12-31-18 Macaques take turns while chattering
Japanese monkeys mimic conversational call-and-response pauses of humans. When polite people talk, they take turns speaking and adjust the timing of their responses on the fly. So do wild macaques, a team of Japanese ethologists reports. Analysis of 20-minute vocal exchanges involving 15 adult female Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata) revealed that the monkeys altered their conversational pauses depending on how quickly others answered, the researchers report in a study in an upcoming issue of Current Zoology. It’s unclear whether the monkeys were actually talking in any way analogous to how humans converse. While macaques have the vocal equipment to form humanlike words, their brains are unable to transform that vocal potential into human talk (SN Online: 12/19/16). The primates instead communicate in grunts, coos and other similar sounds. But the length of pauses between those grunts and coos closely match the length of pauses in human chats, says coauthor Noriko Katsu of the University of Tokyo. The researchers analyzed 64 vocal exchanges, called bouts, between at least two monkeys that were recorded between April and October 2012 at the Iwatayama Monkey Park in Kyoto, Japan. The team found that the median length of time between the end of one monkey’s calls and the beginning of another’s was 250 milliseconds — similar to the average 200 milliseconds in conversational pause time between humans. That makes the macaques’ gaps between turns in chattering one of the shortest call-and-response pauses yet measured in nonhuman primates. The quick response time suggests the macaques are not calling out in habit, but are taking turns and coordinating their vocalizations, says Isaac David Schamberg, a primatologist at Harvard University who was not involved in the study.
12-28-18 Madagascar pochard: World's rarest bird gets new home
The rarest bird in the world - a species of duck called the Madagascar pochard - has been given a new home in time for the new year. An international team of researchers released 21 of the birds at a lake in the north of Madagascar. It is a step towards the recovery of a species that just over a decade ago was thought to be extinct. Rescuing the species could also be a first step in protecting Madagascar's threatened wetlands. Wetland habitats in the country have been so polluted and damaged that these few remaining birds had been forced into this last untouched area. But, as Rob Shaw, head of conservation programmes at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) explained to BBC News, they were only "clinging on to existence in a place not really suited to them".Their last pristine refuge was too deep and too cold for the pochards to thrive. "The threats that they face across the rest of Madagascar - and why they've been wiped out so extensively - are vast," explained Rob Shaw. "They range from sedimentation, invasive species, pollution, poor agricultural practises - a whole suite of problems that create the perfect storm making it very difficult for a species like the Madagascar pochard to survive." (Webmaster's comment: Pointless. 21 Ducks can not make a species viable. Their gene pool is gone!)
12-26-18 Japan whale hunting: Commercial whaling to restart in July
Japan says it is to restart commercial whaling in July in a move that is likely to draw international criticism. It said it would withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the body tasked with whale conservation. Commercial whaling was banned by the IWC in 1986 after some species were driven almost to extinction. Officials in Japan, an IWC member since 1951, say eating whales is part of the country's culture. For many years Japan has hunted whales for what it calls "scientific research" and to sell the meat, a programme widely criticised by conservationists. Wednesday's announcement had been expected, but conservation groups warn the move will have serious consequences. It means Japan will be able to freely hunt species currently protected by the IWC, like minke whales. Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said commercial whaling would be restricted to Japanese territorial waters and economic zones. As a result, Japan will stop hunting in Antarctic waters and the southern hemisphere, a prospect conservation groups had welcomed before it was formally confirmed. A statement by Japan's government said the IWC was not committed enough to one of its goals, of supporting sustainable commercial whaling. It accused the IWC of being focused only on the aim of conserving numbers. A number of coastal communities in Japan have hunted whales for centuries, but consumption in the country surged only after World War Two when whales were the main source of meat. It has plummeted in recent decades. According to Japan's Asahi newspaper, whale meat makes up only 0.1% of all meat sold in Japan. In a joint statement, Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Environment Minister Melissa Price said they were "extremely disappointed" with Japan's decision. "Australia remains resolutely opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called 'scientific' whaling," the statement added. (Webmaster's comment: "scientific' whaling" What a crock!
12-25-18 Chestnut-killing wasp threatens major harvest
Chestnuts are increasingly used as a form of replacement protein in vegan and vegetarian diets. But a small, invasive wasp from China is threatening the chestnut harvest in Spain. Now government scientists are considering releasing another non-native insect into the environment to keep the wasp population under control. Under the dense green cover of the Genal Valley in southern Spain, Julio Ruiz, a thirty-something farmer is collecting sweet chestnuts (castañas) with his father, mother and brother. They are picking up the prickly nuts from the leaf-strewn earth, recognising through experience those that will contain the prized, large-sized chestnut. But this year there are far fewer chestnuts to gather not just on the Ruiz family's 30-hectare farm, but throughout the 4,000 hectares of the lush Genal Valley famed for its plentiful chestnuts thanks to its micro-climate. "We've lost at least 30% of our usual production," explains Julio. "It is all the fault of a small wasp. You can't tell there's anything wrong until the damage has been done." At the nearby co-operative collection point and weighing station talk is of little else. The chestnut gall wasp, Dryoscomus kuriphillus katsumatsu (avispilla in local Spanish), is causing huge environmental and economic damage in the Valley where the harvest accounts for 10 million euros' worth of income annually. "We may be the biggest producers of chestnuts in Andalucia," says Felipe Javier Cabos Aguilar, president of the regional association of chestnut producers shaking his head sadly. (Webmaster's comment: Using one non-native insect species to battle another has almost never worked. It usually ends up with a new and often worse problem.)
