2-29-20 How do trees find their sense of direction?
Trees are both kindred and foreign to us, their various forms so familiar, but their architectural rules still in so many ways opaque. There's a place in West Virginia where trees grow upside-down. Branches sprout from their trunks in the ordinary fashion, but then they do an about-face, curving toward the soil. On a chilly December day, the confused trees' bare branches bob and weave in the breeze like slender snakes straining to touch the ground. "It's really kind of mind-boggling," says plant molecular biologist Chris Dardick, waving toward the bizarro plum trees. "They're completely messed up." I'm visiting an orchard at the Appalachian Fruit Research Station, an outpost of the U.S. Department of Agriculture nestled in the sleepy Shenandoah Valley. The disoriented plums are but one in an orchard of oddities, their outlines, seasonally stripped of leaves, standing out in stark relief. There are trees with branches that shoot straight up, standing to attention in disciplined rows, with nary a sideways branch. There are trees with branches that elegantly arch, like woody umbrellas; others with appendages that lazily wander this way and that. Dwarf trees crouch, sporting ball-like crowns akin to Truffula trees. Compact "trees" poke from the ground in clumps of scraggly, knee-high sticks. The topsy-turvy growth of all of these trees comes from genetic variations that cause the dialing up, dialing down, or elimination altogether of the activity of key genes controlling plant architecture. Understanding these misfits has real-world applications: It could help grow the next generation of orchards that, densely packed with trees, produce more fruit while using less land and labor than today. But Dardick is also trying to answer a fundamental question: How do different trees get their distinctive shapes? From the towering spires of spruce and fir, the massive spreading limbs of an oak to the stately arching canopies of an elm, the skeletal shapes of trees offer signature silhouettes.
2-28-20 Stung by crime
The booming almond industry in California is inspiring a new organized crime, said Oliver Milman in TheGuardian.com: beehive heists. There were 1,048 reported hive thefts in California in 2017, compared with just 101 in 2015. Authorities know where the stolen bees tend to wind up—in California’s fertile Central Valley, where farmland filled with “lettuce, grapes, lemons, apricots, and more requires pollination from far more bees than naturally live in the area.” Almonds are the “main driver of the honeybee demand,” with 1.17 million acres of land requiring pollination “at a standard rate of two beehives an acre.” With demand rising and bee populations dropping, the price of a hive for pollination has grown to $200 and up. Reported thefts dropped recently after the arrest of two men who’d been hiding 2,500 hives in what authorities called “a chop shop for bees.”
2-27-20 It turns out loads of frogs and salamanders are fluorescent
Many species of salamander and frog are naturally fluorescent, glowing green under certain wavelengths of light, and we don’t yet understand why. Biofluorescence occurs when light hits a living organism and is absorbed and re-emitted at a different wavelength, like when your white teeth glow blue under UV light. We know that many sea creatures are fluorescent, but there has been relatively little study on amphibians. Jennifer Lamb and Matthew Davis at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota examined individuals from 32 different species of amphibian, mostly frogs and salamanders, to figure out if they would fluoresce under blue light. Every single species did: most lit up green when exposed to bright blue lights, although a few were a bit more yellow. Most of the fluorescence seemed to come from pigments in the animals’ skin, but some also came from mucus excretions or even bones. “It’s really cool to look at developing amphibians, like tadpoles and baby salamanders, and you can see it in the growing limbs,” says Lamb. It isn’t yet clear exactly what purpose the fluorescence serves, says Lamb. It could help warn off predators, similar to the brightly coloured markings on some animals, or maybe it could help individual amphibians identify one another. “In some species, we do see differences in colour patterns between males and females, so it could be related to reproduction,” says Lamb. “In the loudness of a frog chorus, with hundreds calling at once, perhaps females could use the light to find a specific male when the audio signals aren’t helpful.” She and Davis are now working on figuring out the exact mechanism behind the fluorescence and its use to the amphibians. This new-found fluorescence could also help scientists see amphibians in the wild. “There are plenty of small frogs and things that can be really hard to spot, but we could use fluorescence to detect them and that could help us in conserving these hard-to-find species,” says Lamb.
2-26-20 Canada proposed as site of captive whale sanctuary
A cove off Canada's east coast is the proposed site for a sanctuary where captive orca and beluga whales can retire. The Whale Sanctuary Project has selected part of Nova Scotia's coast as a spot for a seaside sanctuary, over other regions in Canada and the US. The charity will be working with local municipalities to bring about eight whales to the region permanently. It hopes to welcome its first cetaceans by the end of 2021. The Whale Sanctuary Project looked at hundreds of possible locations off the coast of the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Nova Scotia and the US state of Washington. The organisation said Port Hilford, a seaside community about 200km (124 miles) from Halifax ,"offers an expansive area [cove] that can be netted off for the whales in a bay that's open to the ocean but is sheltered from storms". The Whale Sanctuary Project was seeking a sheltered area with around 100 acres water - about a fifth the size of Monaco - with depths reaching 15 meters (50 feet). It also had to have specific temperature ranges and water salinity, and protection from extreme weather, room for facilities needed to care for the animals, and place to host for educational activities. Dr Lori Marino, president of the non-profit, said part of what helped them pick the spot after a two year search was the interest and engagement local communities had in the plan. She hopes to see six to eight belugas, and possibly some orcas, permanently residing in the cove - cetaceans that have been born into and held in captivity and can't be released fully into the wild. Orcas and belugas are believed to suffer in captivity and there has been mounting pressure to end the practice. In June, Canada passed what has been dubbed the "Free Willy" law, that bans whale and dolphin captivity except in the cases of rescues, rehabilitation, scientific research, or for the animal's welfare.
2-26-20 Red panda genes suggest there are actually two different species
We now have the strongest indicator yet that there are two separate species of red panda: the Chinese red panda (Ailurus styani) and the Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens). Previously, these groups were classified as subspecies based on the pandas’ physical characteristics and locations, but this has been contested due to a lack of genetic evidence. To address this gap, Yibo Hu at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and his colleagues sequenced the whole genomes of 65 red pandas by extracting DNA from blood, muscle and skin samples taken from museum specimens and red pandas in captivity. These red pandas came from wild populations living in the Himalayas in Nepal and India or the mountains in China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. The researchers used data from 49 red pandas to compare their haplotypes, variations in DNA inherited from a single parent – for example, their mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the mother, and Y chromosomes, which are inherited from the father. Compared with Chinese red pandas, the Himalayan red pandas had 50 per cent fewer mutations in the single letters, or bases, that make up DNA across their whole genomes. Hu’s team also found that the haplotypes clustered together in different regions of the genomes of Himalayan and Chinese red pandas, and there were no shared Y chromosome variants between red pandas from the eastern Himalayas and those from Sichuan. Hu says this shows that they genetically diverged from each other, with minimal transfer of genetic variation between the populations, resulting in the two species. This divergence happened about 200,000 years ago, he says. Physical differences between the two populations supported the classification: the Chinese red panda has redder fur on its face and more prominent tail rings, for example.
2-26-20 Red pandas are two species, not one
The red panda is not one species but two, according to DNA evidence. Already endangered due to hunting and habitat loss, conservation efforts are now even more critical, say scientists. The red panda lives in the mountainous forests of China, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar, where numbers are down to a few thousand individuals and decreasing every day. Two varieties have long been suspected, based on physical features, but genetic evidence has been lacking. Chinese red pandas have redder fur and striped tail rings, while Himalayan pandas have whiter faces. Lead researcher Yibo Hu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said the Himalayan red panda needs more urgent protection, because of its lower genetic diversity, and small population size. "To conserve the genetic uniqueness of the two species, we should avoid their interbreeding in captivity and construct clear captive pedigrees," he said. Researchers in China analysed the DNA of 65 wild red pandas. This revealed two separate species which went their own separate ways after populations were divided by a river about 250 thousand years ago. Mike Jordan, director of plants and animals at Chester Zoo, which has a pair of red pandas, says the genetic evidence allows us to say they're considered to be completely different species, rather than variations of one species. "The population is down to what may only be a few thousand," he said. "Now that we need to divide that few thousand between two different species it may increase the conservation imperative and I suspect one or more of the species we will discover is even more threatened than we thought previously." The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) was initially considered a relative of the raccoon because of features such as its ringed tail, and then thought to be related to bears. It is now known to be in a family of its own and one of the most evolutionary distinct and globally endangered mammals in the world.
