9-17-19 New species of giant salamander is the world's largest amphibian
The Chinese giant salamander, the largest amphibian in the world, is critically endangered – and now it’s clear that there are at least three distinct species of this animal, each of which will need different kinds of intervention if they are to be saved from extinction. The Chinese giant salamander is a huge animal that has been know to grow up to 1.8 metres long. They are very rare in the wild, but millions are kept in farms. But these farm animals, we now know, mainly represent one of the three species found across China – Andrias davidianus. The other species are “largely eliminated from the wild,” says Samuel Turvey at the Zoological Society of London, UK. “Each distinct species requires targeted and separate conservation management, both to locate any surviving wild populations and hopefully to establish species-specific conservation breeding programmes,” says Turvey. Turvey and his colleagues analysed DNA taken from liver, muscle or bone samples of 41 Chinese giant salamanders, some of which were museum specimens. These animals came from four river basins in nine Chinese provinces. The team found three distinct species from southern, central and eastern China. “Chinese giant salamanders have traditionally been thought to be a single species,” says Turvey. One of the newly named species, Andrias sligoi, is called the South China giant salamander. The other, which is from Huanghsan, has yet to be named. Turvey suggests the South China giant salamander is probably the biggest of the three and may grow up to nearly 2 metres long. These animals are extensively moved around China by humans to stock farms for food, and are sometimes used for medicinal purposes. This movement made it tricky to determine where they originated and how these three species diverged.
9-17-19 World's biggest amphibian 'discovered' in museum
A newly-identified amphibian is possibly the largest on the planet, according to DNA from museum specimens. Reaching nearly two metres in length, the South China giant salamander is critically endangered in the wild. Scientists say renewed conservation efforts are needed if the animal is to be saved from extinction. Harvesting for the luxury food trade has led to a collapse in numbers across China. Previously considered a single species, analysis of specimens, living and dead, suggests there are in fact three species found in different parts of China. The South China salamander is the largest of the three, which researchers suspect it is the largest amphibian alive today. Prof Samuel Turvey of ZSL (Zoological Society of London) said the decline of numbers in the wild has been "catastrophic". "We hope that this new understanding of their species diversity has arrived in time to support their successful conservation, but urgent measures are required to protect any viable giant salamander populations that might remain," he said. Co-researcher, Melissa Marr, of the Natural History Museum London, said measures must be put in place that preserve the genetic integrity of each distinct species. "These findings come at a time where urgent interventions are required to save Chinese giant salamanders in the wild," she said. Giant salamanders were once found across a large area of central, eastern, and southern China. Over-exploitation has increased in recent decades, to supply a domestic luxury food market. A large-scale farming industry has developed, which may threaten wild populations through poaching and spread of infectious diseases.
9-15-19 Wasps: If you can't love them, at least admire them
Want to know the best way to kill a cockroach? Well, first inject some powerful neurotoxins directly into its brain. This will make the bug compliant; it won't try to fly away and will bend to your will. Second, slice off one of its antennae and drink the goo that comes out. For snack purposes, you understand. And then lead it off to your lair by the stump, like a dog on a leash. You're going to bury this zombie in a hole in the ground. But just before you close up the tomb, lay an egg on the bug. Your progeny can have the joy of eating it alive. Dr Gavin Broad relishes these stories about how wasps will parasitise other critters. He's the principal curator in charge of insect collections at London's Natural History Museum, which means he's got plenty of material to work with. He has drawer after drawer of wasps, gathered from all corners of the globe. Ok, I can already hear you saying, "I hate wasps even if they kill roaches". But spend just a few minutes with Gavin and I promise you your views will evolve. You'll marvel at their skill and in quite a few cases you'll be stunned (not stung) by their beauty. That destroyer of cockroaches, for example - Ampulex compressa - has an extraordinary iridescent exoskeleton. You can see why they sometimes call it the jewel wasp. "But every wasp is glorious," says Gavin, as he urges you to move beyond the PR spin that's got us to prefer beetles and bees instead ("Bees are just furry wasps that turned vegetarian"). Wasps have their role in Nature and it's not to pester humans in the autumn. Ignore those "yellow jackets" getting drunk on cider in September orchards; they'll soon be gone. No, wasps have very useful functions, one of which is to keep other insects in check. Every insect you can think of probably has some wasp that will attack it. If that wasn't the case, we'd almost certainly be using more pesticides than we already do on our farms.
