11-14-19 Pigeons are having their toes amputated by waste human hair in Paris
Pigeons with mutilated feet are a common sight in cities – and human hair appears to be the grizzly culprit. It turns out that the greater the number of hairdressers on a city block, the more pigeons have missing toes. This is not the first explanation for the birds’ missing toes. One widespread belief is that pigeons get foot infections from standing in their own excrement. Some think that the environment makes them prone to infectious diseases, and others believe that chemical and metal spikes used to deter them are causing the injuries. But pigeon experts have also noticed that birds often have string or human hair wrapped around their toes and feet. This can eventually tighten, cutting off circulation and leading to tissue death and the toe falling off. This observation prompted Frédéric Jiguet at the National Museum of Natural History in France and his colleagues to study the relationship between the foot health of pigeons and possible sources of these hairs or strings. To do this, they studied the number of foot mutilations in pigeons found at 46 sites across Paris, and how these related to different features in the environment. Pigeons were more likely to have mutilated toes in city blocks where air and noise pollution was high, and where a greater number of people lived, they found. In addition, the greater the number of hairdressers on a city block, the higher the chance pigeons were to have lost toes – seemingly because waste hair is escaping into the environment. “Hair cut at the hairdressers are removed by garbage collection services with household wastes, and during this process, we could expect residual cut hair to end on the sideways and pavements,” the authors wrote. If the birds can’t untangle themselves, the hairs begin garroting the toes – causing what is known as “stringfoot”.
11-14-19 Fish can judge distances accurately just like land animals can
Triggerfish have an impressive ability to estimate how far they have swum, and scientists think that understanding this may shed light on the how all animals with a backbone evolved the ability to navigate spaces. There is growing evidence to suggest that ray-finned fish, known as teleosts and which comprise 96 per cent of all freshwater and marine fish species on the planet, have a region of the brain that works like our hippocampus does. This part of the brain is critical to the way we navigate, and – if analogous in fish – could mean that spatial memory first evolved 400 million years ago when these fish, mammals and birds shared a common ancestor. If this is true, teleosts would navigate as these other vertebrates do. But despite many years studying how invertebrates such as bees and ants estimate distances, scientists know very little about how ray-finned fish do. To understand more, Cecilia Karlsson at the University of Oxford and her colleagues trained Picasso triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus) to swim a specific distance and then return home for food. They trained five fish to swim 80 centimetres down a pipe with striped walls from a set starting spot to where there was an infrared motion detector. When the fish reached the motion detector, they triggered lights above the aquarium to switch on, at which point food was dropped into the aquarium back at the home area. Once the fish had learned that swimming 80 centimetres to the motion detector turned on the aquarium lights and also led to the appearance of food, the researchers tried a different experiment. They moved the motion detector further away – 1.3 metres down the tube. The fish still swam 80 centimetres down the tube before turning back to claim their food reward, even though they hadn’t swum far enough to turn on the lights.
11-14-19 Lost US parrot species went extinct not once but twice
The only parrot once common in the US may have gone extinct more recently than thought. According to an analysis of records, the western subspecies of the Carolina parakeet may have clung on until the 1940s, three decades later than previous estimates. This bright green bird with a red and yellow head was once found in much of the US, with its range stretching from the east coast to Nebraska in the Midwest, and as far south as Florida. “The stacks of grain put up in the field are resorted to by flocks of these birds, which frequently cover them so entirely, that they present to the eye the same effect as if a brilliantly coloured carpet had been thrown over them,” John Audubon wrote in the 1827 book The Birds of America. But Audubon also noted that its numbers were declining rapidly. The species (Conuropsis carolinensis) went extinct in the wild in 1915 according to a 2010 study, and the last captive bird died in 1918. Kevin Burgio at the University of Connecticut has been analysing records of Carolina parakeets to try to work out what happened. In 2017, he showed that the usual range of the parakeets was smaller than thought, and that the ranges of the two subspecies barely overlapped. Now he has fed his data into a model used to estimate extinction dates. For the western subspecies, the most likely date is 1913, similar to other estimates. But the eastern subspecies, which was mainly found in Florida, clung on until around 1944, the model suggests. The study may reveal when the parakeets went extinct, but it does not reveal why, says Paul Reillo of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation. “The parakeets’ extinctions are a fascinating mystery,” he says. There’s no doubt many were killed for food, for fun or to stop them eating crops, but some biologists think habitat destruction or a disease dealt the final blow. Another idea is that honeybees – an introduced alien in North America – took over the hollows in trees in which the parakeets used to nest.
