No matter where you look, just about every creature
is obsessed with:
sex, real estate, who's the boss, and what's for dinner.
49 Animal Intelligence & Zoology News Articles
for April of 2018
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
4-30-18 To save the insect world we must go way beyond neonicotinoid ban
Europe's bold ban on bee-harming insecticides is a positive step, but much more is needed if we are to avoid ecological disaster, says Dave Goulson. The vote to ban all outdoor use of the three main neonicotinoid insecticides in the European Union is a step in the right direction. It is a very welcome one, too, given the ongoing evidence of catastrophic insect loss, in particular the recent evidence from Germany of a 76 per cent decline in flying insect biomass from 1989 to 2016. There is abundant evidence from lab and field studies that neonicotinoids are harmful to bees, and a growing body of evidence linking them to declines of butterflies, aquatic insects and insect-eating birds. The EU decision is logical, based on a major review of the evidence – spanning 1500 studies – by the European Food Safety Authority, and in line with earlier reviews of the impacts of neonics such as that published by the European Academy of Sciences in 2015. It also shows that the EU has some spine, for this decision was taken in the face of a major lobbying effort by the powerful agrochemical industry and strong opposition from the UK’s National Farmers Union. Encouragingly, the UK voted for the ban – to take effect this year – even though only last year it was staunchly opposed to further restrictions on these chemicals, already subject to a partial moratorium. Perhaps UK environment secretary Michael Gove is as green as he says he is. So, good news for bees and other insects, and for the environment. However, don’t get too excited. If these chemicals are simply replaced by similar compounds such as the tongue-twistingly titled sulfoxaflor, cyantraniliprole or flupyradifurone (all new systemic and neurotoxic insecticides), then we will simply be going round in circles.
4-30-18 See (and hear) the stunning diversity of bowhead whales’ songs
The animals sing 184 different melodies in the dark waters beneath Arctic ice. In the pitch-black waters beneath the Arctic ice, bowhead whales get funky. A small population of endangered bowheads belt an unusually varied repertoire of songs, which grows more diverse during mating season. Hunted to near extinction in the 1600s, these fire truck–sized mammals now number in the 300s in the frigid waters around the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. Underwater audio recorders captured the whales singing 184 acoustically distinct songs from October to April in 2010 through 2014. On the bowhead charts, a song's popularity is fleeting. Most recorded songs were heard for less than 100 hours total, although one song registered over 730 hours total. Some songs appeared in more than one month, but none repeated annually. December and January, likely the height of breeding season, saw a wider array of new bowhead songs than other months, researchers report in the April Biology Letters. Hearing a more distinct mixtape may play a role in enticing a female to mate. Groups of humpback whales don't change their tunes much in a given year, compared with bowheads. Only a few songbird species boast similar diversity.
4-29-18 ‘The Curious Life of Krill’ is an ode to an underappreciated crustacean
A new book clears up misconceptions about the shrimplike critters. Stephen Nicol is here to change your mind about krill: They’re not microscopic and they’re far from boring. The biologist is so sick of people misunderstanding his study subjects that he’s even gotten a (slightly botched) krill tattooed on his arm to help enlighten strangers. In The Curious Life of Krill, Nicol is taking his mission to an even bigger audience. The book is an ode to Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), which are among the most abundant animals in the world by mass. Each several centimeters long, krill cloud the ocean in swarms that can span 20 kilometers. They’re a linchpin of ocean ecosystems — a key food source for whales, penguins and other marine life. And yet, Nicol points out, few people would be able to identify these translucent, red-and-green-speckled creatures with feathery appendages. Anyone who has ever nurtured an affection for a species that others find odd or distasteful or unremarkable will understand Nicol’s devotion. His wry and earnest way of describing krill and their ecology will probably draw in those interested in biology or environmental science.
4-29-18 Raising salmon on land
But he says there are hardly any wild salmon left here. They've been hit by dams and other development along the region's rivers, overfishing, a warming ocean, and, he says, the rise of salmon farms nearby. There are now more than 60 salmon farms in the waters of British Columbia and neighboring Washington state, and Cranmer says they're bringing big problems for wild fish, including fish waste and parasites. Cranmer says if he and his Namgis First Nation people had their way, they'd get rid of open-water salmon farms. But they can't, so they're trying another idea for rebuilding a salmon economy for their community. They've built their own salmon farm — on land. It's called Kuterra, and it sits across the bay in nearby Port McNeill, in what looks like a nondescript warehouse, surrounded by a chain-link fence. Behind its gray metal walls is Canada's first land-based farm for Atlantic salmon, the most commonly farmed species. Inside, hundreds of salmon glint greenish in big round tanks, where they feed and grow until they're ready for harvest. The sound of swirling water and food pellets rushing through metal tubes fills the huge room. CEO Gary Ullstrom says Kuterra produces about 12,000 pounds of fish a week. What it doesn't produce is contaminants that enter the local ecosystem. (Webmaster's comment: Taste-wise there is an enormous difference between wild-caught salmon and farm-raised salmon. I suspect there is also the same difference in nourishment.)
4-27-18 EU member states support near-total neonicotinoids ban
Member states have voted in favour of an almost complete ban on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides across the EU. Scientific studies have long linked their use to the decline of honeybees, wild bees and other pollinators. The move represents a major extension of existing restrictions, in place since 2013. Manufacturers and some farming groups have opposed the move, saying the science remains uncertain. Neonicotinoids are the most widely used class of insecticides in the world, but concerns about their impact on bees have been reinforced by multiple research efforts, including so-called "real world" trial results published last year. Back in 2013 the European Union opted for a partial ban on the use of the three chemicals in this class: Imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam. The restrictions applied to crops including maize, wheat, barley, oats and oil seed rape. The newly agreed Commission regulation goes much further, meaning that almost all outdoor uses of the chemicals would be banned. Voting on the proposal had been postponed a number of times as countries were split on the move. However, Friday's meeting saw a qualified majority vote in favour of the ban. The action has been driven by a recent report from the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa), which found that neonicotinoids posed a threat to many species of bees, no matter where or how they are used in the outdoor environment.
4-26-18 Cute but dim quolls have been taught to stop eating toxic toads
Northern quolls are an endangered species thanks to an epidemic of poisonous cane toads in Australia, but now some of them have been trained to steer clear. Conservationists have trained cute endangered quolls to avoid the toxic toads that kill them. Northern quolls (Dasyurus hallucatus) are small marsupials that vaguely resemble ferrets. They live in small patches of northern Australia, and eat a mixed diet. However, the quolls’ undiscerning ways have been their undoing. In 1935, poisonous cane toads (Rhinella marina) were introduced to Australia to control pests. In the early 2000s they hopped their way into quoll territory – and the quolls, knowing no better, ate them and died in swathes. The death toll was so bad that quolls, already in retreat due to factors like habitat loss from fire, were extirpated from much of their range. They are now an endangered species. To save the quolls from extinction, some were moved to the toad-free English Company Islands off Australia’s north coast. There, Jonathan Webb at the University of Technology Sydney and his colleagues have tried to prepare the quolls for a return to the mainland. The team trained the quolls not to eat cane toads by feeding them non-poisonous toads that contained a chemical that induced nausea.
