No matter where you look, just about every creature
is obsessed with:
sex, real estate, who's the boss, and what's for dinner.
55 Animal Intelligence News Articles
for February of 2018
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
2-28-18 Pesticides put bees at risk, European watchdog confirms
Most uses of insecticides known as neonicotinoids represent a risk to wild bees and honeybees, the European Food Safety Authority has confirmed. The use of neonicotinoids has been restricted in the European Union since 2013, following earlier risk assessments. Nations will discuss a European Commission proposal to extend the ban next month. Neonicotinoids are the world's most widely used insecticide. The new assessment considered more than 1,500 studies on the impacts of three neonicotinoids - clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. "There is variability in the conclusions, due to factors such as the bee species, the intended use of the pesticide and the route of exposure," said Jose Tarazona, head of the European Food Safety Authority's pesticides unit. "Some low risks have been identified, but overall the risk to the three types of bees we have assessed is confirmed." The EU banned the use of the three chemicals on flowering crops - seen as most attractive to bees - almost five years ago in a move then opposed by the UK. The Environment Secretary Michael Gove recently reversed the government's position and said it would back a ban on non-flowering crops too, including wheat and sugar beet. A Defra spokesperson said the government had fully applied restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids introduced by the EU to date and, following an assessment by UK scientists, announced last November that it was in favour of further restrictions. "We always keep the evidence on neonicotinoids under review and will look in detail at today's report from the European Food Safety Authority," said the spokesperson.
2-28-18 A new species of tardigrade lays eggs covered with doodads and streamers
The newest of these tough little water bears was plucked from a parking lot in Japan. What a spectacular Easter basket tardigrade eggs would make — at least for those celebrating in miniature. A new species of the pudgy, eight-legged, water creatures lays pale, spherical microscopic eggs studded with domes crowned in long, trailing streamers. Eggs of many land-based tardigrades have bumps, spines, filaments and such, presumably to help attach to a surface, says species codiscoverer Kazuharu Arakawa. The combination of a relatively plain surface on the egg itself (no pores, for instance) plus a filament crown helps distinguish this water bear as a new species, now named Macrobiotus shonaicus, he and colleagues report February 28 in PLOS ONE. With about 20 new species added each year to the existing 1,200 or so known worldwide, tardigrades have become tiny icons of extreme survival (SN Online: 7/14/17). “I was actually not looking for a new species,” Arakawa says. He happened on it when searching through moss he plucked from the concrete parking lot at his apartment. He routinely samples such stray spots to search for tardigrades, one of his main interests as a genome biologist at Keio University’s Institute for Advanced Biosciences in Tsuruoka City, Japan.
2-28-18 New clues to decline of bees and other pollinators
Bee diseases have been detected in hoverflies for the first time. The brightly-coloured flies may be picking up bee viruses as they forage at the same flowers. And scientists think hoverflies could then be spreading the deadly infections long distances when they migrate. Bees and other pollinators are vital to most of the world's food crops but have been in decline in recent decades due to the destruction of wild habitats, disease and pesticide use. It's not clear if hoverflies are harmed by the viruses or are simply carriers, but, either way, they could be moving them around the countryside and over long distances, say UK researchers. "The hoverfly species that we detected the viruses in are known to migrate across Europe," said Emily Bailes of Royal Holloway University of London. "They're moving a lot further than say a honey bee would and so you could be moving different types of the viruses into new places where the bees haven't been exposed to those before." Infectious diseases have been identified as a key driver of bee population declines. Scientists have a clear picture of parasites and viruses that can damage honey bees, but much less is known about what is happening in hoverflies and other pollinators. Hoverflies themselves are important pollinators of crops and wild flowers. They can be very mobile, and some migrate long distances every year.
2-27-18 Our cousins chimps and bonobos use similar sign languages
Despite diverging a million years ago, chimps and bonobos use a very similar sign language, suggesting the meanings of their gestures may have a biological basis. An analysis of chimpanzee and bonobo gestures suggests that if the two apes ever come face to face, they would probably be able to understand each other. Kirsty Graham, of the University of York, UK, and her team determined the meaning of 33 different gestures made by bonobos, and compared them with those made by chimpanzees. The two species diverged from each other at least a million years ago, but the team found that the their gestures are more similar than would be expected by chance. “Bonobos and chimpanzees share not only the physical form of the gestures, but also many gesture meanings,” they say. This may suggest that primate gestures are at least partially determined by biology. The team plans to investigate whether humans also share some of these gestures. While chimpanzee gestures have been well studied, less is known about those of bonobos. The team determined the meaning of each of the gestures by observing the reactions they produced in other individuals.
2-27-18 Advertising campaign for monkeys uses sex to sell brands
Everyone knows that in advertising sex sells, and it turns out that sex-themed adverts even work on rhesus macaques. Sex sells. It’s rule one in the book of advertising. So when scientists set out to create an advertising campaign for monkeys, they didn’t stray far from the basics. Social primates like monkeys value information about status in the group hierarchy, and about each others’ sexual receptivity. Indeed primates – both human and non-human – will forego rewards to view images of the genitals of their species. But could this lascivious interest be harnessed in an ad campaign for monkeys? To find out, Yavuz Acikalin at Stanford University in California and his colleagues enlisted ten rhesus macaques, five of each sex. “We thought it would be fun to look at this issue in the advertising paradigm,” he says. The monkeys were shown an image of a real-world brand logo – say, Pizza Hut – alongside an image of a monkey. This was the “advert”. There were three kinds of images in adverts: a dominant male’s face, a subordinate male’s, or a female monkey’s bare bottom and exposed genitalia. Later, the monkeys were shown the logo from the advert, alongside a new logo such as Domino’s. They chose which logo they liked best by tapping a touchscreen. Each monkey completed three sessions, each including 70 adverts and 90 choices. The animals preferred brand logos they had seen previously in adverts. While the sample size is small, the results suggest advertising works on monkeys.
2-27-18 Breeding crisis as no North Atlantic right whales born this year
The failure of the breeding season bodes ill for endangered North Atlantic right whales, which are down to a population of just 430. North Atlantic right whales could be extinct by 2040, scientists warn. This year no calves were born in the whales’ usual breeding season from November to February. North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are an endangered species. There are only an estimated 430 left, of which 100 are females. The absence of new calves has been compounded by a record premature death toll of 18 in 2017. Most died after becoming entangled in fishing gear, especially ropes connecting surface buoys to lobster pots. “At the rate we’re killing them off, these 100 females will be gone in 20 years,” Mark Baumgartner of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts told The Guardian. The species could be “functionally extinct” by 2040, he said. One hope is that lobster fisheries will adopt new, ropeless technologies for catching lobsters. A US federal survey between 2010 and 2014 estimated that 82 per cent of right whale deaths were from entanglement in fishing gear. (Webmaster's comment: We're about to exterminate another species! With the human population headed for 12 Billion we'll be killing off a lot more.)
2-26-18 King penguins face warming challenge
King penguins are in deep trouble if nothing is done to constrain climate change, researchers say. The scientists have assessed the birds' fragmented population in the Southern Ocean and concluded that some island strongholds will become unsustainable. The problem is the continued movement away from key nesting sites of the penguins' favoured foraging grounds. And as the climate warms further, food will simply become too distant for many birds to fetch for their chicks. "Our work shows that almost 70% of king penguins - about 1.1 million breeding pairs - will have to relocate or disappear before the end of the century because of greenhouse gas emissions," said Dr Céline Le Bohec from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Strasbourg. Her team has just published its findings in the journal Nature Climate Change. The group has looked at the particular requirements of the king penguin and how shifts in the environment might affect the species' breeding success in the coming decades. It is a mixture of climate modelling but also uses genetics to understand population history, as well. The second largest of the 17 penguin species, Aptenodytes patagonicus are finicky about where they base themselves, preferring sub-antarctic islands that are free of sea-ice and that have smooth sandy or pebble beaches on which to rear chicks. But they also need a good supply of fish and squid, and in the Southern Ocean this is to be found along a feature known as the Antarctic Polar Front (APF). It is a nutrient-rich upwelling that supports abundant prey for the hungry predator. The issue is that the APF is heading poleward, and if global temperatures continue to rise as expected, the front is likely eventually to move out of the range of many foraging king penguins, the research suggests.
