6-30-20 Here’s how flying snakes stay aloft
Scientists captured the undulating motion of paradise tree snakes gliding from tree to tree. The movie Snakes on a Plane had it wrong. That’s not how snakes fly. Certain species of tree snakes can glide through the air, undulating their bodies as they soar from tree to tree. That wriggling isn’t an attempt to replicate how the reptiles slither across land or swim through water. The contortions are essential for stable gliding, mechanical engineer Isaac Yeaton and colleagues report June 29 in Nature Physics. “They have evolved this ability to glide, and it’s pretty spectacular,” says Yeaton, of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. Paradise tree snakes (Chrysopelea paradisi) fling themselves from branches, leaping distances of 10 meters or more (SN: 8/7/02). To record the snakes’ twists and turns, Yeaton, then at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, and colleagues affixed reflective tape on the snakes’ backs and used high-speed cameras to capture the motion. Physicists had previously discovered that the tree snakes flatten their bodies as they leap, generating lift (SN: 1/29/14). The new experiment reveals that the snakes also exert a complex combination of movements as they soar. Gliding snakes undulate their bodies both side to side and up and down, the researchers found, and move their tails above and below the level of their heads. Once the researchers had mapped out the snakes’ acrobatics, they created a computer simulation of gliding snakes. In the simulation, snakes that undulated flew similarly to the real-life snakes. But those that didn’t wriggle failed spectacularly, rotating to the side or falling head over tail, rather than maintaining a graceful, stable glide. If confined to a single plane instead of wriggling in three dimensions, the snakes would tumble. So snakes on a plane won’t fly.
6-29-20 Flying snakes wiggle their bodies to glide down smoothly from trees
Snakes wiggle their bodies to propel themselves on land or through water, but why certain flying snake species do so in the air was unclear. Researchers have now found that this undulation helps the snakes stabilise their bodies, enabling them to glide further. Isaac Yeaton at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and his colleagues studied the movements of Chrysopelea paradisi, the paradise tree snake, a species that launches itself from the tops of trees and can travel up to 100 metres horizontally in a single glide. These snakes flatten their bodies by splaying their ribs and wiggle from side to side as they glide, travelling at speeds of about 10 metres per second. The team studied the movement of seven paradise tree snakes using high-speed motion capture, filming them from above as they launched off an 8.3-metre-high platform to an artificial tree on the ground. Analysing the snakes’ movements, the researchers found that in mid-air the snakes undulate their bodies in both horizontal and vertical waves, and also bend their bodies to angle their heads upwards and downwards. The researchers then built a digital 3D model to simulate the snakes’ gliding and to look at what effect undulation had on their flight. Without undulation, the model showed that the snakes would quickly pitch downwards or pitch and roll, becoming unstable while midair. With it, the majority of simulations showed stable glides. n other environments, snakes and other animals undulate for locomotion. “They’re pushing against their environment on the ground or they’re pushing against water while swimming, says Yeaton. “If you stop undulating in that case, you stop moving.” Flying snakes use undulation differently, says Yeaton. “They are using it for stability, not for propulsion.”
6-29-20 Argentina and Brazil crops threatened by locust swarm
Brazil and Argentina are monitoring the movements of a large swarm of locusts, which has been eating its way through crops in the region. The insects, which can cover a distance of 150km (93 miles) in a day, have already travelled from Paraguay to Argentina and it is feared Brazil and Uruguay could be next. Brazil has told farmers to be alert to the possible arrival of the locusts. Kenya and India are also currently fighting locusts swarms. The swarm originated in Paraguay and crossed into Argentina on 21 May. The insects have already moved through the Argentine provinces of Santa Fé and Formosa, where they caused damage to crops of corn, sugar cane, wheat and oats. The swarm is currently in Corrientes province and the authorities there said that they had managed to reduce its size through fumigation. Corrientes borders Brazil and Uruguay and both countries are monitoring the swarm's movements closely. A cold weather front has made the locusts lethargic, so they have moved little in the past days, officials from Argentina's food safety body Senasa said. Nevertheless, a phytosanitary state of emergency is in effect in the two southern Brazilian states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina. Argentina and surrounding countries are no strangers to swarms of locusts. Most recently, there were large swarms in Argentina in 2019 and 2017.
6-29-20 Fish eggs can hatch after being eaten and pooped out by ducks
In the lab, only a few carp eggs survived the dangerous trip through birds’ innards. For fish eggs, getting gobbled by a duck kicks off a harrowing journey that includes a pummeling in the gizzard and an attack by stomach acids. But a few eggs can exit unscathed in a duck’s excrement, possibly helping to spread those fish, including invasive species, to different places, a new study finds. It’s been an “open question for centuries how these isolated water bodies can be populated by fish,” says fish biologist Patricia Burkhardt-Holm of the University of Basel in Switzerland, who was not involved with the work. This study shows one way that water birds may disperse fish, she says. Birds’ feathers, feet and feces can spread hardy plant seeds and invertebrates (SN: 1/14/16). But since many fish eggs are soft, researchers didn’t expect that they could survive a bird’s gut, says Orsolya Vincze, an evolutionary biologist at the Centre for Ecological Research in Debrecen, Hungary. In the lab, Vincze and her colleagues fed thousands of eggs from two invasive carp species to eight mallard ducks. About 0.2 percent of ingested eggs, 18 of 8,000, were intact after defecation, the team found. Some of those eggs contained wriggling embryos and a few eggs hatched, the team reports June 22 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s not clear yet whether eggs survive in this way in the wild. Most of the viable eggs were pooped out within an hour of being eaten, while one took at least four hours to pass. Migratory ducks could travel dozens or possibly hundreds of kilometers before excreting those eggs, the scientists suggest. Though the surviving egg count is low, their numbers may add up, making bird poop a possibly important vehicle for spreading fish. A single carp can release hundreds of thousands of eggs at a time, Vincze says. And there are huge numbers of mallards and other water birds throughout the world that may gorge themselves on those eggs.