12-23-18 Cannibalistic African clawed frog eats tadpoles of its relatives
AFRICAN clawed frogs are cannibals. They will willingly eat their own tadpoles – but they like eating those of an endangered South African frog even more. Biologists are already familiar with the fact that African clawed frogs (pictured above) will eat their own young. But John Measey at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and his colleagues wanted to know whether other tadpoles were on the frog’s menu. They were particularly concerned about the fate of tadpoles belonging to the Cape platanna, an endangered species that lives in ponds around Cape Town. By placing African clawed frogs in tanks with tadpoles of their own species and those of the Cape platanna, the team found that the frogs prefer eating their endangered cousin’s tadpoles (African Journal of Ecology, doi.org/cx3t). Measey says the evidence suggests the African clawed frog can tell the difference between the two types of tadpole. “That is very bad news for the Cape [platanna],” he says. Partly due to their popularity as pets, African clawed frogs are now an invasive species on four continents. They don’t occur naturally around Cape Town either, having exploited urbanisation to colonise the area. “It’s another interesting example where human alteration of the landscape has changed the playing field,” says James Vonesh at Virginia Commonwealth University, a co-author of the study.
12-22-18 Crayfish experience something like anxiety when they shed their armour
WHEN a crayfish sheds its protective exoskeleton, it becomes temporarily vulnerable to attack by predators. Now there is evidence that this leads to behaviour that resembles anxiety, and that this can be relieved using the same anti-anxiety drugs that humans take. “They worry, they have an apprehension state that makes them avoid potentially dangerous areas. It’s kind of like a primitive anxiety,” says Pascal Fossat at the University of Bordeaux in France. Fossat and his colleagues collected crayfish from swamps near Bordeaux and stored them in individual tanks that mimicked their natural habitat. When the crayfish began to moult, the researchers placed them in a maze that had two dark sections and two lit sections, and recorded their behaviour. Over the following two days, the crayfish showed a strong preference for hiding in the dark regions. If they did encounter the lit sections, they retreated into the dark in 80 per cent of cases. For comparison, when the crayfish weren’t moulting they typically spent about 30 per cent of their time in the light. “They’re very weak when they remove the old exoskeleton, and the new one is totally soft until they eat the old one to get back the minerals that make the new exoskeleton stronger,” says Fossat. “They’re vulnerable, so they have to hide.” The team also took crayfish that weren’t moulting and injected them with an ecdysteroid – a class of hormone that controls moulting, produced by many animals with an exoskeleton. They found that the crayfish exhibited the same anxiety-like behaviour, avoiding light and retreating to the dark. To explore whether it was possible to suppress this behaviour, Fossat and his colleagues took the animals they had treated with the ecdysteroid and injected them with anti-anxiety drugs developed for use in humans. The crayfish returned to spending about one-third of their time in the light. “They didn’t have the apprehension from before,” says Fossat (Journal of Experimental Biology, doi.org/cx38).
12-21-18 Scuba-diving lizard can stay underwater for at least 16 minutes
A lizard that lives next to streams in the mountains of Costa Rica appears to have evolved a kind of scuba tank to help it stay underwater for long periods. It can remain submerged for at least 16 minutes, and blows out and re-inhales a large bubble of air while underwater. This extraordinary behaviour has been observed and filmed for the first time by ecologist Lindsey Swierk of Binghamton University, New York. Her footage shows that there are pockets of air adhering to the head and body of the lizard when it is underwater. By breathing out a big bubble that envelops these air pockets and taking it back in, Swierk thinks the lizard may be extracting the oxygen from the pockets. “They are probably extracting lower concentrations of oxygen every time they’re respiring the air bubble, but it might just be enough to keep them underwater for long enough that they can escape a threat,” she says. Several aquatic insects and spiders have special adaptations that allow them to take bubbles of air underwater. In some cases, it has been shown that these bubbles actually function as gills — oxygen diffuses into the bubble from the surrounding water while carbon dioxide diffuses out. They don’t allow animals to stay underwater indefinitely, however, as the bubbles shrink as the nitrogen in them dissolves into the water. So Swierk bought an underwater camera to see what they were doing. She has not seen the lizards catch any prey underwater, but did record the bubble-blowing. There is little doubt that the lizards swim and dive to avoid predators like birds. The longest dive the team has recorded so far is 16 minutes – and that individual swam away after they disturbed it. So it’s possible they can remain underwater even longer.
12-21-18 The secret life of plants: Ten new species found this year
Plant collectors have searched for the hidden wonders of the plant world for centuries. Yet plants that are new to science are still being described, at a rate of about 2,000 a year. Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, discovered and named more than 100 new plants in 2018. Their list of the top new plants includes carnivorous pitcher plants, exotic orchids and climbers with untapped medicinal powers.
- Herb found in a waterfall
- Bug-eater from a remote island
- Flower that could be a future cancer medicine
- Orchid on sale after being smuggled out of the wild
- Yam identified from an old photo
- Vibrant flowering plant from Vietnam
- Tree from the rainforest
- Wild spice tree
- Flowering plant from the cloud forest
- Tree feared extinct
- And over 2,000 more!
12-20-18 Animal testing: US Senate bill seeks an end to kitten research deaths
US senator Jeff Merkley has introduced a Senate bill aiming to stop the Department of Agriculture (USDA) from killing kittens it uses in experiments. The Oregon Democrat said the USDA breeds up to 100 kittens a year. They are used in research into toxoplasmosis - a parasitic illness, which can be serious for unborn children and people with compromised immune systems. Cats are the only animals whose faeces contains the parasite. The animals are fed infected meat, and the parasite's eggs are harvested for use in other experiments. The cats are killed after the research, but Mr Merkley believes they should be adopted instead. He said veterinarians had told him the kittens, which are euthanised before they are three months old, could be treated for the parasite and emerge "very healthy". A version of the KITTEN Act - the full title of which is the "Kittens in Traumatic Testing Ends Now Act of 2018" - was introduced in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the US Congress, by Republican Congressman Mike Bishop - before he lost his seat in the November mid-term elections. Some 61 Republicans and Democrats have now co-sponsored it. The USDA has called the figure of 100 kittens a "serious over-estimation", and told CNN it "makes every effort to minimize the number of cats used". The agency said it does not try to have the cats adopted due to fears they could pose a risk to their new families. Mr Merkley said he had spoken to experts who disagreed, adding: "There's absolutely little cost and no reason not to treat them and adopt them out to American families."
