11-28-20 Invasive quagga mussel found at Rutland Water and River Trent
An invasive non-native species of mussel that can harm wildlife and cause water pipe blockages has been discovered in the East Midlands. The Environment Agency said quagga mussels had been found at Rutland Water and the River Trent in Lincolnshire. Anglers and other waterway users have been asked to help stop the species spreading by checking, cleaning and drying their equipment. Officials are also checking other rivers in the region. The Environment Agency said quagga mussels, which originated in Ukraine, were first recorded in the UK in the River Thames near Heathrow Airport in 2014. The molluscs form large colonies on hard surfaces, which can block pipes, and disrupt marine ecosystems by outcompeting native mussels. It is not yet known how they came to be in the East Midlands. The agency said while the mussels "do not pose any immediate direct threat to water quality, animals or people, they do spread rapidly and can block pipes and water-based assets, resulting in significant future maintenance costs". Area environment manager Geoff Craig said: "Unfortunately, further spread of the quagga mussels is highly likely, but we can slow down the spread. "We urge all water users in the affected areas to follow the required bio-security procedures of 'check, clean, dry' whenever working or engaging in leisure activities in or near the water." The Environment Agency said it was also working with Anglian Water, which manages Rutland Water, and the GB Non-Native Species Secretariat "to agree an appropriate bio-security response".
11-28-20 Surprise discovery of rare plant at Norfolk 'ghost pond'
A rare plant has reappeared after more than a century in hiding. The pinkish-flowered plant, known as grass-poly, was found growing on the banks of an old farmland pond in Norfolk. The mystery species "came back from the dead" after seeds submerged in the mud were disturbed during work to restore the pond. And scientists say conservation efforts could lead to the return of other long-forgotten botanical gems. Carl Sayer, a professor at University College London (UCL), stumbled on the plant when he went to survey the pond at Heydon shortly after the first national lockdown ended. Having never seen anything like it before, he quickly snapped a picture, which he sent to local botanist Dr Jo Parmenter. She identified it as grass-poly, one of the rarest plants in the UK. "It's really quite beautiful," says Prof Sayer. "We only found a handful of these plants in the pond but we're hoping to cultivate this population and keep it going and expand it now we know it's there." Dr Jo Parmenter was thrilled to see the photo of the plant. "I never ever expected to see it in Norfolk; it was quite extraordinary," she says. "I saw a photo and straight away I thought, I know what you are." The last confirmed record for grass-poly (Lythrum hyssopifolia) in Norfolk dates to more than a century ago. Elsewhere in the UK, the plant is found in a few isolated populations growing around lakes and on muddy open ground. At Heydon, the seeds of the plant remained buried in the mud, like a "time capsule". When willows were pulled out to restore the pond, this disturbed the soil and let in light, allowing the seeds to germinate. "There's no oxygen, it's very dark, and it's perfect for preserving seeds," says Prof Sayer, who is part of UCL's Pond Restoration Research Group. The discovery shows plants believed extinct can be brought "back to life" with good conservation, he added.
11-26-20 WWF vows to 'do more' after human rights abuse reports
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has vowed to "do more" after an internal investigation prompted by human rights abuse reports. The probe comes after a series of articles published last year by BuzzFeed News. These accused the WWF of funding and working with anti-poaching guards who allegedly tortured and killed people in national parks in Asia and Africa. "We feel deep and unreserved sorrow for those who have suffered," the WWF said. A 160-page report released on Tuesday said the charity "should have been more transparent" and needed to "more firmly engage governments to uphold human rights". But some accused the WWF of a "lack of contrition" after the report's publication, and have demanded apologies and a change in how the charity is run. Last March, BuzzFeed published a series of articles accusing the WWF of funding "vicious paramilitary forces to fight poaching". Indigenous people and villagers had been shot, beaten unconscious, sexually assaulted, and whipped by armed guards in parks in places like Nepal and Cameroon, the news site said. The conservation charity funds, equips and works with these guards, the report said, accusing some staff of turning a blind eye to abuses. BuzzFeed said it carried out a year-long investigation in six countries, based on more than 100 interviews and thousands of pages of documents, including confidential memos, internal budgets, and emails discussing weapons purchases. After the publication of the Buzzfeed report the WWF commissioned an independent review into the allegations, vowing to complete it as soon as possible. Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay led the panel of independent experts. The panel said there was no evidence the WWF staff directed or took part in any of these alleged abuses, and that those accused of abuses were employed by local governments and not by the conservation group. But the report criticised the WWF's response to allegations of abuses, particularly in terms of how it worked with local governments and how it handled complaints.
11-26-20 Endangered animals threatened by pandemic as ecotourists stay home
The coronavirus pandemic initially looked like a blessing for wildlife, with fewer vehicles in national parks and birds broadcasting song over greater distances. But the rumble of warnings about covid-19’s impact on ecotourism, and the conservation efforts it funds, has built into a roar. Kenya, one of Africa’s top destinations for safaris, has been hit particularly hard. “We’ve had quite a dramatic impact,” says Drew McVey at WWF Kenya. The group found a 75 per cent decline in bookings reported by 90 per cent of the country’s ecotourism operators, as international travellers cancelled trips in the face of coronavirus restrictions and concerns. Ecotourism is vital in the wider East Africa region, which includes Tanzania, home to one of the world’s biggest annual animal migrations. Protected wildlife areas across the whole region generate $48 billion a year through tourism, according to WWF. The Kenya Wildlife Service, which plays a crucial role in fighting the illegal wildlife trade in ivory, rhino horn and more, is funded by ecotourism revenues. It has seen one of the steepest declines in revenue, down 92 per cent. One of the country’s most famous community conservation schemes, the Mara Conservancy, has lost more than $5 million in revenue this year due to cancelled tourism bookings. The huge declines have seen some tourism camps in reserves and conservancies close permanently, while others have gone dormant by temporarily laying off staff. “It means we just do the basics to keep our heads above water,” says McVey. In Kenya, the hit to the jobs and revenues that normally flow from ecotourism projects to nearby villages and communities has yet to manifest itself in the form of more human-wildlife conflict. However, tolerance for such conflict has decreased. “Before [covid-19], if you lost a bit of crop to a raiding elephant or a lion ate a cow, that knocked your pocket but you could get through. Now it [could mean] your child not going to school,” says McVey.
11-26-20 Birds that rapidly moult feathers are more likely to become flightless
From ostriches to kakapo parrots to flightless ducks, birds have lost the ability to fly many times. But some groups of birds end up grounded more often than others, and now it seems that those that moult feathers from both wings at once may be predisposed to evolving flightlessness. Ryan Terrill at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, was fascinated by moulting, the process by which birds shed and replace old feathers. As a graduate student at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, he was thinking about flightless grebes while conducting fieldwork in Bolivia and realised that every member of the waterbirds’ lineage – including the flying species – had something in common: both wings moulted at the same time. He also noticed that this trait seemed especially prevalent among waterfowl like ducks, geese and rails. These are bird families that have produced a large proportion of the world’s flightless species. “I realised they were all in those families that have simultaneous wing moult, which is really rare,” says Terrill, adding that only 3 per cent of bird species shed both sets of wing feathers at the same time. Curious if this meant they were somehow predisposed to becoming flightless, Terrill tested if the pattern held across thousands of species of birds. He developed evolutionary trees that included both living flightless and flying birds, and many flightless birds that became extinct in recent millennia. Much of the global flightless bird diversity has been lost to hunting by humans. “We tend to think of [flightless birds] as kind of weird freaks, but the fossil evidence suggests that there used to be a lot of them,” says Terrill. Before people settled on islands throughout the Pacific, the region was probably home to thousands of flightless rail species, he says. Terrill used computer simulations to estimate how quickly and readily flightlessness evolved in bird groups with and without simultaneous wing moult.
11-25-20 Wasps in Australia are endangering planes by building nests on them
Keyhole wasps are notorious for building their nests in manufactured structures, and they have now been shown to do this in devices mounted to planes that are crucial for measuring airspeed during flight. Blockages in these tubes can lead to pilots misreading airspeed and have led to fatal crashes in the past. Alan House at consulting firm Eco Logical Australia and his colleagues have studied the behaviour of keyhole wasps (Pachodynerus nasidens) at Brisbane Airport over three years. The team found that the wasps readily build nests in pitot probes, tube-like instruments often mounted beneath the cockpit on the exterior of an aircraft. The research was triggered by several safety incidents involving the wasps, including one in which a plane had to land again soon after departing because the pilots recognised an airspeed discrepancy, says House. “It’s not a Mayday emergency but it’s the next level down, and it closes the runways,” says House. A blocked pitot probe was found to be the culprit in that case. To identify what might be responsible for these blockages, the team 3D-printed replica pitot probes and set them up at four locations across Brisbane Airport for 39 months. Three panels were mounted in each location, each with up to six styles of probe, including those found on Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s and A330s. The researchers checked the probes 49 times between February 2016 and April 2019, replacing them whenever they found a blockage. They found that 93 probes became fully blocked during that period, all by nests made by keyhole wasps. The wasps preferred probes wider than 3 millimetres in diameter and they built nearly all their nests between November and May. In South and Central America, where the keyhole wasp is a native species, it is known to build its nest in cavities including keyholes and electrical sockets. “It’s quite famous for the plasticity of its nesting behaviour,” says House.