6-27-20 How one teaspoon of Amazon soil teems with fungal life
A teaspoon of soil from the Amazon contains as many as 1,800 microscopic life forms, of which 400 are fungi. Largely invisible and hidden underground, the "dark matter" of life on Earth has "amazing properties", which we're just starting to explore, say scientists. The vast majority of the estimated 3.8 million fungi in the world have yet to be formally classified. Yet, fungi are surprisingly abundant in soil from Brazil's Amazon rainforest. To help protect the Amazon rainforest, which is being lost at an ever-faster rate, it is essential to understand the role of fungi, said a team of researchers led by Prof Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. "Take a teaspoon of soil and you will find hundreds or thousands of species," he said. "Fungi are the next frontier of biodiversity science." Fungi are usually neglected in inventories of biodiversity, being inconspicuous and largely hidden underground. Fewer than 100 types of fungi have been evaluated for the IUCN Red List, compared with more than 25,000 plants and 68,000 animals. Fungi in soil from tropical countries are particularly poorly understood. To find out about soil from the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, researchers collected samples of soil and leaf litter from four regions. Genetic analysis revealed hundreds of different fungi, including lichen, fungi living on the roots of plants, and fungal pathogens, most of which are unknown or extremely rare. Most species have yet to be named and investigated. Areas of naturally open grasslands, known as campinas, were found to be the richest habitat for fungi overall, where they may help the poorer soil take up nutrients. Understanding soil diversity is critical in conservation actions to preserve the world's most diverse forest in a changing world, said Dr Camila Ritter of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. "For this, we need to put below-ground biodiversity on the agenda for future conservation action plans," she said.
6-27-20 Monkeys may share a key grammar-related skill with humans
A capacity for recursion evolved early in primate evolution, a contested study suggests. An aptitude for mentally stringing together related items, often cited as a hallmark of human language, may have deep roots in primate evolution, a new study suggests. In lab experiments, monkeys demonstrated an ability akin to embedding phrases within other phrases, scientists report June 26 in Science Advances. Many linguists regard this skill, known as recursion, as fundamental to grammar (SN: 12/4/05) and thus peculiar to people. But “this work shows that the capacity to represent recursive sequences is present in an animal that will never learn language,” says Stephen Ferrigno, a Harvard University psychologist. Recursion allows one to elaborate a sentence such as “This pandemic is awful” into “This pandemic, which has put so many people out of work, is awful, not to mention a health risk.” Ferrigno and colleagues tested recursion in both monkeys and humans. Ten U.S. adults recognized recursive symbol sequences on a nonverbal task and quickly applied that knowledge to novel sequences of items. To a lesser but still substantial extent, so did 50 U.S. preschoolers and 37 adult Tsimane’ villagers from Bolivia, who had no schooling in math or reading. Those results imply that an ability to grasp recursion must emerge early in life and doesn’t require formal education. Three rhesus monkeys lacked humans’ ease on the task. But after receiving extra training, two of those monkeys displayed recursive learning, Ferrigno’s group says. One of the two animals ended up, on average, more likely to form novel recursive sequences than about three-quarters of the preschoolers and roughly half of the Bolivian villagers. Monkeys’ greater difficulty learning recursive sequences, relative to people, fits a scenario in which “this ability is evolutionarily ancient and could have been a precursor to the development of human grammar,” Ferrigno says.
6-26-20 50 years ago, scientists first investigated antibiotic resistance in livestock
Excerpt from the June 27, 1970 issue of Science News. Most animal feeds contain antibiotics … to promote fast weight-gain in species raised for human food. However, these animals may harbor microorganisms that have developed a resistance to antibiotics, and some scientists fear that these resistant organisms may be passed on to human beings…. [The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has appointed a panel to review whether] antibiotic resistance in man is enhanced by long-term, low-level exposure from foods. The first hint that antibiotic-resistant bacteria in livestock can jump to humans came in 1976, when scientists found higher levels of such bacteria in the guts of farmers who fed antibiotics to chickens than in those farmers’ neighbors. In terms of the food supply, the FDA has detected varying levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat since monitoring began in 1996. Cooking should kill these bacteria, though some have been linked to illness in humans. Since 2013, the FDA has phased out the use of antibiotics for promoting growth in livestock.
6-26-20 Dolphins can learn from peers how to use shells as tools
The marine mammal learns how to hunt from mom, but not always, a study suggests. For some bottlenose dolphins, finding a meal may be about who you know. Dolphins often learn how to hunt from their mothers. But when it comes to at least one foraging trick, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia’s Shark Bay pick up the behavior from their peers, researchers argue in a report published online June 25 in Current Biology. While previous studies have suggested that dolphins learn from peers, this study is the first to quantify the importance of social networks over other factors, says Sonja Wild, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Konstanz in Germany. Cetaceans — dolphins, whales and porpoises — are known for using clever strategies to round up meals. Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) off Alaska sometimes use their fins and circular bubble nets to catch fish (SN: 10/15/19). At Shark Bay, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) use sea sponges to protect their beaks while rooting for food on the seafloor, a strategy the animals learn from their mothers (SN: 6/8/05). These Shark Bay dolphins also use a more unusual tool-based foraging method called shelling. A dolphin will trap underwater prey in a large sea snail shell, poke its beak into the shell’s opening, lift the shell above the water’s surface and shake the contents into its mouth. “It is pretty mind-blowing,” says Wild, who studied these dolphins as a graduate student at the University of Leeds in England. This brief behavior appears to be rare: From 2007 to 2018, Wild and colleagues documented 42 shelling events by 19 individual dolphins out of 5,278 dolphin group encounters in the western gulf of Shark Bay. The researchers analyzed the behavior of 310 dolphins, including 15 shellers, that had been seen at least 11 times. The dolphins’ network of social interactions explained shelling’s spread better than other factors, including genetic relatedness and the amount of environmental overlap between dolphins. Wild likens the proliferation of this behavior to the spread of a virus. “Just by spending time with each other, [dolphins] are more likely to transmit those behaviors,” she says. The researchers estimate that 57 percent of the dolphins that shell learned the skill via social transmission, rather than on their own.
