50 Animal Intelligence & Zoology News Articles
for June of 2018
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
6-29-18 ‘Spying on Whales’ dives into the story of true leviathans
A new book journeys through cetaceans’ past, present and future. Just before humans evolved, whales and dolphins were, pound for pound, the brainiest creatures on Earth. Another cetacean superlative: Today’s biggest whales are heftier than the largest dinosaurs that ever lived. The evolutionary trends that produced big, brainy marine animals are just a few of the fascinating tales told in Spying on Whales. Paleontologist Nick Pyenson studies whale fossils, but he’s also been known to cut up a few modern-day carcasses. As laid out in his new science-book-cum-midcareer-memoir, the anatomical info gained from both endeavors provides strong evidence for evolution in action. That process has transformed cetaceans’ dog-sized, four-legged ancestors, which returned to the water around 50 million years ago, into today’s seafaring behemoths. Pyenson’s research hasn’t been all lab work, though: His field studies have taken him from whaling stations in Iceland to a site in South America’s Atacama Desert where ancient whales repeatedly washed ashore (SN Online: 2/28/14). Blue whales are about 10,000 times as massive as their landlubber ancestors, Pyenson notes. One evolutionary innovation that enabled the immensity of blue whales and some of their close kin is baleen, the flexible sheets of fingernail-like keratin that hang by the hundreds from the roofs of these creatures’ toothless mouths. Using these frayed and overlapping sheets, baleen whales filter immeasurable numbers of tiny prey from mouthfuls of water the volume of a large living room.
6-29-18 A gorilla who spoke to humanity
Millions of people are mourning a gorilla, “and that’s a good sign for humanity,” said Molly Roberts. Koko, a western lowland gorilla who died last week at age 46, became a superstar for learning a version of American Sign Language. The subject of countless articles and documentaries, she could comprehend 2,000 words and “speak” 1,000. Over the years, skeptics questioned how much of her communication was rooted in “our own preconceptions and projections.” They pointed out that Koko occasionally made the wrong sign, and that her caretaker’s questions sometimes seemed “designed to elicit responses that made it seem as if Koko understood more than she really did.” But “boy, did we want to believe.” When Koko watched a sad movie, “her eyes watered.” When her kitten was killed by a car, Koko reacted with unmistakable anguish, signing “bad, sad, bad” and “frown, cry, frown.” She tickled Robin Williams and cuddled with Fred Rogers. Those who met Koko “almost all say they felt something.” Science is still far from establishing how much apes truly resemble humans mentally and emotionally, but in Koko’s case, it “may not really matter.” What mattered is that we looked at this creature, and “somewhere in Koko’s eyes, we saw ourselves.”
6-29-18 Freak accident created a massive army of super-fertile clones
A new species of bigger and super-fertile all-female crayfish originated almost instantaneously because of a genetic accident. Sometime before 1995, a container of freshwater crayfish from Florida got too hot or too cold en route to a pet shop in Germany. The shock disrupted the development of an egg being carried by one of the females, creating an army of clones that are invading rivers and lakes in continental Europe, Madagascar and Japan. That, at least, is our best guess of what happened. And it has now been shown that this self-cloning crayfish, known as marbled crayfish, is so distinct from the original Florida crayfish that it should be regarded as a whole new species. “It appeared immediately,” says Gunter Vogt of the University of Heidelberg. “Not over several generations.” Vogt first proposed this back in 2015, but other biologists argued that the marbled crayfish is not different enough to count as a separate species. Now his team has carried out a larger study that shows that the marbled crayfish is bigger, longer-lived, dramatically more fertile, tolerates a wider range of conditions and already occupies a bigger area than the Florida crayfish. The marbled crayfish can produce at least 5 to 10 times as many offspring, Vogt says. This is partly because every adult is female and can produce offspring. It’s also partly because the marbled crayfish is larger – up to 11 centimetres long – and weighs twice as much as the slough crayfish of Florida, Procambarus fallax. But Vogt’s team has also shown that individual marbled crayfish produce 40 per cent more eggs than slough crayfish of the same size. This extraordinary fecundity helps explain why the species is highly invasive – a single pet crayfish released into the wild can multiply like crazy. But it’s very much a monster of our own making – the main reason it is spreading so fast is because it’s been spread around the world via the pet trade, says Vogt. His group has dubbed the new species Procambarus virginalis.
6-29-18 This invasive tick can clone itself and suck livestock dry
In its native East Asian range, the longhorn tick spreads potentially fatal human diseases. Tadhgh Rainey has seen his share of bloodsuckers. As an entomologist at the Hunterdon County Health Services in Flemington, N.J., he’s the person to talk to about all things mosquitoes and ticks. But he had never seen anything like the infestation on a pet sheep in September 2017. When he and his colleague entered the sheep’s enclosure, “we almost immediately got covered in ticks,” he says. “I couldn’t believe this sheep was alive.” It was covered in hundreds, maybe thousands, of ticks. Unable to identify the ticks, Rainey sent samples to labs across the country. One went to Andrea Egizi, an entomologist at Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences in New Brunswick, N.J. Egizi analyzed the tick’s DNA, and was shocked when the identification came back as Haemaphysalis longicornis, a native of East Asia. Known as the longhorned tick or bush tick, H. longicornis is ubiquitous in Japan, China and the Korean Peninsula. The New Jersey sheep was the first documented sighting in the continental United States, say Rainey and Egizi, who published their findings online February 19 in the Journal of Medical Entomology. Scientists say that it is rare to find an invasive tick species in the wild. And this one seems to be spreading. It has been discovered in at least three more states — Virginia, West Virginia and Arkansas — and warnings have been issued for Maryland.
6-28-18 Why some mammal species don’t have descended testicles, but most do
Several mammal species have lost the genes needed for a ligament that controls testes location. Scientists have long wondered what the earliest mammals’ balls were like. After all, a few species today live with theirs swaddled safely up by the kidneys, like elephants do. Most other mammals drop their testes to the lower abdomen to a spot under the skin — like seals — or into an extra-abdominal sack called the scrotum — like humans. What style came first has been a topic of debate. Now, new research on the genetic underpinnings of testes locations suggests that the male ancestor of placental mammals sported one of the descended modes. “For sure, the [ancestor’s] testes wouldn’t be close to the kidneys,” says Michael Hiller, a computational biologist at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany. The evidence comes from comparing the genetic instruction books, or genomes, of 71 mammalian species, scientists report June 28 in PLOS Biology. Hiller, a coauthor of the study, says the team wasn’t looking for DNA evidence of ancient testicles, but kept seeing broken versions of two genes, INSL3 and RXFP2, popping up just in the lineage that includes golden moles and manatees. These genetic fossils, vestiges of once active code, suggested that certain Afrotherians, a grouping of mammals that includes elephant shrews, aardvarks and elephants, had lost something.
6-29-18 Crow vending machine skills 'redefine intelligence'
A small South Pacific island is home to a crow with remarkable abilities that have scientists hooked. New Caledonian crows make and use tools - including a kind of fishing hook. They can solve complex problems and have even been recorded capturing grubs by repeatedly poking them with a stick until they are so agitated, they bite. Now, an experiment using a vending machine specifically designed for crows has revealed something about how intelligence evolves. The "vending experiment" is the latest in an ongoing investigation into these birds' abilities. They are so remarkable that scientists have a special aviary in New Caledonia, where they can keep wild birds for only a few days and test their problem-solving prowess, before releasing them back into the forest. It is actually a cleverly-designed intelligence test. Dr Sarah Jelbert, from University of Cambridge, who developed it, explained that to delve into the birds' cognitive abilities she had to see them learning something new. So the idea was to create a task unlike anything crows would find in nature. "They'd obviously never find paper or card in the wild," said Dr Jelbert, "so we developed this vending machine that that they could drop small pieces of paper into to release a treat - a little piece of meat." First the birds have to be "convinced" to operate this box-shaped machine. "We place stones or bits of paper on top of the box with meat hidden underneath," Dr Jelbert explained. "The birds will often nudge the stone or paper into the hole, or slot - that triggers a reward from the vending machine." Once the birds had learned how the machine worked, the team gave them a piece of paper too big to fit into the slot - to see if they would snip that into smaller pieces that would fit. "About half of them did that spontaneously," said Dr Jelbert. So far, so good. But this is where the test becomes complicated - and revealing. For their study, which was published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, the scientists really wanted to know whether the birds could make the right size "paper token" from memory. This, Dr Jelbert says, had the potential to be the snapshot she wanted that explained how wild birds learned to make complex, crafted tools - like those hooks they make to fish for grubs. This, she explained, was an investigation into how these birds might be developing "their own tool-making culture". So, the researchers provided each of eight crows with a vending machine that would release a treat only when a particular size of paper was inserted. "Then," explained Dr Jelbert, "we tested whether they could remember which size worked, and whether they would make it themselves." The birds had no template - they just had to remember the size of paper token their particular vending machine required. Dr Jelbert added: "And we found that all the adult birds spontaneously made the right sized piece of card for their vending machine."
