2-28-19 How singing mice belt out duets
Songs of musical rodents may offer insights into human conversation. In the understory of Central American cloud forests, musical mice trill songs to one another. Now a study of the charismatic creatures reveals how their brains orchestrate these rapid-fire duets. The results, published in the March 1 Science, show that the brains of singing mice split up the musical work. One brain system directs the patterns of notes that make up songs, while another coordinates duets with another mouse, which are carried out with split-second precision. The study suggests that “a quirky animal from the cloud forest of Costa Rica could give us a brand new insight,” into the rapid give-and-take in people’s conversations, says study coauthor Michael Long, a neuroscientist at New York University’s School of Medicine. Quirks abound in these mice, known as Alston’s singing mice (Scotinomys teguina). Like famous singers with extreme green room demands, these mice are “kind of divas,” Long says, requiring larger terrariums, exercise equipment and a very special diet. In the lab, standard mouse chow doesn’t cut it; instead, singing mice feast on fresh meal worm, dry cat food and fresh fruits and berries, says Bret Pasch. The biologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff has studied these singing mice for years but wasn’t involved in this study. The mice are also, of course, loud. “They’re very vocal,” particularly in the confines of a lab, Pasch says. “Once an animal calls, it’s like a symphony that goes off,” with repeating calls. In the wild, these duets are thought to attract mates and stake out territory.
2-28-19 What spiders eating weird stuff tell us about complex Amazon food webs
Rare views of invertebrates munching on vertebrates include a tarantula and an opossum. Rudolf von May has seen some pretty wild things in Peru’s Amazon rainforest. But this took things to a whole new level. There, caught on a team member’s cell phone video, was a giant tarantula, about the size of a dinner plate, weeble-wobbling through the leaf litter with the body of what was later identified as a mouse opossum hanging from its fangs. “It was very surprising, to some extent shocking,” says von May, an ecologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, of the first-ever recording of such an encounter. “It’s very rare to see mammals being preyed upon by a large spider.” Along with his colleagues, von May has made regular three- to four-week trips to the rainforest for at least the past 10 years. Each night, the team divides into groups and hikes through thick humidity and clouds of biting insects to collect data on amphibians and reptiles — from counting critters to taking tissue samples. And, it turns out, they’ve also discovered some surprising insights into who’s eating who. From 2008 to 2017, the team documented 15 instances of invertebrates preying on vertebrates. These encounters included everything from a wandering spider gripping a Bolivian bleating frog, to a centipede eating an extremely poisonous juvenile coral snake that it had decapitated. And, of course, there was the jaw-dropping tarantula vs. opossum. The findings were published February 28 in Amphibian & Reptile Conservation.
2-27-19 Treating mosquitoes may be a new way to fight malaria
A novel strategy targets malaria-causing Plasmodium parasites in mosquitoes. The fight against malaria may someday include ridding mosquitoes themselves of the parasites that cause the disease. In the lab, treating female mosquitoes with an antimalarial drug stopped parasites from developing inside the insects. Mosquitoes were exposed to the treatment when they landed on a drug-coated glass surface for as little as six minutes, comparable to how long mosquitoes stop on protective bed nets as they hunt for a meal, researchers report online February 27 in Nature. “People have been exploring ways to control insect pests for an awful long time,” says Joshua Yukich, a malaria epidemiologist at Tulane University in New Orleans who was not involved in the research. A strategy that kills malaria-causing parasites in mosquitoes “is pretty exciting.” It may be possible to make insecticide-treated bed nets even more effective by adding antimalarial compounds, he says. Malaria, caused by Plasmodium parasites and spread by the bites of Anopheles mosquitoes, is a flulike illness with high fever and chills. Without treatment, it can be fatal: In 2017, there were 219 million cases of malaria worldwide, mostly in Africa, and 435,000 deaths, mainly in children. Since 2000, an international effort to combat malaria in Africa has prevented an estimated 663 million cases, researchers say, largely thanks to insecticide-treated bed nets. The nets kill mosquitoes and help protect sleepers from bites. But that progress has been threatened with the emergence of insecticide-resistant mosquitoes.
2-27-19 This parasitic cuckoo bird shows cheaters don’t always get ahead
Anis that slip extra eggs into other nests end up with as many surviving chicks as honest anis. Cheating pays, sort of. But for a glossy blue-black bird with a bright yellow eye, cheating doesn’t outdo regular honest parenting. The greater ani, a type of cuckoo found from Panama to the Amazon Basin, usually starts out as a dutiful parent. Two or three male-female pairs typically build and fill a communal nest “like a big basket of eggs,” says behavioral ecologist Christina Riehl of Princeton University. But if a snake or some other disaster kills the young, a bereft female sometimes gets sneaky. She slips into neighboring ani nests and leaves an egg here and there that she won’t care for, but the rightful nest owners might. Not all females from trashed nests do that. Some just wait for the next breeding season, when all the birds get a fresh start building another nest. Greater anis’ sporadic cheating offers a rare chance to compare the success of egg-sneaks with honest mothers in the same species. Over 11 breeding seasons, Riehl and colleagues determined the parentage of more than 1,700 eggs and found 65 eggs in foster nests. Mothers that parasitize other nests in this way seem to lay more eggs a year, on average, Riehl says. “It’s actually kind of hard to be a parasite,” she says. But the average number of chicks that survived to flutter out of the nest on their own frantic wing power was about the same for all females, Riehl and Princeton colleague Meghan Strong report online February 27 in Nature. The mothers that always cooperated averaged about one fledgling a year, and so did the females that laid stealth eggs.
2-27-19 Webspinners: New order of insects sets up home in UK
The UK has a new order of insects, thanks to stowaways that set up home in the warmth of a glasshouse. The silk-spinning insects, known as webspinners, seemingly hitched a ride on imported plants. They survived undetected until a botanist at RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey, noticed webs appearing on the roots of orchids. The creepy crawlies were subsequently identified as the first "full thriving colony" of webspinners in the UK. Since webspinners are unlikely to survive outdoors, their arrival is "neither good nor bad news", rather "interesting", said principal entomologist, Dr Andy Salisbury. The colony came to light last summer when several mystery insects and their young were found inside silk webs in the orchid collection at the garden. They were subsequently identified as webspinners in what appears to be the first discovery of an established colony in the UK. Dr Salisbury said as a tropical insect they are unlikely to survive outdoors in Britain, but may be found elsewhere in plant collections inside glasshouses. While a few of the insects have been intercepted in the past on imported plants and stone, this is the first time a "full thriving colony" has been discovered.It is not clear when the webspinners first arrived, but they do not appear to be causing any damage to living plants. Scientists say the insects are "exotic" rather than "invasive". "The difference is that the former means they came from somewhere else, by human trade in this case, but they are not highly competitive with native species," said Janice Edgerly-Rooks, professor of biology at Santa Clara University. "They do not damage the ecosystem or ecological community of the new region." Matt Shardlow, chief executive of the charity Buglife, said the find highlighted the risk of imported insects that can survive in the British climate becoming established. He said there had been reports of crickets, grasshoppers, moths, beetles and slugs emerging from the soil of imported plants. "It's an indication of some of the stuff that is arriving and the unpredictability of what's going to come next," he said.
2-27-19 Light pollution has reached fragile habitats and may threaten wildlife
LIGHT pollution is now so bad that a dull orange “skyglow” obscures the stars in more than two-thirds of the world’s crucial habitats. And we have almost no idea how this affects wildlife. There are two kinds of light pollution. The first is the intense brightness close to artificial lights like street lights, which often means night-time cities are lit up like Christmas trees, and we know a lot about its effects on nature. But further from cities, although there is less bright light, there is still a diffuse orange glow in the sky. This skyglow is widespread: about a third of people cannot see the Milky Way at night because of it. Jo Garrett at the University of Exeter, UK, and her colleagues have now mapped how far skyglow has penetrated into havens for threatened wildlife known as Key Biodiversity Areas. They took existing satellite data on the global spread of skyglow and overlaid the locations of these wildlife hotspots. About half the biodiversity areas had artificially bright skies throughout, and fewer than a third had no light pollution at all. Rates of light pollution were significantly higher in Europe and the Middle East, where a higher proportion of the biodiversity areas experienced skyglow, than in other regions. Garrett’s team also found that more of the biodiversity areas were affected in regions that were wealthier and more densely populated (Animal Conservation, doi.org/c23f). This is a warning to emerging economies, says Christopher Kyba at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam. “There’s a problem coming for these places, because they’re going to develop, and when they do they’re going to get very bright.” However, we don’t know what the effects of spreading skyglow will be.
