3-30-19 Tasmanian devils 'adapting to coexist with cancer'
There's fresh hope for the survival of endangered Tasmanian devils after large numbers were killed off by facial tumours. The world's largest carnivorous marsupials have been battling Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) for over 20 years. But researchers have found the animals' immune system to be modifying to combat the assault. And according to an international team of scientists from Australia, UK, US and France, the future for the devils is now looking brighter. "In the past, we were managing devil populations to avoid extinction. Now, we are progressively moving to an adaptive management strategy, enhancing those selective adaptations for the evolution of devil/DFTD coexistence," explains Dr Rodrigo Hamede, from the University of Tasmania. First discovered in north-eastern Tasmania in 1996, the disease has since spread across 95% of the species' range, with local population losses of over 90%. Dr Hamede's team has been collecting epidemiological evidence over the past 10 years. The group has plotted scenarios based on current infection rates in the wild, and in their forecast for the next 100 years, 57% of scenarios see DFTD fading out and 22% predict coexistence. The disease is transmitted when devils bite each other's faces during fights. The biting behaviour is a way to socialise and assert dominance which, alongside the growl-like screams, helped earn the devils their nickname. "Our current hypothesis is that the biting doesn't only lead to the spread of tumours but it might be the starting point," explains Max Stammnitz, from the University of Cambridge, UK, who sequences tumour genomes. "If the scarring processes for the recurring wounds are interrupted by a mutation, this might become cancerous. It fails to heal and starts to grow out into an external tissue that may then become transmissible," Mr Stammnitz says.
3-29-19 Watch a desert kangaroo rat drop-kick a rattlesnake
High-speed cameras reveal the complexity of the rodents’ defensive maneuvers. The deserts of the southwestern United States may be the lair of secret ninja masters: desert kangaroo rats. Researchers armed with high-speed cameras have captured the complex maneuvers that the rodents (Dipodomys deserti) deploy to avoid deadly bites from sidewinder rattlesnakes (Crotalus cerastes). Two new studies, published online March 27 in Functional Ecology and the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, offer the first detailed looks at those tricks. Kangaroo rats can avoid attacks using their extremely sensitive hearing and by drumming their feet on the ground to deter predators, says behavioral ecologist Rulon Clark of San Diego State University. But that doesn’t always work. Clark and his colleagues had seen rats ambushed by snakes in the wild, only to watch many rodents jump with lightning speed and dart away unscathed. These clashes between reptile and rodent happened so fast that the researchers weren’t sure how the rats dodged death. So the team decided to record the encounters. After capturing 32 skirmishes in the Sonoran Desert in Yuma, Ariz., the researchers identified new defensive tricks. When snakes lunged at the rodents, the rats twisted and contorted their bodies in midair to dodge fangs. Even when snakes managed to bite, some rats kicked their foes off before getting a deadly dose of venom. The kicking was one of the biggest surprises. “We didn’t expect it would be so effective,” says Grace Freymiller, also a behavioral ecologist at San Diego State University.
3-29-19 Killer frog disease 'part of Earth's sixth mass extinction'
A fungus that kills amphibians is responsible for the biggest documented loss of nature from a single disease, say researchers. Better biosecurity and wildlife trade restrictions are urgently needed to prevent any more extinctions, they say. The disease, chytridiomycosis, has caused mass die-offs in frogs, toads and salamanders over the past 50 years, including extinctions of 90 species, according to a review of evidence. It has spread to over 60 countries. Australia, Central America and South America are particularly hard hit. "Highly virulent wildlife disease, including chytridiomycosis, is contributing to the Earth's sixth mass extinction," said Dr Ben Scheele of The Australian National University in Canberra. "We've lost some really amazing species." Three decades ago, scientists began to notice amphibians were dying around the world. The suspect was identified as a fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), which attacks the skin of amphibians, effectively "eating them" alive. A big review of the evidence, published in the journal Science, reveals: 1.The fungus has pushed at least 501 amphibians towards extinction (6.5% of known species), 2. 90 are confirmed or presumed extinct in the wild, while the other species have declined by more than 90%, 3. In many species, the fungus is the main factor in the deaths of amphibians, but in others it acts together with habitat loss, climate change and predation from invasive species to push species towards oblivion. The scientists say globalisation and the wildlife trade are the main causes of this global pandemic and are enabling the spread of the disease. "Humans are moving plants and animals around the world at an increasingly rapid rate, introducing pathogens into new areas," said Dr Scheele.
3-28-19 Dogs can recognise the scent of someone having an epileptic seizure
Epilepsy support dogs seem to be able to smell when their owner experiences a seizure. Some people with epilepsy already have dogs that are trained to fetch help in the event of a seizure. But how these dogs know when a seizure is happening is unclear. There have even been reports of dogs predicting seizures before they happen, although this ability has never been verified in scientific tests. Amélie Catala at the University of Rennes, France, and her colleagues have now investigated whether people give off a particular smell during epileptic seizures that dogs can recognise. The team asked volunteers with epilepsy to wipe their hands, forehead and neck with a cotton pad immediately after a seizure, before placing the pad in a ziplock bag and then breathing into the bag before sealing it. They also asked the volunteers to do the same after exercising or doing a calm activity. Using treats as rewards, the team then used these bags to train five mixed-breed dogs aged between 2 and 5 to recognise smells associated with seizures, before setting them a test. In each test, the dogs had to choose between seven scent samples from a single person, only one of which was collected after a seizure. Each dog completed nine tests involving samples from people they hadn’t encountered before. Three of the dogs scored 100 per cent. The other two identified the correct sample in two-thirds of the tests. This shows for the first time that, despite people having different body odours, an epileptic seizure has a distinctive scent profile that dogs can learn to recognise. We don’t yet know what molecules the dogs are detecting, but this is an interesting subject for future research, says Catala.
3-28-19 Nearly 100 species of frogs, toads and salamanders wiped out by fungus
The extinction of 90 species of amphibians can be pinned on a deadly fungal disease, according to the most comprehensive exercise yet to map its impact. In total, chytridiomycosis contributed to the decline of more than 500 species of frogs, toads and salamanders, or nearly 7 per cent of all amphibian species, since the disease first emerged in the 1980s. The toll means the disease has wrought the greatest loss of biodiversity by any pathogen, on an order of magnitude greater than other wildlife diseases, such as the bat-killing white-nose syndrome. “It’s crazy what this pathogen does,” says Trenton Garner from the Zoological Society of London, one of the paper’s authors. Previous work has been undertaken on the spread of the disease, and regional efforts have been made to gauge its impact on frogs and other species. But the team behind the new study say it is the best effort yet to aggregate its effects globally. “It’s a smoking gun that wasn’t there before,” says Garner. Chytridiomycosis is caused by two chytrid fungi called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis and Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans. The fungi are believed to have emerged in Asia in the 1980s and the disease they cause spread rapidly, aided by globalisation and trade in wildlife, leading to a peak of amphibian deaths in the 1980s and a later spike in the noughties when it hit South America. For many of the species that declined, the disease was the key driver. For others, it was a contributing factor along with pressures such as habitat loss and climate change. Of the species that experienced declines, just 12 per cent have shown signs of recovery. “The recovery has to be put in context, it’s not like they are back to their original numbers. They are not roaring back,” says Garner.