6-28-18 Crows make the right tool by remembering the last one they saw
New Caledonian crows made bespoke food vouchers from memory with their beaks and claws, ripping pieces of card into exactly the right size to get a reward. New Caledonian crows can remember what a tool looks like and then make a new one just from memory. The skill to make a mental image of something and then recreate it in this way is something usually only seen in humans. These crows are known to make a wide range of tools, including hooked and barbed sticks. But, until now, it wasn’t clear how certain tool designs were passed through generations, as the crows did not seem to just imitate other crows. Sarah Jelbert of the University of Cambridge, UK, and her team wanted to see if the crows were able to remember effective tool designs and recreate them. The team trained eight wild crows by initially offering them a choice between two small and two larger pre-fabricated cardboard vouchers. The cardboard vouchers released a reward – some meat – when they slid it with their beaks into the slot of a dispenser. Half the birds were taught that the larger vouchers earned the rewards, and half learned that the smaller vouchers worked. When Jelbert offered the birds an oversized card that wouldn’t fit through the slot, the birds gripped it with their claws and ripped it into shape with their beaks to the size that had most recently worked for them—either the smaller vouchers or the slightly larger ones. “The only way they could do this was by memorising what the ideal shape should be,” says Jelbert. Rather than copying how other crows make tools, they learned by focusing on the tool itself. They recognised its usefulness, remembered what it looked like and worked out how to make it anew. This might explain how the tools become increasingly complex over time as crows hold a mental image of the right tool and then make slight changes, which are then picked up by future generations. “They are performing a new behaviour,” she says. “They’ve transferred experience of what works for them into a combination of memory and manufacturing ability.” “This work is a remarkable step towards confirming that these birds exhibit a kind of cumulative cultural evolution that has rarely if ever been demonstrated in non-human animals,” says Stephen Nowicki of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. (Webmaster's comment: If they had hands they'd be giving us a run for our money!)
6-28-18 How trees secretly talk to each other
Trees talk and share resources right under our feet, using a fungal network nicknamed the Wood Wide Web. Some plants use the system to support their offspring, while others hijack it to sabotage their rivals. (Webmaster's comment: This network of palnt communications has been brought about by over 600 million years of evolution.)
6-27-18 Female velvet ants are so scary no other animal dares eat them
Most insects live in constant fear of predators—but not the velvet ant. New research suggests that these gaudy, fuzzy insects are essentially invincible. Most insects live in constant fear of predators—but not the velvet ant. New research suggests that these gaudy, fuzzy insects are essentially invincible. Velvet ants are actually wasps whose wingless females walk in search of other wasp and bee nests to parasitise. Though they’re slow, they’re bristling with deterrents—a tank-like exoskeleton, foul chemical excretions, and a sting so painful they’re often called “cow-killers.” Brian Gall, at Hanover College in Indiana, wanted to see if anything can actually eat velvet ants. His team set up feeding trials with likely predators found in the same habitats, including a lizard, shrew, mole, bird, and an American toad. Almost none of them managed to eat a live velvet ant apart from one of the toads which appeared to immediately regret its decision. The toad appeared to stop breathing for 20 seconds and its body twitched as it appeared to try and regurgitate the ant. When presented with another ant later, it swiftly backed away. Even the lizard, which is accustomed to eating stinging and venomous bees, ants and wasps, couldn’t handle the velvet ants, Gall says. The ants appear to use three distinct phases when deterring predators: preventing biting injury by being too hard to crunch, stinging, and then once relinquished, reinforcing how inedible they are with smells, and a squealing sound they make by rubbing two parts of their abdomen together.
6-27-18 Move over Navy SEALs, dolphins are the US’s secret weapon
They’re agile and trainable, with incredibly sensitive sonar and sleek design – and from Vietnam to the Gulf War, dolphins have had hidden military roles. WHERE was that damned dolphin? Tuffy was nowhere to be seen. It was 1964, and the military’s top brass were assembled on a boat off the coast of San Diego, California, to watch the dolphin prove he was fit to join US Navy operations. Sam Ridgway had the job of caring for the dolphins in the navy’s cetacean research programme, and as the minutes ticked by he began to get nervous. Ridgway was confident of Tuffy’s ability to deliver a package to a precise location on the sea floor, one of the tasks he had been set today. But the dolphin was swimming free in the ocean – perhaps he had decided not to come back. Maybe the naysayers were right and these wild animals could never be trusted to carry out the extraordinary and dangerous missions they were being prepared for. Then, in the distance, a grey dorsal fin broke the surface. Within a few moments, Tuffy was sliding nonchalantly into the holding canvas on the side of the boat for the trip back to base. For around 80 bottlenose dolphins, it was the start of a tour of duty that would see them being deployed to war zones around the world to assist US military operations. It was also when, thanks to Ridgway, humans began to really learn about dolphins and their biology. The US military first took an interest in dolphins in the 1950s – as templates for torpedo design. But their agility, trainability and incredibly sensitive sonar had not gone unnoticed, and by the 1960s a new, more ambitious programme was in the works. There was a problem, though. In captivity, the animals kept dying after just a few months. Back then, very little was known about how dolphins lived. Ridgway was a veterinary officer in charge of guard dogs when he was asked to carry out an autopsy on one of the dolphins. Although he knew as little about cetaceans as anyone else, he agreed, eventually concluding it had died of pneumonia. Impressed, his superiors tasked him with caring for the new arrivals. (Webmaster's comment: We killed them when training them and trained them to kill for us and let them die while killing. Our immorality knows no bounds!)
6-27-18 Bumblebees in cities are healthier than those in the countryside
Cities provide a refuge for bumblebees, which have been found to grow bigger colonies and store more food in urban areas than they do in the countryside. City bumblebees have been found to grow healthier colonies than those in the surrounding suburbs and countryside. They may be taking advantage of humans’ preference for flowering plants around businesses and homes. “There are a few species that are really able to exploit the urban environment – pigeons, rats, foxes. It seems like bees belong to that group,” says Ash Samuelson at the Royal Holloway University of London. She and her team raised colonies from wild-caught bumblebee queens, and placed them in 38 spots in areas with different degrees of urbanisation – inner-city London, surrounding suburbs, and rural farmland in southeast England. They tracked the size of the eventual colony, and the amount of pollen and nectar the bees stored. Both the village and city colonies produced a significantly higher number of offspring than the countryside bees. Samuelson says this suggests that queen bees in the cities and villages lived longer and were able to build up a larger troupe of worker bees. “Cities can be very good resources for bees. There are gardens and parks that have a lot of flowers available all year round,” she says. “In agricultural areas, you have mass crops that provide flowers only for a short-lived period.” The bees that lived among the crops stored less food – an indicator of colony strength – than their city counterparts.