2-26-19 ‘Mama’s Last Hug’ showcases the emotional lives of animals
Primatologist Frans de Waal explores the roots of fear, laughter, empathy and more. During the last few weeks of her life, Mama, an elderly chimpanzee at a zoo in the Netherlands, received a special visitor. As Mama lay curled up on a mound of straw, biologist Jan van Hooff entered her enclosure. Van Hooff, who had known Mama for more than 40 years, knelt down and stroked the arm of the listless chimp. When Mama looked up, her vacant face erupted into a smile. She reached out to van Hooff, calling out as she patted his face and neck. For primatologist Frans de Waal, this touching scene isn’t difficult to interpret: Mama was happy to see her old friend. But such an interpretation has been taboo among many behavioral scientists, who have claimed nonhuman animals are like unthinking, emotionless machines that react to situations with preprogrammed instincts. In the thought-provoking Mama’s Last Hug, de Waal dismantles that view. He presents piles of evidence that animals are emotional beings. The book is a companion to Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, in which he explored animal intelligence (SN: 12/24/16 & 1/7/17, p. 40). Emotions, de Waal writes, “are bodily and mental states — from anger and fear to sexual desire and affection and seeking the upper hand — that drive behavior.” On page after page, he tells of depressed fish, empathetic rats, envious monkeys and other emotional creatures. More than a collection of fascinating anecdotes, Mama’s Last Hug weaves together formal observations of animals in the wild and in captivity, behavioral experiments and neuroscience research. That animals have emotions makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, de Waal explains. The basic physiology and brain chemistry that give rise to emotions in humans are present in other members of the animal kingdom. And emotions offer a much more flexible way to evaluate and respond to events in an ever-changing environment than instincts do.
2-25-19 Botswana elephant poaching 'no hoax'
One of the last elephant sanctuaries in Africa has "a significant elephant-poaching problem", according to the final results of an aerial wildlife survey in Botswana seen by the BBC. Elephants Without Borders, which conducted the four-yearly survey with the government, said there was a six-fold increase in the number of "fresh" or "recent" elephant carcasses in northern Botswana amid "obvious signs" of poaching. Mike Chase, the scientist who carried out the survey, sparked a fierce debate in the country when he went public half-way through his study in August last year with accusations there was a poaching problem and alleging the authorities were ignoring him. He told the BBC at the time that while flying over northern Botswana, he had discovered 87 recently killed elephants in one "hotspot" area - a number now revised to 88 - and 128 overall. The government called his figures "false and misleading" and criticised "unsubstantiated and sensational media reports". He received death threats and has since had one of his two research licences suspended by the government. President Mokgweetsi Masisi at the time described the allegations as the "biggest hoax of the 21st Century" and denied there had been a spike in poaching in the country. But the final report identifies four poaching hotspots, provides photographic evidence from ground surveys and has been peer-reviewed by nine international elephant experts. "The response from… various people was to try and deny or whitewash - label me a traitor and a liar - without having actually verified the evidence we bore witness to," said Mr Chase. The government didn't respond to the BBC's request for an interview about the final report, but issued a statement criticising the methods used in carrying out the survey.
2-25-19 Hermit crabs are drawn to the smell of their own dead
Competition for abandoned shells turns into a lively gathering. The death of a millionaire with no heir draws an opportunistic crowd. So, too, does the demise of a land-dwelling hermit crab. Researchers working in Costa Rica found that the curious crabs are drawn to the smell of flesh torn from one of their own. Dartmouth College biologist Mark Laidre, along with undergraduate student Leah Valdes, set out 20 plastic tubes on a beach, each holding bits of hermit crab flesh. Within five minutes, almost 50 hermit crabs (Coenobita compressus) swarmed around each sample, the pair reports online February 10 in Ecology and Evolution. “It’s almost like they were celebrating a funeral,” Laidre says. The reality, however, is more macabre. That scent of flesh is a signal that a fellow land hermit crab has been eaten, and that its empty shell is available for the taking, Laidre says. The crabs “are all in an incredible frenzy to try to move into that leftover shell.” None of the roughly 850 known hermit crab species, most of which live in the sea and some on land, can grow their own shells. Instead, the crabs occupy shells originally left behind by dead snails. A hermit crab grows to the size of its shell, but to grow further, the creature must find and occupy a larger shell. For the roughly 20 or so species of land hermit crabs, finding a suitable shell can be especially challenging. Big shells with lots of extra room to grow may be too heavy in the short term for a hermit crab to tote around on land without the buoyancy of water to help lighten the load, and lighter shells may be too small.
2-24-19 Underwater push-ups help hibernating turtles stay alive
Turtles have been spotted performing underwater push-ups while hibernating – something that might help them grab enough oxygen to stay alive. Mike Plummer from Harding University in Arkansas and his colleagues noticed the behaviour by chance while keeping about 25 smooth softshell turtles (Apalone mutica) in an outdoor simulated pond. During regular check-ups while the turtles were hibernating, the researchers saw them regularly raise and lower the back part of their body in a push-up fashion over 1000 times. “We were very surprised to see the behaviour,” says Plummer. “Nobody’s ever seen it, best I can tell.” The turtles typically spend the winter partially buried in sand or mud at the bottom of rivers or streams so are hard to observe in the wild. Although the reptiles can breathe in air, this species is well-known for its ability to obtain oxygen through the skin, which has a similar permeability to gases as amphibian skin. “We hypothesised that the push-ups resulted in replenishing the water next to the turtle’s skin with oxygenated water,” says Plummer. Further experiments in an aquarium seem to agree with their theory. The turtles did more push-ups in warmer water than colder water – warmer water carries less oxygen than cold water, so the turtles would have had to refresh their water more often in warmer conditions to get the oxygen they need. But Plummer is cautious about drawing conclusions yet. It’s possible that the turtles did push-ups because they were kept in still water. “Since the water wasn’t moving, that means that the oxygen in the water next to the body was being depleted,” he says. In their natural habitat, water is constantly moving over their skin due to currents so they have a continuous supply of oxygen.
2-23-19 Wolves are spreading in Germany by moving into military land
Wolves are on the rise in Germany and they’re making their homes in a surprising place. Military training areas, which host tanks and shooting ranges but are relatively uninhabited, have seen a spike in wolf populations in a country that had no wolves at all a few decades ago. In the 1980s, wolves started returning Germany, mostly from Poland. “We were expecting that the large forest areas northeast of Berlin would be the first place settled by the wolves, because it is close to Poland and has dense forest,” says Ilka Reinhardt at Goethe-University Frankfurt. But she and her colleagues have now analysed data from national surveys of wolf populations, and found that the first wolf colonies established themselves in Saxony, to the south of Berlin, on military training areas. This land isn’t open to the public, though there are no fences stopping people from entering. With their dense forest cover and low density of roads, these military areas are a similar habitat to protected natural areas. But the team’s analysis suggests that the military land is in fact better for wolves – the animals died less often from human interactions in these places than they did in land specifically set aside for nature. “Most of the dead wolves that we find have died in traffic accidents,” Reinhardt says. Though road density is similar in military areas, there may not be as much regular traffic there, she says. The relative safety of these training areas seems to have helped wolves spread across Germany. Analysing data on wolf distribution collected between 2000 and 2015, the team found that wolves seem to be jumping from one area of military land to another, sometimes moving through and beyond other protected areas before establishing a territory. Over 15 years, they found that wolves went from one established mating pair to 67 pairs across the whole country, with the population growing exponentially. By 2015, wolves had populated 62 per cent of the military training areas larger than 30 square kilometres, and only 14 per cent of similarly sized protected areas. (Webmaster's comment: What a Joke! That's like 270 families of people in all of the United States!)