9-15-19 Microplastics may stop hermit crabs from choosing the best home
Microplastics appear to disrupt the ability of hermit crabs to choose a good home, suggesting pollution in the oceans may harm the species. Up to 10 per cent of the plastics we use end up in the oceans. Much of it breaks down into tiny particles, known as microplastics, which are bad news for marine life. When ingested by filter feeders, fish and other organisms, they can have detrimental effects on health and reproductive success. But few studies have explored how microplastics might influence behaviour. A key decision for hermit crabs is choosing when to abandon their shell and move into a new, bigger one. If microplastics in the water influence the crabs’ cognition you would expect them to take longer to move into a better shell and change shells less often. To test this idea, Andrew Crump and colleagues at Queen’s University Belfast took 64 hermit crabs from around the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland, half of which were left for five days in a 4 litre tank containing 50 grams of microplastics. The team removed each crab from its shell, gave it one that was 50 per cent too small, and placed it in an observation chamber with an empty shell of just the right size. Crabs exposed to the microplastics were around half as likely to enter the new shell after 45 minutes as those not exposed. “Maybe microplastics reduced their ability to sense the shell,” says Crump, who presented the research at a conference of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour in Konstanz, Germany, last month. The impact in the wild may not be as drastic as seen in the experiments, as the concentration of microplastics Crump and his team used was much higher than in the natural environment.
9-13-19 Urban crows’ burger habit
Crows in towns and cities have higher cholesterol than their country cousins, thanks to their fast food–heavy diet, a new study has found. These clever corvids are experts at raiding trash cans. To discover the effects of the half-eaten cheeseburgers and fried chicken they scavenge and scarf, researchers measured the cholesterol of 140 nestling crows in urban, suburban, and rural areas in and around Davis, Calif. The more urban the surroundings, they discovered, the higher the birds’ cholesterol. The scientists then ran a “cheeseburger supplementation experiment,” reports the New Scientist, in which they dropped McDonald’s burgers near crows’ nests in rural Clinton, N.Y. Sure enough, the junk food–munching birds’ cholesterol levels were about 5 percent higher than those of nearby crows that hadn’t been fed burgers. Whether that extra cholesterol is bad for the crows isn’t clear—there was no evidence that it affected mortality rates. “We know that excessive cholesterol causes disease in humans,” says lead researcher Andrea Townsend, from Hamilton College in Clinton. “But we don’t know what level would be ‘excessive’ in a wild bird.”
9-13-19 We may have a basic form of sign language in common with chimpanzees
We can communicate with chimps. When put to the test, people can usually understand the meaning of ten common gestures used by chimpanzees. Human infants also use some of the same gestures before they can talk, although we don’t yet know if their meanings are the same. The gestures may be the remnants of a basic sign language used by our last common ancestors with apes, says Kirsty Graham, who did the work while at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. “This gestural communication is probably biologically inherited among the great apes – including humans.” One idea about language evolution is that we developed the ability to speak by building on a more primitive kind of sign language. To investigate, the St Andrews team have been recording the meanings of gestures used by gorillas, chimps and bonobos, a related species, to put together the online Great Ape Dictionary. So far they have found about 70 gestures, with about 16 different meanings, as several gestures can convey the same meaning. Most are shared by the three great apes. The researchers set up a website where members of the public could watch short video clips of ten common signs made by chimps and bonobos, and guess what each one meant from four options. By chance they should have got a quarter of the answers right. But people did better than that, picking the correct answer 52 per cent of the time, and this rose to 57 per cent if they were given a brief description of the situation when the gesture was used. Some gestures had success rates over 80 per cent, for instance, when a chimp strokes near its mouth, which means it is asking for food, says Graham, who presented the findings at the European Federation of Primatology meeting in Oxford this week.
9-13-19 'Cocktail of pollutants' found in dolphins in English Channel
Dolphins living in the English Channel are exposed to a "cocktail of pollutants", say scientists. A study found some of the highest recorded levels of toxic chemicals and mercury in the bodies of bottlenose dolphins off the French coast. Researchers say more needs to be done to tackle the "invisible" problem of lingering pollutants in the oceans. The Channel is home to one of the last remaining large European populations of bottlenose dolphins. They found high concentrations of mercury in skin and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in blubber. Other industrial chemicals, such as dioxins and pesticides, were also found in blubber samples, which together may act as a "cocktail of pollutants", they said. The chemicals are passed down from mother to calf. "Our results indicated the important transfer of PCBs by females to their young, which may raise concern for the population," said the team of researchers led by Dr Krishna Das of the University of Liege, Belgium. The scientists say the bottlenose dolphin's habitat - an area known as the Normanno-Breton Gulf - should become a special area of conservation to protect the population. The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, chimes with data from investigations of strandings, said ZSL's Rob Deaville, of the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme. "As apex predators, bottlenose dolphins are at higher risk of exposure to some of the chemicals mentioned in this study - and as many of the European coastal populations of bottlenose dolphins are relatively small in size, they may therefore be under greater conservation threat," he said. PCBs, used in plastics, paints and electrical equipment, were banned several decades ago, but persist in the environment, where they can build up in the blubber of dolphins and whales. The chemicals have been found in the blubber of bottlenose dolphins washed up on beaches around Europe. One killer whale found dead off Scotland in 2016 contained among the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, ever recorded.