3-28-19 Chytrid’s frog-killing toll has been tallied — and it’s bad
The invasive fungus has devastated more species than have cats and rats. A skin fungus that has plagued frogs and toads worldwide now holds the title of being the world’s worst invasive killer, displacing cats and rodents. The first global tally of the toll caused by a chytrid infection shows that it’s responsible for population declines in at least 500 amphibian species, including 90 presumed extinctions. And that’s a conservative estimate, scientists say. The affected animals, mostly frogs and toads, account for 6.5 percent of known amphibian species, making the pandemic “the greatest documented loss of biodiversity attributable to a pathogen,” researchers report in the March 29 Science. (In comparison, cats threaten 430 species and rodents, 420 species.) Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or Bd for short, a pathogen that’s been widely spread by wildlife trade, is the primary culprit. Bd, first identified in 1998, has caused massive frog and toad die-offs. Though the scourge peaked in the 1980s in Central and South America and Australia, it remains an ongoing threat. The fungus infects the keratinized skin that amphibians develop once they mature and transition from water to land. The resulting chytridiomycosis destroys an amphibian’s ability to regulate the proper flow of electrolytes and fluids through its skin, usually leading to heart failure within a few weeks. Ben Scheele, an ecologist at Australian National University in Canberra, coordinated 40 other researchers with regional amphibian knowledge. The team analyzed published literature and unpublished data, including interviews of researchers with expertise in 24 countries known to have chytrid infections. In an epidemiological analysis, the researchers integrated the data to determine the severity, timing and geographic distribution of amphibian declines due to chytridiomycosis.
3-28-19 The waters of the Galapagos Islands are being invaded by alien species
The waters around the Galapagos Islands, a hotspot of biodiversity off the coast of Ecuador, have been invaded by more alien species than previously thought. While the number of invasive species on land across the World Heritage Site are well-documented, relatively little was known about those in the marine environment. Now field surveys have found 48 invasive species off the coasts of the islands, in addition to five known non-native species. The organisms probably hitched a ride on ships from around the world. These surveys were undertaken only in certain habitats around two of the larger islands, so the actual number of invasive species is likely to be much greater. “From our knowledge of similar studies, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number was twice [as many],” says team member Jim Carlton of Williams College in Massachusetts. The alien species included worms, mussels, crabs and sea squirts. There were also tiny moss animals, such as Amathia verticillata, which kills seagrass and messes up fishing gear. Seventeen of the newly-identified invaders had been spotted around the Galapagos archipelago before, but had been wrongly thought to have been native species. The impact of these alien species on the islands’ ecosystems is not yet known. But it is likely to be negative judging from experiences elsewhere, and could threaten the islands’ hundreds of endemic marine species. “What we know is a number of these [invasive] species clearly have had impacts elsewhere in the world,” says Carlton. Invasions in other places suggest that even more harmful species could soon be headed for the waters of the Galapagos, the team warns, including soft corals that could grow rapidly over local coral, and the prospect of venomous lionfish crossing from the Caribbean through the Panama Canal.
3-28-19 A crucial population of lions has lost much of its genetic diversity
One of Africa’s last major lion strongholds has experienced a significant decline in its genetic diversity since the end of the 19th century, leaving the animals more vulnerable to future threats. For the first time, researchers looked at how the genetic diversity of African lions (Panthera leo) has changed over time. They discovered that the diversity of the population in the Kavango-Zambezi conservation area, a region that includes parts of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, has fallen by up to 17 per cent since 1895. This drop is significant because it took place in an area that is home to one of the continent’s most important lion populations, says Simon Dures at the Zoological Society of London, who led the analysis. “It’s pointing out we have to be careful even in these strongholds, not to let them split up into fragments,” he says. Researchers have known about the shrinking area that lions occupy in Africa, and their falling numbers, but were previously less clear on how well they were doing in their heartlands. The loss of genetic variation in the Kavango-Zambezi lions reduces their ability to adapt to future changes. The most obvious of these is climate change – we already know that some African lions are better adapted to live in drier environments, and others in wetter ones. While lions are generally adaptable hunters, changes in prey may impact them too. “If you lose some of those [lion] populations, or they’re not mixing, you’re going to lose the overall population’s ability to withstand change. It could be climate change, it could be disease. It’s the ability to withstand the unknown,” says Dures. The team was able to measure the change in genetic diversity over time in part due to a 19th-century British hunter, Frederick Selous. Many of the lions he killed in the Kavango-Zambezi area ended up at the Natural History Museum in London.
3-28-19 Should cats be culled to stop extinctions?
Scientists are calling for a widespread cull of feral cats and dogs, pigs, goats, and rats and mice to save the endangered species they prey upon. Their eradication on more than 100 islands could save some of the rarest animals on Earth, says an international team. Islands have seen 75% of known bird, mammal, amphibian and reptile extinctions over the past 500 years. Many of the losses are caused by animals introduced by humans. Not naturally present on islands, they can threaten native wildlife. "Eradicating invasive mammals from islands is a powerful way to remove a key threat to island species and prevent extinctions and conserve biodiversity," said Dr Nick Holmes, from the group Island Conservation. The study, published in PLOS ONE, identified 107 islands where eradication projects could benefit 9.4% of the Earth's threatened island species. The researchers argue the likes of feral cats are not of conservation concern, but the species they threaten are often found only on islands where the entire population is at risk of extinction. Stuart Butchart, chief scientist at Birdlife International, said the action could save "extraordinary species that have evolved in isolation and are only found on these remote islands". Some culls have already taken place on islands. The world's largest rodent eradication project was recently declared a success, with the UK territory of South Georgia becoming rat-free for the first time in more than 200 years. "This study shows how important it is to remove invasive mammals from islands to prevent further extinctions," said Jonathan Hall, the RSPB's Head of UK Overseas Territories. "What is needed now is the political will and funding to help carry out this much needed work and restore these islands to their previous magnificence."(Webmaster's comment: The invasive species we really need to cull is mankind!)
3-26-19 AIs go up against animals in an epic competition to test intelligence
Some artificial intelligences can perform tasks with superhuman ability, but just how clever are they overall? As smart as a honeybee? A Labrador? Or a chimp? A competition called the Animal-AI Olympics will pit AIs against tests normally used to study animal intelligence. From April, AIs will battle it out in a virtual playground for a $10,000 prize pool. All the tasks involve retrieving a piece of food, but the skills needed to succeed vary in complexity. This mimics real-life experiments used to measure animal intelligence. Entrants will complete tasks they haven’t seen before to eliminate the opportunity to swot up beforehand, says Matthew Crosby at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, UK. The Animal-AI Olympics will test a range of cognitive skills, such as the ability to reason, navigate and learn from past experiences. “One key concept is object permanence, the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they’re out of sight,” says Crosby. Although it won’t be in the competition, the A-not-B task is one such test of this ability. In the task, an animal is repeatedly presented with two cups, A and B. For the first few iterations, cup A always contains a piece of food. However, once the animal is trained to understand this, the experimenter switches the food to cup B in plain sight. Some animals, such as dogs, continue to persevere with cup A, but others, such as macaques, instantly switch to cup B. The variety of tasks in the competition will challenge one key limitation of many AIs: once they learn something, it is very difficult for them to adapt that knowledge to a similar but different situation. For example, one AI can outperform humans at the video game StarCraft and another beats us at the board game Go, but they are both useless at most other tasks unless completely retrained.
3-26-19 A third of wild bee and hoverfly species are in decline in Britain
A third of wild bee and hoverfly species are in decline across Great Britain, raising concerns about biodiversity declines and the potential loss of pollinators. Analysis of 700,000 naturalist records going back to 1980 has found that about 33 per cent of 353 species studied declined in the extent of their range across the island. Losses worsened in wild bees after 2007, four years after the introduction of a group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which have since been almost entirely banned by the EU. The assessment found that the key group of 22 wild bees and hoverflies behind crop pollination had been doing relatively well. Overall, 11 per cent of the species studied increased their range between 1980 and 2013. That is no reason for complacency though, says Gary Powney of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, who was involved in the work. “It’s a risky pollination strategy to rely on just 22 species.” While not immediate cause for alarm in terms of food. “The widespread common species, in very broad terms, are doing okay. The rarer species are doing less well. If you only care about wildlife and biodiversity, it’s bad news. If you only care about whether your crops are being pollinated, it’s okay,” says Nick Isaac, who also worked on the research at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. The once widespread red-shanked carder bee (Bombus ruderarius) is among the losers, down 42 per cent. By contrast, the ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria) increased its range fivefold. Farming, habitat loss and pesticide use have all been blamed for insect losses in recent years. Key crop pollinators could be doing well because of a sevenfold increase in land given over to oilseed rape since 1980, and more strips of wildflowers in farm fields, experts say.