2-22-19 A very smart fish
A tiny fish has joined an elite group of animals that can recognize themselves in the mirror. Until now, the only species to have passed the mirror test—widely considered the gold standard for animal intelligence—were great apes, bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, Eurasian magpies, and a single Asian elephant. But to that list can now be added the cleaner wrasse, a 4-inch striped fish that lives in coral reefs. For the mirror test, scientists in Germany placed a mark on the fish in a place that could only be seen in a mirror. After initially seeming confused by the mirror, the cleaner wrasse appeared to check their reflection multiple times, and tried to remove the mark by rubbing their bodies on hard surfaces. The fish didn’t act the same way in control experiments with no mirror, or when the mark was placed on the mirror. Co-author Alex Jordan tells The Daily Telegraph (U.K.) that the fish “behaviorally fulfills all criteria of the mirror test.” He says the species is either self-aware or the “gold standard” test needs updating.
2-22-19 Botswana mulls lifting elephant hunting ban
A report by cabinet ministers in Botswana has recommended lifting a four-year hunting ban and the introduction of elephant culling. After months of public meetings and consultations, the report by ministers also recommends the "establishment of elephant meat canning" for pet food. The number of elephants in Botswana is estimated to be about 130,000, which some argue is too many for the ecosystem - there is increasing conflict between wildlife and people. But others say the country's tourism has grown dramatically since the ban came into place and that lifting it would affect the country's international reputation for conservation. Shortly after coming into office in April 2018, President Mokgweetsi Masisi asked ministers to review the hunting ban which was implemented by his predecessor Ian Khama in 2014. Public meetings were held and organisations, communities and individuals were asked to comment. President Masisi welcomed the report which will go through further consultation before being implemented. "I can promise you and the nation that we will consider it. A white paper will follow and it will be shared with the public," he said. "If needs be, we will give an opportunity to parliament to also interrogate it, and also allow them the space to intervene before we make a final determination." (Webmaster's comment: Why not kill them all now and get it over with? They are only one of the most intelligent and peaceful creatures on earth, being slaughtered for PET FOOD!)
2-21-19 World’s biggest bee rediscovered after decades on ‘most wanted’ list
A giant bee thought lost to the world for decades has been found again on an Indonesian island. The black bee is the size of a human thumb, with a wingspan of 6 centimetres and fierce-looking mandibles. A lone specimen was rediscovered by Simon Robson of the University of Sydney and his colleagues. “She just came and looked around and went back to her nest,” he says. Megachile pluto is also known as Wallace’s Giant Bee, named after the English entomologist Alfred Russel Wallace, who, along with Charles Darwin, is credited with developing the theory of evolution through natural selection. Wallace discovered the bee in 1859 while exploring the tropical Indonesian island of Bacan. He described it as “a large black wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag-beetle”. In 1860, an entomologist in the UK determined it was actually a bee, saying it was a “giant of the genus to which it belongs”. The bee has a history of disappearing. It was believed to be extinct until its accidental rediscovery by a US forester in Indonesia in 1981, but the lack of another sighting led the Global Wildlife Conservation to include it on their “25 most wanted” lost species list in 2017. Robson’s team found the bee in a termite’s mound a few metres off the ground while searching on one of Indonesia’s North Moluccas islands.
2-21-19 World's biggest bee found alive
The world's biggest bee has been re-discovered, after decades thought lost to science. The giant bee - which is as long as an adult's thumb - was found on a little-explored Indonesian island. After days of searching, wildlife experts found a single live female, which they photographed and filmed. Known as Wallace's giant bee, the insect is named after the British naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace, who described it in 1858. Scientists found several specimens in 1981, but it has not been seen since. In January, a team followed in Wallace's footsteps on a journey through Indonesia in an attempt to find and photograph the bee. "It was absolutely breathtaking to see this 'flying bulldog' of an insect that we weren't sure existed anymore, to have real proof right there in front of us in the wild," said natural history photographer, Clay Bolt, who took the first photos and video of the species alive. "To actually see how beautiful and big the species is in life, to hear the sound of its giant wings thrumming as it flew past my head, was just incredible." The discovery, in the Indonesian islands known as the North Moluccas, raises hopes that the region's forests still harbour one of the rarest and most sought after insects in the world. There are currently no legal protections around its trade. Trip member and bee expert Eli Wyman, an entomologist at Princeton University, said he hoped the rediscovery would spark future research towards a deeper understanding of the life history of the bee and inform any future efforts to protect it from extinction.
2-20-19 Bees prefer to turn right and it helps them decide where to live
Derek Zoolander isn’t the only one who prefers to turn in one direction. Honeybees have a strong tendency to turn right when they enter an open cavity. This bias may help them make a collective decision about where to build new nests. Directional biases exist in many animals, but they may be particularly important in social species for promoting cohesion within the group. To see if honeybees have such a bias, Thomas O’Shea-Wheller of Louisiana State University allowed 30 bees to explore two boxes. One was open inside and the other contained a branching maze of narrow tunnels. Out of 180 trials in the open cavity, the bees immediately turned right on 86 occasions but turned left just 35 times. On the remaining 59 occasions they flew straight ahead. What’s more, when they turned right in the experiment, they did so more quickly than when they turned left, suggesting it’s a more automatic response. However, in the branching maze they showed no preference for right or left. Bees explore spaces such as rock cavities and hollow trees when they are looking for a new nest site. They choose a site once a certain number of scouts are in the same place. Having a consistent behavioural pattern might be important in this situation for helping the group come to a decision, says O’Shea-Wheller. “By entering in the same fashion and turning the same way, they are more likely to meet each other and get a better idea of the popularity of the site.” It might also promote social cohesion in bees’ day-to-day life, when foragers return to the colony with food and water. Honeybees have more smell receptors on their right antennae than their left antennae, so the right-side preference also makes sense from a physiological perspective. Previous research has found that ants also have a directional bias when they enter a cavity – although they prefer to turn left.
2-20-19 Physics explains how pollen gets its stunning diversity of shapes
The varied patterns can all be explained by a process called phase separation. Pollen grains sport a variety of snazzy shapes, from golf ball–like divots to prickly knobs or swirls that evoke a peppermint candy. But these myriad patterns may all be due to one simple trick of physics, scientists report in the Feb. 7 Cell. That trick: phase separation, in which a mixture naturally breaks up into separate parts, like cream floating to the top of milk (SN: 7/21/18, p. 14). As pollen develops in a flowering plant, a material called primexine is deposited at the grain’s surface, inside a temporary cell wall. Formed from a mixture of materials including cellulose and pectin — the stuff that makes jam set — the primexine clumps together in denser and less dense regions “like bad gravy,” says biophysicist Alison Sweeney of the University of Pennsylvania. That lumpiness generates wiggles in the pollen’s cell membrane, Sweeney and her colleagues found. Finally, the temporary cell wall dissolves, and a woody material called sporopollenin reinforces the wiggly pattern. The resulting shape can vary depending on the composition of the primexine. Using computer simulations of the process, scientists reproduced the shapes of lumpy, patterned pollen, which make up roughly 10 percent of the pollen from cataloged flowering plant species. The remaining 90 percent sport smooth surfaces or have a foamy appearance. The simulation could explain those patterns, too: They arose if the phase separation process stopped before the primexine fully separated.
2-20-19 'Brexit gap' over wildlife protection is looming
Wales risks losing 80% of the laws that protect its environment after Brexit with no plans in place yet to replace them, nature charities have warned. Wildlife, habitats, air and water quality could all be affected, they have claimed. One organisation - WWF Cymru - has written to Environment Minister Lesley Griffiths calling for "urgent action". The Welsh Government said it was developing proposals and looking forward to taking them forward. But with less than 40 days to go until the UK is set to leave the EU, WWF Cymru's director Anne Meikle warned "the rug will be pulled out from our existing environmental protections". In her letter to the government she writes that "without these principles and governance structures in place, decisions will be significantly less robust and potentially indefensible". She said legislation would risk being inoperable and people would lose the right and mechanism to challenge government where they failed to apply environmental laws effectively. Currently Wales abides by hundreds of regulations and standards which apply across the EU to protect nature and guard against pollution. The UK and Scottish governments have already announced consultations on plans to replace these laws after Brexit. But in Wales, where control over environmental policies is devolved to the Welsh Government, ministers are yet to make an announcement. Ms Meikle said it was causing "extreme concern". WWF is one of 13 leading environment charities that have joined forces under the banner Greener UK to raise awareness of what they claim is a looming "Brexit gap" in protections for nature. Environmental consultant Llinos Price said the group felt the Welsh Government had had "plenty of time to think" and that arrangements would "definitely not be in place by Brexit day".