6-25-18 How domestication changed rabbits’ brains
Study sizes up differences in the ‘fear centers’ of wild and tame bunnies. Domestic rabbits have smaller brains relative to their body size than wild rabbits do, a new study determined. And that’s not the only change getting tamed by humans wrought on bunny brains. Two “fear centers” are the most altered brain regions between wild and domestic rabbits. Domestic rabbits have smaller amygdalae (emotion-processing centers that play a key role in the fight-or-flight response) and larger medial prefrontal cortices (thought to be involved in social behavior) than wild rabbits, an international group of researchers report online June 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Changes to the brain regions may have produced animals less fearful of humans. Transparent images of rabbit brains illustrate that a wild rabbit has larger amygdalae and a smaller medial prefrontal cortex than a domestic rabbit. Those parts of the brain may have changed during domestication because they are involved in fear.
6-25-18 Bird family tree shaken by discovery of feathered fossil
They're some of the strangest birds in the world, known for their bright plumage and their penchant for fruit. The turacos, or banana-eaters, are today found only in Africa, living in forests and savannah. A beautifully preserved fossil bird from 52 million years ago is shaking up the family tree of the exotic birds. The fossil's weird features suggests it is the earliest known living relative not just of the turacos, but of cuckoos and bustards (large long-legged birds). And the fact the remains were unearthed in North America shows the distribution of different birds around the globe would have been very different in the past. "Our analyses show with some strong support that the fossil is the earliest known representative of this group, the turacos, or the banana-eaters, that today are only found in sub-Saharan Africa," said Dr Daniel Field, a vertebrate palaeontologist in the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath. "Although, our fossil comes from western North America and it's about 52 million years old." The attractive and colourful turacos of Africa are noisy, gregarious birds. They feed mostly on fruits and enjoy bananas, as their name suggests. Dr Field said these fascinating birds, which he has photographed all over Africa, are a group well known to bird watchers. "They're extremely gaudy, very colourful, and their feathers contain unique pigments that produce brilliant greens and red tones that are present in no other groups of living birds," he told BBC News.
6-23-18 Marine plastic: Hundreds of fragments in dead seabirds
New footage of the devastating impact of plastic pollution on wildlife has been captured by a BBC team. Seabirds are starving to death on the remote Lord Howe Island, a crew filming for the BBC One documentary Drowning in Plastic has revealed. Their stomachs were so full of plastic there was no room for food. The documentary is part of a BBC initiative called Plastics Watch, tracking the impact of plastic on the environment. The marine biologists the team filmed are working on the island to save the birds. They captured hundreds of chicks - as they left their nests - to physically flush plastic from their stomachs and "give them a chance to survive". The birds nest in burrows on Lord Howe Island, which is more than 600 kilometres off the east coast of Australia. While chicks wait in the burrow, the parents head out to sea and dive for small fish and squid to feed their offspring. "These birds are generalist predators," explained marine biologist Jennifer Lavers who works with the shearwater colony. "They'll eat just about anything they're given. That's what's allowed them to thrive - a lack of pickiness. "But when you put plastic in the ocean, it means they have no ability to detect plastic from non-plastic, so they eat it." Parent birds unwittingly feeding plastic to their chicks means that the birds emerge from their burrows with stomachs filled with plastic, and with insufficient nutrition to enable them set out to sea and forage for themselves. But when the birds first head out of the burrow, the research team have been stepping in to help. "If the amount of plastic is not so significant, we use a process called lavage, where we flush or wash the stomach - without harming the bird," explained Dr Lavers.
6-22-18 Poachers, smugglers nabbed
A massive, monthlong global crackdown on illegal animal smuggling has netted thousands of live animals and tons of meat and ivory. Operation Thunderstorm involved police, customs, border, environment, wildlife, and forestry agencies in 92 countries and resulted in hundreds of arrests, including of two flight attendants in Los Angeles caught smuggling live spotted turtles in their carry-ons. Some 43 tons of wild meat were intercepted, including bear, elephant, crocodile, whale, and zebra, and 1.3 tons of elephant ivory, 27,000 reptiles, almost 4,000 birds, 48 live primates, and 14 big cats. Eight tons of pangolin scales, used in Asian medicine, were seized, half in Vietnam on a ship from Congo. Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock said the operation revealed how wildlife traffickers use the same routes as other criminals, “often hand-in-hand with tax evasion, corruption, money laundering, and violent crime.
6-22-18 Swarm of robot wildlife will check for life in an Italian lagoon
Robotic lily pads, mussels, and a robofish are drifting through the water in a Venetian lagoon, checking oxygen levels and signs of microscopic life. In a lagoon in Venice, robotic lily pads float on the surface, with clusters of electronic mussels resting on the bed below. Meanwhile a robotic fish swims between them exchanging messages. This isn’t a scene from a watery sci-fi, but instead the setup of an experiment into environmental monitoring and robot culture. In July, a self-organising team of robots will be released into the murky waters of a lagoon near Venice, Italy. Their main job will be to keep an eye on anoxia – a phenomenon where water loses its dissolved oxygen, which kills fish and other marine creatures. Anoxia can be onset by natural causes such as tidal disturbances, but can also occur as a result of pollution or sewage dumping. It is unpredictable and difficult to track. Sitting on the surface will be three aPads, devices that resemble lily pads carrying solar cells, and twelve aMussels, sensors which fall to the lagoon bed, gathering data on things like oxygen levels, salinity, and microscopic lifeforms. In total the team will monitor an area two hundred metres across. When an aMussel detects something interesting, or its battery runs low, it will bob to the surface and summon an aPad. The two dock and the aMussel recharges and transfers its data to the aPad, which is then sent back to base. Radio does not work underwater, so this little exchange allows the aMussels to communicate what they’ve found. The aPad can then take the aMussel to a new location if needed. The team will also trial a robotic fish that will swim between clusters of aMussels transferring data.
6-22-18 Koko the gorilla is gone, but she left a legacy
When Koko died in her sleep in California on June 19, people throughout the world immediately began mourning the gorilla. Koko was a charmer and undeniably smart. She took an unusual route to fame. Stanford University graduate student Francine Patterson started teaching Koko a version of sign language in 1972, the year after the infant ape was born. Patterson rapidly developed a deep emotional connection to Koko. Patterson’s claims that Koko learned to communicate and converse with sign language in a humanlike way won the gorilla legions of fans but also attracted much scientific criticism. Patterson’s work with Koko came at a time when captive chimps were also receiving sign language training. Science News spoke with anthropologist Barbara King about Koko’s legacy. King, of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., studies emotions and thinking in nonhuman animals. Her books include How Animals Grieve.
- What were your first thoughts upon hearing that Koko had died?
- What is Koko’s scientific legacy, especially for understanding ape communication?
- Did Francine Patterson get too close to Koko to perform credible studies?
- How do you explain Koko’s broad and lasting cultural appeal?
- Should scientists pursue new sign language studies in apes like those conducted with Koko?
6-22-18 How a squishy clam conquers a rock
It turns out that this mollusk’s boring organ is anything but. Burrowing giant clams have perfected the ship-in-a-bottle trick, and the one big thing that scientists convinced themselves couldn’t explain it, actually can. Tridacna crocea, the smallest of the 10 or so giant clam species, grows a shell that eventually reaches the size of a large fist. Starting as youngsters, the burrowers bore into the stony mass of an Indo-Pacific coral reef, trapping themselves behind a too-skinny exit for their entire decades-long lives. Only the extravagantly colored upper edges of the clam’s body can push out the thin slit in the reef. These protruding frills teem with algae related to those in corals. Basking in sunlight, the algae pay rent in the form of a substantial portion of a giant clam’s nourishment. The clams “actually have eyes in this tissue,” says environmental physiologist Richard Hill of Michigan State University in East Lansing. At the slightest shadow — a predator, perhaps — the clam yanks in such vulnerable parts through the very narrow crack. “It’s as if the clam vanished,” he says.