6-25-20 Dolphins learn from peers to chase fish into shells and then eat them
Dolphins chase small fish into empty shells, then lift the shells to the surface and shake them until the water drains out and the fish hiding inside fall into their gaping jaws. It has now been shown for the first time that the marine mammals can learn this behaviour from their peers – not just from their mothers. The trick was first observed among Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) during surveys conducted between 2007 and 2018 by Sonja Wild, then at the University of Leeds, UK, and her colleagues. The researchers saw 19 dolphins from three maternal lineages do this trick – known as shelling – at the Dolphin Innovation Project’s field site in Shark Bay in Western Australia. “Dolphins normally learn foraging behaviour from their mothers,” says Wild. “But we found that shelling spreads among closely associated individuals outside the mother-calf bond.” The study shows for the first time that dolphins are able and motivated to learn from their peers, she says. It also highlights the similarities of dolphins to great apes such as chimpanzees, who learn tool use from peers. “Behavioural studies show that bottlenose dolphins have distinct personalities, self-awareness and complex social structures, with individuals co-operating and with new behaviours like shelling being passed from one dolphin to another,” says Séverine Methion at the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute in O Grove, Spain. “In a broad context, this transmission of information could be considered ‘culture’.” This ability to learn from others may help the dolphins adapt to changing environments, rapidly spreading new behaviours that allow them to forage when food becomes sparse, says Wild. The researchers saw shelling more frequently immediately after a heatwave, which Wild says could be because of an abundance of dead giant gastropods. “Shelling is only the second known case of foraging tool use in dolphins,” says Wild. Dolphins in the area also use sponges as tools, covering their beaks with them as they dig into the seabed to probe for prey.
6-25-20 Sled dogs are an ancient breed going back at least 10,000 years
The 9500-year-old remains of a dog found on a remote island off Siberia are remarkably similar to living sled dogs in Greenland, genome sequencing has revealed. The discovery shows that people bred dogs for pulling sleds more than 10,000 years ago. “We thought it would be a primitive dog, but it’s a long way down the path to domestication,” says Mikkel Sinding at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. “That was quite sensational.” Excavations of ancient human settlements on Zhokhov Island north of Siberia have revealed the remains of numerous dogs and what look like dog sleds. “It’s the first place in history where you have intense dog use,” Sinding says. His team sequenced the best-preserved dog found at Zhokhov, along with a 33,000-year-old Siberian wolf and 10 living sled dogs from different places in Greenland, and compared their genomes with each other and with other dog and wolf genomes. The results show that modern sled dogs in Greenland – whose ancestors were taken there by Inuit people around 850 years ago – are more closely related to the 9500-year-old Zhokhov dog than to other kinds of dogs or to wolves. “It’s largely the same dogs doing the same thing,” Sinding says. While the Zhokhov finds are the earliest clear evidence of dogs pulling sleds, ivory artefacts that may have been used to attach reins to sleds have been found elsewhere. Some are 12,000 years old. The genomes also show sled dogs haven’t acquired any DNA from wolves in the past 9500 years. “The modern wolf is not in them,” Sinding says. That is surprising because there are numerous reports of sled dogs mating with wolves in Greenland and of hybrids being born. This suggests that hybrids have undesirable characteristics and aren’t kept or allowed to mate with sled dogs, Sinding says.
6-25-20 Preventing a plague: Fighting Kenya's locusts
There are increasing fears for food security in East Africa, with mounting evidence of a new wave of desert locusts. Earlier in the year, billions of the insects destroyed crops across the region – with the UN warning a second generation would be even more destructive. Now, despite international efforts, those fears appear to be coming to pass. When the first wave hit, Albert Lemasulani gave up his life to fight the swarms - leaving his family, his goats and his newborn son behind to try and prevent a plague.
6-23-20 Coronavirus: Wildlife scientists examine the great 'human pause'
Researchers have launched an initiative to track wildlife before, during and after the coronavirus lockdown. The UK-led team's aim is to study what they have called the "anthropause" - the global-scale, temporary slowdown in human activity, which is likely to have a profound impact on other species. Measuring that impact, they say, will reveal ways in which we can "share our increasingly crowded planet". They outline the mission in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution. They outline "urgent steps" to allow scientists to learn as much as possible from the sudden absence of humans in many landscapes - including ensuring that researchers have access and permission to carry out their work, and can gain access to information about human movement, as well as animal-tracking data. Prof Christian Rutz from the University of St Andrews is president of the International Bio-logging Society. He pointed out that bio-loggers - small tracking devices fitted to animals in order to record their movements and other behaviour - have been collecting information in habitats all over the world throughout the pandemic. "There is a really valuable research opportunity here, one that's been brought about by the most tragic circumstances, but it's one we think we can't afford to miss," he told BBC News. Usually, studies which try to examine the impact of human presence and activity on wild animals are limited to comparing protected habitats to unprotected areas, or studying landscapes in the wake of a natural disaster. "But during lockdown we have this replicated around the globe - in different localities and for habitats where some species have been fitted with tracking devices the whole time," said Prof Rutz. There have been many accounts on social media of wildlife apparently making the most of our absence - moving freely through surprisingly urban settings. In some places though, the lack of human activity appears to have been detrimental - increases in poaching driven by poverty, and the absence of ecotourism. "No one's saying that humans should stay in lockdown permanently," added Prof Rutz. "But what if we see major impacts of our changes in road use, for example? We could use that to make small changes to our transport network that could have major benefits."
