1-17-19 BBC America's new animal documentary Dynasties is more gripping than Game of Thrones
A queen locked in a bloody war against her power-hungry daughter. A grande dame struggling to keep her subjects alive. A princeling abducted from his parents by a jealous emperor. Each could easily be subplots in Game of Thrones, but these stories instead make up three of the five episodes in BBC America's new nature documentary series, Dynasties. Cleverly focusing on the ruling family unit as it exists in nature, the show's twist on the natural history genre makes Dynasties as gripping as any human royal drama, fictional or otherwise. Four years in the making, Dynasties comes from the same group behind the beloved productions Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. Each of the five hour-long episodes are presented by the inimitable 92-year-old David Attenborough, and will be simulcast beginning Saturday across the BBC America, AMC, IFC, and SundanceTV channels. Specifically, Dynasties zeroes in on five different animal "characters": Charm the lioness; David the chimpanzee; Raj Bhera the tigeress; and Tait and Blacktip the painted wolves. There's also a colony of emperor penguins. But unlike other nature documentaries that dutifully narrate the onscreen action, Dynasties, as the name suggests, applies a monarchical frame to its animal matriarchs and patriarchs. "We join each family at a crucial moment in their lives, when they're battling against the odds, fighting for survival against the elements and against rivals," Attenborough explains in the show's intro. And because of the incredible access the videographer teams had with their subjects — several of the episodes took two years to complete — Dynasties makes you feel as if you know David and Blacktip the way you know Catelyn Stark and Daenerys Targaryen. (Hyenas, which appear as the villains in two of the episodes, are undoubtedly the White Walkers in this analogy).
1-17-19 This rediscovered Bolivian frog species survived deadly chytrid fungus
The species was feared to be extinct, except for one lonely male. Save for one “lonely” survivor in captivity, the Sehuencas water frog hadn’t been seen in the wild since 2008. That’s when its numbers collapsed, primarily due to chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease that has devastated frog populations worldwide. Fearing the species might be extinct, some scientists spent 10 years searching the Bolivian mountain forests for the amphibians. Now, they’ve found a tiny population of five. “It’s just incredible,” says herpetologist Robin Moore, communications director at Global Wildlife Conservation in Austin, Texas. He was among the scientists who announced the discovery on January 15. With no current way to get rid of the lethal chytrid fungus in the wild, scientists are keen to study the survivors, Moore says. The five Sehuencas water frogs (Telmatobius yuracare) were found in their native habitat: the Bolivian mountain cloud forests, where the climate is moist and cool — and ideal for chytrid to grow. “It could be that this small population has immunity” or genetic resistance, Moore says. “It could be an environmental factor,” such as an unusually warm microclimate. It could also just be nature’s luck. “Many species of frogs that disappeared for years — decades in some cases — have been seen again later,” says ecologist Karen Lips of the University of Maryland in College Park. In December 2018, for example, researchers announced they had rediscovered Ecuador’s marsupial horned frog, more than 10 years after the species disappeared.
1-16-19 Long penises help hermit crabs avoid being robbed during sex
Some hermit crabs have unusually large penises, and now we might know why. A long penis allows a male crab to have sex without leaving the shell he calls home, reducing the risk it will be stolen while he is busy. Many species of hermit crabs protect themselves from predators by moving into empty mollusc shells, which they then carry around with them. Mark Laidre at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, calls the mollusc shells a form of hermit crab private property. A few hermit crab species – especially those in a group called the Coenobita – modify their private property: spending months or even years tearing away some of hard material inside the shell to make it a roomier and more comfortable dwelling. But remodelled shells are potentially seen as more desirable, which can make them a tempting target for theft by another hermit crab especially when the homeowner is preoccupied. Laidre wondered whether this risk of theft might explain a curious feature of Coenobita hermit crab anatomy – namely, that some males have penises that can be 60 per cent as long as the rest of their bodies. Laidre’s idea was that a male with a larger penis can remain inside his valuable home during sex and simply extend his penis out of the shell towards the female. A male with a shorter penis would have to creep out of his shell for sex, which would mean leaving his private property unoccupied and at risk of being stolen. Laidre dubs this the ‘private parts for private property’ hypothesis.