3-26-19 Bees: Many British pollinating insects in decline, study shows
A third of British wild bees and hoverflies are in decline, according to a new study. If current trends continue, some species will be lost from Britain altogether, the scientists say. The study found "winners" and "losers" among hundreds of wild bees and hoverflies, which pollinate food crops and other plants. Common species are winning out at the expense of rarer ones, with an overall picture of biodiversity being lost. Scientists warn that the loss of nature could create problems in years to come, including the ability to grow food crops. The study looked at trends in 353 wild bees and hoverflies in Scotland, England and Wales over 33 years from 1980. A third of species experienced declines in terms of areas where they were found, while about 10% became more abundant, including bees that pollinate flowering crops, such as oil seed rape. While some pollination is carried out by honeybees in hives, much of the pollination of food crops and wild plants is carried out by their wild relatives and other insects, especially hoverflies. Dr Gary Powney of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, said while the increase in key crop pollinators is "good news", species have declined overall. "It would be risky to rely on this group to support the long-term food security for our country," he said. "If anything happens to them in the future, there will be fewer other species to step up and fulfil the essential role of crop pollination." The losses were concentrated among the rarer, specialised species. Dr Nick Isaac, also of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, said this was "particularly bad news if you're interested in wildlife and in conservation". The "losers" include solitary bees, which live in burrows in the ground, and upland bees, living on mountains and moorlands. Among the "winners" are 22 of the most important crop pollinators.
3-24-19 Saber-toothed cats were fierce and family-oriented
A freshly detailed picture shows Smilodon helping the injured and the young. The adolescent saber-toothed cat on a summertime hunt realized too late that she had made a terrible miscalculation. Already the size of a modern-day tiger, with huge canine teeth, she had crept across grassy terrain to ambush a giant ground sloth bellowing in distress. Ready to pounce, the cat’s front paw sank into sticky ground. Pressing down with her other three paws to free herself, then struggling in what has been called “tar pit aerobics,” she became irrevocably mired alongside her prey. Scenarios much like this played out repeatedly over at least the last 35,000 years at California’s Rancho La Brea tar pits. Entrapped herbivores, such as the sloth, attracted scavengers and predators — including dire wolves, vultures and saber-toothed Smilodon cats — to what looked like an easy meal. Eventually the animals would disappear into the muck, until paleontologists plucked their fossils from the ground in huge numbers over the last century. Five million or so fossils have been found at the site. But “it’s not like there was this orgy of death going on,” says Christopher Shaw, a paleontologist and former collections manager at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles. He calculates that such an entrapment scenario, dooming 10 or so large mammals and birds, would have needed to occur only once per decade over 35,000 years to account for that bounty of fossils. At La Brea, the collection of Smilodon fatalis fossils alone includes more than 166,000 bones, from an estimated 3,000 of the ill-fated prehistoric cats. Famed for their fearsome canines, which grew up to 18 centimeters long, S. fatalis weighed as much as 280 kilograms, bigger than most of today’s largest lions and tigers.
3-22-19 Horse racing’s epidemic of death
The animal-rights activists could be right about horse racing, said Paul Newberry. “Maybe the entire sport needs to be shut down.” After more than two dozen horses died in just three months at the historic Santa Anita track in Southern California, the track announced last week it was suspending operations while officials try to figure out what’s gone wrong. Throughout the nation, a staggering 817 horses are known to have died while training or racing in 2018; activists say the real death toll is probably 2,000. Why? Today, the 1,200-pound “equine athletes” that are driven to run at top speed for the entertainment of bettors are often heavily drugged to mask injuries and fatigue. Sadly, owners and trainers “are more concerned about making a quick buck than protecting animals.” Horses driven too hard can develop microfractures in their brittle legs that lead to a sudden, catastrophic leg break during training or a race, forcing trainers to put them down. Public revulsion over the mistreatment of elephants shuttered Ringling Bros.’ circuses, and Sea World is in decline because orca captivity is inhumane. If horse racing cannot halt the epidemic of death on its tracks, it, too, will disappear.
3-22-19 Resurrecting the mammoth
In what they say is a “significant step” toward bringing the woolly mammoth back to life, Japanese scientists have successfully awakened cells from a 28,000-year-old mammoth carcass. Researchers extracted 88 nucleus-like structures from the remains of a well-preserved specimen found in the Siberian permafrost in 2010. Those structures were then injected into mouse oocytes, cells that can develop into an ovum. Signs of biological activity were spotted in the oocytes, including reactions that can occur just before cell division. But study co-author Kei Miyamoto, from Kindai University in Osaka, tells Agence France-Presse that the long-dead beast’s nuclei were ultimately too badly damaged for cell division to actually occur and that the team is “very far from re-creating a mammoth.” Still, Miyamoto says, the research suggests it might one day be possible to resurrect woolly mammoths—which last walked the Earth 4,000 years ago—using ancient cell samples. “Despite the years that have passed,” he says, “cell activity can still happen and parts of it can be re-created.” (Webmaster's comment: Maybe we can bring back some facsimile of a mammoth, but without the society it came from it will only be a remote likeness. Wildlife does not exist in a vaccuum!)
3-21-19 Sun bears copy each other's facial expressions to communicate
The world’s smallest bears copy one another’s facial expressions as a means of communication. A team at the University of Portsmouth, UK, studied 22 sun bears at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Malaysia. In total, 21 matched the open-mouthed expressions of their playmates during face-to-face interactions. When they were facing each other, 13 bears made the expressions within 1 second of observing a similar expression from their playmate. “Mimicking the facial expressions of others in exact ways is one of the pillars of human communication,” says Marina Davila-Ross, who was part of the team. “Other primates and dogs are known to mimic each other, but only great apes and humans were previously known to show such complexity in their facial mimicry.” Sun bears have no special evolutionary link to humans, unlike monkeys or apes, nor are they domesticated animals like dogs. The team believes this means the behaviour must also be present in various other species. Also known as honey bears, sun bears are the smallest members of the bear family. They grow to between 120 centimetres and 150 centimetres long and weigh up to 80 kilograms. The species is endangered and lives in the tropical forests of South-East Asia. While the bears prefer a solitary life, the team says that they engage in gentle and rough play and may use facial mimicry to indicate they are ready to play more roughly or strengthen social bonds. “It is widely believed that we only find complex forms of communication in species with complex social systems,” says Derry Taylor, also on the team. “As sun bears are a largely solitary species, our study of their facial communication questions this belief, because it shows a complex form of facial communication that until now was known only in more social species.”
3-20-19 Protected hen harriers are vanishing under suspicious circumstances
Hen harriers are being illegally killed in significant numbers in the UK, a new analysis suggests. These birds of prey are struggling to survive in England and many conservationists believe illegal killings are a factor. The prime suspects are the managers of grouse moors, where grouse – which hen harriers eat – are reared for recreational shooting. Reports that harriers have vanished are common, but nobody has been convicted of illegally killing one. Stephen Redpath at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and his colleagues fitted 58 hen harriers with tags and tracked them between 2007 and 2017. Four died in suspicious circumstances, and 38 simply disappeared: their transmitters stopped working without warning, and no body could be found. The birds were statistically more likely to vanish while on a grouse moor. “It strongly suggests there’s illegal killing going on,” says Redpath. It isn’t hard proof, he says, but illegal killing is the simplest explanation. Hen harriers are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but Redpath says it is clear that the system isn’t currently working. There are several possible solutions. “Everyone disagrees,” he says. “Some people say we need to ban driven grouse shooting. Others say we need to license grouse shooting.” In 2016, the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs set out an action plan to boost the hen harrier population. One element is to use “brood management” to limit the number of hen harriers on any given grouse moor, because it is only when the population reaches a certain density that they start to affect the grouse population.
