No matter where you look, just about every creature
is obsessed with:
sex, real estate, who's the boss, and what's for dinner.
56 Intelligence & Zoology News Articles
for September of 2018
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
9-29-18 Secret life of rare antelope revealed
The world's largest forest antelope has been caught on camera in Uganda for the first time. The elusive striped antelope, known as the lowland bongo, was snapped in dense forest near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Scientists say there could be more new discoveries in the remote, unexplored, lowland rainforest. The forest-dwelling antelope is classed as Near Threatened on the extinction list, due to habitat loss and hunting. Populations in central and western Africa have declined to about 30,000 individuals. The bongo was spotted using motion-sensor cameras in Semuliki National Park, home to one of Africa's most ancient forests, which harbours hundreds of different birds and mammals. It was identified during a survey of mammals across the park. More than 30 mammal species were spotted among 18,000 pictures, including elephants, chimps, buffalos and leopards. "We were amazed that such a large, striking animal could go undetected for so long, but bongo are a notoriously shy and elusive species," said Stuart Nixon of Chester Zoo's Africa Field Programme, which carried out the study alongside the Uganda Wildlife Authority. "It could be that bongo and other species are moving between Virunga National Park in DRC and Uganda, showing just how important it is to protect the rainforests, which still connect the two countries."
9-28-18 The crane who fell in love with a human
The world population of white-naped cranes is falling fast, said Sadie Dingfelder. To get one to breed in captivity, a human handler had to seduce her. “Try getting in the van,” Crowe calls to me. I follow his suggestion, and almost immediately, Walnut starts responding to Crowe’s overtures. She returns his bows and then turns away from him and holds her wings loosely away from her body. Kneeling behind the bird, Crowe rests a hand gently on her back. Then he starts rubbing her thighs, rhythmically, almost pornographically. Thirty seconds elapse before Walnut steps away from Crowe, fixes a few out-of-place feathers, and then stretches out her wings, asking for another go-round. In past years, Crowe would have taken this opportunity to inject Walnut with a syringe of crane semen. Alas, a matchmaker in Memphis—the keeper of the white-naped crane studbook, whose job is to ensure a genetically diverse captive population—has decreed that they don’t need any more babies from Walnut, at least not this year. But that doesn’t stop Crowe and Walnut from going through the motions all summer long, five days a week, sometimes several times a day. “It’s not exactly fun for me, but it keeps Walnut happy,” Crowe says. More to the point, this strange cross-species seduction has helped ensure that white-naped cranes continue to exist. Walnut arrived at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), an endangered-species breeding center in Front Royal, Va., back in 2004. She was the most genetically valuable white-naped crane in captivity. At 23, she had yet to produce a single chick, and she had a reputation for murdering her mates. Two male cranes that made amorous overtures toward Walnut had been found dead, with their bellies sliced open by her sharp claws. That, at least, was the rumor.
9-28-18 Tawny owl decline: Public urged to record 'twit-twoos'
Bird lovers are being urged to give up 20 minutes every week to listen out for the "twit-twoo" call of the Tawny owl, amid concerns over its numbers. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is asking people to listen for the distinctive hoot from their garden, a local park or woodland, once every week for the next six months. "You can even do it from the comfort of your bed," said BTO's Claire Boothby. Light pollution and urbanisation are thought to be impacting populations. The conservation status of the Tawny owl recently changed from green to amber, signalling a growing concern for the species. Researchers hope the Tawny Owl Calling survey, which runs from 30 September to 31 March, will help them understand if, and where, the bird may be in decline. They say it is not essential that members of the public listen every single week, insisting that all data will be useful - even in locations where an owl call cannot be heard as this indicates where the species is missing. "Anyone can take part, and the more people that do, the better picture scientists at BTO will have of our Tawny owl," Ms Boothby said. The Tawny owl is typically found in mixed woodland, but also large urban parks and even suburban gardens. The nocturnal bird usually remains in the same territory and maintains a monogamous relationship. The twit-twoo motif is a combination of the female call, described as a "kewick" sound, and the male's response - a long, wavering hoot. There are currently thought to be about 50,000 breeding pairs in the UK.
9-28-18 Pollution threatens the future of killer whales
Killer whales are in deep trouble because of persistent chemical pollution in the environment, researchers say. A new study suggests the long-term viability of more than half of the different orca groups around the globe is now in question. Some populations, such as those around the UK, the Strait of Gibraltar, off Brazil, Japan and California, are almost certainly doomed. The assessment is in Science magazine. The issue is polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. These chemical compounds were once manufactured in vast quantities, and used in everything from plastics and paints to electrical equipment and sealants. But they are highly toxic and although banned decades ago have amassed in the environment, leaching into the ocean. Killer whales, or orcas, are top predators so they absorb all the PCB pollution taken in by the different prey in their food chain - from fish, right up to seals and sharks. The PCBs stunt the ovaries of female orcas, limiting their ability to produce calves. The chemicals also suppress the immune system. The new study models the future of the killer whales' reproductive success and survivability against the chemical challenge. For those populations living in clean waters, it is positive. Orcas in places like the Antarctic and the Arctic should increase their numbers. But for those living in the most polluted seas, the next 30-50 years will be grim. The killer whales that live on the west coast of Scotland, for example, are now down to just eight individuals and they have not produced a calf in more than 20 years.
9-27-18 Pollution threatens to wipe out half of all orca communities
Ten of the 19 orca populations in the oceans could vanish within a century because of the effects of reproduction-disrupting PCB chemicals. Marine chemical pollution that concentrates in the blubber of orcas – also known as killer whales – could wipe out half of all known populations within a century, marine biologists have warned. Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, threaten orcas by potentially disrupting reproduction, physically blocking reproductive organs and reducing sperm counts, leading to dwindling birth rates in exposed populations. “What we see in other species is that PCBs affect reproductive organs,” says Jean-Pierre Desforges of Aarhus University in Denmark, and head of the analysis. “In Baltic ring seals, for example, they cause physical blockages in the womb, and also cause endocrine disrupting effects that are more subtle.” Up to 1.5 million tonnes of PCBs were manufactured globally between 1933 and 1993, when they began to be phased out because of emerging evidence they disrupt reproduction in wildlife. They were widely used as heat-resistant fluids in electrical equipment, and as stabilisers in paints, sealants and solvents. They became widespread pollutants, and because of their chemical inertness, they remain for decades in the environment. They concentrate disproportionately in body fat of mammals at the top of the food chain, including orcas.
9-27-18 Feral cats appear to be pathetic at controlling New York City’s rats
Urban felines prefer mice and birds to big, feisty rodents. People often assume cats enthusiastically kill city rats, but that may be just an urban legend. Feral cats caught on video were keen to watch rats lurking around a trash collection center in Brooklyn, says behavioral ecologist Michael Parsons. But cats rarely killed, or even chased, the rats. Cats aren’t a good choice for rat-population control, Parsons, a visiting researcher at Fordham University in New York City, and colleagues suggest September 27 in Frontiers in Environment and Ecology. Cats typically prefer smaller prey, he says. A 20-gram bird or a 30-gram mouse can’t defend itself with the sharp-toothed ferocity and heft of a Norway rat. Adult rats at the Brooklyn waste center are more than 10 times that weight, at an average of about 337 grams. For 79 days, cameras set up at the center showed cats killing or nearly killing only three rats. That lackluster performance wouldn’t do much to dent a rat population. Parsons and his colleagues had been setting up a different rat study when they noticed five feral cats creeping around the rats that researchers had microchipped at the waste center. Researchers at first bristled at the intrusion, then realized it was a great opportunity to study feral animals in real-life situations, Parsons says. Trying to use lab rats to understand free-ranging rodents’ lives is like extrapolating “knowledge of the wolf from, say, a Chihuahua.”
9-27-18 Cats are actually useless at catching rats – they prefer smaller prey
You might think your cat is working hard to keep your home rat-free, but actually the rodents are just hiding. If you are plagued by rats, think twice about getting a cat. A prowling feline might lead to the appearance of a rat-free home, but it turns out that is only because rats keep a low profile when cats are around, rather than because cats kill lots of the vermin. “Cats are not the natural enemy of rats,” says Michael Parsons of Fordham University, New York. “They prefer smaller prey.” His team has been studying a rat colony at a recycling plant in New York City. When feral cats moved into the plant last year the researchers were dismayed at first – but decided to set up infrared cameras to see what would happen. Over five months, they saw just three attempts to catch rats, only two of which succeeded. “The rat population is still thriving,” says Parsons. Cats have good reason to be cautious. The city rats (Rattus norvegicus) have large incisors that can inflict a painful bite, carry lots of diseases and weigh 340 grams on average – compared with 25 g for a mouse, a more favoured feline prey. Parson thinks that only starving cats will attempt to tackle rats, unless the rats are sick or injured. The two rats killed during the team’s observations were probably weakened by eating poisoned bait, he says. However, cats do have a big influence on rat behaviour. “Rats overestimate the risk posed by cats,” says Parsons.