1-16-19 How hagfish can make enough slime to clog a shark’s jaws in seconds
When a hagfish is attacked by a shark, it spews out a defensive slime that clogs up the predator’s jaws, allowing the hagfish to escape. The slime rapidly expands in milliseconds, and now we know how. Gaurav Chaudhary at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his colleagues modelled the hydrodynamics of hagfish slime, determining the mathematics that govern the goo. Hagfish slime is made up of mucus cells and 1-micrometre-thick thread-like fibres. Each of these fibres is about 10 to 16 centimetres long, and is twisted into a ball that is a fraction of a millimetre in diameter. It looks a little like a skein of yarn with a single loose thread sticking out of one side. When deployed, such threads fully unravel in under 0.4 seconds to help form a fibrous network for the mucus to stick to. “Some experiments have suggested that the threads unravel because seawater dissolves a protective membrane around them, but the timescale doesn’t work,” Chaudhary says. “It happens much faster than that in nature.” To figure out how the threads unravel so quickly, Chaudhary first tested whether a skein would fully unravel on its own in salt water, or whether it required force pulling on the loose end of the thread. “Only when I applied force did it unravel,” he says. Then he and his team explored the various forces that would pull the loose threads in a shark-eat-hagfish situation. They modelled a number of scenarios, including one where the loose thread was stuck to a surface but the skein itself was floating free, one where the skein was stuck and the thread was floating free, and one where both were free.
1-16-19 Cuttlefish embryos can see and recognise predators before they hatch
CUTTLEFISH can see and respond to threats while still in the egg. Even more impressively, they can learn to recognise predators by sight days before they hatch. “They are pretty smart,” says Anne-Sophie Darmaillacq of the University of Caen Normandy in France. Many animals are forced to fend for themselves from the moment they hatch. Some fish and amphibians can sense the outside world while still in the egg and start preparing for the conditions they will face. For instance, salamanders exposed to the scent of predators while in the egg will spend more time sheltering after they hatch. Now Darmaillacq and her colleagues have shown that embryos of pharaoh cuttlefish (Sepia pharaonis), which grow in eggs that are nearly transparent, can respond to the sight of predators and to cuttlefish ink. Male pharaoh cuttlefish die soon after mating and the females die after laying eggs, usually placing them under rocks on the seabed. So for the 24 days or so it takes for the eggs to develop, the offspring are on their own. For the last few days they can see what is happening around them. The team put cuttlefish embryos in the final stages of development into small, sealed glass containers. These were then put inside a larger tank. When pufferfish, which eat cuttlefish eggs, were placed in the tank, the breathing rate of the embryos fell. This is thought to be part of a “freeze” response that makes the eggs harder to spot by reducing movement. It also reduces the strength of electric impulses from their nerves and muscles that can be sensed by sharks. The embryos responded in a similar way when exposed to clouds of black ink like those released by adult cuttlefish fleeing predators. But they didn’t react to clownfish, which don’t eat cuttlefish eggs.
