12-13-19 A biochemist’s extraction of data from honey honors her beekeeper father
The tests could be used to figure out what bees are pollinating and which pathogens they carry. One scientist’s sweet tribute to her father may one day give beekeepers clues about their colonies’ health, as well as help warn others when crop diseases or pollen allergies are about to strike. Those are all possible applications that biochemistry researcher Rocío Cornero of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., sees for her work on examining proteins in honey. Cornero described her unpublished work December 9 at the annual joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization. Amateur beekeepers often don’t understand what is stressing bees in their hives, whether lack of water, starvation or infection with pathogens, says Cornero, whose father kept bees before his death earlier this year. “What we see in the honey can tell us a story about the health of that colony,” she says. Bees are like miniature scientists that fly and sample a wide variety of environmental conditions, says cell biologist Lance Liotta, Cornero’s mentor at George Mason. As bees digest pollen, soil and water, bits of proteins from other organisms, including fungi, bacteria and viruses also end up in the insects’ stomachs. Honey, in turn, is basically bee vomit, Liotta says, and contains a record of virtually everything the bee came in contact with, as well as proteins from the bees themselves. “The information archive in honey is unbelievable,” Liotta says. But until now, scientists have had a hard time studying proteins in honey. “It’s so gooey and sticky and hard to work with,” he says. Sugars in honey gum up lab equipment usually used to isolate proteins.
12-13-19 Why some whales are giants and others are just big
The animals’ sizes depend on feeding style and prey availability, researchers say. Sophisticated sensors suction-cupped onto the backs of whales are helping biologists answer two long-standing questions: Why are whales so big? And why aren’t they bigger? Being big in general boosts whales’ ability to reach more food for less effort, helping them exploit the riches of the deep sea that are beyond the reach of many other creatures. By estimating the energy used — and gained — when foraging for 13 species of whales and porpoises, scientists have shown that how big the creatures get is influenced by feeding strategy and prey availability. The sizes of toothed whales like orcas, which use echolocation to hunt for individual prey, appear to be constrained by how much food they can grab during a dive, researchers report. That’s not the case, however, for blue whales and other filter feeders, which tend to be much larger than their toothed cousins. Filter feeders alive today aren’t constrained by food availability, which may mean they might be limited by their biology. Or the animals could be on their way to evolving to be even bigger, according to a study in the Dec. 13 Science. “This is a fascinating study,” says Samantha Price, an evolutionary biologist at Clemson University in South Carolina who wasn’t involved in the research. Biologists have been thinking about the evolution of bigness for a long time, she says, “but this paper, through incredible effort, actually got some data about these hard-to-study behaviors.” In the last 5 million years, whales have become larger than ever before, and the blue whale grew into the largest known creature in the history of life, says Jeremy Goldbogen, a comparative physiologist at Stanford University. Changes in glacial cycles, wind and ocean currents, he says, have intensified upwellings of nutrients in special pockets of the ocean, creating sparse, but absurdly dense patches of tiny crustaceans and fish and other animals — whale food.
12-13-19 Texas has its own rodeo ant queens
Finding a new species hardly ever happens like this. Alex Wild has discovered new rodeo ants in, of course, Texas. The shiny little reddish Solenopsis ants grip tight and ride the backs of big queen ants of a different species. It’s not, however, just random piggyback fun. The little riders hang on with mouthparts that have evolved a snug fit around the waist of a particular species’ much larger queen, says Wild, a naturalist who curates the insect collections for the University of Texas at Austin. The smaller hangers-on are queens themselves, but in Texas he has yet to find their workers. So royal-on-royal rodeos might let a tinier parasitic queen skip the costs of creating her own entourage and just live off food scammed from the big queen’s colony. Scams are a basic risk of social living and its alluring concentrations of resources. “We humans build cities,” Wild says. “All sorts of things come to hang around.” Same for ant nests; queen riding unlocks those riches for grifters of diverse species. Like human dwellings, certain ant nests even attract their own miniature roaches, which do some queen riding themselves. With chubby, wingless bodies, Attaphila fungicola roaches “look like little Pokémon figures,” Wild says. When a young fungus-growing ant queen flies out of her mother’s nest for that once-in-a-lifetime bout of aerial sex, a wingless roach can latch on for a ride and, with some parasite luck, hitchhike to new food bonanzas. Wild coined the nickname “rodeo ant,” but even before his discovery, biologists knew of a few species that hugged the backs of other species’ queens and probably sneaked food. A parasitic ant now called Tetramorium inquilinum, first found in the Swiss Alps, grows long claws and a concave rear underside that fits easily against the curving back of a big queen.
12-13-19 Humans 'sole culprits' in US parrot extinction
A genetic study of the US's only native parrot appears to confirm its extinction was down to humans alone. Scientists sequenced the genome of a stuffed Carolina parakeet held in a private collection. The colourful bird's DNA showed none of the signs of inbreeding characteristic of animals that have been in decline for many years. Instead, its genetic sequence suggests populations were buoyant until the expansion of European settlers. The parrots then disappeared abruptly, with the last captive specimen dying in Cincinnati Zoo on 21 February 1918. The bird was once found from New England in the east to Colorado in the west. The bird had green plumage with a yellow head, and measured about 13ins (33cm) long. They lived in old-growth forests along rivers and in swamps. "Many endangered species have been sequenced and what seems to be a pattern is that when populations are small and declining for a long period of time, this leaves some signals in their genomes that can be recognised," co-author Carles Lalueza-Fox, from the University of Barcelona, explained. "Even if you have a single specimen, as here, we have a genome from the father and a genome from the mother; two copies of each chromosome. If the population has been small for thousands of years, these two copies will be very similar to each other and over long stretches sometimes they will be identical." When a population is large, Dr Lalueza-Fox explained, the two chromosome copies will be more different genetically. Indeed, this is exactly what the team saw in the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis). "The inference is that this bird was not subjected to a very long demographic decline for thousands of years, it was something very quick," the University of Barcelona geneticist explained.