4-26-18 Horses remember if you smiled or frowned when they last saw you
Horses can remember the expressions on people’s faces and use them to make judgements about whether people are nice or unpleasant. Why the long face? Horses can remember the facial expressions they see on human faces and respond differently if you smiled or frowned when they last saw you. Leanne Proops of the University of Portsmouth, UK and her colleagues showed in 2016 that horses respond differently to photographs of happy or angry human faces. Now they have studied whether horses can form lasting memories of people that depend on their facial expressions. First, they showed horses a photo of one of two human models, displaying either a happy or angry face. Several hours later, the model visited the horse in person, this time with a neutral expression. As a control, some horses saw a different model in the second part to the one they saw in the photograph. Crucially, the models didn’t know which photo the horse had seen earlier. In the early 20th century, a horse called Clever Hans amazed audiences by appearing to answer simple mathematical problems by tapping his hoof. It turned out he was responding to involuntary cues from his trainer. Proops’ study aimed to eliminate such cues. The team found that the horses remembered the models’ previous facial expressions. Horses prefer to look at negative and threatening sights with their left eye, and positive social stimuli with their right eye. In the study, when they saw a model they had seen frowning earlier, they spent more time looking with their left eye. They also exhibited more stress-related behaviours, like scratching and floor sniffing. In contrast, when they saw a model they had seen smiling earlier, they spent more time looking with their right eye.
4-26-18 'Guns, germs and trees' determine gorilla's fate
The survival of gorillas in the forests of Africa depends on guns, germs and trees. So say the scientists behind the largest ever survey of western lowland gorillas across their range. The study, based on a decade's worth of field research, found more gorillas than in previous estimates. However, the vast majority are in unprotected areas, where they are at risk from illegal poaching, Ebola and habitat destruction. A similar picture was found for central chimpanzees. Both great apes live in the remote forests of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. "Guns refers to hunting; germs refers to Ebola; and trees refer to the fact that these are forest animals which need a dense and intact forest to survive," said Dr Fiona Maisels, Conservation Scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and a co-author on the study. "If you clear the forest they're all gone. If you convert the forest to a monoculture you certainly can't have gorillas and chimps." Writing in the journal Science Advances, international researchers argue that great ape populations require more attention than they currently receive. Conservation efforts must focus on reinforcing anti-poaching measures, disease control measures and preserving high quality habitats, they say. "Because 80% of western lowland gorillas and central chimps live outside the protected areas, it's essential that they get as much protection as possible," said Dr Maisels.
4-26-18 Superlight aerogel made by mimicking a baby dragonfly’s wings
Dragonflies solidify their jelly-like wings with sodium bicarbonate they make in their gut. Aerogels used for heat shields have been made using the same method. When an entomologist dropped by Lidija Šiller’s materials science lab at Newcastle University in the UK to borrow her electron microscope, Šiller thought they would just be looking at some dragonfly wings to identify their species. But when she took a peek, she was taken aback by the wings’ resemblance to her own research. “When we looked at the dragonfly wings, we just wanted to classify them. But then we saw something that was much more interesting,” she says. The wings were full of tiny pores, just like the aerogels Šiller’s team studies. Aerogels are some of the lightest materials in the world, and they’re surprisingly difficult to make. Now, Šiller and her colleagues have developed a new method to make them inspired by the way baby dragonflies ready their jelly-like wings for flight. Dragonflies in their larval phase live underwater for as long as a few years. Eventually, they shed their larval skin to reveal soft, jelly-like wings. To dry out their wings, the dragonflies produce sodium bicarbonate in their hindgut and rectum. Then they fart it out, and it reacts with the water in their wings to create carbon dioxide, drying them out. The first step to creating an aerogel is making a jelly cube, which is a matrix of silica molecules full of pockets of water. There are various methods to remove the water and dry out the gel, leaving behind pockets of air. The result is a material so light that a chunk several centimetres across can balance atop a delicate flower without bending its petals.
4-24-18 Almost 1500 bird species face extinction and we’re to blame
One-eighth of the world’s 11,000 bird species are now threatened, and in most cases farming is the biggest threat thanks to our increasingly meat-rich diets. 1469 bird species are threatened with extinction, warns a global report. That is around one-eighth of the 10,966 known species. Farming is the biggest single threat. 74 per cent of the threatened birds – 1091 species – are in trouble because of expansion and intensification of farming. This is true of tropical species in South America and farmland birds in Europe such as skylarks, lapwings and corn buntings. The 2018 State of the World’s Birds report was released on Monday by BirdLife International at a conference on bird migration. It reveals that farms now occupy six times more of Earth’s land surface than they did 300 years ago, rising from 6 to 38 per cent between 1700 and today. “It’s being driven by changing human consumption patterns, especially an increasing switch to a high-meat diet,” says lead author Tris Allinson of Birdlife International. “Today, two-and-a-half times more people are overweight than undernourished, and average daily protein consumption is a third higher than needed.” The growth of agriculture is destroying birds’ habitat. In the tropics, the problem is that farms are spreading out onto ever more land “to grow things like cocoa, sugar, soya, coffee and palm oil that’s driving the loss of habitat,” says Allinson. “In the developed world, it’s the intensification that’s the problem.” This loss of habitat is even putting pressure on relatively common species, like turtle doves in Europe and Asia and grey parrots in Africa. “The trend we’re really noticing is seeing more familiar, widespread species in trouble,” says Allinson. The loss of land is being compounded by other disruptive human activities, like logging and draining of wetlands. “Logging is often the precursor to turning over land to farmers,” says Allinson.
4-24-18 The tragic lives of India's mistreated captive elephants
For more than a month, Rajeshwari, a 42-year-old temple elephant in India, lay desultorily on a patch of sand, her forelimb and femur broken and her body ravaged by sores. Lack of space and habitat to exercise and graze in natural surroundings means elephants lodged in captivity are shackled for long hours in concrete sheds with stone floors. This is enough to make the animal sick. They usually get foot rot, a condition where their feet develop abscesses and thinning pads, sometimes leading to severe infection. When outside, constant exposure to the glare of sun can affect their eyesight. Ms Ganguly blames this on "gross ignorance on part of the keepers and managers". Then there's the poor diet. Elephants are slow eaters, and in the wild typically eat more than 100 kinds of roots, shoots, grasses, foliage and tubers. In captivity, their diets are severely restricted. In parts of northern India, for example, the animals have access only to glucose-rich dried sugarcane fodder. Vets say many of them suffer from intestinal infection, septicaemia and lung-related infections. The life expectancy of captive elephants in Kerala, according to a report, has dipped to below 40 years from 70-75 years a couple of decades ago. There's not even enough places to shelter rescued and ailing elephants. There are five of them in India - including three private rescue centres - that house some 40 elephants, not enough considering the high population of captive animals. Tamil Nadu holds month-long rejuvenation camps for temple elephants, where the animals can rest, get treated and interact with other elephants in a natural environment. Elephants are trucked into these camps from distant places and many elephants have had accidents resulting in deaths due to their inability to cope with road transport or because they fall down from trucks.