2-26-18 This scratchy hiss is the closest thing yet to caterpillar vocalization
Pulling air into the gut helps sphinx hawk moth larvae make their own teakettle howl. Tap — gently — the plump rear of a young Nessus sphinx hawk moth, and you may hear the closest sound yet discovered to a caterpillar voice. Caterpillars don’t breathe through their mouths. Yet a Nessus sphinx hawk moth, if disturbed, will emit from its open mouth a sustained hiss followed by a string of scratchy burplike sounds. “Hard to describe,” says animal behaviorist Jayne Yack of Carleton University in Ottawa, who urges people just to listen to it for themselves. This newfound noise from young Amphion floridensis may startle birds or other would-be predators not expecting something as generally quiet as most caterpillars to erupt in sound.
2-26-18 Newly-discovered fungi turn luckless ants into kamikaze zombies
Fifteen more species of “zombie ant fungus” have been discovered, and they all force their hosts to die in creative ways to further their own life cycle. Fifteen newly discovered fungi can all control the brains of ants in cruel and unusual ways in the moments before killing them. Zombie ant fungi are parasites, mostly found in tropical forests. The fungus first infects an ant using spores. Once inside its host, the fungus alters the ant’s behaviour in ways that favour its own reproduction. It often compels the ant to seek a place other ants are likely to pass. The fungus then sprouts a long stalk, sometimes right through the back of the ant’s head, which passes on more infectious spores. “Besides their beauty, it’s striking how these fungi evolved and are so well adapted morphologically and ecologically to infect their hosts,” says João Araújo at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Araújo and his colleagues have now described 15 new species of zombie ant fungus from the Brazilian Amazon, Japan, Australia, Colombia and the US. They were collected by Araújo or by travelling colleagues. The 15 new species include fungi that force ants to bite into tree trunks, plant stalks or leaves before dying.
2-23-18 Wildlife secrets of Nigeria's last wilderness
The world's rarest chimpanzee has been captured on camera in the remote forests of Nigeria. The Nigeria-Cameroon chimp was seen at various locations within Gashaka Gumti National Park, raising hopes for its future survival. Conservationists also recorded the first sighting in the country of a giant pangolin. The park is regarded as a national treasure, but its wildlife is under threat from pressures such as poaching. Researchers from Chester Zoo, working with the Nigeria National Park Service, surveyed over 1,000 square kilometres of the national park. Known for its mountain rainforests, savannah woodlands and rolling grasslands, it is home to some of West Africa's most endangered animals. The cameras spotted some animals that have never been recorded before in the area and others, like chimps, which are rarely seen. Stuart Nixon, the Africa Field Programme Co-ordinator at Chester Zoo, said confirmation of the locations of chimps was an important discovery. "Gashaka's been regarded for many years as having the biggest population of this Nigeria-Cameroon chimp, which is the rarest chimp subspecies," he said. "We consider it the most important population - that's really why we need to count it and see what the status of the chimp is right now - that will ultimately affect what we know about this subspecies elsewhere."
2-23-18 World's fishing fleets mapped from orbit
It's another demonstration of the power of Big Data - of mining a huge batch of statistics to see patterns of behaviour that were simply not apparent before. Computers have crunched 22 billion identification messages transmitted by sea-going vessels to map fishing activity around the globe. The analysis reveals that more than 55% of the world's oceans are now subject to industrial exploitation. By area, fishing's footprint is now over four times that of agriculture. That's an astonishing observation given that fisheries provide only 1.2% of global caloric production for human food consumption. The investigation shows clearly that the biggest influences on this activity are not environmental - whether it is summer or winter, or whether there is an El Niño or fish are migrating, for example. Rather, the major controlling factors are very largely political and cultural. "You'd think that fishing activity would follow some natural pulse of the seasons, but in fact that's secondary to whether it's a weekend or not, or whether there's a moratorium, or a public holiday," says David Kroodsma from Global Fishing Watch, which led the study published in Science Magazine. "Because fishing is an industrial activity tied to politics and culture, this is actually a positive message because it shows we have a lot of human agency in the way we fish the oceans, and it's entirely within our power to change things," he told BBC News.
2-22-18 New mapping shows just how much fishing impacts the world’s seas
Fish are harvested from more than half the area covered by oceans, and some spots are super busy. Fishing has left a hefty footprint on Earth. Oceans cover more than two-thirds of the planet’s surface, and industrial fishing occurred across 55 percent of that ocean area in 2016, researchers report in the Feb. 23 Science. In comparison, only 34 percent of Earth’s land area is used for agriculture or grazing. Previous efforts to quantify global fishing have relied on a hodgepodge of scant data culled from electronic monitoring systems on some vessels, logbooks and onboard observers. But over the last 15 years, most commercial-scale ships have been outfitted with automatic identification system (AIS) transceivers, a tracking system meant to help ships avoid collisions. In the new study, the researchers examined 22 billion AIS positions from 2012 through 2016. Using a computer trained with a type of machine learning, the team then identified more than 70,000 fishing vessels and tracked their activity. Much of the fishing was concentrated in countries’ exclusive economic zones — ocean regions within about 370 kilometers of a nation’s coastline — and in certain hot spots farther out in the open ocean, the team found. Such hot spots included the northeastern Atlantic Ocean and the nutrient-rich upwelling regions off the coasts of South America and West Africa.
2-22-18 The last wild horses aren’t truly wild
DNA study finds that Przewalski’s horses had a tame ancestor. When it comes to wild claims, hold your horses. Free-roaming Przewalski’s horses of Central Asia are often called the last of the wild horses, the only living equines never domesticated. But a new genetic analysis of ancient horse bones suggests that these horses have a tamed ancestor after all, making them feral rather than wild. The findings also debunk the idea that these domesticated ancestors — known as Botai horses —gave rise to all other modern horses. That leaves the progenitors of today’s domesticated horses a mystery, researchers report online February 22 in Science. The earliest known domesticated horses were those of the ancient Botai people in northern Kazakhstan (SN: 3/28/09, p. 15). Botai sites dating to around 5,500 years ago are scattered with remnants of harnesses and pots with horse-milk residue, suggesting the animals provided both transportation and food.
2-22-18 Bats spread Ebola because they’ve evolved not to fight viruses
Bats can carry viruses like Ebola and Marburg that are lethal for humans. This may be because, in order to fly, their bodies have given up on fighting such viruses. Bats provide a refuge for some of the most lethal viruses known, including Ebola, Marburg, Nipah and SARS. Now we may know why the animals tolerate these lethal viruses – and it’s because flying is such hard work. Peng Zhou of the Wuhan Institution of Virology in China and his colleagues studied the immune systems of bats and flightless mammals. They focused on free-floating DNA within cells. This can happen as the result of a viral infection, as the viruses hijack the cells’ DNA replication apparatus to copy their own genetic material. But it can also happen during strenuous exercise, which creates chemicals called free radicals that build up in cells and damage the DNA, releasing fragments of it. Most mammals don’t have to perform hugely strenuous exercise, so their own DNA rarely leaks out into their cells. As a result, if their immune system detects any free DNA, it interprets it as an emerging viral threat and begins fighting back. The trigger for action is a sensor molecule called STING, which swamps the viral infection with antiviral substances called interferons. However, bats fly and this is extremely strenuous, so their DNA often does leak out. This could lead the bat’s immune system to mistakenly attack the animal’s own tissues. To avoid this, bats appear to have evolved milder reactions to viral infections, allowing the bats and the viruses to tolerate each other.