12-12-19 'Rediscovered' toad was known to Colombian locals for decades
A critically endangered harlequin toad, known as the starry night toad, has been documented by biologists for the first time since 1991 in the mountains of Colombia. But unlike other such stories of “rediscovered” species, this one was never really lost – the local Arhuaco people knew exactly where the toad, which they call “gouna”, was all along. “We have shared our home with the gouna for thousands of years,” says Ruperto Chaparro Villafaña, who represents the Arhuaco community of Sogrome near where the toad lives in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. For them, the toad is both an important indicator of the health of the ecosystem, whose presence guides their agricultural activities, and a link to the spiritual world, representing their mission to preserve life on Earth. Harlequin toads are among the most threatened groups of amphibians in the world. Of the 96 species, 80 are listed as endangered. Two of these are known to be extinct and 37 are considered potentially extinct – including, until now, the gouna. Most live at high altitudes where populations have been ravaged by the deadly chytrid fungus that is wiping out amphibians across the continent. Getting access to the area to see if the toad was still present took years of work building trust and friendship between the researchers and the Sogrome community, says Jefferson Villalba, co-founder of Fundación Atelopus, a Colombian conservation group. He and his colleagues met with the community and its spiritual leaders, called mamos, multiple times over five years. They were eventually allowed to travel to see the toad in April this year, without taking pictures. Having passed that test of trust, they were permitted to return and document the toad alongside members of the community. They found a healthy population of around 30 individuals.
12-12-19 Insect biomass in Britain falling but may still be double 1960s level
Are we witnessing an insect apocalypse? It is complicated. The longest running study of insect populations in the world shows that the total mass of moths in Great Britain is double what it was in the 1960s, but has been declining by around 10 per cent a decade since the 1980s. This probably reflects what has happened to other kinds of insects, too. “Is this a good news story? No it’s not, because we still have this long-term decline,” says Callum Macgregor at the University of York in the UK, who on 11 December gave a talk on the findings at a meeting of the British Ecological Society in Belfast. His team analysed data from 34 sites in Wales, Scotland and England where insects have been trapped nightly starting as early as 1967, as part of the Rothamsted Insect Survey. The results show there are big variations in moth biomass from year to year and from species to species, but overall biomass rose sharply from the 1960s to the 1980s and then began declining gradually. Because the moth biomass trends in later years match those seen in studies of other types of insects, Macgregor thinks the overall biomass of all insects in Great Britain is probably twice as high today as it was in the 1960s. In the past two years, there has been much talk about a global “insect apocalypse” or “insectageddon”. This idea stems from a 2017 study that found a steep decline in insect biomass in Germany since 1989. However, many ecologists have cautioned that there are too few studies around the world going back far enough in time to justify such a sweeping conclusion. It is likely that many insect populations in many parts of the world, especially in the tropics, are declining because of habitat loss and climate change, but we just don’t know.
12-12-19 Rodeo ants that ride on backs of bigger ants discovered in Texas
What should we call a Texan ant that rides on the backs of other ants? Rodeo ants, says Alex Wild at the University of Texas at Austin, who has discovered two new species of such insects. While little is known about them – so far, Wild’s team has found just one individual from each of the two species – a few other ant species elsewhere in the world are also known to perch on the backs of other ants. In those cases, the “riders” have evolved an unusual way of life. Most ants live in huge colonies with one egg-laying queen and millions of sterile workers that bring food home to the nest and tend to the eggs. The riders don’t have any workers: they are females that cling to the back of a queen from a bigger species. The riders lay their own eggs and fool the larger queen’s workers into looking after them. The two newly discovered Texan species most likely live in the same way, says Wild. “She’s probably dropping her own eggs into the brood pile, where the host workers are treating them as their own. She’s a parasite on the food and labour of the host colony.” They seem to have adapted their appearance and behaviour to their freeloading lifestyle. Each has a similar density of hairs on their back to their host ant, as if to blend in. Although one was killed on collection, Wild was able to observe the second in the lab for some time, and when he repeatedly detached it from the larger ant, it kept climbing back on. “They really like being on the queen.” The rodeo ants may also avoid being detected by covering themselves with chemicals secreted by the host queen, as some other ants that enter the nests of others do, says Nigel Franks at the University of Bristol, UK, who wasn’t involved in the work. “It’s a brilliant strategy.”
12-11-19 Predators may make prey get smart and grow more brain cells
Sometimes stress can be good for a fish. When there are more predators around, killifish in Trinidad grow more brain cells than those that face no predators, and they do so even into adulthood. “I was surprised to find this because in previous studies, we found that predators inhibit the production of brain cells,” says Kent Dunlap at Trinity College in Connecticut. It seems that killifish swim their own way. Dunlap and his colleagues examined the brains of a type of wild caught killifish (Rivulus hartii) from three streams on the Caribbean island. In each stream, they gathered about eight adult fish from a location with a high number of predators and about eight from a location with little to no predation. They only used males because previous research on these fish showed that predation affects male but not female brains. The researchers measured the size of the males’ brains as well as the density of newly grown cells. They found that fish from both spots in each stream had brains similar in size relative to their bodies, but those that had to fight off more predators had nearly double the amount of new brain cells. Dunlap says this may mean that instead of fairly static brains that respond to predators in a timid way, the new brain cells could allow for more responsive behaviour. To sort out whether this effect is genetic or purely a response to their environment, Dunlap and his team raised fish from each location and then dissected their brains. In the lab, even with an absence of predators, they saw that the increased brain cell growth persisted in fish descended from those that lived in high-predation areas. “Over evolutionary time, predation has caused the populations to differ genetically, so there’s this intrinsic difference now that’s upheld,” says Dunlap. He adds that this pattern would likely show up in other animals that continue to grow brain cells into adulthood.