11-25-20 Mosquitoes carry more malaria parasites depending on when they bite
When a malaria-infected bird is bitten by mosquitoes over the course of 3 hours, the first insects to feed end up carrying fewer malaria parasites than those that feed later – and the same may apply when infected people are bitten. Malaria is caused by microbes of the Plasmodium group. It can cause fever and vomiting and in extreme cases can be fatal: the disease killed nearly 400,000 people in 2018 alone. Malaria usually spreads when mosquitoes drink the blood of an infected person. This is because the Plasmodium parasites are in the digested blood and can later be transferred to an uninfected person that the mosquito goes on to bite. But some mosquito bites appear to be more likely to lead to infection than others, says Romain Pigeault at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. To investigate, Pigeault and his colleagues exposed the legs of malaria-infected Atlantic canaries (Serinus canaria) to 100 young, hungry Culex pipiens mosquitoes for 3 hours. Each time a mosquito fed on a bird’s leg, the researchers trapped the insect and either froze it immediately in liquid nitrogen or held it, alive, in isolation for a week. They then dissected the digestive tracts of each mosquito to quantify parasite loads. The birds, meanwhile, were treated and released into large, enriched aviaries where they “live a very good, comfortable life”, Pigeault says. The researchers discovered similar numbers of Plasmodium parasites inside all of the immediately frozen mosquitoes. The researchers discovered similar numbers of Plasmodium parasites inside all of the immediately frozen mosquitoes. In other words, whether a mosquito bit an infected canary 5 minutes or 175 minutes into the 3-hour window, it ended up swallowing a similar number of malaria-causing parasites.
11-25-20 Mineral body armor helps some leaf-cutting ants win fights with bigger kin
A species of leaf-cutting ant has a tough layer of calcite on its exoskeleton, experiments show. Leaf-cutting worker ants might look like they’d be helpless against an enemy soldier ant many times their size. But some of the smaller ants have a secret: Their entire body is coated with a thin but tough layer of mineral armor. It’s the first time that this type of external, whole-body mineralization has been found in an adult insect, researchers report online November 24 in Nature Communications. “I found rock ants,” evolutionary biologist Hongjie Li recalls telling his colleague, evolutionary biologist Cameron Currie, when the first experimental results of the hard coating came in. “I can still feel the excitement now,” Li says. The discovery was serendipitous, says Currie, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who has been studying leaf-cutting ants for more than 20 years. His lab had been examining interactions between ants and their external microbes, which are thought to play a pivotal role in the ants’ farming practices (SN: 4/23/20), when the team encountered a white sheen on the exoskeletons of Acromyrmex echinatior worker ants. That coating needed to come off so the researchers could examine the structure of the exoskeleton in greater detail. So Currie tasked Li, then a postdoctoral student in Currie’s lab who’s now at Ningbo University in China, with removing it. But nothing seemed to work, suggesting the coating wasn’t a wax or other carbon-based compound. Then, while brushing his teeth, Li had an epiphany: mouthwash. It helps remove all sorts of food residue without harming the tongue, and can dissolve mineral deposits on teeth, so Li decided to give the liquid a try. The mouthwash did the trick, and also gave the team its first clue that the coating was mineral in nature. Further chemical, X-ray and microscopic examinations revealed a thin layer of calcite containing high levels of magnesium.
11-24-20 The meat of protected African animals is being sold in Belgium
The meat of several protected African animals is being illegally imported into and sold in Belgium. Sophie Gombeer at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and her colleagues have identified wild animal meat, also known as bushmeat, being sold in several markets in Brussels. They identified the meat of three species listed as protected according to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora: the red-tailed monkey, De Brazza’s monkey and a species of small antelope called the blue duiker. Under European Union law, importing wild meat products is illegal without specific authorisation. In 2017 and 2018, the research team visited five vendors and purchased a total of 15 pieces of bushmeat. According to the vendors, the meat originated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It wasn’t directly advertised, but available on request, at a price of €40 per kilogram. The team used DNA sequencing to identify the species that the meat came from. In addition to the three CITES-listed species, the other meat came from species including the greater cane rat and domestic cattle, which had been erroneously sold as African buffalo. The researchers had heard anecdotal reports of bushmeat being imported into Brussels, but existing research was scant. “Because there is no [existing] data, it’s easy to ignore the problem,” says Gombeer. “We really wanted to show that it is there – that it is available in Brussels.” To better understand the drivers of bushmeat consumption, the team also interviewed expatriates from seven African countries who had been living in Belgium for the past 10 years. Of the 16 participants, 15 said they often imported African food items, including bushmeat, primarily driven by a desire to stay connected to their countries of origin.
11-24-20 Call for coronavirus screening at mink farms
Mink at all fur farms should be routinely screened for coronavirus, according to a leading scientist. A mandatory surveillance programme is urgently needed, with Denmark, which is culling all mink, acting as a warning, said Prof Marion Koopmans. She pointed to a "major concern" that the virus could spread to wildlife via escaped mink. And there were questions over whether mink played a role in the origins of Sars-CoV-2, she said. Writing in The Lancet journal, Prof Koopmans, who has been leading investigations into cases in mink in the Netherlands, highlighted the risk of escaped mink transmitting the virus to other wildlife. Speaking to BBC News, the head of the Erasmus MC Department of Viroscience said mandatory early warning screening for mink was already in place in The Netherlands, which should be made mandatory worldwide. While human cases seen in mink farmers "are not a major public health risk", it is crucial to learn lessons from the pandemic, Prof Koopmans added. "Animals and animal farms are an important source of food and income for many, but there are risks associated with large scale animal production and the increasing demand does require reflection," she said. "This is not to point fingers to the animal sector, this is a joint responsibility for public health and citizens. There is no large-scale farming without large scale consumer demand. "This is part of a much larger sustainability agenda. I really hope that is what we will retain from this pandemic: the need to seriously look at more sustainable production systems for the future." According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Solna, Sweden, Europe has an estimated 2,750 mink farms and produces more than 27 million pelts per year. Denmark is culling an estimated 17 million mink, over fears the virus is mutating. Infections have also been detected in mink in France, Spain, Sweden, Italy, the US and Greece, as well as the Netherlands, which will now ban fur farming by March 2021.
11-24-20 Bottlenose dolphins may control their heart rates to avoid the bends
Dolphins seem to adjust their heart rates as they dive to avoid decompression sickness, also known as the bends, which is caused by sudden changes in pressure. Human divers must avoid surfacing too quickly as the drop in pressure can force nitrogen bubbles into their airways and cause joint pain or even paralysis. It was thought that marine mammals such as dolphins didn’t have this problem, says Andreas Fahlman at the Oceanographic Foundation in Valencia, Spain, but researchers have recently been reassessing this idea. To test it, Fahlman and his colleagues trained captive bottlenose dolphins to take short or long dives on command. They measured the animals’ heart rates using electrocardiography and found that they slow their hearts just before diving underwater. When preparing for a long dive, the dolphins reduced their heart rate more quickly and to a lower rate than when they were about to take a shorter dive. This conserves more oxygen and reduces decompression sickness by limiting nitrogen intake. Fahlman says this is probably a conscious rather than automatic response: the dolphins are controlling their heart rate by deflating part of their lungs to let blood or air flow to areas under pressure. “They are controlling how much blood is sent to the lungs and where in the lungs it’s sent to avoid nitrogen uptake,” he says. “They can basically step on and off the gas pedal when they want to.” Stress from noises like sonar or machinery used for oil exploration may interfere with this conscious control of heart rate, says Fahlman, possibly increasing the chances of a dolphin getting the bends. By learning more about dolphins’ physiology, we might be able to find ways to mitigate these problems, he says.
11-24-20 A face mask may turn up a male wrinkle-faced bat’s sex appeal
When flirting, wrinkle-faced bats raise their own movable furry face coverings. For tips on how to flirt while wearing a mask, take notes from nature’s experts: male wrinkle-faced bats. The first video of a wrinkle-faced sexual encounter shows a male covering his face with a masklike flap of skin while wooing and then, at a strategic moment, dropping the mask. Even the basics of how bats mate — whether a male stakes out territory and advertises, or females just shop among a crowd of show-offs — remain a mystery in more than 90 percent of the world’s 1,400 bat species, says mammologist Bernal Rodríguez-Herrera of the University of Costa Rica in San José. So it was a stroke of luck when a tip from nature guides in 2018 led him to the first scientific observations of courtship in one of the more elusive bats in the Western hemisphere’s tropics, the wrinkle-faced bat, Centurio senex. Males, but not females, grow loose folds of mostly white fur below the chin that look like a pulled-down neck gaiter. A male can use his skinny thumbs to tug the fur flap up over his chin and mouth. It doesn’t seem likely that only males would need covers for chilly chins. Single-sex excesses often are for showing off, like peacock feathers fanned out in competition for female favor (SN: 6/16/15). Now a lucky first look at wrinkle-faced courtship suggests that the masks somehow play into a wooing competition, Rodríguez-Herrera and colleagues report November 11 in PLOS ONE. For weeks, researchers watched male bats convene in the forest from about 6 p.m. until midnight, hanging upside down in particular spots with their masks on. Other bats occasionally flapped close briefly, but researchers couldn’t tell why. The dangling males, it turned out, were singing. Human hearing picks up lots of tropical night sounds, such as the calls of frogs and owls, but not bats. Bat-recording instruments, however, revealed a great roaring ultrasonic bat songs. The sounds dipped into the range of human hearing only when a flyby visitor made a quick intrusion. The males also “move the tips of the wings, constantly,” he says. He can’t tell if the wing rustling contributes any sound, but “we think it’s part of the courtship display.
