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.