12-20-18 Japan 'to leave whaling commission to resume hunting'
Japan plans to leave the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to resume commercial hunting, media reports say. The government told its MPs of the decision, NHK reports. There has been no official confirmation of the move. Commercial whaling was banned by the IWC in 1986 after some whales were driven almost to extinction. For many years Japan has hunted whales for what it calls "scientific research" and to sell the meat, a programme widely criticised by conservationists. The Japanese government is expected to cite the recovery of certain whale species as justification for the move, although it's thought to be considering whaling only in its own waters. Officials in Japan say eating whales is part of its culture. A number of coastal communities in Japan have hunted whales for centuries, but consumption in the country surged only after World War Two when whales were the main source of meat. It has plummeted in recent decades. Wildlife protection groups have already criticised the planned withdrawal. Despite Japanese media widely reporting the decision has been taken, there has been no official announcement yet,\. Hideki Moronuki, from the Fisheries Agency of Japan, told the BBC that Japan was considering every possible option but has "not yet come up with a decision". Citing unnamed government sources, Kyodo news agency said a formal announcement could come next week. In September Tokyo tried to get the IWC to allow commercial catch quotas but the proposal was rejected. (Webmaster's comment: Humans intend to kill every other living thing on the planet without exception, sooner or later.)
12-19-18 Invasive asexual midges may upset Antarctica’s delicate moss banks
The flightless insects’ waste may alter a nutrient-sparse world. Some of the scariest poop in Antarctica comes from an all-female invader species about the size of an ant. Researchers are now fretting about what the waste from these debris-eating midges may do to the continent’s once nutrient-sparse moss banks. The midge Eretmoptera murphyi, a kind of tiny fly that can’t actually fly, hitchhiked onto the Antarctic island of Signy probably sometime in the 1960s during plant-introduction experiments that would never be allowed today. In moss banks where the alien midges now thrive, their excretions boost nitrogen concentrations to levels similar to those where seals come ashore, says Jesamine Bartlett, a polar and alpine ecologist at the University of Birmingham in England. She has calculated that the hard-to-spot midges triple or quadruple the usual nitrogen in moss banks, which seals don’t visit. Bartlett, who also works with the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, reported the results December 19 in Birmingham at the annual meeting of the British Ecological Society. The midges are a shock to the ecosystem because Antarctica doesn’t have the usual earthworms and other voracious detritus-feeders that quickly break down dead plants and other organic debris, like the midges do. So the insect “has the potential to change the way the ecosystem functions quite drastically,” says systems ecologist Peter Convey, also of the British Antarctic Survey, who collaborates with Bartlett. Extra nutrients could, for instance, offer opportunities to more invaders.
12-18-18 The animal economists that can wheel and deal as well as any human
From monkey markets to fishy business, we’re finding that many animals make rational trades. Even brainless fungi have a thing or two to teach us. “THE propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another… is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals,” wrote Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. That was back in 1776, but the idea that humans are the only species capable of economic behaviour persisted for a long time. Intuitively, it makes sense. Responding to shifts in supply and demand, for instance, must be the preserve of species with brains hefty enough to think through decisions rationally. Or so we thought. As we get to know Earth’s myriad other species better, it is becoming apparent that many animals and organisms make trades, and that some are surprisingly savvy wheeler-dealers capable of manipulating the market in their own selfish interests. From frisky baboons to fish offering spa treatments on the reef, pretty much everywhere we look in nature we find evidence of surprisingly sophisticated economic decision-making. Even fungi are at it, and according to the latest studies, these brainless soil dwellers give the impression of being more rational than us. Such revelations are handing us a fresh understanding of the origins of cooperation. They also chip away at the idea that sophisticated behaviour requires a big brain. They might even teach us a thing or two about ourselves, says Toby Kiers, an evolutionary biologist at the Free University Amsterdam. “What are the basic strategies organisms have evolved to cope with relentless variation in resource availability? It is naive to think an MBA will teach us everything we need to know.”
12-19-18 House plants don’t clean your air that much – but this GM pothos might
If you live in Canada, you might soon be able to buy a genetically modified fluorescent houseplant that removes cancer-linked pollutants such as benzene from the air in your home. A team in the US has just received approval to sell the houseplant there. The plant is known as golden pothos or Devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum), a widely grown houseplant that can tolerate low light levels and extreme neglect. It has been modified to produce a liver enzyme called cytochrome p450 2e1 – taken from rabbits – that breaks down a wide range of pollutants. “We want to offer this to the public as a way to reduce a proven, real health threat,” says Stuart Strand of the University of Washington in Seattle. The transgenic plant also produces a green fluorescent protein that glows under UV light. This is to make it more appealing, and also to make it easy to spot the GM variety. The team has just published a study showing that when placed in a container with high levels of either benzene or chloroform, normal pothos plants broke down less than 10 per cent in a week. The GM variety broke down more than 90 per cent. Even so, a fan would be needed to maximise the clean-up effect in homes. “The plants are not going to do much good sitting in a corner,” says Strand. “They need to have air moving over them.” Benzene is a known carcinogen that can get into homes in many ways, including from cars in adjacent garages or from burning candles. Chloroform is a suspected carcinogen released by chlorinated water during activities like showering.
12-19-18 A swarming asexual midge is island hopping towards Antarctica
In parts of Signy Island in the Southern Ocean there are 150,000 flightless midges in every square metre. The insects have thrived since being accidentally introduced in the 1960s, and now the worry is that they could reach the Antarctic Peninsula 600 kilometres away. “We need to start stepping up biosecurity measures,” says Jesamine Bartlett of the University of Birmingham in the UK. The non-biting midges, Eretmoptera murphyi, act like earthworms, feeding on detritus and essentially defecating out fertiliser. They increase nitrogen levels by around 400 per cent, Barlett’s studies show – that’s as much as in areas where there are seals. Land in Antarctica is usually very nutrient poor, except where there are colonies of seals and sea birds. So by making far more nutrients available, the midges could might have a big effect. “We don’t really know if it’s going to be a positive or a negative effect,” says Bartlett. However, the midges could potentially pave the way for invasive plants that could not cope with low-nutrient conditions. “It’s almost like terraforming, ready for other plants,” Barlett says. Her work also shows that the midge could survive conditions in the Antarctic Peninsula even without the recent warming due to global heating. The species thrives at a temperature of around 4°C, and the adults can survive being frozen in a block of ice. Indeed, the midge did naturally occur there before the last ice age. So Bartlett, who will present her findings at a meeting of the British Ecological Society this week, thinks more needs to be done to ensure the midge is not introduced there, for instance by being carried in the mud on the boots of tourists.