11-23-20 Bumblebees can fly sideways to fit through tight gaps
Bumblebees change their flight patterns differently when they have to pass through a tight space based on their size, indicating that they have some idea of their own size and shape despite their simple nervous systems. To test whether bees are aware of their size, Sridhar Ravi at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and his colleagues connected four hives to tunnels through which buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) had to fly in order to reach food. They then placed a wall in the middle of the tunnel, partially blocking it off but leaving a gap for the bees to slip through. As the bees flew up to the wall, they flitted back and forth to get a better look at the gap and then tilted themselves over to get through without smashing their wings into the wall. The researchers observed 400 flights by the bees and found the amount that they tilted depended on the relative sizes of the gap and the bees – large bees going through small gaps even flew through on their sides. “It’s not that they have a sense of self or would recognise themselves in the mirror, but they do seem to have a better sense of their own size and shape than we thought,” says Stacey Combes at the University of California, Davis. This is similar to how people and animals with more complex brains perceive the world, says William Warren at Brown University in Rhode Island. “When you look at a gap you need to walk through, you calibrate that information to your own body size. This emphasises that there’s a kind of universality in how we perceive the world, from insects to humans.” It may seem like a no-brainer, but this is actually a surprisingly complex calculation for a simple animal to be capable of, says Combes. “Kids are sometimes scared to be in the bathtub when you open up the drain because they’re scared to go down the drain,” she says. “If human toddlers don’t have that understanding of how big they are compared to the world around them, it’s surprising that bees do.”
11-23-20 Earless moths have acoustic camouflage that protects them from bats
Earless moths have sound-absorbent wings that act as acoustic camouflage from preying bats. The moth wings have an ultrathin layer of scales that absorb sound and could be adapted for noise-cancelling technology. Marc Holderied at the University of Bristol, UK, and his colleagues projected sound waves at the wings of two species of earless moths (Antheraea pernyi and Dactyloceras Lucina). They found that the sound waves that bounced back from the moth wings were much quieter. By using an imaging technique called acoustic topography, the team found that these moth wings have a layer of scales that are arranged in a special repeating pattern that absorbs sound across a wide range of frequencies. “Similar to how stealth bombers are less detectable by enemy radars, the moths have developed a stealth coating against the bat’s sonar,” says Holderied. The moth wings, which are around a tenth of a millimetre thick, absorb the specific sound waves produced by bats. Bats interpret their surroundings using echolocation: they send out sound waves and when the sound hits an object, an echo is produced. The bats use these echoes to build an image of their environment. Because the earless moths’ wings absorb these sound waves, they remain largely undetected, improving their chances of survival. Other moths have ultrasensitive ears to hear bats, but the deaf, earless moths rely on this sound-absorbent layer to evade their predators. Holderied and his team also compared the earless moths with two species of butterflies and found that only the moths had the sound-absorbing quality. Although these wings only absorb sound heard by bats, it could be adapted for human sound frequencies, says Akito Kawahara at the Florida Museum of Natural History. This could prove useful in applications such as sound absorber panels and noise-cancelling earphones.
11-23-20 Tiny worm sacrifices itself to make milk for its hatching offspring
A MICROSCOPIC worm that has been studied by biologists for decades has been hiding a secret: it can make milk to feed its young – and it does so in a way that supports the idea that ageing is programmed by evolution, rather than simply being an accident. The nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans is used in many biological studies every year but David Gems at University College London and his colleagues are the first to notice that the worms, some of which are egg-laying hermaphrodites, leave smears of brown liquid in their wake after depositing eggs. The liquid came out of the worms’ vulvas, the orifice through which they lay eggs, and contains yolk protein. Experiments showed that the offspring consumed the liquid and grew better as a result. Gems and his colleagues say it serves the same function as mammalian milk. They propose calling it “yolk milk”. “We had no idea that C. elegans, has this primitive form of lactation,” says Marina Ezcurra at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. True milk is unique to mammals. However, other animals, from spiders to pigeons, secrete nutritious liquids for their young. The C. elegans milk production was triggered by a biochemical pathway called the insulin-like signalling pathway, which is known to promote ageing in many species. Gems and his colleagues argue that, after laying hundreds of eggs in a few days, C. elegans adults sacrifice themselves by breaking down their bodies to make yolk milk. The implication, they say, is that this form of ageing has been favoured by evolution, because it allows parents to support their young. “What this paper is saying is: ‘ageing has a biological purpose’,” says Ezcurra.
11-23-20 Call for coronavirus screening at mink farms
Mink at all fur farms should be routinely screened for coronavirus, according to a leading scientist. A mandatory surveillance programme is urgently needed, with the situation in Denmark acting as a warning, said Prof Marion Koopmans. There was "major concern" that the virus could spread to wildlife via escaped mink, she said. And there were questions over whether mink played a role in the origins of Sars-CoV-2, she added. Writing in The Lancet journal, Prof Koopmans, who has been leading investigations into cases in mink in the Netherlands, said there is a risk of escaped mink transmitting the virus to other wildlife. Speaking to BBC News, the head of the Erasmus MC Department of Viroscience, said mandatory early warning screening for mink was already in place in The Netherlands, which should be made mandatory worldwide. And while human cases seen in mink farmers "are not a major public health risk", it is crucial to learn lessons from the pandemic. "Animals and animal farms are an important source of food and income for many, but there are risks associated with large scale animal production and the increasing demand does require reflection," she said. "This is not to point fingers to the animal sector, this is a joint responsibility for public health and citizens. There is no large-scale farming without large scale consumer demand. This is part of a much larger sustainability agenda. I really hope that is what we will retain from this pandemic: the need to seriously look at more sustainable production systems for the future." Mink appear particularly susceptible to Sars-CoV-2, which can spread rapidly in farms. Infections have been detected in France, Spain, Sweden, Italy, the US, Greece and the Netherlands, which will now ban fur farming by March 2021. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Europe has an estimated 2,750 mink farms and produces more than 27 million pelts per year. Sars-CoV-2 has the potential to infect a range of farmed and wild mammals, with opportunities for the virus to mutate, said Prof Christine Kreuder Johnson of the school of veterinary medicine at the University of California.
11-23-20 Fur industry faces uncertain future due to Covid
Europe's fur industry is back in the spotlight after Denmark's mass culling of millions of mink following an outbreak of coronavirus at farms in the country. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced that all mink would be slaughtered. Denmark is the world's biggest mink producer, farming up to 17 million of the animals, and Covid has swept through a quarter of its 1,000 mink farms. Officials say this "reservoir" of disease poses a significant health risk for humans, and worry that mutations detected in mink-related strains of the virus might compromise a future vaccine. But images of mink mass graves and farmers in tears were followed by outcry after the government admitted its order had no legal basis. The agriculture minister has since resigned. On Saturday hundreds of tractors drove into central Copenhagen to protest about the handling of the crisis. There have also been protests in the cities of Aalborg and Aarhus. The proposed ban on mink farming until 2022 now has parliamentary backing but negotiations over compensation are dragging out. Authorities say all 288 infected herds have been killed and they have put down approximately 10 million animals. It is believed the majority of remaining mink on farms where no infection was detected have also been killed. In a short while, Denmark's fur industry has almost been wiped out. Around 6,000 jobs are at risk. "It is a de facto permanent closure and liquidation of the fur industry," said Danish Mink Breeders Association chairman Tage Pedersen in a statement. "This affects not only the mink breeders, but entire communities." Mink farmer Per Thyrrestrup doubts business will ever come back: "To have the same quality of the skins, to have the same colour - it's going to be 15 to 20 years before that's possible." The world's largest fur auction house, Kopenhagen Fur, has also announced a "controlled shutdown" over two to three years until this season's pelts and older stockpiles are sold. Thousands of buyers, mostly from China, once flocked to auctions held in the Danish capital. It has been a giant in the business, trading 25 million Danish and foreign furs last year. But even before the pandemic struck, there were signs it was struggling.
11-21-20 These plants seem like they’re trying to hide from people
A plant used in Chinese traditional medicine has evolved camouflage in heavily harvested areas. Fritillaria plants should be simple to spot. The usually bright green plants often stand alone amid the jumbled scree that tops the Himalayan and Hengduan mountains in southwestern China — easy pickings for traditional Chinese medicine herbalists, who’ve ground the bulbs of wild Fritillaria into a popular cough-treating powder for more than 2,000 years. The demand for bulbs is intense, since about 3,500 of them are needed to produce just one kilogram of the powder, worth about $480. But some Fritillaria are remarkably difficult to find, with living leaves and stems that are barely distinguishable from the gray or brown rocky background. Surprisingly, this plant camouflage seems to have evolved in response to people. Fritillaria delavayi from regions that experience greater harvesting pressure are more camouflaged than those from less harvested areas, researchers report November 20 in Current Biology. The new study “is quite convincing,” says Julien Renoult, an evolutionary biologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Montpellier who wasn’t involved in the study. “It’s a nice first step toward demonstrating that humans seem to be driving the very rapid evolution of camouflage in this species.” Camouflaged plants are rare, but not unheard of, says Yang Niu, a botanist at the Kunming Institute of Botany in China, who studies cryptic coloration in plants. In wide open areas with little cover, like mountaintops, blending in can help plants avoid hungry herbivores (SN: 4/29/14). But after five years of studying camouflage in Fritillaria, Niu found few bite marks on leaves, and he did not spot any animals munching on the plants. “They don’t seem to have natural enemies,” he says.