6-21-18 Mystery gibbon found buried in tomb of ancient Chinese royalty
The skeleton of an entirely new - but now extinct - species of gibbon was found in the tomb of Lady Xia, grandmother of China’s first emperor, and was probably her pet. Around 2200 years ago, one of the most powerful women in China’s history was laid to rest in her tomb. Lady Xia was the grandmother of the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, famous for the terracotta army that guarded his grave. Turns out Lady Xia also had something rather special guarding her in death: a previously unknown species of gibbon that was probably her pet. Lady Xia’s tomb in modern-day Shaanxi, the second largest in China, was excavated in 2004. Inside, the partial facial bone and lower mandible of an ape was found. Now, analysis of the bones has revealed it to be an entirely new species. “Gibbons are known to have been kept as high-status pets in China since at least the Zhou Dynasty from 1046 to 256 BC,” says Sam Turvey of the Institute of Zoology in London, and head of the team that identified the new ape and named it Junzi imperialis. The facial bone included upper teeth including two large canines, the nose cavity and part of the eye socket and forehead. The accompanying mandible also included teeth. Enough detail remained for distinctive landmarks in the cranial bone and teeth to be compared with corresponding landmarks from datasets of hundreds of present-day gibbons. The comparisons revealed Junzi was both a new species, and a new genus, or family, separate from the four known surviving gibbon families.
6-21-18 A 2,200-year-old Chinese tomb held a new gibbon species, now extinct
Researchers suspect that humans drove this previously unknown lineage to extinction. A royal crypt from China’s past has issued a conservation alert for apes currently eking out an existence in East Asia. The partial remains of a gibbon were discovered in 2004 in an excavation of a 2,200- to 2,300-year-old tomb in central China’s Shaanxi Province. Now, detailed comparisons of the animal’s face and teeth with those of living gibbons show that the buried ape is from a previously unknown and now-extinct genus and species, conservation biologist Samuel Turvey and colleagues report in the June 22 Science. His team named the creature Junzi imperialis. There’s currently no way to know precisely when J. imperialis died out. But hunting and the loss of forests due to expanding human populations likely played big roles in the demise of the ape, the researchers contend. “Until the discovery of J. imperialis, it was thought that the worrying global decline of apes was a modern-day phenomenon,” says Turvey, of the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology. “We’re now realizing that there may have been numerous human-caused extinctions of apes and other primates in the past.”
6-21-18 Mystery extinct ape found in ancient Chinese tomb
An ape that is new to science has been discovered buried in an ancient tomb in China. The gibbon has already become extinct, suggesting humans wiped out primate populations long before the modern age. Living primates are in peril, with many on the brink of extinction. The new gibbon, named Junzi imperialis, may be the first to vanish as a direct result of human actions, according to scientists led by the Zoological Society of London. "All of the world's apes - chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and gibbons - are threatened with extinction today due to human activities, but no ape species were thought to have become extinct as a result of hunting or habitat loss," said lead researcher Dr Samuel Turvey. "However, the discovery of the recently extinct Junzi changes this, and highlights the vulnerability of gibbons in particular." The partial skull of the gibbon was found in a burial chamber dating from about 2,300 years ago in Shaanxi Province, central China, alongside the bones of other animals, including lynx, leopards and a black bear. The tomb, and perhaps the ape, may have belonged to Lady Xia, the grandmother of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang, who ordered the building of the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors. Gibbons were seen as having noble characteristics in Chinese culture and were kept as luxury pets. High-tech computer modelling shows the ape is a new species and genus of gibbon, which probably survived until a few hundred years ago. It is almost certain that the gibbon's demise is evidence of intense human pressures on the environment during this period of history, said co-researcher Prof Helen Chatterjee of University College London.
6-21-18 Koko: Gorilla who mastered sign language dies in California
Koko the gorilla, who is said to have been able to communicate by using more than 1,000 hand signs, has died in California at the age of 46. Instructors taught her a version of American Sign Language and say she used it to convey thoughts and feelings. The abilities of the gorilla, who also apparently understood some spoken English, were documented by animal psychologist Francine Patterson. She adopted and named pets, including a kitten she called All Ball. "Koko - the gorilla known for her extraordinary mastery of sign language, and as the primary ambassador for her endangered species - passed away yesterday [Wednesday] morning in her sleep at the age of 46," a Gorilla Foundation press release said. "Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy. She was beloved and will be deeply missed." The gorilla, who was said to have an IQ of between 75 and 95, could understand 2,000 words of spoken English. The average IQ for humans on many tests is 100, and most people score somewhere between 85 and 115. She was born at the San Francisco Zoo in 1971. Dr Patterson began working with Koko the following year and taught her sign language, the Gorilla Foundation said. Some scientists have cast doubt on the extent of the gorilla's communicative skills. However, she was the subject of many documentaries and was the cover star for magazines including National Geographic. She also gained public attention for caring for cats. When her tailless tabby kitten All Ball escaped and was killed by a car in 1984, Dr Patterson wrote that she had displayed grief.
6-21-18 Moths fly 1000 kilometres with Earth’s magnetic field as a guide
Bogong moths are the first insects found to use Earth’s magnetic field to navigate long distances, during their epic migrations across Australia. An Australian moth uses the Earth’s magnetic field to help find its way across the continent. While other insects have been shown to navigate using Earth’s magnetic field, the moth is the first to do so over long distances and at night. Bogong moths (Agrotis infusa), like the famous monarch butterflies in the Americas, make an epic migration. In spring, about 2 billion of them leave their breeding grounds on the dry, flat plains of south-east Australia, and fly over 1000 kilometres to a set of around 50 caves high in the Australian Alps. There they spend the summer, dormant. In autumn, they return to the plains where they reproduce and die. Eric Warrant of the University of Lund, Sweden and his colleagues studied how the moths find their way. “When we began this study, we were convinced that the bogong moth would exclusively use celestial cues in the sky, such as the stars and the moon, for navigation during migration,” he says. But that is not what they found. The team trapped wild moths and placed them one at a time in a flight simulator where they could watch them closely. The simulator was completely blank inside except for two simple landmarks, and it was fitted with magnetic coils so the team could manipulate the magnetic field within. If the visual and magnetic cues both directed the moths to fly a particular direction, they did so. “They love the pretend mountain landmark, and love to fly towards it,” says Warrant.
6-21-18 World’s first sanctuary for beluga whales to open in Iceland
Conservation charity Sea Life Trust has spent six years developing a plan to bring the 12 year-old belugas, nicknamed “Little White” and “Little Grey”, from captivity in China to an open water refuge. An open water sanctuary for two beluga whales is to be opened in Iceland next year – the first project of its kind. Conservation charity Sea Life Trust has spent six years developing a plan to bring the 12 year-old belugas, nicknamed “Little White” and “Little Grey”, from captivity in China to an open water refuge. Last year, Klettsvik Bay in Iceland’s Westman islands, the location for the film Free Willy, was chosen as the site for a 32,000 square-metre sea pen that will become home to the whales. Building work in the bay has already begun and is expected to be completed in March next year. Sea Life Trust says it has recently received the crucial authorisation it needs to move the whales in spring 2019 from Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, where they are still performing for visitors. A presentation about the sanctuary project posted online says the whales, which have a life expectancy of between 35 and 50 years in the wild, will always be restricted to the sea pen: “Our Belugas will never be able to be released due to their dependency on humans, we simply want to retire them from public performances in line with our values.”
6-20-18 Gene-edited farm animals are on their way
Scientists have created pigs that are immune to one of the world's costliest livestock diseases. The team edited the animals' DNA to make them resist the deadly respiratory disease known as PRRS - a move that could prevent billions of pounds in losses each year. However, consumers have traditionally been reluctant to eat genetically altered animals and crops. This poses a significant barrier to farmers owning gene-edited pigs. And because genome, or gene, editing (GE) is relatively new, the absence of regulation currently prevents their sale anyway. GE is different to the more widely used technology of genetic modification. The former involves the precise alteration of an organism's DNA, while the latter is characterised by the introduction of foreign genetic sequences into another living thing. The pig research also raises animal welfare issues. Critics say that creating disease-resistant animals will discourage farmers from improving the welfare of their livestock. Some think that the way the animals are kept can make them less prone to contracting the virus that causes PRRS. PRRS, which stands for Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, can cause breathing problems and death in young pigs. In the past, there have been fears (unsupported by scientific evidence) that GM foods might cause harm to human health. Among those concerns are that the products of modified crops or animals might trigger allergies or that genes inserted into the food would get into human DNA. But GM foods have been available for decades and no adverse effects on humans have ever been reported. In its guidance, the World Health Organization (WHO) says: "No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved."