1-14-19 Dolphins unintentionally poisoning offspring with banned chemicals
Some industrial chemicals that were banned more than 30 years ago are still being passed on to dolphins born today. A new study has found that pollutants called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), banned from use in Europe since the 1980s, persist in the Mediterranean Sea and show up in high quantities in bottlenose dolphins that swim those waters. Male dolphins were found to have significantly higher concentrations of PCBs in their blubber than females, which suggests that females offload these pollutants to their offspring. “Once a female has a calf, a lot of these fats will mobilise from their blubber into the milk, and consequently into the calf,” says Tilen Genov at the Slovenian Marine Mammal Society, who led the study. He says recent research also suggests that PCBs can be transferred through the placenta. Genov and his colleagues tracked 32 dolphins in the Gulf of Trieste from 2011 to 2017, taking samples of skin and blubber tissue. Overall 87.5 per cent of the dolphins had PCB concentrations above 9 milligrams per kilogram of lipid weight, the threshold at which physiological problems like hormonal disruptions begin, says Genov. Previous research has found that 41 milligrams per kilogram of lipid weight is the threshold of PCB contamination in ringed seals where reproduction begins to be impaired. In the current study, 65.6 per cent of the bottlenose dolphins had levels of PCBs in their blubber higher than this. Female dolphins that had not given birth also had significantly higher toxicity levels than females with calves. The pollutants affect firstborn dolphins more, because many of the toxins the female dolphin has accumulated throughout her life will find their way into her milk when she begins feeding her first infant. Provided she has calves at regular intervals, the level of contamination in her body tissue will stay relatively low.
1-14-19 Rich people’s gardens are better for bees and other pollinators
Pollinating insects, such as bees, seem to prefer richer areas. This may be because gardens in wealthier areas typically have a wider range of flowers. A team surveyed the distribution of plants and pollinating insects in four cities in the UK: Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds and Reading. They found that residential, allotments and community gardens supported a greater abundance of pollinators than other types of urban land, such as parks and road verges. “This is consistent with the so-called ‘luxury effect’ whereby socioeconomic status is often positively correlated with urban biodiversity,” wrote the team in their paper. “In our case, the effect is driven by the greater quality of floral resources for pollinators in wealthier neighbourhoods.” Up to 50 times more bees were found in gardens than in areas with man-made surfaces including car parks and industrial estates. The authors recommend increasing the number of flowers in parks and other public green spaces and providing more allotments in towns and cities to increase the number of pollinating insects. “By understanding the impact of each urban land use on pollinators, whether it’s gardens, allotments, road verges or parks, we can make cities better places for pollinators,” says Jane Memmott at the University of Bristol, who runs the Urban Pollinators Project.
1-11-19 How worm blobs behave like a liquid and a solid
Scientists are studying how the animals move collectively when tangled together by the thousands. Blobs of worms flow like a fluid, plop like a solid and fascinate scientists. A worm by itself is as solid as any other living animal. But a mass of aquatic California blackworms tangled together flows through a tube like a liquid. Pouring, heating and otherwise playing with blobs of worms shows that a tangled mass of them has properties of both fluids and solids, Saad Bhamla reported January 5 at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. A blob can hold itself together like a solid: When released to fall a short distance on a hard surface, it plops instead of splashing, Bhamla, a biophysicist at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, said. And video from his lab also revealed a worm blob version of melting. In a container of water where a hot spot develops, the blob starts fraying and “melts” away as some blackworms (Lumbriculus variegatus) disentangle themselves and swim off, while others collectively move to a spot with a lower temperature. Adding chilly water, however, will cause the blob to solidify again as the animals rejoin the ball. Blobs of worms that ooze along as a mass might help advance the study of biological physics, Bhamla said. Unlike some more famous animal group behaviors, such as birds flocking or fish schooling, worms tangling in a blob nudge against each other and transfer forces directly. Such contact matters in some of biophysics’ profound questions about how little bits of soft matter come together as multicellular life.
1-10-19 Poison toilet paper reveals how termites help rainforests resist drought
Forests with more termites show better soil nutrient distribution and leaf litter removal. It took hundreds of teabags and thousands of rolls of toilet paper for tropical ecologist Kate Parr and her colleagues to demonstrate that termites help tropical rainforests resist drought. Forests with more termites show more soil moisture, leaf litter decomposition and seedling survival during a drought than forests with fewer termites, the scientists report January 10 in Science. The study was part of a project by the University of Liverpool and the Natural History Museum in London to examine how ants and termites affect decomposition and consumption of seeds, fruits and carcasses in rainforests of the Maliau Basin Conservation Area in northern Borneo. Termites play an important role in tropical ecosystems, but “nobody knows exactly how important they are,” says Parr from the University of Liverpool. To isolate the effect of termites from the other soil critters, Parr’s team exploited termites’ cellulose diet. In 2014, the researchers buried insecticide-soaked rolls of toilet paper as well as tainted teabags in four forest plots, each about the size of five Olympic swimming pools. Toilet rolls are like cotton candy for termites, Parr says, “this really amazing, easy-to-digest food for termites.” The team used poisoned teabags just in case some termites “were fussy and didn’t eat the toilet paper.” Termites died after eating the poisoned baits, while the 14 other most commonly found invertebrate groups, including ants and beetles, were unaffected. None of these other critters nosh on hard-to-digest cellulose.