2-19-19 Mystery disease killing beech trees
A mysterious disease that is killing beech trees is spreading across parts of the United States. Scientists say the disease, known as Beech Leaf Disease, has been recorded in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and parts of Ontario in Canada. They say the cause of the tree killer needs to be identified in order to halt the spread. It is expected to spread widely if the deadly pathogen becomes established in the wider environment. In the UK, beech trees are widespread and are the main species in many woodlands. The tree is often referred to as a queen species, second only to the oak. "The initial symptom is a dark staining pattern on the leaves," explained Carrie Ewing, a PhD student from Ohio State University. "Later, it seems that the leaves become shrivelled, almost leathery in texture. Eventually, the tree will die." Initial studies suggest that there is no sign of insect infestation or the presence of other vectors, adding to the mystery of how the disease is spreading. Ms Ewing's colleague, Prof Enrico Bonello, added: "We don't quite understand how that transition from the banding to the stage where the leaves become all crinkled up and become very leather. "Eventually, the buds die and desiccate on the trees." Prof Bonello observed: "The trees don't die very fast. It takes a few years." Several species of beech trees are known to be vulnerable to this mysterious killer. As well as the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), the disease has been recorded in the European (F. sylvatica) and Oriental beech (F. orientalis). This has raised concerns that the pathogen could spread to other parts of the world where beech trees are plentiful, such as the temperate biomes in Europe. Biosecurity is a key concern because researchers assume the introduction or spread of the disease is likely to have been the result of human activity.
2-18-19 ZSL London Zoo shares animal X-rays
The expert veterinary team at ZSL London Zoo has shared a selection of X-rays made during routine health checks of its 18,000 animals. The images reveal the inner workings of a variety of different species, including frogs, snakes, geckos and turtles, and provide valuable insight for the vet team. "We can tell so much about an animal's health from looking at an X-ray - from the strength of their bones to how healthy their heart is," says ZSL London Zoo veterinary nurse Heather Macintosh. "They're vital to our work - and even though we get to see unique X-rays fairly often, we still think that they're absolutely fascinating. "Most people can recognise a human X-ray but they probably haven't seen the individual segments of a large hairy armadillo's exoskeleton or the long tail-bones of a big-headed turtle," says Ms Macintosh. "My favourite X-rays are definitely the snakes - humans have 33 vertebrae, while snakes have between 200 and 400, which is how they're so incredibly agile - it's amazing to see it on screen." The pictures were released to coincide with ZSL's Vets in Action event, which aims to educate visitors on the work that goes on behind the scenes.
2-17-19 The sixth mass extinction
The populations of the world’s wild animals have fallen by more than 50 percent, and humanity is to blame. (Webmaster's comment: If it takes us 100-200 years to kill off 75% or more of all species THAT IS A MASS EXTINCTION. 100-200 years was only a blink of the eye in previous extinctions! Mass extinction events do not happen overnight. It might take 100's of years for the full effect of an asteroid strike or a massive volcanic eruption to play out. So will human devastation of most animal life.)
- What’s gone wrong? As the human population has swelled to 7.5 billion, our species’ massive footprint on planet Earth has had a devastating impact on mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and marine life. We’ve driven thousands of species to the edge of extinction through habitat loss, overhunting and overfishing, the introduction of invasive species into new ecosystems, toxic pollution, and climate change.
- How many species are already extinct? Scientists can only guess. Earth is home to between 9 million and as many as 1 trillion species—and only a fraction have been discovered. Vertebrate species have, however, been closely studied, and at least 338 have gone extinct, with the number rising to 617 when one includes those species “extinct in the wild” and “possibly extinct.”
- How many species are endangered? There are 26,500 species threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global network of some 16,000 scientists. That includes 40 percent of amphibian species, 33 percent of reef-building corals, 25 percent of mammals, and 14 percent of birds. There are now only 7,000 cheetahs left, and the number of African lions is down 43 percent since 1993.
- Is a mass extinction underway? Possibly. Many scientists now believe humans are living through a “mass extinction,” or an epoch during which at least 75 percent of all species vanish from the planet. The previous five mass extinctions occurred over the past 450 million years; the last one occurred about 66 million years ago, when the aftermath of a massive asteroid strike wiped out the dinosaurs.
- How fast is this happening? Extremely fast. Species extinction is an ordinary part of the natural processes of our planet; in fact, 99 percent of all species that ever lived on Earth are gone. It’s the pace of recent extinctions that is alarming. More than half of the vertebrate extinctions since 1500 have occurred since 1900.
- What are the consequences? Potentially enormous. The loss of species can have catastrophic effects on the food chain on which humanity depends. Ocean reefs, which sustain more than 25 percent of marine life, have declined by 50 percent already—and could be lost altogether by 2050. Insects pollinate crops humans eat.
- Can extinct species be resurrected? Using DNA technology, scientists are working on re-creating species that have disappeared. The technology, called “de-extinction,” is likely at least a decade off, although there are a few possible ways to go about it.
2-15-19 Mass Insect Die-Off
When it comes to conservation, looks are everything. Research shows that people give most generously to wildlife charities when presented with images of a select few endangered mammals. Furry, photogenic beasts such as polar bears, pandas, and tigers dominate the list of top earners. The preservation of those majestic animals is a worthy cause; nobody wants them to join the ever-growing list of wild species that humanity has driven to extinction. But it’s also true that we can survive in a world without polar bears and tigers, just as our own species has thrived in one without mammoths and dodos. What’s less clear is whether humanity can endure the disappearance of a less cute group of creatures: insects. A new study has found that insect biomass—the weight of all bugs on Earth combined—is dropping by a staggering 2.5 percent a year, largely because of pesticide use, habitat destruction, and climate change. In a few decades, nearly 50 percent of insect species worldwide could go extinct. Some might rejoice at this mass creepy-crawly die-off, which would mean fewer ants and flies invading their homes and spoiling picnics. But an insect apocalypse is nothing to cheer. The sheer abundance of bugs—there are at least 1.4 billion for each one of us—means they play a foundational role in the planet’s ecosystems. Some three-quarters of our food crops and 80 percent of wild flowering plants are pollinated by bees, wasps, beetles, butterflies, and other insects. Ants, flies, and beetles munch up dead animals and plant matter and channel nutrients back into the soil. Those bugs are in turn a major source of food for countless birds, reptiles, and fish species; without them, insect eaters simply starve to death. France, for example, has seen 50 and 80 percent drops in its nightingale and turtledove populations in recent years. We might not appreciate our six-legged friends now, but we’ll certainly miss them when they’re gone.
2-15-19 Gene-edited animal plan to relieve poverty in Africa
A researcher in Edinburgh is leading efforts to develop gene-edited farm animals for poor farmers in Africa. Prof Appolinaire Djikeng is developing cows, pigs and chickens that are resistant to diseases and more productive. Among them are cattle that have been gene edited to be heat-resistant. Details of the project were given at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington DC. Prof Djikeng is the director of the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health. He believes that gene editing along with more targeted traditional cross-breeding will lead to healthy, productive livestock that will transform the lives of some of the very poorest people in the world. "We can drive out poverty in some of the most vulnerable communities," he told BBC News. "We are talking about smallholders with just one, two or three animals. "If the animals die or are not producing to their potential, it means no income for the smallholder's family and the risk of falling into absolute poverty." Prof Djikeng speaks from personal experience. His father was just such a subsistence farmer who reared pigs on a small farm in western Cameroon. He told me how each August his father would have a pig ready to sell to pay the year's school fees so he could go to class in September. But one year in the mid-80s, there was an epidemic of African swine fever and Prof Djikeng's father had no pigs to sell. Luckily, his mother kept chickens for just such an emergency, and Prof Djikeng was able to continue his education and become an eminent scientist. But, he told me, the incident had taught him how children's prospects are based on livestock in Africa and how easily they can be robbed of their futures when disease strikes.
2-15-19 Polar bears invade
More than 50 hungry polar bears have besieged an archipelago off Russia’s northeastern Arctic coast, trapping excited but frightened locals indoors. Alexander Minayev, administrator of the main town, Belushya Guba, said a state of emergency had been declared. “Parents are afraid to let the children go to school,” he said. It’s illegal to shoot the bears, because they are endangered, so authorities on Novaya Zemlya are considering relocating the garbage dump in which the bears have been rummaging for food. The animals have headed inland this year because the sea ice where they normally hunt seals has melted, likely due to climate change.