9-26-18 The 7 non-human mammals where females rule the roost
In the wild, males often dominate leadership roles, but not in seven species of mammals ranging from orcas and African elephants to spotted hyenas. Females are rarely leader of the pack in the animal kingdom. Of the 76 non-human mammal species that exhibit leadership, only seven have females that take charge during conflict, foraging or travel. That is the conclusion of a study into female leadership among mammals carried out by Jennifer Smith at Mills College in California and her colleagues. Females of these seven species fit a certain definition of leadership. Smith’s team found that they have one or more of the following traits: they are physically stronger than males, they are long-lived or spend most of their life in one area, and they form strong social bonds with other females. The work will appear in Leadership Quarterly. “In these species, females are bonded to each other, and they influence their society’s structure through directing food collection, fighting wars, deciding where their group moves and holding local knowledge useful for finding food,” says Smith. Here is the list her team came up with: African Lion, Spotted Hyena, African elephant, Orca, 2 Lemur, and Bonobo.
9-26-18 Manta rays have a special trick for filtering very tiny bits of food
Manta rays use a filter system to sieve food from the water, but the filter captures food particles so small they should pass through – and now we know how. Manta rays filter tiny plankton from the water column – even those smaller than their filter pores. A unique filtration systems makes solid particles ricochet back into the ray’s mouth while draining out seawater. Filter-feeders use different strategies to trap food. Most fish have gills that work as a sieve, letting water through and retaining food particles larger than the sieve pores. Sea sponges, on the other hand, secrete sticky mucus to capture food. It was long thought that manta rays used sieve filtration, but then gut analysis found large amounts of plankton that should have passed through the pores in their gills. This suggested the rays must have a different mechanism to separate food. To find out how manta ray filters work, Misty Paig-Tran at the California State University, and her colleagues, 3D printed a segment of ray fish gill and let a stream of water carrying solid particles of various sizes run through it at a speed matching the natural ocean flow. Although the 3D printed filter had a pore size of 340 micrometres, it managed to capture nearly all particles larger than 150 micrometres.
9-26-18 Manta rays have an unusual mouth filter that resists clogging
Instead of snagging in the filter, plankton ricochets toward the manta’s throat. Manta rays were built for speed — and to filter feed. The aerodynamic ocean dwellers efficiently separate plankton from seawater using a previously unknown kind of filtration system that resists clogs and captures tiny bits of plankton, researchers report September 26 in Science Advances. Mantas are filter feeders, like many other ocean creatures. They pull plankton-laden seawater into their mouths, where arrays of cartilaginous fibers helps them swallow the plankton but release the seawater. For most filter feeders, the process can be compared to straining a pot of pasta and letting the water run through, says coauthor Misty Paig-Tran, a marine biologist at California State University, Fullerton. But for mantas, that analogy doesn’t quite work. Some of the plankton that mantas eat is small enough to slip through the gaps — more like grains of rice than chunky pasta shells. And mantas don’t have sticky filter mucus to snag these small particles, as sponges and bryozoans do. Paig-Tran and her colleagues took CT scans of several manta ray species specimens from museums, then 3-D printed a replica of the filter found in one species, the giant oceanic manta ray (Manta birostris). The team placed the model filter in a tank filled with dye to track how water and planktonlike particles move through it. Computer programs also helped calculate the trajectories of particles of different sizes.
9-26-18 The rare-leopard spotter who accidentally caught gunmen in her traps
Priya Singh spent months in the wilds of north-east India tracking elusive clouded leopards and marbled cats, but caught more than she bargained for in her camera traps. WORKING in the bamboo forests of Mizoram, north-east India, isn’t easy. Alongside torrential monsoons and poachers, there are armed separatist groups to contend with. Yet independent wildlife biologist Priya Singh, currently funded by UK conservation charity the Rufford Foundation, spent months at a time here to deploy and maintain 160 camera traps in an effort to spot the country’s most elusive cats. Her persistence paid off: she produced the first ever estimate of the marbled cat population in continental Asia and discovered one of its highest recorded densities of clouded leopards. Her three-year study, published last October with zoologist David McDonald at the University of Oxford, involved combing the thick jungle of the Dampa Tiger Reserve, which borders Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is a protected park – on paper, at least – but Dampa is a tiger refuge where she found scant evidence of tigers. Singh’s results suggest that the lack of bigger cats has allowed both marbled cats and clouded leopards to spend more time on the ground and grow in numbers – her estimates put both populations at about five individuals per 100 square kilometres. Gunmen regularly traverse the forest. While Singh was there in 2015, one armed group kidnapped 22 local people who were building a road in the park, and held them hostage until a ransom was reportedly paid. Along with images of cats, Singh’s cameras spotted many gunmen, and the cameras themselves were routinely stolen.
9-26-18 A new species of high-altitude hummingbird may already be in trouble
Scientists estimate there are fewer than 750 of these birds living in the Ecuadorean Andes. A new hummingbird species has been discovered high in the Ecuadorian Andes, but in numbers so low the bird may already be critically endangered. Named for its cobalt-colored feathers, the blue-throated hillstar hummingbird nibbles on insects and slurps pollen from chuquiraga plants in a remote, treeless ecosystem known as the Páramo. Like other high-altitude hummingbirds from the same genus, the newly identified Oreotrochilus cyanolaemus has a host of adaptations to live above 3,500 meters, where the air is thinner, colder and oxygen-poor, researchers report September 26 in The Auk: Ornithological Advances. “We weren't expecting a new [species] from this area,” says evolutionary biologist Elisa Bonaccorso of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador. The hummingbirds often perch in creek beds to avoid winds gusting across the shrubby highlands, the researchers say. To conserve energy, the birds rarely hover. Instead, their large feet grasp branches as they hop between flowers. Hillstars are “a little bit less reliant on flight than other hummingbirds because the air is so thin,” says Christopher J. Clark, an ornithologist at the University of California, Riverside who was not involved in the study. When these birds do take to the air, long wings and a robust tail create extra lift in the thin atmosphere. At night, the hummingbirds cope with frigid temperatures by entering a state of hibernation called torpor. Their naturally high metabolism slows, and their heart rate plummets.
9-25-18 This new fish species displays a splash of highlighter hues
The technicolor creature was discovered in a mid-Atlantic reef 100 to 130 meters down. A new species of reef fish is a real head turner. Last year while surveying a remote coral reef about 130 meters below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, ichthyologists Luiz Rocha and Hudson Pinheiro spotted a radiant fish hiding in a drab rock crevice. “It was like finding a bright emerald in a coal mine,” recalls Pinheiro. The fish, with its electric-pink-and-yellow body and bright green fins, was so mesmerizing, “it made us completely ignore a massive [shark] that was hovering over our heads,” Rocha says. Back in the lab, Claudia Rocha analyzed the fish’s DNA. Those results combined with the observation of a few distinguishing characteristics — a longer spine here, an extra fin ray there — confirmed the fish as a new species, the trio of California Academy of Sciences researchers report September 25 in Zookeys. Due to its hypnotic beauty, they named the fish Tosanoides aphrodite, a nod to the ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite. T. aphrodite belongs to the same fish group as similarly psychedelic reef inhabitants known as Anthiadinae, but its closest known relatives live over in the Pacific — including a Hawaiian species named in 2016 after President Barack Obama. The new species turned up in a reef by St. Paul’s Rocks, a series of mid-Atlantic islets about 1,000 kilometers from Brazil. The area’s extreme isolation could help explain why so many of its species aren’t found elsewhere. Still, deep reefs remain understudied habitats, and T. aphrodite or its relatives could be hiding out in other deep Atlantic reefs (SN Online: 7/19/18).
9-25-18 AI eavesdrops on Borneo’s rainforests to check on biodiversity
Solar-powered sensors are listening in to rainforests in Borneo to check on biodiversity. One plan is to use AI to identify different animal calls. Solar-powered recording devices are eavesdropping on rainforests in Borneo to monitor biodiversity. The plan is to use artificial intelligence to automatically identify and record different animals and track changes over time. Many current methods for measuring biodiversity are impractical, relying on humans to regularly change batteries and put out recorders, or expensive, requiring huge reams of data to be sent via satellites. So Sarab Sethi at Imperial College London and his team developed a pared-down device built around a Raspberry Pi, a mass-produced cheap computer board. Solar panels peeking over the canopy provide power, while local mobile networks send data almost immediately to a remote server, accessible online. The devices can be fitted with multiple sensors to record multiple data sources, such as audio, photography and atmospheric information. “Automatic monitoring is important if we are going to get a full picture of how species and ecosystems interact,” says Ed Baker of the University of York. Twelve monitors are currently nestled in the canopy picking up audio, in sections of rainforest with differing health levels. So far, over 10,000 hours of audio have been recorded and there are two plans of how best to analyse it. One will work like a Shazam for species. Rather than identifying a song’s artist from a sound recording, artificial intelligence algorithms will recognise different animal calls and record how the populations shift over time.
