No matter where you look, just about every creature
is obsessed with:
sex, real estate, who's the boss, and what's for dinner.
48 Animal Intelligence & Zoology News Articles
for May of 2018
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
5-31-18 Bent bird feathers repair themselves when soaked in water
Elastic fibres inside a feather can spring back to their original shape when soaked in water, helping it straighten even after being bent nearly in half. Splashing around in water doesn’t just get a bird clean – it can also repair broken feathers from the inside. Marc Meyers at the University of California, San Diego and his colleagues repeatedly bent vulture feathers nearly in half, soaked them in water, and let them dry out again to test how much a bath can repair a feather, and how that process works. They tested two different parts of the feather’s spine: the calamus, which is the hollow base that sits under the skin, and the rachis, which is the rest of the feather’s central shaft. The walls of the feather’s shaft are made of fibres of keratin, the same type of dead tissue that makes up human hair and nails. Sandwiched between these fibres are layers of a spongy matrix also made of keratin. The researchers found that when they soaked the feathers in water, it was absorbed by this spongy material. The spongy part expanded, but the fibres did not absorb any water and remained the same length. Because the fibres bend elastically, they “remember” their previous straight shape – once the matrix was softened by water, internal pressure from the swollen matrix encouraged the bent fibres to spring taut again.
5-31-18 Some scorpions can hiss by rubbing themselves with ‘sandpaper’
Club-tailed scorpions in the Americas make a hissing sound, warning potential predators to back off, by rubbing a “comb” against a sheet of sandpaper-like exoskeleton. You’d think a nimble stinger and powerful pincers would be enough. But some scorpions have another defensive strategy: hissing. Few recordings exist of scorpions hissing. But now the evolution of the behavior has been traced. Arachnologist Lauren Esposito at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and her colleagues used DNA sequencing and physical comparisons to work out the evolutionary history of a subfamily of scorpions called the Centruroidinae. In doing so, they discovered how some members evolved sound-producing organs. The family includes the club-tailed scorpions: medium-sized arachnids that live all over the Americas. “Their tails are powerful and they pack a pretty substantial sting,” says Esposito. These are the only scorpions from the Americas known to make a noise. Esposito likens the sound to that of a wind-up toy. It’s generally thought that a scorpion’s hiss acts as a defensive warning, similar to a rattlesnake’s rattle. Like other arachnids, scorpions hear acoustic signals as ground-based vibrations through their feet. But hisses are sent through the air, which is how mammals – scorpions’ primary predators – hear sounds.
5-30-18 Pigeons can understand probabilities – just like primates can
We know that humans and some other primates can instinctively distinguish between high and low probabilities – now pigeons have shown they might share the skill. Pigeons seem to have an innate ability to compute probabilities – the first non-primate shown to do so. The skill could help the birds forage for food and avoid predators, suggesting that there are good evolutionary reasons why pigeons might instinctively understand percentages. Even as 12-month-old infants, humans instantly recognise the difference between two toy jars if one contains a high ratio and one a low ratio of preferred to non-preferred toys. Non-human apes and even some monkeys seem to have this instant and innate ability with probability too – prompting researchers to wonder whether other animals do. William Roberts and his colleagues at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada decided to find out using pigeons – birds with a surprising flair for numbers. They placed eight pigeons individually in a cage with access to two keys. Periodically one of the two keys lit up – by pecking it, the pigeon had a chance of receiving a food reward. Each key lit up a total of 24 times, but one key had a far greater probability of yielding a reward: it did so 18 times (75 per cent chance of reward), while the second key did so just six times (25 per cent chance). Every so often both keys lit up at the same time and the pigeons had to choose which one to peck. As soon as the pigeons were familiar with the setup they showed a strong preference to pick the “75 per cent” key when given this choice – they did so more than 85 per cent of the time.
5-30-18 Mystery ghost ape species found hidden in bonobo’s genome
A comparison of chimpanzee genomes has found signs that a previously unknown species of chimpanzee once lived in the forests of central Africa. THE great ape family is about to welcome a new member. A comparison of genomes has found signs that a previously unknown species of chimpanzee once lived in the forests of central Africa. As far as we know, there are no physical remains of the ancient ape. We only know about it because it mated and had offspring with bonobos – a chimp species – roughly 400,000 years ago, and its genes persist in living apes today. It is what is known as a ghost species. Traditionally, it was thought that species were groups of organisms that would not produce “viable” offspring – ones capable of having babies – with any other group. But we now know that is not the case. Grizzly bears and polar bears, for instance, have begun mating as climate change squeezes their ranges together. Many other species have mated over the years. Genetic studies are revealing that “impossible” relations once happened with previously unknown extinct animals. When researchers compared the genomes of common chimps and bonobos, they found evidence that the two species had once interbred (see “Friends with benefits”), much like humans and Neanderthals once did. Martin Kuhlwilm at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, Spain, went one step further by comparing the genomes of 59 wild chimpanzees and 10 wild bonobos. In each species, he looked for unusual DNA: fragments that could neither be explained by ancient matings with the other species, nor by random mutations. That DNA, he reasoned, had to have another origin altogether, a ghost source. This statistical method has previously been used to identify extinct human species.
5-28-18 Dolphin 'happiness' measured by scientists in France
Scientists working with dolphins at a marine park near Paris have attempted to measure how the animals feel about aspects of their lives in captivity. In what researchers say is the first project to examine captivity "from the animals' perspective", the team assessed what activities dolphins looked forward to most. They found that the marine mammals most keenly anticipated interacting with a familiar human. The results, they say, show that "better human-animal bonds equals better welfare". The study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, was part of a three-year project to measure dolphin welfare in a captive setting. Lead researcher Dr Isabella Clegg worked at Parc Astérix, a theme park with one of France's largest dolphinariums. With colleagues at the University of Paris animal behaviour lab, she designed experiments to decode dolphin behaviour - essentially looking for physical postures that indicate how the animals were feeling. "We wanted to find out what activities in captivity they like most," Dr Clegg told the BBC. To work this out, she tested three activities: a trainer coming and playing with dolphins; adding toys to the pool; and a control, which meant leaving the dolphins to their own devices. "We found a really interesting result - all dolphins look forward most to interacting with a familiar human," Dr Clegg said. The animals showed this anticipation by "spy hopping", the action of peering above the surface and looking in the direction that trainers usually approached from. The dolphins would also increase their level of activity in the pool and spend more time at the edge. "We've seen this same thing in other zoo animals and in farm animals," said Dr Clegg, adding: "Better human-animal bonds equals better welfare." (Webmaster's comment: What choice do they have? They are prisoners in a prison camp!)