11-13-19 Flipping a molecular switch can turn warrior ants into foragers
Toggling one protein soon after hatching can reprogram a worker ant’s career path. When it comes to career paths, worker ants split into castes: Some tackle defense, others forage for the colony. But these roles aren’t predestined. An ant’s career trajectory is influenced by factors in its environment early on in life. Now, a study reveals one way those environmental factors play out. A protein called CoREST acts like a molecular switch in Florida carpenter ants (Camponotus floridanus), researchers report November 12 in Molecular Cell. By toggling it, big workers fated to be soldiers can be reprogrammed to do the job of their smaller, forager sisters. Brawny warriors, called majors, and foraging, nursery-tending workers, called minors, share nearly identical sets of DNA. So researchers have looked for epigenetic influences, chemical tags on DNA and associated proteins that can manipulate how genes are read, to explain the different behaviors. “And that’s what we found,” says Shelley Berger, a molecular biologist at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. “It’s the first epigenetic mechanism that’s been found in ants to regulate behavior in the brain.” The new study highlights that even highly specialized social insects retain substantial flexibility and responsiveness to their environment, says Beryl Jones, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University not involved in the research. “This is likely another important facet of the great success of social insects,” she says. Berger’s team had previously shown that injection of a chemical, trichostatin A, that helps unwind tightly packaged DNA could reprogram the majors to behave like minors (SN: 12/31/15). But it wasn’t clear what genes trichostatin A was influencing, or how far along in their development the ants could still switch jobs.
11-12-19 Power lines may mess with honeybees’ behavior and ability to learn
The insects might suffer neurological effects from exposure to electromagnetic fields. Power lines could be messing with honeybees by emitting electromagnetic fields that can alter the insects’ behavior and ability to learn. In the lab, honeybees (Apis mellifera) were more aggressive toward other bees after being exposed to electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, at strengths similar to what they might experience at ground level under electricity transmission lines, researchers report October 10 in PLOS One. Those exposed bees also were slower to learn to respond to a new threat than unexposed bees were. “The reductions in learning are pretty concerning,” says Sebastian Shepherd. The entomologist worked on the new study at the University of Southampton in England before moving to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. “These were bees that were very happy and healthy” before being exposed to EMFs in the study. The finding may be one clue to help explain the recent and mysterious decline in managed U.S. honeybee colonies. The insects provide an estimated $15 billion in annual agricultural value by pollinating U.S. crops. But beekeepers reported that colonies last year experienced their worst winter die-off in more than a decade (SN: 6/20/19). And in preceding years, some colonies’ worker bees simply vanished (SN: 1/17/18). Researchers believe the problem isn’t due to a single cause, but instead multiple stressors including getting jostled during a cross-country move to new farm fields or flying through fields laced with pesticides. Power lines, it turns out, might also be stressing bees out. Altogether, stressors could be weakening bees so they’re less capable of surviving disease or extreme weather, Shepherd says.