9-13-19 Decline of migrating birds could be partly due to pesticides
It’s not just bees that are being harmed by the pesticides called neonicotinoids, it’s birds too. A study in Canada has shown that migrating white-crowned sparrows lose weight just hours after eating seeds treated with the neocotinoid imidacloprid, delaying their onward migration by several days. Although the main manufacturer of the pesticide disputes the findings. Birds that arrive late at breeding grounds are less likely to raise young successfully and sometimes don’t breed at all, says Christy Morrissey at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, whose team carried out the study. “This has serious impacts on populations.” In North America, populations of 57 of the 77 bird species associated with farmland are in decline. Morrissey thinks neonicotinoids could be contributing to these declines. However, she does not think that banning these pesticides is the answer. Farmers will just use alternative pesticides that may turn out to be just as bad. Instead, we need to find ways of farming that don’t rely on quick chemical fixes, Morrissey says. Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex agrees. “The regulatory system keeps failing, by allowing new harmful chemicals into use,” he says. “The only long-term solution is to move away from a reliance on pesticides to solve every problem.” Neonicotinoids are applied to seeds before planting to kill insects that feed on the seedlings. They are much less toxic to birds and mammals than insects, so in theory these animals should not get high enough doses to harm them.But lab studies by Morrissey have shown that even low doses of imidacloprid make white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) lose weight. Now her team has caught wild sparrows on a migratory stopover, tagged them with tiny radio transmitters and fed them either imidacloprid or a harmless control.
9-13-19 Birds fed a common pesticide lost weight rapidly and had migration delays
Neonicotinoid insecticides have previously been implicated in declining bee populations The world’s most widely used insecticides may delay the migrations of songbirds and hurt their chances of mating. In the first experiment to track the effects of a neonicotinoid on birds in the wild, scientists captured 24 white-crowned sparrows as they migrated north from Mexico and the southern United States to Canada and Alaska. The team fed half of those birds with a low dose of the commonly used agricultural insecticide imidacloprid and the other half with a slightly higher dose. An additional 12 birds were captured and dosed with sunflower oil, but no pesticide. Within hours, the dosed birds began to lose weight and ate less food, researchers report in the Sept. 13 Science. Birds given the higher amount of imidacloprid (3.9 milligrams per kilogram of body mass) lost 6 percent of their body mass within six hours. That’s about 1.6 grams for an average bird weighing 27 grams. Tracking the birds (Zonotrichia leucophrys) revealed that the pesticide-treated sparrows also lagged behind the others when continuing their migration to their summer mating grounds. The findings suggest that neonicotinoid insecticides, already implicated in dropping bee populations, could also have a hand in the decline of songbird populations across North America. From 1966 to 2013, the populations of nearly three-quarters of farmland bird species across the continent have precipitously dropped. The researchers dosed the birds in the lab with carefully measured amounts of pesticide mixed with sunflower oil. In the wild, birds might feed on seeds coated with imidacloprid. The highest dose that “we gave each bird is the equivalent of if they ate one-tenth of [a single] pesticide-coated corn seed,” says Christy Morrissey, a biologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. “Frankly, these were minuscule doses we gave the birds.”
9-11-19 Ghost crabs use teeth in their stomach to growl at their enemies
Ghost crabs “growl” when threatened by grinding the teeth inside their stomach against each other. While many crustaceans have teeth in their stomachs for grinding up food, the ghost crab is the first shown to use them to making sounds for communication as well. It has long been known that ghost crabs make sounds to deter intruders by flexing their claws, which makes ridges near the joint rub against each other. But when another animal gets too close, the crabs hold their claws upright in a position that prevents them making these sounds. Jennifer Taylor of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California noticed that even in this position, the crabs still produce a rasping sound when threatened. The sounds are loud enough for people to hear unaided. “They were making sounds but not in the way we expected,” says Taylor. She and her colleagues could not see what was making the sounds. So they took a box of ghost crabs (Ocypode quadrata) to an X-ray department at a nearby hospital so they could see what was happening inside them as they growled in response to various threats, including a toy crab and a small robot. The X-ray fluoroscopy videos revealed that the rasping sounds coincided with the movements of the teeth in their foreguts, known as gastric mills, and that the teeth were not grinding up food at the time. Many animals, from worms and molluscs to birds, have mechanisms for grinding food in their gizzards that can produce audible noises (though birds swallow stones rather than having internal teeth– as did dinosaurs). Taylor suspects that some of these animals also use these noises for communication. Some fish, such as grunts, produce sounds using the teeth in their throats. This is the closest known equivalent to the ghost crabs, says Taylor.