6-20-18 Each year painted lady butterflies cross the Sahara — and then go back again
They migrate 12,000 km annually, the longest known butterfly migration route. Move over, monarchs. The painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) now boasts the farthest known butterfly migration. Though found across the world, the orange-and-brown beauties that live in Southern Europe migrate into Africa each fall, crossing the Sahara on their journey (SN Online: 10/12/16). But what happened after was a mystery because the butterflies disappeared. Researchers hypothesized that the insects either remained in Africa or made a round-trip, but there was no evidence either way. A new chemical analysis of butterfly wings suggests that the butterflies head back to Europe in the spring. The round-trip, which usually plays out over several generations, is an annual journey of 12,000 kilometers, about 2,000 more than successive generations of monarchs are known to travel in a year (SN: 4/14/18, p. 22). Researchers were surprised when they detected chemical markers from Africa on some European butterflies’ wings. Those markers told where an individual had eaten when it was still a caterpillar. The study, reported in the June 13 Biology Letters, provides evidence that the creatures return from Africa each year. Some tenacious individuals even make the return trip in a single lifetime.
6-20-18 Cocaine in the water makes eels hyperactive and damages muscles
There are low levels of cocaine and other drugs in many rivers, and lab studies suggest that European eels are suffering muscle damage as a result. Eels exposed to low levels of cocaine in their water become hyperactive and suffer muscle damage. The eels may struggle to complete their migrations as a result. The finding adds to the growing evidence that drugs in fresh water can cause harm, even if they are only found at extremely low levels. Rivers and other water bodies often contain low levels of drugs, including both medicines and illegal drugs such as cocaine. These chemicals can make their way into drinking water and there is evidence that they affect wildlife. Anna Capaldo of the University of Naples Federico II in Italy and her colleagues studied European eels (Anguilla anguilla). They have previously found that cocaine accumulates in the eels’ flesh and that it affects their skin and hormones. The team kept 150 eels in tanks. Some of the tanks contained a low level of cocaine, just 20 nanograms per litre, while the rest held just tapwater. The eels were kept in these tanks for 50 days. The eels exposed to cocaine were hyperactive, swimming noticeably faster than the control eels.
6-20-18 The New York bird with a song that may be a thousand years old
A walk in the Hudson Valley 1000 years ago may have sounded similar to today. A simulation shows the songs passed down by swamp sparrows can last a millennium. Swamp sparrows are copycats. Young birds learn the notes of birdsong and copy them, passing the songs through generations. Some of these specific trills may go back thousands of years, according to a new simulation. Stephen Nowicki at Duke University in North Carolina and his colleagues recorded the song repertoires of 615 swamp sparrows living in marshes in New York’s Hudson Valley. These birds memorise the songs they hear in the first 8 weeks of their life, and the following spring, they develop precise renditions of around 3 specific clusters of notes. These final chirps are winnowed down as the birds listen to the sounds they hear around them. The more common note clusters are copied more often, and the rarer mutations are copied less until they no longer exist. Sometimes, young swamp sparrows learn from specific tutor birds, those that may sing more frequently than others or successful males who hold larger territories. They may also be copying songs that are simply easier to sing. Nowicki and his colleagues developed a model based on the frequency, vibrato, and length of songs they heard in their recordings. Adding in the possibility of song mutations entering the population from innovations or errors, or migrating birds bringing new songs to an area, their simulations showed that the average age of the oldest note cluster in swamp sparrow song was 1537 years.
6-19-18 A battle to save Indonesia's orangutans
A deep peatland forest in Indonesian Borneo is home to one of the world's largest remaining populations of endangered orangutans, but as BBC Indonesian editor Rebecca Henschke reports, the habitat is under threat despite changes in law designed to protect it. Borneo is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet and has some of the world's oldest forests. In Ketapang, in West Kalimantan province, the light dances through the thick canopy. It's hard to see more than a few metres through the tangle of vines and branches. But from the air, a canal 9km long can be seen cutting a scar into the thick green carpet of the forest. It's the first part of a project by the Indonesian company PT Mohairson Pawan Khatulistiwa (MPK), which wants to develop the land as a logging plantation. "We have attracted investors from Canada and China. They are building timber industries around this plantation such as pile wood, flooring and furniture," says the company's office director Hans Saputra. The company was granted a logging licence for around 48,000 hectares back in 2008. Work to develop the land began here in 2013. An environmental assessment report was commissioned to secure the licence, but it made no mention of orangutans nor of the other animals in the area. Yet, between 800 and 1,000 critically endangered orangutans call this forest their home, according to a 2017 survey conducted by the state Natural Resources Conservation Centre (BKSDA) in partnership with international environmental groups. That makes it the largest orangutan population living outside of a protected area in Indonesia, said the report. If the logging goes ahead, they will lose their home.
6-19-18 Madagascar’s predators are probably vulnerable to toxic toads
The skin of the Asian common toad is laced with a deadly toxin. A new study finds that most predators in Madagascar that might eat the toad lack the genetic mutations necessary to make them immune to the toxin. At some point eight to 10 years ago, some toads stowed away on a ship in Asia, possibly Ho Chi Minh City, and hitched a ride to Madagascar. Those invaders, Asian common toads, have been slowly spreading across the large island ever since. The toad’s skin contains a toxin that kills nearly anything that tries to eat the amphibian. Scientists have been warning of the toad’s danger to ecosystems for years, but they’ve lacked evidence of just how dangerous the toads could be. Now, a genetic study confirms that nearly all of Madagascar’s predators would be vulnerable to the toad’s toxin. Duttaphrynus melanostictus is one of many toad species that secrete potent toxins called bufadienolides. These chemicals disrupt the flow of sodium and potassium in cell walls, something that is particularly important for the function of muscles, and especially the heart. “Animals that are not resistant to the toads that take a mouthful of toad can die extremely quickly from heart failure,” says Wolfgang Wüster, a herpetologist at Bangor University in Wales. There are species, including reptiles and mammals, that have evolved resistance to the toxin. And in 2015, Wüster and other scientists reported that these examples of resistance shared a commonality: They all had specific mutations in the gene for the sodium-potassium pump. “That’s a universal mechanism for being able to consume toads — and particularly to deal with the bufo toxins,” says Wüster.
6-18-18 Male peacocks can make females’ heads vibrate at a distance
Peahens have fan-shaped crests on their heads, and it seems males can make these crests resonate by making a specific noise with their tails Many of us feel a buzz when approached by a charming and attractive stranger, but not in such a literal sense. When a peacock rattles his opulent train feathers at a female of the species, it makes a sound at a specific frequency – causing the crest on her head to vibrate energetically. Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) are famous for the spectacular train of feathers worn by males. The feathers are brightly coloured and have iridescent “eyespots”. Males display them to attract females. In 2016, physicist Suzanne Amador Kane at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and colleagues showed that there might be more to the display than just looks. They found that peacocks rub their tail feathers against the train at 25.6 Hertz. This makes a rattling sound and causes the train feathers to vibrate at their natural resonance frequency (PLoS ONE, doi.org/cq32) Now they have turned their attention to female peafowl. While they are less visually spectacular than the males, peahens have spindly feathers on their heads, arranged in a characteristic fan shape. Kane’s team removed these crests from dead peahens and played sound recordings of train rattling at them. They found that the crests naturally resonate at 25.6 Hz – the average frequency produced by the peacock’s lustful train rattling. Control recordings of white noise did not trigger resonant vibrations.