2-22-18 Mutation 'gives bats edge over deadly viruses'
A single mutation in an immunity gene called Sting might be one reason why bats can resist the worst effects of harmful viruses such as Ebola. CHINESE SCIENTISTS have shown that bat Sting triggers production of lower levels of interferon, the proteins that signal when the body is under attack. Too much interferon is associated with the serious symptoms seen in many virus infections. But bats, through their mutation, have evolved a means to dampen the response. The researchers also think that the Sting gene has evolved to cope with the potentially harmful effects of flight. Their study is published in the Journal Cell Host and Microbe. Bats carry lots of deadly viruses, like Nipah, Marburg, Sars and Ebola, without suffering from ill-effects. And Prof Peng Zhou, from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was intrigued by this resilience. "We were interested why and how bats’ immune systems could deal with so many deadly viruses," he told BBC News. Usually when we think of immunity to viruses we tend to think about antibodies and a set of T cells called killer T cells. These recognise and destroy specific viruses that they have been trained to see, either through past infection or vaccination. But an important arm of our immune system, and one that Prof Zhou and his colleagues focussed on, is able to fend off viral invaders without ever seeing them before – so called innate immunity.
2-21-18 Sea urchins can drill holes in solid rock with just their teeth
If a sea urchin can't find a suitable pit to live in, it makes one – even if it has to spend months gnawing away at hard granite. Sea urchins can scrape their way through solid rock to make themselves homes. This ability has long been suspected but never demonstrated, until now. Michael Russell at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and his colleagues studied purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), which live along the west coast of North America. These animals look like purple balls with hundreds of spines, called tubefeet, which they use to walk and move food to their mouths. They also use their tubefeet to attach themselves to rock, making it difficult to dislodge them. The safest homes are pits and holes, which offer a larger surface area for an urchin to lock onto. In the lab, the researchers placed single sea urchins on flat pieces of soft mudstone, moderately hard sandstone and tough granite. After a year, they measured the weights of the rocks, how the surfaces looked, and how much the rocks were eroded. The sea urchins had eaten holes in all the rocks, although they made slower progress on the harder ones. Holes in mudstone were about 220 cubic centimetres, whereas holes in sandstone were 63 cubic centimetres and holes in granite were just 45 cubic centimetres. “We were not surprised that they excavate rock,” says Russell. “What shocked us was… how fast they were able to form pits, particularly in the sandstone.”
2-21-18 France wants to have 500 wolves roaming its countryside
The number of wolves in France will be allowed to increase by 40 per cent, as wilderness continues its return to Europe. FRANCE will let its wolf population grow by 40 per cent, despite anger from farmers worried for their sheep. Wolves were eradicated from France by hunting in the 1930s, but since the 90s they have been creeping back from Italy. There are now thought to be 360 wolves in France. The government announced a new strategy this week that will allow the population to grow to 500 by 2023. To appease farmers, 10 per cent of the population may be culled each year. Farmers are also authorised to shoot any time their flocks are under attack. Around 10,000 sheep were killed by wolves in the Alps in 2016, and France paid €3.2 million of compensation to farmers. Under the new plan, farmers can apply for funding to protect their animals, but compensation will be contingent on them putting up fences and other protective measures. Wolves are protected in Europe by the 1979 Bern Convention. Environmentalists see their return as a positive, and many are opposed to the hunting of wolves.
2-20-18 Bunnies draped in fake polar bear fur are both cosy and stealthy
A warm fabric made of freeze-dried liquid silk mimics polar bear fur, making rabbits invisible to infrared cameras. It could do the same for humans. It’s a bunny in bear’s clothing. By wrapping a rabbit up in a new textile inspired by polar bear hair, researchers have been able to keep all the animal’s body heat in, keeping it both cosy and invisible to infrared imaging. The hollow interior structure of a polar bear’s fur helps the bears insulate themselves against harsh Arctic winters. Each hair is about 200 micrometre across, full of pores 15 to 20 micrometres wide. It is harder for heat to move through air than solid materials, so these pores make sure that the polar bear retains its body heat instead of radiating it away into the frigid air. Porous structures like this often snap easily, but polar bear fur doesn’t suffer this problem because all of the elongated pores are aligned in layers in the same direction as the hair. This gives the hairs mechanical strength that they wouldn’t have if the pores were spread about randomly. Ying Cui at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, and her colleagues processed silk to create a textile that mimics the pores of polar bear fur. They dissolved the silk in water and dripped a constant stream of the solution through a cold copper ring. When the liquid silk “thread” passes through the ring, ice crystals grow within the thread in layers similar to the layers of pores in polar bear hairs. The frozen fibre is then freeze-dried to leave gaps where the ice was, resulting in well-aligned pores that take fill up to 87 per cent of the silk fibres’ volume with air. The researchers can then weave the fibres together into a textile.
2-19-18 France to let wolf population grow despite farmers' fears
France is to allow the wolf population to grow from about 360 now to 500 by 2023, despite protests from farmers worried about their livestock. A new plan announced by the government represents a rise of nearly 40% in the wolf population. After being eradicated by hunters in the 1930s, the wolf made its way back into France from Italy in the 1990s. Wolves are listed as a protected species by the Bern Convention that France has signed up to. Animal rights groups had been pushing for a more radical proposal and accused ministers of lacking political courage. In a gesture to farmers, the government said that hunters in France would still be allowed to cull 40 wolves this year, the same as in 2017. Up to 10% of the wolf population could be culled every year from 2019, and that proportion could rise to 12% if more frequent wolf attacks were registered. Almost 12,000 sheep were killed by wolves in France in 2017 and the government has come under strong pressure from farmers in French regions - particularly in the Alps and the Pyrenees. "We place trust in all of the stakeholders and local lawmakers to calm the debate and enable co-existence over the long-term," Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert and Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot said in a joint statement. The new plan also envisages that livestock owners will be able to apply for state funds to protect their animals from wolves. France is not the only Western European country witnessing the return of the wolf. Last month a wolf was spotted in the Flanders region of northern Belgium for the first time in over a century. There were an estimated 60 wolf packs living in Germany in 2017, a rise of some 15% on the previous year. (Webmaster's comment: Most of their natural game has been eradicated, that's why they eat livestock.)
2-19-18 DNA secrets of how vampire bats became bloodthirsty
DNA analysis is giving clues to how the vampire bat can survive on blood alone. The bat can drink up to half its weight in blood a day unlike other relatives, which dine on fruit, nectar or insects. Blood is low in nutrients and can harbour deadly viruses. Vampire bats have key differences in genes involved in immunity and food metabolism compared with other bats. The researchers say the bat's gut microbes are also distinct. They found evidence of more than 280 types of bacteria in the bat's droppings that would have made most other mammals unwell. "The data suggests that there is a close evolutionary relationship between the gut microbiome and the genome of the vampire bat for adaptation to sanguivory (feeding exclusively on blood)," said study author, Dr Marie Zepeda Mendoza of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. The common vampire bat harbours many genes that have been selected to cope with blood feeding, she added. Blood is very high in protein (93%), but low in carbohydrate (1%) and vitamins. It may also harbour blood-borne diseases. Vampire bats have evolved many features for such a specialised diet - from sharp teeth for severing blood vessels to changes in kidney function to deal with a protein-rich diet.
2-20-18 The flowers that give us chocolate are ridiculously hard to pollinate
A complicated reproductive system makes pollination a tough job. It’s a wonder we have chocolate at all. Talk about persnickety, difficult flowers. Arguably some of the most important seeds on the planet — they give us candy bars and hot cocoa, after all — come from pods created by dime-sized flowers on cacao trees. Yet those flowers make pollination just barely possible. Growers of commercial fruit crops expect 50 to 60 percent of flowers to make a fruit, or pod, says Emily Kearney of the University of California, Berkeley. In some places, cacao crops manage to be that prolific. But worldwide norms run closer to 15 to 30 percent. In the traditional Ecuadorian plantings that Kearney studies, cacao achieves a mere 3 to 5 percent pollination. The first sight of a blooming cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) can be “disconcerting,” Kearney says. That’s because most flowers come directly out of the trunk, rather than sprouting from branches as in many other trees. For cacao, special trunk pads burst into little pale constellations of five-pointed starry blossoms. Some trunks, says Kearney, “are completely covered with flowers.”