1-10-19 Bumblebees lose sleep looking after the young by napping half as much
In some ways, bumblebees are just like us. When they’re tending to their queen’s offspring, they lose significantly more sleep than they do away from the presence of the brood. In bumblebee colonies, worker bees tend to the queen’s eggs as they move into the larva and then pupa stages before becoming adults. To see if this takes a toll on the amount of sleep the bees get, Guy Bloch at Hebrew University in Israel and his colleagues compared the sleep behaviour of bumblebees during periods of caring for the young and time away from the brood. Using high-speed video, they tracked bees as they moved around, considering a bee to be asleep if it was motionless for more than 5 minutes. Bees who were tending to larva, the worm-like state that worker bees feed with honey and pollen, got about twice as much daily sleep as those that were tending pupae, which the worker bees actively groom and incubate by wrapping their legs around it and vibrating their abdomens. For bees tending pupae, the number of naps they took decreased, but the duration of sleep each time did not. The presence of a pupa also increased the worker bee’s time spent building wax pots, which was correlated with reduced sleep. Pupae don’t need to be fed by the worker bees, so it’s not just the heightened activity of caring for their young that’s keeping bees up at night. Just the presence of empty cocoons was enough to impact the bees’ sleep.
1-10-19 Wasp eggs laid on paralysed insects emit gas that keeps victims fresh
A bee-killing wasp lays eggs that emit toxic gas – a food hygiene technique that keeps the larvae’s dinner fresh until they hatch. The European beewolf’s eggs spew out large amounts of nitric oxide (NO), which reacts with oxygen in the air to form nitrogen dioxide (NO2). The gases destroy microbes such as fungi that threaten food resources for the offspring. The beewolf paralyses its prey by stinging them with venon. It then lays eggs on the paralysed bodies of bees, which provides a handy meal for hatched larvae. But the dank soil where egg-laying occurs is microbe-rich, so the bees can get consumed by mould in the three days before larvae emerge. Fumigation prevents the hapless bee from spoiling. Erhard Strohm at the University of Regensburg got a whiff of the mechanism during experiments with beewolves that had laid eggs inside lab containers. A swimming pool aroma caused by NO2 was noticeable when the containers were opened. “The smell is really strong sometimes and it differs from brood cell to brood cell a bit,” he says. Strohm and his colleagues confirmed the presence of nitrogen oxides with a simple reactive dye test. “It’s kind of undeniably cool that the wasp has evolved mitigations for a pest control strategy,” says Tobin Hammer at the University of Texas at Austin. He says he can’t think of another example of naturally-occurring fumigation in the insect world. Nichole Broderick at the University of Connecticut says she is stumped too. Strohm and his team also identified a gene in the beewolf eggs that is missing a common instruction known to limit NO production. It is possible that this is why the eggs generate so much noxious gas.