11-20-20 Global map of bees created in conservation first
Scientists have mapped the distribution of all 20,000 bee species on earth. The new global map of bees will help in the conservation of the insects we rely on to pollinate our crops, say researchers in Singapore and China. Bee populations are facing pressure from habitat loss and the use of pesticides. Yet little is known about the array of species living on every continent save Antarctica, ranging from tiny stingless bees to bees the size of a human thumb. Bees provide essential services to our ecosystems and are the major pollinators of many of our staple foods, said Dr Alice Hughes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan. Yet, until now, we have not had the data to show where on the planet most species are. "Here we combine millions of records to create the first maps of global bee richness, and understand why we see these patterns," she told BBC News. "These maps, and our framework, can then form the basis of future work, enabling us to better understand patterns of bee richness and ensure that they are effectively conserved into the future." Some bee populations, such as bumblebees in Europe and North America, are well studied. But in other regions, such as large parts of Asia and Africa, documentation has been sparse. While there remains a lot to learn about what drives bee diversity, the research team hopes their work will help in the conservation of bees as global pollinators. Dr John Ascher of the National University of Singapore said by establishing a reliable baseline we can characterise bee declines and "distinguish areas less suitable for bees from areas where bees should thrive but have been reduced by threats such as pesticides, loss of natural habitat, and overgrazing". To create their map, the researchers compared data about the occurrence of individual bee species with a checklist of over 20,000 species compiled by Dr Ascher. This gave a clearer picture of how the many species of bees are distributed around the world.
11-20-20 On a cool night in Malaysia, scientists track mysterious colugos across the treetops
A reporter tags along for nighttime observations of these elusive mammals. y companions scanned the treetops with binoculars and a thermal-imaging monocular. I stared at the branches and leaves, pretending I knew what to look for. It was a cool June evening just before sunset on a village road on Langkawi Island, Malaysia. “There’s one! Up there,” one of the biologists called out. I squinted at the spot, about five meters up the tree trunk, and saw only a brown knob speckled with gray. Where? Then the knob stirred. Its top edge rose and turned, and I was staring into a pair of bulging eyes set on a small head with a short snout. My first colugo. The size of a house cat, colugos are nocturnal mammals that live in trees. Colugos are also called “flying lemurs,” which is a misnomer because they cannot fly and they are not lemurs. A colugo has a cape of skin that stretches from its neck to the tips of its four limbs and tail. That skin, furry on top, helps colugos glide far and hide well in the canopy. “Wait … Oh, it has a baby!” called zoologist Priscillia Miard of Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang and leader of that evening’s search. She passed me her binoculars as the team discussed the identity of this colugo. A tiny head popped out from beneath the mother’s fur, like a child peering out from under a blanket. Baby colugos cling to their mother’s furless undersides until about age 6 months, nursing on nipples near mom’s armpits. I had seen two colugos just 15 minutes into our search! The mother colugo lifted her tail. “It’s pooping,” said Miard, without the slightest note of concern that we were standing right below. Miard later told me that colugo feces are like dried lentils — nothing messy. For an animal that is the closest living relative to all primates, having branched off about 80 million years ago, colugos remain a big mystery (SN: 9/3/16, p. 17). Today, the two living species of colugos are found only in Southeast Asia, though recent studies suggest that two is an imperfect count. Miard and other scientists have begun to upend what little knowledge exists about these mammals, revealing how colugos communicate and how they glide more than the length of a football field.
11-19-20 Very hangry caterpillars could help reveal genetic basis of aggression
Very hungry monarch caterpillars get hangry, resulting in them headbutting and lunging at other caterpillars in an attempt to secure food. “The less food that is present, the higher their level of aggression,” says Elizabeth Brown at Florida Atlantic University. Monarch caterpillars, found across North and Central America, only eat milkweed leaves. Brown and her team gave the caterpillars three different amounts of food and found that they attacked each other significantly more when the leaves were scarce. Larger monarch caterpillars – those in the final stages before starting to transform into butterflies – often showed the highest levels of aggression, probably because they need more food, says Brown. “There’s a clear winning caterpillar and losing caterpillar,” she says. “This often scales with their size.” The hungry caterpillars only attack when their target is actively feeding, and this never occurred while a caterpillar was resting. The attacking caterpillar seeks to disrupt feeding and claim a food source for itself. “You can often see a single caterpillar strip down an entire plant of its leaves,” says team member Alex Keene, also at Florida Atlantic University. “So, there is a big cost to these caterpillars if there are three of them on a plant with you.” Many animals become aggressive when competing for food. The researchers hope to learn more about the genetic basis for aggression by studying the caterpillars. “There’s a lot we could learn about more complex animals from this ecologically relevant insect model,” says Keene.
11-19-20 Monarch caterpillars head-butt each other to fight for scarce food
As milkweed supplies dwindle, the insects turn up the aggression, lab experiments show. When food and space get scarce, competition can bring out the worst in monarch caterpillars. In the laboratory, researchers watched as roaming caterpillars looking for a hard-to-find meal started head-butting and lunging at fellow caterpillars munching on a milkweed leaf. That aggressive behavior is apparently meant to disrupt the feeding insects and help the instigators score dinner, biologist and neuroscientist Alex Keene and colleagues report online November 19 in iScience. Keene usually studies fruit flies and cavefish, but he decided to adapt his laboratory to study monarchs after a chance observation. “My wife pointed out in the backyard that these two monarch caterpillars were fighting with each other,” says Keene, of Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter. “I went on YouTube, and there were videos of this behavior,” he says, but for monarchs, “it wasn’t documented anywhere in the scientific literature.” Other types of caterpillars have shown similar aggressive behavior in other settings. Going from a self-proclaimed “simple fly biologist” to monarch researcher, however, was a challenge. Not only did Hurricane Dorian in 2019 blow over the plants in the lab’s monarch garden, but also finding pesticide-free milkweed plants that the caterpillars would eat was harder than expected. Once the researchers overcame these challenges, though, they were able to film caterpillars competing with one another when the researchers limited the amount of available food.
11-19-20 Blue whales have 'rediscovered' South Georgia
The resurgence of blue whales around the island of South Georgia is real and has probably been under way for a little while now, say scientists. When a survey was conducted at the British Overseas Territory earlier this year, 58 of the animals were seen. That was described as "astonishing" at the time because there had been so few sightings previously. But a reassessment of 30 years of observational data suggests this bumper crowd of blues was no anomaly. It most likely signals they really are making a comeback in the waters around the sub-Antarctic island. South Georgia is infamous, of course, for being the epicentre of commercial whaling in the early 20th Century. Its steam boats, with their grenade-tipped harpoons, decimated all the large whale populations - and at the peak of the carnage were removing 3,000 blues a year. And while fur and elephant seals, which were also heavily exploited, managed to bounce back to historic levels relatively quickly - the whales, and the blues in particular, did not. Their absence long after commercial whaling ended even led some whale experts to wonder if these majestic creatures would ever be seen again in significant numbers at South Georgia. "It was held up as an example of how you can exploit a population beyond the point where it can recover," Susannah Calderan, who led the reassessment, told BBC News. It's possible that as the population crashed, the blues simply lost the cultural memory that had drawn them to South Georgia in the first place, the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) fellow said. The British Overseas Territory is in the path of a food train coming up from the Antarctic on strong currents. This train carries abundant krill, the small crustaceans that whales love. But because there were so few blues left after commercial whaling, it may be that the knowledge of the island's productive feeding ground could not be passed on to future generations - so the theory goes. "So, perhaps now they have re-discovered 'the larder'," Susannah Calderan speculated. "South Georgia remains an extremely productive feeding ground. Nothing ever happened to its productivity. It's not as if the whales stopped coming because there was nothing left to eat."
11-19-20 Stirling pupils' penguin project pays off after new colony discovered
A group of Stirling High School pupils have been praised after helping discover a new colony of emperor penguins in the Antarctic. The pupils initially developed and coded an algorithm to identify penguin colonies from satellite imagery. Researchers at the British Antarctic Survey then used higher-resolution imaging to confirm the colony. Their study reveals nearly 20% more emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica than previously thought. The students were inspired by a Sir David Attenborough programme on the plight of penguins. They wanted to see if the colonies could be located using freely-available satellite imagery and processing software. Dr Andrew McDonald from Stirling High School said: "To be acknowledged in a peer-reviewed paper was a great boost to the group and showed that it is possible to perform meaningful real science in schools." The pupils' work was part of an Institute for Research in Schools project called Earth Observation. Dr Peter Fretwell and Philip Trathan, the geographers and researchers for the British Antarctic Survey, praised the pupils in their research paper on the study. It found 11 new colonies, three of which were previously identified but never confirmed. A number of colonies were located far offshore, situated on sea ice that has formed around icebergs that had grounded in shallow water. Dr Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey said: "Whilst it's good news that we've found these new colonies, the breeding sites are all in locations where recent model projections suggest emperors will decline. "We need to watch these sites carefully as climate change will affect this region."
11-19-20 Guttural toads shrank by a third after just 100 years on two islands
Mauritius and Réunion's wee croakers appear to be rapidly evolving island dwarfs. On two islands in the Indian Ocean, the toads just aren’t what they used to be. Less than a century after their introduction by humans, the islands’ toads have shrunk in size by about a third. The finding, reported online November 18 in Biology Letters, potentially illustrates that “island dwarfism,” where animals evolve to be much smaller after settling on an island, can occur over very short timescales. “When you imagine insular dwarfism, you imagine this happening over thousands or millions of years,” says James Baxter-Gilbert, an invasion biologist at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. “But this [research] has the potential to show it happening in four orders of magnitude shorter timeframe, which is superexciting.” Guttural toads (Sclerophrys gutturalis) are native to much of the eastern half of sub-Saharan Africa. Humans brought the toads to Mauritius — an island east of Madagascar, roughly 2,000 kilometers from mainland Africa — in 1922 to devour cane beetles. Just five years later, toads from Mauritius were brought to the nearby island of Réunion to control mosquito populations. Baxter-Gilbert was fascinated by how those deliberate introductions might have influenced the toads’ evolution and biology. Thanks to previous work on the toads’ genetics, it was clear that the island toads’ likely progenitors were from Durban, South Africa. “We know the [genetic] blueprint that they came with,” he says. “We can kind of see how they have changed from that original blueprint.” From June 2019 to March 2020, Baxter-Gilbert and colleagues caught nearly 500 toads from Mauritius, Réunion and Durban. The team noted the sex of each toad and measured body length plus different dimensions of the jaw, legs and feet.