6-22-20 Bubble-blowing drones may one day aid artificial pollination
Flying machines could step in when bees and other insects are scarce, researchers say. Drones that blow pollen-laden bubbles onto blossoms could someday help farmers pollinate their crops. Rather than relying on bees and other pollinating insects — which are dwindling worldwide as a result of climate change (SN: 7/9/15), pesticide use (SN: 10/5/17) and other factors — farmers can spray or swab pollen onto crops themselves. But machine-blown plumes can waste many grains of pollen, and manually brushing pollen onto plants is labor-intensive. Materials chemist Eijiro Miyako of the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Nomi imagines outsourcing pollination to automatous drones that deliver pollen grains to individual flowers. His original idea involved a pollen-coated drone rubbing grains onto flowers, but that treatment damaged the blossoms (SN: 3/7/17). Then, while blowing bubbles with his son, Miyako realized that bubbles might be a gentler means of delivery. To that end, Miyako and his colleague Xi Yang, an environmental scientist also at JAIST, devised a pollen-containing solution that a drone toting a bubble gun could blow onto crops. To test the viability of their pollen-loaded bubbles, the researchers used this technique to pollinate by hand pear trees in an orchard. Those trees bore about as much fruit as trees pollinated using a traditional method of hand pollination, the researchers report online June 17 in iScience. Among various commercially available bubble solutions, Miyako and Yang found that pollen grains remained most healthy and viable in one made with lauramidopropyl betaine — a chemical used in cosmetics and personal care products. Using that solution as their base, the researchers added pollen-protecting ingredients, like calcium and potassium, along with a polymer to make the bubbles sturdy enough to withstand winds generated by drone propellers.
6-18-20 New evidence of virus risks from wildlife trade
Rats sold in the markets and restaurants of Southeast Asia harbour multiple coronaviruses, a study shows. The proportion of positives increased as live animals were moved from "field to fork", suggesting they were picking up viruses in the process. The strains detected are different from Covid-19 and are not thought to be dangerous to human health. But scientists have long warned that the wildlife trade can be an incubator for disease. The mixing of multiple coronaviruses, and their apparent amplification along the supply chain into restaurants, suggests "maximal risk for end consumers", said a team of researchers from the US and Vietnam. The origins of the current pandemic are thought to lie in the wildlife trade, with the disease emerging in bats and jumping to people via another, as yet unidentified, species. The new findings, regarded as preliminary, relate to rats, but may apply to other wildlife, such as civets and pangolins, which are also collected, transported and confined in large numbers. "While these aren't dangerous viruses they offer information on how viruses can be amplified under these conditions," said Sarah Olson of New York-based conservation group, WCS, which led the study alongside experts in Vietnam. Co-researcher, Amanda Fine, also of WCS, added: "Wildlife supply chains, and the conditions the animals experience while in the supply chain, appear to greatly amplify the prevalence of coronaviruses." Rats are a common food source in Vietnam, where they are captured in rice fields and transported to markets and restaurants, to be butchered as a fresh source of meat. The rodents are also raised in wildlife farms, along with other animals such as porcupines. Six known coronaviruses were detected in samples taken at 70 sites in Vietnam in 2013 and 2014. High proportions of positive samples were found in field rats destined for human consumption. The proportion of positives significantly increased along the supply chain:
6-17-20 There's a bird that tricks other animals into dropping their lunch
The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman explores how small monitoring devices are helping researchers get closer to birds than ever before to uncover hidden aspects of their lives. VISIT the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra and you may stumble upon an odd sight: a human figure, festooned with futuristic monitoring gear. When children poke it – which happens a lot – the statue blinks. Meet Jessica McLachlan, a researcher at Australian National University who is hard at work studying the fine, never-before-detected details of bird behaviour. The gear she wears is what it takes to observe the world as birds themselves see it. Bird brains are miracles of miniaturisation. Their neurons are smaller and more densely packed than ours, and differ architecturally too, creating a network of close connections. As a result, bird brains operate more quickly than ours. This means that in the bird world, things happen fast – sometimes too fast for us to see. Unless you film blue-capped cordon-bleus at 300 frames per second, for example, you will miss that they tap dance in time with their singing. Science and nature writer Jennifer Ackerman’s The Bird Way: A new look at how birds talk, work, play, parent and think is a fresh account of the world of birds, written to showcase the many marvels revealed by modern tracking and recording techniques. Such wonders were previously quite invisible to us. For example, by strapping tiny tracking backpacks to seabirds, we have discovered that they have a quite extraordinary sense of smell, following krill across apparently featureless horizons that are, for them, “elaborate landscapes of eddying odor plumes”. Ackerman has travelled far and talked to many, and is generous to a fault with her academic sources. Her descriptions of her visits, field trips and adventures are engaging, but never obtrusive.
6-17-20 Soap bubbles covered in pollen could help fertilise flowers
Soap bubbles that deliver pollen to flowers could offer an alternative way of fertilising plants as bee populations decline, while being more delicate than other methods. Eijiro Miyako at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and his colleagues developed the technique and successfully used it to pollinate a pear orchard. “I jumped for joy,” he says. Miyako and his team mixed pear pollen grains with a soap solution containing nutrients and loaded the mixture into a bubble gun. They then used the gun to release bubbles into a pear orchard, with about two to 10 bubbles hitting each flower, and later measured their success rate by counting the flowers that bore fruit. They found that pollination using their soap bubbles had a similar success rate to pollination of the plants by hand, with approximately 95 per cent of the flowers bearing fruit in both cases. Using soap bubbles is much less labour intensive than manually pollinating every flower, says Miyako. Soap bubbles are also much gentler and therefore less likely to damage delicate flowers, he says. Miyako says the idea first occurred to him when he was playing with soap bubbles in the park with his son. “A soap bubble accidentally hit my son’s face,” he says, where it harmlessly burst. The researchers also tested their soap bubble pollination technique on other plants on a smaller scale, in the lab. This time, they attempted to pollinate lily, azalea and campanula plants, using the gun to direct a single bubble onto individual flowers. The success rates were about 93, 83 and 73 per cent respectively, says Miyako. This variation may be explained by differences in flower sizes between these plants, he says. There is lots of interest in developing new approaches to fertilise flowers, because about 90 per cent of flowering plants depend on insect pollinators, such as bees, whose populations are falling due to climate change and pesticide use. “This is a worldwide crisis,” says Miyako.