3-19-19 Hen harriers 'vanishing due to illegal killing' - study
Hen harriers are disappearing on English grouse moors due to illegal killing, according to a scientific study. The birds of prey are one of England's rarest birds, and a protected species. Data gathered over a decade found satellite-tagged hen harriers were ten times more likely to die or vanish when they were on or near areas used for shooting. Researchers say there is no plausible explanation other than illegal killing. The analyses "confirm what has long been suspected - that illegal persecution is having a major impact on the conservation status of this bird," said co-researcher Stephen Murphy from the wildlife body, Natural England. The study found that four of 58 satellite-tagged hen harriers were illegally killed, while 38 simply disappeared, which "strongly suggests destruction of the tag and removal of the carcass". The survival rate of juvenile hen harriers in England was 17%. This compares with survival rates on the Orkney Islands, where there are no managed grouse moors, of 37 - 54%. The Moorland Association, which manages moorland in England and Wales for wild red grouse, said when a satellite tag fails unexpectedly, persecution may be a factor. Commenting on the study, director Amanda Anderson said: "Persecution should not occur and must cease in order to give hen harriers the best chance of survival." The British Association for Shooting and Conservation said raptor persecution risked "terminal damage" to shooting. "Satellite tags are a tool in the fight against raptor persecution," said executive director of conservation Caroline Bedell. "We have to make sure there is no place left for criminals to hide." The paper, published in the journal Nature Communications, relates to satellite-tagged hen harrier disappearances between 2007 and 2017 in England.
3-19-19 How a tiger transforms into a man-eater
No Beast So Fierce looks at the factors that turned a big cat so deadly. At the heart of No Beast So Fierce is a simple and terrifying story: In the early 20th century, a tiger killed and ate more than 400 people in Nepal and northern India before being shot by legendary hunter Jim Corbett in 1907. Rather than just describe this harrowing tale, though, author Dane Huckelbridge seeks to explain how such a prolific man-eating tiger came to be, taking readers on a fascinating journey through the natural history of a tiger and the political history of Nepal and northern India. Perhaps the first surprise is that Huckelbridge actually elicits sympathy for the tiger. This big cat, known as the “Man-Eater of Champawat,” was not born with a taste for human flesh. The beast, when it was still fairly young, had some sort of encounter, probably with an unsuccessful hunter, that severely damaged the cat’s mouth and caused the loss of two canine teeth. With that handicap, the Champawat tiger probably had to switch from hunting water buffalo and other large ungulates to easier-to-catch prey — humans — as a means to survive. This scenario is fairly common among man-eating big cats, Huckelbridge notes; we humans usually aren’t meals until a cat is somehow forced to turn us into dinner. But to understand how the tiger racked up such an impressive number of kills — 436 deaths over some seven years — one has to consider how the landscape of Nepal and India had become less hospitable to wildlife. As the British colonized the Indian subcontinent in the 19th century, prime tiger territory was destroyed to make way for people and agriculture. The loss of habitat forced many tigers to compete for land and prey, and the Champawat tiger, with its physical disadvantages, would have been unable to prevail without turning to humans. “What becomes clear upon closer historical examination is that the Champawat was not an incident of nature gone awry,” the author writes, “it was in fact a man-made disaster.”
3-19-19 Artificial meat: UK scientists growing 'bacon' in labs
British scientists have joined the race to produce meat grown in the lab rather than reared on the hoof. Scientists at the University of Bath have grown animal cells on blades of grass, in a step towards cultured meat. If the process can be reproduced on an industrial scale, meat lovers might one day be tucking into a slaughter-free supply of "bacon". The researchers say the UK can move the field forward through its expertise in medicine and engineering. Lab-based meat products are not yet on sale, though a US company, Just, has said its chicken nuggets, grown from cells taken from the feather of chicken that is still alive, will soon be in a few restaurants. Chemical engineer Dr Marianne Ellis, of the University of Bath, sees cultured meat as "an alternative protein source to feed the world". Cultured pig cells are being grown in her laboratory, which could one day lead to bacon raised entirely off the hoof. In the future, you would take a biopsy from a pig, isolate stem (master) cells, grow more cells, then put them into a bioreactor to massively expand them, says postgraduate student Nick Shorten of Aberystwyth University."And the pig's still alive and happy and you get lots of bacon at the end." To replicate the taste and texture of bacon will take years of research. For structure, the cells must be grown on a scaffold.At Bath, they're experimenting with something that's entirely natural - grass. They're growing rodent cells, which are cheap and easy to use, on scaffolds of grass, as a proof of principle.
3-18-19 A third of fish sold is mislabelled — here’s how to avoid being duped
Is that really wild-caught, Atlantic cod on your plate or, as it turned out in as it transpired in one Belgian restaurant, farmed catfish? On average, 30 per cent of fish sold in shops and restaurants globally is wrongly labelled, with as much as half misdescribed in some places, according to a 2018 review. Now it seems that eco-labelling schemes could be a possible fix to avoid fakes. A study by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has found that less than 1 per cent of seafood bearing its sustainability mark was mislabelled. This was determined using DNA tests on 1402 products sold in 18 countries between 2009 and 2016. Consumers are often in the dark over where their fish comes from, which can have serious health and sustainability implications. Egregious examples can include toxic pufferfish sold as monkfish and the meat of endangered whales passed off as fatty tuna. “People know about it, the question is what do you do about it,” says Jaco Barendse at the MSC. All the wrongly labelled seafoods bearing the MSC logo were white fish, including cods and hakes, which can be easily mistaken for one another. Names on packaging such as snapper or skate, which cover up to 60 different species, also don’t help. The study found just two examples of deliberate mislabelling among fish bearing its logo, with hoki swapped for hake, and haddock for cod. The motivation for misleading consumers is financial – cheaper fish passed off as more expensive ones. Deliberate mislabelling across all seafood is estimated to involve billions of pounds of sales globally.
3-18-19 Meet India’s starry dwarf frog — a species with no close relatives
The new frog represents a new species, genus and potentially even a new family. A tiny new frog species discovered in tropical forests of southwest India has been one of a kind for millions of years. Palaniswamy Vijayakumar and his colleagues first spotted the new species one night in 2010 while surveying frogs and reptiles roughly 1,300 meters up in India’s Western Ghats mountain range. The frog hardly stood out — its brown back, orange belly and starlike spots acted as camouflage against the dark hues and water droplets on the forest floor. And at only 2 to 2.9 centimeters long, “it can sit on your thumb,” says Vijayakumar, a biogeographer at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Dubbed the starry dwarf frog by the team, the frog didn’t seem special among the dozens of other possibly new species discovered on the trip. But analysis of its DNA, anatomy and geographic distribution told a different story. The frog represents the sole known species of a lineage dating back 57 million to 76 million years ago, the researchers report March 12 in PeerJ. That’s around when the Indian subcontinent was merging with Asia after breaking away from Madagascar. “I had no clue I was holding onto a 50-million-year-old lineage,” Vijayakumar says. The researchers say the frog represents not just a new species and genus, but possibly even a new family, which they are working to confirm through genetic analysis and anatomical comparisons. “It’s a unique, old lineage without any close relatives” known to science, he says. The team called the frog Astrobatrachus kurichiyana — with a genus name that includes “astro” for the frog’s bluish-white starlike dots, and species name that refers to the indigenous Kurichiyan people in the southern state of Kerala where the frog was found.