9-25-18 Yellowstone grizzly bears' protection restored and hunts halted
A US judge has ordered protection to be restored to grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, blocking plans for the first hunts there in nearly 30 years. The Montana judge's ruling overturns the Trump administration's policy. The judge sided with wildlife groups, who say grizzlies are under threat from climate change and loss of habitat. Local ranchers argue the animals are killing their livestock and point to a growing number of attacks on people. Grizzly numbers in the Yellowstone area have increased from 136 in 1975 to more than 700 today - in large part because of wildlife conservation measures, costing millions of dollars. In his ruling on Monday, Judge Dana Christensen stated that the case was "not about the ethics of hunting". This was, the judge continued, about whether the Fish and Wildlife Service considered threats to grizzlies' recovery in the long-term when it stripped the animals of their threatened species status in June 2017. Jude Christensen said that in his view the answer was clearly "no".
9-25-18 Gujarat lion deaths: What killed 11 big cats?
Forestry officials in India say they are investigating the unusual deaths of 11 Asiatic lions in the western state Gujarat over the last fortnight. The Asiatic lion was listed as endangered in 2008 - an improvement on a critically endangered listing in 2000 - after numbers increased in the state's Gir forest. But the deaths of such a large number of lions in a short period highlights the intense competition in the Gir sanctuary, home to hundreds of lions. It remains unclear but officials mainly suspect that a group of lions from a different area killed them in a battle over territory. They are fairly certain that this is what happened to at least eight of the 11, including three cubs. Forest official GK Sinha told reporters at least three adult male lions from another area entered a range in the forest and killed the cubs, in what he described as "infighting". "This is a natural course of action among lions," he said. What killed the remaining three lions is unknown. Wildlife conservationist Rajan Joshi told BBC Gujarati that he suspected Canine distemper virus (CDV) - carried by domestic dogs - may have played a role in the deaths. But officials said medical tests during the post mortem of the dead cats had not found any evidence of the virus. The virus was first described at the beginning of the 20th Century and has been cited as contributing to the demise of the thylacine (commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger due to the black stripes on its back). Lions are the only truly social cats, with related females living together in prides overseen by male coalitions that compete for possession in fierce and often fatal battles. They move quickly at night to look for prey and shelter.
9-23-18 How math helps explain the delicate patterns of dragonfly wings
For some insects, no two wings are exactly alike. The dainty veins gracing the wings of dragonflies and other insects are like fingerprints: Each wing displays a distinct pattern. A randomized mathematical process may help explain how certain thin filaments, called secondary veins, form these complex patterns, a new study finds. Insect wings consist of two types of veins, both of which provide structural support (SN: 6/24/17, p. 5). Primary veins, which tend to be long and relatively straight, are found in the same locations on the wings of each member of a species. But the smaller, secondary veins appear in slightly different places on every wing. Together, these two types of veins section off the wing into a multitude of tiny pieces, like bits of a stained-glass window. Scientists characterized 468 wings from 232 species by calculating the area of each tiny section, and quantifying whether it was circular or elongated. A particular series of steps re-created the wings’ patterns, scientists report September 17 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team started by simulating a scaled-down wing, to mimic processes happening while the insect is developing. First, the placement of primary veins divided the wing into large regions. Then, the researchers randomly selected evenly spaced locations, termed “inhibitory centers,” within each wing region. In a real insect, these inhibitory centers might correspond to places where a chemical cue prevents the formation of veins.
9-20-18 Animals can count, but can’t read numbers – and now we know why
Humans but not animals learn that symbols like ‘2’ and ‘4’ represent numbers by recruiting a unique set of neurons to identify them. Several species of animal can count, but only humans can do so using abstract number symbols like ‘2’ or ‘4’. Now we know we do so using a different set of brain cells from those we use to recognise numbers by simply counting groups of objects. This in turn may underpin the unique evolution of mathematical ability in humans. Evidence for this came from experiments involving nine patients with epilepsy whose brains had temporarily been implanted with electrodes to identify the source of their seizures. While the electrodes were implanted, researchers recorded the electrical activity from 585 individual neurons in each participant. The neurons were located in the medial temporal lobe, a region vital for processing sound and vision, memory and cognition. As participants each performed 320 simple arithmetical additions and subtractions of numbers from one to five, electrical signals revealed which neurons were active. Crucially, half the sums were presented using customary numerical symbols. The other half were presented using quantities of blobs within a circle to represent numbers. So in one case, the participant had to recognise abstract symbols as numbers to do the sums while in the other case they had to count the blobs before they began the calculation.
9-20-18 Maine restaurant sedates lobsters with marijuana
A US restaurant is using marijuana to sedate lobsters before killing them. Charlotte's Legendary Lobster Pound, a restaurant in Maine, says the process is more humane as it lessens their pain before death. Lobsters are often cooked by being dropped into a pot of boiling water, seen as cruel by some. There is growing evidence the crustaceans feel pain. Customers at the restaurant can choose whether they want the marijuana-sedated lobster or not. A growing body of scientific findings suggest that not only lobsters but other invertebrates, such as crayfish and crabs, are able to feel pain. In January, Switzerland decided that lobsters must be stunned before boiling. The owner of Charlotte's Legendary Lobster Pound, Charlotte Gill, says eating the sedated lobster will not make customers high and using marijuana leads to better quality meat, as the animal is more relaxed when it dies. "If we're going to take a life we have a responsibility to do it as humanely as possible," Ms Gill told local newspaper Mount Desert Islander. "The difference it makes within the meat itself is unbelievable." Marijuana is legal in Maine and Ms Gill has a license to grow and supply it for medical purposes. Marijuana laws in the US vary from state to state. Nine states and Washington DC have legalised the drug.
9-20-18 Octopuses taking MDMA get all huggy and loved-up with each other
Octopuses respond to ecstasy in the same way as we do, suggesting the basis for social behaviour evolved more than 500 million years ago. Octopuses given the drug ecstasy become far more social and try to hug other octopuses, a small study has found. The fact that octopuses respond in a similar manner to people suggests the molecular basis for social behaviour evolved more than 500 million years ago in our shared ancestor. Octopuses are normally solitary creatures. “During reproduction they are social for three minutes while they mate and then they go back to wanting to kill each other,” says Gul Dolen of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland, who studies the neural basis for social behaviour. She set up aquaria divided into three chambers connected by open doorways. In the chamber on one side she placed an octopus inside a perforated plastic container. In the chamber on the other side an object was put in an identical container. In the central chamber, Dolen placed another octopus and allowed it to freely explore either side chamber for 30 minutes. Normally the octopus allowed to explore did not spend much time in the chamber with the other octopus and touched it very cautiously, by extending a single arm towards it. But if it was placed in water containing dissolved ecstasy (MDMA) for 10 minutes before the experiment began, it spent much more time in the chamber with the other octopus and tried to “hug” it, wrapping its whole body around the container.
9-20-18 Giant pandas can tell a mate from their calls
Scientists have investigated the calls of giant pandas - and it's not good news for animals seeking a date. Pandas can identify each other from their sheep-like bleats at a distance of up to 20 metres, research found. But they can only decipher the sex of a potential mate if they are less than 10 metres away. In contrast, animals living on the open savannah, such as African elephants, can communicate over distances of 1km. Researchers recorded the bleats of giant pandas, then investigated how far the sounds travelled in dense bamboo thickets. They found that in the typical bamboo forest habitat, the iconic animals can recognise each other's sex and identity, but only over short distances. "Our findings indicate that most acoustic communication does indeed take place over very short distances (10-20 m) once mates have been located," said Benjamin Charlton of San Diego Zoo's Institute for Conservation Research. The findings, published in the journal, Scientific Reports, could help shed new light on the breeding habits of giant pandas. The work could also help conservationists estimate population levels by recording vocal activity made during the breeding season. Mating and breeding can be tricky affairs for the giant panda. The iconic animals live a mainly solitary life, and encounters are rare outside the brief mating season. Scent can give away information such as size, sex, identity and hormonal state. But pandas also have a vocal repertoire that is particularly important during the breeding season. The giant panda is listed as vulnerable to extinction, with less than 2,000 individuals thought to remain in the wild. Artificial insemination is used in captivity, where the animals are often reluctant to breed.