6-16-20 Barn owlets share food with their younger siblings in exchange for grooming
Such cooperation is thought to be rare among the young of other birds. If ever there were a competition to rank sibling relationships in the animal kingdom, barn owls would be close to the top. That’s because elder barn owlets will sometimes give away their meal to their younger siblings. Such cooperative behavior has been reported in adult nonhuman primates and birds, but rarely among young (SN: 2/6/12). “I don’t know any other species where you can find it,” says Pauline Ducouret, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. But scientists weren’t sure what prompted the food sharing. Now, observations of nests show that elder barn owlets offer their food to their younger siblings in exchange for grooming, Ducouret and her colleagues report in the July issue of the American Naturalist. Barn owls (Tyto alba) raise six chicks at once, on average, and sometimes as many as nine (SN: 9/19/17). But not all chicks hatch at the same time, which means that elder chicks are usually healthier and larger than their younger brothers and sisters. That’s because all chicks are entirely dependent on the parents for food, and food, in this case, is usually a small rodent, like a vole or a shrew, that can’t be easily split. So at any given visit, mom or dad can feed only one chick at a time. In many bird species, the eldest siblings would simply outcompete the rest, but not barn owls. To understand the seeming generosity of the elder birds, Ducouret and her team observed 27 broods of barn owls across the Switzerland countryside. The scientists videotaped each brood for two consecutive days and nights to understand how the owlets interacted and attached a tiny microphone backpack to each chick to help identify individual calls.
6-16-20 A Bee C: Scientists translate honeybee queen duets
Scientists using highly sensitive vibration detectors have decoded honeybee queens' "tooting and quacking" duets in the hive. Worker bees make new queens by sealing eggs inside special cells with wax and feeding them royal jelly. The queens quack when ready to emerge - but if two are free at the same time, they will fight to the death. So when one hatches, its quacks turn to toots, telling the workers to keep the others - still quacking - captive. Dr Martin Bencsik, from Nottingham Trent University, who led this study, described the tooting and quacking of these "wonderful animals" as "extraordinary". "You can hear the queens responding to each other," he said. "It has been assumed that the queens were talking to other queens - possibly sizing one another up vocally to see who is strongest. "But we now have proof for the alternative explanation." Tooting, the researchers found, is a queen moving around the colony - announcing her presence to the workers. The quacking is from queens that are ready to come out but are still captive inside their cells. The queens are not talking to each other, explained Dr Bencsik, "it's communication between the queen and the worker bees - an entire society of tens of thousands of bees trying to release one queen at a time. "Quacking queens are purposefully kept captive by the worker bees - they will not release the quacking queens because they can hear the tooting. "When the tooting stops, that means the queen would have swarmed [split the colony and set out to find a new nest] and this triggers the colony to release a new queen." Dr Bencsik said bee society was "absolutely splendid" to observe. "All decisions are group decisions," he said. "It's the worker bees that decide if they want a new queen or not." Pollinating insects face numerous threats, including from pesticides, habitat loss and climate change. And Dr Bencsik pointed out that beekeepers - and the hives they provide - are crucial for honeybee survival in the UK. The researchers hope this eavesdropping exercise will help beekeepers avoid interfering with this delicate collective decision-making and to predict when their own colonies might be about to swarm.
6-15-20 Birds and other animals may see colours that we cannot even imagine
Birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish may see kinds of colours we can’t even imagine, say researchers whose experiments with wild hummingbirds show they perceive five so-called non-spectral colours. Almost all of the colours we perceive correspond to a single wavelength. Such colours are called spectral colours because they are part of the visible spectrum, ranging from red and yellow to blue and violet. The exception is purple, which can be evoked only by a combination of red and blue light, not by any single wavelength. For this reason, it is known as a non-spectral colour. “For us, purple is kind of special,” says Mary Caswell Stoddard at Princeton University. Our eyes have three kinds of cells, called cone cells, that detect red, green and blue light. We see purple when only the red and blue cones, but not the green cones, in our eyes are stimulated. Birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish also have an ultraviolet cone in their eyes. Stoddard thinks this means they might see five non-spectral colours. They may see “ultraviolet plus yellow”, for instance, when the ultraviolet, green and red cones, but not the blue cone, are stimulated. To test this idea, Stoddard’s team recorded how often wild hummingbirds visited feeders containing either plain or sugar water. The researchers assumed that the birds always prefer sugar water, but they moved the feeders around so that the only way the birds could distinguish between them was by looking at the colours emitted by a special light next to each feeder. The results show that hummingbirds can perceive five non-spectral colours: purple, ultraviolet plus green, ultraviolet plus red, ultraviolet plus yellow and ultraviolet plus purple. For instance, the birds had no trouble distinguishing ultraviolet plus green from either pure ultraviolet or pure green.
6-15-20 Larvaceans’ underwater ‘snot palaces’ boast elaborate plumbing
Secreted from the heads of tiny sea creatures, mucus homes are filtration marvels. Underwater laser scans have revealed new details of how sea creatures called giant larvaceans feed themselves by flapping a filmy tail inside a cloud of snot. But what a cloud it is. A giant larvacean produces an elaborate mucus home for itself that bioengineer Kakani Katija of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California on occasion calls a “snot palace.” The mucus marvels rise out of the heads of four species of spineless, roughly tadpole-shaped giant larvaceans living in the twilight depths of the bay. To study such fragile architecture, Katija and colleagues have been working on a robotic laser imaging system called DeepPIV. It detects water flows inside the mucus clouds and lets researchers figure out the palace’s inner 3-D structure. The newest reconstructions of flow suggest how inner ducts, chambers and valves, all made of mucus, help harvest bacteria and other suitable food particles from the normally weak soup of seawater, Katija and colleagues report June 3 in Nature. Frail, filmy animals like these “don’t lend themselves to traditional study methods,” says ecologist Kelly Sutherland, at the University of Oregon in Eugene, who was not involved in the research. Her lab also focuses on jellylike animals that “tend to fall apart as soon as you try to collect them.” Even some matters of basic biology in such creatures remain open questions. So devising ways to study a filmy species alive in its watery home is the way to move the science forward. In building those homes, larvaceans remind Katija a bit of spiders. Plenty of animals build homes and traps, but larvaceans and spiders are among the few that don’t collect building material or dig and sculpt soil. Instead, they secrete all their architecture.