11-19-20 Capuchin monkeys spotted eating infant in rare act of cannibalism
Capuchin monkeys have been observed eating the remains of a young capuchin infant, offering an extremely rare example of cannibalism among the primates that live in the Americas. “We’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Katharine Jack at Tulane University in Louisiana. Researchers have been observing and collecting data on white-faced capuchins in the Santa Rosa National Park in Costa Rica since 1983 – one of the longest ongoing studies on primates in the world. In April 2019, Mari Nishikawa from the University of Tokyo, Japan, and other researchers were observing capuchins in the park when they heard several screams. They witnessed a 10-day-old infant fall from a tree just before its mother and another female chased a male monkey off. Infanticide isn’t uncommon in these primates. It often occurs when a new alpha male enters a group and wants to gain reproduction monopoly over the females. Jack says non-alpha males sometimes kill infants too, such as the subordinate male chased off in this case. The mother attempted to rescue the infant, but its back legs appeared paralysed, perhaps as a result of a bite from the male, and it soon died. The mother abandoned her dead infant, after which a 2-year old male approached and began nibbling on the fingers. This prompted the group’s alpha female – the great aunt of the infant – to arrive and begin eating the cadaver as well. The episode was strange for a number of reasons, says Jack. For starters, capuchins typically only eat things they have killed themselves. “We’ve never seen a capuchin consume something that’s dead,” she says. “They don’t scavenge at all.” When they do eat meat – coati pups for instance – capuchins usually consume the head and face first, but the cannibalism was just the opposite, as they started with the infant’s fingers and feet.
11-18-20 Toads on tropical islands are rapidly shrinking as they evolve
Toads that invaded two tropical islands have shrunk in size by a third in less than a century, a remarkably short time on evolutionary timescales. The guttural toad (Sclerophrys gutturalis) is native to large parts of Africa. A population from Durban in South Africa was introduced to the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Réunion, in 1922 and 1927 respectively. Now, researchers have found the female toads on Mauritius are up to 33.9 per cent smaller than the original Durban population, and the females on Réunion up to 25.9 per cent smaller. The males shrank on Mauritius, but not on Réunion. Such shrinking in amphibians on islands normally takes thousands or millions of years. Islands have long been known as unique test beds to see how animals adapt and evolve – from dwarfism to the gigantism famously demonstrated by giant tortoises of the Galapagos islands – though it can be hard to tell how long the changes take. Recent introductions of species by humans, deliberate or not, make those shifts easier to track. It isn’t yet clear how and why the island guttural toads have shrunk, says James Baxter-Gilbert at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. His team caught and measured 158 toads on Mauritius, 186 on Réunion and 151 in Durban, between June 2019 and March 2020. The mechanism could be natural selection. Alternatively, the species may already have possessed the ability to shrink – phenotypic plasticity – given the right changes in its environment. “However, if this is a product of natural selection and functional adaptation, then this is quite a bit more surprising,” says Baxter-Gilbert, because of the speed at which the change occurred. One possible driving force is that the frogs appear to be breeding year-round on the islands, whereas they breed seasonally elsewhere. If females don’t need to bulk up and store more energy for producing a lot of eggs in a short period, they may not need to grow so large.
11-18-20 South Georgia whaling: Antarctic art marks a dark past
Today it teems with wildlife, but South Georgia's human history is marked by decades of industrial-scale whaling. That will now be commemorated by a series of sculptures set to become one of the most remote art installations on Earth. Scottish artist Michael Visocchi, has been chosen to create a piece called Commensalis: The spirit tables of South Georgia. It will be constructed at Grytviken, once the largest whaling station. The South Georgia Heritage Trust and the government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands say the design celebrates "the ecological recovery of an island that was once at the centre of the whaling industry". Mr Visocchi described it as an opportunity to "engage with a particularly poignant story". "Quite early on I made the connection between the rivets that hold the sites - and of course the whaling vessels - together, and how they resemble the barnacles [on whales' skin]," he explained during an online press conference. "So I used the rivet as a unit to express the numbers of whales taken and the number that have recovered." In entering the competition, he proposed placing a series of large, low, round tables - covered in these whale-accounting rivets - in a wide area that was formerly used to slice skin from the whales. "I call these the spirit tables. Each table will represent a species of whale that was hunted and processed on South Georgia," said the artist. As well as killing thousands of whales, the industry devastated the island's bird population, as the ships brought invasive rodents ashore. After a vast extermination project, scientists declared the island rodent-free in 2018. Alison Neil, chief executive of the South Georgia Heritage Trust, said the installation would "sit at the heart of the work we are embarking on as part of a cultural heritage programme to tell the world more about the human story on South Georgia". The charity says the island is now a conservation "beacon" - an island ecosystem in recovery. Once caught and killed in their thousands, humpbacks and even rare blue whales are now returning to South Georgia's waters. Delayed - like so many projects - by the pandemic, Mr Visocchi will visit the site to start planning the construction in autumn 2021.
11-17-20 Hundreds of new genomes help fill the bird ‘tree of life’
Avian genetic toolkits could let scientists unravel 150 million years of evolutionary history. From gulls to grouse to grackles, more than 10,000 bird species live on this planet. Now, scientists are one step closer to understanding the evolution of all of this feathered diversity. An international team of researchers has released the genetic instruction books of 363 species of birds, including 267 genomes assembled for the first time. Comparing all of that genetic data can help scientists figure out how the varied traits of birds — from their diverse, spellbinding songs and courtship displays to their adaptations for flight — have evolved, the team says in the Nov. 12 Nature. Birds have long received scientific attention, says ornithologist Michael Braun of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., one of the researchers involved in the project. “That’s partly because birds are relatively easy to see out in nature,” he says. To compile some of the newly assembled genomes, the team took DNA from bird tissue samples in 17 scientific collections from around the world. Overall, the data cover roughly 92 percent of all modern bird families. Some species, such as chickens, are familiar; others are rare, such as the Henderson crake (Zapornia atra), found only on remote Henderson Island in the South Pacific. Scientists are just starting to uncover the secrets of avian evolution hidden in the genomes. Braun says that the data can be used better understand everything from the parallel evolution of flightlessness in ratites like emus and kiwis (SN: 4/4/19) to the evolution of vision and song learning in birds overall. Already, the researchers have found peculiarities in the genomes of passerines — the order of songbirds that includes over half of all modern bird species, though the origin of this diversity is poorly understood. These alterations include the loss of a gene involved in the development of the vocal tract, possibly influencing passerines’ songs.
11-13-20 Have rogue orcas really been attacking boats in the Atlantic?
In the past six months there have been at least 40 reported incidents involving orcas off the coasts of Spain and Portugal. “I don’t frighten easily and this was terrifying,” skipper David Smith recalls of a late evening in October when his boat was approached by what looked at first like dolphins. It quickly became apparent that they were much bigger than dolphins. And they were behaving very strangely. “I looked at this animal - and it was jet black and brilliant white.” For some two hours, a group of killer whales rammed the underside of the 45ft (13.7m) yacht he was sailing off the coast of Portugal. “It was continuous,” he says. “I think there were six or seven animals, but it seemed like the juvenile ones - the smaller ones - were most active. They seemed to be going for the rudder, the wheel would just start spinning really fast every time there was an impact.” David’s job, since he “quit the rat race to sail” back in 2013, is to deliver new boats to where their owners want them moored. In this case, he was part of a team delivering a catamaran from France to Gibraltar. An hour before sunset, one of the crew called out. “He said: ‘It looks like we have some large dolphins,’” recalls David. The only other encounter he had had with an orca was more than 20 years ago in a Vancouver aquarium, but he was in no doubt that he was looking at a group of killer whales. “They were right at the back of the boat.” A sense of curiosity and excitement very quickly turned to fear when one orca disappeared beneath the boat and there was a loud thumping sound from the hull. The boat was 20 miles (32.2km) off Porto, at least three hours from the Portuguese coast. With their VHF radio out of range, they had to use the satellite phone to contact the coastguard, who advised them to switch off the motor and take down the sails. Be as “uninteresting” as possible, they said. “So then we were just drifting. But while I was on the phone I could hear them ramming the boat. At one point, one of the larger animals came right to the stern and flipped onto its back – you could see its bright white underside.” (Webmaster's comment: Animals fight back against the human investation of their world!)
11-12-20 Birds' genetic secrets revealed in global DNA study
Scientists have sequenced and recorded the genomes - the genetic make-up or "code of life" - of species from almost every branch of the bird family tree. The 363 species' genomes, including 267 sequenced for the first time, are catalogued in the journal Nature. It is a list that now features more than 92% of the world's avian families. This has revealed the code for things "Darwin was intrigued by and wrote about", Dr Michael Braun from the Smithsonian Institution told BBC News. From wildly different coloured feathers, body sizes ranging from the giant ostrich to the diminutive wren and raptor flight speeds of up to 300km/h [186.4mph], "it's all coded for in the genome", he said. And this milestone, he added, was "just the beginning". The project aims eventually to include a genome from every living species of bird. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, which is a a key contributor through its vast collection of specimens, said this would "advance research on the evolution of birds and aid in the conservation of threatened bird species". The list of sequences so far now includes rare species such as the Henderson crake, which lives on only one small Pacific island. But Dr Braun said it was the humble chicken that was the "model species" for studying some extreme examples of avian evolution - including how giant, flightless birds like the ostrich evolved. "We've intensively studied limb development in the chicken," he said. "And we can apply that to this group of birds called the ratites - birds like the ostrich and emu. "With the evolution of flightlessness, there were a lot to changes in the limb anatomy - wings get short, flight feathers become useless, their legs get longer and they lose toes, because they're running instead of perching. "With these resources, you have the detail - the code - of how that happened."