9-20-18 Cane toad DNA breakthrough 'may help stop' toxic pest
Scientists say they have unlocked the DNA blueprint of the cane toad, raising fresh hopes of slowing the animal's destruction of habitats. The amphibian, native to South America, has become a prolific pest since it was introduced in other parts of the world last century. In Australia, it has spread rapidly and had a deadly impact on native wildlife. Researchers say the draft genome could be a crucial step in efforts to halt the animal's march. "Sequencing the genome is the quantum leap that means we can understand it better and start to do lots of other things around its control," said emeritus Prof Rick Shine, a study co-author from the University of Sydney. The international team of researchers said the discovery would offer biological clues about the animal's evolution. The study used advanced computers to sequence 360 billion DNA pairs and construct the "genome jigsaw". More than 90% of the cane toad's genes were found, they said. Cane toads are highly adaptable and can be found in more than 130 countries, the researchers said. Since being introduced to Australia in 1935 to control a sugarcane beetle, the species has spread rapidly across the nation. Cane toads threaten many larger species - such as snakes, lizards and even crocodiles - which ingest the amphibian's deadly toxin. "It is a very adaptable and invasive animal - it came from a wet jungle and was able to hop across arid desert in northern Australia," Prof Peter White, from the University of New South Wales, told the BBC. "That shows you the capability it has to evolve to the environment." With a genome in place, it will be easier and cheaper to track evolutionary changes in other cane toads, Prof White said.
9-19-18 DNA from seized elephant ivory unmasks 3 big trafficking cartels in Africa
Such scientific sleuthing can aid efforts to curb wildlife crime. Pairs of elephant tusks that are separated during smuggling are illuminating the tracks of wildlife crime. Identifying matching elephant DNA in different shipments of tusks can help scientific sleuths connect the shipments to the same ivory trafficking cartel, a new study finds. That technique has already revealed the presence of three major interconnected cartels that are active in Africa, researchers report September 19 in Science Advances. The method could give law enforcement officials more ammunition in prosecuting traffickers and others involved in killing protected wildlife, says study coauthor Samuel Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Elephant poachers kill as many as 40,000 elephants each year as part of an international, illicit ivory industry worth billions. Poachers sell to a pyramid of traffickers, who consolidate ivory from a tangled web of sources and smuggle shipments around the world. But when traffickers are nabbed, they’re usually busted only for the ivory they’re caught smuggling. Being able to tie them to other poaching and trafficking events could up the penalties the criminals face, and help law enforcement bring down more people who tie operations together, Wasser says. Previously, he and colleagues have used DNA found in elephant tusks and poop to link trafficked tusks to specific poaching hotspots in central and southeastern Africa (SN: 7/25/15, p. 9). While sampling confiscated ivory, his team noticed that tusks from the same animal often ended up in different shipments, linking those containers to the same people.
9-19-18 Why do we hate wasps and love bees?
A new study reveals that wasps are largely disliked by the public, whereas bees are highly appreciated. The researchers involved say that this view is unfair because wasps are just as ecologically useful as bees. The scientists suggest a public relations campaign to restore the wasps' battered image. They'd like to see the same efforts made to conserve them as there currently are with bees. The survey of 750 people from 46 countries has been published in Ecological Entomology. Despised by picnickers, feared for their painful stings - wasps are among the least loved of insects according to the new study. In the survey, participants were asked to rate the insects on a scale which ran from minus five, representing a strongly negative emotion to plus five, representing a strongly positive one. The vast majority of responses for bees were plus 3 or above, whereas it was the complete reverse for wasps, with the vast majority rating their feelings minus three or below. When asked to think of words associated with bees, the most popular for bees were "honey", "flowers" and "pollination". For wasps the most common words that came to mind were "sting", "annoying" and "dangerous". However wasps also pollinate flowers as well as killing pests and are just as important to the environment as bees. The problem, according to Dr Seirian Sumner, of University College London, who led the research, is that wasps have had a bad press. The public are unaware of all the good things they do so they are regarded as nuisances rather than an important ecological asset. "People don't realise how incredibly valuable they are," she told BBC News. "Although you might think they are after your beer or jam sandwich - they are, in fact, much more interested in finding insect prey to take back to their nest to feed their lavae."
9-19-18 South Africa gangs 'threaten' rare sea snail existence
Poachers linked to South African drug gangs are threatening the existence of a species of abalone, a sea snail that is highly prized by restaurants in China, a new report says. Stocks of abalone are declining at an unprecedented rate, according to research by conservation group Traffic. The affected abalone species, Haliotis midae, is only found in the waters off the coast of South Africa. Traffic wants it to be put on the global list of endangered species. About 96 million abalone are thought to have been poached since 2000. Abalone are large and round, and cling to rocks in the shallow, shark-infested waters off Cape Town. Every year some 2,000 tonnes of abalone flesh are dried, and smuggled abroad, mostly by air to Hong Kong and beyond, where they are re-hydrated and served as a gastronomic treat. South Africa has a number of measures in place to protect abalone, but once they are taken out of the country there are no measures in place to prevent its export from the continent. The country has been losing an estimated $42m (£31m) per annum through the rampant illegal harvesting of the mollusc, Traffic found. It says that up to 43% of the illegally harvested abalone was traded through a number of non-abalone-producing sub-Saharan African countries to Hong Kong between 2000 and 2016. Efforts to curb the illegal trade have largely roundly failed, Traffic adds. Licensed wild abalone farming does take place and the molluscs are also raised in large vats of sea water close to the shore.
9-19-18 Giant spider-web cloaks land in Aitoliko, Greece
Warmer weather conditions in western Greece have led to the eerie spectacle of a 300m-long spider-web in Aitoliko. A vast area of greenery has been covered by the web, reports the Daily Hellas. Experts say it is a seasonal phenomenon, caused by Tetragnatha spiders, which can build large nests for mating. An increase in the mosquito population is also thought to have contributed to the rise in the number of spiders. Maria Chatzaki, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Democritus University of Thrace, Greece said high temperatures, sufficient humidity and food created the ideal conditions for the species to reproduce in large numbers. She told Newsit.gr: "It's as if the spiders are taking advantage of these conditions and are having a kind of a party. They mate, they reproduce and provide a whole new generation. "These spiders are not dangerous for humans and will not cause any damage to the area's flora. "The spiders will have their party and will soon die."
9-19-18 Dance flies attract males with their hairy legs and inflatable sacs
It’s usually males that go out of their way to attract a mate – but for dance flies it’s the females that dress to impress. Female dance flies with large inflatable sacs and hairy legs are more attractive to males. Dance flies get their name because they form aerial mating swarms and seem to dance together in the air. It looks simple and beautiful, but it turns out to be as complex as any ceilidh. Rosalind Murray at the University of Toronto Mississauga and her colleagues have now revealed the lengths to which females of the species Rhamphomyia longicauda go to attract a mate at these dances. Before they enter a swarm, females swallow air to inflate sacs along their abdomen to make their bodies look bigger. They also keep their legs parallel to their abdomens. Because of the hair-like pinnate scales along the legs, this too makes the females look larger to males entering the swarm from below. “Females look like little helicopters, flocking together within the swarm,” says Murray. “The males assess the females, then they pair off, and basically fall out of the sky.” The team has found that males find females with big sacs three times as attractive as those with small sacs. But if the sacs are small, the hairier the female’s legs are, the better. Positioning is important too. The prime spot seems to be in the centre of the swarm, perhaps partly because spiders lurk around the periphery. The team suggests that the sacs are a newer evolutionary sexual weapon than the hairs, because fewer species of dance flies have them and their effect on males is so strong.
9-17-18 Honeybee swarms act like superorganisms to stay together in high winds
A honeybee swarm behaves like a superorganism by changing shape in response to physical stress – although doing so means individuals take on a greater burden. A swarm of honeybees acts like a superorganism that responds to physical stress by changing shape – even though doing so comes at a physical cost to some individuals. Colonies of European honeybees reproduce by releasing a queen from the nest accompanied by an entourage of colony workers. This swarm often attaches itself to the underside of a tree branch – taking on the shape of an inverted cone with the queen safely at the centre – while scout bees search for a good place to build a new nest. Researchers already know that the cone can withstand temperature changes and rain by changing its shape and appearance. During high winds the cone changes too, typically becoming flatter and hugging closer to the underside of the branch. To understand how individual bees work together to generate a swarm-wide response, Orit Peleg at Harvard University and his colleagues attached a bee cluster to the underside of a board hanging in their laboratory and shook the board horizontally to mimic the physical stress of high winds.