12-11-19 Young people can't remember how much more wildlife there used to be
Walking in England’s New Forest in 1892, butterfly collector S.?G.?Castle Russell encountered such numbers of the insects that they “were so thick that I could hardly see ahead”. On another occasion, he “captured a hundred purple hairstreaks” with two sweeps of his net. Patrick Barkham, who recounts these riots of nature in his 2010 book on butterflies, laments never seeing such a sight. However, new research suggests Barkham is a rarity, because a lot of people are forgetting, or just don’t appreciate, how much wildlife there was. To gauge this effect, Lizzie Jones at Royal Holloway, University of London, compared population records dating back to 1966 of 10 UK bird species against public perceptions of those birds. More than 900 people told her how abundant they thought the species – including declining ones such as house sparrows – were today and when they were aged 18. Although, of course, younger people were 18 more recently than older participants, they were generally worse at describing how many more birds there were at this age. “You’d expect younger people would be better,” says Jones, who on Friday is presenting her work at the British Ecological Society conference in Belfast, UK. The problem of forgetting past natural abundance, or of new generations not knowing about it, is known as shifting baseline syndrome, an idea coined in 1995 by Daniel Pauly at the University of British Columbia in Canada, but which is only slowly being backed up with evidence. Photos of fishermen in Florida, who, over generations, pose equally proudly with ever-shrinking catches, famously illustrate the concept. Jones says her work is the most conclusive empirical evidence of shifting baseline syndrome so far. The biggest problem, she says, is that current generations are likely to view what they see around them as completely normal.
12-10-19 A newly found Atacama Desert soil community survives on sips of fog
Lichens and other fungi and algae unite to form this ‘grit-crust’ on parched soil. Perhaps the hardiest assemblage of lichens and other fungi and algae yet found has been hiding in plain sight in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert. This newly discovered “grit-crust,” as ecologists have named it, coats tiny stones and draws moisture from daily pulses of coastal fog that roll across the world’s driest nonpolar desert. These communities are optimized to photosynthesize using less than half of the water that other known desert biological soil crusts use, researchers report December 16 in Geobiology. The “super cool” find suggests that soil communities can eke out a living in the planet’s harshest settings, says Jayne Belnap, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist based in Moab, Utah, who was not involved in the study. Biological soil crusts, or biocrusts, are conglomerations of algae, cyanobacteria, lichens, fungi or mosses that cover an estimated 12 percent of the land on Earth. They are commonly found in deserts, where they blanket the soil and prevent erosion. They also shape ecosystems by drawing atmospheric carbon and nitrogen into the ground and producing oxygen via photosynthesis. Only a few millimeters of rain dampen the Atacama on average each year. But some areas experience daily cycles of fog and dew. In one such “fog oasis,” about 2.5 kilometers from the Pacific Coast in Pan de Azúcar National Park north of Santiago, researchers spotted odd markings. “We got there with our cars and saw these blackish and whitish patterns in the landscape,” says botanist Patrick Jung of Hochschule Kaiserslautern – University of Applied Sciences in Germany.
12-9-19 Grandmother killer whales boost survival of calves
Grandmother killer whales boost the survival rates of their grandchildren, a new study has said. The survival rates were even higher if the grandmother had already gone through the menopause. The findings shed valuable light on the mystery of the menopause, or why females of some species live long after they lose the ability to reproduce. Only five known animals experience it: killer whales, short-finned pilot whales, belugas, narwhals and humans. With humans, there is some evidence that human grandmothers aid in the survival of their children and grandchildren, a hypothesis called the "grandmother effect". These findings suggest the same effect occurs in orcas. "If a grandmother dies, in the years following her death, her grand-offspring are much more likely to die," said lead author Dan Franks from the University of York. He said the effect was even greater when a post-reproductive grandmother died. "It can explain the benefits of females living a long time after reproduction," he said. "From an evolutionary standpoint, they can still pass on their genes and genetic legacy by helping their grand-offspring." In other words, by not continuing to reproduce, the grandmother whales might actually be doing more to ensure their genes get passed on than if they were reproducing. The researchers analysed 36 years of photographic census data on two populations of killer whales off the North Pacific coast of Canada and the United States. Each population was made up of multiple pods with various family groups. The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. When explaining why grandmothers might have such an impact on calf survival rates, Mr Franks said past research has shown the important leadership role that grandmother killer whales play. They tend to be at the front of the group when searching for food, relying on their vast ecological knowledge. He said by being unable to reproduce, "they may be in a better position to lead the group".
12-8-19 This orangutan's 'personhood' victory brings hope to U.S. animal rights movement
Sandra was awarded personhood rights in Argentina, but now that she lives in Florida, activists are hoping the movement will catch on in the U.S. 33-year-old orangutan awarded "nonhuman" personhood rights in a landmark 2015 court decision in Argentina has settled into a new home in Florida. "She walked into her room. She was just engaged and interested. Very calm," said Patti Ragan, founding director of Sandra the orangutan's new home, the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida. "She looked at every single toy left in there for her, foraged around for food in the hay, and got some blankets, went up and made a nest, and slept well." Sandra landed at the center in November because she's a hybrid of two orangutan subspecies, and Indonesia, one of the native environments for orangutans — where most preferred sanctuaries are located — has banned orangutans like her from its sanctuaries. As part of implementing Sandra's new rights, the Argentinian judge wanted her to live at an accredited facility — and the Florida center was the only one in the Americas that met those standards. Her arrival has raised the hopes of U.S. activists who are trying to match the successes of lawyers who turn to the courts to fight for animal rights around the world. "The animal law movement focused on using the legal system itself really grew out of the United States," said Matthew Liebman, director of litigation for the northern California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund. "But the most remarkable progress we've seen has been outside of the United States with things like the Sandra case in South America." Steven Wise, who heads the nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project and teaches animal rights jurisprudence at the law school at Tel Aviv University, is bringing many of the cases arguing for personhood for animals in the U.S. He hopes Sandra's case may sway U.S. judges, even if it cannot officially serve as a precedent in U.S. courts.