1-10-19 Floating seabirds provide a novel way to trace ocean currents
Data from GPS trackers on shearwaters matched those collected by buoys and other tools. Seabirds are like feathered buoys. Gently rafting on the ocean’s surface, these birds go with the flow, making them excellent proxies for tracking changes in a current’s speed and direction. Oceanographers traditionally use radar, floating buoys or autonomous underwater vehicles to measure ocean current velocities, which can affect the climate, ecosystems and the movement of important seafood. But some ocean regions aren’t easily accessible. Seabirds lazily resting on the ocean surface could offer a novel alternative to collecting those data, researchers report online January 10 in Scientific Reports. “I don’t think it’s going to replace the various instruments we use,” says Evan Mason, a physical oceanographer at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It was just interesting to see what we might find.” Mason and his colleagues outfitted 75 Scopoli’s shearwaters (Calonectris diomedea), a seabird found in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, with GPS tags and tracked their movements in the Balearic Sea off eastern Spain. On average, the birds spent only 10 percent of their time idly drifting on the water, but the team still collected 405 trajectories, the researchers say. Visually comparing wind and water velocity information with the way birds drifted, the researchers determined ocean currents, winds or both drove the animals’ direction, excluding some that preferred hitching a boat ride instead. The team then compared those tracks with satellite- and buoy-derived data of winds and surface currents and found they matched well.
1-9-19 Crows can guess the weight of an object by watching it sway in wind
It’s obvious to us that objects moved by a gentle breeze must be light, and those that don’t move are heavy, but can animals make this deduction? In the case of New Caledonian crows, the answer appears to be yes. “As humans, we have a very full understanding of what weight means across a variety of contexts,” says Sarah Jelbert, who led the study at the University of Cambridge, UK. “We don’t know if animals have these broad conceptions about the concept of weight in the same way that humans do.” Jelbert and her colleagues first trained 12 crows to discriminate between light and heavy objects. Six birds were rewarded when they dropped light objects into a food dispenser, and six were rewarded for choosing heavy objects. During this initial training, the birds were able to touch and pick up the objects. Then pairs of unfamiliar objects – one light and one heavy – were suspended from strings in front of an electric fan before the birds could interact with them. After seeing how they moved in front of the fan, the birds touched the correct object first, according to the rule they learned earlier, in 73 per cent of tests. If the test was done with the fan switched off, the birds did no better than chance. New Caledonian crows are famously fast learners with particularly impressive tool-making skills. In the wild, they often drop nuts on the ground to crack them open. The weight of a nut can indicate whether it’s good to eat, or rotten, so being able to infer weight by observation could be useful to them while foraging, says Jelbert.
1-8-19 Flowers hear bees and make sweeter nectar when they’re buzzing nearby
Evening primrose flowers can hear approaching bees and quickly make their nectar sweeter in response to the sound. Lilach Hadany and colleagues at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, collected nectar from flowers before and after exposing them to a range of sounds, including recordings of bees and synthetic noises. Within three minutes of exposure to bee sounds or artificial sounds of a similar frequency, the flowers increased the concentration of sugar in their nectar by 20 per cent on average. There was no change in sugar levels in flowers played no sound, or higher-frequency sounds. Bees are highly sensitive to differences in sugar concentration, preferring to go after higher calorie nectar. By improving the rewards on offer, plants may benefit by encouraging the pollinators to spend longer visiting the plant, or to visit more flowers of the same species. Enhancing sugar levels when pollinators approach might help a plant save energy in the long run, and reduce the risk of nectar being degraded by microbes or stolen by ants. “Nectar can be a significant energy investment, and thus keeping a constantly high level of sugar can be wasteful,” says Hadany. How plants detect the sound of bees is unknown. However, using highly sensitive laser instruments, the researchers found that the evening primrose flowers vibrate when played recordings of bee or moth sounds. Hadany thinks that flowers may receive sound pressure in a similar way to ears. When petals were removed from flowers, they vibrated less when played the sound clips, suggesting petals may help receive or amplify pollinator sounds.
1-8-19 Why more female penguins are washing up dead in South America
Every year, thousands of penguins become stranded on South America's coast - with females three times more likely to wash up dead or injured than males. Now scientists from Japan and Argentina have concluded this is because female Magellanic penguins are migrating further north in search of food than their male counterparts.