9-17-18 Here’s how clumps of honeybees may survive blowing in the wind
In lab tests, the insects adjust their positions to flatten out the cluster and keep it stable. A stiff breeze is no match for a clump of honeybees, and now scientists are beginning to understand why. When scouting out a new home, the bees tend to cluster together on tree branches or other surfaces, forming large, hanging clumps which help keep the insects safe from the elements. To keep the clump together, individual honeybees change their positions, fine-tuning the cluster’s shape based on external forces, a new study finds. That could help bees deal with such disturbances as wind shaking the branches. A team of scientists built a movable platform with a caged queen in the center, around which honeybees clustered in a hanging bunch. When the researchers shook the platform back and forth, bees moved upward, flattening out the clump and lessening its swaying, the team reports September 17 in Nature Physics. The insects, the scientists hypothesized, might be moving based on the strain — how much each bee is pulled apart from its neighbors as the cluster swings. So the researchers made a computer simulation of a bee cluster to determine how the bees decided where to move.
9-16-18 Confused mayflies wreak havoc on a Pennsylvania bridge
The primitive aquatic insects think the illuminated road is the river. Mayflies swarming a central Pennsylvania bridge over the Susquehanna River are a good thing, and a bad thing. Before the 1972 Clean Water Act, the river was too polluted to support the primitive aquatic insects. So their comeback is a sign that the water is healthier, says forensic entomologist John Wallace of nearby Millersville University. But those swarms have become a nighttime menace for people driving or walking across the Columbia-Wrightsville bridge — thanks to the 2014 installation of large, 1930-era lamps along the two sides of the bridge. Soon after the lights were added, adult mayflies of the species Hexaginia bilineata began invading — causing blizzard-like conditions on the 2-kilometer overpass. The swarms were so intense in 2015, the bridge was closed following three accidents, and bulldozers were brought in to remove knee-deep piles of insect carcasses. Local officials have since tried to cope by occasionally turning off the lights, but this is problematic on a high-traffic bridge, says Wrightsville borough president Eric White. So Wallace was called in this year to make sense of the mayfly madness.
9-15-18 Prickly cactus species 'under threat'
The iconic cactus plant is veering into trouble say researchers. The most serious problem is illegal smuggling. Despite the international ban on uncontrolled trade in cacti, policing the smuggling faces many problems and semi-professional hunters continue to uproot plants to order, stealing from National Parks, Indian Reservations, but more significantly from the wild. In southern Spain, the plants are being devastated by the cochineal beetle. But the picture there is mirrored across other regions of the world. As Anton Brugger strides purposefully around his plantation set on the side of a steep hill in Almeria, southern Spain, he casts his gaze over the more than 10,000 cacti artfully arranged in terraces over two hectares. "When visitors come here and see the really huge cacti such as Madagascar's Alluaudia procera, which grows to about 10m (33 feet), they are inspired to buy small versions in the nursery," explains the Austrian cactus afficionado. "We tell them about the plight of the cactus in many parts of the world and they are astonished." Their astonishment stems from the perceived hardy nature of the cactus able to withstand heat, drought and poor soil. But the Iberian peninsula's emblematic prickly pear is absent from Brugger's nursery. (Webmaster's comment: Most of Earth's life is under threat by mankind!)
9-14-18 ‘Poached’ offers a deep, disturbing look into the illegal wildlife trade
A new book offers a firsthand account of the battle between traffickers and conservationists. Perhaps the most unsettling scene in Poached, by science journalist Rachel Love Nuwer, comes early in the book, in a fancy restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The author and two friends sit down and are handed leather-bound menus offering roasted civet, fried tortoise, stewed pangolin and other delicacies made from rare or endangered species. The trio makes an abrupt exit, but only after seeing a live cobra gutted at one table and a still-living civet brought out to feed another group of diners. Statistics on the illegal wildlife trade can be mind-numbing. Rhinos have dwindled to just 30,000 animals globally and tigers to fewer than 4,000. Over a million pangolins — scaly anteaters found in Africa and Asia — have been killed in the last 10 years. Just last month came a report from the Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society International that the United States imported some 40,000 giraffe parts, from about 4,000 animals, between 2006 and 2015. But in Poached, Nuwer gives readers a firsthand view of what the illegal wildlife trade is like on the ground and what, if anything, can be done to stop it. She accompanies a poacher into the U Minh forest of Vietnam in search of water monitors, cobras and civets. (Thankfully, they don’t find any.) She has dinner with a man who keeps a rhino horn in an Oreo tin. She visits a zoo in Japan that may have helped popularize trade in the rare earless monitor lizard. And she attends numerous meetings of wildlife officials and conservationists as they attempt to fight back against the illegal trade.
9-13-18 A new map reveals the causes of forest loss worldwide
Most forest loss occurring in the world leaves the possibility of trees growing back. Of the roughly 3 million square kilometers of forest lost worldwide from 2001 to 2015, a new analysis suggests that 27 percent of that loss was permanent — the result of land being converted for industrial agriculture to meet global demand for products such as soy, timber, beef and palm oil. The other 73 percent of deforestation during that time was caused by activities where trees were intended to grow back, including sustainable forestry, subsistence farming and wildfires, researchers report in the Sept. 14 Science. Understanding why forests are shrinking is important because the ecological impacts of permanent forest destruction are different from that of more temporary losses, says study coauthor Matthew Hansen, a remote sensing scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park. The analysis dives deeper into data published in 2013 by Hansen and others, which revealed global forest losses without tracking what caused those declines. Here, scientists developed a computer program that analyzed satellite pictures to determine what was driving changes in forest size.
9-13-18 Half the planet should be set aside for wildlife – to save ourselves
If we want to avoid extinctions and preserve the ecosystems all life depends on, half of the Earth’s land and oceans should be protected by 2050, say biologists. If we want to avoid mass extinctions and preserve the ecosystems all plants and animals depend on, governments should protect a third of the oceans and land by 2030 and half by 2050, with a focus on areas of high biodiversity. So say leading biologists in an editorial in the journal Science this week. It’s not just about saving wildlife, says Jonathan Baillie of the National Geographic Society, one of the authors. It’s also about saving ourselves. “We are learning more and more that the large areas that remain are important for providing services for all life,” he says. “The forests, for example, are critical for absorbing and storing carbon.” At present, just 3.6 per cent of the planet’s oceans and 14.7 per cent of the land is protected by law. At the 2010 Nagoya Conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity, governments agreed to protect 10 per cent of the oceans and 17 per cent of land. But this isn’t nearly enough, says Baillie. He and his coauthor, Ya-Ping Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, want governments to set much bigger targets at the next major conference in 2020. “We have to drastically increase our ambition if we want to avoid an extinction crisis and if we want to maintain the ecosystem services that we currently benefit from,” says Baillie. “The trends are in a positive direction, it’s just we have to move much faster.”
9-13-18 'A single piece of plastic' can kill sea turtles, says study
A new study suggests that ingesting even a single piece of plastic can be deadly for sea turtles. Researchers found there was a one in five chance of death for a turtle who consumed just one item - rising to 50% for 14 pieces. The team found that younger turtles are at a higher risk of dying from exposure to plastic than adults. The authors say their research raises concerns over the long term survival of some turtle species. The never ending surge of plastic into the world's oceans is taking an increasing toll on iconic marine species. While it has been relatively straightforward for researchers to document the threat to animals who become entangled in plastic and drown, determining the impact of consumed plastic is much harder. The authors of this study estimate that around half of all the sea turtles on the planet have ingested plastic - this rises to 90% among juvenile green sea turtles off the coast of Brazil. To determine how this exposure was impacting the species, the researchers looked at post mortem reports and animal stranding records relating to sea turtles in Queensland. From that information they were able to deduce the role of plastic in causing death - if an animal had ingested more than 200 pieces of plastic, death was inevitable. Fourteen pieces meant a 50% chance of dying - while one piece gave a 22% chance of mortality.
9-13-18 Birds can learn to understand the meanings of other species’ calls
The superb fairy-wren takes advantage of the vigilance of others by teaching itself to recognise the alarm calls sent out by different species. When a bird tweets an alarm call it’s not necessarily just its family members who get the message. Some birds respond to an alarm even if it comes from a member of a different bird species – and now we have a better idea of how they learn to do so. Robert Magrath at the Australian National University in Canberra and his colleagues played a computer-generated “buzz” to eight superb fairy-wrens in a nearby botanic gardens. None of the birds flew away and sought cover after hearing the sound. Next, over the course of two to three days, the researchers replayed the computer buzz between 10 and 12 times – but as part of a chorus of alarm calls from bird species that live alongside the fairy wrens. Previous studies have shown fairy-wrens will seek cover when they hear alarm calls from the other birds in their environment. By the end of this “training” period, Magrath and his colleagues found that about 80% of the birds flew away and hid if they heard the computer buzz on its own. In other words, they had learned that the unfamiliar buzz meant “danger” simply by associating it with familiar alarm calls. In a previous experiment, Magrath taught fairy-wrens to recognize unfamiliar sounds as alarm calls by playing the calls while the birds could see images of a predator. This is called “asocial learning” because the fairy-wrens learned from direct experience to associate the unfamiliar sound with the appearance of a predator.