11-12-19 Silver-backed chevrotains have been ‘rediscovered’ by science after 29 years
With help from Vietnamese villagers, researchers captured photos of the deerlike ungulate. Amidst the dry, thorny underbrush of a coastal Vietnamese forest, a silver-backed chevrotain stepped into view of a camera trap — and back into the scientific record after almost three decades. The deerlike ungulate, no bigger than a toy poodle, had only ever been studied from dead specimens, four obtained in 1907 and one in 1990. Scientists feared the animal might have gone extinct due to hunting and habitat loss. But local residents knew better, and in late 2017 directed researchers to forest areas where the the silver-backed chevrotain (Tragulus versicolor) might be living. Cameras triggered by motion or heat then snapped the first photographic evidence that the elusive animal still exists, according to a study published online November 11 in Nature Ecology and Evolution. “We were really excited” by the find, says An Nguyen, a biologist at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. The region’s forests are home to many mammals found nowhere else, but an increase in animal traps and encroaching human development in recent decades have put that diversity under threat. “Indiscriminate snaring has taken a tremendous toll on mammal communities across Vietnam,” says Andrew Tilker, also a biologist at the Leibniz Institute. Snaring has left “a lot more forest than animals to inhabit it in Vietnam,” he says. But a species lost to science is not necessarily extinct. So Nguyen and colleagues visited towns and villages near the southeast city of Nha Trang in the fall of 2017 to ask people about the animal. “‘Had they seen chevrotain with silver backs? How many? Where?’” Nguyen says in recalling the researchers’ questions to locals. People referred to both the silver-backed chevrotain and its more common cousin, the lesser chevrotain, by the same name, “cheo cheo.” But many reported seeing the distinctive silver-haired chevrotain.
11-11-19 We thought this tiny deer-like animal was extinct for almost 30 years
A species of small deer-like animal feared to have gone extinct has been spotted in Vietnam for the first time in almost 30 years. The rediscovery of the silver-backed chevrotain (Tragulus versicolor) – or Vietnam mouse-deer – near the city of Nha Trang is reassuring, given previous suspicions that it might have died out as a result of poaching and habitat loss. “There was a question mark hanging over its current status,” says Andrew Tilker at Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), a US charity. “Erasing that question mark was a huge deal for us.” Mouse-deer aren’t actually deer (or mice, as it happens) but ungulates, a group that includes deer along with other herbivorous, hoofed animals. Out of the 10 types of mouse-deer that exist today, the silver-backed species is by far the most elusive. Until now there had been no record of it in Vietnam since 1990, possibly due to snaring in the lowland forests thought to be the chevrotain’s home. It is also tricky to physically distinguish these mouse-deer from their cousins – they bear a striking resemblance to the lesser chevrotain that populates much of Vietnam. To probe the silver-backed chevrotain’s whereabouts, Tilker and his colleagues set up camera traps near the country’s southern coast, in blocks of forest where locals had reported seeing the animals before. The traps are equipped with motion and heat sensors so they snap pictures of anything that passes by, and they captured something interesting: a rabbit-sized deer with tiny fangs tiptoeing on its hoofs – traits characteristic of all chevrotains. But this one was special. The team identified it as the chevrotain they’d been searching for thanks to its signature reddish-brown front and silvery-grey back.
11-11-19 People are using mosquito nets for fishing – and it works too well
Mosquito nets designed to help stop the transmission of malaria are finding a new use – fishing. However, the way they are used could have destructive consequences for both food security and coastal ecosystems. Although it was known that mosquito nets are repurposed this way in many countries, little was known about the amount and type of fish they caught. So Benjamin Jones at Stockholm University in Sweden and Richard Unsworth at Swansea University in the UK decided to investigate the practice at 10 sites in northern Mozambique. The pair found that the nets are extremely effective. A single sweep can bring in almost half of the daily average catch by weight of a traditional net. They also scoop up everything in their path. The researchers recorded dozens of species being caught – and many were juveniles. “Some were no bigger than my fingernail,” he says. That could be a problem, both for the people and the local seagrass ecosystem, says Jones. Removing so many juveniles means there could be fewer fish to catch in the future. And the seagrass meadows, which bind the sediment along the coast together and are an important carbon sink, rely on the fish to stay healthy. Remove too many fish and they could collapse, he says. The fishers use everything they catch, either drying the fish or fermenting them in jars, and the catch provides their main source of protein. For many, the nets are their only choice to provide food for their families. “The people using the nets are the poorest in society,” says Jones. “They are using nets that could be saving them from malaria because they have nothing else.” Daniel Mungai Ndegwa at Kisii University in Kenya frequently saw mosquito nets used for fishing while doing research on Lake Victoria, which straddles Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. “In every village I saw the nets being used for fishing or for drying fish,” he says.