2-19-18 Mute crickets can’t chirp but rub their wings together anyway
Male Hawaiian crickets that have lost the ability to chirp still go through the motion of “singing”, even though females can’t hear them. Hawaiian crickets still try to call for females, despite having lost their ability to sing. Male crickets woo females by “singing”, which they do by vigorously rubbing their wings together. Bumps and ridges on the wings scrape against each other, making a distinctive sound. However, in the early 2000s researchers noticed that up to 95 per cent of male Hawaiian crickets (Teleogryllus oceanicus) on the islands of Kauai and Oahu had lost their voices. Both sets of males independently evolved flat wings, making them effectively mute. This vastly reduced their romantic prospects, but it meant the crickets were protected from a fly called Ormia ochracea. This parasite homes in on a male cricket’s song and sprays maggots onto its back. These burrow into the male and devour it from the inside out. “Silent males are protected from attacks by this fly, and so this mutation has spread very rapidly,” says Nathan Bailey at the University of St Andrews, UK. Now Bailey and his colleagues have found that silent males still rub their wings against each other, as if to call females. Not only does the behaviour not work – the females can’t hear them – but the action uses up a lot of energy. Just as some animals have vestigial organs that have lost all function, like the human appendix, the crickets seem to have a vestigial behaviour.
2-19-18 Electric eel-inspired batteries could power life-long pacemakers
A new battery made of fleshy hydrogel layers generates and stores power like electric eels do. It could power pacemakers without ever needing to be replaced. Future pacemakers could be powered by artificial eels. A soft, fleshy, electric eel-inspired battery could be the key to creating next generation medical implants. The team behind the power source have been able to produce 110 volts, but they say they could be on the verge of driving that up several-fold. To create this power, Anirvan Guha at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and his colleagues used thousands of hydrogels spread across a thin, pliable surface in evenly-spaced bubbles and then filled the space between two sheets of the material with a saline solution. The ions in that solution created friction and electricity in the gel layers, providing 110 volts of power, about the same amount of power provided by many wall sockets. The structure of this new material is similar to the layers of skin that produce an electric eel’s deadly jolt. The team presented their latest results at the a meeting of the Biophysical Society in San Francisco on 19 February. This research builds on previous work by making the gels thinner and giving them a larger contact area, which increased the power capacity. The researchers say that improvements in the way the gels repel ionized atoms could further drive up the voltage produced.
2-16-18 Ants practice combat triage and nurse their injured
Mildly injured ants may overact their disabilities to get rescued. No wounded left behind — not quite. Ants that have evolved battlefield medevac carry only the moderately wounded home to the nest. There, those lucky injured fighters get fast and effective wound care. Insect colonies seething with workers may seem unlikely to stage elaborate rescues of individual fighters. Yet for Matabele ants (Megaponera analis) in sub-Saharan Africa — with a mere 1,000 to 2,000 nest mates — treating the wounded can be worth it, says behavioral ecologist Erik Frank at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Tales of self-medication pop up across the animal kingdom. For Matabele ants, however, nest cameras plus survival tests show insects treating other adults and improving their chances of survival, he and colleagues report February 14 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. For treatment boosting others’ survival, Frank says, the closest documented example is humans. In Ivory Coast, Frank studied Matabele ant colonies that staged three to five termite hunts a day. He and colleagues at the University of Würzburg in Germany published research last year showing that members of a hunting party carry injured comrades home.
2-16-18 We thought gorillas only walked on their knuckles. We were wrong
Modern gorillas can walk in a variety of styles, not just the famous “knuckle-walking”, suggesting our common ancestor was similarly resourceful. Our ape ancestors might have been more versatile than we’ve given them credit for. A study of modern gorillas suggests that the common ancestor we share with them may have been able to walk in a variety of ways, not just one or two. Within the last 20 million years, our ancestors split from those of orangutans. Later, we also branched off from the African great apes: first gorillas, then chimpanzees and bonobos. However, we do not know what our common ancestors with these species looked like. One long-standing question is how our ape ancestors moved around, because understanding that would help us understand how our two-legged method of walking evolved. For many years, it was thought that the common ancestors were knuckle-walkers: they walked on all fours, putting much of their weight on the knuckles of their hands. However, more recent evidence suggests that bipedalism evolved early, in the tree-dwelling ancestor we share with orangutans, and not out of knuckle-walking. Now it is being suggested that our ape ancestors had many options at their disposal. A team led by Sergio Almécija of the George Washington University set up high-speed cameras to track mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) in the forests of Uganda and Rwanda. Over 7 weeks, they filmed 77 gorillas: 8 per cent of the known population.
2-16-18 '100,000 orangutans' killed in 16 years
More than 100,000 Critically Endangered orangutans have been killed in Borneo since 1999, research has revealed. Scientists who carried out a 16-year survey on the island described the figure as "mind-boggling". Deforestation, driven by logging, oil palm, mining and paper mills, continues to be the main culprit. But the research, published in the journal Current Biology, also revealed that animals were "disappearing" from areas that remained forested. This implied large numbers of orangutans were simply being slaughtered, said lead researcher Maria Voigt of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. Dr Voigt and her colleagues say the animals are being targeted by hunters and are being killed in retaliation for crop-raiding - a threat that has been previously underestimated. Prof Serge Wich from Liverpool John Moores University, UK, also part of the team, told BBC News: "We didn't expect the losses to be so large in standing forest, so these [studies] confirm that hunting is a major issue." "When these animals come into conflict with people on the edge of a plantation, they are always on the losing end. People will kill them. "Just last week, we had a report of an orangutan that had 130 pellets in its body, after being shot at in Borneo. "It's shocking and it's unnecessary. Orangutans might eat farmers' fruit, but they are not dangerous." Prof Wich called for leaders in Malaysia and Indonesia to speak out against this deliberate targeting of the apes. But the research also showed that natural resources were still being exploited in Borneo "at an unsustainable rate". Deforestation alone, the researchers predict, could wipe out a further 45,000 orangutans over the next 35 years.
2-15-18 People are slaughtering orangutans and wiping them out
The population of Bornean orangutans fell by almost half in just 16 years, and it was not a sad by-product of deforestation: many apes were killed deliberately. Borneo’s orangutan population has halved in just 16 years. Worse, it was not a tragic by-product of the growth of farming, as many had believed. Instead, most of the lost orangutans were deliberately killed. “It’s not a good picture,” says study leader Serge Wich of Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. “We really need to acknowledge that killing of orangutans is a big issue.” His team studied Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), which as the name suggests live on the island of Borneo in South East Asia. There are two other species of orangutan, both confined to the neighbouring island of Sumatra. Wich and his colleagues gathered data from surveys of Bornean orangutan nests between 1999 and 2015, performed by 38 conservation and research organisations. Orangutans make fresh nests to sleep in each night, so counting nests gives a good measure of orangutan numbers. In 1999, surveyors spotted an average of 23 nests for every kilometre they walked through the forest. But by 2015 they only saw 10 nests per kilometre. Based on that, Wich’s team estimates that the Bornean orangutan population fell from around 300,000 to 150,000. In all, an estimated 148,500 animals were lost over the 16-year period. It has been widely assumed that the main threat to Bornean orangutans is the destruction of their forest habitat, due to deforestation and the expansion of oil palm plantations. But this proved incorrect. The team found that habitat loss to plantations and logging accounted for only 10 per cent of the decline.
2-15-18 In Borneo, hunting emerges as a key threat to endangered orangutans
Humans target the apes for food, or to prevent them from raiding crops, scientists say. Orangutan numbers on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo plummeted from 1999 to 2015, more as a result of human hunting than habitat loss, an international research team finds. Over those 16 years, Borneo’s orangutan population declined by about 148,500 individuals. A majority of those losses occurred in the intact or selectively logged forests where most orangutans live, primatologist Maria Voigt of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues report February 15 in Current Biology. “Orangutan killing is likely the number one threat to orangutans,” says study coauthor Serge Wich, a biologist and ecologist at Liverpool John Moores University in England. Humans hunt the forest-dwelling apes for food, or to prevent them from raiding crops, the investigators say. People also kill adult orangutans to steal their babies for the international pet trade. Between 70,000 and roughly 100,000 orangutans currently live on Borneo, Wich says. That’s substantially higher than previous population estimates. The new figures are based on the most extensive survey to date, using ground and air monitoring of orangutans’ tree nests. Orangutans live only on Borneo and the island of Sumatra and are endangered in both places.