2-26-20 Aboriginal Australians hunted kangaroos with dingoes a century ago
As recently as 110 years ago, Aboriginal Australian hunters enlisted help from an unlikely source. They used dingoes, difficult-to-train canines halfway between wolves and dogs, to help trap and kill kangaroos and emus. This might provide us with new insights into how and why humans domesticated dogs thousands of years ago. Dingoes are found across most of Australia today. Exactly when they arrived is unclear: the earliest dingo fossils are about 3300 years old, but DNA evidence suggests that they had arrived from Asia thousands of years earlier. Their pedigree is controversial: some researchers believe dingoes had fully domesticated ancestors and then turned feral. However, it is possible that dingoes descended from canids that hung about near human settlements in Asia without ever being fully domesticated, says Pat Shipman at Penn State University in Pennsylvania. We know from historical accounts that people sometimes collected dingo puppies from the wild to keep as pets. However, some of those same historical records suggest that the animals were too disobedient to serve much practical purpose on big game hunts. “Bringing dingoes on hunts where the main technique is stalking or sneaking up on a kangaroo didn’t work well,” says Loukas Koungoulos at the University of Sydney. “Their eagerness to pursue usually caused the prey to become aware of the danger and flee early.” But Koungoulos and Melanie Fillios at the University of New England in Australia have now found evidence that indigenous hunters took advantage of this, using dingoes to help flush out large kangaroos and emus towards concealed groups of hunters armed with weapons. The evidence comes from 19th and early 20th-century historical accounts, and Koungoulos says that recent large-scale digitisation efforts now make it easier to search through this literature for information on historical hunting techniques.
2-26-20 Seagulls are more likely to pick up food that humans have handled
Seagulls prefer to approach food that has been handled by people, suggesting that the birds may use human cues to find a meal. Madeleine Goumas at the University of Exeter, UK, says the idea for her research came from observing how seagulls acted around humans. “Are they just looking for food, or are they noticing what people are doing and picking up on their cues?” she says. Goumas and her colleagues conducted an experiment in which she individually approached 38 herring gulls (Larus argentatus) on the Cornish coast with two buckets, each containing a flapjack in plastic wrapping. Standing about 8 metres from the bird, Goumas removed the flapjacks from the buckets and placed them at an equal distance from her. She then picked up one of the flapjacks and pretended to eat it for 20 seconds, before putting it back down and walking away from both flapjacks. Some of the seagulls ignored her, but of the 24 that picked up a flapjack, 19 chose the one Goumas had handled. Goumas then repeated the experiment with blue sponges the same size and shape as the flapjacks. Of the 23 seagulls that pecked at a sponge, only eight chose the one she had handled, which is not statistically different from what we would expect by chance. The team cannot say for sure whether the gulls were able to differentiate between the food and the sponges, but Goumas speculates that the differing results may be due to the birds understanding that items in shiny plastic wrapping are more likely to be food-related. “The findings suggest that herring gulls have learned that handled food is likely to be a good resource. Given how quickly they may be disturbed when feeding in an urban setting, this is a smart strategy!” says Mark Fellowes at the University of Reading, UK.
2-26-20 Red squirrels sniff out danger better than greys
A native predator of the red squirrel appears to be an unlikely ally in its battle with the grey squirrel. Scientists from Queen's University Belfast discovered that, while the pine marten preys on both species, the greys are much more vulnerable to attack. The key seems to be in the reds' innate ability to "sniff out" the danger posed by the pine marten. Wide-eyed and cute as they may appear, pine martens are sharp-clawed predators. Their agility and tree-climbing skills make them the enemy of any squirrel. Previous research has shown that pine martens had a beneficial impact on red squirrel numbers and caused declines in the greys, but the reasons were not fully understood. So Joshua Twining from Queen's University Belfast used pine marten scent to investigate. When the researchers applied the scent to squirrel feeding stations across Northern Ireland, they found that only the red squirrels responded - showing much more vigilance. Grey squirrels, on the other hand, seemed to ignore the scent and carry on regardless. This lack of a behavioural response, researchers say, means greys are much more vulnerable. And with more than two million grey squirrels in the UK and just 150 thousand native reds, they certainly need the help to compete.
2-24-20 Solar storms may interfere with the ability of whales to navigate
A study of nearly 200 strandings of healthy grey whales over the past 30 years has found that the animals are four times more likely to strand themselves during solar storms. Jesse Granger at Duke University in North Carolina and her colleagues think that radio frequency noise produced by the storms interferes with the magnetic compass of whales, preventing them from sensing direction. But her team has shown only a correlation between the two events, Granger stresses. “This is not direct evidence,” she says. We still know little about how whales navigate in largely featureless oceans during their long migrations. It is likely that they use magnetoreception as many other animals do, but this is difficult to demonstrate. To investigate, Granger and her team looked at 186 instances where individual grey whales with no signs of any injury or interaction with people had become stranded, presumably due to navigational errors. They found strandings were twice as likely on days with more sunspots. Sunspots are associated with solar magnetic storms that can affect Earth’s magnetic field and make magnetic compasses point in the wrong direction. But the team found no link between deviations in Earth’s magnetic field and strandings. However, strandings were four times more likely on days when high levels of radio frequency noise due to solar activity had been measured. This fits in with the hypothesis that a protein in animals’ eyes called cryptochrome is involved in sensing magnetic fields. If so, the mechanism thought to be involved would be disrupted by radio frequency noise, effectively blinding animals to magnetic fields. Several previous studies have suggested that solar activity can affect the navigation of animals. One showed that homing pigeons raced slower on days with high solar activity, says Granger. There is also some evidence that radio noise can disrupt the navigation of birds.
2-24-20 Extinction: Meet the new poster animals of conservation
Ever heard of the gnu goat, the red-eared guenon or the Gila monster? They could be the future icons of conservation, according to a study. Scientists say these little-known animals are key to raising money for protecting vulnerable ecosystems. The likes of tigers and elephants, which appeal to the masses, are often selected for fundraising campaigns. But this approach has been criticised for neglecting many other species that need our help. "It's time for us to put some science behind the species we use to market and fundraise for conservation - rather than framing our approach around what's popular or seen as 'cute' by the public," said Dr Hugh Possingham, chief scientist at conservation NGO, The Nature Conservancy. To test whether a more scientific approach could have wider benefits for vulnerable ecosystems, the researchers compiled data on protected areas, human impacts, and the ranges of thousands of animals. They identified priority places for conservation in the world and suitable "flagship species" to fundraise for them. "We can't afford to waste a single conservation dollar," said Dr Jennifer McGowan of Australia's Macquarie University. "Given the state of the biodiversity crisis we need to be strategic, effective and efficient with the conservation work that we do." Flagship species are a good way "to appeal to hearts and minds", she said, citing images from the recent wildfires in Australia showing injured koalas. "Millions of dollars were raised - because no-one can look at those pictures and not have their hearts break." The study, published in Nature Communications, compiled a list of hundreds of mammals, birds and reptiles that could act as new flagship species. They are charismatic in their own right, but often overlooked in favour of more iconic alternatives.
2-24-20 Keep raising money to save the pandas - it helps other animals too
Conservationists have long known that using pandas, tigers and other charismatic species to front their campaigns is a good way to raise money. But some have argued that focusing on these “flagship” animals can neglect equally threatened but less cuddly ones, such as pangolins. Now Jennifer McGowan at Macquarie University in Sydney and her colleagues suggest that conservationists can have it both ways, after finding that funding for flagship species also helps other threatened species in the surrounding areas. McGowan was contacted by a US charity called WildArk, which wanted its fundraising to be backed by robust science on the ecological impact of helping certain species. To find the best approach, McGowan’s team first drew up a list of 534 flagship species in exceptionally wildlife-rich hotspots around the world, from golden-snub nosed monkeys to giant armadillos. The biodiversity hotspots were each split into grids of 100 by 100 kilometre squares. The researchers then compared two conservation approaches across eight simulated scenarios which assumed different levels of human activity and protected areas. The first focused on protecting flagship species, while the second aimed to protect the maximum number of species in an area, regardless of their fundraising potential. The researchers found that targeting grid squares with flagship species also protected 79 to 89 per cent of the non-flagship species in that area. The figure rose to 97 per cent in some scenarios. In other words, most of the potentially less cute species benefit too. The findings could help conservationists when choosing species to promote, says McGowan. “Flagship species are very effective at getting the public to care. But we can also select flagship species in a more rigorous way, using both the head and the heart,” she says.