12-18-18 Dolphins have best friends but also shun those outside their clique
Dolphins have long-lasting friendships and form cliques while shunning other groups. This is according to observations of bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Trieste in the northern Adriatic sea over a period of 9 years. The dolphins formed mixed-sex clusters, including two main groups that enjoyed stable membership and long-lasting friendships. Both groups contained a core membership with extra tiers, while dolphins in one of the groups sometimes formed smaller factions. Each group was connected by several dolphins which acted as social brokers, preventing complete cluster isolation. Overall the groups tended to avoid each other but shared particular areas of water by using them at different times. “We were quite surprised by this. It is not uncommon for dolphins to segregate into different parts of the sea, but to have certain times of the day in which they gather is unusual,” says Tilen Genov at the University of St Andrews, who led the study. The team believes that ecological constraints, such as the availability of prey, could explain the inclusion of older-looking dolphins into the social groups.”These animals may possess long-term knowledge needed to tackle such constraints and thus play a key role in their community,” wrote the researchers.
12-15-18 The secret site in England where beavers control the landscape
I have gone back in time to a landscape not seen in this part of the world for the best part of 500 years. All around me are signs of intensive engineering – not by humans, but by beavers. Mark Elliott at the Devon Wildlife Trust is showing me round 2.8 hectares of wetland on the edge of Dartmoor, UK. In 2011 the trust released a pair of Eurasian beavers here. “They’re really busy at the moment,” he says. Before the release, the area was a scrubby woodland with a small stream running through it. “It wasn’t much good for anything else,” says landowner John Morgan. But the beavers quickly got busy, building a lodge, deepening the pond around it and damming the headwaters of the stream. Elliot and his colleagues collated the results of the beaver introduction earlier this year, including the huge improvement they’ve had on flood management. On the surrounding countryside, rain (of which there is a lot) runs quickly off the land, surging into rivers and causing flash floods. But on beaver territory the water is now held up in the ponds and flows out at a much more leisurely pace. “It takes days or weeks,” says Richard Brazier at the University of Exeter, one of the project’s lead scientists. Even during a downpour the outward flow of water barely rises above baseline. Hardly anybody lives around here so flooding isn’t an issue. But elsewhere it is a serious and growing menace. The UK has earmarked £2.5 billion a year to upgrade its flood defences. Judging from the research done here, beavers could be part of the solution. The team have kept the location of the project secret to avoid people interfering. Some people are just keen to see the beavers for themselves, but others may wish to sabotage the trial because they oppose the reintroduction of a “nuisance” species. Beavers are known as ecosystem engineers. I can see that every inch of the site has signs of ceaseless beavering: felled trees, gnawed stumps, chewed logs and sticks stripped of bark. The stream has been turned into a series of 13 large pools held back by dams made of sticks, mud and grass. The oldest dam resembles a Neolithic earthwork, several metres across and grassed over. It holds a serious amount of water with over a million litres behind dams on the site.
12-14-18 Endangered northern bettongs aren’t picky truffle eaters
The marsupials’ varied diet could help safeguard some of Australia’s fungi and forests. A small endangered marsupial with a taste for truffles may be a linchpin in one kind of Australian forest — and the evidence is in the animal’s poop. Northern bettongs feast on truffles, the meaty, spore-producing parts of certain fungi. Plenty of animals eat a selection of these subterranean orbs from time to time. But analyses of the scat from northern bettongs (Bettongia tropica) reveal that the marsupials eat truffles from a wider diversity of fungi species than other critters, including some that no other animals appear to favor, researchers report November 22 in Molecular Ecology. That’s an important role because these truffle-producing fungi form beneficial relationships with tree roots, helping trees pull nutrients and moisture from soil. “There's been a whole raft of published studies showing that those fungi give plants an edge,” says Andrew Claridge, an ecologist for the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service in Queanbeyan who wasn’t part of the study. Australia’s eucalyptus forests host hundreds, or possibly even thousands, of truffle fungi species, says study coauthor Susan Nuske, an ecologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Umeå. Different species seem to be specialized to associate with particular trees or perform certain roles, so maintaining that diversity is key. By spreading truffles’ spores via scat, bettongs help keep the fungal community diverse and, by extension, the forest healthy, say Nuske and her colleagues.
12-14-18 Counting the breaths of wild porpoises reveal their revved-up metabolism
In Danish waters, these small cetaceans have metabolic rates more than double those of humans. By counting harbor porpoise breaths, researchers have come up with a new way to judge the animals’ hard-to-measure metabolism. The trick shows that the animals can burn energy more than twice as fast as humans. Researchers analyzed the several thousand puff-huff respiratory sounds recorded per day from each of 13 harbor porpoises swimming freely in Danish waters. Including just everyday staying-alive body processes plus hunting and other activities, the animals’ average total energy use ranged from 7.8 to 31 megajoules per day, researchers report December 6 in the Journal of Experimental Biology. The five adult porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) studied averaged 21.7 megajoules per day. A typical human weighing about as much as a full-grown porpoise, however, needs only about seven to nine megajoules of energy daily, says study coauthor Peter Teglberg Madsen, an eco-physiologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. Madsen says the animals’ high energy needs in the chilly waters close to Danish shores leave him “somewhat worried.” Harbor porpoises there depend on small fish, even down to pinkie finger–sized ones. But to survive with such a high metabolic rate on small prey demands steady hunting. And Madsen fears that increasing human disruptions in the ocean are making that difficult for the ocean mammals (SN: 2/13/18).