2-15-18 Invasion of the mutant, clone crayfish
An all-female species of mutant crayfish that can reproduce without mating is taking over lakes and rivers around the world. The marbled crayfish first came to scientists’ attention in the 1990s, when a German aquarium owner bought a bag of “Texas crayfish” from an American pet trader, and found his tank suddenly filling up with the creatures. Researchers discovered that the baby crayfish were all females, and that the species was reproducing through cloning. The self-replicating crayfish weren’t confined to aquariums, reports NationalGeographic?.com. Dumped in the wild by their owners, the creatures thrived in freshwater ecosystems in countries as diverse as Germany, Japan, and Madagascar, where they are displacing native crayfish. A team of scientists has now sequenced the creature’s genomes and discovered that a sex cell mutation in a single slough crayfish—a species native to Florida and Georgia—likely created the marbled crayfish some 25 years ago. When that mutant crayfish mated, it produced a female with three sets of chromosomes instead of the usual two (one inherited from each parent). This first marbled crayfish was able to make clones of itself with eggs unfertilized by sperm, a trick that has helped the species reproduce rapidly and spread across the planet. “That one animal founded the whole species,” said study co-author Wolfgang Stein, “and now we have billions worldwide.”
2-15-18 Say ‘hi’ to talking orcas
Killer whales have been known to mimic the clicks of dolphins and the barks of sea lions—and now they’ve added human speech to their repertoire. To test the aquatic mammal’s vocal abilities, scientists in France worked with a captive 14-year-old female orca named Wikie, who had already been taught a gesture commanding her to “copy” her trainer’s actions, reports TheGuardian?.com. Wikie was asked to repeat human words, including “hello,” “bye-bye,” “one, two, three,” and “Amy.” She said “hello” and “one, two, three” on her first attempt, but other words took longer to master. The feat was especially impressive because unlike humans, who use their larynx, tongue, and lips to speak, orcas make sounds by pushing air through their blowholes. “Even though the morphology [of orcas] is so different,” says study co-author Josep Call, “they can still produce a sound that comes close to what another species, in this case us, can produce.” The research suggests that killer whales might learn vocal patterns from one another in the wild, which could explain why different pods have their own distinct dialects.
2-15-18 Strong winds send migrating seal pups on lengthier trips
The animals may suffer higher rates of mortality in breezy years as a result. Native American fishermen in Alaska have long said that seal pups go with the wind rather than struggle against it. Now, a new study confirms that wisdom. Migrating northern fur seal pups travel hundreds of kilometers farther in blustery years than in milder years, researchers reported February 14 at the American Geophysical Union’s Ocean Sciences meeting. Those epic journeys may be linked to pup deaths. At 4 months old, the pups are weaned and begin a voyage from the Pribilof Islands of Alaska through the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean that can last for 20 months before they return to the islands. Physical oceanographer Noel Pelland and colleagues compared the migrations of 168 seal pups tagged in five different years from 1996 to 2015 with winds matching the pups’ first migration years. Winds were simulated using data from the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Prediction. On average, the pups moved farther downwind when wind speeds were higher, and tended to move to the right of the wind direction — likely following wind-driven ocean currents. Tagging data lasted 130 days on average, but whether the pups died or the tags fell off is unknown. That makes it difficult to draw a definitive link to mortality, says Pelland of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. Still, the lengthier, more physically challenging journeys in some years may explain why populations of these northern fur seals — considered “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act — have not rebounded in recent decades despite a hunting ban.
2-15-18 Bats’ hairy tongues are perfectly adapted for lapping up nectar
If you're a greedy bat, it helps to have a hairy tongue. The hairs will ensure that you can slurp as much nectar as possible from flowers into your mouth. Some bats use their hairy tongues to slurp up nectar from flowers, and now we know why they’re so good at drinking. The spacing of their tongue hairs has evolved to be almost exactly optimal for sucking up as much nectar as possible. To figure out how the hair-like protuberances on a bat’s tongue help it drink, Alice Nasto at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her colleagues molded rubbery surfaces with differently-spaced nubs on them, and dipped the model tongues into a viscous oil. As they pulled these artificial bat tongues out of the oil, they took pictures to determine how the liquid was flowing out of the forest of hairs and then weighed them to find out how much liquid was left behind. “Their hairs allow them to take out 10 times more liquid than they would be able to if they didn’t have any hairs on their tongue,” Nasto says. It works much like a honey dipper – channels carved into wood trap the honey and force it to flow more slowly, allowing you to transport more honey from the jar onto your toast. Hairs on bat tongues work the same way.
2-14-18 Drone captures humpback whales catching krill with bubbles
A HUMPBACK whale surfaces, its mouth distended with krill and thousands of litres of water. It is the final stage of bubble-net hunting, a sophisticated technique employed by these huge mammals. A whale and its partner, visible just below the water’s surface, have together created a trap for the krill – their main food source – by swimming around exhaling columns of bubbles through their blowholes. The spiral of columns surrounds the crustaceans, creating a barrier they are unwilling to swim through. They move close together, and that’s when the whales dive, turn and swim upwards into the krill, mouths gaping. It is an effective strategy, but not well understood. A drone took this photo as part of a project led by David Johnston of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, to learn more about the whales’ behaviour. A laser altimeter fitted to the drone allows his team to calculate its altitude and thus the sizes of the whales and their bubble nets. The picture was taken about 200 kilometres off the western Antarctic Peninsula. The whales feed here all summer, building up supplies of fat. They need to, because they then migrate to their breeding grounds in the Gulf of Panama and will not eat again until they return to the Antarctic, six months later.
2-14-18 Look to penguins to track Antarctic changes
Shifts in food webs and climate are written in penguin feathers and eggshells. Penguins preserve records of Antarctic environmental change. The birds’ feathers and eggshells contain the chemical fingerprints of variations in diet, food web structure and even climate, researchers reported February 12 at the American Geophysical Union’s 2018 Ocean Sciences Meeting. The Antarctic environment has changed dramatically in recent decades. Overfishing has led to a decline in krill, small swimming crustaceans that are a key food source for birds, whales, fish and penguins in the Southern Ocean. Climate change is altering wind directions, creating open water regions in the sea ice that become hot spots for life. These changes have cascading effects on food webs and on the cycling of nutrients. “Penguins are excellent bioarchives of this change,” says Kelton McMahon, an oceanic ecogeochemist at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. Penguins are at the heart of the Antarctic food web, and their tissues are known to capture details about what they’ve eaten. Different food sources contain different proportions of carbon and nitrogen isotopes, forms of the elements with different numbers of neutrons. For example, food sources such as krill and fish have different amounts of nitrogen-15 relative to nitrogen-14. The tissues of penguins, such as feathers and eggshells, preserve these proportions.
2-14-18 Dirty talk: How pollution is snuffing out plants’ scent messages
Plants use a fragrant language but filthy air is messing with their communication lines, which might explain why insects are in decline and roses are losing their scent. IN THE classic post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids, giant carnivorous plants terrorise humanity. Triffids can walk and are equipped with venomous stingers, but their real power lies in their ability to communicate and so plot against us. It sounds far-fetched, but since John Wyndham’s book was published in 1951, one aspect of this fiction has proved to be science fact: plants do talk to one another. If you stroll through a forest and take a deep breath, you can smell the “words” – complex volatile chemicals such as beta-pinene, which smells fresh and piney. Plants produce thousands of these, combining them to create “sentences”. However, this fragrant language is under threat. Air pollution is disrupting floral scents, turning their messages into gibberish. Not only is this having an impact on plants’ abilities to survive, it is also bad news for pollinating insects – and for us, because it affects everything from crop yields to the smell of our favourite flowers. Luckily, there is a way we can help our botanical friends fight back. It has long been known that insects such as pollinators and pests can distinguish between plants by the unique bouquet of chemicals they release. What’s new is the idea that plants use their emissions to talk among themselves. “Plants release volatile chemicals into the atmosphere – these can be viewed as a language in the sense that a plant releasing the chemicals can be viewed as ‘speaking’ and the plant receiving them as ‘listening’ and then responding,” says chemical ecologist James Blande at the University of Eastern Finland.