9-10-19 Two new species of electric eel come as a shock to biologists
An investigation into the diversity of electric eels has produced quite a shock. Rather than just one species, there are actually three species of electric eels living in South America, and one of them generates a bigger voltage than any other bioelectric animal. Electric eels were first described 250 years ago by Carl Linnaeus, who gave them the species name Electrophorus electricus. They use their shocking power to hunt prey and defend themselves, while weaker electrical signals help them to navigate and communicate. David de Santana at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, and colleagues studied 107 specimens from across the Amazon region, analysing their genetics, morphology and geographical spread. They discovered that there are three species with different distributions: the original species E. electricus in the northern highlands, E. voltai in the southern highlands and E. varii in the lowland Amazon basin. E. voltai is the largest, growing up to 1.7 metres long compared with 1.0 metres for the shortest, E. electricus. The researchers measured the electric discharge generated by E. voltai at 860 volts – considerably higher than the 650 volts reported before. This makes it the strongest living bioelectricity generator we know of. These eels live in water with few dissolved minerals, meaning it has low conductivity, which might be why such a large voltage is necessary. A shock of this size would be unlikely to kill a human, but it would cause muscle contractions and a painful numbing sensation, says de Santana. “It’s like the effect of a law enforcement Taser.” E. electricus and E. voltai have a flatter head than E. varii, which may be better adapted to highland environments, with fast-flowing water and rocky or sandy bottoms. The species also differ in the number of pores in their lateral lines – a system of sense organs on the side of the body.
9-9-19 Defeat malaria in a generation - here's how
The world could be free of malaria - one of the oldest and deadliest diseases to affect humanity - within a generation, a major report says. Each year there are still more than 200 million cases of the disease, which mostly kills young children. The report says eradicating malaria is no longer a distant dream, but wiping out the parasite will probably need an extra $2bn (£1.6bn) of annual funding. Experts say eradication is a "goal of epic proportions". Malaria is a disease caused by Plasmodium parasites. These are spread from person to person by the bite of female mosquitoes in search of a blood meal. Once infected, people become very sick with a severe fever and shaking chills. The parasites infect cells in the liver and red blood cells, and other symptoms include anaemia. Eventually the disease takes a toll on the whole body, including the brain, and can be fatal. Around 435,000 people - mostly children - die from malaria each year. The world has already made huge progress against malaria. Since 2000: 1. The number of countries with malaria has fallen from 106 to 86. 2. Cases have fallen by 36%. 3. The death rate has fallen by 60%. This is largely down to widespread access to ways of preventing mosquito bites, such as bed nets treated with insecticide, and better drugs for treating people who are infected. "Despite unprecedented progress, malaria continues to strip communities around the world of promise and economic potential," said Dr Winnie Mpanju-Shumbusho, one of the report authors. "This is particularly true in Africa, where just five countries account for nearly half of the global burden." Eradicating malaria - effectively wiping it off the face of the planet - would be a monumental achievement. The report was commissioned by the World Health Organization three years ago to assess how feasible it would be, and how much it would cost. Forty-one of the world's leading malaria experts - ranging from scientists to economists - have concluded that it can be done by 2050. Their report, published in the Lancet, is being described as "the first of its kind".
9-8-19 Wild mountain gorillas enjoy playing in water just like we do
For the first time, wild mountain gorillas have been seen playing in water and having a splashing good time. Raquel Costa of Kyoto University in Japan spotted the behaviour by chance. She studies the impact of ecotourism on the wild mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) living in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. In January 2018, Costa saw a 15-year-old male gorilla named Kanywani sitting by a stream. He was gently moving his arm backwards and forwards in the water. However, he only did it for 37 seconds in total and she did not have a camera. The next time, Costa was able to record the behaviour. It was two weeks later and most of the group was feeding by the stream. A nine-year-old female named Kamara started splashing the water with her arms, vigorously sweeping it to the sides. She did this 21 times in 17 minutes, always making a distinctive “play face” in which she stuck out her tongue. At one point a second female, Kanyindo, briefly joined in. By the end, “Kamara was completely wet”, says Costa. About a week later, Costa again briefly saw a gorilla play in the stream. This time it was seven-year-old male Kabunga, who rotated his arms across the water surface for about five seconds. A 2016 review found no evidence of water play in mountain gorillas, either from Bwindi or from the other population in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, Costa says colleagues studying the Virunga gorillas told her they have seen water play. Elsewhere, western lowland gorillas are known to dramatically splash in water, seemingly as a display of power. Famously, in 2017 Dallas Zoo released a video of an adult male western lowland gorilla, Zola, doing pirouettes in a paddling pool. The clip promptly went viral. studies of animals playing focus on social play, in which two or more animals play a game together. However, Costa says solitary play can be equally important. While social play helps animals learn social skills, solitary play can be a way to learn physical skills and to explore their environments. By playing in water, the gorillas are “developing muscles and skills”, she says.