1-7-19 Green darner dragonflies migrate a bit like monarch butterflies
Each annual migratory loop takes multiple generations. The monarch butterfly isn’t the only insect flying up and down North America in a mind-boggling annual migration. Tests show a big, shimmering dragonfly takes at least three generations to make one year’s migratory loop. Ecologist Michael Hallworth and his colleagues pieced together the migration of the common green darner, described December 19 in Biology Letters, using data on forms of hydrogen in the insects’ wings, plus records of first arrivals spotted by citizen scientists. The study reveals that a first generation of insects emerges in the southern United States, Mexico and the Caribbean from about February to May and migrates north. Some of those Anax junius reach New England and the upper Midwest as early as March, says Hallworth, of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center headquartered in Washington, D.C. Those spring migrant darners lay eggs in ponds and other quiet waters in the north and eventually die in the region. This new generation migrates south from about July until late October, though they have never seen where they’re heading. Some of these darners fly south in the same year their parents arrived and some the next year, after overwintering as nymphs. A third generation emerges around November and lives entirely in the south during winter. It’s their offspring that start the cycle again by swarming northward as temperatures warm in the spring. With a wingspan as wide as a hand, they devote their whole lives to flying hundreds of kilometers to repeat a journey their great-grandparents made.
1-5-19 Japan sushi tycoon pays record tuna price
A Japanese sushi boss has paid a record $3.1m (£2.5m) for a giant tuna at the first new year's auction in Tokyo's new fish market. Self-styled "Tuna King" Kiyoshi Kimura bought the 278kg (612lbs) bluefin tuna, which is an endangered species. He spent more than twice the previous record of $1.4m, which he paid in 2013. Wholesalers and sushi company owners often pay high prices for the best fish at the first pre-dawn auction of the new year. "I bought a good tuna," Mr Kimura told AFP after the auction. "The price was higher than originally thought, but I hope our customers will eat this excellent tuna." Mr Kimura has been the highest bidder at the new year auction for seven of the past eight years. (Webmaster's comment: What chance does wildlife have against the greed inspired by this!) On a normal day a similar sized fish would sell for around $60,000. Today's record is in part about status - and it creates a lot of publicity for Mr Kimura and his sushi empire. But it is also a reflection of the scarcity of large Pacific bluefin tuna. They are officially listed by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) as an endangered species. In 2018 catches off the coast of Japan were significantly down, and since the middle of last year prices in Tokyo have climbed by more than 40%. (Webmaster's comment: Someday the last wild animal will be killed so the rich can eat it!)
1-4-19 Rabbits that don’t eat their own faeces are small and weak
Rabbits have a taste for their own faeces – and now we know why. The small mammals produce both soft and hard faeces, and will routinely eat the soft ones. It turns out that eating soft faeces helps the rabbits digest their food and gain weight at a healthy rate. To test what effect a faeces-containing diet has on rabbits, Ming Li at the Henan Agricultural University in China and his team raised two groups of New Zealand rabbits. Some were allowed to eat their own faeces freely and others wore a cone-shaped collar that stopped them from eating anything but the food they were given by the researchers. Previous work has shown that rabbits prohibited from eating faeces take in 15 to 22 per cent less microbial protein, as their digestive system may not be efficient enough to absorb nutrients quickly before food is expelled as waste. Rabbit faeces include a variety of microorganisms that may be required to populate the gut and aid in digestion. When Li’s team compared their two groups of rabbits after 90 days, they found that those that were prohibited from eating faeces had significantly lower body weight. Their weight gain over the three-month study was 32 per cent less than the rabbits without collars, even though both groups took in the same amount of food. The collared rabbits also had livers that weighed less than the livers of rabbits in the control group. Retinoic acid – formed from ingested vitamin A – is stored in the liver, and a lack of retinoic acid can lead to abnormal organ development. The team analysed the genes expressed in the livers of both groups of rabbits, and found that genes related to retinoic acid were less active in the rabbits that didn’t eat their own faeces. Collectively, this suggests that rabbits must ingest their faeces to develop a healthy liver – and ensure healthy organ development.