2-21-20 Bumblebees in dire trouble
Climate change is pushing the much-loved bumblebee to the brink of extinction, new research has found. The fuzzy, buzzy insects are among the most important pollinators in the Northern Hemisphere, helping to spread pollen and fertilize many wild plants, as well as important crops such as tomatoes, blueberries, and squash. But their numbers have been dropping for years, and to understand why, scientists looked at a database of 550,000 records detailing where the bees have been spotted since 1901. It showed that bumblebee populations had crashed by 46 percent in North America and by 17 percent across Europe in recent years when compared with the base period of 1901 to 1974. The biggest declines were in areas that have experienced the most extreme temperature swings, suggesting that climate change is a significant factor. High temperatures can cause bumblebees to overheat and can also kill the flowers on which they depend. Adding to the problem is that bees aren’t migrating to cooler areas. “They’re simply not able to colonize new regions at the same rate that they’re disappearing from old ones,” lead author Peter Soroye, from the University of Ottawa, tells NPR.org. The authors stress that climate change isn’t the only cause of the bees’ decline; pesticide use and habitat loss also play a role. They say people can help the troubled insects by planting native flowers in their gardens and leaving out leaf piles and fallen logs to create shade for the bees on scorching days.
2-21-20 Twiggy water skis
A water-skiing squirrel has become the focus of a legal battle in Vancouver, B.C. Twiggy is delighting fans by performing at the Vancouver International Boat Show on tiny water skis, wearing a hand-sewn life preserver, but city officials have told the show it is violating an obscure law that prohibits the use of rodents “in competitions, exhibitions, performances, or events.” Twiggy, however, continues to perform in violation of the city order. In defending his use, a spokeswoman for the boat show said that Twiggy’s act is “educational” and helps kids learn about “life jacket safety.”
2-21-20 How African turquoise killifish press the pause button on aging
The fish can double their life span by temporarily halting cell and organ growth while embryos. When the ponds where one African fish lives dry up, its offspring put their lives on pause. And now researchers have a sense for how the creatures do it. African turquoise killifish embryos can halt their development during a state of suspended activity called diapause. Now a study shows that the embryos effectively don’t age while in that state. Genetic analyses reveal that, to stay frozen in time, the embryos put functions such as cell growth and organ development on hold, researchers report in the Feb. 21 Science. “Nature has identified ways to pause the clock,” says Anne Brunet, a geneticist Stanford University. Knowing how killifish pause their lives could help scientists figure out how to treat aging-related diseases or learn how to preserve human organs long-term, she says. Nematode worm larvae (Caenorhabditis elegans) can also halt development and aging when faced with a lack of food or if their environment is overcrowded. Invertebrates like nematodes, however, lack many of the features that make other animals age, such as an adaptive immune system. More than 130 species of mammals from mice to bears also have some form of diapause. The killifish (Nothobranchius furzeri) live in ponds in Mozambique and Zimbabwe that disappear for months during the dry season, leaving the fish without a home until the rain returns (SN: 8/6/18). For adults that typically live only four to six months anyway, vanishing ponds don’t pose much of a threat. But some killifish embryos press pause on their development during dry months, until ponds fill up again. Killifish embryos can put their growth on hold from five months up to two years, matching or even greatly exceeding their typical adult life span. If humans could do something similar, an 80-year-old person might instead have a life span from 160 to more than 400 years, Brunet says. But if, or how, these animals protect themselves from aging while in this limbo was unknown.
2-20-20 Some ants disinfect food by drinking the acid they spray at enemies
A number of ant species produce acid in a poison gland in their abdomen to spray at enemies. Now it turns out they also drink the acid to kill pathogens in their food. Because these ants often vomit up food to feed their co-workers, this helps prevent diseases spreading in colonies. Unlike the stomachs of vertebrates, those of insects aren’t normally highly acidic. Simon Tragust at the University of Bayreuth in Germany and his colleagues have found that species such as the Florida carpenter ant (Camponotus floridanus) increase the acidity of their stomachs by swallowing acid after eating. If ants were prevented from bending round to reach their poison glands, acidity levels were lower. Next, the team fed ants food contaminated with a bacterium that can cause lethal infections. Ants that were prevented from drinking their acid were less likely to survive. Finally, the team looked at how likely the disease was to be passed on when ants fed other ants via regurgitation, as is common in these species. The poison glands of the ants being fed were blocked with superglue. If the glands of the ants doing the feeding were blocked as well, more of the ants they fed died. The results show that drinking acid plays a major role in protecting these ants from dangerous microbes and preventing infections spreading in colonies. “There is a clear benefit from this phenomenon,” says Liselotte Sundström at the University of Helsinki, Finland, who in 2015 reported that ants self-medicate to fight off fungal infections. However, it isn’t clear whether the ants actively drink from the gland, she says, or whether it happens accidentally as they groom themselves. Tragust’s finding isn’t the only example of ants using acid as medication. When tawny crazy ants are sprayed with the venom of fire ants, the tawny crazy ants apply acid to their bodies to detoxify the venom.
2-20-20 Blue tits learn to avoid gross food by watching videos of other birds
Blue tits and great tits can learn to avoid unpleasant foods without even tasting them. Seeing another bird’s disgusted response, even if it is just on video, helps them avoid unpalatable prey by recognising their markings. Liisa Hämäläinen at the University of Cambridge and her colleagues studied this type of social learning in blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) and great tits (Parus major), which forage together. Two groups of 24 birds, 12 blue tits and 12 great tits, were shown a video of either a blue tit or a great tit eating unpleasant “prey” – food soaked in a bitter solution and marked with a black square. The filmed birds reacted with disgust by wiping their beaks and shaking their heads. The birds that watched the videos were then introduced to unpleasant food and their normal, unaltered food to see if they had learned from the filmed birds. Another set of 12 blue tits and 12 great tits were presented with these food options without having watched the videos. For both species, the birds that had watched the videos ate fewer unpleasant prey items than those that hadn’t. Blue tits learned best by watching their own kind, but great tits learned equally well from observing either species. While several birds have been shown to avoid certain prey by observing their own species, this has only been seen across species once before, between red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula). This is also the first time blue tits have been shown to use social information to the same, or an even greater, extent as great tits. The researchers believe this could be because the study focused on risky food choices. “The two species differ in size, and it is possible that great tits can cope better with chemical defences because they are larger than blue tits,” says Hämäläinen. “The costs to consume potentially toxic food might therefore be higher for blue tits.”
2-20-20 A new lizard parasite is the first known to move from mom to baby
The worm turns up in the mom’s ovaries and the embryo’s braincase of a common wall lizard. For Nathalie Feiner, it was just another day in the lab. As part of her work on understanding how the common wall lizard is adapting to a changing climate, the evolutionary biologist was observing one of its eggs under a microscope when she caught a strange sight. “Something was moving in there,” says Feiner, who was at the University of Oxford at the time. Inadvertently, she had found a parasitic worm that can move from a mother lizard to her embryos, Feiner, now at the University of Lund in Sweden, and her colleagues report in a study in press in the May 2020 issue of The American Naturalist. Parasites moving across generations have been well-documented in mammals. But this is the first evidence of such transmission in any egg-laying amniote, a group that includes birds and reptiles, says Daniel Noble, an evolutionary ecologist at the Australian National University in Canberra. The study “establishes some critical natural history, and opens up a whole new set of exciting questions,” says Noble, who wasn’t involved in the study. Feiner’s team collected and dissected hundreds of eggs from 85 female wall lizards captured from six different places in Italy, France and England. Of those, the parasitic worms showed up only in eggs of some lizards from the French Pyrenees. Mothers of infected embryos also carried the parasitic nematodes, the team found. But while nematodes typically reside in the gut and rectum of their hosts, these were found in the ovaries of the lizard (Podarcis muralis). As many as 16 nematodes were found freely swimming between the follicles. That proximity to developing eggs may make it possible for these worms to infect the embryos, the researchers say.