6-13-20 Red pandas tracked by satellite in conservation 'milestone'
Conservationists are satellite tracking red pandas in the mountains of Nepal to find out more about the factors that are driving them towards extinction. The mammals are endangered, with numbers down to a few thousand in the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China. Ten red pandas have been fitted with GPS collars to monitor their range in the forests near Mount Kangchenjunga. The GPS collars are said to be working well and yielding "exciting data". The six females and four males are being tracked and photographed using camera traps in a conservation effort involving scientists, vets, government officials in Nepal and conservation group Red Panda Network. "This is a great milestone in red panda conservation", said Man Bahadur Khadka, director general of Nepal's department of forests and soil conservation. The 10 pandas have been named by local people as Paaru, Dolma, Chintapu, Mechhachha, Bhumo, Senehang, Ngima, Brian, Ninamma and Praladdevi. The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) was initially considered a relative of the raccoon because of its ringed tail, and was later thought to be related to bears. The species 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. The loss of the forests that provide shelter and a supply of bamboo for food is a big problem for the red panda. Conservationists in Nepal hope the study over the course of a year will give valuable data about how to better protect one of the last remaining populations.
6-12-20 Nature crisis: New global extinction target proposed
The world needs a single goal for fighting the loss of nature, much like the 1.5C target for climate change, according to conservation experts. Extinctions of plants and animals should be kept well below 20 per year, they propose. Last year, a UN report found that around one million species are now threatened with extinction. Progress on biodiversity loss has been "far too slow, limited or ineffective," said Prof Georgina Mace of UCL, London. Achieving the target should ensure that natural systems "continue to function and meet the needs of people and the rest of life on Earth", she said. The coronavirus pandemic has put the spotlight on the critical balance between nature and people. Scientists have long warned that close contact with wild animals through hunting, trade or habitat loss puts the world at increased risk of outbreaks of new diseases. Yet, the timetable for setting new global biodiversity goals has been thrown into disarray by the pandemic. Meanwhile, we are running out of time to deal with the threat, conservation scientists warned last week. They said human actions had pushed 500 mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians to the brink of extinction, which is yet more evidence that the world is undergoing a sixth mass extinction. In the new proposals, published in the journal Science, conservation experts in the UK and Germany call for a long-term goal to reduce species extinctions towards natural rates, with an easily measurable objective of fewer than 20 extinctions a year. This should apply to all known species of plants, animals and fungi, both on land and in the oceans, they say. Prof Richard Gregory from the RSPB/UCL described the target as a "North Star" for nature, "a bright, visible destination for global society to move towards so that we bend the curve of biodiversity loss from the top down, and bottom up, recovering species populations by protecting and restoring our vital ecosystems".
6-12-20 Bringing sea otters back to the Pacific coast pays off, but not for everyone
The predators bring benefits like tourism, but eat resources some indigenous communities rely on. Sea otters are staging a comeback along Canada’s North Pacific coast, but not everyone is happy about it. The disappearance of otters, once trapped for their fur, allowed their food supplies — sea urchins, crabs and clams — to flourish. Now, otters threaten to deplete these profitable invertebrate fisheries, which have sustained coastal indigenous communities. But a new analysis shows that the benefits of bringing back otters may outweigh those costs, researchers report June 11 in Science. With more otters and thus fewer kelp-grazing urchins, kelp forests can thrive, storing carbon and sheltering salmon, ling cod and other fishes. Plus, tourists will pay to snap photos of adorable otters snoozing on beds of kelp. In all, such increased sources of revenue could total $46 million Canadian dollars (equivalent to nearly $34 million in U.S. dollars on June 11) a year if sea otters fully recover along Canada’s Pacific coast, the study suggests. Sea otters, which can grow as big as a medium-sized dog, were common from the Baja Peninsula to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska until the fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries nearly wiped them out. As top predators in coastal ecosystems, these furry floaters gobble down a quarter of their body weight in urchins, crabs and clams each day. Safe from the capable paws of otters, urchins and other invertebrates ballooned along the Pacific coast, both in body size and number, enabling profitable invertebrate fisheries and sustaining many First Nations communities that rely on this resource for food. Since being reintroduced in the 1970s, this population of sea otters (Enhydra lutris) has grown from just thousands to about 150,000 by 2019, gradually reclaiming parts of their range and radically transforming these ecosystems. The otters’ resurgence comes at a significant cost — $7.3 million Canadian dollars a year — to the humans who depend on the otters’ prey, especially indigenous communities, which weren’t consulted in reintroduction plans. Rooted to the coasts they’ve inhabited for centuries, these communities, some of which are 50 kilometers from the nearest grocery store, can’t always easily shift to another source of food or business.
6-10-20 Hope for pangolins as protection boosted in China
Conservation groups have welcomed China's move to remove pangolins from the official list of traditional Chinese medicine treatments, saying this could be a "game changer". The news, reported by China's Health Times newspaper, comes after China raised the animal's protected status to the highest level last week. Pangolins have been pushed to the brink by illegal hunting for scales and meat. They are implicated in coronavirus, but the evidence is unclear. Conservation charities have welcomed the move to remove them from the official list of traditional Chinese medicines. Paul Thomson of Save Pangolins said it was a breakthrough moment. "China's move to phase out pangolin scales from traditional medicines could be the game changer we have been waiting for," he said. "We hope China's next move will be to enforce the regulations and work to change consumer behaviour." And Katheryn Wise of animal welfare campaign group, World Animal Protection, said it was "great news" that China had upgraded pangolins to the highest level of protection and removed them from the Chinese Pharmacopoeia. She called for this to be extended to all wild animals, "who, like pangolins, are poached from the wild and often placed in squalid, cramped cages, creating a lethal hotbed of disease". Pangolins are covered with a layer of scales, which are designed to protect them against predators. The scales are highly coveted by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, while pangolin meat is seen as a delicacy. China banned the consumption of live wild animals for food in the wake of the outbreak, but there are certain exemptions, such as for medicine or fur. Pangolins are in the spotlight as a possible animal host for coronavirus, but no direct link has been shown. Nicole Benjamin-Fink of Conservation Beyond Borders said that, whether pangolins served as the conduit for the coronavirus or not, it's time to halt the demand for the most trafficked mammals worldwide.
