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 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.