2-20-20 'Astonishing' blue whale numbers at South Georgia
Scientists say they have seen a remarkable collection of blue whales in the coastal waters around the UK sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia. Their 23-day survey counted 55 animals - a total that is unprecedented in the decades since commercial whaling ended. South Georgia was the epicentre for hunting in the early 20th Century. The territory's boats with their steam-powered harpoons were pivotal in reducing Antarctic blues to just a few hundred individuals. To witness 55 of them now return to what was once a pre-eminent feeding ground for the population has been described as "truly, truly amazing" by cetacean specialist Dr Trevor Branch from the University of Washington, Seattle. "To think that in a period of 40 or 50 years, I only had records for two sightings of blue whales around South Georgia. Since 2007, there have been maybe a couple more isolated sightings. So to go from basically nothing to 55 in one year is astonishing," he told BBC News. "It's such good news to see that they might be further rebounding and coming back to places where they were formerly extremely abundant." Dr Branch was commenting on the survey which was led by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) with the support of the University of Auckland. The institutions put together an expert team that toured the island's near-shore waters in the Research Vessel Braveheart. The scientists identified whales of various species both visually and acoustically through their song repertoires. In a number of cases, they even managed to retrieve skin and breath samples to understand more about the health of the various animals they encountered. Blue whales are the most massive creatures ever to roam the Earth, and the Antarctic sub-species contained the very biggest of the big at over 30m. This population was also the most numerous of the 10 or so discrete populations across the globe, carrying perhaps 239,000 individuals prior to the onset of industrial exploitation.
2-20-20 Conservation: New protections for jaguar and Asian elephant
New measures to protect the jaguar have been agreed at a wildlife summit held in India. Six countries put forward plans to strengthen protection for the spotted big cat as it roams across the borders of different countries. The species has lost about 40% of its habitat over the last 100 years. While laws exist to protect jaguars in virtually all the countries where it lives, threats persist, including deforestation and poaching. The Convention on Migratory Species is an international agreement that aims to conserve migratory species. Including the jaguar in the agreement will help countries preserve crucial habitat. The aim is to enable animals to move along corridors between countries, helping to avoid the isolation that can lead to extinction. Rebecca Regnery, deputy director of wildlife at the animal protection group Humane Society International, said listing the big cat will create an international legal framework. "This will provide increased incentives and funding opportunities for this work, and that is critical for curbing habitat destruction, maintaining key migration corridors and addressing killings for retaliation and trafficking," she said. The jaguar's present range extends from the southern edge of the US and Mexico in North America, across much of Central America, and south to Paraguay and northern Argentina in South America. Other proposals passed on Thursday at the 13th Conference of the Parties include strengthened protection for the Asian elephant. The mammal is endangered due to loss of habitat, poaching, poisoning and obstacles to migration such as railways. India, which is home to 60% of Asian elephants, shares some of these elephants with neighbouring countries, such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal. For populations outside India, many elephants cross international boundaries where they face a range of threats.
2-19-20 Why climate change is creating more female sea turtles and crocodiles
As the world gets warmer, animals whose sex is determined by temperature are finding cool ways to control their own fate. But can they adapt in time? WE HAVE all seen images of polar bears stranded at sea on chunks of ice. This charismatic species has become a poster child for the devastating effects of climate change. But as the world warms, spare a thought for another group of animals that face a unique challenge. These are the creatures whose entire reproductive future depends on how hot their environment is. The threat from climate change to animals whose sex is determined by temperature seems obvious. Higher temperatures cause them to produce offspring primarily of one sex, a skew that would appear to put them on the road to extinction. But the curious fact is, this group contains some of the most ancient lineages in the animal kingdom – from crocodiles and turtles to fish and even a reptile-like “living fossil” called the tuatara – and they have survived repeated bouts of global warming in the past. So how have they made it this far given their apparent sensitivity to temperature? To what extent does the current warming differ from events they have faced before? And should we worry about their survival? Researchers rushing to answer these questions have made some surprising discoveries, including a sexual innovation that might have helped these species survive climate change in the past. This innovation could have been key to the evolution of birds, and even explain why they are the only dinosaur descendants today. What’s more, the plight of these species may not be as far removed from us as it seems. There are now intriguing hints that global warming is having an effect on the sex ratios of newborn humans too (see “Girls like it hot”).
2-19-20 One blind, aquatic salamander may have sat mostly still for seven years
Low-energy olms can go years without food and may live for about a century. Once upon a time, olms knew the cool drizzle of rain and bathed in the glow of the sun. But millions of years ago, these aquatic salamanders moved to underwater caves beneath southeastern Europe’s Dinaric Alps and evolved into the pale, blind, foot-long creatures known today (SN: 4/20/16). Now, a study reveals one trait that may help olms inhabit these caverns that have little food: The salamanders don’t seem to move much. One olm even appeared to haunt roughly the same spot for seven years within a limestone cave in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina, researchers report online January 28 in the Journal of Zoology. The pitch-black cave was seemingly full of the creatures when zoologist Gergely Balázs of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and his colleagues began searching for olms (Proteus anguinus) about 10 years ago. After repeated dives in the cave, the researchers began to suspect that they were seeing the same olms in the same spots each time. So starting in 2010, the team used an injectable liquid marker to tag 26 olms found in the cave. Using a unique marking pattern for each olm, the researchers could recognize the salamanders by sight, recording how far each olm moved between sightings over eight years. In addition to the one extremely sedentary olm, most of the others didn’t seem to move more than 10 meters from their original spots over several years, the scientists found. Olms could be considered extreme couch potatoes. A slow pace of life — punctuated roughly every 12 years by the need to reproduce — helps to conserve energy over a life span that can last for roughly 100 years, the researchers say. Energy conservation is paramount in these caves. With little to go around of the crustaceans and snails that olms eat, the salamanders can go 10 years without eating.
2-19-20 Watch tadpoles breathe by sucking in air bubbles at water's surface
Most tadpoles have to breathe air to survive but hatchlings are too feeble to break the “skin” on a pond’s surface caused by water tension – so they suck air bubbles instead. While tadpoles have gills, most also develop lungs and frequently surface to breathe air, which is essential for survival in water containing low levels of oxygen. Kurt Schwenk at the University of Connecticut saw the unusual behaviour by chance while studying salamanders feeding on tadpoles in the lab. “What I saw blew my mind. I assumed this had been described before but it hadn’t,” he says. Using high-speed video, Schwenk and Jackson Phillips, a PhD student also at the University of Connecticut, recorded tadpole hatchlings from five frog species swimming to the water’s surface. Due to surface tension they couldn’t break through the surface to gulp air. Instead, they stuck their open mouths to the underside of the water’s surface. By dropping the floor of the mouth, tadpoles suck at the water surface and create an air pocket that they can pinch off by quickly closing their jaws. This forms a bubble inside the mouth that contains fresh air and a bit of exhaled air. Raising the floor of the mouth squeezes the bubble, forcing air into the lungs. With the lungs full, leftover air is burped out. A second study showed that even when tadpoles were older and big enough to breach, those from two species of frog preferred two quick sucks in a row. “The double bubble-suck could prevent exhaled air being mixed with the fresh air to improve gas exchange efficiency,” says Schwenk.
2-19-20 Rare snow leopard spotted in India
Snow leopards, a threatened species, live at an altitude above 3,000m in typically open and rocky areas. And after a long time a snow leopard was spotted in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh. The iconic big cats' conservation status improved from "endangered" to "vulnerable" in 2017. The sighting was rare enough to prompt officials to release the footage on social media platforms - but it's unclear when it was shot.