1-4-19 Japan’s plan to resume commercial whaling could actually help whales
Japan’s move is bad news for whales within its waters, but spells the end of high seas whaling, says Matthew Collis. As 2018 drew to a close, Japan used the cover of the holiday season to confirm that it will quit the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and “resume” commercial whaling. Of course, Japan has never really stopped. Since a ban on the practice came into force in 1986, Japan continued supplying its whale meat market under the guise of “scientific” whaling, slaughtering more than 15,000 animals in the intervening years. This supposed research has been repeatedly discredited, both by scientific panels set up by the IWC and by international courts and conventions. What has changed is that Japan now says it will withdraw from the Southern Ocean and hunt whales only in its own waters. That is welcome news for whales in the high seas, which will no longer be pursued for science that nobody respects and products that nobody needs. It is good news for legitimate science, too. The only whale science to take place in the Antarctic under the auspices of the IWC from next year will be non-lethal research via the multi-nation Southern Ocean Research Partnership. Japan’s departure will allow that work to continue without being overshadowed by a discredited programme. Japan’s announcement comes while its whaling fleet is killing whales in the Southern Ocean. Given it says it will end its Antarctic whaling when its withdrawal from the IWC comes into effect at the end of June, there is no reason for it to continue its “scientific” slaughter now. Instead, it should immediately withdraw its whaling fleet. The International Fund for Animal Welfare, where I work, expects conservation-minded members of the IWC to be demanding no less. Of course, Japan’s announcement is bad news for whales in Japanese waters. The country claims it will set catch limits in accordance with methods adopted by the IWC. What is more likely is it will develop its own version of the IWC method, one designed to produce catch quotas that meet domestic market needs and political imperatives, not the IWC’s sustainability criteria. It will be important for the international community to scrutinise these plans carefully when more detail is revealed.
1-4-19 A subterranean ecosystem
The ground beneath our feet is teeming with a diverse ecosystem that is almost double the size of all the life found in the world’s oceans. That’s the conclusion of 1,200 scientists who are nearing the end of a decade-long international project to examine the mysterious microbes that inhabit Earth’s subsurface, reports ScienceDaily.com. Researchers with the Deep Carbon Observatory gathered samples from hundreds of underground sites around the world—including diamond mines, 3-mile-deep boreholes, and underwater mud volcanoes. They calculated that the subterranean ecosystem could contain up to 25 billion tons of carbon—hundreds of times more than is woven into all 7.5 billion humans. Some 70 percent of the microbes on Earth are thought to live in the subsurface, including many organisms that are unlike anything above ground. Some breathe uranium and expel the waste as crystals, while others live in deep-sea hydrothermal vents with temperatures of 250 degrees Fahrenheit. “It’s probably reasonable to assume that the subsurface of other planets and their moons is habitable,” says Rick Colwell, a professor from Oregon State University, “especially since we’ve seen here on Earth that organisms can function far away from sunlight.”
1-3-19 Fetal sharks may look for food by swimming around inside their mothers
Sharks are agile swimmers, even before they are born. Underwater ultrasound scans have revealed that shark fetuses can swim from one of their mother’s twin uteruses to the other. Most mammal fetuses remain sedentary in their mothers’ wombs. Like mammals, some sharks give birth to live young instead of eggs, leading scientists to assume that fetal sharks probably stay put too. Taketeru Tomita at Okinawa Churashima Research Center in Japan and his colleagues have now discovered that this isn’t the case. Using a newly developed underwater ultrasound machine, the team monitored three pregnant tawny nurse sharks living in the Okinawa Churashima Aquarium. Female sharks have two connected uteruses, aligned side by side. Conducting 44 ultrasound scans throughout the sharks’ pregnancies, the team found that the number of fetuses in each of a shark’s two uteruses kept changing, from two months into pregnancy onwards. This suggests that the fetal sharks swim from one uterus to another. To swim between uteruses, a fetus must navigate through a tight, U-shaped bend. The ultrasound footage showed one fetal shark wiggling its tail as it moved from one uterus to another at a speed of 8 centimetres per second. It is unclear why these animals begin swimming inside their mother before birth, but Tomita thinks they may be looking for food. Like some other shark species, fetal tawny nurse sharks are known to feed on undeveloped eggs. It is possible that fetal sharks move between uteruses in search of more eggs to eat. Tomita thinks the eggs eaten in the womb are probably unfertilised, but we don’t know for sure.