5-27-18 Skeletons come in many shapes and sizes
A new book explores the evolution and diversity of life’s scaffolding. For much of life’s reign on Earth, organisms got by without skeletons. But since that innovation evolved about 550 million years ago, there’s been an evolutionary arms race of epic proportions. One of the first competitors was Cloudina, a small seafloor creature whose exterior skeleton almost certainly evolved in response to predation: In well-preserved groups of fossils, up to a fifth of these critters’ exoskeletons show holes or other evidence of being attacked. In the eras since, in response to predation and a wide range of other challenges, life has evolved a wild diversity of such structures, as described in the aptly named Skeletons. The book is another collaboration between paleobiologists Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, who previously wrote about oceans on Earth and other worlds (SN: 3/7/15, p. 29). As the authors point out, skeletons now take many forms and sizes, including the tiny carbonate and silicate shells secreted by marine microplankton and the giant frames of blue whales. The authors even make the case that wood — a rigid, biologically built material — is a sort of skeleton. Zalasiewicz and Williams survey the various functions of skeletons. Exoskeletons, like those of Cloudina, often serve purposes besides body armor, acting as anchors for a creature’s muscles and other tissues. For the first animals that left the seas (and for many creatures living in arid environments today), an exoskeleton helped prevent desiccation.
5-25-18 In big cities even the fish are always rushing around the place
Two common US fish have evolved different body shapes to help them survive in the fast-moving streams in built-up areas. All kinds of animals, from rats and pigeons to weeds and mosquitoes, are evolving so they can survive and often thrive in cities. Now it has been shown that even city fish are evolving in unique ways. “Even though urban fish are widely separated, they are consistently different from rural fish,” says Elizabeth Kern, formerly at North Carolina State University and now at Ewha Womans University in South Korea. The big difference between urban and rural streams is the speed of water flow, she says. In rural areas, rain soaks into the soil. In urban and suburban places, it flows off hard surfaces straight into streams. That means peak water flows are much stronger, even if the stream bed hasn’t been altered. “It’s not necessarily the concrete bed, it’s the parking lots and the roads and buildings,” says Kern. She and her colleague Brian Langerhans studied two fish common in North Carolina: western blacknose dace (Rhinichthys obtusus) and creek chub (Semotilus atromaculatus). They caught hundreds of them in 25 different streams.
5-24-18 Bear baiting
Hunters in Alaska could soon be allowed to lure grizzly bears in the state’s national preserves using bait, including doughnuts and bacon, thanks to a rollback of Obama-era hunting regulations proposed this week by the Trump administration. Alaska has allowed grizzly baiting in the state since 2005. But the National Park Service banned the practice on federal preserves in 2015. The new plan, pushed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, would also remove restrictions on using spotlights to shoot mother bears and wolves hibernating in their dens. The Interior Department says the move is meant to bring federal policy into alignment with state law, but wildlife protection advocates and environmentalists decried it as inhumane. “Cruel and harmful hunting methods like killing bear cubs and their mothers near dens have no place on our national preserves,” said Collette Adkins, a lawyer and biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
5-24-18 A talking, tech-savvy pet parrot
A talking, tech-savvy pet parrot in Florida has learned how to operate Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant and is using the device to torment its owners. Videos show the four-year-old African grey, named Petra, mimicking its owner’s voice and telling the smart speaker to adjust the lighting in the house—sometimes in the middle of the night. “All day, every day,” her owner says, “it’s all lights on, all lights off.” African grey parrots are extremely verbal and clever; Petra knows about 300 words, and seems to enjoy getting a response from the voice assistant. She also sometimes tells the family dog, “Dance! Woo!”
5-24-18 Pine cones in the engine
A Michigan man who heard strange noises coming from his car popped the hood and discovered that squirrels had stashed 50 pounds of pine cones in the engine. It took Kellen Moore and his friend Gabe Awrey 45 minutes to remove the hundreds of pinecones, which had been stuffed into every nook and cranny. Awrey said he understood why a bushy-tailed critter might have stockpiled its food under the hood. “It’s nice and insulated,” he said. “Pretty practical until your nest drives away.”
5-24-18 Pregnant bonobos get a little delivery help from their friends
Observations of captive apes suggest they, like humans, have ‘social’ births. Like humans, African apes called bonobos may treat birth as a social event with a serious purpose. In three recorded instances in captivity, female bonobos stood close by and provided protection and support to a bonobo giving birth to a healthy infant. Female bystanders also gestured as if ready to hold an infant before it was born, or actually held one as it was born, scientists report online May 9 in Evolution and Human Behavior. Ethologist Elisa Demuru of the Natural History Museum of the University of Pisa in Italy and colleagues filmed these incidents in 2009, 2012 and 2014 at two European primate parks where the apes roam freely through forested areas. These observations, along with a 2014 report of wild bonobos behaving similarly, challenge an influential idea that human females, unlike other primates, receive birth assistance. Scientists had proposed that the perils of passing a baby through the relatively narrow human birth canal called for help from others. But bonobos can safely give birth on their own, so something else is at work here, Demuru and colleagues suspect. Comparably high levels of sociability among female bonobos and among women may instead explain why helpers assemble as a pregnant individual nears delivery. Chimpanzees, close cousins of bonobos, are a different story. Female chimps are more competitive and maintain weaker social bonds than female bonobos or humans do. No chimps have been spotted helping or hanging out near a peer about to give birth.
5-24-18 Chimp evolution was shaped by sex with their bonobo relatives
Some chimpanzee populations gained useful DNA from interbreeding with bonobos, and one may even have become more gentle and “bonobo-like” in its brain structure and behaviour. Humans and chimpanzees might have one more thing in common: they both seem to have benefitted from sex with a closely related species. During the last decade, geneticists have reported that our species interbred with ancient humans including the Neanderthals and Denisovans. They have also found tantalising signs that we benefitted from doing so, gaining DNA that may have boosted our immune systems or made us better able to survive at high altitude or in the frigid Arctic. Now comes evidence that something similar has been going on in chimpanzees, following episodes of interbreeding with their close relatives bonobos during the last 500,000 years. Three of the four subspecies of chimpanzee carry sections of bonobo DNA in their genomes. This prompted Jessica Nye at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain and her colleagues to investigate whether the bonobo DNA has benefitted the chimps. It seems it has. Certain chunks of bonobo DNA are unusually common in chimp populations, suggesting they have spread because they are useful. Different segments of bonobo DNA seem to have been favoured in the different chimp subspecies. That’s a surprise, says Nye. It suggests there is a complex interplay between genetics and the environment each chimp subspecies occupies, meaning each subspecies has gained in a unique way from the bonobo DNA.
5-24-18 Farne Island puffin population drop sparks concern
There are fears puffin numbers in the Farne Islands are on the decline. Initial findings from the latest five-yearly count carried out by the National Trust suggested an overall 12% reduction in breeding pairs. The seabirds, listed as "vulnerable" to extinction, also returned to their breeding grounds about four weeks late due to the prolonged harsh winter. The trust, which has so far surveyed four out of the eight islands, described the findings as "concerning". However, figures from the two largest islands surveyed so far are contradictory, with the population on Brownsman down 42% but Staple showing a 18% increase. The trust, which has been looking after the islands for 93 years, will now be stepping up monitoring of the seabirds to better understand what is going on. Ranger Tom Hendry said: "Initial findings are concerning. "Numbers could be down due to stormy or wetter weather as well as changes in the sand eel population, which is one of their staple foods, or something else altogether."
