11-30-18 Termite megalopolis
Researchers have discovered a colossal complex of more than 200 million termite mounds that stretches for thousands of miles in a remote, semiarid forest in northeastern Brazil. The complex covers more than 88,000 square miles, an area larger than Minnesota, and the oldest mound is nearly 4,000 years old. Standing up to 10 feet high and 30 feet wide, the conical mounds are not nests but rather piles of waste from the insects’ underground tunneling efforts. The whole complex is an “undiscovered wonder of the world,” said entomologist and lead researcher Stephen Martin, who noted that the amount of soil excavated is equivalent to 4,000 Great Pyramids of Giza. The tiny engineers responsible, a termite species called Syntermes dirus, are only half an inch long.
11-30-18 Cats are very strict carnivores!
British cats, with a warning from the U.K.’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that vegan pet owners who put their cats on a meat-free diet are abusing them and may be breaking the law. Pet owners are legally required to “take reasonable steps to ensure that the pet’s needs are met,” the group said, and cats “are very strict carnivores.”
11-30-18 New Zealand beached whales: Why are so many getting stranded?
The pictures are striking: dozens of whales lie stranded on an idyllic beach in a remote part of New Zealand. The group were found by a walker on Stewart Island earlier this week. And just a few days later, a further 51 pilot whales died after becoming stranded on a beach on the Chatham Islands. While whale strandings are not uncommon, they usually involve just a single animal rather than a whole group. The recent flurry of mass strandings has brought a renewed focus on the mysterious, and rare, phenomenon. So why does it happen? While the exact reasons remain unclear, experts say many different factors could play a part. "Quite often animals that turn up on a beach are getting exhausted, they're malnourished, or they haven't eaten because they're ill," says Dr Simon Ingram, a Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of Plymouth. "They can be in the final stages of being ill or die at sea and end up getting washed up on a beach," he adds. But Dr Ingram says that sickness or injury mainly plays a part when a single animal is found stranded. Some experts say that certain aspects of the coastline or sea bed can disorientate whales, especially if they roam outside of their usual habitat. "Some places like the tip of New Zealand are hotspots for stranding," says Dr Ingram. "Sometimes this is due to geographic features of the coastline. If there's a feature like a peninsular or headland then animals that should be in deeper [waters] may suddenly find themselves in a confusing, shallow, bay." Shallow water can pose a risk to pilot whales in particular because of the way in which they navigate and communicate.
11-30-18 Extinction crisis: Five things you should know
The world's in the midst of an extinction crisis, with plants and animals being lost at a rate not seen since the demise of the dinosaurs. At the end of a key international conference, BBC News spoke to Cristiana Pa?ca Palmer, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, about global efforts to stem the destruction of nature - and what individuals can do.
- Understand the implications of biodiversity loss The variety of plant and animal life in the world (biodiversity) is a capital we can't afford to lose, she says. By losing it, we disrupt the web of life that supports us.
- Think about what you eat What you consume has implications for the health of the plant.
- Think about what you buy We're increasingly able to trace things back to their source, for example the timber used to make furniture, and the food we buy in the shops.
- Care about small plants and animals as well as big charismatic ones Ms Pa?ca Palmer says she is often asked why we should care about a butterfly going extinct in the Amazon, or the loss of a little beetle.
- Give everyone a voice She says efforts to address the loss of nature involve a broad consultative process, that is inclusive and transparent, and takes on board views from the business community, indigenous people, youth and civil society.
11-30-18 Some spiders produce milk – and it’s more nutritious than cow’s milk
Spider babies may be more like our infants than we thought. Mother spiders can produce nutritious milk-like fluids to feed their offspring. Juvenile spiders eat all kinds of food: in some spider species they feed on small insects, and in others they catch pollen. Previous research has also found some spiders simply don’t eat anything until they grow large enough to hunt. But Toxeus magnus, a type of jumping spider native to Southeast Asia, must be doing something else. Its young grow shockingly fast – they reach almost half adult size in the first 20 days of their life – but neither the youngsters nor the mother leaves the nests to gather food. “We couldn’t figure out how they just keep growing without food until one night, I saw a baby spider clinging onto its mom’s belly,” Zhanqi Chen at Chinese Academy of Science says. “I had this radical idea that maybe spider moms feed their babies with something they produced.” So Chen and his colleagues put mother spiders under the microscope and gently squeezed their abdomens. A few droplets of a creamy white fluid came out, something that looked very similar to human or other mammalian milk. Analysis found the milk-like liquid contains fat – and about four times as much protein as cow’s milk. When the team physically prevented the mother spiders from excreting the nutritious liquid, baby spiders died in 10 days. It means the “milk” is indispensable for the survival of newborn spiders. Moreover, although young T. magnus start hunting for food 20 days after hatching, they don’t wean until they are 40 days old. During that period, juveniles eat a mixture of spider milk and insects, just like human babies ingest milk and complementary food.
11-29-18 A jumping spider mom nurses her brood for weeks on milk
Even after spiderlings start hunting for themselves, they come to mom for milk. Mom nurses her young for weeks on milk that has four times the protein of a cow’s. Yet this mother’s not a mammal. She’s a jumping spider with eight legs and a taste for fruit flies. We mammals have named ourselves after our mammary glands. Yet other animals, from tsetse flies to pigeons, secrete their own versions of milk for their babies. The newly discovered nursing in Toxeus magnus could be the most mammal-like of all, a research team from China proposes in the Nov. 30 Science. Biologists have recognized T. magnus as a species since 1933, but a small spider’s mothering habit was easy to miss. The spiders hunt beasts such as fruit flies and will retreat to a little nest, perhaps attached to a leaf, to raise a family. Study coauthor Zhanqi Chen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Menglunzhen, who studies spider behavior, noticed several T. magnus sharing a nest in 2012 and wondered if the species had some sort of extended parental care. It was another five years before he spotted the nursing behavior, when a spiderling clamped itself against mom’s underside one exciting July night in 2017. With a T. magnus female under a microscope, a gentle finger push on the underside of the abdomen will squeeze a tiny bead of white liquid out of a crease called an epigastric furrow, the researchers say. For the first week or so after eggs hatch, a spider mom leaves milk droplets around the nest for the crawling dots of her young to drink. Then nursing turns more mammalian, with little ones pressing themselves against their mother’s body.
11-29-18 An acid found in soil may make a disease killing deer less infectious
The incurable neurodegenerative disease is crippling deer, elk and moose populations. An acid found in rich humus soil breaks down the misfolded brain proteins — called prions — that cause chronic wasting disease. When concentrations of humic acid similar to those found in soils were applied to diseased elk brain tissue, chemical signatures of the infectious prions were nearly erased, researchers report online November 29 in PLOS Pathogens. That suggests that the acid somehow degrades the warped protein, making it less infectious, says Judd Aiken, a prion disease researcher at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Chronic wasting disease, an incurable neurodegenerative disease, has devastated populations of deer, elk and moose across parts of North America, South Korea, Sweden and Norway. We know “that environmental sources of infectivity play a role in transmission of these diseases,” Aiken says. The twisted proteins lurk in the rotting carcasses, feces or saliva of infected animals, and eventually seep into soils. The infection spreads when deer graze in prion-contaminated areas. Previous studies have shown that soil mineralogy can influence the spread of prions, says Bryan Richards, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., who was not involved in the study. For example, prions easily bind to microscopic minerals such as quartz, kaolinite and montmorillonite, and can — as lab tests have revealed — stay locked in soil for years.