2-14-18 AI does grunt work on China's pig farms
Artificial intelligence technology has been developed to help piglets survive their first months - and then to decide which sows to kill. The scheme is being rolled out in China, the world's biggest producer and consumer of pork. It marks the latest deployment of tech giant Alibaba's ET Brain cloud computing service. China's pig industry is notoriously inefficient, but one expert said the tech could also prove useful elsewhere. For now, the trial is limited to the country's Sichuan province. Alibaba teamed up with local feed provider Sichuan Tequ and the farming group Dekon to develop the solution. It claims that it should on average lead a sow to rear three additional offspring a year, and reduce the death rate by 3%. The system is designed to maintain a profile of each animal, including details of their weight, age, food intake and exercise, among other details. Vision recognition software - which relies on a number tattooed onto each swine's side - is used to keep track of each pig. The sounds of their squeals are analysed to try to determine if any of the young ones are at risk of being suffocated under their mothers' weight. The AI tech also listens out for coughs, which along with infrared temperature readings are used to act as an early warning system for disease outbreaks. This should help farmers know when to provide specialised vaccinations. And when the technology detects a sow's productivity rate has fallen below the norm it suggests she is slaughtered. As China's meat consumption continues to rise, Tequ said the tech was necessary to help farmers keep track of their livestock. "If you have 10 million pigs to raise, you can barely count how many piglets were born on a daily basis when the due date comes," said chief information officer, Zhang Haifeng. (Webmaster's comment: Again China takes the lead.)
2-14-18 Study debunks fishy tale of how rabbits were first tamed
A pope’s proclamation that bunnies are fish, so can be eaten for Lent may never have happened. Domesticated bunnies may need a new origin story. Researchers thought they knew when rabbits were tamed. An often-cited tale holds that monks in Southern France domesticated rabbits after Pope Gregory issued a proclamation in A.D. 600 that fetal rabbits, called laurices, are fish and therefore can be eaten during Lent. There’s just one problem: The story isn’t true. Not only does the legend offer little logic for rabbits being fish, but the proclamation itself is bogus, according to a new study of rabbit domestication. “Pope Gregory never said anything about rabbits or laurices, and there is no evidence they were ever considered ‘fish,’” says Evan Irving-Pease, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford. He and his colleagues discovered that scientists had mixed up Pope Gregory with St. Gregory of Tours. St. Gregory made a passing reference to a man named Roccolenus who in “the days of holy Lent … often ate young rabbits.” The misattribution somehow led to the story of rabbits’ domestication.
2-14-18 Ants care for wounded comrades by licking their wounds clean
If a Matabele ant loses a limb in a battle with termites, its nestmates will tend its injuries - a behaviour never before seen in any non-human animal. A species of ant has become the first known non-human animal to tend the wounds of its fellows. “Nurse” ants lick the wounds of fallen comrades, and this helps them survive. Matabele ants (Megaponera analis) live dangerous lives. Several times a day, parties of 200-600 soldier ants set out to hunt termites, dragging them from their nests and carrying them home. The termites fight back, and their powerful jaws can administer lethal bites, so Matabele ants frequently lose one or more limbs. In 2017, Erik Frank, then at the University of Würzburg, Germany reported that Matabele ants routinely carry their wounded back to the nest. This is odd, as social insects usually treat each other as expendable. The injured ants could “ask” for help by releasing a pheromone, which caused other ants to pick them up and carry them. In a new study Frank, now at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and his colleagues have filmed what happens inside the nest when the injured are brought in. The footage shows “nurse” ants spend several minutes licking their fallen comrades’ wounds. An experiment in which some ants were denied this licking suggests it is a lifesaver. Without it, 80% of ants who had lost limbs died within a few hours. Of those that received medical care, 90% survived. “We don’t know yet if the ants are just cleaning the wound and removing debris, as we do with our wounds to prevent infection, or if they are also applying antimicrobial substances with their saliva,” says Frank. Either way, the treatment works. “The ants are able to reach running speeds similar to healthy ants, despite missing a leg or two,” says Frank. The team also tracked the ants’ raiding parties and found they could tell which injured soldiers were worth saving and which were a lost cause. “The ants were selective in who they picked up,” says Frank. “They didn’t want to help heavily injured ants who had lost 5 legs.” (Webmaster's comment: They even perform triage. Amazing!)
2-13-18 Expedition to uncover hidden life in mystery Antarctic realm
In July 2017 a huge iceberg broke away from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf, revealing a marine world that was concealed for thousands of years. AN EXPEDITION to an unexplored, newly revealed Antarctic ecosystem began this week. An international team set off to study a mysterious area of the ocean that has been concealed for thousands of years. The ecosystem was hidden under the Larsen C ice shelf for 120,000 years. It was exposed when a huge iceberg calved off in July last year. The iceberg, known as A68, is four times the size of London, and weighs in at around 1 trillion tonnes. It is one of the largest ever recorded. Katrin Linse of the British Antarctic Survey, who is leading the scientists, says she wants to investigate the marine life on the seabed, which covers 5800 square kilometres. “It’s important we get there quickly, before the undersea environment changes as sunlight enters the water and new species begin to colonise,” she says. The team plans to collect animals, microbes and plankton, as well as samples of water and sediments, and will record the movements of marine mammals and birds into the area.
2-13-18 Shipping noise can disturb porpoises and disrupt their mealtime
Researchers tagged seven porpoises with sensors that were attached via suction cups, which detached harmlessly after about a day. Harbor porpoises are frequently exposed to sounds from shipping vessels that register at around 100 decibels, about as loud as a lawnmower, scientists report February 14 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Sounds this loud can cause porpoises to stop echolocation, which they use to catch food. While high-frequency submarine sonar has been found to harm whales (SN: 4/23/11, p. 16), low-frequency noise from shipping vessels is responsible for most human-made noise in the ocean, the researchers say. Porpoises have poor hearing in lower frequencies, so it was unclear if they were affected. In the first study to assess the effects of shipping vessel noise on porpoises, researchers tagged seven harbor porpoises off the coast of Denmark with sensors that tracked the animals’ movement and echolocation usage in response to underwater noise over about 20 hours. One ship created a 130 decibel noise — twice as loud as a chainsaw — that caused a porpoise to flee at top speed. These initial results indicate that ship noise could affect how much food porpoises hunt and consume.
2-12-18 New crayfish that doesn't need males to mate becomes all-powerful
A new species of all-female crayfish able to reproduce without males is multiplying rapidly and invading ecosystems across the world. A new study found that the marbled crayfish is descended from a single female with a mutation that allows it to reproduce by itself. The self-cloning creatures are for sale in Canada, despite a warning against keeping the pests as pets. The ten-legged mutant is already banned by the European Union. Procambarus virginalis did not exist three decades ago but they have now been found in the wild in Japan, Madagascar, Sweden and the US. A new study published in Nature, Ecology and Evolution describes the invasive species as a threat to wild ones, including seven native species in Madagascar. "If you have one animal, essentially, three months later, you will have 200 or 300," Dr Wolfgang Stein, one of the researchers, told Canadian public broadcaster CBC. Curiously, by studying the freshwater crayfish's successful ability to self-clone, scientists may be able to better understand how cancer spreads. While there is not yet a wild population of marbled crayfish in Canada, the department of fisheries and oceans warned that it would be illegal to release any unwanted crayfish into the wild. "Based on what is known about the reproductive behaviour of the marbled crayfish, we do not recommend Canadians keep these animals as pets," Becky Cudmore, of the fisheries and oceans department, told CBC.
