26 Intelligence & Zoology News Articles
for July of 2018
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7-16-18 Honeybees gang up to roast invading hornets alive — at a terrible cost
The worker bees that form “hot defensive bee balls” are effectively kamikaze fighters, with the heat from the ball shortening their life expectancy. When hornets attack, bees know what to do. A few hundred workers can swarm into balls around hornets and roast them alive with their body heat. The formation of such “hot defensive bee balls” was first described in 1995 in Japanese honeybees. Now we know the defence is something of a kamikaze mission for the bees involved. When hornets attack a hive to carry off bees to eat, a group of worker bees quickly surround the intruder. The bees vibrate their wing muscles to generate temperatures of about 46oC for more than 30 minutes, enough to kill the hornets. It’s crucial they deploy the balls quickly, otherwise the hornet releases pheromones that attracts reinforcements. Entomologist Atsushi Ugajin at Tamagawa University near Tokyo began wondering about the costs to the honeybees. He wondered if heat exposure in the balls might reduce their life expectancy. To find out, he and his colleagues marked about 350 Japanese honeybee workers with colours to record their age in days. Then they divided a batch of bees that were 15-20 days old into two groups, one of which was allowed to form hot balls and one of which was kept in the hive at 32o C. Workers typically live for several weeks. The bees that avoided the hot balls were all dead 16 days after the ball, but the ones that took part were all dead within 10 days. But what happens when another hornet inevitably attacks? Hornets often attack hives 30 times a week in the autumn. So Ugajin performed another experiment, exposing the bees to a second hornet attack. It turned out that battle-hardened bees that had joined in the first ball were more likely to help out in a second ball.
7-14-18 Horse sense: Happiest equines love to snort, says study
Scientists haven't given too much attention to the significance of horse snorting before now. The expulsion of air through the equine nose has normally been connected with "clearing phlegm, flies or other irritants". But now researchers in France say that these blow-outs are a key indicator of what's going on in the equine mind. They found horses living in relaxed environments produced far more snorts than those in stressful conditions. Understanding when a horse is feeling happy, scientifically, is quite difficult. Cats are easy by comparison; their purring is a clear sign of contentedness. Horses give off conflicting signals - their heart rates increase at the anticipation of food, but decrease during grooming, something that humans generally believe they enjoy. Some people believe that horses being playful are showing they are happy. But researchers say that this isn't always the case, as play can be a "coping mechanism" when horses are faced with unexpected events, and it may also be a way of reducing social tension in the group. In this study, the scientists wanted to test the anecdotal idea that snorting in horses occurs more often in positive situations. Horses snorted far more when they were out in pasture than when they were in a stall. Among riding school horses, snorts occurred at a rate of around five per hour which was about half of what the horses in naturalistic conditions produced. These were also correlated with positive behaviours such as ears pointing forward. When the researchers looked at other measures of welfare and stress they concluded that "the more snorts emitted the more they were in a good welfare state".
7-13-18 Endangered black rhinos die in Kenya reserve
Seven endangered black rhinos have died while being transported to a new wildlife reserve in Kenya, reports say. Wildlife officials are still trying to establish why the critically endangered animals failed to survive the trip. The dead animals were among 14 black rhinos being transported to Kenya's biggest national park, Tsavo East, AFP news agency reports. Estimates suggest there are fewer than 5,500 black rhinos in the world, all of them in Africa and some 750 in Kenya. The deaths during the relocation process were confirmed by officials speaking anonymously to AFP, although they said the reason why the animals died was not yet clear. A Kenyan conservationist, Paula Kahumbu, said officials should immediately take responsibility and explain what went wrong. "Rhinos have died, we have to say it openly when it happens, not a week later or a month later. Something must have gone wrong, and we want to know what it is," Ms Kahumbu told AFP. The relocation of endangered animals involves sedating them for the journey and reviving them on arrival. The process is known as translocation. It is a process that the World Wide Fund, which runs the programme with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), described as "extremely challenging and not without risk" in a statement released to Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper.
7-13-18 Malaysia’s pig-tail macaques eat rats, head first
The primates had been known to eat fruits, insects and even dirt Behavioral ecologist Anna Holzner recalls first seeing a southern pig-tail macaque munching on a headless rat. These monkeys were known to eat fruits, insects and even dirt, but nobody had reported them eating rats. “It was funny,” says Holzner, “and disgusting.” This unexpected act occurred dozens of times from March to August 2016 as Holzner, of the University of Leipzig in Germany, and colleagues recorded what the macaques ate on oil palm plantations in northwest Peninsular Malaysia. To planters there, the macaques are pests. Holzner did the work as part of the Macaca Nemestrina Project led by primate ecologist Nadine Ruppert of Universiti Sains Malaysia, in Penang. She presented the results on July 2 at the annual meeting of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation in Kuching, Malaysia. While pig-tail macaques, Macaca nemesterina, spend most of their time in the forest, they visit adjacent plantations daily to forage, report Ruppert, Holzner and others in a related study in the April 4 International Journal of Primatology.