9-7-19 How Kilauea’s lava fed a massive phytoplankton bloom
Superhot molten rock may have churned up a key deep-sea nutrient. Kilauea’s 2018 eruption gave a surprising boost to ocean algae. Metals in the lava could have helped fuel a 150-kilometer-long phytoplankton bloom off the coast of Hawaii — but unexpectedly, heat was an even more important ingredient. Superhot lava interacting with deep ocean water may have churned up buoyant plumes of deep-sea nutrients that kept the tiny algae well-fed, researchers report in the Sept. 6 Science. nutrient-rich lava daily into the Pacific Ocean (SN: 1/29/19). Three days after lava first entered the ocean, satellite images showed a patch of water enriched in chlorophyll-a — the pigment that can make plants and algae green — off the island of Hawaii. Once the lava stopped flowing into the ocean, the patch dissipated within a week. Amid peak bloom, scientists analyzed the patch’s seawater to determine why the phytoplankton suddenly flourished. The water contained a rich, phytoplankton-fertilizing serum of nitrate, silicic acid and phosphate, as well as iron, manganese and cobalt, microbial oceanographer Samuel Wilson of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and colleagues found. Concentrations of silicic acid and trace metals, some of which can help algae grow, were similar to those of Kilauea’s basalt lava. But nitrate was the primary driver for the bloom, the team found, and its source was a mystery. The lava itself contains hardly any nitrogen for ocean microbes to convert into nitrate. Instead, the nutrient probably came from the deep, Wilson’s team says. Near the island, the seafloor slopes steeply, allowing already fast-moving lava to rapidly reach deeper waters. Those waters contain abundant nitrate, in contrast to the surface waters.
9-6-19 Stranded whales: Numbers on the rise around UK shores
The number of whales and dolphins washing up around the UK coastline has risen, according to new figures. In 2017 alone, 1,000 animals were stranded - more than in any year since records began. A total of 4,896 whales, dolphins and porpoises died on beaches between 2011 and 2017 - up 15% on the previous seven years. Scientists found a number of causes for the deaths, including infectious diseases, fishing and plastic. It's difficult to say conclusively what's driven the rise, but it's associated with multiple causes, including rises in some dolphin and whale populations, they say. "Strandings aren't actually in and of themselves bad news," Rob Deaville of ZSL (Zoological Society of London), who led the report, told BBC News. "There's a misconception that we're trying to stop strandings - we're not, we're trying to learn more about those that are due to human activities and then try and mitigate those where we can." In some respects the data paints a bleak picture, but there are still positives to be drawn, he added. More than 20 cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) species were recorded over seven years - roughly a quarter of all cetacean species known in the world. One, the dwarf sperm whale, had never before been seen in the UK. Since 1990, scientists have been investigating why whales, dolphins and porpoises wash up around the UK coastline. This gives an insight into the health of marine wildlife in British waters, the changing patterns of different species, and threats from human impacts, such as chemical pollution, marine noise and accidental fishing. The underlying causes of whales becoming stranded on beaches are not always clear, including any part played by humans.
9-5-19 Pesticide made from spider venom kills pests without harming bees
A bite from a funnel web spider delivers neurotoxins that can kill an adult in hours, or a child in minutes. Their fangs are so sharp and powerful that they can pierce fingernails. Yet they might turn out to be our friends in the fight against the small hive beetle, a dangerous new threat to bees. In southern Africa, where it originates, the small hive beetle – Aethina tumida – is just a minor pest. African honeybees defend their nests so aggressively, and keep them so tidy, that the invader rarely gets a foothold. Outside Africa, however, nests of the more laidback European honeybee (Apis mellifera) are often devastated by the beetle and its larvae, which devour the honey, pollen and brood, destroy the combs and sometimes introduce diseases. A. tumida was first found in the US in 1998, and has since established itself in North America and Australia, and begun to appear in southern Europe. Some pesticides can kill the beetles, but in doing so they would harm the bees as well. Now researchers at the University of Durham and at a company called Fera Science, both in the UK, think that funnel web spiders may provide the weapon we need to stop A. tumida. Spider venom contains a cocktail of different ingredients, and we’ve known for a while that one of the funnel web’s toxins – Hv1a – is fatal to most insects, including small hive beetles, but apparently has no effect on bees or humans. The trouble was that Hv1a needs to be injected. “When the spider makes an injection it goes straight to the circulatory system, then to the central nervous system,” says Elaine Fitches, whose team conducted the research. If beetles or their larvae simply swallow the toxin, it quickly degrades in the gut and has little effect.
9-4-19 Forget pristine habitats - for biodiversity save abandoned quarries
The best way to save Earth’s threatened wildlife could be to protect its most unglamorous and geologically diverse landscapes, from scrubland to exhausted mines. THE disused quarry in Cheffois in western France doesn’t seem like it would be high on anyone’s conservation watchlist. A swampy marsh leads to a sinister-looking pit pond, guarded by a dense thicket and overhung by trees and shrubs. Above the pond, a staircase of rock walls stretches skywards, while mosses and ferns monopolise the dank, shady corners. Although a far cry from classic nature havens like the Galapagos Islands, this somewhat uninspiring landscape could rival them in value. Not only is the quarry brimming with wildlife, including many rare and threatened species, but the secrets to its biodiversity could help save all life on our planet. It is now widely accepted that Earth is experiencing a sixth mass extinction event. The United Nations estimates that about 1 million species are threatened, and many have already been lost to human activity. We can’t save everything, so how do we prioritise?Until now, the focus has been on biodiversity hotspots, locations with good habitats that support exceptional concentrations of different species. But maybe our efforts have been misguided. Instead of focusing on specific species or habitats, one of the best ways of putting the brakes on the current mass extinction may be to protect our planet’s rocks and soils: its geodiversity. They may not look like much, but neglected quarries and unloved scrubland may be key to ensuring the long-term survival of life on Earth. This change in perspective emerged around a decade ago. Mark Anderson at the Nature Conservancy, a conservation charity in the US, was assessing which areas of landscape they should prioritise. “I realised that we were buying up land to protect the species living there now, but climate change impacts might mean this wouldn’t be the right place in the future,” says Anderson. That led to an epiphany. Instead of buying land with great biodiversity today, he decided to look for areas that would retain their diversity as the planet warmed.