2-18-20 Locust swarms: South Sudan latest to be hit by invasion
Swarms of desert locusts that have been devouring crops and pasture in the East Africa region have spread to South Sudan, the UN food agency says. Several million South Sudanese are already facing hunger as the country struggles to emerge from a civil war. The UN has warned that a food crisis could be looming in East Africa if the outbreak is not brought under control. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has pledged $8m (£6m) to help fight the invasion on his visit to Africa. Mr Pompeo was speaking after talks with Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, which along with Somalia, Kenya and Uganda, has been hit by the pests. The invasion is the worst infestation in Kenya for 70 years and the worst in Somalia and Ethiopia for 25 years. Efforts to control the locust infestation have so far not been effective. Aerial spraying of pesticides is the most effective way of fighting the swarms but countries in the region do not have the right resources. There are now fears that the locusts - already in the hundreds of billions - will multiply further. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said about 2,000 adult insects had entered South Sudan via Uganda into the southern county of Magwi. "These are deep yellow, which means that they will be here mostly looking at areas in which they will lay eggs," the AFP news agency quotes FAO South Sudan representative Meshack Malo as saying. Agriculture Minister Onyoti Adigo Nyikuac said the government was training people to spray. "Also we need chemicals for spraying and also sprayers. You will also need cars to move while spraying and then later if it becomes worse, we will need aircraft," he said, AFP reports. About 60% of South Sudan's population is facing food insecurity - and destruction of harvests by locusts could lead to a drop in nutrition levels in children, rights group Save the Children warns. Even without the locusts, the charity expects that more than 1.3 million children aged under five will suffer from acute malnutrition this year. The FAO says the insects, which eat their own body weight in food every day, are breeding so fast that numbers could grow 500 times by June.
2-18-20 Should animals with human genes or organs be given human rights?
Gene-edited pigs and brain implants are blurring the lines of what it means to be human, so our morals and laws may need to change to include beings that are “substantially human”. LAST year, researchers in China announced they had inserted a human brain gene into monkeys. These 11 monkeys outperformed typical monkeys in tests of short-term memory, and their brain development more closely resembled that of humans. Are these animals still fully monkeys? Or are they something else? Something human? Plenty of other experiments have blurred the line between what is human and what isn’t. Research teams have created pigs with human genes. Clumps of human brain cells have been grown in dishes, and the cells can communicate with each other. Then there are “synthetic human entities with embryo-like features” – structures made from human stem cells that look like early embryos. Should all these entities be protected by law in the same ways humans or human tissues are? Some researchers think so, and are proposing a new legal definition for such entities: “substantially human“. If the entity is more human than not, it should be granted human rights, they say. But this raises questions as to how exactly we define humanness, and what that means for entities that fall outside that definition. It is only a matter of time before we will be forced to decide, say Bartha Knoppers at McGill University in Montreal and Hank Greely at Stanford University in California. “At some point, courts will be faced with the questions: is this tissue human or not? Are these remains human or not? Is this living organism in front of us human or not?” says Greely. He and Knoppers suggest that the term substantially human could be applied in cases where the line is blurred. “It means that just because something is not 100 per cent traditional human, he or she should still be viewed as human for purposes of human protections,” says Greely.
2-14-20 Great ape brains have a feature that we thought was unique to humans
Our brains could have more in common with our ape cousins than previously thought, which might require us to rethink ideas on the evolution of brain specialism in our early human ancestors. The left and right sides of our brains aren’t symmetrical; some areas on one side are larger or smaller, while other parts protrude more. The pattern of these anatomical differences, or asymmetries, was thought to be uniquely human, originating when our brain hemispheres became specialised for certain tasks, such as processing language with the left side. Now, it seems the pattern came first – before humans evolved. Brain pattern comparisons between humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans reveal that our brains’ left-right differences aren’t unique, but shared with great apes. “It suggests it is an ancestral pattern that was established far earlier during evolution, before the split of human and great apes lineages,” says Simon Neubauer at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. His team analysed skulls from 95 humans, 45 chimpanzees, 43 gorillas and 43 orangutans. Brain shape is imprinted on the inside of the skull during growth, so the team used CT scanning to detect these details in the hollow skulls and then created digital models of each brain. Anatomical features on the left and right sides of each brain model were then marked with digital dots. When the hemispheres were superimposed, mismatching dots revealed both the pattern and magnitude of brain asymmetry. They all shared a common pattern but it was less pronounced in chimpanzees than in the other species. This may help explain why we’ve failed to spot the deep evolutionary history of brain asymmetry previously. Earlier studies only compared human brain asymmetry with chimpanzees – which alongside bonobos are our closest living relatives. Doing so suggested our pattern of asymmetry was unique, evolving from increased brain specialisation after human and chimpanzee lineages split over 4 million years ago.
2-14-20 A very slothful salamander
Deep inside an aquatic cave system in Bosnia and Herzegovina, scientists have found what might be the world’s ultimate homebody: the olm. A team of divers monitored a population of these rare, blind salamanders for more than eight years, in which time the olms typically moved less than 32 feet. Incredibly, one olm stayed in exactly the same spot for more than seven years. Also known as protei, olms live long lives—often into their hundreds—notably bereft of excitement, reports Independent.co.uk. The foot-long creatures have no natural predators in their cave home, live underwater in complete darkness, and can survive without food for years. The olms do have to stir to mate but only get around to that about once every 12.5 years. “They are hanging around, doing almost nothing,” said lead researcher Gergely Balazs, of Hungary’s Eotvos Lorand University.
2-14-20 Snakes suffered after a frog-killing fungus wiped out their food
Both snake diversity and body size dipped at a site in Panama after chytrid swept through. Karen Lips knew a wave of frog death was coming. The frog-killing Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or chytrid, fungus had begun ravaging amphibian populations in Costa Rica in the early 1990s, and by all indications would eventually reach Panama. So in 1997 Lips, a herpetologist now at the University of Maryland in College Park, and her colleagues scrambled to take stock of the biodiversity at El Copé, a tropical forest field site in central Panama, before the wave hit. Chytrid did hit El Copé in 2004, eliminating more than 75 percent of the frog population there. But Lips and her colleagues’ foresight allowed them also to assess chytrid’s impact on another part of that ecosystem — snakes. These elusive frog-eating reptiles can be difficult to detect. Still, the team found that both snake diversity and average body size dipped after chytrid wiped out the frogs, a major food source, researchers report in the Feb. 14 Science. “When there’s a collapse [like that in frogs after chytrid], the focus is usually on the group that collapsed,” says Kelly Zamudio, an evolutionary biologist at Cornell University who wasn’t involved in the research. But the new study makes key strides toward documenting the effects of a collapse on other parts of an ecosystem. “It’s an intuitive idea,” she says, but one that has been difficult to demonstrate because biologists need good before-and-after data. To get such data, Lips and her colleagues looked for amphibians and reptiles along 200- to 400-meter paths around El Copé each year from 1997 to 2012. The team caught whatever they could, noting the species and measuring body size. The final analysis excluded data from 2005-2006, just after chytrid had swept through the region.
2-14-20 Jellyfish snot can sting swimmers who never touch the animal
Mucus from jellyfish that sit upside-down on the seafloor has blobs lined with stinging cells. Swimmers who feel “stinging water” near mangrove forests may be getting zapped by jellyfish snot. A species known as the upside-down jellyfish (Cassiopea xamachana) can sting other creatures without ever making direct contact. Instead, the jellyfish releases mucus filled with clusters of stinging cells typically found on jellyfish tentacles, researchers report February 13 in Communications Biology. The study provides the first explanation for why handling or swimming near upside-down jellyfish can cause a prickling or burning sensation (SN: 9/1/15). The stinging cells are coated on tiny mobile blobs called cassiosomes within the mucus that “zoom around like a Roomba zapping brine shrimp” in a lab dish, says Cheryl Ames, a marine biologist at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan. When brine shrimp came into contact with a cassiosome, the shrimp were quickly paralyzed and killed. C. xamachana is unusual among jellyfish in that the animal rests belly up in groups on the seafloor, which lets photosynthetic algae living in its tissues produce nutrients that benefit both organisms (SN: 8/22/14). Upside-down jellyfish are found in tropical waters near coastal mangrove forests. It’s unclear how the jellyfish use their stinging snot in the wild, but the mucus could be part of their feeding strategy, or could be used in defense against predators. In the lab, when upside-down jellyfish were agitated or eating, they released clouds of mucus. Microscopic views showed that the mucus was filled with what Ames calls a “spider web of things,” including food particles and cassiosomes moving around. Puzzled, the researchers searched through research on jellyfish and found a 1908 book in which zoologist Henry Farnham Perkins suggested that the cell clusters could be parasites, after his theory that they were embryos was proven wrong. Perkins wrote that he was “still quite in the dark as to the nature of these curious bits of animal life.”