11-28-18 The Honey Factory review – the buzz of exploring honeybees’ secrets
A real insider book explains why the saying busy as a bee has honeybees all wrong – and how studying them in the wild could be good news for them and us. IF IT wasn’t for the honey and the fragrant, versatile wax, we would probably have steered well clear of bees. Early humans are thought to have discovered the delights of wild honey some 2 million years ago, with bee domestication dating to 9000 years ago in what is now Turkey and North Africa. Initially, the result was a lot of stings and destroyed nests. But the keeping of bees evolved, with advantages for both parties. So claim the authors of The Honey Factory, Jürgen Tautz, a bee researcher at the University of Würzburg in Germany, and Diedrich Steen, a beekeeper for over 20 years. They have joined forces to write a fascinating book that explores hive life, from the roles of honeycomb cells to bee communication. They show how 300 years of hive use has helped keepers hone the craft. Artificial chambers now allow us to extract bee products but leave the colony relatively intact, for example. There are misconceptions to correct, say Tautz and Steen. For example, the saying “busy as a bee” is far from the truth. The authors say honeybees are quite lazy and achieve great feats only by teamwork; some experiments show foraging bees make three or four flights per day. But if 25,000 foragers bring 50 milligrams of nectar per trip, that still makes an impressive 5 kilograms daily. Their famous waggle dance is misunderstood, too. It has long been seen as a sophisticated form of communication used to convey the exact location of food to their hivemates. But recent work by Tautz and others shows that, while the dance may tell the bees where to head, it isn’t that precise. In fact, when a food source is remote, bees rely on experienced foragers carrying the scent of the flowers they are seeking to guide them.
11-28-18 Giant baby birds sitting on their potty-like nests make a fine sight
THESE giant baby birds aren’t potty-training, but waiting to grow strong enough to travel. They bide their time on towering nests meant to keep them safe. The Chatham albatross (Thalassarche eremita) is one of the rarest and least known albatross species, with only around 5000 breeding pairs left in the world. The birds spend most of the year living on the ocean, but as the breeding season begins each August, juveniles and adults return to Te Tara Koi Koia, a small, steep and rocky islet in the Chatham Islands, 800 kilometres east of New Zealand. The albatrosses use soil, bird faeces and plants to build these stool-like nests, some a metre high, to protect offspring from the weather and sea. Once the eggs are laid, they take more than two months to hatch. The grey, fluffy chicks that emerge then need another four to five months to become strong enough to fly with their parents. With such a small population and a single breeding site, conservationists fear these birds will go extinct soon. Rising sea levels caused by climate change are making it harder to find a nesting site that won’t get washed away. To try to address this, a new breeding site has been established for these albatrosses. By moving chicks at an early age to a different island that is at less risk of flooding, conservation workers hope they will choose to return to this safer breeding location.
11-28-18 Roadkill deaths halved on Australian road thanks to a fence of sound
A warning system that lets wildlife know when cars are approaching has saved hundreds of animals from becoming roadkill in an Australian trial. Collisions between cars and wildlife are common around the world. An estimated 500,000 deer in the US and 100,000 hedgehogs in the UK, for example, are hit and killed by vehicles each year. In addition to endangering animals, these accidents cause over 200 driver deaths per year in the US alone. The state of Tasmania in Australia has one of the highest roadkill rates in the world, with one survey finding one squashed animal for every 3 kilometres of road. Among these casualties are Tasmanian devils, which are already under dire threat from devil facial tumour disease. To prevent these accidents, the Tasmanian government recently trialled a “virtual fence” system that was developed in Austria to prevent car collisions with deer. They installed it along a 5-kilometre stretch of highway near the state’s north-west coast, which is a known roadkill hotspot. The virtual fence is a network of alarm units mounted on posts at 25-metre intervals along the side of the road. As cars approach, their headlights trigger the devices to emit loud sounds and flashing lights to warn animals to get off the road. “The alarms go off in a wave ahead of the car as it travels,” says Samantha Fox, who led the project. Over the 3-year trial, the system almost halved the roadkill rate. About 0.7 animals were killed per kilometre along the fenced road, compared to 1.2 animals per kilometre along unfenced stretches of road at either end. This equated to saving the lives of about 200 animals, including bandicoots, wallabies, possums, pademelons, quolls and wombats.
11-28-18 Some honeybees have four parents or no mother – and we don’t know why
We’ve still got plenty to learn about “the birds and the bees”. A close looker has revealed that some honeybees born partly male and partly female have up to four parents – and some of them have no mother at all. In bees, unfertilised eggs develop into males, or drones, who seek out queens to mate with. Fertilised eggs usually develop into female workers. However, queens mate with at least 10 males to produce new colony members, and more than one sperm enters each egg. In a few rare instances, individual bees can end up with some tissue derived from the fertilised egg, which is female, and some from extra sperm, which is male. An organism that has male and female reproductive organs is called a hermaphrodite – but organisms, like the bees, with both male and female tissue throughout the body are known as gynandromorphs. Sarah Aamidor and colleagues at the University of Sydney, Australia, studied 11 gynandromorph honeybees from a single colony to learn more about how these individuals develop. Five of them had normal worker ovaries, but three others had “queen-like” ovaries, containing larger numbers of tubes called ovarioles. One had normal male reproductive organs, and two had partial male organs. Genetic tests revealed the gynandromorphs’ unusual family histories. Nine of them had two or three fathers and one mother. One had no mother and two fathers, resulting from the fusion of two sperm.
11-28-18 Beavers are engineering a new Alaskan tundra
With more dam builders, the area is becoming more hospitable to wildlife. In a broad swath of northwestern Alaska, small groups of recent immigrants are hard at work. Like many residents of this remote area, they’re living off the land. But these industrious foreigners are neither prospecting for gold nor trapping animals for their pelts. In fact, their own luxurious fur was once a hot commodity. Say hello to Castor canadensis, the American beaver. Much like humans, beavers can have an oversized effect on the landscape (SN: 8/4/18, p. 28). People who live near beaver habitat complain of downed trees and flooded land. But in areas populated mostly by critters, the effects can be positive. Beaver dams broaden and deepen small streams, forming new ponds and warming up local waters. Those beaver-built enhancements create or expand habitats hospitable to many other species?—?one of the main reasons that researchers refer to beavers as ecosystem engineers. Beavers’ tireless toils?—?to erect lodges that provide a measure of security against land-based predators and to build a larder of limbs, bark and other vegetation to tide them over until spring thaw?—?benefit the wildlife community. A couple of decades ago, the dam-building rodents were hard to find in northwestern Alaska. “There’s a lot of beaver around here now, a lot of lodges and dams,” says Robert Kirk, a long-time resident of Noatak, Alaska?—?ground zero for much of the recent beaver expansion. His village of less than 600 people is the only human population center in the Noatak River watershed.
11-27-18 Mosquitoes may surf winds above Africa more than we realized
It’s still unknown if any of the insects were carrying the parasite that causes malaria. Adult female mosquitoes could be surfing air currents high above the West African Sahel. This traffic, at least 40 meters up, might be troubling news for efforts to control malaria. Traps attached to balloons flown over villages in Mali caught close to 3,000 mosquitoes at heights between 40 and 290 meters above the ground, where winds might blow the insects long distances. That sample, collected in multiple all-night sessions spaced over three years, was roughly 80 percent adult female, the mosquito life stage that can transmit malaria. Some of the collected species are known to be capable of spreading malaria, said medical entomologist Tovi Lehmann in his preview of trap data November 14 at the 2018 joint annual meeting of three Canadian and American entomological societies. But Lehmann, of the National Institutes of Health in Rockville, Md., does not know yet whether the females were carrying the malaria parasite when they were caught by a balloon trap. There’s been debate about what, if anything, such windborne mosquitoes might contribute to Africa’s patterns of entrenched malaria and high death tolls from the disease. That’s because “mosquitoes are generally thought to have short dispersal distances,” said veterinary entomologist Christopher Sanders of the Pirbright Institute in England who was not involved in the project.
11-27-18 Rats can make friends with robot rats and will rescue them when stuck
Would you help a trapped robot? Some rats would. The rodents can form social bonds with robots and will even help rescue a robotic rat that’s trapped in a cage. Animals, including rats, need to be highly attuned to social signals from others so they can identify friends to cooperate with and enemies to avoid. To find out if this extends to non-living beings, Laleh Quinn at the University of California, San Diego and her colleagues tested whether rats can detect social signals from robotic rats. They housed eight adult rats with two types of robotic rat – one social and one asocial – for four days. During this time, the social robot rat followed the living rats around, played with the same toys, and opened cage doors to let them escape (see video). Meanwhile, the asocial robot rat simply moved forwards and backwards and side to side. Next, the researchers trapped the robot rats in cages and gave the living rats the opportunity to release them by pressing a lever. Across 18 trials each, the living rats showed a preference for freeing the social robot, releasing it 30 per cent of the time, compared to 19 per cent for the asocial robot. This suggests that the living rats perceived the social robot as a genuine social being, says Quinn. This may be because it displayed typical social rat behaviours like communal exploring and playing. The reason they helped it escape may be because they remembered it freeing them earlier and wanted to return the favour, she says. “Rats have been shown to engage in multiple forms of reciprocal help and cooperation including what is referred to as direct reciprocity – where a rat will help another rat that has previously helped them,” says Quinn.