12-12-18 Australia’s ‘marsupial lion’ was a meat-ripping, tree-climbing terror
The most detailed reconstruction yet of Australia’s extinct “marsupial lion” shows it was unlike any animal living today, shredding its prey like a Tasmanian devil, biting like a lion, and climbing like a koala. The first partial remains of the fearsome predator – which went extinct about 45,000 years ago – were discovered in Victoria in the 1850s. British naturalist Richard Owen named it Thylacoleo carnifex – meaning “meat-cutting marsupial lion” – based on its large blade-like teeth and cat-like skull. Other remains of T. carnifex were found in the 1960s and 70s, but it was only in 2002 that the first complete skeleton was discovered in a cave beneath the Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia. In 2005, another two mostly complete skeletons were found in a cave in Naracoorte, South Australia. Since then, Rod Wells at Flinders University and his colleagues have carefully studied the skeletons to better understand the mysterious creature. Their reconstruction shows that T. carnifex would have measured over a metre long and over half a metre tall while standing on all four feet, with a weight of about 100 kilograms. “It was probably the size of a big pig,” says Wells. Like other marsupials, it carried its young in a pouch. Comparisons with living Australian marsupials suggest that T. carnifex was most similar in appearance to the Tasmanian devil, but would have been about 10 times bigger. It had the same stiff back and strong, rigid tail that Tasmanian devils use for balance while tearing apart prey with their paws and teeth, says Wells.
12-12-18 Endangered relative of the hedgehog may be thriving in Vietnam
The Hainan gymnure is a bizarre, poorly understood hedgehog-like mammal, previously thought to live only on the island of Hainan off China’s southern coast. But recently, scientists found the mammal in Vietnam – hundreds of kilometres away – where it may actually be relatively common. Gymnures and moonrats are close relatives of the winsome spiky hedgehogs. But, lacking prickles, they resemble rats or opossums. They often reek strongly of garlic or ammonia due to their potent, territory-marking scent glands. Native to Southeast Asian forests, the animals are nocturnal and reclusive. The Hainan gymnure (Neohylomys hainanensis) is the most elusive of all. “In the world’s scientific collections, there are only a few specimens of N. hainanensis,” says Alexei Abramov, a zoologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg and lead author on the study. “I know of ten specimens.” Earlier this year, Abramov and his colleagues conducted a small mammal biodiversity survey in Cao Bang Province in northern Vietnam. During this survey, the team obtained five gymnures from local villagers. After measurement of their physical features, the team identified the gymnures as the rare Hainan species, suggesting that the island dweller is more widespread than realised. “There’s been work done on the mammal fauna of Vietnam in the past, and these are apparently not particularly rare animals,” he says, offering that gymnure preference for earthworms and insects rather than typical bait may have kept them undetected. The gymnure’s presence in Vietnam also implies that Hainan and Vietnam were physically connected millennia ago, when glacial expansion lowered sea levels by 120 metres.
12-11-18 The beauty of the Christmas Bird Count
Counting birds for science is one of the most fulfilling ways to end the year. The ash tree I'm anchored to is laced with poison ivy vines, one as thick as my arm. The childhood adage, don't be a dope, don't touch the rope, is loud in my mind because although I'm no "dope" I'm definitely touching the rope — the ash is the only thing keeping me from falling into the icy creek below. I embrace the ash with my left arm and through a layer of fresh snow, I dig in and plant myself. With my right hand I bring binoculars to my eyes and scan the plowed cornfield beyond the creek for movement. I'm looking for a flock of Horned Larks, small little brown birds with two tufts of feathers on either side of their head that resemble horns. Against a backdrop of tilled earth they are cryptic but, lucky for me, it snowed last night and not much can stay hidden on the field. My desire to find a flock of larks sprouts from a kernel of hope that a Lapland Longspur might be embedded among them, or maybe a Snow Bunting. Both birds are as exquisite-looking as they sound. The longspur is sparrow-like, but fairer, with a sweet round face. The bunting is white and in its winter plumage its cheeks are decked out in chic buff-colored feathers. The cornfield is empty. There are no chattering larks, no longspurs mixed in, and there are certainly no buntings. The field is host only to a rolling wind that carries with it a chill of -10 degrees Fahrenheit and the smell of Christmas in the country — a peppery mix of soot, smoke, and decay. My eyes sting. It's been a while since I've blinked. I let my binoculars hang at my side for a moment. It's the last day of the year and I'm looking for birds in subzero temperatures. Of course, I am. It's the annual Christmas Bird Count. The bird count is important to me — I've done it every year for the past four years. Nothing can stop me, not the cold, rain, the flu, or even poison ivy. Birders — don't call us birdwatchers — are a robust and growing group of professionals, enthusiasts, students, and everything in between. In the U.S. we are 45 million strong and along with other wildlife-lovers and conservationists, we contributed close to $80 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016. The data collected by citizen scientists like me during the Christmas Bird Count helps ornithologists, biologists, environmental scientists, analysts, and others understand species diversity, movement, and dispersal. The information also helps them gauge how birds are surviving a warming planet. Spoiler alert: It's not going well for coastal species. A bunch of other species are in decline, too.
12-10-18 City living makes urban male frogs far more attractive to females
Male frogs that live in cities make more complex mating calls than their forest-dwelling cousins, and that makes them much more attractive to female frogs. As animals move into urban environments, they face different pressures from natural selection, resulting in rapid evolution of different behaviours. Previous research has found that birds, frogs and grasshoppers sing or call differently in noisy urban areas, but few studies have addressed in detail how this affects their needs to attract a mate and avoid predators and parasites. Male túngara frogs gather at night in puddles to call and attract females. The main part of their call, the “whine”, sounds like a sci-fi laser beam, but some add elements called “chucks”, which sound like very short duck quacks. However, making a more elaborate call raises the risk of attack by bats or biting midges. Wouter Halfwerk of the Free University Amsterdam and colleagues recorded males in urban and forest locations in Panama. The urban males called more often and made more complex sounds than the forest males, with more and louder chucks. These complex calls proved to be irresistible to females. When the researchers played recordings of an urban male and a forest male from two speakers, three quarters of the females approached the one playing the urban call. To explain why a different call evolved in the city, the researchers tried playing the same recorded call from a speaker in different locations. At urban sites, the calls attracted fewer female frogs, bats and midges. This suggests that in cities, the pressure to attract mates is stronger and the pressure to avoid predators and parasites is lower.