11-9-19 Birds are stealing boozy palm wine when people aren't looking
Three species of African birds are slurping alcoholic palm wine from trees that have been tapped by local people. The behaviour may be socially learned and therefore evidence that the birds have their own unique cultures. The birds all live on islands in the Bijago´s archipelago, off the coast of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. There, as in other parts of Africa, one of the the most popular alcoholic drinks is palm wine, which is the partially fermented sap of oil palm trees (Elaeis guineensis). To obtain it, people climb into the trees and cut into the central part, causing sugary sap to dribble out. They then use a folded leaf as a funnel to channel it into a container such as a plastic bottle. In early 2019, researchers led by Jorge Gutiérrez, now at the University of Extremadura in Spain, noticed that birds were visiting the sap holes. They identified three species: village weavers (Ploceus cucullatus), common bulbuls (Pycnonotus barbatus) and mouse-brown sunbirds (Anthreptes gabonicus). The bulbuls were the most frequent visitors and also spent the most time: 103 seconds on average. The sap is rich in sugars and is also a source of water in the dry season. However, it is also alcoholic because it partially ferments. “There is about 4 per cent alcohol by volume, which is something like a beer,” says Gutiérrez. It is unclear if the birds actually get drunk. “We don’t really know how much they drink,” says Gutiérrez, and the team saw no evidence of the birds being inebriated. All three species eat nectar and ripe fruit, which are prone to ferment and become alcoholic. “From an evolutionary standpoint, they should be adapted to deal with alcohol,” says Gutiérrez. In contrast, chimpanzees elsewhere in Africa are known to guzzle an entire litre of palm wine in one sitting, and there is tentative evidence that this affects their behaviour.
11-8-19 Rats behind the wheel
Scientists have taught rats how to drive—an experiment that could improve our understanding of mental illness in humans. A team at the University of Richmond in Virginia created makeshift ratmobiles by fitting plastic containers onto electrified sets of wheels. The rats steered the vehicles by touching different parts of a copper wire, and were rewarded with Froot Loops when they drove forward. After months of training, the rats became relatively adept drivers and seemed to enjoy the experience: Tests of their feces showed increased levels of a hormone that combats stress. Notably, rats that were merely passengers in remote-controlled cars had lower levels of the hormone, suggesting that it was the learning and driving that they enjoyed. The research may sound like a stunt, but it’s part of a wider exploration of how complex tasks such as driving affect the brain, with the ultimate aim of devising better treatments for depression and anxiety. The rat brain “is an appropriate model for the human brain, since it has all the same areas and neurochemicals,” co-author Kelly Lambert tells NBCNews.com, “just smaller, of course.”
11-8-19 America’s annual elk migration
“Animal migrations are the most epic form of travel,” said Andrea Sachs in The Washington Post. Whatever your own grandest journey, it can’t compare with the spectacle tens of thousands of elk are creating right now in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico as they descend from mountains to lowlands. Mating season makes fall a dramatic time for onlookers, because the bulls guard their harems by bugling loudly and wrestling one another with their massive antlers. The best place to see northwestern Wyoming’s 11,000-head herd is the National Elk Refuge, which stretches between Jackson and Kelly. Try the scenic pullouts along Highway 89, or the viewing platform at the visitor center in Jackson Hole. Some elk settle farther north, in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, while more than 30,000 Rocky Mountain elk spread out in several herds across the Upper Rio Grande area of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.