2-14-19 Smugglers are profiting from our failure to define endangered species
There are calls to improve a treaty on the international trade in endangered species – but there is no standard way to define species, says Stephen Garnett. It is 44 years since CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, came into force. Writing in the latest issue of Science, Eyal Frank at the University of Chicago and David Wilcox at Princeton University draw attention to a major problem with the treaty: its tendency to fall behind the times. Frank and Wilcox call for scientific knowledge on conservation to be “applied with more urgency” so that CITES can offer protection for wildlife the moment it comes under threat of extinction. Unfortunately, the problem runs far deeper than that. CITES protects species – and “species” is a slippery concept. The judges who must decide on the guilt of illegal traders need precise legal boundaries. This rare cactus is protected so you go to jail, that common one is not so you and your cactus go free. But who is to say the rare species and the common one aren’t variants of the same species? The answer, it turns out, is no one. There is no universal authority that CITES can turn to when faced with taxonomic uncertainty. Of course, if no one is in charge of taxonomy, that also means anyone can claim to be. Certainly, any taxonomist can publish a paper defining a new species. You don’t have to say how or why you made the decision to do so. You don’t have to test whether your species exceeds some pre-determined threshold of “speciesness”. You simply state that it does. You may back your view with the most brilliant genetic, morphological, behavioural, ecological and biochemical research, teasing out subtle differences that have eluded all before you. But, in the end, you simply assert your opinion. At any time, another taxonomist might come along with a new set of taxonomic truths and undo your work.
2-14-19 The last black leopard photographed in Kenya was born in New York
Photographs of a rare black leopard released yesterday were not in fact the first from Africa in a century, as New Scientist and many others reported. In 2013, Phoebe Okall, a photographer for Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper, captured this image at Ol Jogi Conservancy, around 50 kilometres from the Loisaba Conservancy where the more recent photos were taken. That leopard, named Bagheera, was not born in the wild though – he was rescued from a pet shop in New York and brought to Kenya as a cub. Nicholas Pilfold of San Diego Zoo Global, the lead researcher for a leopard conservation programme in Laikipia County, said the new photos were the first confirmed images of black leopards in nearly 100 years – although “confirmed” in this context means “the image must show the characteristic rosette pattern of the leopard”. Pilford’s journal paper reporting the new photos also included an image taken in 2007, which shows a black leopard at Ol Ari Nyiro Conservancy, about 50 kilometres west of Loisaba Conservancy. Black leopards, also called panthers, have a gene mutation that results in their unusual dark coat – a condition called melanism. They are extremely rare, and most often seen in southeast Asia. A 2017 paper mapping the distribution of black leopards included five reported sightings in Africa, but most were not confirmed with photographic evidence. The last confirmed sighting was from Ethiopia in 1909. It is thought that the gene variant for melanism may be advantageous in moist forests, where dark coloration might help them stay out of sight. This part of Kenya is semi-arid, with pockets of tropical forest among grassland and shrubland.
2-14-19 50 years ago, DDT pushed peregrine falcons to the edge of extinction
Excerpt from the February 22, 1969 issue of Science News. Fierce and swift, steel blue in color and called the world’s most perfect flying machine, the peregrine falcon is heading toward extinction in North America. The reason: DDT. Perilously high levels of the pesticide and related chemicals have been found in the eggs, fat and tissues of the birds…. [The falcons] are not picking up the DDT directly, but get it by eating other birds which, in their southern migrations, ingest DDT-contaminated insects. — Science News, February 22, 1969. Two years after the American peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus anatum) was declared endangered, the United States banned DDT in 1972. The pesticide lingered in the environment, however, and by 1975, North America’s population of peregrine falcons hit a low of 324 nesting pairs. State and federal agencies worked with conservation groups to breed the species in captivity, with some 6,000 birds released into the wild since 1974. The species was removed from the U.S. endangered species list in 1999.
2-13-19 Chimp sign language and human communication follow the same rules
Gestures used by chimpanzees to communicate with each other follow some of the same rules intrinsic to human language, according to a study of wild chimps living in Uganda. Raphaela Heesen, at the University of Roehampton in the UK, and colleagues analysed video recordings of more than 2000 uses of 58 different types of “play” gestures used by chimps living in the Budongo Forest. They found that more frequently used gestures were shorter in duration, and that longer signing sequences were made up of shorter, syllable-like gestures. These two patterns are known to apply to all human languages. “Primate gestural communication is, of course, very different to human language, but our results show that these two systems are underpinned by the same mathematical principles,” says Heesen. Bonobos are known to use some of the same gestures as chimps. “We hope that our work will pave the way for similar studies, to see quite how widespread these laws might be across the animal kingdom,” Heesen says. As well as using hand and foot gestures, chimps communicate with noises, body postures and facial expressions. A study last year found that that chimps and human toddlers use similar stamping, pointing and clapping tactics to get attention.
2-13-19 Pangolins: Rare insight into world's most trafficked mammal
The secret life of the world's most trafficked mammal, the pangolin, has been caught on camera in Africa. Footage gives a rare insight into the behaviour of the giant pangolin, the largest of all the scaly animals. Observed by remote-operated cameras, a baby takes a ride on its mother's back, while an adult climbs a tree. Scientists are releasing the footage to highlight the plight of the animals, which are being pushed to extinction by illegal hunting for scales and meat. Large numbers of their scales have been seized this month alone, including Malaysia's biggest-ever interception of smuggled pangolin products. The images and video clips of giant pangolins, one of four species in Africa, were taken at Uganda's Ziwa sanctuary, where the animals live alongside protected rhinos and are safe from poaching. Stuart Nixon of Chester Zoo's Africa Field Programme said much of their behaviour has never been recorded before. "We know so little about this species, almost everything we're picking up on camera traps this year as a behaviour is a new thing," he told BBC News. The pangolin is said to be the most widely trafficked mammal in the world. Its scales are in high demand in Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine, despite there being no medical benefit for their use, while its meat is considered a delicacy in some countries.
2-13-19 Wild black leopard photographed in Africa for first time in 100 years
There are few photographs of black leopards in the wild, as not only are these beautiful beasts rare and shy of human contact, they are very hard to spot. The photograph above may be the first of the elusive cat in the wild in Africa for a century. Panther is another term for an all-black leopard, and sometimes the leopards’ characteristic “rosette” spots can be seen, as here. Only a small proportion of leopards are black. The ones that are usually live in dense forests in Asia, where their dark colouring helps them blend in as they hunt. Imagine this one emerging from the shadows with its eyes on you. UK photographer Will Burrard-Lucas had been trying to photograph a panther for years when he heard of sightings near Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya, so he went to visit. The owner soon picked up some fresh leopard tracks nearby and Burrard-Lucas set up camera traps. After several nights of capturing nothing but hyenas, he was scrolling through images on the last camera when he found he was looking at “a pair of eyes surrounded by inky darkness”. “No animal is more elusive,” wrote Burrard-Lucas on his blog. “ Nobody I knew had ever seen one in the wild and I never thought that I would either.” These are the first confirmed images of a panther in Africa in nearly 100 years, said Nicholas Pilford at San Diego Zoo Global in a statement. Burrard-Lucas’s technique of making camera traps that set off high-quality lighting has also managed to catch elephants, lions and wildebeests.
2-13-19 Black panther: Rare animal caught on camera in Kenya
Black Panther has been everywhere in recent years - but spotting one of the animals the famous superhero is named after in the African wilderness is a little more rare. Wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas managed it - and there are even claims this is the first time anyone has captured a melanistic leopard on camera in Africa in 100 years. Very few images of these iconic, secretive creatures exist. Will heard rumours of a black panther - which is a loose term for a black leopard or black jaguar, depending where in the world it's from - at the Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya. After following leopard tracks through the undergrowth with a guide called Steve, Will settled on a place to set up his Camtraptions camera traps. "I'm quite used to doing camera traps and not actually achieving anything because it is such a speculative thing - you don't know if the animal you're trying to get is going to come down the trail that you've set the cameras up on." They weren't sure whether the tracks they were following were those of the black leopard or a regular spotted one. "I never get my hopes up, and after the first couple of nights I hadn't got this leopard and I was beginning to think I'd be lucky if I get a photo of a spotty leopard, let alone this black one." On the fourth night though, his luck was in. "I don't think it sank in immediately what I'd managed to achieve, it was such an unusual subject. "Usually on these camera trap photos with the flash you see the animal very clearly. But as it blended in with the black night so well all I could see was these eyes staring out of the picture." The black leopard Will captured is a male and based on its size, thought to be around two years old.