6-18-18 Animals with 'night vision goggles'
A tarsier is known for its big, beady eyes, but it's only when you look at a skull of this diminutive South East Asian primate that you realise just how big they are. Each one is the same size as its brain. They can't move their eyeballs; if they want to look to the right or left they have to turn their whole head. But the mere fact that tarsiers have these monster organs tells you one thing: vision is very important to them. The animal is a master in the dark, able to see and snaffle insects and small birds even when it seems impossibly dark. "Theirs is a monochrome world; the back of their eyes are packed with photoreceptor rods, not cones, so they can gather every last photon of light," explains Prof Geoff Boxshall from London's Natural History Museum. "Their eyes are the animal world's equivalent of night-vision goggles." Geoff is the science lead on a new exhibition opening at the NHM in July that will celebrate Life In The Dark. There is an amazing diversity of creatures out there with some incredible tricks, to not only survive but also thrive in the absence of light. The museum has pulled the best of them from its collections. Some you'll know but hadn't perhaps considered the genius of their adaptations - such as bats. Some creatures will definitely be new to you because they've only recently been discovered. There's some truly bizarre stuff living in caves and in the deep ocean, for example.
6-15-18 Leaf-cutter ants pick up the pace when they sense rain
If their cargo gets wet, they will drop it and lose the day’s treasure. In Central America’s rain-drenched forests, leaf-cutting ants collect pieces of leaves on which they grow fungi for food. But the rain can hit hard, especially for a small ant. When leaf-cutting ants sense an incoming shower, they hoof it back to their nests, says a study in the May Insectes Sociaux. Researchers from Argentina, Mexico and Peru tested how one species of leaf-cutting ants, Atta cephalotes, in Costa Rica deals with rain. The scientists placed hollow boxes filled with wet cotton on ant trails in the forest. When A. cephalotes walked through the boxes, they experienced higher relative humidity, as if it were about to rain. In another experiment, the researchers poured water on plants beside the trail to simulate falling raindrops. Both situations caused the ants to scramble to their nest up to 30 percent faster than normal, from about 1.21 meters per minute to 1.49. The researchers think that leaf-cutter ants speed up to keep their cargo and themselves dry, with good reason: A wet leaf fragment weighs more than double a dry one. In the study, when the ants or leaves got wet, the insects readily dropped their harvest and returned to the nest. But by hurrying along at the first hints of rain, the ants could stay dry and hold onto the leaves.
6-14-18 Wild animals are turning nocturnal to keep away from humans
Dozens of species all around the world are abandoning the day and becoming more active at night, to avoid contact with humans. Once great monsters ruled the planet, and mammals cowered in the shadows and came out only at night. Now monsters once again rule the planet, and mammals are reverting to the nocturnal habits of their distant ancestors. “All mammals were active entirely at night, because dinosaurs were the ubiquitous terrifying force on the planet,” says Kaitlyn Gaynor of the University of California, Berkeley. “Now humans are the ubiquitous terrifying force on the planet, and we’re forcing all of the other mammals back into the night-time.” Gaynor and her colleagues study the impact people have on wildlife. They noticed a striking pattern: animals were becoming more active at night to avoid human disturbances. When they looked in the scientific literature, they found many other groups had seen the same pattern. Her team has now done a meta-analysis of 76 studies of 62 mammals all around the world. Almost all of them are shifting to the night to avoid us. Take the now-ironically-named sun bear, a vulnerable species living in south-east Asia. In areas with few people, only 19 per cent of sun bear activity occurs at night. But around a research camp in Sumatra, 90 per cent of activity is at night. Similarly, in protected areas of Tanzania, only 17 per cent of lions’ activity is at night. Outside those areas, it’s 80 per cent.
6-14-18 Spiders can ‘fly’ because they make near-invisible paragliders
We’ve finally solved the mystery of how even fairly big spiders can take to the skies, and it turns out it’s because they make flying machines that can barely be seen with the naked eye. We’ve finally seen how even relatively large spiders manage to take to the air. Rather than just spinning out just one or two silk fibres to catch the wind, as was thought, they make “paragliders” from dozens of thin fibres. “The fibres are very hard to observe with our naked eyes,” says aerodynamic engineer Moonsung Cho of the Technical University of Berlin, Germany. “This is why, until now, we have not been able to explain the flight of ‘ballooning’ spiders.” Many kinds of spiders “balloon” with the help of silk fibres that act like paragliders, travelling hundreds of kilometres with the winds. They have been found as high as 4.5 kilometres and are often among the first animals to reach new islands. Some species can also glide or windsurf. There’s been no mystery about the ballooning of baby spiderlings, which often take to the air soon after hatching to avoid being eaten by their siblings. But it has been hard to explain how larger spiders fly. They were thought to release only a few relatively thick, short fibres, which in theory should not provide enough lift. Instead, various exotic explanations have been proposed, such as that spiders release electrostatically charged silks that exploit the ionisation of the air to provide lift.
6-14-18 Battle royale: mucus-squirting worms vs spike-wielding arachnids
In the forests of Brazil, pitched gladiatorial contests are being fought between flatworms armed with digestive slime and spider-like arachnids with body-chopping spikes. In a battle worthy of gore and grime fetishists, slimy flatworms attack harvestman arachnids with gobs of mucus. But the arachnids sometimes fight back by chopping the worms in half with armoured leg spikes. The armoured harvestman (Mischonyx cuspidatus) is an eight-legged arachnid, distantly related to spiders. Harvestmen are sometimes known as “daddy longlegs”, although confusingly so are several other groups. The armoured harvestman has a lot of problems in life. Its predators include birds, toads, lizards, marsupials and even insects such assassin bugs. As a result, it has evolved a number of defence mechanisms, says zoologist Rodrigo Willemart at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. It has thick armour – hence its name – and it can also fake its own death, run away, or pinch attackers with its spiny mouthparts. In the name of science, Willemart and his colleagues decided to see what kind of fight the arachnids would put up against a Brazilian terrestrial flatworm (Cephaloflexa bergi). “Such battles are happening every night in Brazilian tropical forests,”he says. They pitted 32 harvestmen against 32 flatworms in separate battles, all taking place in glass casserole dishes. Willemart says it was like watching a miniature version of Alien vs. Predator.
6-13-18 Vegan-friendly fashion is actually bad for the environment
Animal-free alternatives to fur and leather are on the rise, but many use plastic materials that end up harming ocean creatures. Is there any way to dress ethically? AT AUSTRALIA’S recent Fashion Week, fur coats were everywhere, but not a single animal was harmed in their making – they were all synthetic. “We’ve never seen this many fashionistas get on board with this particular trend,” said Finder, an Australian fashion website. The fad is part of a global backlash against animal-derived textiles like fur, leather, wool and silk – last week, the UK’s Labour party pledged to ban fur imports. Driven in part by the growing vegan movement, people are choosing to buy plastic imitations made from materials like polyester and acrylic instead. That may seem like the obvious ethical choice, but plastic comes with its own set of problems. These materials are derived from non-renewable petroleum, don’t biodegrade and can shed harmful microfibres into the oceans. “We’ve got these two uber issues – animal welfare and overconsumption of plastic – that are coming up against each other,” says Clara Vuletich, a sustainable fashion consultant based in Sydney. On one hand, many peoples say that exploiting animals for their skin and fur is cruel, so favour plastic alternatives. And the problem could run deeper: a recent investigation by animal welfare organisation PETA, for instance, claimed to have found evidence of Australian shearers kicking, hitting and cutting sheep. On the other hand, proponents of animal-based textiles say their longevity and biodegradability makes them environmentally friendly. The International Council of Hides, Skins and Leather Traders Association notes that these materials are “based on natural, renewable resources”.