9-12-18 The secret life of fungi: Ten fascinating facts
They're all around us, in the soil, our bodies and the air, but are often too small to be seen with the naked eye. They provide medicines and food but also wreak havoc by causing plant and animal diseases. According to the first big assessment of the state of the world's fungi, the fungal kingdom is vital to life on Earth. Yet, more than 90% of the estimated 3.8 million fungi in the world are currently unknown to science. "It's such an interesting set of organisms and we really know so little about them," says Prof Kathy Willis, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which led the report. "They're really weird organisms with the most bizarre life cycle. And yet when you understand their role in the Earth's ecosystem, you realise that they underpin life on Earth." Many people are familiar with edible mushrooms or the mould behind penicillin. But fungi have a range of vital roles, from helping plants draw water and nutrients from the soil to medicines that can lower blood cholesterol or enable organ transplants. Fungi also hold promise for breaking down plastics and generating new types of biofuels. But they have a darker side: devastating trees, crops and other plants across the world, and wiping out animals such as amphibians. "They can be good and also bad at the same time," she says. "The same fungus, it can be seen as a detrimental thing - it can be bad - but also can have a lot of potential and have a lot of solutions." The report sheds light on a number of gaps in our knowledge of a group of organisms that may hold the answers to food security. The fungal kingdom contains some of the most damaging crop pathogens. But fungi also recycle nutrients and play a role in the regulation of carbon dioxide levels. "We ignore fungi at our peril," says Prof Willis. "This is a kingdom we have to start to take seriously, especially with climate change and all the other challenges that we're being faced with."
9-12-18 Peaceful basking sharks can leap just as powerfully as great whites
Basking sharks are slow movers that eat zooplankton, but sometimes they jump out of the water like ferocious great white sharks - and we don't know why. Gliding through the ocean and feeding on tiny animals, the basking shark seems far more peaceful than its ferocious relative the great white shark. But it turns out languid basking sharks can swim as fast and jump out of the water as high as great whites if they so choose. Great white sharks are known to jump out of the water – or breach – to capture agile seals and otters. By comparison, basking sharks eat mostly zooplankton that drift into their 1 metre wide megamouths. They are also much larger than great whites, so it’s a mystery why they would expand effort on breaching. But for some reason, they do. In an attempt to understand the unusual behaviour, Jonathan Houghton at Queen’s University in Belfast, and his colleagues placed a monitoring device on an 8-meter-long, 2.7-tonne basking shark swimming near Ireland and captured a breaching event after three hours. Houghton also filmed the breaching behaviours of 20 basking sharks from the shore. The footage showed giant basking sharks leaping near vertically to about 1.2 metres above the water surface. Houghton estimates the sharks must have accelerated to a speed of 18 kilometres per hour for breaching – the same speed reached by white sharks. The entire breaching event, from bursting to recovery, would cost an 8-metre-long basking shark 45 to 51 kilocalories – a greater energy expenditure than white sharks incur when they breach. But because basking sharks are almost twice the size of great whites, the researchers concluded that the two species’ energy spent per kilogram of body weight are comparable.
9-10-18 Facebook animal trade exposed in Thailand
Facebook animal trade exposed in Thailand Traffic, which monitors such activity, said many of the species, despite having international protection, were not native to the country, and so trading them was unregulated. The listings were found on 12 Facebook groups during one month in 2016. Facebook said it did not allow the trade of endangered species. Among the 200 different species listed for sale were two non-native species banned from international commercial trade - the Eurasian otter and the black spotted turtle. Some of the animals for sale which are banned from international commercial trade are native to Thailand, such as the helmeted hornbill and Siamese crocodile - which are both critically endangered - and the Asiatic black bear. Although only one helmeted hornbill was discovered for sale, Traffic said the critical status of the species meant that any number taken out of wild populations would have "serious implications" for its survival. Traffic's findings are to be published this week in a report on the use of Facebook for animal trading in Thailand.
9-7-18 Elephants slaughtered
Eighty-seven elephant carcasses have been found near a wildlife sanctuary in Botswana, it was revealed this week, their tusks removed in what appears to be the largest single instance of elephant poaching recorded. With an elephant population of 130,000—the largest in the world—Botswana had been hailed as a conservation success story. But in May the country disarmed its anti-poaching unit. “The poachers are now turning their guns to Botswana,” said Mike Chase of the conservation group Elephants Without Borders. “It’s open season.” The number of African elephants has fallen by about 111,000 over the past decade, to 415,000. About 30,000 elephants are killed across the continent every year. The slaughter is being fueled by demand for ivory in Asia.
9-7-18 Japan says it's time to allow sustainable whaling
Few conservation issues generate as emotional a response as whaling. Are we now about to see countries killing whales for profit again? Commercial whaling has been effectively banned for more than 30 years, after some whales were driven almost to extinction. But the International Whaling Committee (IWC) is currently meeting in Brazil and next week will give its verdict on a proposal from Japan to end the ban. Don't the Japanese already kill whales? Yes, they do - but it's complicated. IWC members agreed to a moratorium on hunting in 1986, to allow whale stocks to recover. Pro-whaling nations expected the moratorium to be temporary, until consensus could be reached on sustainable catch quotas. Instead, it became a quasi-permanent ban, to the delight of conservationists but the dismay of whaling nations like Japan, Norway and Iceland who argue that whaling is part of their culture and should continue in a sustainable way. But by using an exception in the ban that allows for whaling for scientific purposes, Japan has caught between about 200 and 1,200 whales every year. since, including young and pregnant animals. Among other things, it says it's investigating stock levels and to see whether the whales are endangered or not. Critics say this is just a cover so they can kill whales for food. And in fact, the meat from the whales killed for research usually does end up for sale.
9-7-18 These songbirds violently fling and then impale their prey
The loggerhead shrike’s shake might be worse than its bite. Bite a mouse in the back of the neck and don’t let go. Now shake your head at a frenzied 11 turns per second, as if saying “No, no, no, no, no!” You have just imitated a hunting loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus), already considered one of North America’s more ghoulish songbirds for the way it impales its prey carcasses on thorns and barbed wire. Once the shrike hoists its prey onto some prong, the bird will tug it downward “so it’s on there to stay,” says vertebrate biologist Diego Sustaita. He has witnessed a shrike, about the size of a mockingbird, steadying a skewered frog like a kabob for the grill. A bird might dig in right away, keep the meal for later or just let it sit around and demonstrate sex appeal (SN Online: 12/13/13). Shrikes eat a lot of hefty insects, mixing in rodents, lizards, snakes and even small birds. The limit may be close to the shrike’s own weight. A 1987 paper reported on a shrike killing a cardinal not quite two grams lighter than its own weight and then struggling to lift off with its prize. Recently, Sustaita got a rare chance to study how the loggerheads kill their prey to begin with.
9-6-18 Moose and sheep pass down their migration routes through culture
Bighorn sheep and moose establish a good migratory route through years of cultural learning – and the knowledge can be lost in a generation if they are moved. It takes decades for some migratory animals to learn their routes, and this knowledge can be lost in a generation if their journeys are interrupted. Every spring, herbivores such as bighorn sheep and elk migrate to higher latitudes or altitudes, following the appearance of tender and particularly nutritious new vegetation as it emerges from the melting snow. The behaviour is known as “surfing the green wave”. But is knowledge of these routes inherited genetically, or must it be learned? To answer this question, ecologist Brett Jesmer and his team at the University of Wyoming studied how migratory animals behaved when moved to new locations. They studied data from 129 bighorn sheep fitted with GPS collars in their native environment – where they had resided for over 200 years – and compared their movements to those of 80 sheep translocated to new environments. In their historic habitats, 65 to 100 per cent of bighorn sheep typically climbed 1000 metres up mountainsides to graze on new vegetation as it appeared in spring. By contrast, only 7 of the translocated sheep behaved the same way – all of which had been introduced to local populations which were familiar with the landscape. “It’s unlikely that a translocated individual will ever migrate in its lifetime,” says Jesmer, “but it will accumulate knowledge, and pass that onto its young.” Over generations, this cultural knowledge of good foraging locations builds into a migratory route, suggesting those animal populations that have lived in an area longest will migrate furthest.