5-23-18 Loch Ness Monster: DNA tests may offer new clue
DNA sampling is to be used to discover previously unrecorded organisms in Loch Ness. Prof Neil Gemmell, a New Zealand scientist leading the project, said he did not believe in Nessie, but was confident of finding genetic codes for other creatures. He said a "biological explanation" might be found to explain some of the stories about the Loch Ness Monster. The team will collect tiny fragments of skin and scales for two weeks in June. Prof Gemmell, from the University of Otago in Dunedin, said: "I don't believe in the idea of a monster, but I'm open to the idea that there are things yet to be discovered and not fully understood. "Maybe there's a biological explanation for some of the stories." The University of the Highlands and Islands' UHI Rivers and Lochs Institute in Inverness is assisting in the project. After the research team's trip to Loch Ness, the samples will be sent to laboratories in New Zealand, Australia, Denmark and France to be analysed against a genetic database. Prof Gemmell said: "There's absolutely no doubt that we will find new stuff. And that's very exciting. "While the prospect of looking for evidence of the Loch Ness monster is the hook to this project, there is an extraordinary amount of new knowledge that we will gain from the work about organisms that inhabit Loch Ness - the UK's largest freshwater body." The scientist said the team expected to find sequences of DNA from plants, fish and other organisms. He said it would be possible to identify these plants and animals by comparing the sequences of their DNA against sequences held on a large, international database. Prof Gemmell added: "There is this idea that an ancient Jurassic Age reptile might be in Loch Ness. "If we find any reptilian DNA sequences in Loch Ness, that would be surprising and would be very, very interesting." (Webmaster's comment: Maybe Bigfoot will be there too! Nuts!)
5-23-18 US seeks to lift ban on luring bears with doughnuts in Alaska
The US has proposed a plan to reverse Obama-era rules barring certain hunting methods in Alaska, including the use of bait to lure and kill bears. The change would allow hunters to use spotlights to shoot bear cubs inside their dens and hunt black bears with dogs on some Alaskan federal lands. The agency proposed the changes on Monday, and members of the public have until 23 July to comment on the plan. Some environmental groups have called the proposal "inhumane". Alaska allowed the use of bait to lure bears for the first time in 2005 in a bid to boost populations of large animals, such as moose, which are preyed on by bears. This was overturned by the National Park Service (NPS) under the Obama administration in 2015 to avoid altering natural predator-prey dynamics and out of concerns for public safety. But officials in the state say that hunting predators is a necessary part of ensuring successful sport hunting of prey animals like moose and caribou. The new plan would allow wildlife managers in Alaska to decide on permitting hunting methods such as luring bears, with foods like sweets or doughnuts, trapping wolves and their pups inside their dens, as well as using motor boats to hunt swimming caribou. US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's proposal would remove the rules concerning hunting predators to "align sport hunting regulations in national preserves in Alaska with State of Alaska regulations". The Alaska Professional Hunter Association has backed the reversal.
5-22-18 'Living fossil' giant salamander heading for extinction
The world's largest amphibian is in "catastrophic" decline, with possibly only a handful left in the wild. Field surveys carried out over four years suggest the Chinese giant salamander has all but disappeared from its natural habitat. In contrast, millions of the animals live in commercial farms, where they are sold to luxury restaurants. Remaining largely unchanged for 170 million years, this "living fossil" is seen as a global conservation priority. "The overexploitation of these incredible animals for human consumption has had a catastrophic effect on their numbers in the wild over an amazingly short time-span," said study researcher Dr Samuel Turvey of the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). "Unless co-ordinated conservation measures are put in place as a matter of urgency, the future of the world's largest amphibian is in serious jeopardy." The giant salamander, which lives in freshwater rivers, was once common across China. Eating the creature was historically seen as taboo, but, in a reversal of fortunes, the giant salamander is now regarded as a delicacy, despite its status as an endangered species. It is illegal to harvest wild giant salamanders, but commercial breeding farms are booming. The largest can fetch upwards of RMB 10,000 (US $1,500). Field surveys were carried out at 97 different sites in 16 of the country's 23 provinces in what is thought to be the largest wildlife survey carried out in China to date. Giant salamanders were found in wild conditions at four sites, but genetic analysis suggested they were not native to the local environment and had probably been released from commercial breeding farms.
5-21-18 Chinese giant salamanders may already be virtually extinct
Researchers spent four years looking for Chinese giant salamanders and only found 24 – and that’s not even the worst bit of news. The largest amphibians in the world are on the very brink of extinction. Not only have wild populations of Chinese giant salamanders been decimated, it turns out there are five species rather than one, each with a truly minuscule population. Chinese giant salamanders (Andrias davidianus) can grow up to 1.8 metres long. They spend all their lives in mountain streams in their native China. Researchers searched for wild salamanders between 2013 and 2016 in 16 of China’s 23 provinces. It was one of the largest wildlife surveys ever conducted in China. They found just 24 giant salamanders. “We only found them at four of the 97 sites we visited,” says Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London, UK. “The speed at which populations have collapsed is terrifying.” 30 years ago, the salamanders were distributed across south, central and eastern China. Their rapid collapse since is most likely due to a “re-branding” of the salamanders as delicacies, beginning 15 years ago. People began farming them for their meat. Poachers caught wild salamanders to sell to farmers, removing them from the wild. A team led by Jing Che of the Kunming Institute of Zoology in China compared DNA collected over the past 10 years from 70 wild-caught and 1034 farm-bred salamanders. The genetic analysis revealed that what was thought to be a single species is at least five, possibly eight.
5-18-18 Ape ‘midwives’ spotted helping female bonobos give birth
When female bonobos went into labour, other females gathered around to keep them safe, swatting away flies and even seemingly trying to catch the baby as it emerged. When bonobos give birth, other females gather around to support and protect the mother. These “midwives” bely the notion that assistance during birth is unique to humans. Until now there has only been one scientific account of a wild bonobo giving birth, published in 2014. On that occasion, other females stayed close to the mother. Now Elisa Demuru of the University of Pisa in Italy and her colleagues have described three births among captive bonobos at primate parks in France and the Netherlands. On each occasion, the mother made no attempt to isolate herself from the group. Other females showed a keen interest in the mother, inspecting her genital area and sniffing the birth fluid. Some placed their hands under her, as if trying to grab the baby as it emerged. One was seen swatting away flies. Some of these companion females had given birth before, and their behaviour suggested they knew what was going on, says Demuru, who is now based at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. The companions were protective towards the mother, keeping males and the human observers away. “We believe they want to show the female that they are there to support and protect her in the phase in which she’s most vulnerable,” says Demuru. The females in a bonobo group are usually not related. However, they form close bonds, helping them to assert dominance over males. This is a stark contrast with chimpanzees, bonobos’ closest living relatives, in which females tend to be more solitary and competitive. Female chimpanzees tend to give birth in isolation.
5-17-18 Rise of the ticks
Tick- and mosquito-borne diseases are a growing danger of the American outdoors.
- How serious is the threat?
- Why is this happening?
- How dangerous are these diseases?
- What about mosquitoes?