12-7-19 Biodiversity: The best plants for attracting insects to gardens
You can do your bit for insects by growing lots of foliage in your garden, a study has found. Ground-dwelling insects, such as beetles, generally benefit from dense vegetation, including evergreens. Spiders, however, prefer a bit of bare earth - such as a bald patch in a lawn or a sparse flower bed. Alarm bells are ringing about a global decline in insects. Recent studies suggest populations are plummeting, due to nature loss and pesticides. Against this backdrop, new research, published in Biodiversity and Conservation, investigated how plants can best support all forms of insect life. "The main message is the more foliage there is, the more invertebrates you will have in your garden," said Andrew Salisbury, Royal Horticultural Society principal entomologist. "Gardeners can make a lot of difference just by growing stuff in their gardens, taking it a little bit easy on being too tidy and avoiding the use of pesticides wherever possible." While dense planting is good for insects in general, one particular group of invertebrates, the spiders that live on the ground rather than spinning webs, do better when there are a few bare patches. "It might be that with less foliage, particularly at the ground level - they are able to move more freely and hunt more freely," the entomologist said. The researchers looked at how invertebrates thrive in different planting combinations, including native, near-native and exotic species. They concluded that growing a wide variety of plants was important, with a bias towards native and near-native species. And evergreen plants such as holly, Christmas box and pittosporum might have a special role to play for invertebrates, providing shelter during the winter months for the likes of ladybirds, springtails and ground beetles. Tips to support invertebrates in gardens:
- Let planting fill out, but keep some areas sparser to help specific groups, notably spiders
- Use plenty of native and near-native plants to support the greatest number of ground-active invertebrates
- Try to include some evergreens in your garden to give shelter to invertebrates
- The greater the variety of plants in a garden, the richer the diversity of invertebrates it will support
12-6-19 ‘A Polar Affair’ delves into a centurylong cover-up of penguin sex
A new book surveys penguin biology and Antarctic exploration history. On March 29, 1912, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott wrote the final diary entry of his ill-fated quest to reach the South Pole. That same day, more than 350 kilometers away, naval surgeon and zoologist George Murray Levick was hunkered down within a snowbank at Cape Adare, observing Adélie penguins. Levick had accompanied Scott to Antarctica, but was not one of the five expedition members on the final trek to the pole. The return journey claimed the lives of all five. Levick survived the expedition, however, and in 1914, published a manuscript summarizing his observations — the first scientific descriptions of Antarctic penguins. But he left something out. During his months observing Adélie penguins, which included an entire breeding cycle, Levick witnessed the birds engaging in same-sex mating rituals. He also saw the birds engage in a variety of other sexual behaviors that in humans we might call promiscuity, infidelity, even prostitution. Levick recorded these scandalous details in a second manuscript, “The sexual habits of the Adélie penguin,” in 1915. But the manuscript was stamped “Not for Publication” and remained unpublished for nearly a century. In 2012, the manuscript resurfaced in a scientific journal. Penguin biologist and author Lloyd Spencer Davis, who had thought he was the first to record same-sex behavior in Antarctic penguins in 1996, was dismayed and intrigued. So Davis embarked on a personal quest to understand how and why Levick’s observations had been buried in the first place — seemingly by his own wishes. The result of that quest is Davis’ book A Polar Affair, an entertaining, chatty and sometimes salacious romp through polar exploration history, penguin biology and Victorian mores. (Webmaster's comment: Religious beliefs censored the truth.)
12-6-19 Death by dog lick
A man has died in Germany after contracting a rare infection from being licked by his dog. The previously healthy 63-year-old dog owner went to a hospital in Bremen suffering flu-like symptoms, leg pain, breathing difficulties, and purpura fulminans, a blood-clotting disorder. His symptoms quickly broadened to include brain damage, kidney failure, and cardiac arrest, and after 16 days of treatment, he died from multiple organ failure. Doctors determined that the infection was caused by Capnocytophaga canimorsus, a bacteria that occurs naturally in the mouths of cats and dogs. “[It] usually doesn’t cause any sort of significant disease,” Stephen Cole, from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, tells CNN.com. “However, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong patient…it can lead to severe infections.” Cases are extremely rare and typically affect people with immune, spleen, or alcohol abuse issues. They also usually involve the patient being bitten; in this case, the man contracted the bacteria from a lick alone.
12-6-19 A single-celled protist reacts to threats in surprisingly complex ways
A new try of a dismissed 1906 experiment suggests a protist can, in fact, ‘decide’ what to do. Being single-celled doesn’t necessarily doom a creature to a simple life. A fresh look at a long-dismissed, century-old experiment suggests that so-called primitive organisms can behave in surprisingly complex ways. Stentor roeseli, a tiny trumpet-shaped protist, can dodge, duck or flee in response to an irritating stimulus, changing its behavior when one strategy fails, researchers report online December 5 in Current Biology. The study suggests that single cells, rather than being preprogrammed to react in a certain way, are capable of “changing their minds” based on experience. “This fascinating experiment reminds us that primitive organisms can do complicated things,” says Sindy Tang, a cellular engineer at Stanford University who wasn’t involved in the study. S. roeseli rose to prominence in 1906, when the American zoologist Herbert Spencer Jennings described some of the most complex behaviors ever reported for a single-celled organism. The millimeter-long freshwater protist spends much of its life fastened to drifting algae, using hairlike cilia on its body to sweep food into its mouth. Jennings messed with S. roeseli, disturbing them with a pipette-delivered stream of a chemical irritant. Instead of simple reflexive behaviors, he documented a complex hierarchy of avoidance tactics. First, the protist would bend to dodge the onslaught. If that failed, it would repel the irritant by using its cilia to “spit” water out of its mouth. When Jennings persisted, it would contract its whole body to shrink away. Its final act was to escape by detaching from its substrate and floating away. At the time, biologists considered single cells to be capable only of rudimentary behaviors, such as moving toward or away from some stimulus. Consequently, Jennings’ work garnered much attention. But attempts to replicate it failed, and eventually his observations were dismissed.