3-17-19 ‘Epic Yellowstone’ captures the thriving ecosystem of the world-famous park
A new documentary series highlights the interactions of predatory, prey and environment. “What you’re about to experience is Yellowstone as it’s rarely seen,” actor and Montana resident Bill Pullman says in the opening narration of a new documentary. Smithsonian Channel’s Epic Yellowstone, a four-part series that airs this month and will be available via several streaming services, puts Yellowstone National Park’s recovering ecosystem into the limelight. The park went nearly half a century with few top predators, and efforts to restore the resulting imbalance are just now taking hold. Following the lives of Yellowstone’s birds, mammals and even insects as they strive to survive, each episode follows a common ecological theme: the intricate web of cause and effect that exists among predators, prey and the environment. That theme is especially apparent in the series’ second episode, “Return of the Predators,” which debuts March 17. It focuses on the return of the park’s top predators: gray wolves and grizzly bears. Gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, roughly 50 years after being eliminated from the area. And to turn around the loss of grizzly bears, which dropped to fewer than 150 individuals in the continuous United States, the bears gained protected status in 1975 by the Endangered Species Act. As of 2017, an estimated 700 grizzly bears and more than 100 gray wolves lived in Yellowstone.
3-15-19 Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves
Frans de Waal’s new book about animals’ emotional life “surprises us on every page,” said Sy Montgomery in The New York Times. Take the opening scene, in which a 58-year-old chimpanzee on her deathbed is approached by a biologist she’s not seen lately. She’s known him for 40 years, though, and when she notices him, she smiles broadly, reaches out to stroke his hair, then pulls him toward her in a hug. Millions watched the video of Mama and the researcher when it was posted online, but too many of the scientific experts among them would resist saying they had witnessed a warm reunion of two old friends. De Waal, a veteran primatologist who scored a best-seller with a 2016 book about animal intelligence, wants to change such thinking. That makes this latest volume “even bolder and more important.” De Waal “chips away, example by example, at any notion of human exceptionalism in the emotional realm,” said Barbara King in NPR.org. Admitting that we can only observe displays of emotion rather than know what any one animal feels, de Waal then provides story after story of animals seeming to express feelings. Rats squeak when tickled, and come back to their keepers’ hands for more. A capuchin monkey will protest if she sees her human handlers are giving another monkey better rewards for the same conduct. De Waal’s own research indicates that chimpanzees can be skilled at conflict resolution, said John Carey in The Sunday Times (U.K.). But he goes too far when he argues that we are, emotionally, essentially the same as chimpanzees. He rejects the possibility that human emotional life is different because language gives us a different way to experience feelings. In fact he writes, “The importance we attach to language is just ridiculous.” Given all that he’s invested in promoting respect for animals’ emotional complexity, his ideas about corrective measures seem “small-scale, even trivial,” said Mark Cocker in the New Statesman. He suggests, for example, that supermarket shoppers should be able to use their phones to scan the bar codes on supermarket meat products to see how the butchered animal was raised. At a time when human population growth has put countless species under threat of extinction, that’s not enough. Though de Waal should be congratulated for the work he’s done here, “if complex emotions really are a common heritage of the whole animal kingdom, then we need to reimagine our responsibility to, and relationship with, the creatures that share this planet.”
3-15-19 Some shrimp make plasma with their claws. Now a 3-D printed claw can too
A replica of the appendage creates bubbles that produce high pressures and temperatures. Some shrimp have a secret superpower: Snapping their claws unleashes bubbles that produce plasma and shock waves to stun prey. Now a 3-D printed replica claw has reproduced the phenomenon in the lab, scientists report March 15 in Science Advances. When a snapping shrimp (Alpheus formosus and related species) slams its powerful claw shut, it spews a jet of water. That fast-moving stream creates a bubble, which then collapses on itself. The collapse produces extreme pressures and temperatures that reach thousands of degrees Celsius, generating a plasma, a state of matter in which electrons are freed from their atoms (SN: 10/6/01, p. 213). Using scans of a snapping shrimp’s claw as a blueprint, scientists 3-D printed a version five times the size of the original, making it snap shut at about the same speed as the real thing. The team used high-speed imaging to observe the bubbles that the fake claw produced as well as another camera that picked up dim flashes of light associated with the plasma. The researchers are investigating whether similar techniques might be useful for disinfecting water with plasma, which can kill pathogens (SN: 3/4/17, p. 15). But for the shrimp, the plasma production is an afterthought: “We don’t think the shrimp are intentionally trying to make a plasma,” says mechanical engineer David Staack of Texas A&M University in College Station, a coauthor of the study. Instead, the shrimp aim to produce a shock wave that immobilizes their prey. That shock wave occurs under conditions that also produce a plasma, Staack says. “It does go claw in hand.”
3-15-19 World's most endangered marine mammal is now down to 10 animals
The vaquita, the world’s most endangered marine mammal, has edged a step closer to extinction. There are no more than around 10 of the small porpoises still alive, a committee of conservation scientists concluded in a report published yesterday, down from 30 in 2017 and around 600 two decades ago. Worse still, their number could have fallen another 10 per cent, as the campaign group Sea Shepherd reported yesterday that one of its vessels’ crews had found a dead animal they believed is a vaquita. The animal has not yet been formally identified but a necropsy is underway and results are expected today, the group told New Scientist. The porpoise is found only in the northern Gulf of California, where it has retreated into the southwestern corner of its refuge. The species’ demise has been driven by Chinese demand for the swim bladder of the totoaba fish, which fishing vessels catch with illegal gillnets, hanging curtains of netting. Vaquita can become entangled in these nets. Despite efforts at international forums to save the porpoise, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) estimated the species had declined by 50% in the last three years. “This precipitous population decline has continued despite the actions taken by the government of Mexico,” according to the report by the committee, which advises Mexico on the species. The group is urging Mexican ministers to take immediate action, including funding and expanding efforts to remove nets, protecting those net removal teams, stepping up surveillance and arresting illegal fishermen. Those fishermen have proved dangerous and damaging, not just to the vaquita, but to those trying to protect them. Sea Shepherd said one of its ships was attacked while patrolling the species’ refuge in January.
3-14-19 Study reveals the wolf within your pet dog
Wolves lead and dogs follow - but both are equally capable of working with humans, according to research that adds a new twist in the tale of how one was domesticated from the other. Dogs owe their cooperative nature to "the wolf within", the study, of cubs raised alongside people, suggests. But in the course of domestication, those that were submissive to humans were selected for breeding, which makes them the better pet today. Grey wolves, at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, were just as good as dogs at working with their trainers to drag a tray of food towards them by each taking one end of a rope. But, unlike the dogs in the study, they were willing to try their own tactics as well - such as stealing the rope from the trainer. Friederike Range, from the Konrad Lorenz Institute, at Vetmeduni Vienna university, said: "It shows that, while wolves tend to initiate behaviour and take the lead, dogs are more likely to wait and see what the human partner does and follow that behaviour." About 30,000 years ago, wolves moved to the edges of human camps to scavenge for leftovers. The subsequent "taming" process of domestication and selective breeding then slowly began to alter their behaviour and genes and they eventually evolved into the dogs that we know today.
3-14-19 Sea otter archaeology could tell us about their 2-million-year history
Archaeology is defined as the study of human history and prehistory by the analysis of physical remains. But the dictionaries may need rewriting – archaeology is now being used to study the cultural histories of tool-using animals, from sea otters and monkeys to birds and even fish. Natalie Uomini at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany and her colleagues have analysed a site at Bennett Slough Culverts in California where sea otters use rocks as tools for cracking open mussels. At this site, the otters don’t just place smallish stones on their chest and then crack the shellfish on them. Unusually, they also bash mussels against large rocks on the seashore, creating huge piles of broken shells. Uomini’s team has shown that this leaves distinctive wear patterns on the large rocks used as anvils and also breaks the shells in a characteristic way, meaning the shell middens left by sea otters can be distinguished from those left by, say, people. This means it should be possible to identify ancient sites where sea otters used large stones in this way, which could reveal whether sea otters have been using stone tools ever since they first evolved about 2 million years ago. This would involve the same techniques used for the study of ancient human sites. However, finding ancient sea otter sites won’t be easy, not least because many surviving sites may be underwater due to sea level rise. “It’s really hard,” says Uomini. She is also studying New Caledonian crows, which are famed for their tool use. Although most of their tools are twigs and other items that rapidly break down, some do use stone anvils. Many other birds drop hard food items on stones to get into them, and there are even fish that break open shells on rocks. “We’d like to expand the concept of archaeology to non-humans,” says Uomini. “Archaeology can be applied to any species that produces a durable material signature,” says Tomos Proffitt at University College London, who has studied the sites left by capuchin monkeys that use stones to crack nuts.