2-13-20 This is how jellyfish can sting you without even touching you
Most people know not to poke a jellyfish, but some jellies can sting you without touching you – by detaching tiny bits of their body that float off into the sea and move around independently. Upside-down jellyfish jettison small balls of stinging cells in a network of sticky mucus, to kill prey such as shrimp. The jellies then seem to suck in their dinner by pulsating. It is as if we could spit out our teeth and they killed things for us somehow, says Cheryl Ames at Tohoku University.
2-13-20 With a litter of tactics, scientists work to tame cat allergies
In pursuit of a sniffle-free existence, researchers test ways to attack one protein. Time magazine’s list of Best Inventions of 2006 included an unusual creation. It wasn’t a gadget; it was a cat. “Love cats but your nose doesn’t?” the magazine asked. “A San Diego company is breeding felines that are naturally hypoallergenic.” There was a 15-month waiting list for the “sniffle-proof kitties,” which sold for $3,950 or more. The company selling the cats, Allerca, had tapped into a tantalizing dream for allergy-prone cat lovers: the hypoallergenic cat. Given that just two genes are responsible for making cats a problem for many people, it seemed like a no-brainer to engineer cats that lacked those genes, or to simply breed cats with versions of the genes that made the animals less allergenic. But so far, itchy-eyed cat lovers have been left disappointed. By 2010, Allerca had stopped taking orders — and lawsuits were lining up. The sniffle-proof kitties never materialized. Some angry customers said they never received a kitten, others were sent a cat that triggered their allergies. But for all those who haven’t given up hope, there may be new options around the corner. An allergic owner might pop open a can of allergy-fighting food — for the cat. Or maybe vaccinate the cat to produce fewer allergens. And allergy shots for owners might shift from burdensome weekly or monthly injections to a shot that offers immediate relief. The new gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9 might even come to the rescue, delivering the ultimate dream to those who can afford it: a cat that doesn’t produce allergens at all. One company has made some progress applying CRISPR/Cas9 to cats. Success in taming cat allergies could bring good news for people whose allergies have nothing to do with cats. If any of the cat allergy–fighting measures prove safe and effective, they could be deployed against other allergens, especially airborne ones like pollen, dog dander or dust mites. With up to 30 percent of the world’s population suffering from airborne allergens, that’s plenty of runny noses to dry up.
2-13-20 New species of flies found in Lochaber forest
Two insect species never before seen in the UK have been discovered in a forest in Lochaber. The two male fungus gnats were caught along with tens of thousands of insects in a special trap in 2018. They were identified by Ian Strachan after he carefully sifted through the specimens. The species - Boletina gusakovae and Mycetophila idonea - are usually found in parts of continental Europe and were trapped at Loch Arkaig Pine Forest. Mr Strachan said: "My guess is that these two have always been here, or at least for a long time, but just not found before." Woodland Trust Scotland, which manages the forest, said Boletina gusakovae is usually found in Finland and Russia and Mycetophila idonea in Estonia, Poland, Slovakia, Georgia and Luxembourg. Mr Strachan spotted the two species among more than 1,500 fungus gnats he had separated out from tens of thousands of other insects in the sample. Fungus gnats are a large group of tiny flies whose larvae feed on mushrooms and fungi. Mr Strachan said: "This was a very exciting find. It makes all the hours of sorting seem worthwhile." The Roybridge-based expert has sorted through some 20,000 specimens from the Loch Arkaig traps so far - using a binocular microscope as most are less than 1mm in size. A considerable number of specimens remain to be sorted or identified. "It is a very laborious process. It could be several years before all the species are identified - but I am determined to get as many as possible done," said Mr Strachan.
2-12-20 Wolves regurgitate blueberries for their pups to eat
Fruit may be more important to the animals’ diet than previously thought. Gray wolves are known to snack on blueberries, but the animals do more than fill their own bellies. A new, serendipitous observation shows an adult wolf regurgitating the berries for its pups to eat, the first time anyone has documented this behavior. Wolves have a well-earned reputation as skillful hunters with a taste for large, hoofed ungulates like deer and moose. But scientists are increasingly recognizing that these predators have an exceptionally varied diet, partaking in everything from beavers and fish to fruit. In 2017, biologist Austin Homkes of Northern Michigan University in Marquette got a sense of just how important this mixed diet could be for wolves. A cluster of signals from a GPS collar on a wolf led Homkes to a meadow just outside Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park. Homkes, who was studying the animals’ predatory and dietary habits, thought he was headed for a spot where the wolf had killed a meal. But it turned out to be a rendezvous site, with adult wolves bringing food to their no longer den-bound pups. Homkes watched from a distance as several pups gathered around an adult wolf, licking up at its mouth. This behavior stimulates adult wolves to throw up a recent meal. Sure enough, the adult began vomiting, and the pups eagerly ate what accumulated on the ground. After the wolves left, Homkes got closer and saw that the regurgitated piles were purely of partially chewed blueberries, he and colleagues report February 11 in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. “It’s a pretty big part of wolf ecology that was right under our noses that we didn’t see,” Homkes says. Until now, he and his colleagues thought pups in the region just casually munched on berries while hanging around rendezvous sites, which often contain blueberry plants. The fruit may be an underappreciated food source for the pups, the researchers think.
2-10-20 How thin, delicate butterfly wings keep from overheating
Living parts such as veins have protective structures that keep them cooler than dead scales. Delicate butterfly wings are pretty cool — literally, thanks to special structures that protect them from overheating in the sun. New thermal images of butterflies show that living parts of the wing — including veins transporting insect blood, or hemolymph, and scent patches or pads that males use to release pheromones — release more heat than surrounding dead scales, keeping the living areas cooler. Small changes in body temperature can affect a butterfly’s ability to fly, as muscles in the thorax must be warm so that the insect can flap its wings fast enough for takeoff. But because the wings are so thin, they heat up faster than the thorax and can rapidly overheat. People might think that scale-covered butterfly wings are “like a fingernail, or a feather of a bird, or human hair — they are lifeless,” says Nanfang Yu, an applied physicist at Columbia University (SN: 5/23/08). But wings are also equipped with living tissues crucial for survival and flight, and high temperatures will make the insect “really feel uncomfortable.” Butterfly wings’ thin, semitransparent nature has made it difficult for thermal infrared cameras to distinguish heat from the wing versus from background sources. So Yu and colleagues employed an infrared hyperspectral imaging technique to measure wing temperature and heat emissivity at single-scale resolution for more than 50 butterfly species. Tube-shaped nanostructures and a thicker layer of chitin, a component of an insect’s exoskeleton, radiate excess heat from living wing tissue, the researchers report January 28 in Nature Communications. Wing veins are covered with that thicker chitin layer, and scent pads have those nanostructures, plus the extra chitin. Thicker or hollow materials are better at radiating heat than thin, solid materials, Yu says.
2-9-20 Oscars 2020: Life lessons from Europe's last wild beekeeper
One of the more unlikely films competing in this weekend's Oscars is a fascinating story about a wild beekeeper in the Balkans. Honeyland has a strong ecological message, but it's the life story of the woman at the centre of the film that has struck a chord around the world. Honeyland is the first film to compete for both the best documentary award and best international feature film. The documentary's success is even more remarkable because it started almost accidentally. Macedonian directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov were researching in a remote mountainous area of the country for a short nature documentary. They noticed beehives behind a rock on the mountain where they were filming. This led them to Hatidze Muratova, one of Europe's last wild beekeepers, who uses ancient methods passed down through the generations for harvesting wild honey. This was the beginning of a "crazy adventure" of three years, filming through scorching summers and freezing winters. After another year editing, their first feature film was born. Honeyland chronicles a period of Hatidze's life when her ancient methods of beekeeping came up against, and conflicted with, those of a newcomer to her remote home region. The directors say the film profoundly changed their lives. Honeyland has much to say about conserving nature, but its lessons are also about human life and relationships. "Half for me and half for you" is Hatidze's mantra, which she repeats as she tends to the bees on the mountain. But it's a message which is in danger of being lost in the modern world. Hatidze lives in Bekirlija, an abandoned village with no electricity, running water or roads, where she looks after her ailing mother. The honey she sells at the market in the capital of North Macedonia, Skopje, is her sole source of income. She takes only half of the honey, leaving the rest for the bees. She lives by that simple principle. "Sharing with bees and with nature is the key to her survival," says Stefanov.
2-8-20 What do a coyote and badger tell us about animal relations?
Footage showing a coyote and badger working and playing together may seem like a strange sight, but the pairing is an example of mutual arrangement where species work together to the benefit of both.