1-2-19 Black-haired monkeys in Costa Rica are suddenly turning blonde
One group of monkeys is going through an unexpected transition – their coats are changing rapidly from charcoal black to creamy yellow. Hair colour in primates is controlled by melanin. It comes in two forms: eumelanin, which is responsible for brown and black hues, and pheomelanin, which produces yellow and red tones. The mix of melanin in an animal’s skin and hair is determined by DNA, so the natural hair colour of individuals belonging to the same species should remain relatively fixed. That’s why Ismael Galván at the Doñana Biological Station in Spain and his colleagues were so surprised when they spotted several mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) in Costa Rica that have patches of blonde hair on their limbs and tails. Normally, these monkeys have a fully black coat. To find out what happened, the team collected samples of black hair and blonde hair from a mantled howler monkey. Galván found its blonde hair contains pheomelanin instead of the eumelanin that the monkeys usually produce. “I don’t know any precedent example of a conspicuous colour change in a given population of a wild animal,” says Galván. Back in 2001, none of the mantled howler monkeys in Costa Rica had blonde hair. In 2013, a dozen mantled howler monkeys were spotted with yellow hair on the tip of their limbs and tails. The most recent observation suggests that there are at least 21 individuals with the yellow colouration. Moreover, the patches are increasing in size – and two of the monkeys have a fully yellow coat with no black hair.
1-1-19 How an ant colony remembers
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Like a brain, an ant colony operates without central control. Each is a set of interacting individuals, either neurons or ants, using simple chemical interactions that in the aggregate generate their behavior. People use their brains to remember. Can ant colonies do that? This question leads to another question: What is memory? For people, memory is the capacity to recall something that happened in the past. We also ask computers to reproduce past actions — the blending of the idea of the computer as brain and brain as computer has led us to take "memory" to mean something like the information stored on a hard drive. We know that our memory relies on changes in how much a set of linked neurons stimulate each other; that it is reinforced somehow during sleep; and that recent and long-term memory involve different circuits of connected neurons. But there is much we still don't know about how those neural events come together, whether there are stored representations that we use to talk about something that happened in the past, or how we can keep performing a previously learned task such as reading or riding a bicycle. Any living being can exhibit the simplest form of memory, a change due to past events. Look at a tree that has lost a branch. It remembers by how it grows around the wound, leaving traces in the pattern of the bark and the shape of the tree. You might be able to describe the last time you had the flu, or you might not. Either way, in some sense your body "remembers," because some of your cells now have different antibodies, molecular receptors, which fit that particular virus. Past events can alter the behavior of both individual ants and ant colonies. Individual carpenter ants offered a sugar treat remembered its location for a few minutes; they were likely to return to where the food had been. Another species, the Sahara Desert ant, meanders around the barren desert, searching for food. It appears that an ant of this species can remember how far it walked, or how many steps it took, since the last time it was at the nest. A red wood ant colony remembers its trail system leading to the same trees, year after year, although no single ant does. In the forests of Europe, they forage in high trees to feed on the excretions of aphids that in turn feed on the tree. Their nests are enormous mounds of pine needles situated in the same place for decades, occupied by many generations of colonies. Each ant tends to take the same trail, day after day, to the same tree. During the long winter, the ants huddle together under the snow. The Finnish myrmecologist Rainer Rosengren showed that when the ants emerge in the spring, an older ant goes out with a young one along the older ant's habitual trail. The older ant dies, and the younger ant adopts that trail as its own, thus leading the colony to remember, or reproduce, the previous year's trails.