2-9-18 Birds ‘dream sing’ by moving their vocal muscles in their sleep
Zebra finches sing during the day, and at night while they sleep their vocal organs act out the motions of singing, a bit like a sleepwalking person. Practice, they say, makes perfect. Zebra finches are such dedicated musicians that they appear to rehearse their songs during sleep. It has been known for some time that, while zebra finches sleep, their brains spontaneously reproduce the activation patterns they make when they sing during the day. Now it seems the birds’ vocal muscles actually move in response to these neural signals. Gabriel Mindlin of the University of Buenos Aires and his colleagues surgically attached electrodes to the vocal muscles of ten zebra finches. In a study published in November, they observed spontaneous twitching similar to that detected during daytime singing (PeerJ, doi.org/ckb9). However, the song patterns detected were highly variable. It was as if the muscles were rehearsing alternate versions of the songs. In a second study posted online in January, the team found they could trigger these night-time movements in one vocal muscle, simply by playing songs to the birds while they slept. They tried this with recordings of the birds’ own songs as well as synthetic versions of the melodies.
2-8-18 Trove of hummingbird flight data reveals secrets of nimble flying
Trove of hummingbird flight data reveals secrets of nimble flying. Lab-grade flight tracking has gone wild, creating a broad new way of studying some of the flashiest of natural acrobats, wild hummingbirds. One of the findings: Bigger hummingbird species don’t seem handicapped by their size when it comes to agility. A battleship may not be as maneuverable as a kayak, but in a study of 25 species, larger hummingbirds outdid smaller species at revving or braking while turning. Measurements revealed these species have more muscle capacity and their wings tended to be proportionately larger for their body size than smaller species. Those boosts could help explain how these species could be so agile despite their size, researchers report in the Feb. 9 Science. Adapting a high-speed camera array and real-time tracking software to perform in field conditions let the researchers analyze more than 200 wild birds swerving and pivoting naturally. With over 330,000 bird maneuvers recorded, the researchers could compare the agility of the different species. It’s the first comparative study of natural flight moves in wild birds, says coauthor Roslyn Dakin, who is based in Ottawa with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
2-8-18 Monkeys cloned for the first time
More than 20 years after Scottish researchers cloned Dolly the sheep, scientists in China have cloned two monkeys—the first time the technique has been used on primates. Since the landmark procedure that produced Dolly in 1996, 22 other mammal species have been cloned, including cows, dogs, horses, and rabbits. But the cloning of long-tailed macaques Hua Hua and Zhong Zhong makes it technically possible to use the “Dolly method”—somatic cell nuclear transfer—to clone humans. Born several weeks ago, the monkeys are identical female twins. For the cloning process, scientists transferred DNA taken from fetal monkey cells into eggs that had had their own DNA removed. They then stimulated these eggs to develop into embryos, which they implanted in female surrogates. The resulting 79 viable embryos led to six pregnancies, yielding two live births. The researchers called their advance a “breakthrough for biomedicine,” reports Reuters?.com. Producing large groups of genetically identical monkeys could revolutionize research on diseases including cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. But some bioethicists fear the breakthrough could lead to human cloning—concerns the researchers are dismissing. “The technical barrier is now broken,” says Mu-ming Poo, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “But we’re not going to do it. There’s absolutely no plan to do anything on humans.”
2-8-18 Deep-sea fish lay eggs near hydrothermal vents to keep them warm
Pacific white skate lay their eggs onto the sizzling hot rocks of hydrothermal vents in the depths of the sea, possibly because the heat speeds up their development. One species of deep-sea fish has chosen to incubate its eggs in a seemingly impossible place: the baking hot rocks of hydrothermal vents. Such vents are openings in the seabed that spew sulphurous gases and fluids from the bowels of the Earth out into the ocean. “This is the first time this egg-incubating behaviour, using heat from active hydrothermal vents, has been recorded in the marine environment,” says study leader Pelayo Salinas de León of the Charles Darwin Foundation on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos. He suspects the fish do it “to speed up egg incubation time”. Salinas and his colleagues were exploring the Iguanas-Pinguinos hydrothermal vents, 45 kilometres north of Darwin Island and three kilometres under the sea. They were using a remotely operated vehicle called Hercules. A few metres from a “black smoker” vent, the team spotted 157 eggs. Each was about the size of a mobile phone and looked like a hot water bottle with fingers at each corner. They used one of Hercules’s arms to collect a handful of egg cases. “We found they were at a very early developmental stage,” says Salinas. Closer examination revealed that the eggs belonged to a deep-sea fish called the Pacific white skate (Bathyraja spinosissima).
2-7-18 Beetles escape alive after almost 2 hours in a toad’s stomach
Bombardier beetles sometimes get eaten by toads, but they can squirt hot, toxic jets of liquid from their backsides so the toads often vomit them right back up. Imagine spending almost two hours wallowing in the stomach juices of a toad. Bombardier beetles do just that, but they have found a way to escape alive. A swallowed bombardier beetle squirts so much hot, toxic fluid into the toad’s stomach that the animal is sick, ejecting the beetle to freedom. Shinji Sugiura and Takyua Sato of Kobe University fed Asian bombardier beetles (Pheropsophus jessoensis) to Japanese common toads (Bufo japonicus) and Japanese stream toads (Bufo torrenticola). 43 per cent of the beetles escaped, some after 107 minutes. Bombardier beetles famously produce explosive jets of hot, corrosive and toxic chemicals from their rear ends when threatened. Reaching temperatures of 100°C, the jets make loud popping noises and generate clouds of smoke and steam. To find out if this is how the beetles escape, Sugiura and Sato fed single bombardier beetles to toads. They provoked half the beetles to jettison their toxic loads beforehand, depriving them of this means of defense. Only 3 out of 37 disarmed beetles survived, whereas 16 out of 37 fully-armed beetles escaped. “We showed that the bombardier beetle ejects toxic chemicals inside the toad, forcing it to vomit,” says Sugiura.
2-6-18 It’s a bad idea for a toad to swallow a bombardier beetle
Even when swallowed, this insect can spray hurl-inducing hot chemicals from its rear. Toad versus bombardier beetle is almost a fair fight. Toads are hugely bigger, can tongue-strike in an eyeblink and swallow all kinds of nasty stuff. But bombardier beetles can shoot hot steam and noxious chemicals from their back ends. In a lab face-off, 43 percent of Pheropsophus jessoensis bombardiers escaped alive after being swallowed by toads, a pair of researchers at Kobe University in Japan report February 7 in Biology Letters. These lucky beetles were vomited up — in one case, 107 minutes after being gulped — covered with goo, but still able to pull themselves together and walk away. Fifteen of the 16 beetles coughed up into daylight lived for at least 17 days, with one still going 562 days later. Scalding internal beetle blasts proved vital in persuading the toads to spit the bugs up, ecologists Shinji Sugiura and Takuya Sato report. The pair prodded beetles into spraying until no more defensive chemicals remained, and then fed defenseless beetles to toads. The toads kept almost all of these beetles down.
2-6-18 Pollinators are usually safe from a Venus flytrap
Out of the hundreds of species of carnivorous plants found across the planet, none attract quite as much fascination as the Venus flytrap. The plants are native to just a small section of North Carolina and South Carolina, but these tiny plants can now be found around the world. They’re a favorite among gardeners, who grow them in homes and greenhouses. Scientists, too, have long been intrigued by the plants and have extensively studied the famous trap. But far less is known about the flower that blooms on a stalk 15 to 35 centimeters above — including what pollinates that flower. “The rest of the plant is so incredibly cool that most folks don’t get past looking at the active trap leaves,” says Clyde Sorenson, an entomologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Plus, notes Sorenson’s NCSU colleague Elsa Youngsteadt, an insect ecologist, because flytraps are native to just a small part of North and South Carolina, field studies can be difficult. And most people who raise flytraps cut off the flowers so the plant can put more energy into making traps.
2-5-18 Plastic pollution: Scientists' plea on threat to ocean giants
Scientists say there needs to be more research into the impact of plastic pollution on sharks, whales and rays. A study, in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, says the creatures may be swallowing hundreds of tiny bits of plastic a day. Microplastic pollution has the potential to further reduce the population sizes of the large filter feeders, they say. Yet, there is very little research being carried out into the risks. Researchers from the US, Australia and Italy looked at data on threats to large filter feeders from microplastics. These small plastic pieces less than five millimetres long can be harmful to the ocean and aquatic life. The Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Coral Triangle are priorities for monitoring, according to a review of studies. "The full magnitude of risks of ingesting microplastics are yet to be fully investigated," said Elitza Germanov of Murdoch University, Australia, and researcher at the US Marine Megafauna Foundation. Possible risks include reduced nutritional uptake and damage to the digestive system when microplastics are ingested, she said. In addition, toxin exposure through plastic ingestion could affect many biological processes, such as growth and reproduction, putting filter feeding populations "under even more strain", she added.