11-27-18 Cactus spine shapes determine how they stab victims
Tests in hunks of meat revealed that some spines simply poke, while others hitch a ride. Scientists have unraveled some of the mechanical mysteries behind the pokes and prods of cacti. Like porcupine quills, the barbed spines of some cactus species easily puncture their prey but are difficult to remove. Smooth spines, however, puncture flesh easily and are removed just as readily, researchers report in the Nov. 21 Proceedings of the Royal Society B. That variation is probably reflective of plants’ different ecological needs, says study coauthor Philip Anderson, an evolutionary biomechanist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The team tested the spine strength of six different cactus species by thrusting the spines into different substances, from synthetic polymers to butcher meats. The researchers measured the force and pressure it took to poke into the substances, and the difficulty in removing the spiky structures. Spines of Opuntia polyacantha and Cylindropuntia fulgida, for instance, are covered in microscopic barbs that make the spines easy to insert but difficult to remove from a pork shoulder and skinless chicken breast, becoming tangled in the fibrous tissues during experiments. Barbed C. fulgida spines can get so deeply embedded that, as their target pulls away, it tears off chunks of cactus that can be dropped to grow again at other locations.
11-26-18 South African bees: 'One million die in Cape Town'
At least one million bees are suspected to have died of poisoning in a wine-producing area of South Africa. Brendan Ashley-Cooper told the BBC that an insecticide used by wine farmers, Fipronil, was thought to have killed the insects on his farm. Other honey bee farmers in the area around Cape Town have also been affected, but it is still unclear how many of the insects have died, he said. Fipronil has been blamed for the deaths of millions of honey bees in Europe. Campaigners say Fipronil is highly toxic to insects, and its use was restricted in Europe in 2013. About 100 of his bee hives, or 35% to 40% of those he owned in the affected areas, had been hit by the disaster, said Mr Ashley-Cooper, the vice-chairman of the Western Cape Bee Industry Association. He estimated this meant between 1-1.5 million bees had been killed. It is unclear how many bees there are in South Africa, but the deaths would not make much difference to their overall population, he said. Fipronil was also at the centre of an egg scandal in Europe this year. Millions of eggs were pulled from supermarket shelves in more than a dozen European countries, including the UK, after it was discovered that some had been contaminated with the insecticide. Fipronil is commonly used to get rid of fleas, lice and ticks but is banned by the European Union for use on animals destined for human consumption, such as chickens. Fipronil had been used by wine farmers in the Cape Town area for a long time to control the ant population, but this was the first time the insecticide was suspected to have caused the deaths of bees, Mr Ashley-Cooper said. Further tests were being done to confirm whether it was to blame, and both wine farmers and the government were working with bee farmers to tackle the problem, he added.
11-25-18 Tossing dead salmon is good for plants
Never mind silver bells and cockleshells, Mary should have tossed dead fish to help her garden grown. A team of US researchers has found that sockeye salmon carcasses has helped boost tree growth by up to 20%. Over a 20-year period, students from the University of Washington tossed dead fish from a stream on to a river bank. Data shows the nutrients from the rotting flesh boosted growth in the area's trees. For two decades, students taking part in a long-term study on who/what was eating sockeye salmon in a stream in Alaska have been tossing fish carcasses on to one river bank in order to avoid double counting them during surveys. "We would find carcasses on both sides of the stream, explained Prof Tom Quinn, who supervised the study. "But we always tossed the carcasses on one side of the stream so effectively we were reducing the density of carcasses on one side and increasing the density of carcasses on the other. "It was something of a natural fertilisation experiment." After taking samples from the surrounding trees of Hansen Creek, the scientists found that the fish carcasses (almost 300 tons over the 20-year period) had affected the growth rate of the trees. "We took cores from live trees that we estimated to be at least 40 years old," observed Prof Quinn. "We saw that the effect of the carcass manipulation was to accelerate the growth on that side. "There was a significant increase in the growth of the trees on the side that we fertilised relative to how well they have been doing prior to the experiment."
11-23-18 50 years ago, screwworm flies inspired a new approach to insect control
Excerpt from the November 23, 1968 issue of Science News. Screwworm fly upsurge: Screwworms, the first pest to be eliminated on a large scale by the use of the sterile male technique, have shown an alarming increase, according to U.S. and Mexican officials…. The screwworm fly lays its eggs in open wounds on cattle. The maggots live on the flesh of their host, causing damage and death, and economic losses of many millions of dollars. Update: Though eradicated in the United States in 1966, screwworms reemerged two years later, probably coming up from Mexico. Outbreaks in southern U.S. states in 1972 and in Florida in 2016 were both handled with the sterile male technique, considered one of the most successful approaches for pest control. Males are sterilized with radiation, then released into a population to breed with wild counterparts; no offspring result. The method has been used with other pests, such as mosquitoes, which were dropped by drones over Brazil this year as a test before the technology is used against outbreaks like the Zika virus.
11-23-18 Smart mini-backpacks for chickens can monitor their welfare on farms
Tiny electronic backpacks for chickens can automatically analyse their behaviour, which could reveal when something is wrong. The backpacks are attached to the birds’ backs using straps and are filled with accelerometers that record their movements. An algorithm uses data from the sensors to identify when and for how long the chickens perform different behaviours. The team behind the idea call the devices “Fitbits for chickens”. Monitoring different behaviours using the backpacks could help reveal whether farm birds are being disturbed by parasites such as the northern fowl mite, says Amy Murillo at the University of California, Riverside, one of the team. The mite feeds on chickens’ blood and mainly affects egg-laying hens, which are kept alive much longer than those bred for meat. Currently, farmers have to check chickens manually and individually for signs of the mites. The technology could make monitoring the birds far less labour-intensive. To train the system to automatically analyse the chickens’ movements, Murillo and her colleagues filmed hens wearing the backpacks. They then labelled the birds’ behaviour accordingly so that the system could associate the behaviours with movement data. “It took a lot of annotating video,” says Murillo. “It’s very difficult because you can’t make chickens perform specific behaviours at specific times.” Their algorithm can now automatically classify pecking, preening and dustbathing with over 85 per cent accuracy.
11-22-18 Sick ants stay clear of their co-workers to stop disease spreading
Do you wish your coughing, sneezing colleagues would stay away from the office? Unlike some humans, ants seem to understand the importance of avoiding others when they are infected. When foraging ants are exposed to a fungal pathogen, they reduce their contact with workers inside the nest. Nathalie Stroeymeyt at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and colleagues studied colonies of Lasius niger ants using an automated ant-tracking system. Workers in these colonies are split into nurses, which work inside the nest caring for the brood, and foragers, which collect food outside the nest. Foragers are most likely to pick up infections, but they interact less with other ants, and come into contact with those inside the nest infrequently. The researchers exposed some of the foragers to spores of Metarhizium brunneum fungus. The spores attach to an ant’s cuticle and after a day or two, the fungus gets inside the ant and kills it. Within one day of exposure to the pathogen — before ants became sick — the separation between work groups was reinforced. Exposed foragers changed their behaviour, spending even more time outside the nest and decreasing their contact with other workers. Foragers that were not exposed to the pathogen also took steps to isolate themselves, and nurses moved the brood deeper inside the nest. It’s not clear how the ants recognise the infection, but they may be able to detect the spores on other ants as well as on their own bodies.