11-8-19 Emperor penguins could go extinct by 2100 if we fail on climate change
Unchecked climate change could drive emperor penguins to extinction by the end of the century as sea ice vanishes. But if the world delivers on the toughest target of the Paris climate agreement, of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°C, then numbers of the iconic species will decline by less than a third. Stephanie Jenouvrier at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts found that the future of emperor penguins hinges on international climate efforts rather than their ability to adapt and move to new homes. “Penguins are this indicator species, this canary in the coal mine, they are warning us of the future effect of climate. The big message is we need to listen to the penguins, and implement policies to meet the Paris agreement’s objective, and we need to do that now,” she says. Disappearing sea ice affects emperor penguins directly because they rely on it for their nine-month breeding season, as well as a place to moult and escape from predators. But the ice is also crucial for the species because it influences the food they rely on, including krill. Sea ice changes are already affecting emperor penguins, with breeding failures for three years in a row at their second biggest colony in the Antarctic pinned on early break-up of ice used for breeding. To examine the fate of the world’s estimated 595,000 emperors as the planet warms, Jenouvrier and her colleagues modelled future colonies and populations under three different scenarios: hitting the Paris deal’s top target of 1.5°C, its minimum goal of no more than 2°C, and what would happen if emissions keep rising as they are today. They combined a global climate model, sea ice projections and different scenarios of how the penguins might disperse, something most studies don’t look at. The result was an 81 to 86 per cent fall in population by 2100 under the business-as-usual scenario, depending on how the animals disperse to new homes.
11-7-19 A deadly seal virus may be spreading faster due to melting Arctic ice
The spread of a deadly virus in seals may be connected to loss of Arctic sea ice due to global warming. The virus, called phocine distemper virus or PDV, is the seal equivalent of measles and causes a disease affecting the brain and lungs. Many harbour seals die from the disease, says Tracey Goldstein at the University of California, Davis. “In other seals we see sporadic deaths but not a large mass mortality like what we see in harbour seals,” she says. Goldstein and her team collected blood and nasal swab samples from over 2500 sea otters, sea lions and various species of seal, in the north of the Pacific Ocean between 2001 and 2016 and tested them for PDV. Using satellite images, they assessed the presence of routes through the Arctic Ocean, due to melting sea ice, over the same period. The researchers detected major peaks in virus infection in north of the Pacific Ocean otters, sea lions and seals in 2003 and 2009, which were associated with the presence of a route through melted Arctic sea ice in the preceding years. This was the first time the virus had been detected in sea otters, which, along with sea lions, can spread the infection to seals. In 2002, an outbreak in the north of the Atlantic Ocean killed 30,000 seals. A year later, the team detected PDV in the north of the Pacific Ocean for the first time. That year, over 30 per cent of sea mammals they tested in the north of the Pacific Ocean were infected with PDV, suggesting the virus crossed the Arctic. James Wellahan at the University of Florida says that if we fail to tackle climate change, the spread of PDV could lead to the loss of entire species. “When you have a planet that is undergoing massive change like this, and we’re damaging their food sources with over fishing, all of this just adds up to more pressure against the species,” says Wellehan.