12-5-19 Why you should worry about your pet’s ecological footprint
No Planet B | From domestic cats’ ecocide of small animals to the greenhouse gases they emit, owning a pet is an environmental vice we must confront, writes Graham Lawton. ONE of my cats has died, and I am bereft. It wasn’t the one we expected to lose first, the saggy old ginger tom, but the much younger one who we thought had many years left in him. Turns out he had a weak heart. Mine is now broken. I tell you this not to wallow in grief but to raise an issue that rarely gets an airing when we talk about making personal sacrifices to help the environment. I loved my cat and I miss him, but I take comfort from the fact that my loss is the planet’s gain. I have long suspected that my cats are a major contributor to my household’s environmental footprint. Unlike the humans who live there, they eat meat every day. They also slaughter wildlife. Though the one we lost was a gentle soul, he was also a ruthless killer. I have cleaned up my fair share of decapitated mice and shredded spiders, and once watched, helpless and aghast, as he killed a wren in the back garden. A few cans of cat food and the odd mauled bird hardly constitute ecocide, but summed across the world, domestic cats are a serious environmental menace. If you doubt this – and I know I have already raised some hackles – I recommend a devastatingly brilliant article called “The ecological cost of pets” by biologist Peter Marra of Georgetown University and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington DC. Marra is a well-known critic of cats. In 2016, he co-authored a book called Cat Wars, which argued that domestic moggies have a devastating impact on wildlife. His new article, published in the journal Current Biology, demolished my lingering hope that the ecological impact of my cats is negligible. In the UK, for example, pet cats kill more than 275 million small animals a year. In the US, the toll is probably in the billions. This is just pet cats; feral cats kill even more (both my cats were strays before we took them in).
12-5-19 Ryrkaypiy: Far-north Russian village overrun by polar bears
More than 50 polar bears have descended on a village in Russia's far north. All public activities in Ryrkaypiy, in Chukotka region, have been cancelled, and schools are being guarded to protect residents from the bears. Conservationists say climate change could be to blame, with weak coastal ice forcing the bears to search for food in the village rather than at sea. Other experts have said polar bear visits are now so frequent, Ryrkaypiy should be permanently evacuated. Tatyana Minenko, head of Ryrkaypiy's bear patrol programme, told Ria Novosti that they had counted 56 polar bears in the village. The animals were "both adult and young... there were females with cubs of different ages", she said - adding that almost all of them appeared to be thin. The polar bears normally live on Cape Schmidt, just 2.2 km (1.4 miles) from Ryrkaypiy. WWF conservationist Mikhail Stishov said the area had been experiencing unusually warm weather. "If the ice were strong enough the bears, or at least some of them, would have already gone to sea, where they could hunt for seals or sea hares," he said. While waiting for the ice to freeze they are drawn to villages for food, Mr Stishov added. Last week, a polar bear specialist from the US-based Institute of the North said the bears now visit Ryrkaypiy so often that the village should be evacuated, and its roughly 700 residents resettled. Anatoly Kochnev told Tass news agency that polar bear visits are increasingly frequent - and that just five years ago, only about five bears got close to the village."I as a scientist believe [Ryrkaypiy village] should not remain there," he said. "We try to control the situation, but nobody would want to think what may happen there in three to five years." The region's animal protection official Yegor Vereshchagin told Tass that if residents wished to leave, "they could organise a referendum".
12-5-19 Recordings reveal that plants make ultrasonic squeals when stressed
Although it has been revealed in recent years that plants are capable of seeing, hearing and smelling, they are still usually thought of as silent. But now, for the first time, they have been recorded making airborne sounds when stressed, which researchers say could open up a new field of precision agriculture where farmers listen for water-starved crops. Itzhak Khait and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University in Israel found that tomato and tobacco plants made sounds at frequencies humans cannot hear when stressed by a lack of water or when their stem is cut. Microphones placed 10 centimetres from the plants picked up sounds in the ultrasonic range of 20 to 100 kilohertz, which the team says insects and some mammals would be capable of hearing and responding to from as far as 5 metres away. A moth may decide against laying eggs on a plant that sounds water-stressed, the researchers suggest. Plants could even hear that other plants are short of water and react accordingly, they speculate. “These findings can alter the way we think about the plant kingdom, which has been considered to be almost silent until now,” they write in their study, which has not yet been published in a journal. Previously, devices have been attached to plants to record the vibrations caused by air bubbles forming and exploding – a process known as cavitation – inside xylem tubes, which are used for water transport. But this new study is the first time that sounds from plants have been measured at a distance. On average, drought-stressed tomato plants made 35 sounds an hour, while tobacco plants made 11. When plant stems were cut, tomato plants made an average of 25 sounds in the following hour, and tobacco plants 15. Unstressed plants produced fewer than one sound per hour, on average.
12-4-19 Heroism and slapstick humour: Wolf behaviour can be amazingly human
In his 21 years at Yellowstone national park Rick McIntyre has seen more wolf activity than anyone else. He shares some amazing insights. I worked at Denali National Park in Alaska for 15 summers after college and originally was most interested in grizzly bears. I saw them nearly every day. But I found that wolves had much more interesting behaviour, such as how they live in extended family groups and work together to hunt, raise their pups and defend their territory from rival packs. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. I would set up a spotting scope, find the local pack and invite visitors to have a look. It was a very emotional experience to watch a wolf pack travelling, hunting and playing in Yellowstone after being absent for 69 years. People would cry and hug me in thanks for showing them. I have been reading books by primatologist Frans de Waal and found his writing about the social behaviour and intellectual abilities of primates relevant to wolves. For example, I would say that wolves have a theory of mind, as do primates. Wolf 8 was one of the smallest wolves introduced to Yellowstone and didn’t seem to have much potential. But after an alpha male was killed on the day his mate gave birth, 8 befriended the pups. The mother wolf wanted help, so she let 8 into her pack, despite his inexperience. He became a great alpha male and raised the pups as his own. He also defeated another alpha male despite his larger size and unexpectedly let the wolf go rather than kill him. One of the pups 8 raised was wolf 21. He was invincible in battle but, as he had seen 8 do, he always let the other wolf go. 21 was attentive to his pups and spent a lot of time playing with them. He even appeared to have a sense of humour and would do things like fall over for no reason, like a comedian doing a pratfall.