11-22-18 Humans 'off the hook' for African mammal extinction
New research has disputed a longstanding view that early humans helped wipe out many of the large mammals that once roamed Africa. Today, Africa broadly has five species of massive, plant-eating mammal; but millions of years ago there were many more types of giant herbivore. Why so many types vanished is not known, but many experts have blamed our tool-using, meat-eating ancestors. Now, researchers say the mammal decline began long before humans appeared. Writing in the journal Science, Tyler Faith, from the Natural History Museum of Utah, and colleagues argue that long-term environmental change drove the extinctions. This mainly took the form of an expansion of grasslands, in response to falling atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. "Despite decades of literature asserting that early hominins (human relatives) impacted ancient African faunas, there have been few attempts to actually test this scenario or to explore alternatives," said Dr Faith. A transition from eating mainly vegetables and fruit to predominantly eating meat may have driven the evolution of humans' big brains. This transition occurred in concert with the development of stone tools, which would have allowed our ancestors to butcher the carcasses of animals; either as scavengers or hunters. To investigate whether humans played a role, the researchers compiled a seven-million-year record of herbivore extinctions in eastern Africa. They focused on the very largest species, the so-called "megaherbivores" which weigh more than 2,000lbs (907kg). Today, only elephants, hippos, giraffes and white and black rhinos fall into this category. But the three-million-year-old human relative "Lucy" (Australopithecus afarensis) shared her East African habitat with three species of giraffe, two species of rhino, a hippo and four elephant-like species.
11-21-18 Why elephants are losing their tusks
In response to the ivory poaching that’s decimating their populations, female elephants are evolving to lose their tusks, reports National Geographic. During the 1977–92 civil war in Mozambique, poachers killed about 90 percent of the elephants in Gorongosa National Park. Today, only about 200 adult females remain—and of those born since the end of the war, 32 percent are tuskless. Usually, only about 4 percent of female African elephants have no tusks. But since tuskless elephants are more likely to survive in an era of heavy poaching, they’re growing in numbers and passing on their genes to tuskless offspring. Among males, tusklessness is extremely rare, but there is evidence that male tusk size is shrinking in response to the ivory trade. In the wake of mass poaching in Kenya during the late 1970s and early 1980s, tusk size in Kenya fell by a fifth in males and a third in females. Elephants that lack tusks—which are essentially overgrown teeth typically used to fell trees, dig holes for water, and do other everyday activities—appear to be adapting and surviving. But they are likely doing so by traveling more to find recoverable food, or by piggybacking off the hard work done by their tusked peers. So it’s unknown how this evolutionary change will affect elephant populations over time, says behavorial ecologist Ryan Long. “[The] consequences of such dramatic changes in elephant populations are only just beginning to be explored.”
11-21-18 Smarty plants: They can learn, adapt and remember without brains
We’re barking up the wrong tree if we think plants have no higher sentience, says researcher Monica Gagliano – they just don’t show it like we do. MONICA GAGLIANO was diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef one day in 2008 when she had an epiphany. She was carrying out ecological experiments on reef fish that required her to kill them afterwards to harvest tissue samples. The fish had been swimming in and out of her hands for weeks. But that day they seemed to be hiding – almost as if they knew. It was the moment at which Gagliano decided not only never to kill another animal for scientific purposes, but also to devote her research time to the sentience of other life forms. That led her to plants. Since no models existed for studying their behaviour, she applied her existing knowledge. “I looked at them as if they were my animals,” says Gagliano, who is due to take up a post at the University of Sydney this year. The approach has revealed that plants have a surprising range of abilities – and Gagliano is convinced she will discover more. The main reason we don’t appreciate them is that they operate at a different pace. It isn’t just a slower pace. Some plants are too fast for us, like the ones that explode to fire out their seeds. Plants also have a different way of manoeuvring in the environment. Animals move from A to B, but plants grow from A to B. They need to detect as much as possible beforehand to avoid growing in the wrong place, so they have very fine-tuned senses. The more we have looked, the more we have realised that they have a suite of behaviours. One that might come as a surprise is their acoustic abilities. Plenty of organisms have mechanoreceptors that respond to mechanical forces, and we now know plants have one that can pick up vibrations. Some can even “hear” the vibrations of a caterpillar munching their leaves and strike back by emitting repellent chemicals. My idea was to take something that plants might consider a threat and see whether they could learn not to bother about it. Mimosa was a good plant to use because it quickly folds up its leaves when it feels threatened. I created a set-up that allowed me to drop a mimosa from about 15 centimetres high. It sounds terrible! But it actually wasn’t. I put it in a pot and it would slide down a bar onto some foam. The first couple of times, the plant was like, “What’s happening?” It closed up its leaves. Usually with animals we need to do lots of repetitions before they learn what’s going on. So I was quite surprised that some of my plants started reopening their leaves after two to six drops. Plant biologists told me that I’m using the wrong words. But “learning” is exactly what I mean. Whether it is an animal, a plant or bacteria, if it ticks the boxes that we agree define learning, then that is what it is doing.
11-21-18 Millipede so rare 'it doesn't even have a name' discovered
A millipede so rare it is "new to science" and does not even have a common name, has been found in Neath Port Talbot. Youngsters on a Halloween insect hunt found the bug at Craig Gwladus Country Park, near Cilfrew, on 30 October. It has since been identified as the Turdulisoma cf turdulorum millipede, so rare it is only the third known site where it has been found. The first was Aberkenfig, Bridgend, in 2017, by local expert Christian Owen. It was subsequently confirmed as a new species by Dr Jörg Spelda at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Germany. All findings have been in south Wales, with the Craig Gwladus discovery uncovered among leaf litter and under old wood along the former Gelliau Colliery Tramroad at the park. (Webmaster's comment: Science has identified about 925,000 insect species out of a probable total of around 16 million.)
11-20-18 Dead sperm whale found in Indonesia had ingested '6kg of plastic'
A dead sperm whale that washed ashore in a national park in Indonesia had nearly 6kg (13 lbs) of plastic waste in its stomach, park officials say. Items found included 115 drinking cups, four plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags and two flip-flops. The carcass of the 9.5m (31ft) mammal was found in waters near Kapota Island in the Wakatobi National Park late on Monday. The discovery has caused consternation among environmentalists. "Although we have not been able to deduce the cause of death, the facts that we see are truly awful," Dwi Suprapti, a marine species conservation co-ordinator at WWF Indonesia, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. It was not possible to say whether the plastic had caused the whale's death because of its advanced state of decay, she added. In a tweet, WWF Indonesia gave the breakdown of what was found inside the animal: "Hard plastic (19 pieces, 140g), plastic bottles (4 pieces, 150g), plastic bags (25 pieces, 260g), flip-flops (2 pieces, 270g), pieces of string (3.26kg) & plastic cups (115 pieces, 750g)." The use of throwaway plastic is a particular problem in some South East Asian countries, including Indonesia. Five Asian nations - China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand - account for up to 60% of the plastic waste that ends up in oceans, according to a 2015 report by environmental campaigner Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment. Plastics bags are believed to kill hundreds of marine animals there each year. In June, a pilot whale died off southern Thailand after swallowing 80 plastic bags. A report released earlier this year warned that the amount of plastic in the ocean could triple in a decade unless litter was curbed. At the end of last year, the UN said marine life was facing "irreparable damage" from the approximately 10 Million Tonnes of plastic waste ending up in the oceans every year.
11-19-18 Termites in Brazil have covered an area the size of Britain in mounds
In the dry forests of northeastern Brazil, an area of 230,000 square kilometres – larger than Great Britain – is covered in 200 million regularly spaced mounds, each about 2.5 metres tall. These mounds, known to locals as murundus, are the waste earth dug out by termites to create a vast network of underground tunnels, and some of them are up to 4000 years old. The termites have excavated over 10 cubic kilometres of earth to build the tunnels and mounds, making this the biggest engineering project by any animal besides humans, according to Stephen Martin from the University of Salford, UK. Despite the enormous area covered by the mounds, they have hardly been studied until now. Martin came across them while researching honeybees in the Brazilian state of Bahia. “I looked on Google Earth and realised they’re everywhere in this area, but I could find nothing about them online,” he says. The mounds are very conspicuous in areas where the forest has been cleared, but most of them are covered by caatinga forests, which consist of small, thorny trees that shed their leaves seasonally. These leaves are the only food for the termites, but they only fall once a year at most, and disappear quickly. This sporadic food supply is the reason for the vast network of tunnels and the resulting mounds. “It’s like if all the supermarkets were open for one day a year — the person with the fastest car would get the most food,” says Martin. “You need a network of roads to get to the supermarket as quickly as you can because you’re in open competition with other colonies.” Conservative estimates of the ages of the mounds they studied range from 690 to 3820 years old.