11-12-20 'Murder hornets': More nests likely to be found in US
Washington is unlikely to have seen its last Asian giant hornets, the state's agricultural department has said, after scientists found 200 queens in one nest. The nest - the first in the US - of the so-called murder hornets was captured with a vacuum from a tree in October. Researchers believe more queens - which are responsible for establishing colonies - could remain at large. But they are confident the population can be brought under control. Asian giant hornets are an invasive species in the Pacific North-West. They target honeybees, which pollinate crops. The insect, which is native to Japan and South Korea, can slaughter a bee colony in a matter of hours. They can also spit venom and inflict numerous powerful stings on humans. "We believe there are additional nests. There is no way to be certain we got them all," Sven-Erik Spichiger, who researches insects with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, said in a press conference on Tuesday. The nest was extracted from a tree in the city of Blaine, close to the Canadian border, on 24 October. Scientists then quarantined the 22cm (9 in) diameter nest and after 24 hours were able to open it to examine the contents. Inside they found evidence of almost 500 insects at various stages of life including 112 worker hornets and close to 200 queens. "It's possible some [queens] emerged before we did the extraction. There is no way of knowing how many more," Mr Spichiger said, explaining that three queens were found in the local area after scientists had removed the nest. But he said they had arrived "in the nick of time" to prevent the majority of queens from leaving the nest and mating. "Frankly we are encouraged because of the number of queens we were able to count and kill," he said. Queen hornets go on to establish new colonies when they mate with a male and successfully hibernate over the winter season. When they wake up in spring, a small portion go on to establish nests. Mr Spichiger said it was likely that the insects arrived in the Pacific North-West as part of international commerce. "We will never know how they got here...but it could have been a vehicle, wood chips, hay bales," he explained.
11-12-20 Some male spiders tie up females before mating to avoid being eaten
Many male spiders engage in courtship rituals during mating, but some attack females instead and tie them up to avoid being eaten. “Spiders sometimes spend hours luring females to court them, but these guys just go and bite,” says Lenka Sentenská at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Canada. Running crab spiders, a group containing more than 600 species, are found widely across Europe, Asia and Africa. In April 2019, while working at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, Sentenská was studying the behaviour of one species – Thanatus fabricii – that is native to Israel. She realised males behaved oddly at mating time, but the action was so quick that it was difficult to observe. Sentenská and her colleagues chased down a number of the fast-moving spiders in the Negev desert in Israel and brought them to the lab for closer observation. Slow-motion recordings gave the researchers a clearer look at the reproduction of these spiders. “The male just rushed towards the female and it seemed more like an attack,” says Sentenská. The male spider would bite the female a handful of times, more so if she was larger and less so if she was missing limbs. In most cases, this seemed to startle the female spider, who would pull in her legs and play dead. At this point, the male spider would begin to lay down some strands of silk on the female’s body, binding her legs. The male spider then mated with the female for the next 19 minutes, on average, before running away. The behaviour is savage, but it may be the best way for males to come out of the mating process alive. The team observed that some males were eaten by the slightly larger females before they could begin biting. Even when tied up, the female spiders may be in control. Sentenská says it doesn’t take a female spider long to break free. “She would jerk several times, then spread her legs and she’s good to go.”
11-11-20 Rare bigfin squid found in Australian waters for the first time
The extremely rare bigfin squid, a deep-sea creature found more than 2 kilometres underwater, has been spotted in Australian waters for the first time. Deborah Osterhage at CSIRO in Hobart, Australia, and her colleagues came across the squid during underwater surveys in the Great Australian Bight, an open bay off Australia’s southern coast. “I knew exactly what it was when I saw it, probably because I’m a bit of a deep sea geek,” says Osterhage. “They’re very rarely seen around the world.” Only three sightings had previously been recorded in the southern hemisphere. Bigfin squid (Magnapinna) have a distinctive appearance: they have large fins that make their main bodies nearly as wide as they are long, and also have extremely long, filament-like tentacles, which they can bend into an elbow-like appearance. These tentacle filaments are retractable and have tiny suckers on them, which might be used for feeding. The researchers first spotted the squid at a depth of more than 2100 metres, during a survey in which a camera was towed underwater beneath a ship. The squid were spotted multiple times during subsequent surveys. “We were able to see differences in their body ratios and their body lengths to confirm that they were actually five different individuals,” says Osterhage. The researchers measured one of the squid using a pair of lasers, finding it was 1.8 metres long, with its tentacles accounting for 1.68 metres of that length. The closest distance between two of the five sightings was 300 metres apart. It was unusual to find multiple bigfin squid in such close proximity, says Osterhage. “Normally, you only get reports of one, maybe two.” Because so little is known about the squid, more sightings would shed light on their distribution, says Osterhage.
11-11-20 Newly discovered primate 'already facing extinction'
A monkey that is new to science has been discovered in the remote forests of Myanmar. The Popa langur, named after its home on Mount Popa, is critically endangered with numbers down to about 200 individuals. Langurs are a group of leaf-eating monkeys that are found across south east Asia. The newly described animal is known for its distinctive spectacle-like eye patches and greyish-coloured fur. It is at risk from habitat loss and hunting. Scientists have long suspected there might be a new species in Myanmar, based on DNA extracted from the droppings of wild monkeys, but evidence has been hard to find. With very little information to go on, they turned to historical specimens stored in natural history museums in London, Leiden, New York and Singapore. Early explorers to Burma collected the monkey specimens, which had never been examined in detail. The researchers extracted DNA and measured physical features such as tail and ear length, which they compared with those of wild populations. This revealed a new species, the Popa langur, which is found only in patches of forest in the centre of the country. Most live in a wildlife sanctuary park on the slopes of the sacred pilgrimage site of Mount Popa. Describing the species scientifically will help in its conservation, said Frank Momberg of the conservation group Fauna & Flora International. He told BBC News: "The Popa langur, just newly described, is already critically endangered and facing extinction so it's absolutely critical to protect the remaining population and to engage with local communities as well as private sector stakeholders to safeguard its future." There are only 200 to 250 animals of the new species, which live in four isolated populations. In the last decade or so, Myanmar has opened up to international collaborations with scientists, which has led to the discovery of species new to science, including reptiles, amphibians. But the discovery of a new primate is rare.
11-11-20 ‘Godzilla’ wasps drag caterpillars out of water to lay eggs in them
Wasps aren’t known for their swimming abilities, but one recently identified species is quite at home in the water. Godzilla wasps (Microgaster godzilla) plunge into ponds to hunt aquatic caterpillars, before erupting back out of the water in a way reminiscent of the famed Japanese monster’s emergence from the sea. José Fernández-Triana at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids, and Nematodes in Ottawa worked in collaboration with researchers at Osaka Prefecture and Kobe Universities in Japan, who first found the creatures while studying pond habitats. The tiny wasps are black with golden legs and are smaller than a grain of rice. They are parasitoids, implanting their eggs inside the bodies of other insects, where they hatch. The larvae go on to eat their living hosts from the inside out. In this case, the wasps’ hosts were aquatic caterpillars of the Elophila turbata moth, which live near the water’s surface in a case fashioned from plant fragments. The team brought caterpillar hosts back into the lab and reared their parasitoid wasps, studying how the adults caught their targets. In the aquarium, as in a natural setting, the insects walked along floating plants on the water’s surface as they searched for caterpillars. Sometimes they would wait for caterpillars to poke out of their cases and then jab them with their egg-laying ovipositors. Other times, the wasps would dive underwater for several seconds, clinging to the bottom using big hooks on their feet so they could grab the cases from underneath and yank stubborn caterpillars free. On one occasion, a wasp was underwater for about 14 seconds while it coaxed a caterpillar out of its protective case. “I tip my hat to that,” says Fernández-Triana, as such an athletic feat is risky for the air-breathing wasps.
11-9-20 Female banded mongooses start wars so they can mate with rival males
Female banded mongooses lead their groups into conflicts with rivals so they can mate with males from neighbouring territories during battle, while males in their own groups are distracted. Michael Cant at the University of Exeter in the UK and his colleagues have been studying groups of wild mongooses in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda for the past 25 years. Banded mongooses are highly territorial and live in groups of about 20 adults, clashing violently with rival groups up to three times a month. The researchers suspected that females were leading their groups into these fights with rivals in order to search for new mates. “Banded mongoose groups are so closed,” says Cant. “Hardly anyone ever leaves, so levels of relatedness within the group build up over time.” Female mongooses in the same group enter into heat synchronously and deliver pups on the same day. While the females are in heat, the males shadow the female group members and guard them from rival mates in the same group. The researchers captured video footage of females mating with males in rival groups during conflicts, in moments when they weren’t guarded by their own males. They found that the likelihood of a fight occurring increased when the females were in heat, and say this suggests that the females initiate and lead their groups into fights rather than the males. “The probability of getting involved in these fights goes up as the age of the group goes up, and as the level of inbreeding in the group goes up,” says Cant. The researchers compared the offspring produced by pairings between 499 males and 377 females, finding that engaging in more intergroup conflicts increased the number of pups produced and their rate of survival more steeply for females than it did for males.