7-12-18 Whale killing: Iceland accused of slaughtering rare whale
Whalers in Iceland have killed what appears to be a blue whale, one of the largest creatures left on the planet. Photographic evidence from campaigners opposed to whaling show a large animal being butchered for export. Several experts have concluded from these pictures that it's a juvenile male blue, a species that hasn't been deliberately killed since 1978. The whaling company involved say they are confident that the animal is a hybrid between a blue and fin whale. DNA testing will be needed to confirm the whale's true identity. The key reason for interest in the species is to determine whether this killing is legal or not under Icelandic law. Weighing as much as 200 tonnes and stretching up to 30 metres, blue whales were hunted to the brink of extinction by commercial whalers from many countries including the UK from the 1940s to the 1960s when they became a protected stock under the International Whaling Commission. That means that all countries, including Iceland agreed not to kill the creatures. It's different for fin whales. While there is an international moratorium on killing all whales, Iceland doesn't agree that fin whales are threatened and gives permits for their hunting. Hybrids between fin and blue whales are a grey area, say specialists. A hybrid allows the whalers to say they simply made a mistake. "If this is a blue whale, it would be illegal and a breach and there could be fines and perhaps the company might lose their licence to hunt whales," said Arne Feuerhahn, from campaign group Hard to Port, which documented the latest killing.
7-12-18 Killing rats could save coral reefs
The much maligned rat is not a creature many would associate with coral reefs. But scientists studying reefs on tropical islands say the animals directly threaten the survival of these ecosystems. A team working on the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean found that invasive rats on the islands are a "big problem" for coral reefs. Rats decimate seabird populations, in turn decimating the volume of bird droppings - a natural reef fertiliser. Scientists now advocate eradicating rats from all of the islands to protect these delicate marine habitats. The Chagos Archipelago provided a large-scale natural laboratory to answer this question; although the islands are uninhabited by humans, some of them are now home to invasive rats, brought by ships and shipwrecks. Other islands have remained rat-free. "The islands with and without rats are like chalk and cheese," said lead researcher Prof Nick Graham from Lancaster University. "The islands with no rats are full of birds, they're noisy, the sky is full and they smell - because the guano the birds are depositing back on the island is very pungent. "If you step onto an island with rats, there are next to no seabirds." By killing seabirds, this study revealed, rats disrupt a healthy ecosystem that depends on the seabird droppings, which fertilise the reefs surrounding the island. On rat-free islands, seabirds including boobies, frigatebirds, noddies, shearwaters and terns travel hundreds of kilometres to feed out in the ocean. When they return to the island, they deposit rich nutrients from the fish they feed on. "These nutrients are leaching out onto the reef," explained Prof Graham. He and his team were able to track the source of those nutrients back to the fish that seabirds fed on by analysing algae and sponges growing on the reef.
7-11-18 Bird poop helps keep coral reefs healthy, but rats are messing that up
Nitrogen from bird guano is linked to more productive reef ecosystems. When invasive rats chow down on island seabirds, coral reefs suffer. Researchers studied islands with and without the rodents in the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. On rat-free isles, there were on average 1,243 birds per hectare compared with about two birds per hectare on rat-infested islands, the team found. And these rodentless islands had healthier coral reef ecosystems. The secret: Bird poop, naturally rich in nitrogen, washes into the ocean and helps keep reefs productive, the scientists report in the July 12 Nature. “We’re essentially linking three ecosystems in this study,” says study coauthor Nick Graham, an ecologist at Lancaster University in England. The rats affect the seabirds, which affect the reefs. Introduced by humans to the Chagos Archipelago in the late 18th century, rats have since devastated native seabird populations, including red-footed boobies and terns. The rodents will eat seabird eggs, chicks and even the brains of adult birds, says Holly Jones, a restoration ecologist at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb who was not involved in the study. Rats are a major problem, Jones says, because seabirds are “ecosystem engineers.” When they’re gone, the environment on land and in the water changes dramatically.