11-19-18 Attenborough agreed with decision to save penguins' lives
The Dynasties crew took a rare decision to intervene when a group of stranded emperor penguins faced death on the BBC Nature Series. Sir David Attenborough told the executive producer that he would have done the same.
11-19-18 Hemp fields offer a late-season pollen source for stressed bees
Low-THC cannabis attracts a wide range of bee species collecting food for larvae. Fields of hemp might become a late-season pollen bonanza for bees. Industrial hemp plants, the no-high varieties of cannabis, are becoming a more familiar sight for American bees as states create pilot programs for legal growing. Neither hemp nor the other strains of the Cannabis sativa species grown for recreational or medicinal uses offer insects any nectar, and all rely on wind to spread pollen. Still, a wide variety of bees showed up in two experimental hemp plots during a one-month trapping survey by entomology student Colton O’Brien of Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Bees in 23 out of the 66 genera known to live in Colorado tumbled into O’Brien’s traps, he reported November 11 at Entomology 18, the annual meeting of the U.S. and two Canadian entomological societies. O’Brien and his adviser, Arathi Seshadri, think this is the first survey of bees in cannabis fields. “You walk through fields and you hear buzzing everywhere,” O’Brien said. He caught big bumblebees, tiny metallic-green sweat bees and many others clambering around in the abundant greenish-yellow pollen shed by the male flowers.
11-19-18 Wombat poop: Scientists reveal mystery behind cube-shaped droppings
Scientists say they have uncovered how and why wombats produce cube-shaped poo - the only known species to do so. The Australian marsupial can pass up to 100 deposits of poop a night and they use the piles to mark territory. The shape helps it stop rolling away. Despite having round anuses like other mammals, wombats do not produce round pellets, tubular coils or messy piles. Researchers revealed on Sunday the varied elasticity of the intestines help to sculpt the poop into cubes. "The first thing that drove me to this is that I have never seen anything this weird in biology. That was a mystery," Georgia Institute of Technology's Patricia Yang said. After studying the digestive tracts of wombats put down after road accidents in Tasmania, a team led by Ms Yang presented its findings at the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics' annual meeting in Atlanta. "We opened those intestines up like it was Christmas," said co-author David Hu, also from Georgia Tech, according to Science News. The team compared the wombat intestines to pig intestines by inserting a balloon into the animals' digestive tracts to see how it stretched to fit the balloon. In wombats, the faeces changed from a liquid-like state into a solid state in the last 25% of the intestines - but then in the final 8% a varied elasticity of the walls meant the poop would take shape as separated cubes. This, the scientists explain, resulted in 2cm (0.8in) cube-shaped poops unique to wombats and the natural world.
11-18-18 Wombats are the only animals whose poop is a cube. Here’s how they do it.
The elasticity of wombats’ intestines helps to shape their distinctive poops. Of all the poops in the world, only wombats’ are shaped like cubes. The varied elasticity of the wombat’s intestines helps the marsupials to sculpt their scat into cubelike nuggets, instead of the round pellets, messy piles or tubular coils made by other mammals, researchers reported November 18 at the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting in Atlanta. Wombats mark their territories with small piles of scat. Cuboid poops stack better than rounder ones, and don’t roll away as easily. But cubic shapes in nature are very unusual, says mechanical engineer David Hu of Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Making and maintaining flat facets and sharp corners takes energy. So it’s surprising that the wombat’s intestines — which look much like those of any other mammal — would create that shape. When an Australian colleague sent Hu and his colleague Patricia Yang the intestines from two roadkill wombats collecting frost in his freezer, “we opened those intestines up like it was Christmas,” Hu says. The intestines were packed with poop, Yang says. In humans, a poop-filled bit of intestine stretches out slightly. In wombats, the intestine stretches to two to three times its regular width to accommodate all of the feces.
11-18-18 Palm oil: One woman's fight to save 'the last place on Earth'
There is only one place in the world where orangutan, rhinos, elephants and tigers still co-exist in the wild. Environmental activist Farwiza Farhan is fighting to protect this last wilderness, Sumatra's Leuser Ecosystem. In 2012, her NGO, Yayasan HAkA, sued an oil palm company that had cleared forest under an illegally issued permit. She says she is driven by a sense of injustice that no-one is speaking up for the wildlife. "You see the orangutan - the mother and baby swinging from tree to tree - and amongst all this different wildlife you see all these different macaques screaming at you. But then from moment to moment, you get silence when you hardly hear anything, before the echo of the forest comes back to life. "In the distance sometimes you can hear the sound of chain saws, you can hear the sound of destruction coming in closer. You know that there's something you can do to prevent that from happening. You know there's something you can do to stop the chainsaw from going deeper into the forest. "I became a conservationist initially because I watched too many BBC Blue Planet [programmes]. I fell in love with the ocean, with the coral reef, when I was quite young and I set in my heart that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. "Then, when I actually graduated as a marine biologist, I came back to the same patch of reef where I fell in love with the ocean the first time, to see it completely destroyed - all because of climate change - and that really made me angry. "So, in my naïve mind back then, I thought, maybe I'll try to protect forests. Maybe it's a bit easier, maybe I just need to put a fence around it and it'll be fine. And of course I was proven wrong time and time again. "The main threat to the Leuser Ecosystem has been pressure for exploitation and unsustainable development. Big companies that want to grow palm oil - one of the most profitable crops in the world - threaten to decimate this very fragile ecosystem.
11-16-18 We won’t save rhinos by selling their horns
South Africa’s government seems set on making the black rhino extinct, said Don Pinnock. There are only 5,000 of the mammals left in the wild, many of them in this country, and hundreds are killed each year by poachers, who sell rhino horn on the Asian market, where it’s used in traditional medicines. So it beggars belief that South Africa’s environmental affairs department now plans to ask the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to grant an exemption from the global ban on rhino horn sales. The department’s aim is to increase sales of horn taken from rhinos farmed by South African breeders, while cracking down further on poaching—to “stop the bad guys so the good guys can make a profit.” Yet selling legally harvested horn will only signal to the vast Asian market that it’s ethically OK to buy it and cause the market to balloon. The surge in demand—and price—will in turn spur poachers of wild rhinos to step up their slaughter. The department calls its plan demand management. That sounds smart, “but it’s nuts.” There’s a hidden backstory here and questions need to be asked. Why is a department focused on conservation being driven by market concerns? “Are brown envelopes involved?”
11-16-18 A street-savvy dog in the Philippines followed his owner to work by taking a solo ride on public transport.
A street-savvy dog in the Philippines followed his owner to work by taking a solo ride on public transport. Commuters said the pet, Vince, boarded a bus and calmly took a seat between two passengers. Cellphone footage showed him staring out the window at passing traffic, and then wagging his tail after spotting his owner on the back of a truck in the next lane. “Oh my! It’s Vince! Why did you follow us? You crazy dog!” she said as Vince hoped off the bus to meet her. The pair climbed aboard the truck and rode away together.