12-10-18 Amount of deep life on Earth quantified
Scientists have estimated the total amount of life on Earth that exists below ground - and it is vast. You would need a microscope to see this subterranean biosphere, however. It is made up mostly of microbes, such as bacteria and their evolutionary cousins, the archaea. Nonetheless, it represents a lot of carbon - about 15 to 23 billion tonnes of it. That is hundreds of times more carbon than is woven into all the humans on the planet. "Something like 70% of the total number of microbes on Earth are below our feet," said Karen Lloyd from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, US. "So, this changes our perception of where we find life on Earth, from mostly on the surface in things like trees and whales and dolphins, to most of it actually being underground," she told BBC News. PROF Lloyd is part of the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) project, a near-decade long effort to identify how the ubiquitous element is cycled through the Earth system. The consortium is reporting its latest discoveries here at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual Fall Meeting in Washington DC. The mass numbers it quotes can only be a rough estimate. They are derived from multiple studies that have dug or drilled several kilometres into the crust, both on the continents and at sea. Scientists will routinely pull up rock and other sediment samples and count the number living cells in a given volume. The DCO teams have taken these inventories and used models to construct a broader picture of Earth's total biomass.
12-7-18 The bluebirds’ best friend.
Al Larson is the bluebirds’ best friend. Since 1978, the 96-year-old former sawmill worker has built and maintained some 350 nest boxes across southern Idaho for western and mountain bluebirds, helping the species rebound from near-extinction. He started nest building to keep himself busy in retirement, and now checks in on the rustic abodes every nine days, banding any residents. This year, he’s banded more than 900 bluebirds. “I got carried away,” Larson said. “I kept adding more boxes, and these birds responded.”
12-6-18 Here’s how geckos (almost) walk on water
High-speed video reveals the physics of how the animals move almost as fast in water as on land. Add water aerobics to the list of the agile gecko’s athletic accomplishments. In addition to sticking to smooth walls and swinging from leaves, geckos can skitter along the surface of water. By slapping the water with all four limbs to create air bubbles and exploiting the surface tension of water, the reptiles can travel at speeds close to what they can achieve on land, according to a new analysis of high-speed video footage described December 6 in Current Biology. In the world of water walkers, geckos occupy an awkward intermediate turf, says study coauthor Jasmine Nirody, a biophysicist at Rockefeller University in New York City and Oxford University. Small insects like water striders use surface tension, created by water molecules sticking together, to stay afloat. Bigger animals like basilisk lizards slap the surface of the water, creating air pockets around their feet that reduce drag and keep the lizards mostly above the water’s surface. But an animal needs to be fairly large to generate enough force to hold itself out of the water using that strategy. “Geckos fall smack-dab in the middle” size-wise, Nirody says. “They shouldn't really be able to do this at all.” And yet, when her colleague Ardian Jusufi of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany, was vacationing in Singapore, he noticed small geckos skittering across the surface of puddles. Back in the lab, the team filmed eight flat-tailed house geckos (Hemidactylus platyurus) crossing a tank of water, then slowed the footage to get a closer look at the action.
12-6-18 Geckos sprint across water on air bubbles they make with their legs
Flat-tailed house geckos can skitter across the surface of water – and now we know how they do it. They keep their upper body in the air by slapping hard on the water and creating pockets of air that help them stay afloat. Though they can swim, running across water is a useful way for them to escape quickly when they are threatened. Jasmine Nirody at The Rockefeller University in New York and her team investigated how geckos cross water after her colleague visited Singapore during monsoon season and saw the behaviour in the wild. “To us this was really shocking because when you think about the things that walk on water, you think of these really small insects that can walk using surface tension. Or large bipedal basilisk lizards that generate so much force on the water that they can support their body weight,” she says. “These guys lie smack dab in the middle.” They took high-speed video of 8 geckos doing 63 runs across a 35-centimetre-long basin filled with water. They found that geckos keep their heads 13.4 millimetres above the surface, on average, while their tails remain in contact with the water. The geckos whirl their front legs in a circle – a little like the way a cartoon character might run. Part of this circle passes through the air and part of it under the water, which helps creates an air pocket that holds the gecko up. They then cycle their back legs to produce forward motion. “They are partially hydroplaning,” Nirody says. The team also found that geckos can lift up to 72 per cent of their body length out of the water, and that they have superhydrophobic skin that repels water. Both of these factors help reduce drag.
12-6-18 Parrots are clever because their brains evolved the same way as ours
Parrots are intelligent birds capable of complex cognition, and it turns out that the genes that play a role in their brain development are similar to those that evolved to give humans large brains. “It’s a surprise in the sense that these animals are so different from humans, but it’s also satisfying in that you might predict that since they evolved similar traits, they have some similar mechanisms,” says Claudio Mello at the Oregon Health & Science University. Parrots can produce complex vocalisations and they’re highly social, a lot like humans. To learn more how these birds’ brains develop, Mello and his team compared the genome of the blue-fronted Amazon parrot with that of 30 other birds. They found that regions of the parrot genome that regulate when and how genes for brain development are turned on are the same as those found in humans. These so-called ultra-conserved elements evolved in both species at different times, but with similar results. “These define how the brain grows and how many cells are built,” Mello says. “Humans ended up with bigger brains and more brain cells and more cognitive traits – including language – than primates. Parrots have bigger brains than other birds and more communication skills, and they have similar conserved elements that set them apart.” Mello says that when these regulatory regions of the genome are disrupted in humans, they are known to be associated with cognitive disabilities such as autism, developmental delays and language deficits. The team also found 344 genes associated with parrot lifespan. Parrots live far longer than would be expected based on their body size and metabolism, some even lasting into their 80s. The genes Mello and his team found that are associated with parrot lifespan support DNA damage repair, slow down cell death due to stress, and limit cell overgrowth and cancers.