9-4-19 We can tell where a whale has travelled from the themes in its song
Sometimes when you travel, you still betray where you came from when you open your mouth. The same thing seems to apply to humpback whales: features of their songs can reveal where they originally came from. What’s more, when whales travel their songs change as they pick up new tunes from whales they meet that have come from different regions. “Our best analogy is hit human fashion and pop songs,” says Ellen Garland at the University of St Andrews in the UK. The sharing of whale song is a kind of cultural transmission that can give clues about where a whale has travelled along its migration, and where it started out. “We can pinpoint a population a whale has likely come from by what they are singing,” she says. She and her team recorded the songs of humpback whales passing near the Kermadec islands in the South Pacific during September and October of 2015. They also recorded whale songs at spots where whales congregate to feed and breed across the western and central South Pacific, and around eastern and western Australia. The team broke down each song into units, like notes, that build together to make a phrase, and several phrases that repeat to form a theme. A few themes are sung in a set order to form a song. They found three song types from 52 whale singers. Song type 1 was dominant in the central Pacific, including the Cook Islands and French Polynesia. Song type 2 was most common in the west, including New Caledonia, Tonga and Niue. And song type 3 was only recorded in the waters near eastern Australia. Then they compared these songs to those of the whales near the Kermadec islands, a migratory stopover point. Here they found two distinct versions of song type 1, which they’ve called 1a and 1b. These songs can morph as whales pass them along, adding a riff or a few notes.
9-4-19 Goose blood runs cold to carry more oxygen on high altitude flights
Bar-headed geese migrate across the Himalayas twice a year, reaching altitudes as high as 7270 metres where the thin air contains only 30 to 50 per cent of the oxygen as air at sea level. To understand how they manage this feat, astronaut and physiologist Jessica Meir at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas and her colleagues raised bar-headed geese from eggs so they would imprint on the researchers. Then they trained the birds to fly alongside a bicycle or in a 30-metre wind tunnel. After that, they had the geese fly in the wind tunnel wearing a breathing mask that simulated the limited oxygen at altitudes of 5500 and 9000 meters, which mimics the conditions the geese experience when they migrate. The mask also measured the oxygen the birds used and the carbon dioxide they produced. The team found that the geese lowered their metabolism during these taxing flights, and their heart rates did not increase. They also found that the blood in the birds’ veins cooled as they flew in the wind tunnel with simulated low-oxygen conditions. Cold blood can carry more oxygen than warm blood, which may help the geese fuel the muscles that help them fly. These test flights were far shorter than wild migration flights – on average the geese would fly in the wind tunnel for up to 45 minutes, but when they were fully outfitted with sensors and the breathing mask, the experimental flights were just minutes. “Our findings have relevance to all physiological and biomedical fields involving animals and humans in low-oxygen environments, such as medical conditions including heart attacks and strokes, or procedures like organ transplants,” said Meir in a statement.
9-4-19 Hurricane Dorian may have wiped out at least one bird species
Hurricane Dorian is not only a catastrophe for the people living on the islands in the Bahamas battered by the record-breaking storm. It may also have killed the last few individuals of a bird called the Bahama nuthatch, meaning this species is now extinct. Several other bird species could also have been lost. “Dorian is of course a humanitarian disaster,” says conservation biologist Diana Bell at the University of East Anglia. “It is also likely to be an ecological disaster.” Last year members of her team carried out extensive surveys on Grand Bahama island and found just one Bahama nuthatch. It is now highly likely that this species has been lost, Bell says. The Bahama nuthatch (Sitta insularis) was a small bird that lived in the natural pine forests of Grand Bahama. It used to be common on the island but as the pine forests shrank its numbers fell. By 2009 fewer than 2000 birds remained. After Category 4 Hurricane Matthew struck in 2016 none were seen at all until the survey last year. Now Dorian has delivered an even more severe blow. Not only was the Category 5 storm the joint strongest Atlantic hurricane ever to strike land when it made landfall in the nearby Abaco Islands, Dorian also stalled over the island of Grand Bahama, subjecting it to a prolonged battering and driving a massive storm surge over much of the island. Seven deaths, numerous injuries and extensive damage to buildings had already been reported in the Bahamas as of Wednesday morning, and it is feared the final death toll could be much higher. Bell says several bird species may also have been lost. Besides the nuthatch, the Bahama warbler, the Bahama swallow, the olive-capped warbler and the Bahama yellowthroat are also found mainly or only on Grand Bahama and the Abaco islands.