11-15-18 Wildlife preserve in British Columbia gets $11m boost
Canada is investing C$14.6m ($11m; £8.5m) to set aside 7,900 hectares for wildlife conservation in the Rocky Mountains. The funding will help expand a tract of land in southeastern British Columbia (BC) already set aside for protection. The initiative is led by a conservation group, BC and the federal government, and will help protect some 40 species. Those at-risk species include grizzly bears, wolverines, peregrine falcons, and mountain caribou. The investment, which comes from both the federal and provincial governments, will mark the 10th anniversary of the largest private land acquisition for conservation in Canadian history by Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), a non-profit national land conservation organisation. The funds cover two-thirds of the eventual cost of purchasing the land and will help add 14% more protected land to the existing Darkwoods Conservation Area, a region of valleys, mountains and lakes that connects to an existing network of wildlife management areas and parkland. The additional land will improve protection for both wildlife and plant life in the Next Creek watershed region, which lies within the world's only inland temperate rainforest. NCC BC acting vice-president Nancy Newhouse says the land that will be acquired is "right at the heart" of Darkwoods and will be protected from the threat of industrial or recreational activity. It is also near the Canada-US border and will help create a protected corridor for wild species to roam. The entire Darkwoods area is larger than nearby Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta, a 505 sq km (50,500 hectares) park that borders Montana's Glacier National Park. Ms Newhouse said the scale of the conservation area - from lakeshores to alpine peaks - "is almost hard to comprehend". "You walk into an old-growth forest and there is a depth of smell that is intoxicating," she told the BBC. "There's a mystery around every corner."
11-15-18 Antibiotic resistance genes are showing up in Antarctic penguins
Humans have spread antibiotic resistance so far and wide that diverse clusters of microbes with resistance genes are now turning up in the gut microbiome of penguins in Antarctica. Antibiotic-resistance can occur naturally, and microbes with resistance genes have been found in ancient Antarctic soils before. Now we know the microbes are also present in the animals living on those soils. Vanessa Marcelino at the University of Sydney, Australia, and her colleagues compared the diversity of gut microbes carrying antibiotic resistance genes in Gentoo penguins living around two Antarctic bases. Penguins near the busy O’Higgins Base carried more of the genes in their microbiome than those living near the smaller, less-populated Gabriel González Videla Base. “Birds I think are maintaining those genes in the environment and distributing them around,” says Marcelino. The penguins’ microbiomes were examined as part of a broader study into birds that carry microbes with antibiotic resistance genes. The researchers took microbiome samples from 110 ducks and wading birds at sites in Antarctica and Australia. “You swab the bums of the birds,” says Marcelino. RNA sequencing revealed the diversity and expression levels of known antibiotic-resistance genes.
11-14-18 The Galapagos of the Indian Ocean: Voyage to a forgotten paradise
Celebrated for their biodiversity, the islands of Socotra could unlock secrets of humans' journey out of Africa – but war and weather hamper the journey there. I HADN’T thought a scientific expedition would involve cockroaches or pirates, and certainly not both. And yet there we were, our team of four, sailing through a part of the Indian Ocean synonymous with Somali piracy, aboard a wooden cargo ship filled with a population of many thousands of grudging insects. We shared our sweaty cabin with a crew of 12 Gujarati sailors. In between watching for other vessels and clambering among the bags of cement on deck, our three days at sea were punctuated only by visits to the ship’s “toilets”: two wooden boxes strapped to the outside of the hull. Glamorous it wasn’t, but none of us would have wished to be anywhere else. We were on our way to the Socotra archipelago. Largely unknown in the wider world, this group of islands is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its rich endemic flora and fauna. More than a third of its 800-plus plant species are unique to Socotra, whose westernmost island is just 100 kilometres from Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Some 400 kilometres to the north is Yemen, to which the territory belongs. With both countries torn apart by civil war, getting there isn’t easy. But that’s no reason not to try. Our team’s leader was archaeologist Ella Al-Shamahi of University College London. She was in search of secrets about our ancestors’ migration out of Africa that might lie in caves on the archipelago’s main island, also called Socotra. I’m an author and film-maker, and my job was to digitally map the major thoroughfares and tracks that cross the island. The archipelago has been prized for its unique resources for at least two millennia, and it is said to have supplied much of the ancient world with frankincense and aloes used in perfumes and medicines. But the volume of scientific work done there is a mere fraction of what has been possible in the few comparable places on Earth. It had seemed like increased political stability in Yemen in the 1990s would improve things, but now the geopolitics of the region looks to be closing the door once more. Add in the increasingly extreme and frequent cyclones that hit its shores, and Socotra’s future as a refuge of natural and cultural heritage is far from assured.
11-14-18 'Conservation successes' bring hope for mountain gorilla
Conservation efforts appear to be paying off for some of the world's most charismatic animals, according to new assessments for the extinction Red List. Prospects look better for the mountain gorilla, after years of conservation measures, including anti-poaching and veterinary patrols. However, other flora and fauna is declining. Species getting closer to extinction include several types of fish, a globally important timber tree, and one of the world's largest and smelliest flowers. The fin whale, western gray whale, mountain gorilla and Rothschild's giraffe are among the animals where numbers are rising. The latest assessments by the International Union for Conservation of Nature - IUCN come as governments convene in Egypt for the Convention on Biological Diversity. IUCN Director General, Inger Andersen, said the recoveries we are seeing illustrate the power of conservation action. "These conservation successes are proof that the ambitious, collaborative efforts of governments, business and civil society could turn back the tide of species loss," she said. Almost 100,000 plants and animals have now been evaluated for extinction threats by the IUCN. Of these, around a quarter are on the edge of extinction.
11-14-18 Sound-absorbent wings and fur help some moths evade bats
Checkered scales on wings and furry bellies let the insects avoid detection. Some moths aren’t so easy for bats to detect. The cabbage tree emperor moth has wings with tiny scales that absorb sound waves sent out by bats searching for food. That absorption reduces the echoes that bounce back to bats, allowing Bunaea alcinoe to avoid being so noticeable to the nocturnal predators, researchers report online November 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “They have this stealth coating on their body surfaces which absorbs the sound,” says study coauthor Marc Holderied, a bioacoustician at the University of Bristol in England. “We now understand the mechanism behind it.” Bats sense their surroundings using echolocation, sending out sound waves that bounce off objects and return as echoes picked up by the bats’ supersensitive ears (SN: 9/30/17, p. 22). These moths, without ears that might alert them to an approaching predator, have instead developed scales of a size, shape and thickness suited to absorbing ultrasonic sound frequencies used by bats, the researchers found. The team shot ultrasonic sound waves at a single, microscopic scale and observed it transferring sound wave energy into movement. The scientists then simulated the process with a 3-D computer model that showed the scale absorbing up to 50 percent of the energy from sound waves. What’s more, it isn’t just wings that help such earless moths evade bats. Other moths in the same family as B. alcinoe also have sound-absorbing fur, the same researchers report online October 18 in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.
11-13-18 Climate change may have made the Arctic deadlier for baby shorebirds
What were once relatively safe havens for baby birds are now feasting sites for predators. Climate change may be flipping good Arctic neighborhoods into killing fields for baby birds. Every year, shorebirds migrate thousands of kilometers from their southern winter refuges to reach Arctic breeding grounds. But what was once a safer region for birds that nest on the ground now has higher risks from predators than nesting in the tropics, says Vojtech Kubelka, an evolutionary ecologist and ornithologist at Charles University in Prague. With many shorebird populations dwindling, nest success matters more every year. A longtime fan of shorebirds, Kubelka had heard about regional tests of how predator risk changes by latitude for bird nests. He, however, wanted to go global. Shorebirds make a great group for such a large-scale comparison, he says, because there’s not a lot of variation in how nests look to predators. A feral dog in the United States and a fox in Russia are both creeping up on some variation of a slight depression in the ground. So Kubelka and his colleagues crunched data from decades of records of predator attack rates on about 38,000 nests of various sandpipers, plovers and other shorebirds. After a massive literature search, the study zeroed in on the experiences of 237 populations of a total of 111 shorebird species at 149 places on six continents. It’s the first attempt at a global comparison by latitude of predator attack rates on shorebird nests over time, he says. Historical data of predator attack rates worldwide averaged about 43 percent before 1999, but has since reached 57 percent, the team reports in the Nov. 9 Science. The most dramatic upward swoop came from the Arctic nest reports. There, the rate of predator attacks averaged around 40 percent in the last century, jumping to about 65 or 70 percent since 1999. Meanwhile, tropical perils in the Northern Hemisphere changed “only modestly” the researchers say, from around 50 percent to about 55 percent.
11-13-18 Has a new racing ban in Florida doomed these dogs?