2-13-19 New 'mysterious' frog species discovered in India's Western Ghats
Indian researchers have discovered a new species of frog - in a roadside puddle. Sonali Garg, a PhD student at Delhi University, and her supervisor SD Biju found the new species in the Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot in southern India. The species belongs to a new Indian frog group or genus which the scientists have named Mysticellus. The name is derived from Latin and means mysterious and diminutive. The scientists discovered the narrow-mouthed frog after three years of extensive explorations, and have confirmed that it represents an entirely new species and genus of microhylid frogs. The new genus is currently known only in a single locality. "Our discovery of this new frog genus from one of the most explored and researched regions in the Western Ghats indicates that documentation of amphibians in this globally recognised biodiversity hotspot is still far from being complete," says Sonali Garg. "This frog went unnoticed until now probably because it appears for less than four days for breeding activities and lives a secretive lifestyle for the rest of the year." A number of new frog species have been discovered in the Western Ghats in the past decade, making it one of the leading biodiversity hotspots in the world. "At the same time, Indian amphibians face various extinction threats, especially due to habitat loss and degradation. The only known population of the new genus is found in a wayside area disturbed with vehicular movement, plantation activities and human settlements," says Ms Garg. "Since little is known about the habitat requirements and the distribution range of the new frog, the specific site needs to be preserved to protect this frog."
2-13-19 Cassowaries’ strange headgear helps them stay cool in the heat
Cassowaries, the second largest birds in the world after ostriches, have a fin-like structure on their heads that has long been a mystery. Now biologists have determined that it acts like a radiator, helping them to shed heat in Australia’s sweltering summers. Many functions have been proposed for the cassowary head fin, called a casque. Some thought it was a weapon, but since it is flexible, that seemed unlikely. Others suggested it is a sexual ornament, although it is present in both males and females. Another possibility is that it acts as a resonance chamber, helping the birds make low, booming noises. However, emus and ostriches make similar noises without such an instrument. Danielle Eastick of La Trobe University, Australia, and colleagues had another idea: it could be a “thermal window” – an organ that helps to regulate body temperature. Such organs have a large surface area and a rich blood supply that can be turned up when the animal needs to lose heat, or restricted when it needs to retain heat. Rodents’ tails, elephants’ ears and toucans’ bills all work in this way. To investigate, Eastick took readings with a thermal imaging device on 20 cassowaries in zoos and wildlife parks from Victoria to Queensland, in temperatures from 5 to 36°C. In cold weather, the birds restricted blood flow to the casque, allowing it to drop almost to ambient temperature. In hot weather, blood flow in the casque increased. At the highest temperatures, 8 per cent of heat exchange over the cassowary’s body was through the casque – a lot for a small organ. With large, round bodies covered in feathers, losing heat is a struggle for cassowaries.
2-13-19 Slime-fighting slug can superglue enemy frogs to trees for days
Many animals have extraordinary defence mechanisms, from the sea cucumbers that expel their entrails through their anuses to the exploding ants that blow themselves up to protect the colony. Now we can add an Australian slug that glues down would-be predators to the list. Biologists have shown that the red triangle slug (Triboniophorus graeffei) produces a special kind of mucus when threatened. Unlike the thin, slippery slime it secretes as it moves, the special defensive mucus is extremely sticky – strong enough to glue down predators for days. John Gould of the University of Newcastle, Australia, made the discovery when he spotted a green tree frog stuck to a branch right next to a red triangle slug (pictured, above) in the Watagans Mountain Range in New South Wales. After 10 minutes it still hadn’t freed itself, so he took both animals back to the lab. At least two other species of slug also produce sticky mucus, but these have only been studied in the lab. “As far as we can tell, no one has actually seen its use in the wild before,” says team member Jose Valdez of Aarhus University in Denmark. What is unusual about slug glue is that it adheres strongly in wet conditions and loses its stickiness as it dries. That property could be very useful – one team is already developing a glue for treating wounds based on the sticky mucus of the slug Arion subfuscus. Many animals produce adhesive glue for defence, says Valdez, but in most cases it is thought to merely distract predators as they try to remove the glue from their face or body. Only a few are known to actually glue down predators, including one salamander that can immobilise a snake for up to 48 hours.
2-12-19 Dogs' becoming major threat' to wildlife
They may be our "best friends" but dogs have also emerged as a major threat to wildlife. Scientists say they have contributed to the extinction of nearly one dozen wild bird and animal species. As such, they have become the third worst human-introduced predators after cats and rats. Now dogs are said to threaten nearly 200 species worldwide, some of which are critically endangered, studies suggest. And yet, feral and free-ranging dogs have received surprisingly little attention, conservationists say. In a recent study carried out on dogs in Chile, the authors said: "Conservationists in Chile and elsewhere see urgency in controlling the impact of free-ranging dogs on wildlife." It found dog owners were not concerned about the issue and many allowed their pets to move freely in the wild. "Predation and harassment by dogs has been documented for the majority of larger terrestrial mammals that inhabit Chile, including the three species of canids (mammals from the dog family) and three species of deer," Eduardo Silva-Rodriguez, one of the authors of the study, told the BBC. There are an estimated one billion domestic dogs worldwide and their conditions range from feral and free-ranging to entirely dependent on humans. There is no definitive figure for feral and free-ranging dogs, but conservationists say their number is definitely rising. "It's quite a matter of serious concern," Piero Genovesi, head of the invasive species specialist unit at the IUCN conservation body, told the BBC. "As the human population rises, so will the number of dogs, and this problem could get worse."
2-11-19 Huge global extinction risk for insects could be worse than we thought
Butterflies are at particular risk of extinction. Over 40 per cent of insect species could go extinct in the next few decades, with butterflies, bees and dung beetles most affected. The main cause is habitat loss. That’s the alarming conclusion of a review of all long-term surveys of insects published in the past 40 years. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least, as insects are at the base of many of the world’s ecosystems,” says the paper, by Francisco Sanchez-Bayo at the University of Sydney, Australia, and Kris Wyckhuys at the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing. The study is a major step forward, says ecologist Georgina Mace of University College London. But there are still huge gaps in our knowledge, she says. “I don’t think it gives us the detailed information we need to really assess the consequences.” What’s more, while it has been presented as a global study, almost all of the 73 studies reviewed were done in Europe and the US. For the entire continents of South America and Africa, for instance, the reviewers could find just one relevant study from Brazil and one from South Africa. “The information presented here refers mostly to developed countries of Europe and North America since those regions have the most comprehensive historical records,” says the paper. So for huge parts of the planet, we simply do not know how insects are faring. This is probably unlikely to be good news, though. “Actually the situation for tropical invertebrates is worse now than for temperate ones,” says Mace. “The review could be underestimating the situation in the tropics.” According to the studies reviewed, the single largest cause of the decline in insects is habitat loss. Next up is pollution, from the pesticides and fertilisers used on farms to emissions from factories and cities.
2-11-19 Global insect decline may see 'plague of pests'
A scientific review of insect numbers suggests that 40% of species are undergoing "dramatic rates of decline" around the world. The study says that bees, ants and beetles are disappearing eight times faster than mammals, birds or reptiles. But researchers say that some species, such as houseflies and cockroaches, are likely to boom. The general insect decline is being caused by intensive agriculture, pesticides and climate change. Insects make up the majority of creatures that live on land, and provide key benefits to many other species, including humans. They provide food for birds, bats and small mammals; they pollinate around 75% of the crops in the world; they replenish soils and keep pest numbers in check. Many other studies in recent years have shown that individual species of insects, such as bees, have suffered huge declines, particularly in developed economies. But this new paper takes a broader look. Published in the journal Biological Conservation, it reviews 73 existing studies from around the world published over the past13 years. The researchers found that declines in almost all regions may lead to the extinction of 40% of insects over the next few decades. One-third of insect species are classed as Endangered. "The main factor is the loss of habitat, due to agricultural practices, urbanisation and deforestation," lead author Dr Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, from the University of Sydney, told BBC News. "Second is the increasing use of fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture worldwide and contamination with chemical pollutants of all kinds. Thirdly, we have biological factors, such as invasive species and pathogens; and fourthly, we have climate change, particularly in tropical areas where it is known to have a big impact."