11-6-19 Who owns life? The world is about to decide, with huge ramifications
A debate between countries over who can access and exploit the planet’s genetic resources will have ramifications for all of us, says Laura Spinney. NEXT week, delegates will gather in Rome to discuss a question that could have profound implications for global biodiversity, food security and public health. Stripped of technical language, it boils down to this: who owns life? The Rome meeting convenes the governing body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. It is also known as the “seed treaty” because it mostly deals with seed collections. It will address arrangements for accessing these genetic resources, and how to share any benefits resulting from their exploitation. Central to that discussion will be “digital sequence information”. The seed treaty covers only samples of the physical material that constitutes plants. But as more species are sequenced and their molecular blueprints digitised, they can be exploited – for creating a drought-resistant crop plant, say – without accessing a physical sample. It is not just plants at stake. The outcome of the Rome meeting is likely to influence a meeting for the Convention on Biological Diversity next October. This treaty covers all life, and also neglects digital sequences. Given that an organism’s DNA, RNA or protein sequence is merely information stored in a molecule, you might think that extending these treaties to cover digital sequence information would be uncontentious. Far from it. So far, all attempts to reach a consensus have failed, and some have called the issue “the monster in the closet“. Part of the problem is that digital sequence information isn’t clearly defined: should it include only DNA and RNA sequence data, for example, or also amino acid sequences and epigenetic data?
11-6-19 Hunters of rare Swiss ibex stir Alps wildlife row
The long, curved horns of the Alpine ibex and its love of high altitude make it a symbol of the Alps and a highly prized trophy for hunters. Centuries of intensive hunting reduced Alpine ibex numbers to just a few hundred in one area of northern Italy. But in the late 20th Century the numbers recovered - especially in Switzerland - through controlled reintroductions of ibex from Italy. Controversially, trophy hunters can now shoot ibex again in one Swiss region. The Swiss ibex live mainly in the high mountains of two southern regions (cantons) - Valais and Graubünden. Valais (also called Wallis) now includes foreigners in its strict quota of ibex hunting licences. But Graubünden (Grisons) only allows locals to hunt ibex. The European Environment Agency classes the ibex's status in those regions as "unfavourable-inadequate" - meaning the numbers are not critical, but significant long-term conservation measures are needed. Swiss public broadcaster RTS reports that foreign trophy hunters are now drawn to Valais, where a licence to shoot a male ibex with one-metre-long (3.3ft) horns - the biggest prize - costs 13,000 Swiss francs (£10,170; $13,113). RTS interviewed an American big game hunter, Olivia Nalos Opre, who showed off her prize from a Valais "safari"- a pair of long ibex horns. The three-day trip cost her about SFr 20,000. The former Miss Nebraska said she had shot a big, powerful male ibex, and her friend Denise had "shot two, including one trophy more than a metre long". Every year Valais issues up to 120 one-day licences to shoot ibex - a business that brings SFr 650,000 (£509,000; $655,000) into the region's budget. Today more than 40,000 ibex are estimated to be roaming in the Alps - usually above 2,000m (6,562ft) - and Switzerland hosts the largest population: about 16,000. A spokesman for the conservation group WWF Switzerland, Jonas Schmid, criticised trophy hunting in Valais, questioning its legality. "Protection of species cannot be regarded as an argument to support trophy hunting in Switzerland," he told the BBC.
11-5-19 A quarter of all pigs have died this year due to African swine fever
A quarter of the world’s domestic pigs have died this year as a virus rampages across Eurasia, and that may be just the start. Half the pigs in China – which last year numbered 440 million, some 50 per cent of the world’s pigs – have either died of African swine fever (ASF) or been killed to stamp out the virus. ASF comes from East Africa. In 2007, it reached Georgia in the Caucasus in contaminated meat, and in infected wild boar. Now, it is all over Russia and eastern Europe and infected wild boar have turned up as far west as Belgium. It is also spreading in east Asia, killing many pigs in Vietnam and elsewhere. ASF was spotted in China in August 2018. It is now in every province. The virus may have spread there from North Korea. The only way to get rid of ASF is to kill infected herds. But while pigs on farms can be destroyed and replaced, the disease persists in wild boar and feral hogs, as well as in meat, which is increasingly sold abroad. “I predict ASF virus will remain endemic for some time in east Asia and eastern Europe, with constant introductions around the world,” says Dirk Pfeiffer of City University in Hong Kong. “Currently nobody on this planet has the solution to the problem.” Despite years of warnings from virologists, there is no vaccine. Most vaccines against viruses stimulate the body to make antibodies against viral structural proteins, such as those in the virus coating. These then stop the virus from entering cells, for example. But ASF, says Linda Dixon of The Pirbright Institute in Surrey, UK, is a large, complex virus, with two coatings and several ways of entering cells. Antibodies to various bits of it have never been enough to stop it.