Sometimes trying to making things better actually makes them worse. When an amendment passed on 6 November to ban dog-racing in Florida, animal-lovers and rights activists celebrated. But greyhound adoption groups have told the BBC they now fear the ban could lead to thousands of dogs being killed as it comes into force. Animal rights groups fiercely contest the claim, calling it "fear-mongering" by groups close to the racing industry. Carol Becker, a musician who volunteers as president of Florida-based greyhound adoption group God's Greyts, supports greyhound racing. She says the dogs, whose dual love of running and sleeping earns them the nickname "speeding couch potatoes", are made for the sport. Once they retire from their life of chasing mechanical rabbits around a race course, 98% of Florida greyhounds go on to lead happy lives with adopted families, she claims. But now the racetracks are closing, too many dogs coupled with too few adoptions could lead to trainers euthanising the animals when their upkeep becomes unaffordable, Mrs Becker suggests. Florida's 11 race tracks must close by 2021, after Amendment 13 passed with 69% of the vote following a campaign led by greyhound protection non-profit Grey2K USA. Those dogs who don't continue their careers in America's remaining six tracks will need to be found homes. "It's a historical moment for Florida. I'm so excited about this change and happy that dogs will now be allowed to just be dogs," Christine Dorchak, President of Grey2K and author of the amendment ballot, told the BBC. Greyhound racing remains legal in eight countries and in the UK, 29 greyhound race tracks are still operational. Mrs Dorchak dismisses warnings by adoption organisations, claiming that pro-industry groups use "scare tactics" every time tracks close. Animal rights activists have long maintained the sport is cruel and can cause devastating injuries. Greyhounds usually begin their career at around 15 months old and retire aged three when adoption agencies try to find them homes.
11-13-18 Climate change: Heatwaves 'halve' male insect fertility
Heatwaves can damage the sperm of insects and make them almost sterile, according to new research. Scientists exposed beetles to experimental heatwaves in the laboratory, which resulted in reduced male fertility. The effects could be passed down to the beetles' offspring. Further work could shed light on whether climate change is a factor behind mass declines in insect populations, say researchers. Climate change is affecting biodiversity around the world, but the drivers remain poorly understood. "We don't know whether this explains the widely-recognised collapse in insect biodiversity and abundance, but limits on your ability to reproduce certainly isn't going to help," Prof Matt Gage of the University of East Anglia, which led the study, told BBC News. Researchers studied beetles because their 400,000 species represent about a quarter of all known animal species. A massive decline in insects could have significant consequences for the environment. A recent study in Germany found flying insects have declined by more than 75% over almost 30 years. Similar effects have been seen in the rainforest of Puerto Rico. The new research, published in the Nature Communications journal, found that exposing red flour beetles to a five-day heatwave in the laboratory reduced sperm production by three-quarters, while females were unaffected. Heatwaves halved the amount of offspring males could produce, and a second heatwave almost sterilised males. Kirs Sales, a co-researcher on the study, said: "Our research shows that heatwaves halve male reproductive fitness, and it was surprising how consistent the effect was." Other research has shown that heat can damage male reproduction in humans as well as other mammals. Heatwaves are predicted to become more common under climate change, with consequences for human and animal health.
11-12-18 Can listening to bees help save them - and us?
Can artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning help save the world's bees? That's the hope of scientists who are scrambling to reverse the dramatic declines in bee populations. Bees are in trouble, but we're not quite sure why. It could be the overuse of insecticides; air pollution; warming temperatures; the varroa destructor mite; or even interference from electromagnetic radiation. Or it could be a combination of all these factors. But until we have more data, we won't know for sure. So the World Bee Project and IT firm Oracle are creating a global network of AI "smart hives" to give scientists real-time data into the relationships between bees and their environments. Up to six sensors will be mounted on hives, capturing the sound of the bees' buzzing, the movement of their feet and wings, the weight of their honey, the hive's humidity, as well as local weather and pollution levels. Sensors on beehives aren't new, but using AI and machine learning to analyse the data they collect should yield new insights, says John Abel, vice-president of cloud and technology at Oracle. "Sound is probably the most important data set," he says. "We convert it into a data feed and use this via machine learning to inform the beekeeper. And with Oracle Cloud we can get lots of data into it very quickly - we've got technology which is self-learning, self-tuning and self-patching, so it can automate what it needs to do." Oracle - which says the data will be owned by the World Bee Project - will use blockchain to verify that the data is coming from a particular hive and hasn't been tampered with. Simon Potts, professor of biodiversity at Reading University, says it can be quite hard with simple laboratory or field experiments to tease out what is affecting bees. "With AI and machine learning we can start to put together the signature of health and unhealthy hives," he says. "The holy grail would be to indentify early warning indicators of problems."
11-12-18 In pictures: The animals caught in California's wildfires
As deadly wildfires burn across California, communities are counting the toll in not just human losses, but in wildlife and household pets too. The National Fire Protection Association recommends that animal owners in at-risk areas have evacuation plans for animals in place, but because of how urgent some orders were, many were unable to return home for their pets and other animals. Residents have been using social media to spread images of their lost animals around the internet. Dedicated accounts, groups and hashtags have also been set up by online volunteers to help reunite pets with their owners. As tens of thousands of acres burn cross the state, images have emerged of animals being evacuated. On Friday, some residents living close to the Woolsey Fire ravaging the Malibu area took their large animals down to a local beach for protection. Local fire officials opened up Zuma Beach as an evacuation point for large animals, leading to surreal scenes on the usual spot for tourists. Wally Skahlij, a photographer for the Los Angeles Times, took a set of striking photographs on the beach, including one of an owl resting in the sand as the fire engulfed the skyline. Actress Alyssa Milano appealed to her Twitter followers on Friday to try and get help for her five horses to safety. (Webmaster's comment: Thousands of pets and wild animals have died. They are ill-prepared for this kind of disaster.)
11-9-18 Crows show off a new trick
New Caledonian crows, whose problem-solving skills have long set them apart from other avians, can even assemble tools out of available parts, a new study has found. Native to the South Pacific island after which they are named, the birds became famous for their cognitive abilities in 2002, when a captive crow gained access to a treat by creating a hook from a wire. In the new study, eight crows were presented with an assortment of different-length cylinders. Individually, these sticks were too small to reach food that had been hidden in a box. But four of the birds realized within five minutes how to put two rods together, creating a pole that let them push the treat out of an opening in the container’s side. One bird even constructed a four-rod pole—the first time an animal has been recorded making a tool with more than two components. “The finding is remarkable because the crows received no assistance or training in making these combinations,” author Auguste von Bayern, from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, tells ScienceDaily.com. “They figured it out by themselves.”
11-9-18 Mankind is wiping out wildlife
Human activity has killed off 60 percent of the world’s wildlife populations since 1970, creating a crisis that could endanger the global economy and humanity itself. That’s the stark conclusion of the World Wildlife Fund’s latest biennial report, which warns that urgent action is required to prevent ecological disaster and reverse the existing devastation. The biggest cause of wildlife loss identified by 2018’s Living Planet Report is the destruction of natural habitats, largely to create farmland. Killing for food is the next big threat—300 mammal species are being eaten into extinction, and oceans are chronically overfished. Pollution is also a killer: Ninety percent of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs, up from 5 percent in 1960. The rate of species extinction—1,000 times higher today than it was before human activity became a factor—will have major knock-on effects. Crops could suffer, because more than a third are pollinated by insects and animals. Coral reefs protect some 200 million people against storm surges, but half of the world’s shallow-water reefs have already died off. The WWF is calling for a global treaty, similar to the Paris climate agreement, to save at-risk wildlife populations before it’s too late. “We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet,” Tanya Steele, U.K. head of the WWF, tells CNN.com, “and the last one that can do anything about it.”