9-4-19 World's hungriest caterpillar is wreaking destruction around the world
Scientists are racing to develop weapons against fall armyworms, a devastating pest that is rapidly invading new continents and destroying vital food crops. THE race to get to grips with one of the most destructive pests on the planet is gathering pace. The fall armyworm has ruined billions of dollars of crops in Africa over the past few years and is spreading quickly. Last week, Japan agreed to buy a huge consignment of maize from the US, largely because of fears its own crop will be eaten by the pest. With the prospect of this marauding insect reaching Australia and even Europe before long, scientists are now working frantically to stop it. The first thing you need to know about the fall armyworm is that it is actually a caterpillar, the offspring of an innocuous-looking brown moth. It was until recently found just in South America and southern areas of the US. The pest is a big problem there, but natural predators stop it from causing a total disaster. Its march further afield was first noted in January 2016, when unusual caterpillars were spotted on maize plants in Nigeria. Over the next six months, they were found in three other west African countries: São Tomé and Príncipe, Benin and Togo. Three years on, we still don’t know how they got to Africa. We do know that the caterpillars eat many vital food crops, including rice, sugar cane, sorghum and especially maize. They can destroy a farmer’s entire crop in a single night. The alarm was soon sounded in Africa. “We got involved quite early on,” says Roger Day at the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) office in Nairobi, Kenya. CABI runs clinics offering advice to farmers. Fall armyworm quickly became one of the main concerns.
9-4-19 Meat-eating plants making a comeback in England
Endangered carnivorous plants are being reintroduced to parts of England in an attempt to reverse their decline. Botanists say the "fascinating and beautiful" great sundew is extinct in many areas, due to loss of wetlands. With tentacles that trap and digest insects, the plant is one of a dozen or so meat-eating plants native to the UK. Charles Darwin was captivated by the species, compiling drawings and experiments for his book, Insectivorous Plants, published around 1876. He said he cared more about the genus Drosera, which means dewy in Latin, than the origin of all the species in the world. "It's a very rare species," said Joshua Styles, a 24-year-old from Cheshire, who has set up his own conservation charity, the North West Rare Plant Initiative, to conserve rare flora, including the great or English sundew (Drosera anglica). "In England it's red-listed as endangered and it occurs in less than 20 sites and hence its rarity and status instigated me wanting to reintroduce it." The Red List is an inventory that shows the conservation status of different global species. It's compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Once commonly found in England, the plant has suffered a dramatic decline over the last century. Changes in land use have led to the drying of the wetlands and peat bogs it needs to survive. The great sundew is found more widely in Scotland and Wales.
9-3-19 Human meddling has manipulated the shapes of different dog breeds’ brains
Distinct shapes of pooches’ brain regions aren’t solely due to the animals’ size or head shape. Dog breeders have been shaping the way the animals look and behave for centuries. That meddling in canine evolution has sculpted dogs’ brains, too. A brain-scanning study of 62 purebred dogs representing 33 breeds reveals that dog brains are not all alike — offering a starting point for understanding how brain anatomy relates to behavior. Different breeds had different shapes of various brain regions, distinctions that were not simply the result of head shape or the size of the dogs’ brains or bodies, researchers report September 2 in the Journal of Neuroscience. Through selective breeding, “we have been systematically shaping the brains of another species,” Erin Hecht, an evolutionary neuroscientist at Harvard University, and colleagues conclude. The MRI scans were taken of dogs with normal brain anatomy at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at the University of Georgia at Athens. While the study wasn’t designed to directly link brain shape to behavior, the results offer some hints. Researchers identified groups of brain areas, such as smell and taste regions, that showed the most variability between breeds. Those groups are involved in specialized behaviors that often serve humans, such as hunting by smell, guarding and providing companionship to people, earlier studies have suggested. The authors assumed the dogs in the study were all pets. It’s possible that dogs extensively trained for specialized work — such as sheep herding, bomb detecting or guiding the blind — might have even more distinct brains.