2-9-19 Russia islands emergency over polar bear 'invasion'
A remote Russian region has declared a state of emergency over the appearance of dozens of polar bears in its human settlements, local officials say. Authorities in the Novaya Zemlya islands, home to a few thousand people, said there were cases of bears attacking people and entering residential and public buildings. Polar bears are affected by climate change and are increasingly forced on to land to look for food. Russia classes them as endangered. Hunting the bears is banned, and the federal environment agency has refused to issue licences to shoot them. The bears had lost their fear of police patrols and signals used to warn them off, meaning that more drastic measures were needed, officials said. They say that if other means to scare off the bears fail a cull could be the only answer.
2-9-19 Herbal history: Five garden plants with a hidden past
Many garden plants we're familiar with today have a hidden history. Grown centuries ago for their reputed healing powers, they became garden staples, valued for their beauty, form or scent. Pulmonaria, with its spotted leaves, was thought to symbolise diseased lungs, and used for chest infections. And the mint now found in a pot by the door was recommended to "stayeth bleeding" by early herbalists and apothecaries. There's more to garden plants than just their aesthetics, says Fiona Davison, head of libraries and exhibitions at the Royal Horticultural Society, RHS. Plants generally don't get into gardens by accident, she says - they have a long relationship with people. "It's been a long story of people choosing particular plants, nurturing them, growing them, breeding them, making choices of which seedling they would select to carry on growing," she says. "And a lot of times those choices have been made on aesthetics, but a lot of times those choices have been made on the basis of what they thought the plant would do for you, from a medicinal point of view." Studies of plants by ancient herbalists paved the way for the formal study of plants by the first botanists, many of whom were also physicians. Today, at least 28,000 plant species are recorded as being of medicinal use. Fiona Davison says the long story of the "healing garden" is coming full circle and we're now thinking of gardens holistically as "healing spaces", where, by spending time in them, we're getting some well-being benefit.
2-8-19 Monarch butterflies dying out
The western monarch butterfly may be heading for extinction, reports CNN.com. In the 1980s, up to 10 million of these beautiful insects would overwinter in California each year, having migrated from inland areas of the western U.S. But a mere 30,000 monarchs were counted in California last year. That’s an 86 percent drop from 2017, and below the number scientists think is necessary to sustain the population. Conservationists believe the main causes of the decline are droughts brought on by climate change, and habitat destruction—the acreage of milkweed, a food source and the only plant the insects lay their eggs on, has been shrinking. The nonprofit Xerces Society, which carries out an annual Thanksgiving monarch count, notes that the drop-off has come despite extensive conservation efforts by environmental groups and state and federal agencies. “If we want to have monarchs migrate through the western U.S., as they have for centuries, sustained work is needed,” the organization said in a statement. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will likely announce in June whether the monarchs should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
2-7-19 Crows can solve a tricky puzzle box by planning ahead and using tools
New Caledonian crows are really smart. They are known for their toolmaking abilities, such as bending sticks into hooks to skewer grubs for dinner or to carry objects. Now we’ve seen they have impressive planning skills too. Romana Gruber at the University of Auckland in Australia and her colleagues set up a series of compartments that held different sized sticks or stones, which had to be retrieved in a certain order to ultimately get to a piece of meat. Each apparatus was separated from the others with a wooden divider, so the crows could only see one at a time. The team let the crows learn where the different compartments were before putting them to the test in three slightly different setups. For example, in one test, they had to take a stick from one compartment and use it to pull a stone from a tube, and then take that stone to a platform where it would release food. During the test, the crows had to ignore a compartment that held a second stick, which was designed to distract them from getting the stone. The team had 11 wild New Caledonian crows take this test – after 20 trials, four crows were successful 80 per cent of the time, and the rest of the birds took 40 trials or more to reach that success rate. When the team swapped the tools, putting the stone as the first step, it took all the crows more than 40 trials to get the sequence right. This may be because tool use takes up cognitive power, Gruber says, and while crows naturally use sticks as tools, they don’t do the same with stones.
2-7-19 Climate change: 'Future proofing' forests to protect orangutans
A study has identified key tree species that are resilient to climate change and support critically endangered apes. Planting them could help future proof rainforests, which are a key habitat for orangutans, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature - IUCN. Researchers surveyed 250 plants in Indonesia's Kutai National Park. Over 1,000 orangutans are thought to inhabit the park, as well as other rare animals such as the Malayan sun bear. "Selecting which species to plant is a significant contribution to restoring the health of this ecosystem," said study co-author Douglas Sheil. "Of course, the reasons why forest cover was lost in the first place must also be addressed for reforestation efforts to succeed." Kutai National Park is located on the east coast of Borneo Island, in the East Kalimantan province of Indonesia. The forest faces threats from logging, fires and mining, and was once considered a conservation wasteland. Efforts are underway to try to restore the habitat, which is home to more than a thousand plants, 80 mammals and 300 birds, including what is thought to be the largest population of orangutans in the province. Anne Russon of York University, Ontario, said a drought in 2015 caused the deaths of many animals and trees. Wildlife numbers are recovering slowly, she said, and studies like this one stand to contribute to nature conservation "by offering constructive methods for buffering the effects of climate change". The study singled out two tree species for their resilience to fire, which are recommend for planting in buffer zones around fire prone areas: A native palm, the Bendang; The hardwood tree, the Ulin. Seven plants that are likely to be climate resilient emerged as key food sources for orangutans. They include: Dracontomelon dao, a tropical canopy tree; Kleinhovia hospita, an evergreen, tropical tree native to Indonesia, Malaysia and other parts of tropical Asia.
2-6-19 Bees can pass a simple maths test but they might just be cheating
A big brain may not be necessary to do maths. Honeybees have passed a test of arithmetic that may require them to add and subtract, although others have questioned if that is really the case. In the test, bees were first shown a picture containing between one and five shapes. Then they were given a choice of two chambers, each with another picture by the entrance. One chamber contained a drop of sugar solution as a reward; the other contained bad-tasting quinine solution. If the shapes in the first picture were blue, the bees had to add one to the number of shapes to choose the correct chamber. If the shapes were yellow, they had to subtract one. Fourteen bees each went through the exercise 100 times during the training phase. In subsequent tests, bees chose the correct answer 67.5 per cent of the time – significantly better than chance. The correct answers in the tests were numbers that were not rewarded during training, so the bees could not get it right by simply associating a number with a reward. Sometimes the incorrect answer was in the same numerical direction as the right answer, so the test was more complicated than understanding whether the answer is bigger or smaller than the first number. This is a hard task for bees, says Adrian Dyer of RMIT University, Australia. It requires them to memorise the colour rule and apply it to the number of shapes in working memory. Clint Perry at Queen Mary University of London, UK, thinks the idea that bees are doing arithmetic doesn’t add up. If the bees simply choose the picture most similar to the picture they saw first, they could get 70 per cent correct.
2-6-19 Dutch mystery of '20,000 seabird deaths' on coast
Scientists are trying to find out why some 20,000 guillemots have died in recent weeks along the Dutch coast. The birds were all emaciated and there are fears they may have been victims of a spill from the MSC Zoe container ship, from which some 345 containers fell in the sea during a storm. "There's no smoking gun, but we're looking into it," says Mardik Leopold, who is investigating the deaths. Chemicals may be to blame as most plastics are hard to ingest, he says. Hours after the containers fell off the MSC Zoe in a storm, they started washing up on islands off the Dutch north coast on 2 January, spilling their contents of children's toys, furniture and televisions on to the beaches. A bag of peroxide powder was also found. Mardik Leopold, a seabird expert from Wageningen University, said the figure of 20,000 dead guillemots was based on educated guesswork. "That's based on the average trending rate of one guillemot per kilometre of beach per day in the Netherlands with 300km [186 miles] available. That's 10,000 birds," he told the BBC. A similar number would have been left in the sea, he added. Although he is keeping an open mind, he points out that the birds began washing up at the time of the container spill. Bad weather can also affect a guillemot's access to food, but Mr Leopold believes the problem would then not have been confined to the Dutch coast. While the guillemots may have swallowed plastic pellets, a spill of paraffin or palm oil was perhaps more likely. The island of Terschelling, where much of the MSC Zoe debris washed up, has also seen paraffin appear on its beaches. On Wednesday, Dutch authorities said that at least 345 containers had fallen off the ship, 54 more than first thought. Post-mortem examinations will be carried out on 100 of the birds to assess what caused their deaths.