12-5-18 Pea aphid youngsters use piggyback rides to escape a crisis
Hitching a ride on reluctant adults helps babies survive after fleeing a grazing animal. First it’s mammal bad breath. Then it’s babies pestering for piggyback rides. A near-death experience is tough on pea aphids. When warm, moist breath signals that some cow or other giant is about to chomp into foliage, tiny green aphids feeding on that foliage drop toward the ground by the hundreds (SN Online: 8/10/10). “It literally rains aphids,” says ecologist Moshe Gish, who in 2010 described the breath cue. Now Gish and Moshe Inbar, both at the University of Haifa in Israel, describe what pea aphids (Acyrthosiphon pisum) do after they hit the ground. There’s “a climbing frenzy,” Gish says. “Frantic” newborns scramble onto adults for a piggyback ride to safety. Open ground may be a better bet than certain death in cow cud. But exposure still brings risks from other predators as well as dehydration or even starvation if the aphids can’t find another plant to suck sap from. In a lab setup, hitchhiking got very young aphids safely across open ground about four times faster than scrabbling to safety on their own, the researchers found. These newborn aphids, not even 12 hours old, were not just seeking some object to clamber onto. They soon lost interest if presented with beads or dead adults but held on to live grown-up aphids in motion, the researchers report December 6 in Frontiers in Zoology. When catching a ride, kinship didn’t seem to matter. Closely related or not, most adults resisted vigorously, bobbing heads or rears up and down. Some just lowered that head or rear and waited. In the end, only about 5 percent of youngsters got their much sought-after piggyback ride.
12-5-18 Rats and pigeons 'replace iconic species'
The modification of land for farming and building cities is favouring the same species everywhere, according to a new study. Animals like rats and pigeons are taking over from less common ones, which can survive only in certain habitats, say scientists. Researchers looked at 20,000 animals and plants in 81 countries. They found that species occupying a large area tend to increase in places where humans use the land. However, fauna and flora that occupies a small area is lost. "We show around the world that when humans modify habitats, these unique species are consistently lost and are replaced by species that are found everywhere, such as pigeons in cities and rats in farmland," said Dr Tim Newbold, a research fellow at University College London. Rats, mice, sparrows and pigeons are examples of species with wide ranges that do well when natural habitats are replaced with farmland and cities, he said. However, the "narrow-ranged losers" include animals and plants which may have great cultural value, such as rhinos and tigers. Co-researcher, Prof Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum, London, compared the changes in biodiversity to what is happening on the British high street."As small, independent retailers are going out of business, large chains dominate," he said. "It makes all towns look the same, and it's less easy to tell where you are. Likewise, people are affecting nature everywhere they go, and everywhere there are localised species which are struggling to make a living." (Webmaster's comment: A perfect example of evolution at work.)
12-5-18 Ash dieback: ash woodlands 'may flourish once again'
Scientists say there is hope that some ash forests will be able to survive a devastating tree disease. Surveys around Europe reveal mortality rates from ash dieback as high as 70% in woodlands and 85% in plantations. A previous study found almost all ash trees could be wiped out. The disease has swept across Europe over the past 20 years, causing widespread damage to woodlands. In many cases the fungus will eventually kill infected plants. "Although the numbers seem grim, the percentage of trees that are still alive is encouraging from a long-term perspective," said Prof Richard Buggs, of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Queen Mary University of London. "If this survival is due to heritable resistance, then conservation policies targeting breeding programs or natural selection may allow ash populations to flourish once again." The researchers pulled together surveys of ash dieback across Europe, including England, Ukraine, Scandinavia and the Baltic States. They found that even in forests that had been exposed to the disease for 20 years, not all trees were lost. "Although we may witness terrible devastation of ash woodlands in Europe, our grandchildren may see viable ash populations," said the researchers. There is typically a delay of 10 years from the disease entering the country to the widespread death of ash trees. This means that in the UK, the full extent of ash dieback will not become clear until 2022.
12-4-18 Saving the last West African giraffes in Niger
For almost 50 years, the highly threatened West African giraffe has been absent from Niger's Gadabedji Biosphere Reserve. Illegal hunting, climate change and habitat loss have all contributed to the population's decline. An ambitious conservation initiative has now re-introduced eight giraffes into the reserve, in the first conservation effort of its kind for the West African subspecies. Under the initiative, spearheaded by the Nigerien authorities, the eight giraffes were captured in the country's Giraffe Zone, a government-defined region approximately 60km (37 miles) south-east of the capital, Niamey. Until this move, the world's last West African giraffes had only been found in and near this Giraffe Zone. There, West African giraffes share their habitat with local communities, and compete with them for space and natural resources. The animals face a number of threats, including human population growth, hunting and agricultural encroachment. Giraffes have now started to migrate out of the Giraffe Zone as a result of the growing population of both humans and giraffes themselves. As a result, the animals have come into conflict with humans who are not used to their presence, and also stray into restive areas on the border with Mali. After the eight giraffes were captured, they were secured with ropes and herded into trailers. They were then put in a holding pen for more than three weeks to prepare them for the long journey to come. The population of giraffes has dwindled across Africa over the past 30 years, according to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF). In West Africa, the regional subspecies was once common in many countries, including Nigeria, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal, but now only exists in Niger. In the mid-1990s there were only 49 West African giraffes left in the wild. As a result, the subspecies was listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species in 2008.
12-4-18 World's strangest sharks and rays 'on brink of extinction'
Some of the world's most unusual sharks and rays are on the brink of extinction because of threats such as commercial fishing, scientists have said. A shark that uses its tail to stun prey and a ray half the length of a bus are on the list of 50 species. The scientists say sharks have a bad image and people do not understand how important and threatened they are. And losing even one of these "living fossils" would wipe out millions of years of evolutionary history. "The biggest myth around sharks is definitely the perception that they are dangerous, that they are man-eating machines - they're not," marine biologist Fran Cabada told BBC News. "There have been some negative interactions recorded but they are very infrequent and they're not intentional." This is the first time sharks, rays and chimeras (fish with cartilage in place of bones) have been assessed for the Edge (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) of Existence programme. Most sharks are at the top of the food chain, which makes them crucial to the health of the oceans. Losing them would have a big impact on other fish populations and, ultimately, human livelihoods. "They have very few relatives on the tree of life, so they are very unique and losing them will actually represent a big, big loss," said Fran Cabada. The assessment found fishing, both targeted and accidental, was to blame for the steep decline in many of these populations, together with habitat loss due to coastal development, degradation of mangrove forests, water pollution and trawling. "The Edge sharks and rays list comprises some of the most interesting and unique fish we have on this planet," said Dr Matthew Gollock, of ZSL. "The modern extinction of a single species from this list would cause the loss of millions of years of evolutionary history."