11-1-19 The world’s noisiest bird
Ornithologists have identified the noisiest bird on the planet, with a call as loud as a pile driver. Native to the Amazon rain forest, the male white bellbird can reach volumes of 125 decibels—at least nine decibels louder than its noisiest rival. A typical human voice is only about 60 decibels. The bellbird’s call—a bizarre metallic-sounding squawk—forms part of a highly unusual mating ritual, researchers discovered. When a female lands nearby, the male sings the first note of his deafening song facing directly away from his potential mate—then sharply swivels his head around and yells the second note right in her face. The female knows it’s coming, because just before the turn she flutters back a few feet. Whether such raucous behavior actually helps male white bellbirds secure a mate is not clear. “We never saw copulation, we never saw what a really good male does,” study co-author Jeffrey Podos, from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, tells The New York Times. “The ones we saw might have just been losers.”
11-1-19 Vampire bat friendships endure from captivity to the wild
The animals form social bonds that persist from a lab setting to the outdoors. Are friendships formed with those we truly like? Or do we settle for whoever happens to be around? This question is hard to answer in humans, and even harder in other animals. But a new study of vampire bats suggests that bat “friendships” go beyond mere convenience. Many social bonds built between captive bats persist when the bats are released into the wild, researchers report October 31 in Current Biology. “This study convincingly shows that vampire bats can form stable bonds,” says Joan Silk, an anthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, who wasn’t involved in the study. While she cautions against assuming that other animals’ friendships are anything like our own, she says that this study adds to a growing body of research that critters can form friendshiplike bonds. As their name suggests, vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) drink nothing but the blood of other animals. If the bats are lucky, they’ll get a tablespoon each night. “It’s pretty difficult for bats to extract blood from an animal, so they often go without a meal,” says Gerald Carter, an evolutionary biologist at Ohio State University in Columbus. Three straight nights without a meal, though, and the bats can die. “But there’s a social safety net,” Carter says. “Other bats will regurgitate portions of their blood meal to feed bats who didn’t get their own meal.” Previous lab work has revealed that bats that aren’t related to one another can form long-term cooperative bonds that loosely resemble friendships (SN: 11/19/15).
11-1-19 Apple TV+’s ‘The Elephant Queen’ shies away from hard truths
The documentary captures life in an elephant herd but largely avoids threats the animals face. A stirring scene in The Elephant Queen shows a herd of African elephants encountering an elephant’s remains on the barren savanna. Slowly, the elephants extend their trunks to gently touch the skull, lingering on its grooves as though they remember, and mourn, the elephant that was. It’s one of the film’s many intimate glimpses into the lives of elephants. The family-friendly documentary debuts November 1 on the new streaming service Apple TV+. The Elephant Queen shies away from the larger forces — climate change, habitat loss and poaching — that threaten the subjects it beautifully portrays. But if you can look past that, and the sometimes-cheesy soundtrack and over-the-top narration, you’re left with an enjoyable film that generates compassion for these gentle giants. The film, narrated by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, centers on Athena, a 50-year-old matriarch, as she leads her herd across the Kenyan savanna. The local focus of the documentary is refreshing compared with the sweeping purview of series like Planet Earth. We meet the clan during good times, while the elephants play at a verdant water hole among the frogs, birds, insects and fish that also live there. The film benefits from this wider perspective. One memorable scene provides up-close detail of a totally bizarre behavior. On a slim branch overhanging the water hole, a dozen male foam-nest tree frogs clamor around a single female, whipping up a large, white foam mass into which the female lays eggs. Four days later, tadpoles drop from the foam into the water, only to get gobbled up by terrapins.