9-2-19 Wild geese change routes to cope with climate change
Barnacle geese are choosing new feeding sites to cope with climate change, according to Scottish researchers. A team from St Andrews University, along with Norwegian, Dutch and British colleagues, found that the birds were flying further north in the Arctic. The study is one of the first to provide hard evidence that wild animals are inventing new ways to cope with changing habitats. The findings are based on 45 years of observations by experts. The teams found that the migratory birds, which traditionally fuelled up, or staged, just South of the Arctic circle in Norway now mainly staged in northern Norway far above the Arctic circle.Individual geese changed to a new route with other geese learning the new habit from each other, according to the findings. The researchers added that barnacle geese had shifted their migratory route on their journey from the UK to their breeding grounds on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, within the last 25 years. Dr Thomas Oudman of the school of biology at St Andrews, said: "It makes sense that the birds went even further north, because where snow used to be very common there at the time of their arrival in Norway, these days it is often freshly green there: the most nutritious stage. "What surprised us is that it is mainly the young geese who have shifted. The youngsters are responding to a trend they could not have experienced during their short life." Adult geese are also increasingly shifting north, although they often return to the traditional areas in their old age. Dr Oudman added: "These patterns point at a complex social system, which enables the geese to rapidly colonise newly available areas." Contrary to most other migratory birds, barnacle geese flourish even while their natural habitat is rapidly changing.
9-2-19 Climate change has created more bird winners than losers in England
Climate change appears to have helped far more English bird species than it has hindered over the past 50 years. Out of 68 species that breed in England, 23 had their number significantly affected by climate change between 1966 and 2015. There was a positive effect on 19 of the 23, but it was negative for the other four, researchers at the British Trust for Ornithology and at the government adviser Natural England found. The winners include resident species that have benefited from warmer winters, such as long-tailed tits and wrens. The other big beneficiaries have been species from further south expanding their range northwards, such as the little egret, a small heron. For 13 species, climate change helped populations jump more than 10 per cent. “The magnitude of changes that we are seeing really show something significant happening. Birds are good indicators because in many cases they are towards the top of the food chain, reliant on the insects and the habitats beneath them,” says James Pearce-Higgins of the BTO, who worked with Humphrey Crick of Natural England on the study. The pair took half a century of citizen science records on bird numbers to build a model predicting population growth for species. To determine if a species had been notably affected by climate change, they ran the model both with and without the changes in temperature and rainfall wrought over the period. Serious declines of some species, including the corn bunting, would have been even worse without climate change. But as the world keeps warming, “some of those positives may well switch to negatives”, says Pearce-Higgins. Climate change is just one pressure on birds, with land use change and intensive farming both big drivers in England. “There’s building evidence that by reducing these other pressures – by having more protected sites, more nature reserves and managing them better – we can help these populations cope much more with warming,” says Pearce-Higgins.
9-2-19 Climate change 'has affected a third of UK bird species'
Cuckoo numbers are in steep decline across almost half of England because of climate change but buzzards are up, according to a new study. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has looked at which species are most hit and helped by climate change. Researchers found weather changes had a long-term effect on about a third of the 68 species studied. BTO science director James Pearce-Higgins said there were "winners and losers". Thirteen species have seen a greater than 10% rise in population numbers while three have suffered big drops. Migratory birds are the biggest losers. In five of the 11 regions studied, cuckoos, which have seen a population drop of more than 80% in the past 30 years, were the bird with the biggest fall in numbers. The swift and turtle dove, which are also migratory, had the biggest drops in two areas each. Cuckoos, which are on the RSPB's red list for conservation, are in the UK between April and June for breeding season. The birds' journey back to Africa takes them via Italy or Spain, the latter having been hit by droughts brought on by warmer weather, the BTO said. The droughts cause a decline in the number of invertebrates - the cuckoos' food - which means they are unable to fully refuel for the rest of their long journey. Birds time their trips with "seasonal pulses", Dr Alex Bond, senior curator of birds at the Natural History Museum said. For example, they want chicks to hatch at the time when food is most abundant, but erratic weather can change those pulses - flowers and insects might flourish earlier than expected meaning later birds miss out. Dr Pearce-Higgins said northern and upland birds were "vulnerable" with the golden plover expected to be extinct in the Peak District by the end of the century without intervention.
9-2-19 Harbour seals are breeding in the river Thames and have had 138 pups
London’s River Thames is usually thought of as an urban environment – but it’s also home to a surprising array of wildlife. That includes harbour seals, which had a successful breeding season last year. The first breeding survey, carried out by the Zoological Society of London, found 138 pups had been born in the Thames estuary in 2018. Seals spend more than half their time on land, so can often be seen around the British coastline, and there are regular sightings of them in the Thames as far inland as central London. As well as harbour seals, the Thames is also home to grey seals, with a combined population of about 3000 individuals. Only harbour seals can breed in the estuary, though, because its sandy or muddy banks tend to get completely submerged at high tide. Newborn grey seals take weeks before they can enter the sea, and so to give birth, the females have to travel to beaches that do not get covered by the tide. But harbour seals are able to swim within hours of being born, and slip into the water on the first high tide. Adult seal numbers in the Thames estuary have been increasing for a while, but it was unknown if this was due to resident animals having pups or adults migrating in from other regions. So last June, the Society carried out its first breeding survey, by taking photos of the pups from a light aircraft over three days. Their numbers are “a really good sign about the rest of the ecosystem,”, says the Society’s Anna Cucknell. Seals prey on fish, crabs, mussels and squid. “A lot of people think the Thames is still dead when they see the brown water. But it’s now a really thriving environment.”