2-8-20 America's pig problem
Dozens of states are being overrun by aggressive feral hogs. Can they be controlled?. Wild hogs are voracious and are among the smartest animals. Their population has exploded to an estimated 6 million across 39 states, with the greatest concentration in the South, particularly Texas. Feral hogs — also known as wild boars, wild pigs, and "razorbacks" — are prodigious breeders, have few natural predators, and are voracious, causing $2.5 billion in damage to farms and ecosystems annually. Like all pigs, the feral variety are omnivores and will devour anything they can tear up with their long snouts and 6-inch-long, razor-sharp tusks, including crops, gardens, frogs, worms, eggs, and even deer and lambs. They favor plants, and 50-pig herds, or "sounders," can empty whole fields of corn or wheat overnight. The invasive species has spread far and wide largely because it is well adapted to its environment and breeds so rapidly, with ranchers and hunters making the problem worse by trucking wild hogs into new areas so they can be shot for sport. Hunting them to control their population hasn't worked: You'd have to shoot 70 percent of the feral pig population every year just to keep it static. Their roots on this continent can be traced to Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, who brought black Iberian pigs to America around 1540. The pigs flourished in the New World, with some escaping to create a feral population. These wild pigs would later crossbreed with Eurasian wild boar brought into the U.S. for hunting in the 1890s and 1930s, producing what Canadian animal science professor Ryan Brook calls "a super pig" — weighing 200 to 500 pounds, capable of running up to 30 mph (or faster than sprinter Usain Bolt), and equipped with a wily intelligence that enables them to learn from their experiences. "They're one of the smartest animals on the planet," says wildlife biologist Alan Leary. They're also among the most prolific: Female hogs, or sows, begin breeding at around 6 months old and crank out two litters of four to 12 piglets every year. The hogs live five to eight years and are adapting to more northern climates, with their thick fur letting them migrate toward Canada. They've also learned to keep warm in colder states by burrowing into the snow to create "pigloos."
2-7-20 Butterfly activists killed
Two defenders of a Mexican forest where monarch butterflies spend the winter have been found murdered in recent weeks, and activists fear that powerful logging interests may be to blame. Homero Gómez González, manager of the El Rosario butterfly sanctuary, went missing in mid-January; his body was found in a well last week. An autopsy showed he’d suffered head trauma and drowning. Gómez had long lobbied for an end to logging, saying that butterfly tourism would be more lucrative for the community and more environmentally sound. Just days after the first grim discovery, the body of sanctuary guide Raúl Hernández Romero was found; he had an apparent knife wound to the head.
2-7-20 Botswana to hold elephant hunting auctions
Botswana is to hold its first auctions for the right to hunt elephants since lifting a ban last year. The country has some 130,000 elephants, the world's largest population. Authorities will issue seven hunting "packages" of 10 elephants each, confined to "controlled hunting areas", a spokeswoman said. The government revoked a 2014 ban in May, saying human-elephant conflict and the negative impact on livelihoods was increasing. The lifting of the ban has been popular with many in local communities but criticised by conservationists. Seven packages of 10 elephants each are on offer and the auction will take place in the capital Gaborone on Friday afternoon, the BBC's Southern Africa correspondent Nomsa Maseko reports. The bidders - who must be companies registered in Botswana - are expected to put down a refundable deposit of 200,000 pula ($18,000; £14,000). The government has issued a quota for the killing of 272 elephants in 2020. The hunting would help areas most impacted by "human wildlife conflict", wildlife spokeswoman Alice Mmolawa told the AFP news agency. Many rural communities believe a return to commercial hunting will help keep the elephant population away from their villages, and also bring in much-needed income in places not suitable for high-end tourism. But critics fear it could also drive away luxury-safari goers opposed to hunting. Audrey Delsink, Africa's wildlife director for the global conservation lobby charity Humane Society International, called the auctions "deeply concerning and questionable". "Hunting is not an effective long-term human-elephant mitigation tool or population control method," she told AFP. President Mokgweetsi Masisi's predecessor Ian Khama introduced the ban in 2014 to reverse a decline in the population of wild animals.
2-7-20 Fireflies face extinction risk - and tourists are partly to blame
Firefly tourism is on the rise globally but scientists are warning it may contribute to risk of the insect's extinction. "I spotted a hundred flickering lights, illuminating a palm like a Christmas tree." "Our guide waved his flashlight at the fireflies. They slowly engulfed us - we were surrounded by a shiny galaxy of glowing beetle stomachs." "I reached out a hand and captured one in my fist." Reading this travel blogger's enchanting experience in 2019 makes it clear why firefly tours are popular, but done badly, it risks killing the insects. Habitat loss and light pollution from urbanisation and industrialisation are the leading threats to firefly populations, according to research published this week. But firefly tourism, which attracts thousands of visitors in countries including Mexico, the US, the Philippines and Thailand, is a growing concern for conservationists. "Getting out into the night and enjoying fireflies in their natural habitat is an awe-inspiring experience," Prof Sara Lewis at Tufts University, who led the research, told the BBC. But tourists often inadvertently kill fireflies by stepping on them, or disturb their habitat by shining lights and causing soil erosion. Firefly festivals are organised in countries including Japan, Belgium, and India, and social media is magnifying this tourism, she adds. The tiny town of Nanacamilpa in Mexico became a celebrated firefly spot in the past decade. Some visitors post their sparkling photos on Instagram, flouting the ban on photography that many site managers impose, says local photographer Pedro Berruecos. The Mexican fireflies are especially vulnerable to tourists, Prof Lewis explains. The female insects are wingless and cannot fly, meaning they live on the ground, where visitors walking around will trample on them.
2-7-20 Climate change: Loss of bumblebees driven by 'climate chaos'
"Climate chaos" has caused widespread losses of bumblebees across continents, according to scientists. A new analysis shows the likelihood of a bee being found in any given place in Europe and North America has declined by a third since the 1970s. Climbing temperatures will increasingly cause declines, which are already more severe than previously thought, said researchers. Bumblebees are key pollinators of many fruits, vegetables and wild plants. Without them, some crops could fail, reducing food for humans and countless other species. Dr Tim Newbold of University College London (UCL) said there had been some previous research showing that bumblebee distributions are moving northwards in Europe and North America, "as you'd expect with climate change". He added: "But this was the first time that we have been able to really tie local extinctions and colonisations of bumble bees to climate change, showing a really clear fingerprint of climate change in the declines that we've seen." Bumblebee declines are already more severe than previously thought, said lead researcher Peter Soroye of the University of Ottawa in Canada. "We've linked this to climate change - and more specifically to the extreme temperatures and the climate chaos that climate change is producing," he said. Bumblebees are among the most important plant pollinators. Declines in range and abundance have been documented from a range of causes, including pesticides, disease and habitat loss. In the new study, researchers looked at more than half a million records of 66 bumblebee species from 1901 to 1974 and from 2000 to 2014. They found bumblebee populations declined rapidly between 2000-2014: the likelihood of a site being occupied by bumblebees dropped by an average of over 30% compared with 1901-1974.
2-6-20 Climate change is killing off bumblebees in Europe and North America
Climate change has significantly increased the likelihood of bumblebees being driven to extinction in some areas of North America and Europe. Research five years ago showed how warming had shrunk the bees’ habitat across the two regions. However, it is difficult to separate the direct effects of climate change on the bees’ chance of local extinction from other environmental pressures, such as their habitats vanishing. To fill that gap, Tim Newbold at University College London and his colleagues analysed the temperature and rainfall records at more than 15,000 sites where at least one of 66 bumblebee species had been spotted between 2000 and 2014. They found that due to changes in climatic conditions, the probability of a site being occupied by bumblebees fell by an average of 46 per cent in North America and 17 per cent in Europe, relative to the long-term average last century. “This is the clearest signal so far of climate change already having had quite an important effect on the extinction and colonisation of bumblebee species,” says Newbold. The results were as he expected. The bees are large and furry as an adaptation to cold climates, so those in southern Europe and the south of North America, which were already at their upper temperature limits, were much more likely to go extinct and much less likely to colonise a new area. To ensure it was climate change driving the shifts, the researchers controlled for changes in land use and the fact there are far more records of bumblebees in recent years. Still, one limitation is that record-keeping is patchy in places. Losing bumblebees means losing pollinators essential to food production. Although they don’t pollinate the crops we rely on for the bulk of our calories, they provide much of the variety in our diets, pollinating nuts, berries and squashes. If climate change continues, it will drive even stronger bumblebee declines in the future, says Newbold. Warming is one of many threats to these insects, says Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex, UK. “Bumblebees also suffer from many other pressures, particularly habitat loss and exposure to pesticides, and it seems likely that a rapidly warming future climate may be the final straw for many of them.”