4-24-18 Ants build a medieval ‘torture rack’ to catch grasshoppers
A species of tropical ant builds traps on tree trunks that allow them to catch prey almost fifty times their size, by biting their legs and spread-eagling them on the tree surface. Tropical ants build and set a trap that resembles a medieval torture rack. They use this ingenious setup to capture insect prey much larger than themselves, then rip the victim apart. These ants have transformed the characteristic ant zeal for teamwork into something macabre. Azteca brevis ants build and set a trap not unlike a medieval torture device, which is used to cooperatively capture and rip apart insect prey. Lead author Markus Schmidt first came across Azteca brevis ants in Costa Rica’s Piedras Blancas National Park in 1999. He saw the ants constructing unusual, porous nests on tree trunks. But he could not find any research explaining what these structures were for. After months of observations and experiments in the rainforest, Schmidt and his colleague Alain Dejean of the University of Toulouse in France discovered that A. brevis ants were engaging in an ingenious ambush hunting strategy. The millimetres-long ants build a network of galleries and tunnels, reinforced with fungus, in the tree trunk. The end result is a Swiss cheese-like contraption, dotted with holes just wide enough for a worker ant’s head. Schmidt calls it a “carton nest”. The ants lurk in the holes, jaws agape, waiting for a large grasshopper or leafcutter ant (Atta spp.) to step onto the trap. When one does, an ant will clamp onto a leg and start pulling. At this point, the victim is doomed. “By trying to set itself free, the Atta ant would then step in yet another hole where the same process was repeated, until the legs and antennae of the Atta were all fixed and the intruder was spread-eagled on the carton nest,” says Schmidt. After pinning the insect down, the A. brevis ants carve it up on the spot. The trap allows workers to efficiently kill insects nearly fifty times heavier than themselves.
4-23-18 'Exploding ant' species found in South East Asia
A team of international scientists has discovered a new species of "exploding ants". The canopy-dwelling ants, common in South East Asia, are known for their bizarre defensive behaviour. Alice Laciny, from the Natural History Museum of Vienna, is one of the researchers behind the discovery.
4-20-18 Cicadas on different schedules can hybridize
Genetic evidence suggests that cicadas on 13- and 17-year schedules can hybridize.. Every few years, a buzz fills the air in the southeastern United States as adolescent cicadas crawl out from the soil to molt and make babies. After a childhood spent sipping tree sap underground, some species emerge every 13 years, others every 17 years, rarely overlapping. Yet somehow in this giant cicada orgy, hybridization happens between species that should be out of sync. Researchers have sought to explain how the two life cycle lengths developed. A new study published online April 19 in Communications Biology fails to pin the difference on genetics, but finds some interesting things along the way. Cicadas fall into three species groups that diverged from one another about 3.9 million to 2.5 million years ago. Within each of those groups, species on a 13-year schedule diverged from 17-year-cycle cicadas about 200,000 to 100,000 years ago, the researchers from the United States and Japan report. But the researchers also found that the 17-year and 13-year broods within each group share genetic code — evidence of hybridization. It’s possible that neighboring broods swapped DNA when their emergence overlapped — something that happens every 221 years — or if stragglers emerged early or late.
4-20-18 Trees may have a ‘heartbeat’ that is so slow we never noticed it
Trees repeatedly move their branches up and down during the night, and this may reflect water being pumped along the branches – just like a human pulse. Trees may seem sedate but it turns out they are more active than we thought. Many trees move their branches up and down during the night. The findings hint that the trees are actively pumping water upwards in stages, and that trees have a slow version of a “pulse”. “We’ve discovered that most trees have regular periodic changes in shape, synchronised across the whole plant and shorter than a day-night cycle, which imply periodic changes in water pressure,” says András Zlinszky of Aarhus University in the Netherlands. In a study published in October 2017, Zlinszky and his colleague Anders Barfod used a form of laser-scanning normally deployed to monitor tall buildings. They scanned 22 species of tree for one night each in windless, lightless conditions to see if the trees’ canopies changed shape. In seven species, branches moved up or down by about a centimetre. These see-saw oscillations in branches were most pronounced in magnolia trees, averaging up to 1.5 centimetres. The cycles repeated every 3 to 4 hours. Now the pair have an idea for what the movements could represent. They think they might be evidence that trees have a “heartbeat”, and that they are actively pumping water up from their roots in pulses that last hours.
4-19-18 Wildlife workers killed
Five park rangers and their driver were killed in an ambush this week in Congo’s Virunga National Park, a vast wildlife preserve that is home to one of the world’s largest populations of endangered mountain gorillas. More than 170 rangers have been killed in the park over the past 20 years, including five who were killed when a local militia attacked their post last August. The rangers face many threats, including poachers, who slaughter gorillas for meat and to sell body parts as trophies; the lucrative charcoal industry; and rebel groups left over from Congo’s 1998–2003 civil war. The park’s chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode, said, “It is unacceptable that Virunga’s rangers continue to pay the highest price in defense of our common heritage.”
4-19-18 How to add a second pet
- Stage a safe meeting. A dog or cat will often feel threatened when a new animal joins a home. Have dogs meet in neutral territory, such as an open yard, when both are on leashes. Keep a new cat in a separate room for a day or two so both the old and new pet can adjust to the scents and sounds of the other.
- Play favorites. A dog can become jealous, so be sure the older pet gets extra TLC. Just 10 more minutes of play each day should do it. To create a sense of continuity for the older dog, walk the two separately, or ask a friend to join you to walk the new dog on its own leash.
- Police food fights. Feed dogs in separate rooms or separate areas to avoid aggression. Feed cats in an area that dogs can’t reach, like the top of a washing machine. Cats should have no trouble eating together once they’ve become friends.
4-19-18 Male fruit flies feel pleasure when they ejaculate
Male insects have been genetically engineered to climax on command, and it seems they get a real buzz out of it – perhaps even a fly orgasm. Male fruit flies seem to enjoy ejaculation as much as men do. Their “orgasms” seem to be satisfying enough to reduce their craving for other rewards such as alcohol. The experiment resembles the “orgasmatron”, a fictional machine for giving people instant orgasms featured in the 1973 film Sleeper. Galit Shohat-Ophir of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel and her colleagues engineered male fruit flies so that they could make them ejaculate at will. First, they genetically engineered neurons in the fruit flies’ abdomens so that they could be activated by exposure to red light. Once activated, the neurons produced corazonin, a chemical that makes the flies ejaculate. Corazonin also boosted the flies’ production of neuropeptide F (NPF), a brain transmitter that is a handy barometer for levels of pleasure and reward. In humans, it has a counterpart called neuropeptide Y, levels of which are reduced in people with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. The first question the team addressed was whether ejaculation itself triggered pleasure, as it does in human males. In theory, many other components of the mating ritual, such as visual cues or making songs to attract mates, might be the thing that causes pleasure. “Male fruit flies produce very specific ‘love songs’ by vibrating one of their wings,” says Shohat-Ophir. So she devised a study that separated ejaculation from all the other elements of courtship.