- Are there vaccines for these diseases?
- Catching a meat allergy
5-17-18 Bee crisis: EU court backs near-total neonicotinoids ban
The EU's top court has backed an almost complete EU-wide ban on the use of three insecticides, which studies have linked to declining bee populations. Chemicals giants Bayer and Syngenta had gone to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) hoping to get the restrictions on neonicotinoids overturned. Last month EU governments agreed to ban all use of three neonicotinoids outdoors. Seeds treated with them can still be used in greenhouses. Many honeybee colonies have collapsed. Scientific studies have found that the chemicals can disorientate bees, harming their ability to pollinate and return to hives. Some other factors - notably mites and fungus - have also been blamed for the widespread bee decline. The three neonicotinoids to be severely restricted in the EU are: clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid. Currently they are widely used, but from next year farms will have to find alternatives.
5-17-18 Madagascar emerges as whale shark hotspot
Large numbers of endangered whale sharks have been sighted in waters off Madagascar. The first major scientific survey in the area shows there are far more of the huge fish than previously thought. Eighty-five individuals were identified in a single season from photographs of their distinctive markings. The coastal waters contain a huge diversity of marine life, including sharks, whales and turtles. "No one thought there were that many [whale] sharks," said Stella Diamant of the Madagascar Whale Shark Project in Nosy Be, an island off the coast of Madagascar. "They don't seem to be there all year round - they come back for the food." Whale sharks, which have unique spot patterns, are known locally as marokintana, meaning many stars. The marine biologists uploaded photographs of the sharks' markings to a global database of sightings known as the Wildbook for Whale Shark. They found no overlap with data collected from other feeding areas in the Indian Ocean, suggesting the whale sharks - all juveniles - had not swam across from Mozambique or other neighbouring areas. Satellite tags attached to the whale sharks to track their movements revealed that half of the tagged sharks visited a second hotspot off southern Madagascar, while five swam over to Mayotte and the Comoros islands. "It was exciting to see that there is a second hotspot for the sharks in the area," said Diamant, who led the research project. "Madagascar clearly provides an important seasonal habitat for these young whale sharks, so we need to ensure they are effectively protected in the country."
5-17-18 Drones plus AI help to spot sick trees and plants in time
Drones fitted with multispectral cameras are scanning forests for beetle attack, and orchards and vineyards for signs of disease before it’s too late. They might be small, but bark beetles can ruin a forest. In the US, tens of millions of acres have been devastated by them in the past decade alone. In Europe, however, a combination of drones and artificial intelligence might be giving trees a fighting chance. Bark beetles burrow into trees and lay eggs under the surface of the bark where the larvae feed on the tree’s inner layers and eventually chew their way out. All of this damages the tree’s vascular system, fatally weakening it. Within months of a bark beetle infestation, great swathes of a forest can be irreversibly damaged, leaving acres of grey leaves and dead wood. If the problem is spotted in time foresters can tackle it, by cutting away infected trees or applying pesticides. But they have to know it’s happening first. Skylab, a drone and software company based in Hamburg, Germany, is using drones fitted with multispectral cameras to scan spruce forests in Germany. They can image the ground below at a resolution of two centimetres and are mounted on large fixed wing drones that can fly for an hour per charge. The drones skim above the canopy, covering up to 150 kilometres a day, looking for signs of infestation. Thriving leaves with plenty of chlorophyll absorb most of the blue and red light but reflect more green light and infrared. But stressed plants produce less chlorophyll and reflect more light across the spectrum, while absorbing a little more in the near-infrared. The cameras can pick up on these differences, creating maps of the forest’s health.
5-16-18 Meet the speedsters of the plant world
Ingenious botanical mechanisms let plants fling, snap and burst. Somewhere in the wetlands of South Carolina, a buzzing fly alights on a rosy-pink surface. As the fly explores the strange scenery, it unknowingly brushes a small hair sticking up like a slender sword. Strolling along, the fly accidentally grazes another hair. Suddenly, the pink surface closes in from both sides, snapping shut like a pair of ravenous jaws. The blur of movement lasts only a tenth of a second, but the fly is trapped forever. “We don’t think plants move at all, yet they can move so fast you can’t catch them with the naked eye,” says Joan Edwards, a botanist at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. We tend to picture plants as static life-forms rooted in place until they die. To describe something boring, we say it’s “like watching grass grow.” But this is a stale view of plant life. All plants grow, a rather slow form of motion, but many can also move rapidly. The snapping jaws of the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) are the most famous example, but far from the only one. The botanical world offers plenty of equally impressive feats. The explosive sandbox tree (Hura crepitans), also known as the dynamite tree, can launch seeds far enough to cross an Olympic-sized swimming pool; sundews (genus Drosera) have sticky tendrils that curl around prey; and the touch-me-not (Mimosa pudica) folds in its compound leaves within seconds of a touch.
5-12-18 The plight of the queen conch
The Caribbean mollusk is facing endangerment. The queen conch is a large marine mollusk with a beautiful shell that is prized for export. The gastropod inside the shell is featured on menus across the Caribbean. But the conch's numbers are rapidly dwindling, and researchers say action is needed to save them. In Key West, Florida, known locally as the capital of the Conch Republic, the locals eat conches in a multitude of forms: cracked conch, conch chowder, conch fritters, conch salad, and conch and rice. People come out in droves to compete in the annual Conch Honk. As beloved as it is, however, the conch fishery in the Florida Keys has actually been closed since 1975. So all of the conch enjoyed in the Conch Republic has to be imported, mostly from the Bahamas. In the Bahamas, the mollusk is also a critical component of the local diet and the culture, with conch festivals and a conch homecoming each year. The conch even sits at the top of the Bahamian coat of arms. So, for some islanders, it's simply hard to believe that conches are endangered. Half a million pounds of conch per year are exported from the Bahamas and more are consumed locally. To keep up with demand, methods for harvesting them have become more sophisticated. Historically, fishermen would free dive with a mask and snorkel to scoop them out of the sea grass. But now, fishermen use surface-supplied air equipment called a hookah, which allows them to stay underwater longer — and harvest many more conches. Increased time underwater leads to overfishing, says Alan Stoner, chief scientist for the conservation organization, Community Conch. He has been conducting surveys of conch populations in the Bahamas for more than 20 years. "By 2016, the density of conch was down to only 10 percent of the original density in very shallow water," he reports.
5-12-18 Cuckoo bee species 'hiding in plain sight'
Scientists have discovered 15 new species of cuckoo bees hidden in North American museum collections and in an ancient thesis. Like their avian counterparts, cuckoo bees lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, usually solitary dwellers. When the cuckoos hatch they kill off the usurped bees' larva and are raised by the unsuspecting host. Researchers say that this type of behaviour is common in bees and up to 15% of species are cuckoos. While there are many different genera, or types, of cuckoo bees, all the new discoveries relate to one genus, Epeolus. The new findings bring to 43 the total of Epeolus species in North America. These cuckoos are said to look more like wasps than other bees, with a smoother, less fuzzy look. This is because they don't have the body hairs that other bees use to collect pollen for their young, as they rely on the hosts to do that for them. They also tend not to be seen near flowers, but are often found hovering close to the ground searching for host nests. They are sometimes seen in the early morning "resting" on leaves as they don't have any nests of their own. "I've been going across the US and Canada visiting museums and institutions where these bees were collected some time ago and labelled as Epeolus but without a species being assigned," said Thomas Onuferko, a PhD student at York University in Toronto.