2-6-19 DNA-eating bacteria lurk beneath the Atlantic Ocean floor
For a few species of microbe, DNA is more than a library of genetic information: it’s also lunch. Some bacteria that live in the mud below the seafloor appear to survive by eating DNA trapped in the dirt. “This is one of the yummiest things to eat down there,” says Gustavo Ramírez at the University of Southern California. “It’s got the major macronutrients that you get in your lawn fertiliser – carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus.” Biologists have already established that seafloor mud contains naked DNA – molecules no longer locked away inside biological cells. But the fact that this ‘extracellular’ DNA doesn’t build up into really substantial quantities suggests it must be recycled, says Kenneth Wasmund at the University of Vienna, Austria. That could be because some of the bacteria living in the mud break it down and reuse its components, he says. To find out, Wasmund and his colleagues collected samples of mud from the bottom of Baffin Bay in the North Atlantic Ocean. Back in the lab, they placed the mud samples in anaerobic conditions at 4°C – replicating conditions seen in the mud at the bottom of Baffin Bay. “We incubated them for a few weeks to let the microbes do their thing,” says Wasmund. Then they used lab equipment to separate out microbes that had broken down the DNA and incorporated it into their cells. Finally, the researchers used genetic sequencing techniques to identify these DNA-eating microbes and reconstruct their genomes. The team found five different types of bacteria dined on the DNA. Four of the five seemed to be opportunistic DNA consumers, just taking advantage of the molecule because it was available.
2-5-19 How black soldier fly larvae can demolish a pizza so fast
Masses of larvae make a living fountain that knocks the slowpokes up and away It all started with the can’t-tear-your-eyes-away video of black soldier fly larvae devouring a 16-inch pizza in just two hours. Watching sped-up action of the writhing mass inspired mechanical engineer Olga Shishkov of Georgia Tech in Atlanta to see what makes these insects such champions of collective feeding. An individual Hermetia illucens larva doesn’t eat steadily, Shishkov found. One feeds for about five minutes on average and then stops for about another five. As a group of thousands, though, they flow continuously like a living fountain splashing up against the edge of their food, Shishkov and colleagues report February 6 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Shishkov borrowed techniques from the study of fluids, for instance treating larvae as particles moving with a current, and looked for overall patterns of flow in a writhing mass of as many as 10,000 insects. She tracked the directions larvae were wriggling and found that, around a chunk of food, a fountainlike flow develops. As larvae took a break from binging, the hungry crowds pressing from behind forced them upward. Those at the top then fell away from cliff-face of food. This up-and-out push lets a larva eager to feed replace one that’s taking a break.
2-6-19 Shutdown aside, Joshua trees live an odd life
In the U.S. southwest, Joshua trees evolved a rare, fussy pollination scheme. A year when vandals trashed a Joshua tree in a national park during a U.S. government shutdown is a good time to talk about what’s so unusual about these iconic plants. The trees’ chubby branches ending in rosettes of pointy green leaves add a touch of Dr. Seuss to the Mojave Desert in the U.S. Southwest. Its two species belong to the same family as agave and, believe it or not, asparagus. And the trees bloom with masses of pale flowers erupting from a branch tip. “To me [the flowers] smell kind of like mushrooms or ripe cantaloupe,” says evolutionary ecologist Christopher Irwin Smith of Willamette University in Salem, Ore. His lab has found a form of alcohol in the scent that actually occurs in mushrooms, too. It’s tough to tell how old a Joshua tree is. Their trunks don’t show annual growth rings the way many other trees do. The desert trees became headline news in January when vandals trashed at least one of them at Joshua Tree National Park (SN Online: 1/12/19). What gets biologists really excited about Joshua trees is their pollination, with each of the two tree species relying on its own single species of Tegeticula moth. That could make Joshua tree reproduction highly vulnerable to climate change and other environmental disruptions. Typically, insects pollinate a flower “just by blundering around in there” as they grope for pollen and nectar for food, Smith says. But for the female moths that service the Joshua trees, pollination “does not look like an accident.”
2-4-19 DNA from extinct red wolves lives on in some mysterious Texas coyotes
The find raises questions of whether conservation efforts should preserve DNA, not just species. Mysterious red-coated canids in Texas are stirring debate over how genetic diversity should be preserved. “I thought they were some strange looking coyotes,” wildlife biologist Ron Wooten says of the canids on Galveston Island, where Wooten works. But DNA evidence suggests the large canids might be descendants of red wolves, a species declared in 1980 to be extinct in the wild. A small population of red wolves from a captive breeding program lives in a carefully monitored conservation area in North Carolina. But those wolves have had no contact with other canids, including those in Texas. So maybe, Wooten thought, red wolves never actually went extinct in the wild. He made it his mission to find out. “There was no way I could let this go,” he says. He reached out to evolutionary geneticist Bridgett vonHoldt at Princeton University. She and colleagues have amassed genetic data on about 2,000 North American canids, mostly coyotes and wolves, but with a few dogs thrown into the mix. VonHoldt regularly receives photographs of wolflike animals with requests to identify what species they belong to — an exercise she describes as “really challenging and possibly misleading.” Instead, she asks for tissue samples so that her team can analyze the animal’s DNA. “Many pictures I don’t give a second thought to,” she says. But Wooten’s photos of the Galveston Island canids were “a little bit different.… It just doesn’t look typical of a standard coyote.”
2-1-19 Wild coffee facing extinction
These beans could go the way of the dodo. You should enjoy your morning cup of joe while you can, because climate change, deforestation, drought, and disease are putting the future of coffee at risk. Researchers at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London discovered that 60 percent of coffee species found in the wild are at risk of extinction. Many coffee plants grow only in very specific conditions, so increasing global temperatures—coupled with the destruction of tropical forests and plant disease—are making it impossible for some species to grow in their usual habitats. The researchers found that 75 of the 124 types of wild coffee they studied are at risk of extinction. Plants in Madagascar and Tanzania are most at risk. Arabica, the most popular commercially distributed coffee, has already been placed on the endangered species list and could be nearly extinct in 60 years. The mass die-off of wild species will hurt the commercial coffee trade, because these strains can be used to develop beans that are more resistant to a changing climate and pests, Aaron Davis, a senior researcher at Kew, tells The New York Times. “As we lose those coffees, our options diminish.”
2-1-19 Rhinoceros beetles have weird mouth gears that help them chew
A species of horned beetle has a startling secret: a gearing mechanism in its mouthparts. The beetles beat us to the invention of meshed gears, possibly by millions of years. Japanese rhinoceros beetles (Trypoxylus dichotomus) are found in east Asia. Males can be 8 centimetres long. This is unusually large for an insect, although not as large as male Hercules beetles that can reach double the size. In Japan, the rhinoceros beetles are popular pets and are regularly depicted in anime and other media. “There is nobody who has not touched the horned beetle in Japan,” says Hiroaki Abe at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology in Japan. Abe’s team was studying the beetles’ genetics when their breeding programme created some with abnormally-shaped heads. To figure out exactly what was unusual, they needed to know what the mouthparts or “mandibles” of normal beetles looked like. Surprisingly, this had never been documented. So Abe’s colleague Wataru Ichiishi ?dissected some and was startled to discover that the right and left mandibles moved simultaneously. A closer examination revealed that each mandible has two gear teeth, and the two sets mesh. As a result, when one mandible moves, so does the other. Abe thinks the gearing has evolved because of the beetles’ lifestyle. They spend a lot of time chewing the tough bark of trees to feed on sap. If one of the mandibles broke, the beetle might starve. Linking the two mandibles with gears spreads the force between them, reducing the strain on each mandible and making it less likely to break.