the fishermen photos of fish and we asked which one do you come across, and they identified [the pufferfish],” says Vahdet Ünal at Ege University in Turkey. “Then we asked how much damage this species causes to their fishing gear.” Ünal has repeatedly surveyed hundreds of Turkish fishers. From 2011 to 2013, the losses reported by small-scale fisheries more than doubled, from about €2 million to €5 million. His latest unpublished data offers no respite. “The problem is increasing,” he says.
1-9-18 Paraguay lagoon sees giant lily pads return
Giant lily pads have reappeared in a Paraguay lagoon after being listed as endangered in 2006. The aquatic plants, their scientific name is Victoria cruziana, appeared in a tributary of the Paraguay river 25km north of Asunción, the capital. The environment ministry told the Associated Press that the plant had slowly disappeared due to dredging and visitors collecting the plants. Water lilies in the area are known for their 1.5m size, and exceptional shape. Their return has drawn a mass of tourists to Piquete Cue in central Paraguay, where they take pictures and pay for boat rides to see the lilies up close. Agustin Gomez, a tourist, was stunned by their size. "This is something that you just don't see every day, or even every year. You do see lily pads all the time but not so many. And not so enormous! Some are two meters wide," he said. Locals use the aquatic plant to make a medicinal tea that they believe can help combat asthma and bronchial disorders, but the authorities have warned that those who try to harvest it could be fined.
1-5-18 Arsonist falcons suggest birds discovered fire before humans did
Multiple eyewitness accounts describe Australian birds of prey deliberately setting wildfires by carrying burning sticks, in order to flush out prey. Some birds of prey have learned to control fire, a skill previously thought to be unique to humans. The birds appear to deliberately spread wildfires in order to flush out prey. The finding suggests that birds may have beaten us to the use of fire. There are many anecdotes about Australian birds of prey using fire, according to ornithologist Bob Gosford at the Central Land Council in Alice Springs, Northern Territory. Most come from Aboriginal rangers who manage natural fires in the north Australian tropical savannah, which straddles Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The three species mentioned are black kites (Milvus migrans), whistling kites (Haliastur sphenurus) and brown falcons (Falco berigora). The claim is that the birds pick up burning twigs from existing fires and drop them elsewhere to start new blazes. This would flush out prey hidden in the brush. In effect, the birds are using the burning twigs as tools. At least, that’s the idea. In 2016, Gosford’s claims got worldwide press coverage, but biologists reacted sceptically to the idea of birds deliberately starting fires. Now Gosford and his colleagues have gathered 20 new eyewitness accounts of birds starting fires on purpose. The most dramatic evidence comes from Dick Eussen, a photojournalist and former firefighter who is a co-author on the paper. He recounts fighting and controlling a blaze at the Ranger Uranium Mine near Kakadu, Northern Territory, in the 1980s, only to discover a new one on the other side of the road. As he tried to extinguish that fire, he noticed a whistling kite 20 metres away. The bird was carrying a smoking stick, which it dropped, creating another spot conflagration. In all, Eussen extinguished seven new blazes started by the kites. Similarly, in September 2012, Eussen passed a roadside fire in Cape York Peninsula, Queensland. He spotted a black kite starting a fire on the other side of the road by dropping a flaming stick.
1-5-18 ‘Laid-back’ bonobos take a shine to belligerents
Cozying up to unhelpful peers, not cooperators, may motivate these apes. Despite a reputation as mellow apes, bonobos have a thing for bad guys. Rather than latching on to individuals with a track record of helpfulness, adult bonobos favor obstructionists who keep others from getting what they want. The result may help explain what differentiates humans’ cooperative skills from those of other apes, biological anthropologists Christopher Krupenye of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and Brian Hare of Duke University report online January 4 in Current Biology. Previous investigations indicate that, by 3 months old, humans do the opposite of bonobos, choosing to align more frequently with helpers than hinderers. Humans, unlike other apes, have evolved to seek cooperative partnerships that make large-scale collaborations possible (SN: 10/28/17, p. 7), Krupenye and Hare propose.
1-5-18 How besieged ants decide when it’s time to abandon their nests
Colonies of turtle ants are often attacked by competing species, and the ants understand enough military strategy to decide when certain nests should be abandoned. Colonies of turtle ants behave as if they are playing a game of Risk. They spread out their forces to control more resources, but also retreat if their position is not defensible. “They’re sensitive to changes in the environment. They can change the allocation of their defenses in response to that,” says Matina Donaldson-Matasci at Harvey Mudd College in California. Cephalotes rohweri is a species of turtle ant that lives in trees in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico and Arizona. Each colony can hold a few hundred ants, spread out over several nests in tree cavities. The nests are defended by soldiers, which are bigger than workers and have bumpy heads that they use to block the nest entrance. But there aren’t always enough soldiers to go around. So Donaldson-Matasci and her colleagues wanted to see how the ants allocate their soldiers. They tracked wild nests and found that larger nests were less likely to survive, though they lasted a little longer if they had more soldiers.