3-13-19 Chickens 'gang up' to kill intruder fox on French farm
Chickens in a school farm in north-western France are believed to have grouped and killed a juvenile fox. The unusual incident in Brittany took place after the fox entered the coop with 3,000 hens through an automatic hatch door which closed immediately. "There was a herd instinct and they attacked him with their beaks," said Pascal Daniel, head of farming at the agricultural school Gros-Chêne. The body of the small fox was found the following day in a corner of the coop. "It had blows to its neck, blows from beaks," Mr Daniel told AFP news agency. The farm is home to up to 6,000 free-range chickens who are kept in a five-acre site. The coop is kept open during day and most of the hens spend the daytime outside, AFP adds. When the automatic door closed, the fox - thought to be around five or six months old - became trapped inside. "A whole mass of hens can arrive together and the fox may have panicked in the face of such a big number", Mr Daniel told the regional newspaper Ouest France (in French). "They can be quite tenacious when they are in a pack".
3-12-19 Human activity impacts a quarter of the world’s threatened species
A quarter of vulnerable vertebrate species are affected by human-made threats to over 90 per cent of their habitat, and approximately 7 per cent are affected by human activity across their entire range. “These species will decline and possibly die out in the impacted parts of their habitat without conservation action. Completely impacted species will almost certainly face extinction,” says James Allan at the University of Queensland in Australia. Allan and his colleagues mapped the habitats of 5457 threatened terrestrial birds, mammals and amphibians around the world. They divided the planet into a grid of 30 square kilometre boxes and determined the amount of human activity within each – including crop and pasture land, built environment, night lights, hunting and roads and railways – and analysed the sensitivity of each species to these activities. These human impacts occur on 84 per cent of Earth’s surface, and on average 38 per cent of a species’ range is affected by one or more of them. Mammals are the most affected with 52 per cent of each species’ range affected on average. One third of all species aren’t exposed to these threats across any part of their range. These findings may be conservative as they don’t take into account infectious diseases, which are known to affect amphibian populations, or climate change, which affects species across taxa, says Allan. “Our understanding of threats to mammals is greater than for amphibians,” says Allan. This could partly explain why the team’s results show mammals as the most affected, despite amphibians generally being regarded as more threatened. The top five countries most affected by human activity were all in South-East Asia, including Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore. On average, these countries have 120.3 species affected per grid cell, while the global average is 15.6. The areas most affected are mangroves, moist broadleaf forests in Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia, and dry broadleaf forests in India, Myanmar and Thailand.
3-12-19 Secretive new frog species from ancient lineage discovered in India
A “secretive” new species of frog has been discovered on the forest floor in India’s Western Ghat mountain range. Dubbed the Starry dwarf frog after the markings on its dark brown back, Astrobatrachus kurichiyana has an orange underbelly and is just 2cm in length. The frog, whose closest relatives are a group of species native to India and Sri Linka, is the only member of an ancient lineage dating back millions of years, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History. It is unclear yet whether the species descended from African or Asian frogs. An expedition of Indian and US researchers first encountered the endemic species hidden in leaf-litter during 2010 as part of a wider project to look for new frogs, lizards and snakes in the richly biodiverse region and stored it in a specimen jar for later study. Genetic testing and a closer look at its shape, colouring and other features has revealed that it does not match any existing species. Kartik Shanker of the Indian Institute of Science, who worked on the paper identifying the species, says while it is common to find new frogs in India, this one was notable. “This particular species is not just a new species, but a new genus and sub-family, and that makes it a little more special.” The number known of frogs identified in India has climbed from around 200 to above 400 over the past two decades. While many species new to science are frequently immediately classified as endangered, it is too early to say whether the Starry Dwarf frog is threatened. “They are very secretive,” says Shanker of the species, adding the team did not know what size the population might be. The frog is nocturnal and lives near water.
3-11-19 The first male bees spotted babysitting are mostly stepdads
The behavior may have evolved from males lurking to mate. Scientists have discovered the first case of male bees babysitting, and it turns out that these males often aren’t biological bee dads but hopeful stepdads of the youngsters. Females of a small bluish-black Mediterranean bee (Ceratina nigrolabiata) dig out the pith of plant stems to make a nest, where a mom lays her eggs. Unlike honeybees, these are solitary bees with no colony of daughter-workers. Without that help, the mom herself must collect nectar and pollen to feed the young. But these are no latchkey larvae. In 78 nests that researchers watched for 90 minutes, an adult male bee stayed in the nest’s entrance, rump outward, while the mom was out foraging. A male rear blocked a menacing ant that researchers put at the entrance in 41 attempted attacks. And in more than half of these attempted invasions, males pushed the ant out of the nest, says behavioral ecologist Michael Mikát of Charles University in Prague. When mom buzzes back with food, she scratches against the male’s rump, and he moves to allow her into the nest. Then he goes back to being a dad door, or rather, a stepdad door. In 265 nests sampled, only 29 percent of the babysitting males had fathered even one offspring that they were guarding, Mikát and colleagues report the week of March 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
3-9-19 Arsenic-munching caterpillars may ingest poison to prevent being eaten
Arsenic is toxic to most multicellular life. But caterpillars of one species happily dine on arsenic-loaded leaves, even as their bodies accrue astonishing levels. Benjamin Jaffe at the University of Wisconsin-Madison first got an inkling of the caterpillars’ unflappable appetite while studying their food – a fern called ladder brake that can accumulate high concentrations of arsenic from the soil. While studying the plants in Florida, he unexpectedly found caterpillars devouring the ferns. He chemically analyzed these fern moth caterpillars (Callopistria floridensis), revealing they had accumulated levels of arsenic in their bodies several orders of magnitude higher than he thought would be fatal. In the lab, Jaffe and his colleagues grew the ferns exposing them to arsenic in their water. The team then fed fern moth caterpillars on a high-arsenic ladder brake diet, and measured the arsenic levels in their bodies as they grew and developed. The results confirmed that the caterpillars store arsenic at concentrations even higher than their food source. “Arsenic has been the foundation of insecticides and poisons for hundreds of years, it’s the king of poisons and the poison of kings,” says Jaffe. This ability to eat and accumulate arsenic without dying is unusual, especially for a land-dwelling insect. There have been instances of aquatic invertebrates tolerating high levels of environmental arsenic, but the caterpillars are the only terrestrial animals known to hyperaccumulate the stuff. But why take on such a dangerous dinner at all? Jaffe thinks the arsenic might make a useful defense.
3-8-19 Why zebras have stripes
Scientists have long suspected that zebras evolved stripes to protect against biting flies—and now they may finally have proof. In a new study, researchers from the U.S. and U.K. spent 16 hours watching how horseflies interacted with nine horses and three captive zebras. They found that while the flies circled or touched both types of animals at similar rates, they landed on the zebras much less regularly than on the horses. To prove that this wasn’t simply because flies dislike the smell of zebras, the researchers then dressed the horses in three different coats: black, white, and zebra-striped. Again, the flies landed on the horses wearing the striped coats much less often than on those wearing plain ones. Close-up video footage of the horseflies provided a possible reason for their aversion to stripes: they appear to find the pattern dazzling or confusing. “Once they get close to the zebras, they tend to fly past or bump into them,” co-author Tim Caro, from the University of California, Davis, tells The Washington Post. “This indicates that stripes may disrupt the flies’ abilities to have a controlled landing.”