5-11-18 Red squirrels 'may have introduced' leprosy to Britain
Red squirrels may have brought leprosy to Britain more than 1,000 years ago, scientists have said. Swiss researchers said DNA taken from a fifth-century victim of the disease in Essex revealed the same strain of leprosy carried by red squirrels today. The discovery supports the theory that the rodents, once prized for their meat and fur, played a role in the spread of the disease throughout medieval Europe. Grey squirrels were not introduced to the UK until the 19th Century. Scientists at the University of Zurich took samples of leprosy DNA from 90 Europeans with skeletal deformations characteristic of the disease from 400 AD to 1,400 AD. From the fragments they reconstructed 10 new genomes - complete genetic codes - of medieval Mycobacterium leprae, the bug that causes leprosy. One was from Great Chesterford, Essex, and dated to between 415 and 545 AD. It was this leprosy genome, the oldest yet constructed, that contained the red squirrel clue. Leprosy was prevalent in Europe until the 16th Century and is still endemic in many countries, with more than 200,000 cases reported each year.
5-11-18 These caterpillars march. They fluff. They scare London.
Threats to trees and health aside, oak processionary moth larvae have socially redeeming qualities. Of course the guy’s wearing a full-body protective suit with face mask and goggles good and snug. He’s about to confront a nest of little fluffy caterpillars. Insect control can get surreal in the London area’s springtime battle against the young of oak processionary moths (Thaumetopea processionea). The species, native to southern Europe, probably hitchhiked into England as eggs on live oak trees in 2005, the U.K. forestry commission says. Adults are just harmless mate-seeking machines in city-soot tones. But when a new generation’s caterpillars finish their second molt into a sort of preteen stage, their short barbed hairs (called setae) can prick an irritating, rash-causing protein into any overconfident fool who pokes them. Even people who’d never torment, or even touch, a caterpillar can suffer as stray hairs waft on spring breezes. The caterpillars aren’t much for house cleaning. The baggy silk nest a group spins itself high in several kinds of oak trees accumulates cast-off skins still hairy with the toxic protein. The name processionary comes from the caterpillars lining up head-to-rump. “A column of caterpillars moving together like a train,” is how evolutionary biologist Jim Costa of Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., describes it. A little rearrangement can get processions trudging round and round in a circle.
5-10-18 A plague from South Korea is killing frogs and toads worldwide
The world’s amphibians are dying in swathes because of the lethal chytrid fungus, and it seems the epidemic had its origins on the Korean peninsula. A deadly disease that is wiping out the world’s frogs and toads probably originated in the Korean peninsula. The disease is being spread by the pet trade, so banning the trade in amphibians from south-east Asia could help slow it down. The disease is the chytrid fungus, also known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or Bd. The amphibians it infects tend to die of heart attacks, as the fungus stops their skin from regulating the movement of water and electrolytes. The fungus has already wiped out 200 of the world’s 7800 amphibian species and infected at least 700. Matthew Fisher of Imperial College London, UK and his colleagues have spent 10 years figuring out where chytrid came from by studying its genetics. The team examined 234 samples of the fungus from amphibians all over the world. They found that Oriental fire-bellied toads from South Korea carried a hitherto-undocumented variant called BdASIA-1. Fisher believes this is the “mother strain” that started the current epidemic. “It’s four to five times more genetically diverse than the other Bd strains we sequenced,” says Fisher. BdASIA-1 carries unique genetic sequences that could only have evolved during a long period of isolation. All the other strains seem to be younger than BdASIA-1 and probably originated from it. They all had chunks of DNA that match it, but none had all the unique regions found in the mother strain.
5-10-18 A deadly frog-killing fungus probably originated in East Asia
The pandemic form of Bd chytrid likely emerged 50 to 120 years ago, a genetic study finds. The biggest genetic study yet of a notorious frog-killing fungus says it probably originated in East Asia in the 20th century. The chytrid fungus nicknamed Bd, which attacks the skin, has astonished biologists in the last several decades by causing sudden, mass die-offs among frogs and other amphibians in Australia, Panama and other places worldwide. But where and when the killer emerged and how it spread have been much-debated mysteries. Studies have proposed North and South America as well as Africa and Asia as the homeland where a once-obscure fungus turned deadly. Building up enough genetic data to untangle the origins has taken some 10 years of field and lab work at about 35 institutions around the world, says infectious disease epidemiologist Simon O’Hanlon of Imperial College London. Analyzing the trove finds four main lineages of the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis and reveals that the worldwide killer group, BdGPL, probably originated 50 to 120 years ago, the researchers say. How the fungus traveled far and fast is less of a mystery. All the lineages show up in animals that have been traded internationally, often as exotic pets, the team reports in the May 11 Science.
5-10-18 Origins of amphibian-killing fungus uncovered
A deadly fungus that has ravaged amphibian populations worldwide probably originated in East Asia, new research suggests. A study in Science journal supports an idea that the pet trade helped spread killer strains of the chytrid fungus around the globe. The fungus is a major cause of the devastating declines experienced by frogs, toads, newts and salamanders. There is no known effective measure for controlling the disease. The authors of the report highlight the need to tighten biosecurity along country borders, including a potential ban on the trade in amphibians as pets. The chytrid fungus, known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd, was first identified as a problem in the 1990s, said co-author Dr Simon O'Hanlon, from Imperial College London. "Until now we haven't been able to identify exactly where it came from," he explained. "In our paper, we solve this problem and show that the lineage which has caused such devastation can be traced back to East Asia." Bd causes a disease called chytridiomycosis, which attacks the animal's skin, interfering with their ability to regulate levels of water and electrolytes (salts and minerals that are essential for vital biological functions). This can lead to heart failure. Some species are affected more than others: while the American bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) appears to be effectively immune, other populations experience near-100% mortality. The team gathered samples of the fungus from across the globe and sequenced the genomes of these samples. They combined this information with data from previous studies of Bd genomes, building a set of 234 samples.
5-10-18 There’s a genetic explanation for why warmer nests turn turtles female
Scientists have ID’d a temperature-sensitive gene that controls young turtles’ sex fate. Toastier nest temperatures, rather than sex chromosomes, turn baby turtles female. Now, a genetic explanation for how temperature determines turtles’ sex is emerging: Scientists have identified a temperature-responsive gene that sets turtle embryos on a path to being either male or female. When researchers dialed down that gene early in development, turtle embryos incubating at the cooler climes that would normally yield males turned out female instead, researchers report in the May 11 Science. Scientists have struggled since the 1960s to explain how a temperature cue can flip the sex switch for turtles and other reptiles (SN Online: 1/8/18). That’s partly because gene-manipulating techniques that are well-established in mice don’t work in reptiles, says study coauthor Blanche Capel, a developmental biologist at Duke University School of Medicine. Previous studies showed certain genes, including one called Kdm6b, behaving differently in developing male and female turtles. But until recently, nobody had been able to tweak those genes to directly test which ones controlled sex.