4-19-18 Male fruit flies enjoy ejaculation
A probe of the brain’s reward system looks at Drosophila sex (or lack thereof) and drinking. Moody red lighting in a lab is helping researchers figure out what fruit flies like best about sex. The question has arisen as scientists try to tease out the neurobiological steps in how the brain’s natural reward system can get hijacked in alcoholism, says neuroscientist Galit Shohat-Ophir of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. Male fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) were genetically engineered to ejaculate when exposed to a red light. Ejaculation increased signs in the insects’ brains of a rewarding experience and decreased the lure of alcohol, researchers found. After several days in this red-light district, the flies tended to prefer a plain sugary beverage over one spiked with ethanol. Males not exposed to the red light went for the boozier drink, Shohat-Ophir and colleagues report April 19 in Current Biology. Earlier lab research has shown that male flies repeatedly rejected by females are more likely to get drunk. Those with happy fly sex lives don’t show much interest in alcohol. Shohat-Ophir wondered what aspect of sex, or lack thereof, had such a profound effect on the brain’s reward system.
4-19-18 Moose kicks back
An Alaska man made a painful mistake when he kicked a moose that was blocking his path. Authorities said the man was on a hike when he came across a cow and its calf, and kicked the mama moose to move it out of his way. Annoyed, the 700-pound animal stomped his foot with its hoof, leaving the man in need of medical attention. Ken Marsh of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said it’s not wise to pick fights with wildlife. “If you get into a kicking contest with a moose,” he said, “guess who’s going to win?” (Webmaster's comment: I saw the same thing happen in Yellowstone 40 years ago. A man wanted a male buffalo to stand up for a picture so he kicked him in his ribs. The buffalo stood up and gored him. How stupid can you get?)
4-19-18 Flies cool themselves down by constantly blowing bubbles of spit
Blowflies repeatedly blow bubbles of saliva, which look like brown bubble gum – and it turns out this odd behaviour helps them keep cool. They look like they’re using bubble gum. Brazilian flies blow out deep brown bubbles of spit every few seconds. Now it seems these bubbles have a serious purpose: to keep the insect cool. Guilherme Gomes of the University of São Paulo in Brazil and his colleagues placed groups of 50 latrine blowflies (Chrysomya megacephala) in transparent cylinders. Then they gradually raised the temperature inside, and took infrared images of the blowflies as they blew bubbles in and out. As the bubbles went in and out of each fly’s proboscis, both the bubbles and the flies cooled down. The spit bubbles cooled because some of the liquid evaporated, which absorbed heat. On average, each bubble cooled by 8°C in each 15-second cycle of blowing out and in. “After re-ingesting a cooled droplet, the temperature of the fly’s head immediately decreases by up to 3°C,” says Gomes. Sometimes, a fly would blow a bubble out and in a dozen times. “The more sequential cycles it performs, the more the body temperature decreases, until it reaches a balance with the surroundings.” By repeatedly blowing bubbles, flies could cool their heads, thoraxes and abdomens by as much as 3°C, 1.6°C and 0.8°C respectively.
4-19-18 South Africa rhino poaching: 'Web of corruption' blamed
Entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson and conservationist Jane Goodall have joined a list of famous names who have signed an open letter to South Africa's government calling for an end to rhino poaching. More than 1,000 rhinos were killed across the country in 2017 for the fifth year running. The international monitoring group Traffic says nearly 5,500 rhinos have been killed over a five-year period. Only 20,000 or so rhinos remain in South Africa - the vast majority of the 25,000 animals left across the whole continent, says Traffic. Most of the 222 rhinos killed for their horn in South Africa's eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal were at the state-run Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Conservation group Saving the Wild says a "web of systematic corruption" within the justice system is to blame. It says this has allowed poaching to continue in a province which saw poaching increase by a third. The campaign body says "no action has been taken against this grossly corrupt alleged syndicate of justice officials". "We are concerned that members of this syndicate are under political protection." The letter, also signed by American singer-songwriter Dave Matthews and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, states: "Even when arrests are made, few poachers ever go to jail. The law is not acting as a deterrent to this onslaught." South Africa's oldest game reserve, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, became famous for its white rhino conservation work in the 1950s and 60s when it brought the sub-species back from the edge of extinction. Now it has become one of the parks worst affected by rhino poaching.
4-18-18 The yogurt cure: can ‘good’ bacteria save bats?
Probiotics aren't just a human health fad - their medicinal properties may be the best way to stop white-nose syndrome wiping out North America's bats. “THINK yogurt for bats,” says Cori Lausen. “We’re working with probiotics.” But instead of eating this cocktail of “good” microbes, they get doused with it. The plan sounds a bit, er, batty but it could be a lifesaver. Right now, bats across North America are emerging from hibernation. They are the lucky ones. Over the past decade, a fungal disease has killed millions during their winter slumber. The death rate from white-nose syndrome can be between 90 and 100 per cent, there is no cure and it threatens to annihilate entire species. That is not only terrible news for them, but also for us, because bats eat insects that spread diseases and their voracious appetite means farmers use far less pesticide. With a race on to stop the deadly fungus spreading, Lausen, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, is pinning her hopes on a probiotic brew. White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus aptly named Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which originated in Europe long enough ago for most bats there to have evolved resistance. Not so in North America, where it was first spotted in 2006 in eastern New York state. The disease has since spread westward across 31 US states and five Canadian provinces, killing an estimated 7 million bats along the way. Infection results in a white fungal growth that creeps across the muzzle and wings. If bats can make it to spring, they have a good chance of surviving because P. destructans dies in temperatures above 20°C. However, the disease repeatedly rouses them from hibernation so they burn precious fat stores and most end up wasting away.
4-18-18 Masses of shrimp and krill may play a huge role in mixing oceans
The swimmers’ turbulence could be powerful enough to stir nutrients up from the deep. When it comes to tiny ocean swimmers, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. Ocean turbulence stirred up by multitudes of creatures such as krill can be powerful enough to extend hundreds of meters down into the deep, a new study suggests. Brine shrimp moving vertically in two different laboratory tanks created small eddies that aggregated into a jet roughly the size of the whole migrating group, researchers report online April 18 in Nature. With a fluid velocity of about 1 to 2 centimeters per second, the jet was also powerful enough to mix shallow waters with deeper, saltier waters. Without mixing, these waters of different densities would remain isolated in layers. The shrimp represent centimeter-sized swimmers, including krill and shrimplike copepods, found throughout the world’s oceans that may together be capable of mixing ocean layers — and delivering nutrient-rich deep waters to phytoplankton, or microscopic marine plants, near the surface, the researchers suggest. “The original thinking is that these animals would flap their appendages and create little eddies about the same size as their bodies,” says John Dabiri, an expert in fluid dynamics at Stanford University. Previous work, including acoustic measurements of krill migrations in the ocean (SN: 10/7/06, p. 238) and theoretical simulations of fluid flow around swimmers such as jellyfish and shrimplike copepods (SN: 8/29/09, p. 14), had suggested that they may be stirring up more turbulence than thought.