7-11-18 We now know why horses snort – because they’re happy
It has long been thought that horses snort to improve their personal hygiene – but it might indicate positive emotions instead. Horses appear to snort more when they’re happy. The finding could be used to assess the conditions in which horses are kept. The distinctive noise has long been thought to serve hygienic functions, removing phlegm, flies and more from the nostril – although some studies had suggested that horses that are well looked-after seem to do it more. Martine Hausberger at the University of Rennes, France, decided to investigate by recording the snorting patterns of 48 horses in Brittany, France, living under different conditions. Some of the horses led restricted lives, housed in individual stalls and feeding on low-fibre meals. Others lived more freely, housed in groups and able to feed on grass and hay at their leisure. The team found that the frequency of snorting was much higher in horses living in better welfare conditions, such as feeding in pasture. They also assigned “chronic stress scores” to each horse based on their living conditions. The higher the stress, the less frequent the snorts. “We think it can be a useful tool for horse owners and caretakers to identify situations that the horse enjoys,” says Hausberger.
7-11-18 Ancient Romans may have killed off whale species in the Mediterranean
Two whales species absent from the Mediterranean today were common there 2,000 years ago - did Roman whalers kick-start their demise?. They are 15 metres long and weigh around 40 tonnes, but two species of whale are mysteriously absent from the Mediterranean Sea. Now an analysis of bones found at ancient Roman fish factories shows that these whales were common there 2,000 years ago – raising the possibility of a forgotten Roman whaling industry. The Mediterranean is home to sperm and fin whales, but no gray or right whales are found there and there are no historical records of their presence. This is a mystery to biologists. “Why are they not there? It seems like a hole in their home range,” says biologist Ana Rodrigues of the University of Montpellier, France. She was part of a team of biologists and archaeologists who analysed the DNA of a rare set of presumed whale bones found at Roman fish-processing sites in Gibraltar and northern Spain. Whale bones are seldom found in the archaeological record as they are usually left on beaches and washed out to sea. The researchers found that three of these bones were from right whales and another three were from gray whales. Radiocarbon tests dated them to the Roman period, around 200AD. “This suggests that these whales were relatively common there at that time,” says Rodrigues. This work not only substantially extends the known historical range of these whales, who likely used the Mediterranean as calving grounds, but also hints at a forgotten Roman whaling industry. Large-scale commercial whaling was thought to have been started by the Basques around 1,000AD, ultimately wiping out gray whales and right whales from the eastern North Atlantic. But a thousand years earlier the Romans had established a massive fish-processing industry, often taking large creatures such as tuna and processing the meat in huge tanks up to 18 cubic metres in size, dotted all around the shores of the Mediterranean. Could the Romans processed whale meat too?
7-11-18 Ancient bones reveal forgotten history of whales
Whale bones unearthed at Roman ruins suggest the animals were hunted by humans as long as 2,000 years ago. Genetic fingerprinting evidence points to the presence of right and grey whales in the Mediterranean Sea, where they may have been targeted by Roman fishing fleets. Until now, the Basque people were thought to be the first commercial whalers from the 11th Century onwards. However, the new discovery suggests whales were exploited long before then. Researchers identified right and grey whales from bones at Roman sites in the Strait of Gibraltar area using genetic fingerprinting. The Strait of Gibraltar is the entry point into the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. The whales may have entered the Mediterranean Sea to give birth, roaming far from what was thought to be their historical range. "This is the first identification of these two species within that basin," said Dr Camilla Speller of the University of York, one of a team of UK and French scientists that analysed the bones. The Gibraltar region was the centre of a massive fish-processing industry in Roman times. Products such as salted fish were exported to faraway parts of the Roman Empire. The ruins of hundreds of factories with large salting tanks can still be seen today in the region. If the Romans were exploiting fish such as tuna, they might also have been catching whales with boats and hand-held harpoons to supply whale products such as meat and fat.
7-10-18 Surprise! This shark looks like a male on the outside, but it’s made babies
Bigeye houndsharks found off India’s coast had female reproductive systems. It’s easy to tell a male from a female shark. Flip it over. If it has a pair of claspers — finger-like extensions jutting from the end of the pelvic fins — it is male; no claspers means female. Like a penis, claspers deliver sperm inside the female. That was marine biologist Alissa Barnes’ understanding until she dissected seven bigeye houndsharks (Iago omanesis) with claspers and found a complete female reproductive system in each. None of the seven sharks had any internal male sex organs. Six were pregnant. Barnes, of the Dakshin Foundation, shared her findings June 25 at the 5th International Marine Conservation Congress in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia. Barnes stumbled upon these hermaphrodite sharks at a port in Odhisa in eastern India in 2017. She was surveying local fishers to see if changes in their practices might explain a decline in hauls of sharks and rays. When she checked what the fishing vessels brought in, Barnes noticed two oddities. Male bigeye houndsharks greatly outnumbered females. And though males of this deepwater species are smaller than females, she saw immature males as large as female adults. Sensing something amiss, she took some sharks back to her lab for dissection. “I was amazed,” says Barnes, who admits she squealed during the dissections. Even before opening the fish, she had pressed on the bellies of the "male" sharks and felt the pups inside.