11-9-18 The invasive reptiles taking over Florida
Brought in as pets, the Burmese python and the Nile monitor lizard are eating their way through Florida’s endangered species, said Chris Sweeney in Audubon. Now more exotic reptiles may join them. It's a sweaty June morning on the outskirts of Tampa, and droves of reptile enthusiasts are streaming into an air-conditioned expo center. Some have woken early to trek out to the Florida State Fairgrounds to get first crack at the animals of Repticon, a weekend-long extravaganza that’s similar to a baseball card convention, except instead of mint-condition Mickey Mantles and Pete Roses there are green anacondas and meat-eating lizards. A guy strolls by wearing a “Snakes Lives Matter” T-shirt. Another man, who has a 3-foot-long lizard slung across his chest like a bandolier, is at a nearby booth admiring a young boa constrictor that’s twirling around his girlfriend’s fingers. Price? $100. Sold. Roughly 60 Repticons take place each year, from Phoenix to Oklahoma City to Baltimore, attracting an estimated 200,000 visitors. These shows represent but a tiny sliver of the live-reptile trade. In much of the continental United States, these cold-blooded creatures aren’t likely to fare well outdoors should they escape or be set free. But the subtropics of South Florida are different, and the best adapted have not only survived in the wild, they have thrived. To date, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC, has identified 50 types of non-native lizards, turtles, crocodilians, and snakes within state limits, more than anywhere else in the world. For the birds of Florida, this blitz of exotic predators poses an existential-scale threat. The Burmese pythons, which stalk wading birds in the Everglades, have become so menacing that the state has hosted derby-style competitions to catch them. Farther north, Nile monitors—the largest lizards in Africa—have been terrorizing a population of burrowing owls in the city of Cape Coral. And on the outskirts of Florida City, just outside Everglades National Park, egg-eating Argentine tegus could soon raid the nesting grounds of one of the last remaining populations of the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow. Each of these reptiles found its way to Florida via the pet trade—but while most people acknowledge that’s a leaky pipeline, few agree on whether and how to plug it.
11-9-18 EU moves to protect large carnivores
The EU is to allow farmers to receive full compensation for any damages caused by attacks from protected animals like lynxes, wolves and bears. Other expenses including installing electric fences or acquiring guard dogs to prevent damage will also be fully reimbursed. The EU says the move will help protect large predators in areas where they have come into conflict with humans. Campaigners hope it will limit the need for culls. After many decades of decline, the numbers of large carnivores like wolves and bears are stable or increasing in many parts of Europe, often due to concentrated conservation efforts. There are now around 17,000 brown bears in Europe, spread over 22 countries. While they remain threatened they have done well in places such as Cantabria in northern Spain where their numbers have almost doubled in ten years. But conservation success is also increasing the chances of human-wildlife conflict. Wolf numbers have increased in Germany to such an extent that the animals now roam into the Netherlands where they have been linked to an increase in attacks on sheep. Despite these wild carnivores being protected by law in most countries, that hasn't stopped farmers reaching for their guns when their domestic animals have been attacked. This has become a significant issue in some countries. In France, around 10,000 sheep were killed in wolf attacks in 2016, with the government paying out some €3.2m in compensation. Now the EU hopes that by relaxing the rules on reimbursing farmers for the damage done by carnivores, it will lessen the need for farmers to kill these threatened species. Under the new arrangement, member states will be able to fully compensate farmers for damages caused by wolves and bears. The farmers will also be entitled to compensation for building electric fences and buying guard dogs. Indirect expenses, including veterinary bills for the treatment of wounded sheep or cattle, and the costs of searching for missing animals, will also be fully met. Animal rights campaigners welcomed the move.
11-9-18 The 'painted wolves' of Zimbabwe
They are stunning; there's no question. And the name, "painted wolves", seems so apt. Their dappled tan and black fur, shot through with flashes of white, dazzles in the sunlight. You're going to become very familiar with these creatures; you may even fall in love with them, because they will feature in David Attenborough's new blockbuster TV series, Dynasties. The BBC spent months filming the endangered African wild dogs of Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, and wildlife photographer Nick Dyer says viewers will be enthralled by the result. The former London fund manager and marketing executive now dedicates his time and his camera to promoting the animals' conservation, walking with three packs as they roam the floodplain of the Zambezi River. "During the day, they're mostly asleep but when they wake up, they leap and dance with absolute joy," he tells me. "They have this great social bonding thing we call a greeting ceremony. They're so full of play, especially with their pups, so they're always chasing and pulling each other's tails, which is really great fun to watch." The first thing you need to know about painted wolves is that they're not wolves, nor, as their more boring name suggests, are they dogs. They're in a separate evolutionary group from these more familiar canids. Lycaon pictus is their scientific name, which means something like "painted wolf-like". But they certainly behave much like wolves and dogs. Lots of movement and lots of noise. "They have several calls, but perhaps the most endearing sound they make is the hoo call," explains Nick. "If they get separated from the pack, they put their head low and make this 'hoo, hoo' noise, which is an incredibly haunting sound, but that sound can travel up to 2km and with their big ears they can pick it up, and that reunites the pack."
11-9-18 Killer tigers killed
Two man-eating tigers have been killed in India, triggering protests by politicians and animal rights activists across the country. After a military-style operation involving hundreds of forest rangers, hunters in central India shot and killed a tigress last week that was believed to have killed at least 13 villagers over the past two years. The animal, which had two cubs, didn’t live in a designated tiger reserve, where it is illegal to kill the big cats. But two days later, villagers in northern India used a tractor in a reserve to crush a tigress that had fatally mauled a 50-year-old man. India’s population of tigers has grown from 1,411 in 2006 to an estimated 2,500 today. “We have to think of a mechanism of coexistence,” said tiger researcher Bilal Habib. “Conflicts are increasing day by day.”
11-9-18 Climate Change: Arctic 'no safe harbour' for breeding birds
The Arctic is no longer the safe haven it once was for nesting birds, a new scientific report warns. Having nests raided by predators is a bigger threat for birds flocking to breed than in the past, it shows. This raises the risk of extinction for birds on Arctic shores, say researchers. They point to a link with climate change, which may be changing the behaviour and habitat of animals, such as foxes, which steal eggs. Prof Tamás Székely of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, UK, described the findings as "alarming". For critically endangered species such as the spoonbill sandpiper, this could be "the last nail in the coffin", he said. "We're seeing the sad implication of climate change," Prof Székely told BBC News, "because our data show that the impact of climate change is involved, driving increased nest predation among these shorebirds - sandpipers, plovers and the likes." Shore birds breed on the ground; their eggs and offspring are exposed, where they can fall prey to predators such as snakes, lizards and foxes. The researchers looked at data collected over 70 years for more than 38,000 nests of 200 bird species, including 111 shore birds, in 149 locations on all continents. They compared data on climate and bird populations and found a link between nest predation and climate change on a global scale, but particularly in the Arctic. Rates of daily nest predation in the Arctic have increased three-fold in the last 70 years. A two-fold increase was found in Europe, most of Asia and North America, while a smaller change was observed in the tropics and Southern Hemisphere. Although climate change is thought to be a key driver, the precise mechanisms are unclear, and other factors can't be ruled out.
11-7-18 Moscow beavers resist dam destruction
A beaver colony is biting back after a Russian town demolished its dams as part of river drainage works. The authorities in Mytishchi, near Moscow, swept away the dams from the river Yauza in order to build a new embankment, while also dredging the plants that the beavers feed on, the 360 TV channel reports. Some local people fear that this leaves their seven beaver neighbours vulnerable. "It's not clear what will happen to them, because their homes have been destroyed by the excavators, and winter is already on its way," Elvira Lazutkina told 360. The authorities deny depriving the beavers of their habitat, and insist that the lodges the beavers live in - as opposed to the dams that act as outer protective walls - have not been touched. "The animals will not be harmed," Moscow governor's aide Alexander Kogan told 360 when the clearance began at the end of October. "The contractors have been warned, and their equipment will bypass the beavers' lodges." He insisted that the clearance work will, if anything, improve the environment for local wildlife by removing large amounts of accumulated rubbish from the river, making the water cleaner for all. But some people in Mytishchi have found signs that the beavers are not taking the disruption sitting down. "Hungry, homeless beavers are roaming the area, felling trees that were planted to spruce up the embankment," Yelena Kirichok told Govorit Moskva radio. The vengeful rodents have taken to street level at night, leaving behind gnawed tree stumps as they haul branches back to the river to rebuild their dams. Some local people like Ms Kirichok have posted photographs of the evidence on social media. (Webmaster's comment: They are only fighting for their lives like all animals do!)