12-4-19 Dogs have a better ear for language than we thought
Dogs pay much closer attention to what humans say than we realised, even to words that are probably meaningless to them. Holly Root-Gutteridge at the University of Sussex, UK, and her colleagues played audio recordings of people saying six words to 70 pet dogs of various breeds. The dogs had never heard these voices before and the words only differed by their vowels, such as “had”, “hid” and “who’d”. Each recording was altered so the voices were at the same pitch, ensuring that the only cue the dogs had was the difference between vowels, rather than how people said the words. After hearing the recordings just once, 48 of the dogs reacted when either the same speaker said a new word or the same word was said by a different speaker. The remainder either didn’t visibly respond or got distracted. The team based its assessment of the dogs’ reactions on how long they paid attention when the voice or word changed – if the dogs moved their ears or shifted eye contact, for example, it showed that they noticed the change. In contrast, when the dogs heard the same word repeated several times, their attention waned. Until now, it was thought that only humans could detect vowels in words and realise that these sounds stay the same across different speakers. But the dogs could do both spontaneously without any previous training. “I was surprised by how well some of the dogs responded to unfamiliar voices,” says Root-Gutteridge. “It might mean that they comprehend more than we give them credit for.” This ability may be the result of domestication, says Root-Guttridge, as dogs that pay closer attention to human sounds are more likely to have been chosen for breeding. The work highlights the strength of social interactions between humans and dogs, says Britta Osthaus at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK. “It would be interesting to see whether a well-trained dog would react differently to the command of ‘sat’ instead of ‘sit’,” she says.
12-4-19 Devil worm genes hold clues for how some animals survive extreme heat
The critters have extra copies of a gene that ramps up to deal with higher temperatures. You might expect a “devil worm” to have fiery eyes and a forked tail — or horns, at the very least. But under the microscope, Halicephalobus mephisto looks nothing like its nickname. Measuring a scant half of a millimeter, it’s a little squiggle of a critter. “There’s nothing particularly menacing about them,” says John Bracht, a molecular biologist at American University in Washington, D.C., and proud owner of the only live devil worms in a U.S. lab. Instead, the worm, a kind of nematode, earned that title because it somehow manages to live in hellish conditions, he says. First described in 2011, H. mephisto is one of the deepest-living land animals found to date. The only live one ever caught in the wild was filtered out of water from an aquifer 1.3 kilometers underground in a South African gold mine (SN: 6/1/11). At that depth, devil worms must cope with low oxygen, high methane levels and temperatures around 37° Celsius. The captured worm laid eight eggs. Now, thanks to that one worm’s descendants, scientists have some genetic clues to how the nematodes tolerate these conditions. The nematodes have duplications of two genes involved in heat shock and cell survival decisions, Bracht and his team report November 21 in Nature Communications. Picking up those extra copies over time likely helped the devil worms cope with extreme conditions and move deeper underground, Bracht says. The researchers found that H. mephisto has about 112 copies of the gene that makes Hsp70 proteins, which refold damaged proteins that have unraveled due to heat stress. That’s a big leap from the devil worm’s closest relative that has had its genetic instruction book, or genome, analyzed already — a nematode that has 35 copies of the Hsp70 gene. Heat stress tests in the lab exposing the devil worms to temperatures from 38° to 40° Celsius show that these genes ramp up to make more Hsp70 proteins when the heat is on. That suggests that these proteins somehow help the devil worms take the heat.
12-3-19 Female brown bears hang out near humans to keep cubs safe from males
FEMALE brown bears with cubs seem to hang around near people’s homes. It may be a way to avoid males, who would force the females to abandon their young earlier. Joanie Van de Walle at Sherbrooke University in Canada and her colleagues studied brown bears living in a rolling landscape of managed forests, bogs and lakes in Sweden. The area was dotted with houses and cabins. Female brown bears keep their cubs for 1.5 or 2.5 years. A female who keeps offspring for 2.5 years can bestow more care, perhaps raising survival chances, but may come into conflict with males who want to mate with her. Males may kill a cub outright, or drive it off. “Males would have an interest in shortening the period of maternal care,” says Van de Walle. “We thought females might come up with counter-tactics.” To check this, her team used GPS collars and helicopters to track 23 male bears and 16 female bears with cubs. They found that females that only kept cubs for 1.5 years had similar habitats to males, but females that spent more time close to human homes kept cubs for 2.5 years (Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, doi.org/dgbj). In Sweden, hunters aren’t allowed to kill family groups, so females with cubs have little to fear. In contrast, males and lone females are fair game, so have good reason to avoid places where people live. “It’s a really interesting observation to see these differences in females,” says Dieter Lukas at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who has studied infanticide by male animals. However, he isn’t convinced that the risk of infanticide is what pushes females to venture close to homes. He points out that cubs that go solo aged 1.5 years normally survive.
12-3-19 'Toxic chemical cocktail' passed to baby porpoises
Baby porpoises in waters off the UK are being exposed to a cocktail of chemicals in their mother's milk. Research found the most potent pollutants, which may be toxic to the brain, are passed from mother to calf. The chemicals are among the 200 or so polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which accumulate in the bodies of dolphins, porpoises and whales. PCBs were once used in plastics and paints. Banned decades ago, they hang around in the environment. The toxins that linger longest in a mother's body - and are considered more poisonous to the brain and nervous system - are transferred to infants in milk, a study found. "It's a tragic irony that juvenile porpoises are being exposed to a toxic cocktail of chemicals during feeding - when all they're supposed to be getting are the vital nutrients they need for the crucial developmental stage of their life," said Rosie Williams of ZSL's Institute of Zoology and Brunel University London. Meanwhile, one killer whale (orca) found dead off Scotland in 2016 contained among the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, ever recorded. PCBs could lead to the disappearance of half of the world's populations of killer whales from the most heavily contaminated areas within a period of just 30 to 50 years, scientists concluded last year. The study looked at levels of more than 200 chemical pollutants that are collectively known as PCBs in hundreds of harbour porpoises stranded off the coasts of Scotland, England and Wales. Juveniles had the highest levels of chemicals thought to be most toxic to the brain and nervous system. It's vital to learn more about PCB exposure in juvenile animals "to mitigate the impact of these dangerous chemicals on populations", said Prof Susan Jobling of Brunel University London. Populations of harbour porpoises around the UK are believed to be stable, though they face threats from pollution, accidental fishing and infection. The situation is much more dire for killer whales, which are down to a handful of individuals.