7-10-18 Bobtail squid coat their eggs in antifungal goo
Females have a special organ that houses protective bacteria for the jellylike coatin. When eggs go bad, bacteria usually get the blame. But some bacteria help bobtail squid keep their eggs fresh. Bacteria that female Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes) deposit in the jelly surrounding their eggs can fight off a fungus called Fusarium keratoplasticum, Spencer Nyholm reported July 9 at the Beneficial Microbes Conference. A specialized organ called the accessory nidamental gland is found only in female bobtail squid and other cephalopods. The organ houses bacteria, mostly varieties of Rhodobacteraceae and Verrucomicrobia, and helps coat eggs with a thick layer of protective jelly impregnated with the microbes. Nyholm, of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, and colleagues treated squid eggs with antibiotics to kill the bacteria. The eggs grew fuzzy with fungus, and the developing squid embryos soon died. Bacteria from the accessory nidamental gland make several types of antifungal chemicals, including some that haven’t been characterized before, the researchers discovered. Some of those antifungal chemicals also inhibited growth of some bacteria and other fungi, including Candida albicans, a type of fungus that causes infections in humans. Squid bacteria may one day be a source of new kinds of natural antibiotics or antifungal drugs, Nyholm says.
7-10-18 Legal EU ivory sales 'condemn elephants'
The open, legal sale of antique ivory in many European countries is covering up a trade in illegal and recently poached ivory, campaigners say. Researchers from environmental group Avaaz bought 100 ivory items and had them radiocarbon dated at Oxford University. Three quarters were modern ivory, being sold illegally as fake antiques. Ivory from an elephant killed by poachers as recently as 2010 was among the items passed off as being antique. "It's sick," said Bert Wander from Avaaz, which organised the purchase of the items. "I'm looking at the trinkets we bought on my desk, and to think that an elephant with all the things we are learning about them, about their cognition and their advanced societies, and to think that one of them has died for this bracelet I'm holding now, it makes you sick to your stomach." The items were purchased from both antique dealers and private sellers in 10 countries across Europe. All the ivory pieces were advertised as originating from before 1947 or had no date information. The 1947 date is important because the EU classes ivory from before this date as antique and it can be traded without restriction. When the items were analysed by Oxford University's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, more than 74% were found to be from after 1947. The tests are able to show when the ivory grew on a living elephant, not when the creature died. This means the ivory could have come from elephants killed decades after the date of the sample.
7-9-18 Krill companies limit Antarctic fishing
The overwhelming majority of krill companies are to stop fishing in vast areas of the Antarctic Peninsula. Krill are important because they are at the base of the food chain: whales, penguins, seals and squid all eat the tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans. Other species, such as albatross and killer whales are indirectly dependent. The decision of the krill fishing companies comes ahead of a meeting of the Antarctic Ocean Commission (CCAMLR). The summit in October will decide whether to adopt an EU proposal to create the biggest ocean reserve on Earth. The Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary would protect 1.8 million square kilometres in and around the Weddell Sea. The decision to stop krill fishing off the peninsula follows pressure by campaign groups, including Greenpeace. Companies have been harvesting krill on a large scale since the 1970s. The crustaceans are now fished mainly for fish-farm feed and to meet the growing demand for Omega-3 oils and other health supplements. The animals also help to offset the effects of climate change, removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through their consumption of carbon-rich algae near the surface. The companies that have made this commitment represent around 85% of the krill fishing industry in the Antarctic. They will also support the establishment of "buffer zones" around breeding colonies of penguins, along with the scientific and political process for the creation of a network of large-scale marine protected areas around Antarctica. Kristine Hartmann from Aker BioMarine, the largest krill-fishing company in Antarctic waters, said: "We are positive that our commitment will help ensure krill as a sustainable and stable source of healthy omega-3s for the future... through our commitment we are showing that it is possible for no-fish zones and sustainable fisheries to co-exist." Frida Bengtsson of Greenpeace's Protect the Antarctic campaign, commented: "The momentum for protection of the Antarctic's waters and wildlife is snowballing. "A huge movement of people globally has been joined by scientists, governments, celebrities and now even the companies fishing in the Antarctic. This is a bold and progressive move."