9-6-18 How plant microbes could feed the world and save endangered species
Digging into the plant microbiome could help future farmers and conservationists. One fine Hawaiian day in 2015, Geoff Zahn and Anthony Amend set off on an eight-hour hike. They climbed a jungle mountain on the island of Oahu, swatting mosquitoes and skirting wallows of wild pigs. The two headed to the site where a patch of critically endangered Phyllostegia kaalaensis had been planted a few months earlier. What they found was dispiriting. “All the plants were gone,” recalls Zahn, then a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The two ecologists found only the red flags placed at the site of each planting, plus a few dead stalks. “It was just like a graveyard,” Zahn says. The plants, members of the mint family but without the menthol aroma, had most likely died of powdery mildew caused by Neoerysiphe galeopsidis. Today the white-flowered plants, native to Oahu, survive only in two government-managed greenhouses on the island. Why P. kaalaensis is nearly extinct is unclear, though both habitat loss and powdery mildew are potential explanations. The fuzzy fungal disease attacks the plants in greenhouses, and the researchers presume it has killed all the plants they’ve attempted to reintroduce to the wild. Just like humans and other animals, plants have their own microbiomes, the bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms living on and in the plants. Some, like the mildew, attack; others are beneficial. A single leaf hosts millions of microbes, sometimes hundreds of different types. The ones living within the plant’s tissues are called endophytes. Plants acquire many of these microbes from the soil and air; some are passed from generation to generation through seeds.
9-6-18 'Twitter mining' for ants, spiders and birds
Twitter is set to become a very useful resource in the study of certain animal behaviours, scientists say. A new study trawled the public's postings on the micro-blogging site to see if they accurately reflected some popular ecological phenomena in the UK. These events included the sightings of flying ants in summer, and the emergence of house spiders in autumn. The research demonstrated that Twitter-mined information can replicate robust data gathered in other ways. For example, the date and timing of Tweets for the ant and spider behaviours matched what had been recorded previously in large public surveys. From the posted pictures of the spiders, the research team was even able to reproduce the sex ratio of the arachnids observed in those other studies. "With caveats, it turns out to be very reliable (we tested it against published data in the same year and so on)," said Prof Adam Hart from the University of Gloucestershire. "In the future, our tendency to share everything could be an absolute goldmine for scientists using this type of 'passive citizen science'," he told the BBC. The prof can be heard talking about his Twitter mining on this week's Science In Action programme on the World Service.
9-5-18 We’re not unique – lots of species can recognise themselves
We should be open to the idea that human intelligence isn't as special as we like to think it is. WE LIKE to think that the human mind is special. One sign of our superiority is self-awareness, which is generally seen as the pinnacle of consciousness. Only a select group of species has passed the test of being able to recognise themselves in a mirror. Most, including elephants, apes and dolphins, are notoriously smart. But now a scrappy little fish, the cleaner wrasse, has joined their ranks. What are we to make of this? Admittedly, the mirror test is a questionable way of probing the minds of other animals. But the finding does fit with an emerging idea that the ability to recognise oneself is more related to an animal’s lifestyle than to its brain size. Self-awareness is likely to occur in creatures whose survival is dependent on reading the minds of others. In fact, by this way of thinking, it is nothing more than an accidental by-product of evolution, a simulation created by the brain, or even just a hall of mirrors giving the illusion of complexity. The cleaner wrasse lives on coral reefs and provides a service by nibbling parasites off the scales of bigger fish, a delicate relationship that may require insight into the minds of its clients. Such “theory of mind” has long been seen as another cornerstone of human mental superiority. The possibility that fish possess it is not, however, the only threat to our human exceptionalism. It may not be long before computers give us a run for our money, too. Researchers have created a set of tests to look for theory of mind in artificial intelligence – and some systems are on the verge of passing. We probably don’t need to worry about robots that can recognise themselves in mirrors. But we might want to be more open to the idea that human intelligence isn’t quite as special as we like to think.
9-5-18 Hundreds of ancient mummified penguins found in Antarctic graveyard
On a peninsula in east Antarctica there are hundreds of mummified Adélie penguins that died centuries ago, and it seems extreme weather was to blame. MUMMIFIED penguins have been found littering the ground in Antarctica. The birds seem to have died during two bouts of extreme weather over the past 1000 years. Such conditions are expected to become more common as a result of climate change, making mass die-offs more likely. The birds were found on Long Peninsula, in east Antarctica, by researchers led by Liguang Sun at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei. It isn’t unusual to find dead penguins, but those on Long Peninsula – mainly chicks – are especially numerous, with up to 15 per square metre and hundreds overall. “They consist of well-preserved dehydrated mummies,” the researchers write in a paper. All are Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae), which only live in Antarctica. They currently breed in the Antarctic summer at about 250 sites, forming huge colonies near the coast. To find out what happened on Long Peninsula, Sun’s team used carbon dating to estimate the ages of the corpses. They also studied sediments, which contain excrement and nest material. They found that penguins have lived there for at least 3900 years, but most of the deaths occurred in two periods, about 750 and 200 years ago. The colonies were abandoned afterwards each time, as little new sediment was laid down in later centuries. The cause seems to have been unusually heavy snow or rain over several decades. The team found evidence of floods that carried sediment and corpses downhill, and signs of erosion.
9-5-18 Butcherbird uses vicious whiplash technique to kill its prey
Loggerhead shrikes - also known as butcherbirds - fling their prey around by the neck to kill with whiplash. Shrikes, dubbed “butcher birds” because they impale their dead prey on thorns, can kill animals larger than themselves – and now we know how. High-speed camera footage of captive shrikes in action shows that they use their beaks to powerfully grip prey animals by the nape of the neck before flinging them around so fast that they instantly suffer fatal whiplash injuries. “The speed that the shrikes turn their heads when they’re doing this is around the speed of the slow cycle of your washing machine, which is still pretty fast,” says Diego Sustaita of California State University in San Marcos, and head of the team investigating the birds. “These g-forces are similar to those experienced by the heads of victims of rear-end car collisions that can cause whiplash.” Sustaita and his colleagues found out how loggerhead shrikes kill their prey by using a high-speed camera to film the birds killing mice. The shrikes were being “trained” for release into the wild on California’s San Clemente island, so no mice were fed to the shrikes solely for the research. By tracking landmarks on the bird’s head and the mouse’s body, the researchers were able to see how the two creatures moved relative to each other during the fatal encounters, which typically lasted just a few seconds. They found that the motions of the mouse’s head and body progressively became shifted out of phase, inflicting potentially fatal compressive forces on the neck bones. Flung round with a force six times that of gravitational acceleration, the mice died through the inertial forces on the neck created by their own body spinning round.
9-5-18 We’ve discovered a shark that eats plants as a side dish to shellfish
The bonnethead shark nibbles on seagrass as it catches shellfish - now we know it extracts nutrients from the greens in its diet. The bonnethead shark, a relative of the hammerhead, absorbs nutrients from the seagrass it eats, making it the first known omnivorous shark. Biologists had previously noticed that bonnetheads consume copious amounts of seagrass in addition to crustaceans and other shellfish. But because the bonnethead’s digestive system looks almost identical to other meat-eating sharks – and so seems to be best suited to deal with a high protein diet – scientists always assumed the seagrass ingestion was accidental. To better understand these sharks’ diet, Samantha Leigh at University of California Irvine and her colleagues fed five wild-caught sharks with a diet consisting of 90 per cent seagrass and 10 per cent squid for three weeks. After dissecting the sharks’ digestive tracts at the end of the third week, researchers found the activity of enzymes for carbohydrates digestion was high, and comparable to that seen in fish with an omnivorous or even herbivorous diet. Leigh says these enzymes play a key role in helping bonnethead sharks break down seagrass because sharks don’t have the secondary “pharyngeal” jaw that many herbivores fish use for chewing up plants. But bonnethead sharks don’t just digest seagrass: Leigh and her colleagues found that they also assimilate the nutrients it contains. By infusing the seagrass with a carbon-13 isotope marker, the researchers could track its components to the sharks’ blood and livers. The isotope’s concentration in shark tissues increased with seagrass ingestion.
9-5-18 The tree that bleeds... metal?
Heavy metals like nickel and zinc are usually the last thing that plants want to grow next to in high concentrations. But a specialised group, known as hyperaccumulators, have evolved to take up the normally toxic metals into their stems, leaves and even seeds. Researchers have been studying Pycnandra acuminata in particular - a tree that grows on the island of New Caledonia in the south Pacific. They think it may use the nickel to defend against insects. Its latex has an unusual blue-green colour as it contains up to 25% nickel. "Pycnandra acuminata is a large (up to 20m tall) rare rainforest tree, restricted to remaining patches of rainforest in New Caledonia," says Dr Antony van der Ent, a researcher at the University of Queensland who has been studying the tree. "As a test-subject it is challenging because it grows very slowly, and it takes decades to get it to produce flowers and seeds. It is threatened by deforestation as a result of mining activities and bush fires," he told the BBC. The tree's unusual affinity for nickel first came to light in the 1970s, and research into other hyperaccumulator plants has increased since then.