5-10-18 Temperature-controlled turtle sex gene found
Scientists have isolated the gene responsible for temperature-controlled sex determination in turtles. Red eared slider turtles, a common household pet, develop into male or female embryos according to their egg incubation temperature. This little understood process is also at work in the eggs of crocodiles, alligators and some lizards. Researchers are now one step closer to solving a mystery which has persisted for over 50 years. An international team from China and the United States used a recently refined process to "knock out" the gene they suspected to be responsible for sex determination in the turtles - known as Kdm6b. "Knockouts come in several flavours," explained Prof Blanche Capel from Duke University, an author on the study. "It usually means a genetic manipulation that deletes a gene from the genome or blocks its function." With Kdm6b blocked, over 80% of turtles incubated at the (usually male-producing) temperature of 26C shifted their development to female. Females usually only develop when eggs are incubated at 32C. Dr Nicole Valenzuela from Iowa State University, who was not involved in the study, noted that the findings confirmed earlier predictions that such genes "are themselves turned on at a temperature that produces one sex and turned off at a temperature that produces the opposite sex".
5-9-18 Ferocious pack-hunting pseudoscorpions believe in sharing fairly
One species of pseudoscorpion has learned to work together to bring down prey larger than themselves – and when they make a kill they make sure the food is shared equitably. Tiny scorpion-like arachnids hunt in vicious packs to bring down large prey – before carefully sharing out the meat as fairly as possible. Pseudoscorpions look like miniature scorpions, complete with outsize pincers, but minus the stinger at the back end. At just a few millimeters long, they pose no danger to humans, but are formidable predators of small invertebrates. There are over 3,000 known species. Most are solitary hunters, but Paratemnoides nidificator is one of the few that are more sociable. Hailing from Central and South America, these pseudoscorpions live in colonies of dozens to hundreds of individuals, all crowded together in the narrow spaces beneath tree bark. They hunt in packs to take down prey items that dwarf them, like beetles, stinkbugs, ants, and spiders. Now Everton Tizo-Pedroso at the State University of Goiás in Morrinhos, Brazil and Kleber Del-Claro at the Federal University of Uberlândia in Brazil have studied how the pseudoscorpions work together to capture prey, and how they subsequently divide up the spoils. They collected eight colonies and observed their hunting behaviour in the lab. They found adult pseudoscorpions take on different roles during a hunt. The “attackers” actively immobilise the prey, while “profiteers” do nothing and simply approach later to feed. Tizo-Pedroso and Del-Claro found that attackers are the first to feast. However, they make room for the nymphs to get some. Only when the nymphs leave do the profiteers get a bite.
5-9-18 Rats driven from South Georgia's wildlife paradise
They have gone, or so it seems. The biggest rat eradication programme ever undertaken appears to have rid South Georgia island in the South Atlantic of its pest problem. A survey of the British Overseas Territory has found no trace of the rodents that had been attacking the local birdlife. The outcome is a triumph for the South Georgia Heritage Trust, the Scottish charity that led the £10m campaign to protect the biodiversity hotspot. Helicopters were used to systematically drop poison pellets across the island's coastal fringes in three phases starting in 2010/11. But international best practice had required the extermination team to wait two years after the last distribution of rodenticide before assessing its work. That has just now been completed with experts combing the island with sniffer dogs. Traps were also set, along with enticing "chew sticks" pasted with peanut butter. But there is not a jot of evidence to suggest any live rats are still present.
5-8-18 The birds of South Georgia are finally safe from marauding rats
Invasive rats have cut a swathe through the birds living on the island of South Georgia, but a decade-long project has now eradicated every last rat. A remote wildlife-rich island has been officially declared free of rats and mice after a £10 million eradication scheme to protect native birds. The UK overseas territory of South Georgia is free of invasive rodents, which have been arriving as stowaways since Captain Cook discovered the southern Atlantic Ocean island in 1775, for the first time in more than 200 years. Birds nesting on the ground or in burrows, whose eggs and chicks were preyed on by rats, are already benefiting from world’s largest island rodent eradication scheme, according to the South Georgia Heritage Trust. The song of the South Georgia pipit is back and drowning out the grunts of elephant seals, and flocks of South Georgia pintail are being reported, good news for two species which are found nowhere else on Earth, the trust said. The announcement by the Scottish-based charity that the island is rat-free comes at the end of a habitat restoration project the team began planning in 2008, to return the island to its natural state for the benefit of its wildlife.
5-8-18 How a spider jumps on its prey - science has the answer
Scientists have trained a spider to jump on demand. The diminutive arachnid, which they nicknamed Kim, can leap six times her body length from a standing start. Humans only manage about 1.5 body lengths. Unlocking the secrets of her extraordinary leaps could help build a new generation of robots inspired by nature, say University of Manchester researchers. The regal jumping spider (Phidippus regius) is known for its ability to make precision leaps to pounce on prey, including insects and small invertebrates. It is one of thousands of jumping spiders that are found worldwide and hunt actively rather than catching prey in a web. They have excellent vision, with four large eyes in front and four smaller eyes on the top of their head. The research team filmed the jumping arachnid with high-tech cameras to discover the secrets of her extraordinary locomotion. They also carried out 3D CT scanning to build a model of the spider's legs and body structure. They found the spider used different jumping strategies, including a faster, lower trajectory for speed and accuracy, but, at other times, more energy-efficient jumps over a longer distance. "She will jump at the optimal angle, which means that she can understand the challenge that she is presented with," said study researcher, Dr Mostafa Nabawy. "And then she can time her jumping performance at take-off to execute a jump that is optimal in terms of energy demand."
5-7-18 Here’s how to use DNA to find elusive sharks
Genetic traces in seawater reveal an unseen ‘dark diversity’ that divers and cameras miss. Pulling DNA out of bottles of seawater collected from reefs has revealed some of what biologists are calling the “dark diversity” of sharks. Physicists have their dark matter, known from indirect evidence since humans can’t see it. Dark diversity for biologists means species they don’t see in some reef, forest or other habitat, though predictions or older records say the creatures could live there. That diversity showed up in a recent comparison of shark sampling methods in reefs in the New Caledonian archipelago, east of Australia. An international team analyzed results from three approaches: sending divers out to count species, baiting cameras and analyzing traces of DNA the animals left in the environment. Environmental DNA revealed at least 13 shark species — at least six of which failed to show up in the other surveys, the team reports May 2 in Science Advances. With environmental DNA, “you reach the inaccessible,” says marine biologist Jeremy Kiszka of Florida International University in Miami.