7-8-18 The real cost of bananas
America's favorite fruit may be headed for yet another mass extinction. u probably take bananas for granted. In the U.K., one in four pieces of fruit consumed is a banana and, on average, each Briton eats 10 kg of bananas per year; in the U.S., that's 12 kg, or up to 100 bananas. When I ask people, most seem to think bananas grow on trees. But they don't, in either the literal or the figurative sense: In fact, they're in danger of extinction. I knew almost nothing about bananas when I landed in Costa Rica in 2011. I was a young scientist from the University of Michigan on a scholarship to study abroad, with fantasies of trapping and identifying tropical fish in pristine rainforest streams. But the institute I was enrolled at brought us to a banana plantation, and from the moment I set foot on the dense, dark clay beneath that endless green canopy, my fish fantasy evaporated. I became fascinated by the fruit I found growing on large, towering herbs, lined up in rows in their tens of thousands. Bananas are one of the oldest known cultivated plants, but were first grown in the U.S. in the 1880s, by entrepreneurs involved in early plantations in Jamaica. This new fruit was odd-looking, originally with seeds, and would grow only in very particular tropical climates. For years, the fruit was an unreliable product due to its short ripening period; storms at sea or delayed trains meant that these early banana salesmen would often open shipping crates full of rotten, unsellable fruit. But as advances in transportation and refrigeration shortened the time it took to bring bananas to market, they rose in popularity, cleverly marketed as a grocery staple, a fruit for the whole family. However, the banana that people ate in the early 20th century was not the one we know today. There are hundreds of edible banana varieties, but to standardize production, banana companies selected a single type to grow: the Gros Michel, a large, flavorful banana. Gros Michel did well up until the 1950s. But then a fungus known as Fusarium wilt, or Panama disease, rapidly infected entire plantations, and caused a global collapse in the banana trade. The industry quickly found a replacement, a banana resistant to Panama disease, called the Cavendish. But while these new bananas were filling a growing Western appetite, Cavendish suffered from the same flaw that brought down Gros Michel: monoculture.
7-8-18 Why humans, and Big Macs, depend on bees
Thor Hanson talks about his new book, Buzz. When you hear the word bee, the image that pops to mind is probably a honeybee. Maybe a bumblebee. But for conservation biologist Thor Hanson, author of the new book Buzz, the world is abuzz with thousands of kinds of bees, each as beautiful and intriguing as the flowers on which they land. Speaking from his “raccoon shack” on San Juan Island in Washington — a backyard shed converted to an office and bee-watching space, and named for its previous inhabitants — Hanson shares what he’s learned about how bees helped drive human evolution, the amazing birds that lead people to honey, and what a Big Mac would look like without bees. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
7-6-18 Chris Packham: ‘Let’s stop sleepwalking towards mass extinction’
We must wake up to the ecological apocalypse caused by intensive agriculture that is unfolding under our very noses, says Chris Packham. To my shame, I’ve not been minding my language. I just said to someone that “we’ve lost 97 per cent of our flower-rich meadows since the 1930s”. During this year’s Springwatch series on BBC television, I heard myself saying “we’ve lost 86 per cent of the corn bunting population”. On another occasion, I spoke of “a loss of 97 per cent of our hedgehogs”. Loss, lost… as though this habitat and these species have mysteriously disappeared into the ether, like they have been inadvertently misplaced, like they have annoyingly, accidentally vanished. They haven’t – they have been ploughed up, they are dead, or they don’t exist. Destroyed is the word I should have been using. So why wasn’t I? Because my language is symptomatic of a chronic acceptance of such appalling catastrophes, and the repeated mention of these sorts of statistics has somehow become normalised. We conservationists bandy these figures around like a vicious game of top trumps, to the extent that they have utterly lost their meaning. We’ve forgotten that they are a death toll, that they are the dwindling voice of the vanished millions, a tragic echo of a time of plentiful life. I have given myself a slap, I’ve woken from my statistical stupor and I’m now staring wide-eyed into the face of mass extinction. And my plan is to give all my colleagues a shake and then, slightly more politely, point out this dire predicament to the great British public, whose lives are now so denuded of wildlife that they have forgotten that it was ever there.
7-6-18 Lord of the Rings toad on brink of extinction
A toad named after the character Gollum in the fantasy novel Lord of the Rings has joined the latest list of animals deemed at risk of extinction. The amphibian lives not in the Misty Mountains, but on a Malaysian mountain. The toad got its name from Gollum, also known as Sméagol, in Tolkien's trilogy because scientists saw similarities between the two. "Smeagol from Lord of the Rings is a semi-aquatic creature," said Dr Chan Kin Onn of the University of Singapore. "[It has] large eyes, occurs up in the mountains and has long thin limbs. And funnily enough his digits are also extended. These are all characters that this little stream-toad also has." The toad, which goes by the scientific name, Ansonia smeago, is classed as Vulnerable on the latest International Union for Conservation of Nature - IUCN Red List. It lives only in upland streams on the top of a mountain in mainland Malaysia, where it is threatened by the expansion of tourist resorts. Unless something is done to protect its habitat and the water quality of the streams it relies on for survival, it might be lost forever. "The fact they are so specialised and they have only been found so far on top of the one mountain makes them very unique and very special, but also very vulnerable to potential threats," said Chan Kin Onn, who carried out conservation assessments for the IUCN.