6-10-20 Pakistan locust plague: Locals collect insects for chicken feed
Chickens in Pakistan's Punjab province are feasting on tonnes of locusts, which have been collected by locals affected by the infestation. Prime Minister Imran Khan has endorsed the pilot project which pays people to bag the insects for chicken feed, as the country struggles to contain the most devastating swarms in 25 years. Collectors are trained on the best methods to catch the locusts, which is at night when they cluster to trees, and earn 20 rupees (12 cents) per kilogram. Although the initiative had to be paused in Punjab province because of funding issues, the government hopes to expand the project to other locations.
6-9-20 A nose-horned dragon lizard lost to science for over 100 years has been found
Indonesia’s Modigliani’s lizards are bright green but can shift shades like a chameleon. Nearly 130 years ago, Italian explorer Elio Modigliani arrived at a natural history museum in Genoa with a lizard he’d reportedly collected from the forests of Indonesia. Based on Modigliani’s specimen, the striking lizard — notable for a horn that protrudes from its nose — got its official taxonomic description and name, Harpesaurus modiglianii, in 1933. But no accounts of anyone finding another such lizard were ever recorded, until now. In June 2018, Chairunas Adha Putra, an independent wildlife biologist conducting a bird survey in a mountainous region surrounding Lake Toba in Indonesia’s North Sumatra, called herpetologist Thasun Amarasinghe. Near the lake, which fills the caldera of a supervolcano, Putra had found “a dead lizard with interesting morphological features, but he wasn’t sure what it was,” says Amarasinghe, who later asked the biologist to send the specimen to Jakarta. It took only a look at the lizard’s nose-horn for Amarasinghe to suspect that he was holding Modigliani’s lizard. “It is the only nose-horned lizard species found in North Sumatra,” he says. Wooden arts and folktales of the Bataks — indigenous people native to the region — show that lizards have a special place in the people’s mythology. “But simply there was no report at all about this species” following Modigliani’s, says Amarasinghe, of the University of Indonesia in Depok. He asked Putra to get back to the caldera to see if there was a living population. After five days, Putra found what he was looking for one evening, “lying on a low branch, probably sleeping,” according to the biologist. He took pictures of the lizard and measured the size and shape of its body parts, such as the length of its nose-horn and head. He also observed its behavior before finally releasing it the same night.
6-9-20 Hope for pangolins as protection boosted in China
China has removed pangolins from its official list of traditional Chinese medicine treatments, according to reports. The move, reported by China's Health Times newspaper, comes after China raised the animal's protected status to the highest level last week. The scaly mammals have been pushed to the brink by illegal hunting for their scales and meat. All eight species are threatened with extinction. Conservation charities have welcomed the move towards greater protection. Paul Thomson of Save Pangolins said it was a breakthrough moment for pangolins. "China's move to phase out pangolin scales from traditional medicines could be the game changer we have been waiting for," he said. "We hope China's next move will be to enforce the regulations and work to change consumer behaviour." And Katheryn Wise of animal welfare campaign group, World Animal Protection, said it was "great news" that China had upgraded pangolins to the highest level of protection and removed them from the Chinese Pharmacopoeia. She called for this to be extended to all wild animals, "who, like pangolins, are poached from the wild and often placed in squalid, cramped cages, creating a lethal hotbed of disease". Pangolins are covered with a layer of scales, which are designed to protect them against predators. The scales are highly coveted by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, while pangolin meat has been seen as a delicacy. China banned the consumption of live wild animals for food in the wake of the outbreak, but there are certain exemptions, such as for medicine or fur. Pangolins are in the spotlight as they have been found to carry strains of coronaviruses similar to Covid-19. Scientists are investigating whether trafficked pangolins might have played a role in the virus moving from animals to humans, but the evidence is unclear.
6-8-20 Fish poop exposes what eats the destructive crown-of-thorns starfish
Identifying predators of the coral polyp slurping starfish could be key to protecting reefs. Adorned with spikes and toxins, crown-of-thorns starfish aren’t an easy meal. In fact, it’s long been thought that few animals could eat them. But an analysis of fish poop and stomach contents from dozens of Great Barrier Reef species reveals a surprising number of fish able to gulp down these prickly prey, researchers report May 18 in Scientific Reports. That’s good news for coral reefs. Crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster cf. solaris) have an appetite for living coral polyps. As they crawl over the reef, the starfish liquefy polyps with digestive enzymes, sponging up the nutrients and leaving behind a coral skeleton. Since 1962, periodic starfish population booms on the Great Barrier Reef have caused widespread coral death. By identifying which fish species can stomach a thorny diet, the new study reveals a possible way to suppress crown-of-thorns outbreaks. Until now, the crown-of-thorns’ list of known natural predators was very short. Giant tritons (Charonia tritonis) — huge sea snails — were documented starfish slayers, injecting crown-of-thorns with venomous saliva and sanding down their spiny exterior with a rasping tongue. And while dozens of reef fish had been observed eating crown-of-thorns, most of these starfish were injured or dead. Yet occasional starfish population booms suggest something is normally eating live, healthy crown-of-thorns and keeping their numbers in check. So to find the mystery predators, Frederieke Kroon, a biologist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Townsville, looked to the guts and feces of reef fish for answers. “A colleague of mine at AIMS had developed the genetic marker for this crown-of-thorns species,” Kroons says, “which made me think to apply it to [fish’s] poo to identify crown-of-thorns DNA and thus potential crown-of-thorns predators.”