9-4-18 A gentoo penguin’s dinner knows how to fight back
In a fight between a pipsqueak and a giant, the giant should always win, right? Well, a battle between an underwater David and Goliath has revealed that sometimes the little guy can come out on top. He just needs the right armaments. The David in this case is the lobster krill. And instead of a slingshot, it’s armed with sharp pincers that can sometimes fight off a Goliath: the gentoo penguin. These gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) live on the Falkland Islands in the remote South Atlantic, where the birds nest among tall white grass. To eat, they trek from their colony some 800 meters to the sea along what conservation ecologist Jonathan Handley calls “penguin highways.” He worked with these penguins while at the Marine Apex Predator Research Unit at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. After staying at sea for a day or two hunting down their meals, the penguins return home along the same highways. Those predictable paths make it easy to find a single penguin after a swim. So, in December 2013, Handley and the MAPRU, along with Falklands Conservation, an organization that protects Falklands wildlife, began a project to see what the penguins did in the water. The researchers started by setting up along one of the paths. “Then you wait really quiet, really low to the ground as the birds are coming past,” Handley says. With a net attached to a long pole, the scientists would catch a penguin as it was headed out to sea. Next, they’d mark the bird with an animal marker (the kind that farmers use on sheep), strap on the equivalent of a penguin GoPro camera and set the animal loose. Then, the team would wait for the bird to return.
9-4-18 Marvels of the deep and their superpowers
Maggie Georgieva is turning a jar of preservative around in her hands. "This is it," she says. "This is 'The Hoff' - the famous yeti crab with a hairy chest," referring to the object suspended in alcohol. Most of us would be hard pressed to name a recently discovered creature from the deep, and this animal may even be the only one that triggers any sort of recognition. The Hoff made headlines in 2012 after being spotted living 2,000m down in a volcanic region of the Southern Ocean. A novel species, the researchers who found it joked that the crustacean's fluffy appearance had something in common with a certain American movie star. The nickname stuck. Of course, The Hoff eventually got a proper title and description. It's correctly called Kiwa tyleri. And, as is customary, reference examples were lodged at the Natural History Museum in London, which is how a specimen comes to be in the hands of Dr Georgieva. She's fascinated by hydrothermal vents. These are volcanic systems found along mid-ocean ridges - places where new sea-floor is created by the upwelling of magma. In some locations, water can get drawn through cracks in the hot rock and become loaded with dissolved metals and other chemicals, before then being ejected back into the ocean. Specialised bacteria are able to exploit these hot fluids (up to 400C), to provide the energy foundation for a beautiful and bizarre collection of more complex organisms. The Hoff, for example, "farms" the bacteria on its hairy chest. Comb-like mouthparts scrape up the microbes into a meal. Dr Georgieva has another jar in her collection of what are known as tubeworms. These do symbiosis in a slightly different way. The animals have no mouth parts, no stomach and no gut. Instead, they possess an organ called a trophosome which acts as a kind of shelter for the bacteria. The microbes pay their rent to the worms in nutrients. Yet another jar contains a little shrimp, Rimicaris. It nurtures the bacteria under its shelly hood, or carapace. Rimicaris will swarm around vents in vast numbers. Thousands per square metre. The shrimp needs to keep its farm of microbes in the optimum waters - close enough to make use of the scalding fluids and their chemical bounty, but not so close that there's a risk of getting cooked.
9-4-18 UN treaty would protect high seas from over exploitation
The first significant steps towards legally protecting the high seas are to take place at the UN in New York. These waters, defined as the open ocean far from coastlines, are threatened by deep-sea mining, over-fishing and the patenting of marine genetic resources. Over the next two years, government representatives aim to hammer out a binding agreement to protect them against over-exploitation. But several nations, including the US, are lukewarm towards the proposals. Experts believe that the oceans of the world are vital for a number of reasons. Scientists say they capture around 90% of the extra heat and about 26% of the excess carbon dioxide created by humans through the burning of fossil fuels and other activities. "The half of our planet which is high seas is protecting terrestrial life from the worst impacts of climate change," said Prof Alex Rogers from Oxford University, UK, who has provided evidence to inform the UN treaty process getting under way on Tuesday. "Yet we do too little to safeguard that or to protect the life within the ocean which is intrinsic to our collective survival. Protecting the biodiversity of the high seas by bringing good governance and law to the whole ocean is the single most important thing we can do to turn the tide for the blue heart of our planet." So what exactly does 'high seas' mean? The high seas are defined as the oceans that lie beyond exclusive economic zones. These zones are usually within 370km (200 nautical miles) of a country's coastline. These waters cover one and a half times the total land area of the planet and are home to some of the rarest and most charismatic species - but all countries have the right to navigate, fly over, carry our scientific research and fish on the high seas without restriction. Aren't these water already protected? In 1982, the UN adopted the Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which, when it became active in 1994, regulated sea-bed mining and cable-laying to some extent. There are also a host of other international groups, including the International Whaling Commission that look after aspects of the seas, but there is no overarching treaty that would protect biodiversity or limit exploitation.
9-4-18 The life of a shark scientist
What do marine biologists do all day? It's not all about time in the ocean, though Melissa Marquez often wishes it was! A marine biologist and shark researcher based in Sydney, she has given BBC News a quick guide to ocean research, some of the Great Barrier Reef's residents, and what to do to if you get bitten while scuba diving. What made you decide to focus your research on sharks?/strong> I've always had an interest in misunderstood predators, and sharks just happen to be the most misunderstood. When I was about seven, I put on [the Discovery Channel's] Shark Week. I remember seeing a great white shark breaching - so flying through the air, essentially - and I was hooked. By the end of the show I was like: that's what I want to do, I want to study these animals. How much time do you spend in the ocean? Can you tell me about a recent dive? It depends what kind of research one is doing, and how often you can get out. I've always wanted to dive in the Great Barrier Reef, [so we went to Heron Island in August. It has a very low percentage of bleaching and it's quite a healthy looking area right now. I was actually there for the blacktip reef sharks. There were a lot of juveniles in that area, so I was kind of tracking to see if there's a nursery in that area and to see what factors make a nursery area favourable. I'm putting together a PhD project at the moment and I'm capturing pictures of all sharks here for a possible population study! Setting up the dive is more important than anything... making sure you and your dive partners have a plan. [But] I think the biggest thing I try and do when I'm diving is have fun... because a lot of people don't get the opportunity to see what's below the waves in such an intimate way. Usually, dives are anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes: I'm always upset when the time is up.
9-3-18 Elk gamble with their lives in spring to win a mate in autumn
Elk who shed antlers early have more time to grow a large new pair for the autumn mating season – but early shedding makes them more likely to be eaten by wolves. Male elk need large and elaborate antlers to battle with rivals in autumn for mating opportunities, and to grow them they must shed last year’s antlers early in spring. But doing so seems to leave them vulnerable to predator attack. The discovery came from studies of wolves hunting elk each March in Yellowstone National Park from 2004 to 2016. “We suggest that wolves – formerly everywhere across the northern hemisphere – have shaped the timing of when elk and [their relatives] shed their antlers,” says Matthew Metz of the University of Montana in Missoula, who led the study. Like other deer species, elk shed their antlers after competing for females during the breeding season. In March, when the breeding season is over for Yellowstone elk, some males begin the shedding process. Metz and his colleagues found that the elk that shed their antlers earliest were typically the fittest individuals, as measured by the amount of fat in the marrow of their leg bones, and were also older and more dominant. By shedding their antlers earliest these males also gained an edge over their rivals because they have more time to grow larger, more complex and more intimidating antlers in time for the fight for mates that begins in September or October. But there was a trade-off: elk who shed early also turned out to be most vulnerable to wolf attacks.
9-2-18 Tropical sunfish spotted in Highland waters
A fish normally found in tropical waters has twice been spotted off the west coast of Scotland last week. It is the fourth time this year that the sunfish has been recorded by the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust. The ocean sunfish is the heaviest bony fish in the world, with an average weight of 2,200lbs (998kg). The species was recorded on Friday by the crew of a fishing boat off the north coast of Skye. A sunfish was also seen off Ardnamurchan on Wednesday. Sunfish, which drift with ocean currents, were once rarely seen in Scotland, but boat operators have reported more sightings in recent years, with August being the peak month. They live on a diet of mostly jellyfish and swim at depths of up to nearly 2,000ft (610m).