7-5-18 North America’s earliest dogs came from Siberia
An ancient DNA study indicates that people brought dogs to North America at least 10,000 years ago. Modern American dogs share little ancestry with these ancient fidos, researchers say. North America’s first dogs arrived with humans who crossed a land bridge from Northeast Asia around 10,000 years ago or earlier, an analysis of ancient dogs’ DNA suggests. Those early American dogs derived from a Siberian ancestor, not North American wolves as some researchers have presumed, an international team reports in the July 6 Science. Genetic traces of ancient American dogs have nearly vanished from present-day pooches, possibly because European colonists selectively bred their own dogs starting around 500 years ago. Researchers reached that conclusion based on analyses of 71 mitochondrial genomes and seven nuclear genomes of dogs excavated at ancient North American and Siberian sites. Those data were compared with DNA from modern dogs and wolves.
7-5-18 Spiders can use electricity in the air to balloon for kilometres
Spiders can detect atmospheric electricity and use it to fly - and maybe drones of the future could fly the same way too It’s been a mystery since before the time that Charles Darwin observed spiders launching from the HMS Beagle with “unaccountable rapidity”, carried aloft by silken threads. It now seems that spiders fly using the force of atmospheric electricity. Many spiders are excellent fliers, despite not having wings. They “balloon” through the air using silk fibres which act like a paraglider, travelling hundreds of miles and reaching heights of 4.5 kilometres. It was assumed that they took to the air on the breeze, but Erica Morley at the University of Bristol wanted to test an idea proposed nearly 200 years ago: that electrostatic forces – the way objects are attracted or repulsed because of their charge – could be enough to get spiders airborne. First, Morley and colleagues tested whether spiders could sense electrical fields. They put small Linyphiid spiders in a Faraday cage that shielded them from electromagnetic fields and air currents, then added their own electrical fields that mimicked the forces seen in nature. “We were looking for changes in behaviour in response to switching on and off the electric field,” says Morley. When the current was switched on, the spiders started a behaviour known at tiptoeing which is only seen when spiders are about to balloon – straightening their legs, raising their abdomen and releasing silk. The researchers also found that the spiders had minute sensory hairs that can detect electric fields. “They can feel the charge in the air,” says Morley. This is the first time this sensory ability has been documented in creatures other than bees.
7-5-18 Soaring spiders may get cues from electric charges in the air
In a lab test, arachnids did preflight maneuvers when an electric field was switched on. Spiders may lack wings, but they aren’t confined to the ground. Under the right conditions, some spider species will climb to a high point, release silk strands to form a parachute, and float away on the breeze. Buoyed by air currents, they’ve been known to drift kilometers above Earth’s surface, and even to cross oceans to reach new habitats (SN: 2/4/17, p. 12). Now, new research suggests air isn’t the only force behind this flight, called ballooning. Spiders can sense electrical charges in Earth’s atmosphere, and the forces exerted by these charges might be a cue for them to alight, researchers suggest July 5 in Current Biology. That invisible signal could help explain why spiders’ take-off timing seem a bit, well, flighty. Some days, arachnids balloon en masse; other days, they remain firmly grounded despite similar weather conditions. Spiders with atmospheric aspirations do need a gentle breeze with speeds below around 11 kilometers per hour, past studies have shown. But those speeds alone shouldn’t be strong enough to get some of the larger species of ballooning spiders off the ground, says Erica Morley, a sensory biologist at the University of Bristol in England. So scientists have long wondered if some other force might be involved: Perhaps electrical charges in Earth’s atmosphere push against the silken threads of airborne spiders’ silk streamers to help them stay fanned out in a parachute. These electric charges form an electric field that attracts or repels other charged objects or particles. It varies in strength, becoming stronger around objects such as leaves and branches on trees, and also fluctuating with meteorological conditions.
7-5-18 Yes! We have no bananas: Why the song may come true again
A wild banana that may hold the key to protecting the world's edible banana crop has been put on the extinction list. It is found only in Madagascar, where there are just five mature trees left in the wild. Scientists say the plant needs to be conserved, as it may hold the secret to keeping bananas safe for the future. Most bananas consumed around the world are of a type known as the Cavendish, which is vulnerable to a plant pest. The race is on to develop new banana varieties that are both tasty to eat and resilient enough to survive attack from Panama disease. The Madagascan banana has evolved in isolation on an island cut off from the mainland, and may have special properties. Richard Allen, senior conservation assessor at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said the species (Ensete perrieri) could have in-built tolerance to drought or disease. "It doesn't have Panama disease in it, so perhaps it has genetic traits against the disease," he said. "We don't know until we actually do research on the banana itself, but we can't do the research until it's saved." Kew scientists searched for the banana plant in Madagascar and found it was almost extinct in the wild.