12-4-18 Rebel honeybee workers lay eggs when their queen is away
The rebel workers are also more likely to infiltrate other colonies to have offspring. Even honeybee queens have rebellious kids. In a colony of European honeybees (Apis mellifera), only the queen lays eggs that hatch into female workers who maintain the hive and nurse the young. But at times a colony experiences periods of queenlessness, when the old queen has left and a new one isn’t ready. Some of the queen’s left-behind worker daughters seize this chance to lay their own eggs — and sometimes in an entirely new colony, finds a study published online October 31 in Ecology and Evolution. The workers’ opportunistic egg-laying behavior was discovered in 2012 by researchers led by evolutionary biologist Karolina Kuszewska of Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. With no queen around to release chemicals that stunt workers’ ovarian growth, these “rebel workers” can lay eggs. Since rebel workers still do not mate as a queen bee would, they produce only sons that live only to mate. A departed queen’s replacement comes from a group of daughters born to fight one another until one survivor becomes the new queen. Rebel workers are also more adventurous than normal worker bees, the new study shows. When the researchers tracked bees that were raised without queens, 21 to 39 percent of rebel workers flew to one of dozens of other colonies, compared with 3 to 8 percent of normal workers. No surprise: Those rebel workers were also more likely to infiltrate colonies that had no queen.
12-2-18 The Ugandan love of grasshoppers - and how to harvest them
It is grasshopper season in Uganda, where they are seen as a nutritious delicacy - either boiled or deep-fried. They are so popular that some are worried about declining harvests, as the BBC's Patience Atuhaire reports. It is dusk. Rusty oil barrels are lined up in rows. Wooden scaffolding holds up unpainted iron sheets. The blindingly bright lights are rigged up as if for a sports stadium. But the four young men are not preparing to play football, they are here to catch grasshoppers. At this time of year, during the rainy season, the scene is repeated in many towns across the country. "When the season starts, we watch the cycle of the moon, and prepare. [They tend to come out at full moon]. We also keep hoping for rain. The larger numbers appear when it has rained," says Quraish Katongole, one of Uganda's most experienced grasshopper trappers. He is the chairman of a group that coordinates the grasshopper trade around the country. As his workers set up the last of the barrels at a trapping site here on the edge of Masaka town, he heads off to supervise work at other locations. As it grows darker, the slim-bodied nocturnal insects start to swarm around the lights. Most of them are green, but there are sprinklings of ashy-brown and golden-brown. The trappers burn fresh grass and the rising smoke makes the insects dizzy. The grasshoppers smash against the iron sheets, falling straight into the drums. It sounds like fat raindrops on a tin roof. And as the numbers increase, it becomes a steady downpour. Women, schoolgirls still in their uniforms, even children, scour the bushes surrounding the traps, picking up the escapees that have avoided the barrels, before they can burrow further into the greenery.
12-1-18 Nation's botanical treasure troves 'under huge threat'
A million plants from every corner of the globe are tucked away inside the cabinets that line the walls. It's a scientific collection that goes back centuries, gathered by the likes of Carl Linnaeus, the "father of taxonomy", and Charles Darwin. They could have had no inkling that pressed, dried collections of plants would have modern uses in assessing extinction risks. Estimates suggest one in five of the world's plant species is threatened. Collections of pressed, dried plants are an important "living" resource, say scientists. "People think of Herbaria as being dead, old plants and not relevant," says Kathy Willis, Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Oxford. "It's living in the sense that the information it has is as relevant, if not more relevant, to society presently than it was in the past." A wealth of botanical treasures can be found at the Oxford University Herbaria, from the bark and seeds of rare African trees to plants collected at the height of the Irish potato famine. Some are mounted on medieval wallpaper; others bear the signature of famous plant collectors and scientists. Each specimen has a story to tell; speaking not just of history but of science. As permanent scientific records of where plants have existed on the planet at a specific time, they can be used to investigate and record plant evolution and diversity. The UK is a powerhouse where Herbaria are concerned, holding about 20 million of the 300 million specimens worldwide. However, the collections are largely tucked away in cupboards, rather than digitised and available to all.
12-1-18 TEDWomen: Vibrations offer new way to track elephants
Researchers have come up with a new way of tracking elephants, via the vibrations that the animals make. Scientists Dr Beth Mortimer and Prof Tarje Nissen-Meyer discovered that elephants generate vibrations through their normal movements and through vocalisations, known as "rumbles". These can be measured by techniques usually used for studying earthquakes. The Oxford academics spoke about their research at the TEDWomen conference currently under way in California. They explained how they measured the seismic waves that could travel nearly four miles through the ground. They recorded the vibrations generated by wild elephants in Kenya while walking and calling, using instruments known as geophones. Seismological modelling software that incorporates the local geological information was combined with computer algorithms to produce accurate estimates of the seismic waves produced by elephants. They filmed the animals during recordings and later synchronised the two to allow them to visually confirm that the vibrations originated from elephants. They found that other noise and soil type affected their ability to distinguish the patterns over long distances. Vibrations travel farther through sand than through hard rock and also when little other noise is present to interfere. Finding out what elephants are doing, even when they are some distance away, could help fight poaching in real time as well as offering insights into their behaviour, they said. Their findings were published in a paper for journal Current Biology earlier this year. Save The Elephants' chief executive, Frank Pope said of the research: "Legends and folklore have long spoken about the way elephants cannot only communicate across long distances, but also detect other events that shake the ground like far-off thunder.