11-8-20 Back from the dead: Race to save Romania's 65 million-year-old fish
On a tiny stretch of the fast-flowing Valsan river in Romania lives one of the rarest fish in Europe, and quite possibly the world. The 65-million-year-old Asprete was first discovered by a biology student in 1956, and for decades it has teetered on the brink of extinction. "After many years trying to save [it], people were telling us that the species was extinct," Nicolae Craciun, a 59-year-old biologist, told the BBC. "But we were sure they still existed." The Asprete, a small nocturnal fish that hides under rocks, has an uncertain future and faces myriad threats. Official estimates number the population at around 10-15 specimens, which are thought to exist on a 1km (0.6 mile) stretch of the shallow, rocky Valsan. This compares with around 200 specimens in the early 2000s. But a small team of scientists and conservationists are campaigning to save the endemic fish species, also known as Romanichthys valsanicola. And they have been encouraged by a recent discovery in the river. One day in late October, Andrei Togor, a 31-year-old fish biologist, was monitoring angling fish species of the Asprete when he discovered 12 specimens in a small section of the Valsan river. "Having an Asprete in front of our eyes was fantastic," he told the BBC. "It's one of the biggest rewards a field biologist can get." The Asprete is a so-called living fossil, which means it has survived for millions of years largely unchanged. But a mere six decades of human activity has severely impacted its habitat and population. One of the major impacts on the species has been a series of hydroelectric dams, built on the mountainous river network under Romania's communist regime in the late 1960s. Until then, the Asprete is thought to have inhabited around 30km of the Valsan as well as two parallel rivers: the Arges and Raul Doamnei. "It disappeared from the Raul Doamnei because there was no water any more. For one year the riverbed was almost dry," says Andrei Togor. "The communist plan didn't care about this endemic species. This fish is so rare because of humans."
11-6-20 How passion, luck and sweat saved some of North America’s rarest plants
Plant enthusiasts go to extremes trying to save beloved species. No plant should have to end this way. North America’s various beach plums bear purple-blue, cherry-sized fruits that make for a beloved New England jelly. The small trees’ tolerance for salty, wind-blasted shores impresses biologists. But even a beach plum has limits. One of the plum’s distinctive forms, named in 1897 for physician Charles B. Graves who called attention to the plant, may have gone extinct in the wild in large part because people like a little privacy when they need a bathroom break on the beach. All of the known Graves’ beach plums grew in a cluster on a ridge overlooking the Connecticut shore in Groton. It “was the only shade on the beach,” says botanist Wesley Knapp, who studies extinctions with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program in Raleigh. Beachgoers seeking discreet foliage gravitated to Prunus maritima var. gravesii, relentlessly delivering excess nitrogen. “I can’t think of a worse way … to go extinct,” Knapp says. He has now determined that Graves’ beach plum and four other kinds of U.S. plants that have been wiped out in the wild still grow in at least one garden somewhere. Ongoing quests might reveal two more. Dozens of others, however, are gone. Focusing on U.S. and Canadian green heritage, Knapp and colleagues declared August 28 in Conservation Biology that 58 plants are extinct in the wild, with no miracle rescues in gardens. That totals 65 known losses from the wild, about 1.4 per decade, since Europeans started settling in the mid-1500s. “We are positive it is a gross underestimate,” Knapp cautions. The team’s methods were conservative: going plant name by name and declaring a loss of a full species or a distinctive lineage within a species only if detailed information existed.
11-6-20 A blue-green glow adds to platypuses’ long list of bizarre features
The fur of Australia’s iconic oddity fluoresces under ultraviolet light. Between the electricity-sensing bill, venomous heel spurs and egg laying, the platypus was already one of the strangest mammals alive today (SN: 5/8/08). Now, researchers have found that this Australian oddity has another unexpected feature: It fluoresces under ultraviolet light. Platypuses’ dense, waterproof fur absorbs ultraviolet light and emits a blue-green glow, mammologist Paula Spaeth Anichand colleagues discovered somewhat serendipitously. A chance sighting of a fluorescent flying squirrel in the wild had led the researchers to the mammal collection at the Field Museum in Chicago. After examining the museum’s preserved squirrel skins and finding that fluorescence occurred in at least three flying squirrel species, the team decided to examine pelts from marsupials too, as those were the only mammals previously known to possess fluorescent fur. And it just so happened that the drawer of monotremes — an early branch of mammals that, today, is represented only by platypuses (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) and echidnas — was the next one over from marsupials. “We were curious,” says Anich, of Northland College in Ashland, Wis. “So, we pulled the monotreme drawer, and we shined our [ultraviolet] light on the platypuses. And they were incredibly, vividly fluorescent green and blue.” To make sure the glow wasn’t something unusual about the Field Museum’s pelts, the team also examined a platypus specimen at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln. Sure enough, it also glowed, the researchers report online October 15 in Mammalia. Anich is confident that the glow isn’t an artifact of preservation, because several of the examined squirrel species and the echidna pelts didn’t fluoresce. It’s also likely that the living animals glow like their pelts, she says, as that’s been the case for all other known fluorescent mammals.
11-6-20 Coronavirus: Denmark imposes lockdowns amid mink covid fears
Danish authorities have said a lockdown will be introduced in some areas over a coronavirus mutation found in mink that can spread to humans. The government has warned that the effectiveness of any future vaccine could be affected by the mutation. Bars, restaurants, public transport and all public indoor sports will be closed in seven North Jutland municipalities. The restrictions will come into effect from Friday and initially last until 3 December. It comes soon after an announcement that Denmark would cull all its mink - as many as 17 million. The Scandinavian country is the world's biggest producer of mink fur and its main export markets are China and Hong Kong. Culling began late last month, after many mink cases were detected. On Thursday, the World Health Organization said mink appear to be "good reservoirs" of coronavirus. It also commended Denmark's "determination and courage" for going ahead with the culls, despite the economic impact it would bring. Coronavirus cases have been detected in other farmed mink in the Netherlands and Spain since the pandemic began in Europe. But cases are spreading fast in Denmark - 207 mink farms in Jutland are affected - and at least five cases of the new virus strain were found. Authorities said 12 people had been infected with the mutated strain. Meanwhile, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said about half of the 783 human cases reported in north Denmark related to a strain of the virus that originated in the mink farms. Under the new rules, gatherings of 10 or more people will be banned, and locals have been urged to stay within the affected municipalities and get tested. At a press conference, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said: "Right now the eyes of the world are resting on us. I hope and believe that together we can solve the problems we face." On Wednesday, Ms Frederiksen said the mutated virus had been found to weaken the body's ability to form antibodies, potentially making the current vaccines under development for Covid-19 ineffective. Since the start of the pandemic Denmark has reported 52,265 human cases of Covid-19 and 733 deaths, data from Johns Hopkins University shows.
11-6-20 Coronavirus and mink: What are the implications?
A mutation in coronavirus has triggered culls of millions of mink across Denmark. Scientists say this latest twist in the pandemic is worrying but we don't yet know the full picture. Danish authorities have found genetic changes in the virus they say might undermine the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines currently in development. Precise details haven't yet been shared widely, leaving many scientists somewhat in the dark. Dr Marisa Peyre, an epidemiologist from the French research institute Cirad, says the existence of the mutated virus "is worrying" and of public health concern. "Every time the virus spreads between animals it changes, and if it changes too much from the one that is circulating within humans at the moment, that might mean that any vaccine or treatment that will be produced soon might not work as well as it should do," she explained. This is a very unusual chain of events; a virus that originally came from a wild animal, probably a bat, jumped into humans, possibly via an unknown animal host, sparking a pandemic. Mink kept in large numbers on mink farms have caught the virus from infected workers. And, in a small number of cases, the virus has crossed back from mink to humans, picking up genetic changes on the way. The mutation is reported to involve the spike protein of the virus; which is targeted by some, but not all, vaccines being developed. "If the mutation is on a specific protein that is being currently targeted by the vaccine developers to trigger an immune response in humans then it means that if this new virus strain comes out of the mink back into the humans, even with vaccination, the humans will start spreading it and the vaccine will not protect," Dr Peyre told BBC News. More than 50 million mink a year are bred for their fur, mainly in China, Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland. Outbreaks have been reported in fur farms in the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Sweden and the US, and millions of animals have had to be culled.
11-5-20 Is a dangerous new coronavirus strain circulating in farmed mink?
The Danish government has ordered the slaughter of all farmed mink in the country after the reported discovery of a mutant form of coronavirus in the animals. It has already spread to humans. According to a report in the Danish newspaper Berlingske, 207 mink farms have seen infections of coronavirus. The authorities have failed to contain the virus, and all 17 million farmed mink in Denmark will now be culled, said Denmark’s prime minister Mette Frederiksen at a press briefing on 5 November. Denmark has the world’s largest mink industry. The Danish prime minister described the mutated virus as “a serious risk to public health and to the development of a vaccine”. However, health minister Magnus Heunicke told the press briefing that there is no sign yet that the mutant virus causes more serious symptoms of covid-19. Some areas of northern Jutland – the region of Denmark that connects to the European mainland – will be isolated to stop the spread of the virus in humans. Frederiksen said a “mutant” virus has been identified in five farms and 12 people have become infected with it. The State Serum Institute issued a statement (in Danish) confirming that multiple mutant viruses have been isolated from mink, and that seven of these have mutations in the spike protein, which the virus uses to enter cells and which is important to the immune response and a key target for vaccines. One of these viruses has four mutations in its spike protein and in laboratory tests has been found to be more weakly inhibited by antibodies from humans who have been infected with Sars-CoV-2. This could in theory make a vaccine less effective. But the virus itself in not more dangerous or contagious. According to a Google translation, the statement concludes that “as a citizen, you do not have to worry”.