4-18-18 Last of the wild asses back from the brink
Wild asses are returning to the grasslands of Kazakhstan where they once roamed in large numbers. The equine animals, known as kulans, are native to the area but have been pushed to the brink of extinction by illegal hunting and loss of habitat. Conservationists have started reintroducing the horses to their natural landscape. This month, more kulan were released in the Altyn Dala nature reserve to establish a fourth population. The project is being organised by the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK). Sergey Sklyarenko said reintroduction started in a reserve on an island in the Aral Sea with fewer than 20 animals. "We have got to now about 4,000 kulans in three wild populations," he said. "The creation of a fourth population will allow to provide new areas for the species and increase its sustainability." The wild asses were captured in the Altyn Emel National Park in the autumn. The population there has reached about 3,000 individuals, but there is little potential for future growth. The kulans were moved to a centre at Alytn Dala in Central Kazakhstan, where they were kept in captivity over the winter to allow them to bond and adjust to local conditions. Mares have been fitted with GPS collars so that the movement of herds can be tracked.
4-18-18 How ravens caused a LIGO data glitch
The birds used ice on a pipe as a thirst quencher. The source of a mysterious glitch in data from a gravitational wave detector has been unmasked: rap-tap-tapping ravens with a thirst for shaved ice. At the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, in the desert of Hanford, Wash., scientists noticed a signal that didn’t look like gravitational waves, physicist Beverly Berger said on April 16 at a meeting of the American Physical Society. A microphone sensor that monitors LIGO’s surroundings caught the sounds of pecking birds on tape in July 2017, Berger, of the LIGO Laboratory at Caltech, said. So the crew went out to the end of one of the detector’s 4-kilometer-long arms to check for evidence of the ebony birds at the scene. Sure enough, frost covering a pipe connected to the cooling system was covered in telltale peck marks from the thirsty birds. One raven, presumably seeking relief from the desert heat, was caught in the act. Altering the setup to prevent ice buildup now keeps the ravens from tapping, evermore.
4-17-18 These seals haven’t lost their land ancestors’ hunting ways
Having claws instead of smooth flippers lets ‘true seals’ grasp prey. Just like lions, tigers and bears, certain kinds of seals have claws that help the animals grasp prey and tear it apart. X-rays show that the bones in these seals’ forelimbs look like those found in the earliest seals, a new study finds. Ancestors of these ancient seals transitioned from land to sea at some point, preserving clawed limbs useful for hunting on land. But clawed paws in these northern “true seals,” which include harbor and harp seals, seem to be more than just a holdover from ancient times, says David Hocking, a marine zoologist at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Instead, retaining the claws probably helps northern true seals catch a larger meal than they could with the stiff, slippery fins of other pinnipeds such as sea lions and fur seals, Hocking and his colleagues report April 18 in Royal Society Open Science. Hocking and his colleagues spent 670 hours observing wild harbor and gray seals hunting salmon in Scotland. Tests with three captive seals, two harbor seals born in captivity and one spotted seal born in the wild allowed the team to observe eating behaviors at closer range.
4-17-18 World’s biggest bird feeder will use 500 tonnes of shellfish
A crucial feeding ground for migrating birds has been almost destroyed by pollution and a bad winter, but help is at hand in the form of an all-you-can-eat buffet. A race is on to build the world’s largest bird feeder, to save tens of thousands of migrating birds. China’s Yalu Jiang nature reserve, near the North Korean border, covers 50 kilometres of estuarine mudflats. Every year, 250,000 birds stop off there to feast on clams. They include bar-tailed godwits, oystercatchers and endangered great knots. From there, they continue their epic journeys – in the case of the godwits, from New Zealand to Alaska. However, the clams have been under pressure from pollution and environmental damage, and a frigid winter has left just 5 per cent alive. The solution is an all-you-can-eat buffet for the birds, made by bringing in farmed shellfish from around China. Conservationists estimated that 500 tonnes of shellfish were needed, and began an international appeal to raise $365,000 to pay. The entire sum has now been raised, just in time for the arrival of 75,000 great knots this week, according to migration researchers Team Piersma.
4-17-18 Baboons prop up barrels to escape Texas research centre
Officials at Texas research centre have made changes to the enclosures after four baboons leapt to freedom. The primates propped up barrels against the walls of their yard at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute and used them to jump over the fence. Three baboons then escaped the centre perimeter, while the fourth returned to its pen on its own. All three of the escapees were captured within half an hour. There are about 1,100 baboons in the facility. The San Antonio institute issued a press release detailing the escape and the animals' recapture. According to the statement, the baboons rolled a 55-gallon barrel up against the wall of their open-air yard to escape. The enclosure at the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC) - part of the research institute - has been in use for 35 years. Researchers gave the baboons the barrels as an "enrichment tool", to help them mimic foraging as they would in the wild. Staff immediately removed the barrels once they realised the primates had used them to jump the walls. (Webmaster's comment: So much for the "stupid animals" believers! The baboons figured out how to get out!)
4-17-18 Bialowieza forest: Poland broke EU law by logging
Poland violated EU law by ordering large-scale logging in one of Europe's oldest woodlands, the Bialowieza forest, the European Court of Justice has ruled. Bialowieza forest has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site and is home to Europe's largest herd of nearly extinct bison. But Poland argued its decision to order a three-fold increase in logging was necessary to combat beetle infestation. Poland says it will respect the ruling. The court's decision is a defeat for the country's conservative-led government. The ECJ said Poland had "failed to fulfil its obligations" in directives covering the habitats of animals and birds. While the whole of the Bialowieza forest in Poland is protected under EU directives, only 17% of that area has been designated a national park where no logging takes place. The court used particularly strong language to criticise Poland's argument that it was responding to a "constant spread" of infestation of spruce bark beetles. It said the infestation "was not identified in the slightest" as a threat in the government's 2015 management plan. The nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) took office in late 2015. The ECJ ruling was hailed by environmental activists. The group ClientEarth said the decision was for now only on paper and called for the government in Warsaw to scrap its original approval of logging.
4-13-18 Animals' popularity 'a disadvantage'
The world's most popular animals are in more danger than we realise, according to a new study. A survey of the public's perceptions suggests many people are unaware that the animals they consider "charismatic" are under threat in the wild. These include lions, elephants, tigers and other animals which frequently appear in branding and advertising. Researchers suspect the animals' media ubiquity may lead people to think they are prospering in the wild. The findings were published by an international team of scientists in PLOS Biology. The notion of "charismatic" species has cropped up recently in conservation biology, explains Dr Franck Courchamp, the study's lead author. "There is a regular claim that the most charismatic species are diverting most of the time and resources [in conservation]. I started wondering whether this was true and followed by better results in conservation," he told BBC News. Dr Courchamp and his team set out to determine exactly which species these might be. Using an online survey available in four languages, supplemented by classroom questionnaires in English, Spanish and French primary schools, researchers asked the public to name the wild species they considered most charismatic. They also looked at how frequently animals were represented on zoo websites, and on the covers of Disney and Pixar animated films.