1-5-18 Rhino poaching: The strange figures behind a secret trade
Between 2007-14, rhino poaching rose 9000%. The very existence of the species is threatened by organised crime. Rhino horn is a substance more valuable than cocaine, heroin or gold. Its trade is a complex smuggling racket that is almost impossible to police because it crosses so many borders and involves countless criminals.
1-4-18 ‘Thrill-seeking’ genes could help birds escape climate change
Some birds may escape extinction if their genes favour exploring newer, more hospitable habitats. Study of yellow warblers across North America suggests birds may be better able to adapt to global warming if their genes favour exploring newer, more hospitable habitats. Should I stay or should I go? That’s the question facing all wildlife when climate change makes home territory unsuitable. A study has now found that having variants of two novelty-seeking genes might help some warblers survive by making lifesaving migration more attractive to them than to peers who risk local extinction by staying put. Both genes, called DRD4 and DEAF1, have already been linked with novelty-seeking in people, fish and other birds. After screening DNA from 229 yellow warblers in 21 diverse populations spread throughout North America, researchers led by Rachael Bay of the University of California at Los Angeles identified the pair of genes as having the strongest effect on survival. The variants, identified through a DNA-marker on chromosome 5, were least common in declining populations already threatened by climate change, such as the drought-ravaged Rocky Mountains in the western US. “If their finding stands up that there are two specific genes associated with migration and novelty-seeking behaviour, it will be a big step forward in understanding adaption to climate change,” comments Marcel Visser of Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
1-3-18 Robot fish shows how the deepest vertebrate in the sea takes the pressure
Goo inside this snailfish keeps its flimsy body from being squashed. It’s like having “an elephant stand on your thumb.” That’s how deep-sea physiologist and ecologist Mackenzie Gerringer describes the pressure squeezing down on the deepest known living fish, some 8 kilometers down. What may help these small, pale Mariana snailfish survive elephantine squashing, says Gerringer of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs, is a body bulked up, especially at the rump, with a watery goo. The snailfish family gets its nickname from the way some shallow-water species in thundering tides grip a rock with a little suction cup on the belly and curl up. “Quite cute,” Gerringer says, and maybe, if you squint, somewhat like a snail. She and colleagues discovered the deepest fish in 2014 in the western Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench and described the newly named Psuedoliparis swirei November 28 in Zootaxa. To catch specimens, Gerringer and colleagues turned to extreme trapping. They weighted a boxy, mesh-sided trap with steel plates to sink it. It took about four hours to fall to the bottom.
1-1-18 China's ban on ivory trade comes into force
China has long been one of the world's biggest markets for ivory, but as of 2018 all trade in ivory and ivory products in the country is illegal. The move is being hailed as a major development in efforts to protect the world's elephant population. Wildlife campaigners believe 30,000 African elephants are killed by poachers every year. State media said there had already been a 65% decline in the price of raw ivory over the past year. There had also been an 80% decline in seizures of ivory entering China, said Xinhua. The ban was announced last year and came into effect on Sunday, the last day of 2017. Sixty-seven official factories and shops dealing in ivory had already been closed by March 2017, said Xinhua, and the remaining 105 were to have shut down by Sunday. "From now on, if a merchant tells you 'this is a state-approved ivory dealer'... he is duping you and knowingly violating the law," the forestry ministry said on its Weibo microblog. Xinhua said "one of the largest ever public awareness campaigns" had been carried out in the run-up to the ban, with support from celebrities including superstar basketball player Yao Ming. The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) said it was "delighted to see the doors of the world's largest ivory market close". "This is a significant step that should prove to be a huge boost to elephant protection efforts in Africa," said WWF's Africa director Fred Kumah in a blog post.
1-1-18 How bats could unlock the future of self-driving cars
Scientists are studying echolocation to improve automotive technology. Venture near a cave at night, and you may glimpse a phenomenon that still stymies scientists: Thousands of bats streaming out of the cave at high speeds, using echolocation to avoid in-air collisions. "All we know about science, physics, biology says that [bats are] doing an impossible task by echolocating in these large groups," says Laura Kloepper, an assistant professor of biology at Saint Mary's College in Indiana. "What we know about how echolocation works is that when they're in these groups, the signals from each bat should be interfering with each other." In a swarm, the bats "should be jamming their sonar and colliding and falling to the ground," she adds. "But despite what we think is impossible, the bats are doing this — and they've been doing it this way for millions of years, so that just means we're missing part of the equation." Figuring out how bats use their biological sonar to move through swarms could someday help us engineer safer self-driving cars, for example, or improve other sonar and radar devices. But to get there, Kloepper says scientists need to better understand what it's like to be a bat. And doing that takes diving right into the swarm, using some very creative methods. "Now, I can't put on my Batman costume and fly into the swarm of the bats," Kloepper says. But her team does put recorders on a zip line and send them through the bat swarm. They also use drones to record the bats — and even a hand-raised hawk named Belle, who flies through the swarm wearing a custom-built microphone and video system.