6-7-20 Discovering Colombia's rare flora and fauna
Colombia's tropical rainforests have been disappearing fast. Since the 2016 peace deal between the government and the Farc guerrillas much of the virgin jungle that was previously off-limits due to conflict has now been chopped down, destroying entire ecosystems. But now efforts are under way to save what's left. Earlier this year, and just before the coronavirus lockdown, I joined an expedition of top botanists from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London into previously unexplored rainforest in the Serrania de las Quinchas, as they searched for rare plant species, some of them unknown to science. Colombia is the second most bio-diverse country in the world after Brazil. It also has more bird species - 1,958 at latest count - than any other country. If there were a game of Top Trumps for hummingbirds then Colombia would win hands-down. With its mountains, jungles and rainforests, this large South American nation boasts some of the world's most colourful flora and fauna. Here is a small sample of what we saw. Travelling on horseback was the only way for me, being wheelchair-based, to get over the rough terrain. Conservationists are hoping this largely safe and unexplored part of Colombia could, with better access, become a prime destination for eco-tourism. We spent the night here, on hammocks and mattresses. The farmer who lives here alone is completely self-sufficient, rearing his own cattle and pigs but also growing a type of root vegetable for food, which the scientists say they had never seen before. The week before we arrived his son was bitten on the foot by a venomous fer-de-lance pit viper in the nearby forest. The farmer had to carry him on his back to the nearest road and they just got him to a hospital in time to save his leg from having to be amputated. A tiny and surprisingly tame bird that lives up to its name. Its beak here was stuffed with insects it had just caught. It was a familiar sight in the trees around the palm-thatch hut we slept in and one of the first birds to wake us up with the dawn chorus. (Note: nothing remarkable about this species, it was just rather pretty.)
6-5-20 Coronavirus lockdown wildlife recordings appeal
Scientists want people to send them their wildlife experiences under the coronavirus lockdown. They are keen to hear recordings of dawn choruses, animals in unusual places, and views of the night sky without pollution. The Earth Project is a global citizen science study co-ordinated by scientists across UK universities. It hopes to showcase how nature has capitalised on reduced human activity during the pandemic. The researchers want the public to help them capture a global representation of what we experienced on the ground during lockdown. "We are hoping to create a useful shared library of baseline experiences for the public, reminding us in the future of what life and our relationship with nature could be when global public mobility and many pollution-generating activities are reduced," explained Phil Manning from the University of Manchester. The team acknowledges that "significant sacrifices" will have to be made by everyone in order to reduce our impact on the planet's climate system, and to move towards the sustainable use of the Earth's natural resources. It is hoped that the positive experiences many people had with nature during lockdown, and the recollection of those experiences, will help build the case for behaviour changes to help shift us towards sustainability. During the lockdown, wildlife reclaiming the streets of towns and cities during lockdown have made headlines around the world. For example, goats that normally keep themselves to themselves in the hills surrounding Llandudno, Wales, ventured into the town's deserted streets. People have also reported that they have been able to hear birdsong more clearly without the constant hum of traffic. Prof Manning told BBC News that the recordings of birdsong, night skies and nature calls will be made available online for everyone to enjoy and to relive the better moments of life under lockdown. "The survey results will help provide an overview of people's observations and thoughts on the environment before, during and after lockdown," he observed. "The responses will be analysed and summarised and then made available along with the database on our website during the late Summer and Autumn of 2020." He said that it was hoped that the findings of the survey could encourage behaviour change and help shape policies and strategies that could deliver greener and sustainable lifestyles.
6-5-20 5 reasons you might be seeing more wildlife during the COVID-19 pandemic
People are spotting more animals, but not because there are more of them. Coyotes sauntering down the streets of San Francisco. Neighborhoods flooded with birdsong. Snakes slithering onto trails and sidewalks. And of course, the rats. Rats everywhere. Somehow, as COVID-19 forced us all into our homes, it also managed to bring nature a little bit closer. Sometimes — as in the case of rats — a little uncomfortably close. Newspapers have eagerly reported sightings of wildlife in the streets. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even issued guidelines to deal with an expected flood of rats. It’s easy to think that nature is sweeping into our ordered lives and taking over now. But numbers of rats or coyotes probably aren’t all that much higher than normal, and animals aren’t even necessarily going anywhere new. Instead, COVID-19 has changed the way we interact with the natural world. Here are five reasons that people might be running into more wildlife than before.
- Human handouts are scarce: Restaurants are closed, and dumpsters usually filled with trash lie empty. That might be forcing rats out into the open to search for food.
- Scary humans aren’t around as much: Every animal exists in a landscape of fear — trying to get what they need while avoiding areas where predators might be lurking, says ecologist John Laundre. Those predators include humans.
- It’s nice and quiet: Not all animals fear us. “We can see a lot of birds flying around and coming to our feeders,” Laundre notes. “They know humans are safe.”
- Spring has sprung: If the birds seem especially musical, Bravo explains, it’s because they are. COVID-19 happened to hit the Northern Hemisphere at a critical time. “March, April and May are the spring migration months in the Northern Hemisphere,” he says.
- We’re finally paying attention: But the snakes themselves never changed. “These snakes have always been right next to us,” Steen says. “We’ve been living with these animals [for] so long. We just happen to see them more often [now].”
6-5-20 A #BlackBirdersWeek cofounder aims to amplify black nature enthusiasts
Wildlife biologist Danielle Belleny hopes to raise the profile of black birders in a hobby often stereotyped as white. A black youngster grins widely while holding a falcon bigger than his head. Beside a beaver pond, a black ecologist in waders inspects a sediment core sampler. A bat wriggles in the hands of a black evolutionary biologist doing fieldwork in Belize. These photos and hundreds more bird facts, questions and experiences are flooding social media as part of #BlackBirdersWeek, an initiative aimed at recognizing and uplifting black birders and nature enthusiasts. The social media campaign runs May 31 through June 5 and includes Q&A sessions, a Facebook livestream discussion of Birding While Black, and prompts for sharing photos on Twitter and Instagram of birds and being out enjoying nature. #BlackBirdersWeek comes amid nationwide protests against the deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and many other black people at the hands of the police. The protests have elevated the importance and urgency of the campaign for its founders, @BlackAFinSTEM, a Twitter-based group of black individuals who work in science or related fields. They began planning #BlackBirdersWeek in the wake of an incident on May 25 — the same day George Floyd was killed — in which Christian Cooper, a black birder, asked a white woman in New York City’s Central Park to follow park rules on leashing dogs. The woman refused, eventually yelling that she was calling the police “to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” Cooper’s experience resonated with other black birders. “What happened to him could have happened to any of us,” says Danielle Belleny, a wildlife biologist in San Antonio, Texas, and a cofounder of #BlackBirdersWeek.