5-5-18 The fascinating world of bats
They are associated with dark caves, bloodthirsty vampires, and one of the most famous superheroes of all time. But for all we know about bats, a lot is unknown to the general public — from how they fly and land to how they find objects in front of them. The creatures, which are the subject of the latest episode of The Macroscope from Science Friday, are an area of fascination for Sharon Swartz, a professor of biology and engineering at Brown University. She specializes in the study of bat flight and the structure of their wings. Swartz wants to make one thing clear: Bats do not fly or land like birds. "When I started into this field some very large number of years ago now, people told me that bird flight, bat flight [are] basically the same thing, just a little minor variation on a theme. But it's not really true," Swartz says. "And the more we understand about bat flight, the more we understand how different these two ways of getting around the skies really are." To land, bats have to slow down and essentially flick themselves upwards so they can land upside-down. "It's like doing a high dive backwards," says Kenny Breuer, a colleague and collaborator of Swartz's at Brown who also serves as a professor of biology and engineering. Swartz says when bats have a wing in the air, the amount of that wing's lift coincides with how fast it's going. "So as the animal slows down, it generates less lift, and if you want to land on the ground that's a good thing. You slow down. You move downward [and if] you're a bird you're all set," she says. "But bats don't land on the ground, so as they slow down they need to move upward, and that really is a problem when it comes to physics." As a bat approaches the site where it wants to land, it uses its large wings — which are very heavy for a flying animal — to slow down and keep any lift from generating in their wings, Swartz says. This precision, which is documented on the video in slow motion, is a result of a musculoskeletal system that is similar to that of humans', but finely tuned through evolution to adapt to the ecological environment associated with flight, Swartz says.
5-4-18 Bonobos barely use their opposable thumbs when climbing trees
Apes and humans are famed for their opposable thumbs, but our close cousins the bonobos regularly swing through trees without using their thumbs. An opposable thumb is supposed to be a sign of a sophisticated species. But apes called bonobos make little use of their thumbs when they hang from tree branches – even though we use ours to keep a tight grip. Bonobos are our closest living relatives, along with chimpanzees. We are all descended from the same common ancestor, so studying bonobos can give us clues to what that common ancestor was like. Tracy Kivell at the University of Kent, UK and her colleagues studied bonobos living at Planckendael, a zoo in Antwerp, Belgium. The team wrapped a pressure-sensing mat around a wooden beam in the bonobos’ enclosure, and recorded the apes’ behaviour with a high-speed camera. At different times, the mat was on horizontal or vertical beams, which the bonobos used in different ways such as knuckle-walking or hanging by their fingers. The parts of the mat touched by the bonobos’ thumbs recorded extremely low pressures, or no pressure whatsoever. “We were a bit surprised that, even though it’s clear from the video that the thumb is fully contacting the pole, there’s very little pressure there,” says Kivell. The bonobos may simply use their thumbs to guide the rest of the hand into place, she suggests. In an unpublished study, one of Kivell’s students tried a similar experiment with human subjects. As expected, the thumb pressure readings were much higher.
5-4-18 Monkey face recognition app can help spot endangered primates
Individual primates are harder to recognise from their markings than other species. A new face recognition app might be able to help conservationists spot who’s who. Monkey see, monkey recognise. That’s what an experimental app is offering to do for conservationists seeking to identify and track primates in the wild. It could even help wildlife crime investigators recognise individuals that have been killed or trafficked. While some researchers in the field are able to identify individual primates in the small populations they are studying, recognising them quickly in other contexts is very difficult, says Serge Wich at Liverpool John Moores University, who was not involved in the work. “We put camera traps out or we take pictures and we don’t have an idea if it’s the same individual all the time or different ones,” he says. This is unlike other species, such as tigers, which are more easily distinguishable by their markings. It was because of this problem that primatologists first contacted Anil Jain and colleagues at Michigan State University. The team was tasked with building a mobile app that could be used to identify primates just from photos of their faces. However, the first challenge they encountered was a lack of data. “There’s no shortage of faces to train human face recognition systems,” says Jain, “but if I want to build a lemur face recognition system there are a limited number of lemur images.”
5-3-18 The ‘Mowgli’ of Spain
Marcos Rodríguez Pantoja longs to return to the wild, said Silvia Pontevedra in El País (Spain). Pantoja, 72, is one of the few documented cases of a human being raised by animals. At 3 years old, he was sent to live with a goatherd in Spain’s Sierra Morena mountain range. When Pantoja was about 7, the goatherd either died or vanished, leaving him completely alone. He was taken in and cared for by a she-wolf, with her cubs coming to regard him as a brother. At night, he slept in a cave; during the day, he ran with the wolves. “I only wrapped my feet up when they hurt because of the snow,” Pantoja remembers. “I had such big calluses on my feet that kicking a rock was like kicking a ball.” When Spain’s Civil Guard found him at age 19, he had stopped using human speech entirely, although he could still cry. “Animals also cry,” Pantoja says. He now lives on a meager pension in a village in northwestern Spain. Pantoja has long wished to rejoin the wolves, but he knows it’s not an option. They no longer recognize him as one of their own. “If I call out to them, they are going to respond, but they are not going to approach me,” he says. “I smell like people, I wear cologne.”
5-3-18 Fighting like an animal doesn’t always mean a duel to the death
Conflict resolution involves posturing, cost-benefit analyses, and sometimes high-stakes slaying. Choose wisely because in this fantasy you’ll transform into the creature and duel against one of your own. If you care about survival, go for the muscular, multispiked stag roaring at a rival. Never, ever pick the wingless male fig wasp. Way too dangerous. This advice sounds exactly wrong. But that’s because many stereotypes of animal conflict get the real biology backward. All-out fighting to the death is the rule only for certain specialized creatures. Whether a species is bigger than a breadbox has little to do with lethal ferocity. Many creatures that routinely kill their own kind would be terrifying, if they were larger than a jelly bean. Certain male fig wasps unable to leave the fruit they hatch in have become textbook examples, says Mark Briffa, who studies animal combat. Stranded for life in one fig, these males grow “big mouthparts like a pair of scissors,” he says, and “decapitate as many other males as they possibly can.” The last he-wasp crawling has no competition to mate with all the females in his own private fruit palace. In contrast, big mammals that inspire sports-team mascots mostly use antlers, horns and other outsize male weaponry for posing, feinting and strength testing. Duels to the death are rare.
5-3-18 Pet care: Budgeting for a four-legged friend
“Your furry friends can run up a big tab over their lifetime,” said Pat Mertz Essen and Kaitlin Pitsker in Kiplinger.com. American pet owners devoted $66.8 billion to their pets in 2016, almost double the $38.5 billion forked out in 2006. The first cost factor—and one of the biggest—is how you acquire your pet. “Buying from a pet store is rarely a good idea.” The animals often come from “puppy mills or kitten factories.” Adopting from an animal shelter usually costs from $20 to $350, while rescue organizations charge from $150 to $400. Both are typically more humane and economical than stores. Make sure the shelter or rescue group is well established and “documents the completion of vaccinations and neutering.” Nobody wants to put a price tag on “the companionship of a four-legged friend,” said Elizabeth O’Brien in Money.com. But it’s not unreasonable to map out your animal’s costs and incorporate them into your budget. “You don’t want to reach a point where unexpected expenses force you to give up your beloved pup, or where they crowd out all other financial priorities.” Unforeseen costs abound. If you’re a renter, for instance, most landlords demand a deposit or nonrefundable fee when an animal joins the family. Experts suggest immediately opening a rainy-day pet fund as soon as you pick up your new friend. “That way, you won’t get blindsided by any pet-related rental fees, or the bill when Fluffy swallows something she shouldn’t have.” Travel is also a big issue for a pet owner, said Kelli Blender in People.com. Depending on the airline, small dogs and cats usually can travel with you for a fee. If that’s not possible, you’ll need to budget for either a dog walker or sitting service.