6-13-18 Here’s what narwhals sound like underwater
A new type of submersible recorder picks up the animals’ clicks, calls and buzzes Narwhals are among the most elusive of whales. But for the first time, researchers have been able to eavesdrop on the creatures for days at a time as these unicorns of the sea dove, fed and socialized. Biologist Susanna Blackwell and colleagues listened in on the clicks, buzzes and calls of the East Greenland narwhal (Monodon monoceros). The team’s findings, published June 13 in PLOS ONE, provide a peek into the daily behavior of the long-toothed whale. The research could help scientists determine how human-made noises may affect narwhals as the Arctic warms due to climate change and shipping lanes become more open. Many whale sounds are recorded using hydrophones, underwater microphones that dangle in the water. But these acoustic devices have several drawbacks: They can’t sense the depth or direction from which noise comes, and they can’t detect which animal is making a sound. Blackwell and colleagues skirted these issues by attaching an acoustic recording device to the narwhals themselves. “It is really like sitting on the back of a narwhal for a few days and experiencing the world,” Blackwell says.
6-13-18 One in five British mammals at risk of extinction
The red squirrel, the wildcat, and the grey long-eared bat are all facing severe threats to their survival, according to new research. They are among 12 species that have been put on the first "red list" for wild mammals in Britain. The Mammal Society and Natural England study said almost one in five British mammals was at risk of extinction. Factors such as climate change, loss of habitat, use of pesticides and disease are to blame, the report said. It said the hedgehog and water vole have seen their populations decline by almost 70% over the past 20 years. However, it is good news for the otter, pine marten, polecat and badger, which have all seen their populations and geographical range spread. The report is described as the first comprehensive review of the population of British mammals for 20 years. Researchers examined more than 1.5m individual biological records of 58 species of terrestrial mammal. They looked at whether their numbers were going up or down, the extent of their range, if there were any trends, and what their future prospects were. The species have been ranked using the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria, which is used to compile the global list of threatened species. A species that makes it on to the "red list" means it is called "threatened" and it faces becoming extinct within the next decade. The highest threat category is "critically endangered." Three species were given this status: the wildcat, the greater mouse-eared bat, and the black rat. The next highest threat level is "endangered". Listed here is the red squirrel, along with the beaver, water vole and grey long-eared bat. The third-highest threat category is "vulnerable". The hedgehog, the hazel dormouse, Orkney vole, serotine bat and barbastelle bat are included in this list.
6-13-18 Britain’s hedgehog population has fallen 66 per cent in 20 years
Britain only has 58 wild mammal species to start with, and many have declined sharply in number since 1995 – with hedgehogs suffering a particularly severe fall. They may be the UK’s favourite mammals, but hedgehog numbers in Britain have fallen by 66 per cent in just two decades. The UK Mammal Society and Natural England have conducted the most comprehensive census of native British mammal populations since 1995. The study found that the estimated number of common hedgehogs in Britain has plunged by two-thirds since 1995 to 522,000. “This is one of the largest losses we saw,” says co-author John Gurnell of Queen Mary, University of London. The British hedgehog population should now be considered “vulnerable”, the report says. Gurnell says a doubling in the badger population over the same period may have contributed, as they eat hedgehogs and compete for the same insect food. However, hedgehog numbers also dropped in areas without badgers. Other factors include the loss of hedgehogs’ favoured agricultural habitats, such as hedgerows and the margins of fields, due to more intensive farming. They are also exposed to pesticides in the insects they eat, and rodenticides targeted at rats. “They seem to be doing better in urban areas,” says Gurnell. For five years he has studied the only remaining population of hedgehogs in central London, in Regents Park. Hedgehogs thrive in untidier gardens, with holes in fences allowing them through to neighbouring plots and woodland. They struggle in clinically-manicured gardens with impassable fences and walls. Many also die crossing roads.
6-8-18 Sperm whales are tracking fishing boats and stealing their fish
Fishing boats in the Gulf of Alaska are being stalked by enormous sperm whales, which charge in and rip huge volumes of fish from the lines. Sperm whales have turned burglar. They have learned to follow commercial fishing boats off the coast of Alaska, and then pick huge volumes of fish from the lines. It now seems they can take about 5% of the fishermen’s annual quotas. Sperm whales are the largest toothed predators on Earth. They can grow to 18 metres long and weigh 57,000 kilograms. Lone whales typically harass boats in the eastern Gulf of Alaska. When they attack a boat they work feverishly to pick fish from the hooks, sometimes without damaging the gear or even being seen. Megan Peterson at Sierra Nevada College in Nevada and her colleagues tracked the whales’ impact on the Alaskan sablefish fishery over 27 years. These fishermen use longlines stretching kilometres along the ocean floor, with thousands of hooks baited with octopus or squid. These are tempting targets. The team found that sperm whales can take a quarter of a ship’s catches in a single attack. They may attack many times an hour. This translates to a $5-8 million annual loss for Alaska’s $100-million sablefish industry. Orcas are even worse, according to a 2017 study by Peterson and Dana Hanselman at the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center. They work in pods of as many as 40, and can take up to half of a catch each time they attack.
6-7-18 Bees join an exclusive crew of animals that get the concept of zero
Honeybees can pass a test of ranking ‘nothing’ as less than one. A little brain can be surprisingly good at nothing. Honeybees are the first invertebrates to pass a test of recognizing where zero goes in numerical order, a new study finds. Even small children struggle with recognizing “nothing” as being less than one, says cognitive behavioral scientist Scarlett Howard of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. But honeybees trained to fly to images of greater or fewer dots or whazzits tended to rank a blank image as less than one, Howard and colleagues report in the June 8 Science. Despite decades of discoveries, nonhuman animals still don’t get due credit outside specialist circles for intelligence, laments Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University of London, who has explored various mental capacities of bees. For the world at large, he emphasizes that the abilities described in the new paper are “remarkable.” Researchers recognize several levels of complexity in grasping zero. Most animals, or maybe all, can understand the simplest level — just recognizing that the absence of something differs from its presence, Howard says. Grasping the notion that absence could fit into a sequence of quantities, though, seems harder. Previously, only some primates such as chimps and vervet monkeys, plus an African gray parrot named Alex, have demonstrated this level of understanding of the concept of zero (SN: 12/10/16, p. 22).
6-7-18 Seals only sleep with half their brain when they’re out at sea
Northern fur seals mostly sleep with half their brain while they’re at sea, but sleep with all their brain while on land – unlike any other animal studied. One species of seal sleeps in a way that has never been seen in any other animal. Their odd habits may help explain the function of “REM” sleep, the form of sleep in which we have our most vivid dreams. REM is short for “rapid eye movement”, because humans in REM sleep move their eyes back and forth even though their eyelids are shut. REM sleep seems to be essential for most mammals’ health. If rats are deprived of REM sleep, they lose weight, suffer hypothermia, and eventually die. Cetaceans like whales and dolphins are an exception. They sleep half of their brain at a time, so they can remain vigilant by keeping half the brain awake. Studies have failed to find evidence for REM sleep in cetaceans. To see if there were more exceptions, Jerome Siegel of the University of California, Los Angeles and his colleagues studied northern fur seals, which live in the north Pacific. They are semi-aquatic, living mostly on land during the breeding season but spending most of their lives in the sea. The team implanted electrodes into the brains of four captive juvenile seals and recorded their brain activity. The seals had access to a dry platform for some of the time, but this was removed for periods of 10 to 14 days to simulate time spent at sea. On land, the seals’ sleep consisted of both REM sleep and slow-wave (non-REM) sleep, with 80 minutes of REM sleep a day. In the water, their average amount of REM sleep fell to just 3 minutes a day. That’s less than the rats got during experiments on REM sleep deprivation.