The ten most "charismatic" animals:
- Polar bear
4-13-18 Lost shark seen for first time in a decade – in a fish market
Photographs of a Ganges river shark snapped at a fish market in Mumbai are the first confirmed record of the species for more than a decade. The Ganges river shark is so rare that there has been no confirmed record of the species for a decade – and very few ever. But a series of photographs taken at a fish market in Mumbai, India, show the species is still around, and in a unexpected place. “It’s a species that’s never really been seen in the western Indian Ocean,” says Rima Jabado, founder and lead scientist of the Gulf Elasmo Project – a shark research and conservation organisation – in the United Arabic Emirates. A student of hers, Evan Nazareth of St Xavier College in Mumbai, snapped shots of a Ganges shark (Glyphis gangeticus) in the Sassoon Docks fish market of Mumbai in February 2016. Jabado, Nazareth and colleagues have now published a paper describing the find. As their name implies, Ganges river sharks are thought to spend much of their lives in freshwater or estuarine environments. Some researchers think that the Ganges river sharks can live their entire lives without saltwater, but a previous genetic study suggests some degree of oceanic mobility. We know hardly anything about them. “There is so little information about these species,” Jabado says, adding that much of their behaviour isn’t so much known as extrapolated from a related river shark in northern Australia. And even the Australian species is very rare and seldom caught.
4-13-18 These fish hide fluorescent switchblades in their faces
We've only just discovered that many stonefish can flip out a spiny bone in their faces when predators attack, in addition to having highly venomous spines. A group of fish called stonefish have weaponised a bone in their faces so they can wield it like a switchblade. In these fish, the lachrymal bone, under the eye, is spiny and can rotate 90 degrees so that it sticks out from the face. This unusual feature, named the lachrymal sabre, has been found in males and females in all 63 stonefish species looked at so far, suggesting it is probably present in all 134 species in the group. William Leo Smith at the University of Kansas discovered the facial weapon when he dissected a pet waspfish that had died in his aquarium. “I literally got an adrenaline rush through my body and got super excited,” he says. Smith thinks the lachrymal sabre is primarily a defence against predators, making it harder to get the stonefish in their mouths and damaging to bite down on. But there’s “a very strong possibility” that they are also used in fights between rivals of the same species, he says. The sabre actually fluoresces a different colour to the rest of the head in these species. “It is a bit counterintuitive to highlight this feature when these fishes rely so much on camouflage,” says Smith. Detecting fluorescence often requires visual filters in the eyes that not all predators have. “We don’t have evidence yet, but they could be communicating somewhat secretly through this fluorescence.”
4-12-18 These hummingbirds aim their singing tail feathers to wow mates
There’s more subtlety than humans have realized in dropping out of the sky so fast your tail feathers sing. Male Costa’s hummingbirds in western North America are masters of the tail-screaming courtship plunge. Acoustic cameras recorded these repeated stunts and revealed that, as the male whooshes down, he twists half of his tail sideways, says ornithologist Christopher J. Clark of the University of California, Riverside. That twist aims the prolonged feather whistle toward the female he’s swooping by, Clark and his colleague Emily Mistick of the University of British Colombia in Vancouver report April 12 in Current Biology. The recordings, which use microphone arrays to localize a sound on video, shed light on another quirk of Calypte costae’s performance. While male hummingbirds of other species swoop over the female during courtship dives, the shimmery purple-faced Costa’s zoom by on the side. Extra distance in the side flyby minimizes the Doppler effect on the feather sound. That effect may be familiar from the EEEEEEooooo of an ambulance’s siren that sounds high-pitched as the vehicle approaches and then seems to lower after it passes. Masking the Doppler effect could make it harder for a female to pick out the fastest divers, although researchers haven’t shown how these females perceive speed or whether it matters much to them.Description
4-9-18 Tasmanian devil cancers targeted by human drugs
Cancers threatening to decimate the Tasmanian devil population could be halted by using drugs developed for human cancers, researchers have found. Two transmissible cancers affect the endangered carnivorous marsupial found in the wild only in Tasmania. Tumours usually spread when the animals bite each others' faces during fights. However, Cambridge University scientists found drugs targeting receptors in humans could stop cancer in devils under laboratory conditions. Two transmissible strains of the disease, which cause disfiguring facial tumours, have spread among the marsupials and led to a significant decline in populations in their namesake Australian island state. One strain, which was first noted in one animal in 1996, has spread throughout the "Tassie devil" population, while a second - first documented in 2014 - is confined to the south east of the island. However, while both strains are biologically different, visibly they are similar and are thought to be passed between devils through the transfer of living cancer cells when they bite each other. "When fighting, Tasmanian devils often bite their opponent's face, which may predispose these animals to the emergence of this particular type of cancer via tissue injury," said Maximilian Stammnitz, co-author of the Cambridge University study into the disease. "As biting occurs on the face, this would simultaneously provide a route of cell transmission." However, drugs targeting RTKs - developed for human cancer - were found to efficiently stop the growth of devil cancer cells in a lab setting.
4-9-18 A new soft bot mimics octopuses and inchworms to climb walls.
This skill could come in handy for surveillance or building inspections. Soft robots really get around. Some jump, others swim or crawl on the ground (SN Online: 12/13/16). Now, one can even scale walls. Inspired by an octopus’s suckers, researchers have constructed an inchwormlike robot that uses a pair of suction cups to scoot around vertical surfaces. The bot can clamber across rough and smooth terrain, aboveground and underwater, carrying up to five times its own weight. This kind of free-climbing machine, described April 3 at the Materials Research Society spring meeting, could one day help conduct surveillance or inspect buildings and bridges. Some rigid metal bots are designed to climb walls, too. But those machines are clunkier, more expensive and liable to break if they fall. Soft robots are relatively cheap to make and are lightweight and resilient, so there’s less risk involved with them losing their grip. The new robot is made of silicone rubber — a choice material for building soft, flexible, cephalopod-inspired machinery (SN: 11/11/17, p. 5). To move, the robot detaches one suction cup from the wall, straightens its spine and plants the sucker back down. It then peels up its other suction cup, arches its spine to pull the sucker forward, plants it and repeats.
4-6-18 In a colony, king penguins behave like molecules in a 2-D liquid
Aerial images help show how members of this species behave in a group. Emperor penguins are known to huddle for warmth, but their regal relatives prefer personal space. Aerial photos of two king penguin breeding colonies show that individuals and couples keep their distance from neighbors but still stay together as a group. That arrangement resembles a simulated 2-D liquid in which molecules on a flat plane simultaneously attract and repel one another, researchers report April 4 in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics. “Simple physics models are elegant and can explain a lot,” says study coauthor Dan Zitterbart, a physicist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. King penguins are forced together by lack of space on the small South Atlantic islands that the birds primarily inhabit, while also being pushed apart by their territorial tendency to peck one another. This push and pull creates a consistent but dynamic distance, like that between molecules of a liquid.