5-3-18 Flying beetle cyborgs guided with tiny battery-powered backpacks
Beetles have been turned into autonomous flying robots. They could one day swarm through disaster zones on search and rescue missions. Buzzing cyborg beetles are taking to the skies. Just when you thought big insects were creepy enough, electronic filled bug backpacks have been used to turn them into controllable flying bio-robots. Male M. torquata beetles had electrodes implanted into four of their flight muscles. Small electric pulses were then administered to steer them left or right. Their acceleration could be increased by upping the frequency of the pulses. A 3D motion capture system tracked their position during flight. The researchers found that when a continuous pulse was applied, the beetles would eventually adapt to the intervention. However, applying two short pulses lasting 150 milliseconds, with a 50 millisecond rest in between, was most effective for controlling their route, reaching a success rate of 79 percent when the beetle’s position was reassessed every 200 ms. “This is the first demonstration that insect motion can be steered in a desired direction in a consistent way,” says Sawyer Fuller from the University of Washington in Seattle, who is not involved with the research. “It shows that truly autonomous, bio-hybrid robots the size of insects are a real technical possibility.” The beetle cyborgs were created by Hirotaka Sato from Nanyang Technological Institute in Singapore, Malaysia and his colleagues. They were interested in building tiny flying robots and by using beetles as the starting point, Sato and his team could avoid the incredibly difficult task of making small robotic bodies.
5-2-18 Bull sharks and bottlenose dolphins are moving north as the ocean warms
The migration of marine predators could alter food webs in their newly adopted ecosystems. Far from their usual tropical waters, some 200 bottlenose dolphins and about 70 false killer whales have been spotted off the western coast of Canada’s Vancouver Island. Over on the Atlantic coast, bull sharks have turned a North Carolina estuary into a nursery — a sight more familiar in Florida, until now. Two new studies highlight the unusual northern sightings of these three ocean predators.“Alone, these sightings could be seen as accidental, or vagrancies,” says marine ecologist Luke Halpin of Halpin Wildlife Research in Vancouver and part of the team tracking the dolphins sighting. “But we're seeing a lot of warm-water species ranging into historically cold North Pacific waters.” Those include dwarf sperm whales (Kogia sima), pygmy sperm whales (Kogia breviceps) and short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) documented by other researchers. The results suggest that these marine species will increasingly migrate outside of their typical range as climate change increases ocean temperatures, researchers say. In just the last century, average sea temperatures have risen every decade by 0.07 degrees Celsius, though temperature changes can vary widely by location. The eastern North Pacific Ocean had experienced a three-year period of warming from 2013 to 2016, and by July 2017, water temperatures about 180 kilometers offshore of Vancouver Island hit 16.5° C. That’s smack in the middle of the range that common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) prefer and at the low end for false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens).
5-2-18 Giant sea spiders sit and wait for prey to knock themselves out
Huge sea spiders move excruciatingly slowly, but they can still catch prey animals that move much faster than them – because their prey sometimes crash into the seafloor. Giant sea spiders can only move at glacial speeds, but they are still deadly predators that can catch prey much faster than them. Sea spiders are found throughout the ocean. Despite their name, they are not true spiders but belong to a related group. Many sea spiders are “stealth vampires”, says Amy Moran at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. They creep around the seabed in search of immobile prey, like anemones or corals. Once a sea spider stumbles on a victim, it punches small holes in it with its proboscis: a long tube with a mouth on the end. Then it sucks up body fluids, often without killing the victim. “It’s more like grazing or parasitism,” Moran says. But she and her colleagues have found that some sea spiders can hunt more actively. They studied Southern Ocean giant sea spiders (Colossendeis megalonyx), which are bright orange and have a legspan of 25 centimetres, comparable to the largest true spiders. In the waters around Antarctica, Moran saw them feeding on jellyfish and small molluscs called sea butterflies (Clione antarctica), which look like soggy pink popcorn and often live nearer the surface. They wondered how the sluggish sea spiders could catch the relatively speedy sea butterflies. To find out, they captured some sea spiders and put them in tanks with sea butterflies. They recorded what happened with time-lapse photography.
5-1-18 Defenseless moths do flying impressions of scary bees and wasps
Faking that erratic bee flight or no-nonsense wasp zoom might save a moth’s life. Clearwing moths may not look all that dangerous, despite having largely see-through wings like bees and wasps. But some fly like fierce insects best left well alone. Four clearwing species from Southeast Asian rainforests aren’t perfect mimics of local bees and wasps. Yet the resemblance looked much stronger when entomologist Marta Skowron Volponi of the University of Gdansk in Poland and her husband, nature filmmaker Paolo Volponi, spent days at a time poised with a video camera on riverbanks to capture the flight patterns. Four clearwing species occasionally showed up, including a shaggy Aschistophleps that turned out to be a species new to science. That newly named A. argentifasciata and two other species flew in slow, zigzaggy paths that resembled the meanderings of local stingless bees. (This kind of bee is not great for snacking birds because it bites fiercely.) Another clearwing moth flew distinctly faster with broader turning sweeps instead of zigzags, much like a wasp. Behaving like something that stings or bites may be an advantage for moths that forgo the cover of night and fly in daylight with its abundance of hungry birds and other predators that hunt by sight. Even imperfect body mimics get convincing in the air, Skowron Volponi and her colleagues report May 2 in Biology Letters.
5-1-18 How a social lifestyle helped drive a river otter species to near extinction
The giant otter was nearly driven to extinction in the 20th century. Hunting strategies and the animal’s mating behavior both played a role in the species’ decline, a new study finds. After wild rubber prices collapsed in the early 20th century, rubber merchants in the Amazon turned to the wildlife trade to keep their businesses afloat. They targeted many species, including two river otters: the giant otter and the neotropical otter. Only one of these species, though, the giant otter, was driven to near extinction. And new research on the patterns of the hunting trade has revealed how the giant otter’s biology, including its monogamous tendencies and boisterous social lifestyle, may have undermined its survival. At least 23 million Amazonian animals, including the otters, were hunted for their hides from 1904 to 1969. They were killed mostly for their fur, which was desirable in U.S. and European markets. A 1967 law outlawed commercial hunting, but demand for otter fur didn’t really decline until 1975, when Brazil adhered to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES. By that time, however, the neotropical otter had declined in numbers and the giant otter had been driven to near extinction, disappearing entirely from parts of its historical range. Since then, the neotropical otter has recovered its numbers, and the giant otter population, while still endangered, appears to be increasing in Peru, Colombia and Brazil.