12-3-19 Gadhimai: Nepal's animal sacrifice festival goes ahead despite 'ban'
Less than five years ago, animal charities heralded the end of animal sacrifice at a religious festival dubbed "the world's bloodiest". But on Tuesday, the Gadhimai festival began with the killing of a goat, rat, chicken, pig and pigeon. According to animal activists who travelled to a remote corner of Nepal for the festival, it was followed by the deaths of thousands of buffalo. Some 200,000 animals were killed during the last festival, in 2014. The tradition dates back to a priest who was told about 250 years ago in a dream that spilled blood would encourage Gadhimai, the Hindu goddess of power, to free him from prison. For the hundreds of thousands of devotees who travel to the temple from India and Nepal, it is an opportunity to have their wishes fulfilled. "I had four sisters. Eight years ago, I made a wish for a brother and the goddess blessed us with him," Priyanka Yadav, of Janakpur, explained to BBC Nepali. However, animal rights activists have long argued it was cruel. Then, in 2015, the Humane Society International (HSI) and Animal Welfare Network Nepal (AWNN) announced "victory", saying animal sacrifices had been banned. But Ram Chandra Shah, the temple's then chairman, told the BBC no such arrangement had been made. "Devout Hindus could be requested not to offer animal sacrifice to the goddess, but they could not be forced not to do so - nor [could] the tradition be banned or stopped completely," he said at the time. Attempts were made to curb the influx of animals ahead of this year's two-day festival: Indian authorities began seizing animals unlicensed traders were trying to bring across the border. Nepal's government has also not provided any support, according to the festival's chairman, Motilal Kuswaha. But the animals continued to arrive at the temple in Bariyarpur, about 150km (93 miles) south of Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, and on Tuesday morning around 200 butchers prepared to begin their work.
12-3-19 US national parks face 'crisis' over invasive animal species
Invasive animal species represent a crisis for United States national parks, experts have said, in a call for widespread, systemic action. More than half of national parks are threatened by invasive animal species, but the threat has gone unaddressed, according to a new paper. The panel of experts said coordinated efforts and partnerships would be essential for success. The paper was published in the journal Biological Invasions. National parks span more than 85 million acres and can be found in all 50 states. They are home to the country's most beloved natural wonders and well-known historic sites. Since 1916, more than 400 parks have been established for protection. The paper is the result of a three-year effort by a panel of experts, established by the National Park Service (NPS) in 2016 to assess the threat of invasive animals. They note the NPS has had an invasive plant management programme for nearly two decades, but that invasive animals have not received the same attention. "The issue of invasive animal species has long been acknowledged, but there has yet to be a concerted, coordinated effort to address the issue," said lead author Ashley Dayer, an assistant professor in the department of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. A survey identified 1,409 populations of invasive animals made up of 331 species across the parks. Of those invasive populations, only 23% have management plans and only 11% are under control. Those populations can be found across ecosystems, from lakes, rivers and reefs to forests, grasslands and deserts. And all kinds of animals are represented, including mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. The impacts of invasive animal species vary, but they can cause a loss of park wildlife, damage natural ecosystems, hurt visitor experiences and be expensive to control. A number of individual parks have addressed their unique issues with invasive species with some success. The authors say a transformative, service-wide programme could help others follow suit.
12-3-19 The race to find wild relatives of food plants before it's too late
Seeds from 400 wild relatives of food crops such as bananas, rice and aubergines have been collected to save their valuable genetic diversity before it is lost. These could be crucial for maintaining food production as the climate changes. “This was a massive effort,” says Hannes Dempewolf at the Crop Trust in Bonn, Germany, which led the 10-year project. The next step is to use the wild plants to breed new varieties of crops with traits such as drought or disease resistance. That is important because we know that if farmers keep cultivating the same varieties in the same way, yields can plummet as pests and diseases evolve and spread. For instance, rice yields in Asia were hit by the rice grassy stunt virus in the 1970s, says Dempewolf. Resistant varieties were then created by crossing rice with a wild relative. Now the virus is becoming a problem again. It is a constant battle, a bit like walking up an escalator the wrong way. What is more, the speed at which such issues arise is accelerating because of climate change, which is already hitting food production. “You have to walk faster to stand still,” says Alisdair Fernie of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology in Germany, who wasn’t involved in the project. This is why the Crop Trust set out to save the genetic diversity present in wild plants. “Since 2013, more than 12 million seeds have been collected,” says Chris Cockel at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank in the UK. These come from about 5000 locations of the 400 crop relatives. Plants sampled include a type of wild carrot that grows in salty water, an oat relative resistant to the powdery mildew that devastates normal oats, and a kind of bean that tolerates high temperatures and drought. The seeds are now being sent to non-profit breeding organisations around the world. Some will also be stored in seed banks, including the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic.
12-3-19 Polar bear spray-painted with 'T-34' baffles Russia wildlife experts
Footage shared on social media in Russia of a polar bear with "T-34" spray-painted in black on its side has alarmed experts. Experts warned the stunt could affect the animal's ability to blend in with its surroundings and hunt for food. An investigation is under way to determine exactly where in Arctic Russia the video was filmed. The T-34 was a tank that played a vital role in the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two. The footage was posted on Facebook by Sergey Kavry, a member of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) nature organisation, and then shared by local media. Mr Kavry said the video had been shared with a WhatsApp group for the indigenous people of the Chukotka region in Russia's Far East, and that scientists monitoring wildlife in the area would not have branded the bear in such a way. "I don't know the details of which region, district, or vicinity this [footage] was taken," he said, adding: "If it's a military lettering theme... that is some kind of perverse disrespect for history." The press officer for WWF Russia, Daria Buyanova, told the BBC that seeing the images was "quite a shock" and that the inscription "looks like a bad joke". A scientist at the Institute of Biological Problems of the North, Anatoly Kochnev, said it was unlikely that the bear could have been painted without it being sedated. He said the bear could not have been mobile, or at least must have been quite still while it was being sprayed because "the characters are evenly written and are all the same size". He suggested the incident may have taken place in the remote Russian region of Novaya Zemlya, where a team of specialists had earlier sedated polar bears that had been wandering into populated areas. (Webmaster's comment: The T-34 tank kicked German ass all the way from Stalingrad into Berlin. The best designed tank of the war.)