4-6-18 Wasps drum with their stomachs to tell each other about food
German yellowjacket wasps alert each other to food by drumming their abdomens against the nest wall, in a wasp equivalent of the famous honeybee “waggle dance”. Wasps literally drum up interest in food. They bang their abdomens against the walls of their nests, and it now seems this informs other wasps that food is available. It is the first time that wasps have been shown to communicate in this way. Several species of wasp are known to perform “gastral drumming”. From time to time, they rapidly pummel their abdomens against their nest walls in a series of short bursts. The scientists who first reported this behaviour in the 1960s thought it may have been a way for wasps to communicate that they were hungry. Observational studies suggested that, if a colony was starved of food, the wasps would drum more, as if in anguish. In response to drumming, other wasps started moving more, foraging more, and performing trophallaxis: regurgitating food to share with their nestmates. However, the idea that gastral drumming communicates hunger was never tested empirically. Meanwhile, other researchers suggested the wasps might be telling their nestmates about useful sources of food. This “recruitment” behaviour is common in social animals, such as house sparrows and naked mole rats.
4-6-18 Henry and Baloo: Dog and cat travel companions gain cult following
Best friends Henry and Baloo have a lot in common - they have both been rescued and now enjoy long walks in the great outdoors. What makes them special to their many fans is that they are a dog and cat travelling duo. Their unlikely friendship and hiking trips around the beautiful mountainous landscapes of Colorado have gained the pair a cult social media following. Hundreds of thousands of people follow their adventures on the photo-sharing platform Instagram. For owners Cynthia Bennett and Andre Sibilsky, their popularity is surreal.
4-6-18 Waggle-dancing robot tells bees where to look for food
A robotic bee talks to bees in their own language, but not all of them seem to pay attention. Robots are talking with bees. A robotic bee can tell real bees the best places to forage, and at least some of the time they seem to get the message. Bees communicate using a sequence of movements known as the waggle dance, where the dancer wiggles their body whilst moving in a figure of eight. The orientation and the length of the movements tell other bees the direction and distance of a food source. A robot called RoboBee can mimic this dance. RoboBee doesn’t actually look much like a bee: it’s made of a cylindrical piece of sponge with plastic wings, and it’s attached to the end of a rod that controls its movements. But RoboBee’s looks aren’t that important, as inside a hive it’s so dark that bees don’t use sight to observe each other. Instead they smell and touch their nestmates with their antennae and detect air flow and vibrations through the honeycomb. The researchers filmed how bees responded to the RoboBee’s dance inside a hive. They hoped to see them follow the robot by staying close to it, touching it and tracking its movements as they do when other bees do the waggle dance. On some days, the robot worked beautifully and on others the bees ignored it, says Tim Landgraf, who developed RoboBee with colleagues at the Free University of Berlin in Germany. They don’t yet know why the robot works sometimes but not others, he says. When bees did follow the dance, they did so for longer than the average amount of time they follow natural dances. Landgraf estimates that the robot’s communication is 10 times less effective than that of real bees. This might be because it doesn’t have legs, so it doesn’t vibrate the honeycomb like a real bee. Chemical signals could be important too.
4-5-18 Rhino species almost extinct
The world’s last male northern white rhino died last week, taking the majestic species to the brink of extinction. The 45-year-old male, called Sudan, succumbed to infection and other age-related health issues. Sudan’s daughter, Najin, and granddaughter, Fatu, are the only remaining northern white rhinos on the planet—and because they are highly inbred, neither is capable of reproducing naturally. Some 2,000 northern white rhinos roamed African grasslands in the 1960s; by 2008, poaching and habitat loss had reduced the wild population to zero. “This is a creature that didn’t fail in evolution,” reproductive biologist Thomas Hildebrandt tells The New York Times. “It’s in this situation because of us.” Sudan, Najin, Fatu, and another male, Suni, were relocated to Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy in 2009, but attempts to breed the animals before Suni’s death in 2014 proved unsuccessful. Now, in a last-ditch effort to save the northern white rhino from extinction, an international team of scientists intends to extract eggs from Najin and Fatu, fertilize them with sperm previously taken from unrelated northern white rhino males, and implant the embryos in southern white rhinos. Another plan is to use frozen cell cultures from northern white rhinos to create stem cells, which could potentially be coaxed into becoming sperm and eggs.
4-5-18 Palm trees have been spotted changing sex for the first time
Four Quindío wax palms in Colombia have changed sex from male to female, which was thought to be impossible for such plants. Palm trees are more sexually fluid than once thought. Four individuals transitioning from male to female have been spotted in a Colombian forest. Sexual expression is complicated in the plant world. Some plants are dioecious, meaning they are either male or female. Others are monoecious, so a single plant has male and female flowers. A third group is hermaphroditic, meaning their flowers have both male and female parts. The Quindío wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense) – Colombia’s national tree – was thought to be strictly dioecious. Flowers on male trees release pollen to fertilise flowers on female trees, which grow seeds that turn into red berry-shaped fruit. However, it seems this is not a hard-and-fast rule, says Rodrigo Bernal at Quindío Botanical Garden in Colombia. He and his colleagues surveyed more than 160 wild-growing C. quindiuense trees. All were clearly male or female, except for four males that were switching to female. This is the first time palm trees have been documented changing sex, says Bernal. The transitioning individuals had a mixture of new branches with female fruit and old, dead branches with shrivelled male flowers. The male branches were lower down and falling off, indicating they were from a past growth phase. Longer-term data is needed to confirm that palm trees can fully transition from male to female, cautions Jennifer Blake-Mahmud at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “It is possible for a plant to do something one year that is out of the ordinary, without that constituting a change in sex.”
4-5-18 Flying insects tell tales of long-distance migrations
Well-timed travel ensures food and breeding opportunities. Every autumn, a quiet mountain pass in the Swiss Alps turns into an insect superhighway. For a couple of months, the air thickens as millions of migrating flies, moths and butterflies make their way through a narrow opening in the mountains. For Myles Menz, it’s a front-row seat to one of the greatest movements in the animal kingdom. Menz, an ecologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, leads an international team of scientists who descend on the pass for a few months each year. By day, they switch on radar instruments and raise webbed nets to track and capture some of the insects buzzing south. At sunset, they break out drinks and snacks and wait for nocturnal life to arrive. That’s when they lure enormous furry moths from the sky into sampling nets, snagging them like salmon from a stream. “I love it up there,” Menz says. He loves the scenery and the science. This pass, known as the Col de Bretolet, is an iconic field site among European ecologists. For decades, ornithologists have tracked birds migrating through. Menz is doing the same kind of tracking, but this time, he’s after the insects on which the birds feast. Migrating insects, like those that zip through the Swiss mountain pass, provide crucial ecosystem services. They pollinate crops and wild plants and gobble agricultural pests.