6-6-18 Bees aren’t just smart, they’re sensitive too
Far from being mindless pollen-collecting drones, bees can solve problems, make choices and have reactions that look suspiciously like human emotions. AS YOU watch a bee bumbling about on a summer’s day, you might assume nothing special is going on. We have come to accept that these humble insects are little more than mindless drones buzzing around on the autopilot program of biological instinct. We presumed that they lacked individuality and simply slaved mindlessly for the larger purposes of the hive. But, under the close scrutiny of imaginative scientists, we are now learning that bees actually have unique personalities that enable them to solve problems, make choices and react in ways that look suspiciously like human emotions. “Bees are capable of behaviour that rivals in complexity that of some simple mammals,” says Andrew Barron at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. All with a brain the size of a mustard seed. We have known for decades that bees working collectively are capable of great things – not least symbolic language in the form of their waggle dance, which they use to share information about the location of food sources. Then findings started trickling in that showed individual bees deserved more credit. They can follow intricate rules, distinguish between patterns in nature, sort sensory stimuli by shape and colour, and even have a rudimental ability for mathematics. But in the past few years apian skills have been shown to have truly mind-boggling complexity.
6-5-18 Dogs carry a surprising variety of flu viruses
There’s no evidence yet that the canine pathogens infect people. Some dogs in China carry a mixed bag of influenza viruses. The discovery raises the possibility that dogs may be able to pass the flu to people, perhaps setting off a pandemic. About 15 percent of pet dogs that went to the vet because of respiratory infections carried flu viruses often found in pigs, researchers report June 5 in mBio. Of the virus strains detected, three have recombined in dogs to form new varieties. That mixing generates genetic diversity in the viruses that makes them potentially a pandemic threat, says study coauthor Adolfo García-Sastre, a virologist who directs the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Evolution of the flu viruses in dogs has been very rapid, occurring in just a few years, García-Sastre says. There’s no sign yet that the dog flu viruses can infect people, but that could change. “The more diversity of viruses there is in an animal reservoir, the higher the chances that it will lead to a version of the virus that is able to jump” to humans, he says. Pigs and birds remain the prime suspects for mixing up the next human pandemic influenza virus, says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at Johns Hopkins University and a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Even if a dog flu virus infected a person, the pathogen may not be able to transmit easily from person-to-person — an important characteristic a virus must have before it can circulate around the world.
6-5-18 The most elusive whales reveal their secrets in their wakes
We know almost nothing about the enormous beaked whales because they spend so much time deep underwater, but a new DNA technique could unmask them. We know next to nothing about some of the largest animals on the planet: the incredibly elusive beaked whales. But we could soon find out for the first time just how many species there are, by sequencing the DNA they leave in their wake. Beaked whales can be up to 12 metres long but are hardly ever seen because they spend so much time deep underwater, sometimes diving to 3 kilometres. They also don’t survive in captivity. There are 23 known species, including one only identified in 2016 that has not been formally described. “There may still be some new species out there,” says Scott Baker of Hatfield Marine Science Center in Oregon. That’s because much of what we know comes from recordings of the sounds they make, which are thought to be unique to each species – yet some calls are not easily assigned to known species. “Some of these species have never been seen alive,” says Baker. “We know they’re out there only from the strandings.” Other kinds of whale spend more time at the surface. That means it is possible, if not easy, to get a small sample of cells for DNA sequencing, for instance by firing a dart at them.
6-5-18 What do slugs hate? Home remedies put to the test
Home remedies used by gardeners to deter slugs and snails are to be tested scientifically for the first time. Researchers at the Royal Horticultural Society are investigating whether the likes of egg shells and copper have any effect in keeping slugs away. The RHS is starting scientific trials of five traditional remedies to see if they are based on science or myth. Dr Hayley Jones says the results, available in the autumn, will help them advise gardeners with real confidence. "It will really start to tell us how well some of these barriers work," she said. "Is it worth spending your time and money on them?" Until now there has been no formal study of the benefits of copper tape, sharp horticultural grit, pine bark mulch, wool pellets and egg shells, compared with doing nothing, she said. "With slugs and snails regularly topping the list of gardener complaints we want to know if home remedies have a role to play or are nothing more than a 'plants man's placebo'," said Dr Jones, an RHS entomologist. The methods will be tested at the RHS research facility at Wisley Gardens, on lettuce plants grown in pots and raised beds. The plants will be examined weekly for signs of damage and, at the end of the experiment, all the lettuces will be harvested and weighed. Meanwhile, a garden at this year's RHS Chatworth Flower Show, will highlight the importance of plant health. Dr Jones said many people don't realise that slugs can be an important part of the ecosystem in the garden.
6-4-18 Zambia to kill 2,000 hippos because they might spread anthrax
Over the next five years 2,000 hippos are to be culled in Zambia, supposedly to stop them giving people anthrax, but the cull may inadvertently fuel the trade in hippo ivory. Zambia has announced that it will resume the trophy hunting of hippos in order to prevent the spread of anthrax. However, wildlife activists say the cull will help fuel the hippo ivory trade. The country aims to cull 2,000 hippos living around the Luangwa River over the next five years. It says this will manage the population and control anthrax, which can infect people via hippos. There are about 130,000 common hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius) left in the world. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, they are “vulnerable”. Zambia planned such a cull in 2016, but halted it under pressure from conservationists. Now the restarted cull is being promoted on the website of a South African safari company, Umlilo Safaris. There is a link between hippos and anthrax. The disease is caused by soil-dwelling bacteria, and hippos are susceptible to infection because of their love of muddy water holes – as well as their habit of eating fish and the carcasses of hoofed mammals. This means hippo meat can sometimes be contaminated with anthrax. (Webmaster's comment: Humans will make up any excuse to kill an animal for profit!)
6-3-18 How humans have killed off most wildlife
Since the dawn of civilization, mankind has wiped out an astonishing 83 percent of all wild mammals on Earth, and half of all plants—while filling the planet with domesticated animals bred for eating. That’s the conclusion of a major, first-of-its-kind attempt to measure the overall footprint of all earthly life, reports The Guardian (U.K.). Using data from hundreds of previous studies, researchers estimated that the planet’s living creatures contain a total of about 550 billion metric tons of carbon. The 7.6 billion people in the world account for only 0.01 percent of this biomass—about the same as termites. Plants make up 82 percent, and bacteria 13 percent. Even viruses, worms, and fungi cumulatively outweigh people. But despite our physical insignificance, humans have a broad footprint: Deforestation, farming, hunting, and other human activities have taken an outsize toll on all other kingdoms of life. Domesticated livestock, such as pigs and cattle, now account for 60 percent of the biomass of all mammals on Earth; wild animals make up only 4 percent. Seventy percent of birds on the planet are farmed poultry. The study should serve as a reminder of the impact human consump tion has on Earth, says lead researcher Ron Milo, from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science. “Our dietary choices have a vast effect on the habitats of animals, plants, and other organisms.”
6-1-18 Vultures that feed on rubbish dumps are making themselves sick
A study looking at the health of birds that supplement their diets at rubbish dumps and landfill sites suggests they may be paying heavy price for easy calories and weight gain. Sometimes that all-you-can-eat buffet does more harm than good. Many scavenger birds, like vultures and storks, supplement their diets by stopping off at large landfill sites and rubbish dumps. In the past, some research has suggested that such sites are actually helping protect some species from starvation. But a new study looking at the health of these birds suggests that they may be paying heavy price for those easy calories. Scientists Pablo Ignacio Plaza at the National University of Comahue and colleagues studied the effects of rubbish dumps on the health of one such scavenger bird, the black vulture. They took blood samples from 48 adult black vultures who ate from a rubbish dump in Patagonia and 46 adult black vultures from the Patagonian steppe whose source of food was in the wild. The vultures that ate at the dump were not only heavier, their blood also showed higher levels of uric acid caused by eating too much protein and excessive sugar levels due to the processed carbohydrates such as sweets and cereals they had consumed. In the long term, these levels could lead to kidney and metabolic diseases, says Plaza. They also had a heightened immune response, perhaps in relation to higher levels of pathogens at the dump. More of the wild birds were found to be dehydrated, however. The finding suggests that other bird species that regularly feed at rubbish dumps, such as the critically-endangered California condor in the US, might also be affected.
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50 Animal Intelligence & Zoology News Articles
for June of 2018
Animal Intelligence News Articles for May of 2018