12-2-19 Ancient puppy found in permafrost still has its fur and whiskers
This 18,000-year-old puppy, preserved in the Siberian permafrost, still has its nose, fur, teeth and whiskers – but DNA tests to determine whether it is a dog or a wolf have come up blank, suggesting it may represent a common ancestor of both. The puppy’s remains were identified by researchers at a site near Yakutsk in eastern Siberia, last year. Since then, a team at the Centre for Palaeogenetics, a joint venture between Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History, has been analysing a piece of the animal’s rib bone. So far, the researchers have determined that the animal is male. Team members estimate that he was 2 months old and lived around 18,000 years ago. The puppy is now named Dogor, a Yakutian word for “friend”. But the researchers can’t tell if the puppy was a dog or a wolf. If the animal is a dog, it may be the oldest ever found. But a researcher on the team thinks it may represent a common ancestor of both dogs and wolves. “It’s normally relatively easy to tell the difference between the two,” team member David Stanton told CNN. “We have a lot of data from it already, and with that amount of data, you’d expect to tell if it was one or the other. The fact that we can’t might suggest that it’s from a population that was ancestral to both – to dogs and wolves.” Research from the same team suggests that dogs and wolves may have diverged from a common ancestor around 40,000 years ago, although some dog breeds may have bred with wolves after that point. However, this doesn’t tell us anything about when dogs became domesticated, and why. There is some evidence that the ancestors of domestic dogs may have carried genetic variants that made them “hypersociable”, and so more willing to interact with humans.
12-2-19 A tree in Brazil’s arid northeast rains nectar from its flowers
Hymenaea cangaceira is one of two known plants to make a “sweet rain” that attracts pollinators. It’s night, and plant biologist Arthur Domingos de Melo is looking up at the open, ivory flowers of a tropical, hardwood tree. Though it’s the dry season in the arid, thorny Caatinga region of northeast Brazil, a slow drizzle begins to fall. But not from the sky. Domingos de Melo is under the tree’s canopy, and the “rain” is sweet. Behold Hymenaea cangaceira, a species whose flowers make so much nectar that it overflows and falls in unusually copious and fragrant showers, even though the price of water in this part of the world is steep. Domingos de Melo and colleagues at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, had been studying bat pollination of local plants for two decades in the region when, in 2015, one type of bat-pollinated tree struck them as odd. Its nectar, rather than the just the flower petals, was imbued with its own perfume — a phenomenon poorly understood in bat-pollinated plants — and the plant made loads of it. From 2015 to 2018, the team studied a population of H. cangaceira in Brazil’s Catimbau National Park. Each day after sunset during the trees’ reproductive season, between December and March, hundreds of flowers bloom on each tree and drip with nectar before wilting with the dawn. An individual flower produced up to 1.5 milliliters of nectar per night, the team found. That meant that one full-sized tree making some 624,000 flowers in a season could produce a stupefying 920 liters or so of nectar in that time — more than enough to fill 15 beer kegs — the team estimates in a study published online October 15 in Ecology.
12-1-19 How advancements in DNA technology can help save the tigers
The technology is still in its infancy, but scientists are optimistic it can help in the fight to protect the endangered animal. iger DNA expert Uma Ramakrishnan gets special permission to wander India's protected forests on foot, following the same trails the big cats tread. While she enjoys coming across tigers and their cubs and watching them with binoculars, those sightings aren't the treasure she's after. What she loves most is to find tiger droppings — "almost like gold to me," says the molecular ecologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. Territorial tigers oblige by leaving scat regularly, as a warning to other tigers that this space is occupied. These nuggets contain genetic material that scientists like Ramakrishnan use to understand tiger populations: How many are there, and what kinds? Where did they come from, and how far do they travel? It's crucial information for conservation efforts. Tigers are endangered, with fewer than 4,000 wild ones roaming the lands of at least 10 nations, from Eastern Russia to the island of Sumatra. That's down from an estimate of 100,000 in 1900. Human activity such as urban development, logging, farming, and mining has fragmented and destroyed tigers' forest habitats, and poaching is an ongoing problem in parts of Southeast Asia. "If you're going to have conservation management, you have to know what you're dealing with," says Stephen O'Brien, a geneticist at St. Petersburg State University in Russia and Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. For example, genetic studies show that tigers are split into several subspecies, so conservationists may want to develop strategies to protect each group. Over the past two decades, scientists have built up a picture of tiger evolution and ecology based on their DNA, as described this year in the Annual Review of Animal Biosciences. Early on, scientists could only look at a handful of spots in the tiger genome. Today, with the advent of inexpensive DNA sequencing and genomics that covers every bit of the instructions to make a tiger, experts are gaining a much broader picture of tiger biodiversity. DNA analysis — which will help not just to save tigers, but also to preserve the range of genetic variety that they carry — "is one of the best tools we have," says Byron Weckworth, conservation genetics director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization in Missoula, Montana. That said, he adds, the application of genomic information to conservation is still in its infancy.
12-1-19 Cosmic Crisp: New apple launched that 'lasts for a year'
A new breed of apple that took two decades to develop and allegedly lasts for up to a year in the fridge goes on sale in the US on Sunday. The apple - Cosmic Crisp - is a cross-breed of the Honeycrisp and Enterprise and was first cultivated by Washington State University in 1997. The launch of the "firm, crisp, and juicy apple" cost $10m (£7.9m). Farmers in the state of Washington are exclusively allowed to grow the fruit for the next decade. "It's an ultra-crisp apple, it's relatively firm, it has a good balance of sweet and tart and it's very juicy," said Kate Evans, who co-led the apple's breeding programme at Washington State University. She said the flesh is slow to brown and the fruit "maintains excellent eating quality in refrigerated storage - easily for 10 to 12 months". More than 12 million Cosmic Crisp trees have been planted and a strict licensing system does not permit farmers to grow the apples in other parts of the country. The variety was originally known as WA38 and the name Cosmic Crisp was inspired by the scattering of tiny white spots on its dark red skin, resembling the night sky. Washington is the biggest provider of apples in the US, but its most popular varieties - the Golden Delicious and Red Delicious - have faced fierce competition from the Pink Lady and Royal Gala. Apples are the second biggest selling fruit in the US after bananas.