3-8-19 Hawkward! ‘Expert’ birdwatchers misidentify common birds as rarities
Spotting rare species is a feather in the cap for many birdwatchers. But they might need to give their binoculars a clean: people who describe themselves as expert birders are more likely to misidentify common birds as rare and exotic species than those who are more modest about their knowledge. Julia Schroeder of Imperial College London and her colleagues wanted to check the reliability of wildlife observations produced by citizen science projects. They asked nearly 2700 amateur ornithologists in the UK to identify pictures and drawings of six common species, including the robin, house sparrow and starling. They were surprised by the results: dozens of self-described experts claimed that some of the common British species depicted were birds only seen in other parts of the world. One confused a starling with the Asian brown flycatcher, more usually found in the Himalayas. Another said a greenfinch was a yellow bunting, which is a rare sight even in its native Japan. Although the experts did get more answers right overall than people who claimed no expertise, they were much more likely to spot a rarity or a species that has never been reported in Britain among the images. Both the survey title and the introductory text said it was a test to identify common British birds. People who were more modest about their expertise were more inclined to say they didn’t know a particular species, but self-reported experts would “come up with bizarre things”, Schroeder says. Pictures of starlings prompted the most mistakes – 44 per cent of these images weren’t identified correctly.
3-8-19 Ash dieback: Deadly tree fungus spreading 'more quickly'
A deadly fungus is spreading "more quickly and lethally" through the UK's ash trees than experts had anticipated, BBC Wales has learnt. Millions of diseased trees near buildings, roads and railways will have to be cut down. Natural Resources Wales (NRW) warned of a "very significant impact" on the landscape. The Welsh government announced it was setting up an expert group to advise on the issue. Landowners are already paying out thousands of pounds to hire tree surgeons, temporary traffic lights and other equipment to deal with the problem - known as ash dieback. One described the situation as a "tragedy". A recent survey - which split the UK into 10km grid squares - found infections had been confirmed across 80% of Wales, 68% of England, 32% of Northern Ireland and 20% of Scotland. Gavin Hogg, who owns the Penpont Estate near Brecon, Powys, said all the ash trees on his 2,000 acres (809 hectares) were showing signs of the incurable disease. It kills younger plants and weakens more established trees, making them vulnerable to other infections. He has already felled about 75 trees which were close to a main road. "We have such a massive problem we are going to deal with the public safety issue first," he said. "Instead of having a steady tree management programme we are now entering into crisis management where trees are being identified as dangerous and will need to come down."
3-7-19 Human encroachment threatens chimpanzee culture
Environmental disruptions reduce opportunities for social learning. From deep inside chimpanzee territory, the fieldworkers heard loud bangs and shouts. Hidden video cameras later revealed what the chimps in the Boé region of Guinea-Bissau were up to. Males were throwing rocks at trees and yelling. Researchers don’t fully understand why the apes engage in this rare behavior, known as accumulative stone throwing. And scientists may not have much time to sort out what’s going on. All four of Africa’s subspecies of chimpanzees are under threat from deforestation and poaching. That and other human activity may also be affecting chimp behaviors, including ones that many primatologists view as evidence of chimp culture — behaviors that are learned socially and transmitted through generations, Ammie Kalan and colleagues report online March 7 in Science. Such traditions as cave dwelling, using sticks to dig for honey and cracking nuts with stones are far less likely to occur in areas most impacted by humans, compared with more remote chimp territories, the team found. “Everyone thinks that if populations are declining … there would be some loss in the transmission chain that leads to cultural diversity in animals,” says Kalan, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “We’re the first to really show this.”
3-7-19 Treasure trove of new insects discovered on island
More than a hundred insect species that are new to science have been discovered on an Indonesian island. Found in remote rainforests, the tiny beetles appear to have been overlooked for decades. All 103 belong to the same group - weevils. Scientists have named the creatures after Star Wars and Asterix characters, including Yoda, a green shiny beetle, and Obelix, a rather rotund specimen. Others have been named after scientists, including Charles Darwin, and DNA pioneers, Francis Crick and James Watson. The beetles are only a few millimetres in length. Only a single member of their insect group has been found before on Sulawesi - as long ago as 1885. The island, known for its exotic wildlife, including birds and monkeys, is covered by lowland rainforests, although much of this has been cleared. The researchers say there may be more of the beetles out there. "Our survey is not yet complete and possibly we have just scratched the surface," said Raden Pramesa Narakusumo, curator of beetles at the Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense (MZB), Indonesian Research Center for Biology. "Sulawesi is geologically complex and many areas have never been searched for these small beetles." The scientists say evidence points to thousands of undescribed insect species roaming the rainforests on the island.
3-6-19 Ant larvae defend their homes by eating eggs laid by intruders
Ant larvae are fighters. When ant nests are invaded by parasitic ants that hope to wipe out the original residents, larvae may try to protect their family by eating the invaders’ eggs. Some species of ant can’t build their own nests, so they attempt steal other ants’ homes. Once mated, the queen will look for a potential host nest and sneak in to kill the host queen. Once in, the parasitic queen mimics the scent of the host species to trick the host worker ants into taking care of her eggs. As new parasitic ants hatch, they also mimic the host colony’s scent, hoping they will go unnoticed until the whole nest is replaced with the parasitic species. However, worker ants aren’t always fooled by this deception and will kill any ants they recognise as outsiders. Eva Schultner at the University of Regensburg in Germany and her colleagues wondered if ants have a secondary defence mechanism besides worker ants. So the team collected 424 larvae of formica fusca, a common host ant species, and placed them each onto a parasitic ant egg. Another 56 host larvae were put onto eggs of their own kind. Within 48 hours, the team found that the larvae had eaten 11 per cent of the parasitic ant eggs while all host eggs were still intact. This could suggest that larvae do the same in the nest when a parasitic ant attempts to infiltrate the colony. “Offspring are often overlooked in studies because we tend to think they are not powerful,” says Schultner. The success rate of the egg-eating tactic seems to be low, so it is unclear how effective it would be at getting rid of the invaders. Additionally, it isn’t known if larvae do the same thing in the wild as was seen in the experiment.
3-6-19 Tiny bits of iron may explain why some icebergs are green
The emerald ice may help shuttle an essential nutrient around marine food webs. Scientists may have finally figured out why some icebergs are green. Iron oxides could create the emerald hue. Icebergs often appear mostly white because light bounces off air bubbles trapped inside the ice. But pure ice — ice without air bubbles that often forms on a berg’s underside — appears blue because it absorbs longer light wavelengths (warm colors like red and orange) and reflects shorter ones (the cooler colors). Since the 1930s, though, mysterious capsized icebergs with green undersides, nicknamed “jade bergs,” have been spotted around Antarctica. In the early 1990s, glaciologist Stephen Warren of the University of Washington in Seattle and his colleagues proposed that the green came from microscopic carbon particles from dead organisms. When integrated into ice, these yellow carbon particles would absorb blue light leaving green to be reflected. Later experiments, though, found that the amount of carbon in green icebergs was too low to create the emerald hue. “So we were left with this disturbing result,” Warren says. Then in 2016, researchers discovered iron oxides in a decades-old preserved green ice sample taken from the Amery ice shelf in Antarctica. Iron oxides such as rust reflect reds and oranges but absorb blue light. If these particles, possibly picked up from rocks crushed by the weight and friction of glaciers flowing toward the ocean, get incorporated into ice forming underwater, the result would be a vibrant green, Warren and his colleagues report March 4 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans.