7-4-18 Hybrid embryos made to save the doomed northern white rhino
Biologists have created hybrid rhino embryos as a first step towards creating pure northern rhino embryos and are confident they can save the species from the brink. In Jurassic Park, a little 200-million-year-old blood was all it took to revive rampaging hordes of dinosaurs. In the real world, we’re struggling to save to species that are still living. Biologists are now resorting to desperate measures to bring the northern white rhino back from the brink. The northern white rhino is one of two subspecies of white rhinos. Around 20,000 southern white rhinos still survive in southern Africa, but their northern cousins in central Africa appear doomed. Those living in the wild have been wiped out by hunters and poachers, and those living in captivity did not breed well enough to survive. “The northern white rhino did not fail in evolution, it failed because it was not bullet-proof,” says Thomas Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, part of an international team trying to save the northern white rhino. Two remain! The last surviving male, called Sudan, died earlier this year. Only two females remain – Sudan’s daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu, who are under heavy guard in Kenya – and they have serious reproductive problems. In theory, it should be possible to recreate a thriving population from frozen tissue samples and sperm that were gathered from northern white rhinos. We also have living cell lines derived from 12 of the last northern white rhinos to die.
7-4-18 Researchers create hybrid embryos of endangered white rhinos
The first-time feat offers a tiny glimmer of hope for saving the northern white rhinoceros. The nearly extinct northern white rhino may not be completely lost. For the first time, rhinoceros embryos have been made in the lab. Scientists injected preserved sperm from a male northern white rhino into eggs of female southern white rhino, a closely related subspecies. The embryos were incubated until the cells begin to differentiate, a stage at which they can be implanted into a surrogate mother, researchers report July 4 in Nature Communications. The new feat is “one of the really crucial steps” to eventually producing new rhino calves, says study coauthor Jan Stejskal, coordinator of northern white rhino conservation efforts at the Safari Park Dvur Králové in the Czech Republic. Eventually, researchers hope to implant similar embryos into female southern white rhinos or hybrid northern-southern white rhinos. If it works, it could provide hope for bringing back a species on the brink of extinction. Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, died in March. Only two females remain in Kenya, both in captivity and unable to reproduce naturally. In comparison, there are more than 20,000 southern white rhinos left.
7-4-18 Embryo breakthrough 'can save northern white rhino'
The seemingly "disastrous" story of the world's most endangered mammal - the northern white rhino - could be rewritten by IVF, scientists claim. They used the method to produce rhino embryos with sperm from two dead males. The embryos were made using eggs from a closely related sub-species, but the scientists say the method could save the northern white rhino. One of the team said he hoped a baby that's fully northern white rhino would be born "within three years". This could provide a way of "rescuing valuable genes" from a sub-species that is already functionally extinct; the last male northern white rhino, named Sudan, died earlier this year at the age of 45. Only two females now remain, but the researchers who carried out this project say their carefully-developed method of assisted reproduction could work with eggs harvested from those two precious animals. In the journal Nature Communications, Prof Thomas Hildebrandt, from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, and his international team of colleagues, described the complexities of safely extracting an egg, or oocyte, from a two-tonne female rhino. "You can't reach the ovaries by hand, so we developed a special device," Prof Hildebrandt explained to BBC News. "We used ultrasound to very precisely inject a needle into [the area of the ovary that releases] eggs." The result - viable embryos containing genetic material from a sub-species that is already functionally extinct.
7-3-18 Giraffe hunter criticised for dead giraffe pose in South Africa
A US hunter has come under criticism after pictures taken in South Africa of her posing with a dead giraffe went viral. "White american savage who is partly a neanderthal comes to Africa and shoot down a very rare black giraffe coutrsey of South Africa stupidity. Her name is Tess Thompson Talley. Please share" "TESS THOMPSON TALLEY. Where is the fun in killing such a beautiful animal. Why do human beings think it's acceptable to go around killing innocent beautiful creatures, FOR FUN. Disgraceful name and shame this grotesque excuse for a human being#Tessthompsontalley" "Seeing pictures of that horror murdering a giraffe for fun honestly makes you want to give up on the world, I HATE them all #stopkilling #wedontdeservethisworld"
7-2-18 The koala genome has been fully sequenced for the first time
The koala genome has been sequenced for the first time, providing new insights into its diet and sex life, and assisting with conservation efforts. Koalas are known for their unusual lifestyles. Now their genome has been sequenced for the first time, a breakthrough that is finally shedding some light on their strange way of life. Koalas sleep for 22 hours per day and socialise very little. Their babies are born after spending just five weeks in the womb. And they live on an exclusive diet of eucalyptus leaves, which are toxic to most other mammals. To find out how they do this, a team led by Rebecca Johnson at the Australian Museum Research Institute in Sydney sequenced the complete koala genome, using DNA samples from three animals. The genome has already provided several insights into koala biology. For example, it has revealed special detoxification genes that allow the animals to feed on eucalyptus leaves without getting sick, as well as sophisticated taste and smell genes that help them to pick the most nutritious leaves. “That explains why you see koalas sniffing leaves before they eat them,” says Johnson. The researchers also discovered genes that produce antibacterial substances in koala mothers’ milk. These may prevent infections in their tiny babies, which are born before they have developed immune systems. In addition, the team identified genes that allow male koala semen to trigger ovulation in females. Since koalas don’t have much time for sex between naps, this trait may help to maximise their conception chances, says Johnson.