2-3-18 How children are fighting to save tortoises from climate change
Kids and teens are an important force in conservation efforts on the Galapagos Islands. e teens are huddled, hushed, peering at a motionless giant tortoise that lies at their feet. Is it alive? The tortoise's shell glistens, but it doesn't move. No one dares to talk. And then, ever so slowly, the huge creature begins to lift its scaley, elongated head, and exhales — an incongruously loud gushing sound — and the students squeal with relief and shock. They've found their first tortoise, and it's time to get to work. The students are from Cazares High School on the Galapagos Island of Santa Cruz. As part of their studies they are working with the Galapagos National Park and an NGO, Ecology Project International (EPI), to collect data on the land tortoise population of the Santa Cruz highlands. It's part of a program that is embedded in the Galapagos school system to involve youth in the critical environmental conservation work that is most often the terrain of adults. EPI trainers, María Fernanda Sevallos and Andres Holguín, have spent two days with the teens up in a highland camp building their knowledge base about tortoise ecology and its importance to the Galapagos Islands. Now it's time to meet the creatures and begin the work of finding, tracking and counting them. Careful notes are being taken at every step. Is the tortoise male or female? Does it already have a little implanted tracking chip? What are its measurements and its weight? It's not work for the faint of heart, nor does the GNP allow anyone except its own people to actually touch a tortoise. But the Cazares students are with a national park ranger who is overseeing and helping with every step of the process.
2-2-18 Shark-free world? That’s a wish that would come back to bite us
Sharks may be hard to love for many people, including the US president, but these animals are essential to the health of our oceans, says Lesley Evans Ogden. “I hope all the sharks die.” Those, reportedly, are the words of Donald Trump, now US president. Fear of these animals is common, down to the way they are often portrayed in movies and on television. For example, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is often criticised for portraying them as scary monsters that pose a much greater danger to us than their true risk. Fortunately, not everyone takes the bait. Sharks “instantly captivated me with their sheer power and how misunderstood they were”, says marine biologist Melissa Marquez. Marquez, based in Australia, is studying how our perception of these creatures sways support for conservation, and how sharks feature in indigenous legends, myths and folklore. In myths, sharks are often far from bad. In many indigenous cultures, they are not the terrifying Jaws of Hollywood. In traditional Hawaiian culture, for example, they are benevolent protectors or guardians. That reflects reality. Scientists have learned that sharks play a critical ecological role. In Shark Bay, Australia, for example, it’s not just being eaten, but fear of being eaten by tiger sharks that prevents dugongs and sea turtles from overgrazing meadows of seagrass. Sharks thus provide top-down protection for the biodiversity that flourishes in such oceanic life-support systems. A world without sharks would be bad in many ways. We still have a long way to go in understanding the intricacies of marine ecosystems and predicting what happens when they get messed up, says Steven Campana at the University of Iceland.
2-2-18 Polar bears 'running out of food'
High-tech tracking collars on nine female polar bears have measured the animals' efforts to find food on the diminishing Arctic ice. Each bear wore a collar - recording video, location and activity levels - for 8-12 days, while metabolic tracers tracked the bears' energy use. This revealed that most of the animals were unable to catch enough prey to meet their energy needs. The team says wild bears have higher metabolic rates than thought. Moreover, climate change appears to be having dramatic effects on the Arctic sea-ice, forcing polar bears to move greater distances as they hunt, and making it harder for them to catch prey. The vision of a polar bear plucking a vulnerable seal off an ice floe is something familiar to wildlife documentary fanatics. Earlier this winter, though, an image of an emaciated polar bear went viral, with many asking if this was the telltale image of climate change. The authors of this study, published in the journal Science, point out that the animals do now need to travel further to find seals, and that this is likely to be an "important factor explaining declines in their body condition and survival" of polar bears.
2-1-18 Polar bears waste lots of their energy and it could be a problem
We thought polar bears had neat tricks for conserving energy in lean periods, but it turns out they are not that thrifty, which could cause them trouble in the future. Being a polar bear is harder work than biologists thought. As the bears roam the Arctic sea ice hunting seals, they use more energy than expected. That has ominous implications for a future in which sea ice is ever scarcer. Anthony Pagano of the US Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska, and his colleagues studied 9 adult female polar bears on the Beaufort Sea ice north of Alaska. They fitted the bears with collars carrying GPS trackers, accelerometers and video cameras. They also injected the bears with water labelled with stable isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen. When the team recaptured the bears 8 to 11 days later, changes in the ratio of isotopes in their blood gave a measure of metabolic rate. The researchers could compare this with the bears’ activity and hunting success. Researchers already knew that polar bears are inefficient walkers, but many assumed that they also saved energy by sitting quietly waiting for seals, and by reducing their metabolic rate when fasting. However, it seems these savings are small at best. The bears’ average metabolic rate during the study period was 1.6 times more than most previous estimates. This means the bears must kill and eat more seals over the course of a year, to pay for this higher metabolic rate. But as climate change melts ever more sea ice, the bears are likely to have to walk farther to find prey. “That has a cost, and the animal has to find the energy to do that – or take it out of growth, reproduction, or survival,” says polar bear biologist Andrew Derocher.
2-1-18 A peek into polar bears’ lives reveals revved-up metabolisms
In a world with declining Arctic sea ice, that could be a problem. Female polar bears prowling springtime sea ice have extreme weight swings, some losing more than 10 percent of their body mass in just over a week. And the beginnings of bear video blogging help explain why. An ambitious study of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in Alaska has found that their overall metabolic rate is 1.6 times greater than thought, says wildlife biologist Anthony Pagano of the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage. With bodies that burn energy fast, polar bears need to eat a blubbery adult ringed seal (or 19 newborn seals) every 10 to 12 days just to maintain weight, Pagano and his colleagues report in the Feb. 2 Science. Camera-collar vlogs, a bear’s-eye view of the carnivores’ diet and lifestyle secrets, show just how well individual bears are doing. The study puts the firmest numbers yet on basic needs of polar bears, whose lives are tied to the annual spread and shrinkage of Arctic sea ice, Pagano says. As the climate has warmed, the annual ice minimum has grown skimpier by some 14 percent per decade (SN Online: 9/19/16), raising worries about polar bear populations. These bears hunt the fat-rich seals that feed and breed around ice, and as seal habitat shrinks, so do the bears’ prospects.
2-1-18 It’s time to label all meat as stunned or unstunned at slaughter
One solution to concern over how animals are killed for our plates is labelling that makes this welfare distinction plain on all meat, says Danny Chambers. The call for a ban is becoming a perennial one, but the continual focus on the religious element of slaughter is getting in the way. It simply heightens emotions and diverts attention from the key concern, which is animal welfare. It is the distinction between stunned and non-stunned slaughter, not religious vs non-religious, which should be front and centre. As they stand, the calls for change are often enthusiastically shared online by far-right groups. In a post-Brexit climate in which many ethnic and religious minorities feel victimised, allowing people with a xenophobic, Islamophobic or anti-Semitic agenda to hijack this is making sensible debate difficult. It’s nigh on impossible when people feel as though their religion is being attacked. Why is this an issue at all? Animals in the UK are legally required to be stunned immediately before slaughter to render them unconscious during the procedure, unless being slaughtered for religious reasons. Animals stunned immediately before slaughter are unconscious when their throats are cut. This means they are not aware of the severing of the major blood vessels that allows rapid bleeding out and death. Animals not stunned are fully conscious and die when enough blood has been lost. Not only is bleeding out while still conscious stressful, inducing panic, but the animal will inhale blood through the severed trachea, and animals undoubtedly experience pain. Conscious sheep retain consciousness for up to 20 seconds once their throats are cut, cattle for up to 2 minutes, and poultry even longer. (Webmaster's comment: Barbaric Jewish and Islamic Religious Practice. Ban It! Arrest those do it!)