3-6-19 This spider slingshots itself at extreme speeds to catch prey
The Peruvian spider and its web go flying with 100 times the acceleration of a cheetah. Tasty insects, look out: In an attempt to catch prey, a speed-demon spider launches itself and its web with about 100 times the acceleration of a cheetah. That makes these tiny creatures, called slingshot spiders, the fastest-moving arachnids known, scientists reported March 4 at a meeting of the American Physical Society. Found in the Peruvian Amazon, slingshot spiders weave conical webs. These webs have a single strand attached to the tip of the cone, which the spider reels in to ramp up the tension. When the spider senses a potential meal, it releases the web. The spider and web together zing forward, ensnaring the prey. “Just like that, our spider has dinner,” biophysicist Symone Alexander of Georgia Tech said at the meeting. Using portable high-speed cameras to catch the spiders’ motion, Alexander and colleagues clocked the spiders at a maximum speed of about 4 meters per second. That’s close to the speed of a jogging human. “It’s a good thing … we’re not their target,” Alexander said of the spiders, a species in the family Theridiosomatidae. Other spiders known for their speediness seem slow in comparison, like the Moroccan flic-flac spider, which cartwheels away from danger at speeds of about 2 meters per second. The slingshot spider’s maximum acceleration is over 1,100 meters per second squared. Cheetahs, by comparison, accelerate at up to 13 meters per second squared, Alexander said. So that’s a stat that puts the fleet-footed cats to shame (SN: 3/3/18, p. 8).
3-5-19 Rarest orangutans 'doomed' by Indonesia dam project
The world's most endangered orangutans could be pushed towards extinction after an Indonesian court approved a controversial dam project, say campaigners. The 22 trillion rupiah (£1.15bn; $1.5bn) dam will be built in North Sumatra's Batang Toru forest. The region is home to the Tapanuli orangutans, which were only identified as a new species in 2017. Only 800 of them remain in the wild and they all live in this ecosystem. One scientist, who acted as an expert witness in the case, told the BBC the move would "put the orangutans on a firm path to extinction". The billion-dollar hydropower dam, scheduled for completion in 2022, will be constructed in the heart of the Batang Toru rainforest, which is also home to agile gibbons and Sumatran tigers. It is expected to supply electricity to the North Sumatra province and will be operated by Indonesian firm PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy. The company said the 510-megawatt dam would provide clean electricity to the region. According to the Jakarta Post newspaper, the dam will be constructed by Chinese state-owned firm Sinohydro. The Bank of China is one of several international banks funding the project. Environmental group the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) had earlier this year filed a lawsuit against the North Sumatra administration, challenging its decision to green-light the project. But the Medan State Administrative Court in North Sumatra has now rejected the lawsuit, clearing the way for the dam to be built. "The judges reject every part of the plaintiff's lawsuit," presiding judge Jimmy C Pardede said, according to the Jakarta Post. The judges said a proposal which detailed the environment impact of the project was in line with existing regulations. (Webmaster's comment: Wildlife has no chance! It is all doomed!)
3-5-19 Bird extinctions 'driven' by global food trade
About 100 bird species are predicted to go extinct based on current farming and forestry practices, according to a new global analysis. This number has increased by 7% over the first ten years of this century alone, say scientists. They say the biggest factor is cattle farming, but the impact of oil seed crops like palm and soy is growing fast. By comparison, an estimated 140 birds have been lost over the past 400 years. International researchers used bird extinction as a measure of the loss of biodiversity - the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat - linked with international trade in food and timber. The research, published in the journal, Nature Ecology & Evolution, shows that international trade can drive threats to animal species far from the countries where the goods are consumed. In 2011, about a third of biodiversity impacts in Central and South America, and a quarter in Africa were driven by the consumption of goods in other parts of the world, says the team. The issue of biodiversity loss cannot be addressed without adding remote responsibility, i.e. people taking responsibility for the goods they buy at the supermarket, said co-researcher, Prof Henrique Pereira of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) in Leipzig, Germany. "We have to provide more information for consumers on that - so that they know what they are buying," he told BBC News. Co-researcher Alexandra Marques added: "We must address unsustainable patterns of consumption driven by economic growth. Our choices here will have consequences elsewhere." The researchers estimated the number of bird species at risk of extinction due to the conversion of natural habitat to land for agriculture and forestry between 2000 and 2011. They came up with a figure of as many as 121 bird species predicted to go extinct in the future if there is no change to current land use.
3-4-19 Bears that eat ‘junk food’ may hibernate less and age faster
Wildlife raiding human foods might risk faster cellular aging. Mama bears may need to raise their snouts and join the chorus protesting junk food. The more sugary, highly processed foods that 30 female black bears scrounged from humans, the less time the bears were likely to spend hibernating, researchers found. In turn, bears that hibernated less tended to score worse on a test for aging at the cellular level, wildlife ecologist Rebecca Kirby and her colleagues conclude February 21 in Scientific Reports. The new research grew out of an earlier project to see what wild black bears across Colorado were eating, says study coauthor Jonathan Pauli, a community ecologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Kirby, his Ph.D. student at the time, checked diets from hundreds of bears across the state. Hunters there are not allowed to set out bear bait, such as heaps of doughnuts or candy, so the animals’ exposure to human food comes mostly from scavenging. When bears eat more processed foods, their tissue picks up higher concentrations of a stable form of carbon called carbon-13. That extra carbon comes from plants such as corn and cane sugar. (These crop plants concentrate the atmosphere’s normally sparse amounts of carbon-13 as they build sugar molecules in steps somewhat different from those in most of North America’s wild plants.) Looking for the telltale forms of carbon in that earlier study, the researchers found bears in some places scavenging “really high” proportions of people’s leftovers. On occasion, these leftovers made up more than 30 percent of bears’ diets, Pauli says.
3-4-19 World's fastest shark gets a burst of speed from shape-shifting skin
Millions of tiny “loose teeth” covering the mako shark’s skin could be the secret to its incredible speed. Mako sharks are known as the cheetahs of the ocean, rocketing through the water at speeds of up to 68 kilometres per hour. New research shows that patches of flexible, scale-like denticles on the shark’s skin allow it to glide more efficiently through the water. Stroke a shark from nose to tail, and its skin feels smooth. Rub it up the wrong way, however, and a shark feels sandpaper rough. That is due to being covered in millions of the tiny, protruding denticles. “The mako has translucent denticles about 0.2 millimetres in size,” says Amy Lang at the University of Alabama. “It turns out that the mako has very flexible denticles. These sit like little loose teeth. If water flow begins to reverse, the scales pop up.” The streamlining effect of denticles has already been copied for applications such as Speedo’s famous “shark skin” LZR swimsuit. Lang suspected that the highly flexible denticles were key to reducing another kind of drag: flow separation. After passing the widest part of a shark’s body – typically its gills – the flow of water slows, which leads to a pressure drop and can result in eddies and vortices. The same phenomenon explains why whirlpools appear at the edges of paddling oars. By studying the flow of water over shark skin in the lab, Lang saw that the loose denticles prevent this flow separation happening by bristling up in the swirling water. “It’s entirely passive, and happens in about 0.2 milliseconds,” she says. The most flexible scales are seen in areas that experience the most flow separation: the flank behind the gills, and the trailing edges of a shark’s pectoral fins.
3-4-19 India: Opium-addicted parrots 'wreak havoc' for farmers
Opium farmers in India are complaining that addicted parrots are destroying their crops. The farmers in Madhya Pradesh state say that along with a season of uneven rainfall, the parrots are having a serious impact on their yields. They say that attempts to scare the birds away with loudspeakers have made little difference and local authorities have not helped. The parrots could cause them to suffer huge losses, the farmers warn. Asian News International (ANI) tweeted a video of birds flying away with an entire poppy flower. The farmers supply the drug to medicinal companies and have a licence to grow the plant. One grower, Nandkishore, told NDTV he had tried making loud sounds and even used firecrackers to scare off the birds. He explained that one poppy flower produces 20-25 grams of opium, but "a large group of parrots feeds on these plants around 30-40 times a day and some even fly away with poppy pods". "Nobody is listening to our problems. Who will compensate for our losses?" he said. Dr RS Chundawat, an opium specialist at a Horticulture College in Mandsaur, told The Daily Mail that opium gives the birds instant energy - similar to the effect of tea or coffee for a human. He said that once the birds had experienced this feeling, they would quickly fall prey to the addiction.