7-2-18 Koala genome may contain clues for helping the species survive
The marsupial’s numbers are declining in the Australian wilderness. Koalas have joined the menagerie of creatures with fully deciphered genetic instruction books, or genomes. A large team of researchers published the detailed look at the koala genome online July 2 in Nature Genetics. Why do we care? Lots of people love koalas. The iconic animal draws at least $1.1 billion in Australian dollars in tourism every year, according to the New South Wales government. But the number of koalas in the wild is declining, and researchers are combing the genome for clues about how to save the creatures. Already, scientists have found that some koala populations are less genetically diverse than others. The genetic diversity survey also showed that koalas from different sides of some geographic barriers don’t mix often. Brisbane Valley and the Clarence River were already known to separate koala populations, but the new study found that a region called Hunter Valley is a barrier, too. Armed with that knowledge, conservationists may be able to devise new strategies for limiting inbreeding and keeping koalas genetically diverse. How many genes does a koala have? 26,558. Researchers had previously counted only about 15,000 koala genes, but new techniques allowed scientists find more.
7-2-18 Saving koalas: Gene study promises solution to deadly sex disease
Despite being (possibly) the world's cuddliest creature, the super-sweet koala is also one of the unluckiest animals on the planet. Australia's most famous tree hugger has been ravaged by sexually transmitted disease, attacks from dogs, being hit by cars and habitat loss. Chlamydia has spread fast in koalas, causing infertility and blindness. But scientists say decoding the genome should lead to an effective vaccine for the STD. In fact, researchers say they've been amazed by the information that's been hidden in the marsupial's DNA. While they didn't find a gene for cuteness, they've worked out how koalas can survive solely on a diet of eucalyptus - which poisons most other creatures that consume it. Genes that are switched on in the koala's "cast-iron livers" appear to be responsible for the ability to detoxify the leaves. Their DNA also equips them with powerful senses of smell and taste that allow them to sniff out the leaves with the most water in them; koalas will eat only those with at least 55% water content. However, one of the great hopes from this five-year gene project is that scientists will be able to develop a vaccine against chlamydia, something which is present in the vast majority of the species. Chlamydia is a horrid infection in koalas. In addition to blindness and infertility, koalas endure something called "dirty tail", a painful inflammation of the urinary tract that often results in the animal's death. Researchers have tested vaccines in the past but say the new information will speed up the process. "The genome absolutely brings a vaccine closer," lead author Prof Rebecca Johnson from the Australian Museum Research Institute told BBC News.
7-2-18 Some monkeys in Panama may have just stumbled into the Stone Age
One group of capuchins uses stone tools, but neighbouring groups do not – suggesting primates - including us - might enter the Stone Age simply by chance. Another non-human primate has entered the Stone Age – the fourth type known to have done so. One population of white-faced capuchins living in Panama routinely use stones to smash open nuts and shellfish. Other nearby populations don’t make use of stone tools, which might suggest that primates – perhaps including our ancestors – stumble into the stone age by chance. Chimpanzees in west Africa, macaques in Thailand and several species of tufted, strongly built capuchin monkeys living in South America use stone tools to access food. Brendan Barrett at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany, and his colleagues have now discovered that a species of non-tufted, slender-bodied capuchin monkey also uses stone tools. The tufted and non-tufted capuchins are estimated to have split from each other about 6.2 million years ago, says Barrett. “That’s a similar divergence time between our lineage and the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and bonobos,” he says. In other words, he says, the non-tufted capuchins are the fourth distinct type of non-human primate known to use stone tools on a regular basis. It’s an exciting discovery, according to both Dorothy Fragaszy at the University of Georgia in Athens and Patrícia Izar at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. “It reinforces our suspicions that we have interesting things to discover about even well-studied species by looking at populations in new places,” says Fragaszy.
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for July of 2018
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