2-6-20 Beaked whales may evade killer whales by silently diving in sync
When hunting, the mammals dive deep as a silent group and ascend far from where they dove. Beaked whales have a killer whale problem. More formidable whales, of the sperm or pilot variety, have the size and muscle to flee or defend against a killer whale, an ocean superpredator. Smaller prey, like dolphins, can find safety by swimming in large pods. Certain toothed whales even communicate in pitches killer whales can’t hear. But elephant-sized beaked whales, named for their pointy snouts, have none of these advantages. These extreme divers swim in small groups, are too slow to outswim a killer whale, and rely on audible clicks to echolocate food deep in the ocean. Killer whales (Orcinus orca) should be able to hear them hunting below and easily pick them off as they ascend. But beaked whales have evolved a sneaky trick. An unusual, highly synchronized style of diving helps them silently slip past killer whales when surfacing to breathe, researchers describe February 6 in Scientific Reports. Predation from killer whales has shaped that strange behavior, the scientists say, and also might explain why naval sonar exercises, which can sound like predators to beaked whales, cause mass beaching events (SN: 3/25/11). “Beaked whales are some of the most mysterious mammals in the world,” says Natacha Aguilar de Soto, a marine biologist at the University of La Laguna in the Canary Islands, Spain. This group of 22 whale species can dive deeper than any mammal, sometimes descending more than 2,000 meters to noisily hunt small fish and squid using echolocation for up to 2½ hours before surfacing. Previous research has hinted that, when beaked whales return from the deep, they don’t come straight up for air like other whales. Instead, they ascend at a gradual angle, surfacing far from where they dove. “It’s highly unusual for whales to do this,” Aguilar de Soto says. She and her colleagues wondered whether it could help beaked whales slip past predators.
2-5-20 Spiders think with their webs, challenging our ideas of intelligence
With the help of their webs, spiders are capable of foresight, planning, learning and other smarts that indicate they may possess consciousness. THERE is an alien intelligence living among us. These creatures possess an extraordinary kind of consciousness, including minds that extend beyond their bodies. Yet, thanks to our ignorance and arrogance, our immediate impulse is to kill them. This is no fantasy. These alien minds really are lurking in the shadows of our houses and gardens: spiders. We have long assumed that, like many invertebrates, they are little more than automata, lacking an inner life. But we are now discovering that some arachnids possess hidden cognitive abilities rivalling those of mammals and birds, including foresight and planning, complex learning and even the capacity to be surprised. Stranger still, the delicate silk threads they spin out behind them, so easily swept up by a feather duster, help them to sense and remember their world. Indeed, spiders’ silk is so important to their cognitive abilities that some scientists believe it should be considered part of their mind. Now that we are starting to appreciate spiders’ intellectual capabilities, we must surely change how we see one of the most ubiquitous, important and vilified groups of animals that has ever evolved. What’s more, these incredible creatures could also challenge our understanding of our own intelligence and minds. Spiders have deep evolutionary roots. The earliest fossil evidence of silk-producing arachnids dates from almost 400 million years ago, shortly after the first definitive evidence of insects. “Insects are the most successful lineage on Earth, but spiders pretty much follow them,” says evolutionary biologist Miquel Arnedo at the University of Barcelona, Spain. Today, there are more than 48,000 known species, with every square metre of land home to around 130 individuals on average. That may terrify arachnophobes, but without them, agriculture would be impossible. “You couldn’t have any crops – insects would eat them all,” says Arnedo.
2-5-20 Watch this fish hop across the surface of water and climb on land
A species of fish known for the unusual ability to climbs trees has now been spotted hopping across water. The team that made the find say that it seems to be an entirely new form of fish locomotion. “We already considered this fish to be very special since it was so adept at climbing trees and rock faces,” says Parvez Alam at the University of Edinburgh. “But the hopping was even more bizarre a finding than we had expected.” Mudskippers are amphibious fish that can breath in and out of water, and use their pectoral fins to move about on land. They are considered to be living examples of how fish may have transitioned from water to land 350 to 400 million years ago. Alam and his colleagues originally set off to the Indonesian island of Java to study how the dusky-gilled mudskipper (Periophthalmus variabilis) climbs inclined surfaces such as trees, rocks, and mangrove roots. But when the group approached the mudskippers, they saw them leap from trees or rocks onto the neighbouring water and perform successive hops across the surface, occasionally even ending up back on land. Analysis of video footage revealed that short, rapid bursts of tail-beating make the hopping possible. This enables the fish to accelerate on the water’s surface and propel itself into the air. The fish briefly remains airborne before landing back onto the water to repeat the process again for a subsequent hop. Flying fish are known to glide over water in a similar fashion but the mudskipper’s hopping motion differs because it doesn’t submerge after each hop or use its fins to enter a glide.
2-3-20 Second Mexico monarch butterfly activist found dead
A second activist campaigning for the conservation of monarch butterflies and the woods in which they hibernate has been found dead in Mexico. Raúl Hernández worked as a tour guide at a butterfly sanctuary in Michoacán state. His body, which bore signs of beatings and a head injury, was found two days after the funeral of Homero Gómez. Mr Gómez managed a monarch butterfly sanctuary in the same state and had received threats, his family said. Raúl Hernández, 44, disappeared on Monday 27 January. He had left work as usual and was last seen at midday in a village called El Oyamel. His body was found six days later at the top of a hill in the El Campanario monarch butterfly sanctuary. Forensic experts said his body was covered in bruises and he had a deep wound to his head. An investigation into his death is under way. Conservationists fear his death may be linked to that of Homero Gómez, who disappeared in the same area on 13 January. Mr Gómez's body was found in a well on 29 January. His family said that prior to his disappearance, the activist had received threats warning him to stop his campaign against illegal logging. He was a tireless campaigner for the conservation of the monarch butterfly and the pine and fir forests where it hibernates. The sanctuary he managed opened in November as part of a strategy to stop illegal logging in the area, which is a key habitat for the species. Officials initially said his body showed no signs of violence, but a post mortem examination revealed he had suffered a blow to the head before drowning in the well. Mexico's murder rate has risen in recent years and official figures suggest 2019 had the highest rate ever recorded, with 34,582 recorded killings. (Webmaster's comment: There were 1/2 that many in the United States.)
2-2-20 A lazy cave salamander didn't move from the same spot for 7 years
Some of us are homebodies, but olms take it to a new level. These cave-dwelling salamanders may stay within the same little patch of ground for years on end. “They are hanging around, doing almost nothing,” says Gergely Balázs at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. Olms are salamanders that live in European caves. They have adapted to life in total darkness: their skin is pale and their eyes don’t develop, leaving them blind. They can live for decades, and possibly even a century. Their peculiar lifestyle makes them difficult to study in the wild, says Balázs, so most observations are made on captive specimens. His team has performed one of the first long-term studies of wild olms. They monitored olms living in the Vruljak 1 cave in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Between 2010 and 2018, the team repeatedly entered the cave and tagged olms by injecting their tail fins with a black pigment in a unique shape. When they returned, they looked to see where the tagged olms were. In total, they tracked 19 olms. Most of the olms moved less than 10 metres, even if they were recaptured years after being tagged. About 5 metres per year was typical. The most active olm moved 38 metres in 230 days. In contrast, another was found at the exact same spot after 2569 days – more than seven years. It is possible that the olms are more active than the data suggests, says Balázs’s colleague Gábor Herczeg. “We do not know the daily activity,” he says, emphasising that visits to the cave were often months apart. The olms may move around within a confined patch, he says. Nevertheless, an inactive lifestyle would make sense for them. They are predators that use a “sit-and-wait strategy”, says Balázs. Their prey are small crustaceans, which aren’t common. The olm may do best to save energy by sitting still and slowing their metabolism until one comes close. “They can survive without food for years,” he says.