4-4-18 Virtuoso bowhead whales constantly make up new songs
Bowhead whales are such talented singers they can make two sounds simultaneously, and they invent new songs every year. Bowhead whales may be the most versatile singers in the mammalian world. Recordings show that they regularly devise entirely new songs, rather than modifying existing ones. Bowhead whales are some of the largest animals alive. They spend their lives in and around the Arctic. Kate Stafford of the University of Washington in Seattle and her colleagues planted hydrophones in the Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Over three years the hydrophones recorded 184 bowhead whale songs. Male bowheads do the singing. Each song lasts 45 to 150 seconds, and is repeated over and over for hours or even days. The whales mainly sing during the breeding season spanning December and January. The songs probably signal the males’ dominance and quality. In the recordings, some of the songs sound like power tools in action. Others resemble long, sweeping belches and snorts, sometimes with gentle whistling in the background. The tones in bowhead songs are not restricted to single notes like human singing. “Bowhead whales have the capability to produce two different sounds at once, and we don’t know how they do that,” says Stafford. “The alphabet of notes seems almost unlimited, and include the most unusual sounds.”
4-4-18 The whales who love to sing in the dark
Beneath the Arctic sea ice, in the blanket of January's polar night, bowhead whales most prefer to sing. While the songs of humpback whales have long received the most attention, it turns out that their baleen cousins could have a far greater repertoire. A study of a bowhead population near Svalbard has shown that their musical calls may be as varied as those of songbirds. This would make them unique among whale populations, and possibly even mammals. Over the course of three years, the whales of the Spitsbergen population produced 184 unique song types. The vocalisations were detected 24 hours a day throughout most of the winter each year. "The alphabet for the bowhead has got thousands of letters as far as we can tell," Prof Kate Stafford, lead author of the study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, told BBC News. "I really think of humpback whale songs as being like classical music. Very ordered. They might last 20 - 30 minutes. An individual [bowhead] song might only be 45 seconds to 2 minutes long, but they'll repeat that song over and over again," she added. Humpback whales are known to sing similar songs across a single season, but for bowheads, song types only lasted a few hours or days before changing. These complex songs are unusual, as most mammals have distinct, repetitive calls which do not vary. Although less is known about bowhead populations, the authors think it likely that males do the singing during the breeding season.
4-3-18 Conservationists use astronomy software to save species
Researchers are using astronomical techniques used to study distant stars to survey endangered species. The team of scientists is developing a system to automatically identify animals using a camera that has been mounted on a drone. It is able to identify them from the heat they give off, even when vegetation is in the way. Details of the system were presented at the annual meeting of the European Astronomical Society in Liverpool, UK. The idea was developed by Serge Wich, a conservationist at Liverpool John Moores University, and Dr Steve Longmore, an astrophysicist at the same university. He says that the system has the potential to greatly improve the accuracy of monitoring endangered species and so help save endangered species. "Conservation is not only about the numbers of animals but also about political will and local community supporting conservation. But better data always helps to move good arguments forward. Solid data on what is happening to animal populations is the foundation of all conservation efforts". Currently, conservationists estimate numbers of endangered species by physically counting them or the signs they leave. This is an inexact science, as the animals can be in areas inaccessible to observers. Further problems can arise if species have migrated to another area since the previous census. Signs of their presence, such as abandoned nests, rely on assumptions such as the number of animals that share the nest and the frequency with which the species build and abandon their nests. The process is time consuming, expensive and inaccurate. So Dr Wich developed a system to monitor them using infrared cameras mounted on drones. Trials at Chester Zoo and Knowsley Safari Park showed that the system could pick up animals on the ground from the heat they gave off, even through tree cover.
4-3-18 Birds get their internal compass from this newly ID’d eye protein
‘Sixth sense’ lets zebra finches and European robins navigate using Earth’s magnetic field. Birds can sense Earth’s magnetic field, and this uncanny ability may help them fly home from unfamiliar places or navigate migrations that span tens of thousands of kilometers. For decades, researchers thought iron-rich cells in birds’ beaks acted as microscopic compasses (SN: 5/19/12, p. 8). But in recent years, scientists have found increasing evidence that certain proteins in birds’ eyes might be what allows them see magnetic fields (SN: 10/28/09, p. 12). Scientists have now pinpointed a possible protein behind this “sixth sense.” Two new studies — one examining zebra finches published March 28 in Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the other looking at European robins published January 22 in Current Biology — both single out Cry4, a light-sensitive protein found in the retina. If the researchers are correct, this would be the first time a specific molecule responsible for the detection of magnetic fields has been identified in animals.
4-2-18 How honeybees’ royal jelly might be baby glue, too
A last-minute pH shift turns goo sticky and keeps queen larvae from falling out of their cells. Honeybee royal jelly is food meant to be eaten on the ceiling. And it might also be glue that keeps a royal baby in an upside-down cradle. These bees raise their queens in cells that can stay open at the bottom for days. A big blob of royal jelly, abundantly resupplied by worker bees, surrounds the larva at the ceiling. Before the food is deposited in the cell, it receives a last-minute jolt of acidity that triggers its proteins to thicken into goo, says Anja Buttstedt, a protein biochemist at Technische Universität Dresden in Germany. Basic larva-gripping tests suggest the jelly’s protein chemistry helps keep future queens from dropping out of their cells, Buttstedt and colleagues propose March 15 in Current Biology. Suspecting the stickiness of royal jelly might serve some function, researchers tweaked its acidity. They then filled small cups with royal jelly with different pH levels and gently turned the cups upside down. At a natural royal jelly acidity of about pH 4.0, all 10 larvae dangled from their gooey blobs upside down overnight. But in jelly boosted to pH 4.8 (and thinned in the process), four of the 10 larvae dropped from the cups. At pH 5.9, all of them dropped.
4-1-18 The truth about animals isn’t always pretty
A new book digs up surprising stories about wildly misunderstood wildlife. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Pliny the Elder reported that hippopotamuses find relief from overeating by piercing their skin in a hippo version of bloodletting. Eventually, scientists learned that the oozing red stuff Pliny described isn’t even blood but a secretion that may have antibacterial and sun-blocking properties. While chasing down the truth for herself, Lucy Cooke scooped the goo from a hippo and smeared it on her own skin — if nothing else, her hand was “noticeably silkier,” she writes in The Truth About Animals. Cooke, a zoologist and documentary filmmaker, has a storehouse of such tales of animal adventure. She’s also the founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society, whose motto is “Being fast is overrated.” That motto gives a glimpse into her sense of humor, which shines through page after page, and her affinity for misunderstood creatures. Cooke battles the notion that sloths are lazy or stupid just because they’re slow-moving. In her book, she set out to, as she writes, “create my very own menagerie of the misunderstood.” And quite a menagerie it is. Each chapter takes on a different animal — bats, storks, vultures and pandas, among others — long shrouded in myth or misconception. Some, like bats, are unfairly maligned; others are adored despite shocking behavior, such as Adélie penguins, whose sex lives were considered so depraved that, in 1915, London’s Natural History Museum boldly marked a paper about the birds’ mating behavior as “Not for Publication.” In many cases, science created or perpetuated myths before eventually debunking them. Among the ludicrous ideas once taken as fact: Beavers escape hunters by chewing off their own testicles and dropping them as a distraction. To explain where birds disappear in winter, Aristotle once posited that they transform into different species. (Webmaster's comment: But don't forget the only depraved animals that rape their own children (3 months through 12 years old) are millions of human males! Not to mention the mass killings of children.)