11-5-20 Arctic animals are migrating earlier in the year due to climate change
Animals in the Arctic, including reindeer and golden eagles, are migrating earlier due to climate change, say researchers who have gathered a huge amount of data to study the behaviour of 86 Arctic species over the past three decades. “We have the ability to monitor animal movements on a very large scale,” says Eliezer Gurarie at the University of Maryland. “It seems that animals are unknowingly responding and adapting to climatic changes, and have been doing for years.” Gurarie and his team used GPS tags and satellites to track the spring migration of more than 900 female reindeer over the past 15 years. They discovered that the females are migrating to give birth approximately a day earlier year on year, probably as a result of warming temperatures. “These patterns are tracking global warming,” he says. The Arctic is experiencing some of the worst-known effects of climate change, warming twice as fast as the global average. Earlier birthing times can be risky in northern parts of the Arctic, says team member Gil Bohrer at Ohio State University. “There are higher chances of these offspring encountering strong freak storms,” he says. If they do, many will inevitably die because they cannot handle extreme conditions that can see up to half a metre of snow. Reindeer are already in decline, says Gurarie, and climate change is worsening the situation. This poses a threat to people living in the region who rely on them for fur and meat. Similarly, golden eagles – which usually nest in the Arctic tundra – have been starting their spring migration half a day earlier each year over the past 25 years. “The day-to-day variation of climate change is very small,” says Bohrer. “To understand how animals respond to climate change, you need a very long period of observation – something that has only recently been possible.”
11-5-20 Gentoo penguins are four species, not one
Scientists are calling for a shake-up of the penguin kingdom, saying the gentoo penguin is four species, not one. According to new evidence, the birds are slightly different in shape and size, and can be told apart by their DNA. Counting them as separate species will help in conservation, they argue, making it easier to monitor declines. The change would raise the tally of penguin species from 18 to 21. Dr Jane Younger of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath told BBC News: "Superficially, these species look very similar to each other; it's very hard to tell them apart just with your eyes. "But if we sequence their genomes we can see very clearly that they are different. We also can tell based on different measurements." Penguins face a number of threats in the wild, including plastic pollution, over-fishing and climate change. When it comes to climate change, gentoos are faring relatively well compared with other penguin species, but scientists say some populations have not been monitored for decades. Numbers are increasing on the Antarctic Peninsula but have fallen on some surrounding islands. "Currently gentoo penguins are fairly stable in numbers, however there is some evidence of the northern populations moving further south as the climate gets warmer, so we need to watch them closely," said Dr Younger. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, gentoo penguins have become isolated from each other to the point where they don't interbreed, even though they could easily swim the distance that separates them. They should thus be considered four species living in different latitudes in the southern hemisphere, on the Antarctic continent, and further north, where conditions are milder, the scientists argue.
11-5-20 Wallabies spotted roaming the UK on nearly 100 occasions
If you go down to the woods today, you might be in for a big surprise. There have been nearly 100 sightings of wallabies across Great Britain in the past decade. “Everyone was surprised by the number and the spread,” says Holly English at University College Dublin in Ireland, who has detailed the sightings in a paper titled “Where’s wallaby?”. It is possible that wallabies are breeding in the Chilterns of southern England and in Cornwall, south-west England. But most of the sightings are thought to be of animals that have escaped from zoos or private collections. “They are very good at escaping,” says English. The species in question is the red-necked wallaby, Notamacropus rufogriseus. This marsupial is native to south-eastern Australia including Tasmania, whose climate is similar to the UK’s. There has been a thriving population on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea since the 1960s, now estimated to number around 1750 animals. There is also a small population on Inchconnachan island in Loch Lomond, Scotland, originating from animals released by the island’s owner in the 1940s. In England, a small population in the Peak District, thought to derive from animals released during the second world war, was long monitored by biologist Derek Yalden. It was reduced to a few individuals after being hit by big winter storms and finally died out in 2009. “Then Yalden died in 2013 and the story of wallabies in the British countryside kind of got lost,” says English. So she and Anthony Caravaggi at the University of South Wales have trawled through environmental records and media reports to map all sightings between 2008 and 2018. They only included sightings by multiple observers or where there is photographic evidence. They also didn’t count sightings of animals known to have been recaptured. “We are quite confident in the ones we included,” says English.
11-5-20 Denmark to cull up to 17 million mink amid coronavirus fears
As many as 17 million mink are to be culled in Denmark after a mutated version of the coronavirus that can spread to humans was detected on mink farms. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said the mutated virus posed a "risk to the effectiveness" of a future Covid-19 vaccine. Denmark is the world's biggest producer of mink fur. Police said the culling should happen as soon as possible. Coronavirus cases have been detected in mink farms in Denmark's northern Jutland region, and in other parts of Europe, for several months. But cases are spreading fast in Denmark, and five cases of the new virus strain were found on mink farms. Twelve people had become infected, the authorities said. Prime Minister Frederiksen described the situation as "very, very serious". She cited a government report which said the mutated virus had been found to weaken the body's ability to form antibodies, potentially making the current vaccines under development for Covid-19 ineffective. "We have a great responsibility towards our own population, but with the mutation that has now been found, we have an even greater responsibility for the rest of the world as well," she told a news conference. More than 50 million mink a year are bred for their fur, mainly in China, Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland. Outbreaks have been reported in fur farms in the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Sweden and the US, and millions of animals have had to be culled. Mink, like their close relatives ferrets, are known to be susceptible to coronavirus, and like humans, they can show a range of symptoms, from no signs of illness at all, to severe problems, such as pneumonia. Mink become infected through catching the virus from humans. But genetic detective work has shown that in a small number of cases, in the Netherlands and now Denmark, the virus seems to have passed the other way, from mink to humans.
11-3-20 Some fish fins are as sensitive to touch as human fingertips
In addition to using their fins for swimming, many fish use them to sense pressure or textures – and it turns out the fins of some species are as sensitive to touch as the fingertips of humans and other primates. “We think about primates as kind of special in the sense that we have really exquisite tactile sensitivity, but in fact animals of all types touch objects in their everyday typical behaviours, including fish,” says Adam Hardy at the University of Chicago. “There’s a whole host of fishes that live on the bottom [of bodies of water] and routinely make contact with rough and smooth surfaces,” he says, “The ability to sense how those feel can be really important.” Hardy and his colleague, Melina Hale, analysed the ability of the round goby fish (Neogobius melanostomus), a soft-bodied bottom dweller, to detect different textures. The researchers collected several gobies from Lake Michigan, and noticed that when the fish were put into a tank they splayed their fins over different surfaces, such as a piece of slate or plastic, that had been placed in the bottom of the tank. This suggested the fins had some degree of touch sensitivity. To work out how much, the researchers designed rotating wheels with ridges that were 2 millimetres wide on their outer surface, rather like a cog wheel. The ridges on different wheels were separated by gaps of 3, 5 or 7 millimetres, to mimic different textures such as sand and pebbles. The closer the spacing, the finer the surface, which would require greater sensitivity of sensory neurons. They then rolled the wheels along fin rays of gobies at speeds ranging from 20 to 80 millimetres per second, and recorded whether the wheels triggered nerve signals from individual fin rays – the bony spines within the fins.
11-4-20 A fish’s fins may be as sensitive to touch as fingertips
Once thought to be mere motors, fins may help fish feel out their environments. Fish fins aren’t just for swimming. They’re feelers, too. The fins of round gobies can detect textures with a sensitivity similar to that of the pads on monkeys’ fingers, researchers report November 3 in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Compared with landlubbers, little is known about aquatic animals’ sense of touch. And for fish, “we used to only think of fins as motor structures,” says Adam Hardy, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. “But it’s really becoming increasingly clear that fins play important sensory roles.” Studying those sensory roles can hint at ways to mimic nature for robotics and provide a window into the evolution of touch. The newfound parallels between primates and fish suggest that limbs that sense physical forces emerged early, before splits in the vertebrate evolutionary tree led to animals with fins, arms and legs, says Melina Hale, a neurobiologist and biomechanist also at the University of Chicago. “These capabilities arose incredibly early and maybe set the stage for what we can do with our hands now and what fish can do with their fins in terms of touch.” Hardy and Hale measured the activity of nerves in the fins of bottom-dwelling round gobies (Neogobius melanostomus) to get a sense of what fish learn about texture from their fins. In the wild, round gobies brush against the bottom surface and rest there on their large pectoral fins. “They’re really well suited to testing these sorts of questions,” Hardy says. Working with fins from six euthanized gobies, the researchers recorded electrical spikes from their nerves as a bumpy plastic ring attached to a motor rolled lightly above each fin. A salt solution keeps the nerves functioning as they would if the nerves were in a live fish, Hardy says. Different spacings of bumps provided information on the range of roughness the fins could detect, with narrower spacings mimicking the texture of a coarse sand and larger gaps producing a roughness on the scale of pebbles.
11-3-20 Light pollution is changing the way cougars hunt deer in western US
For innumerable generations across western North America, cougars and mule deer have been locked in the struggle of predator versus prey. But humanity and its ubiquitous artificial light may now be scrambling this relationship. The Intermountain West region of the US is sparsely populated, but contains many cities growing at an explosive rate. This means the region’s inky black night skies are becoming increasingly illuminated, and this extends beyond the vicinity of just roads and houses, says Mark Ditmer, a wildlife ecologist at Colorado State University. Most studies on the impact of artificial light on animal behaviour have been conducted in laboratory settings, and targeted small animals like insects and birds. Little is known about how larger animals respond to brighter nights. Ditmer and his team obtained detailed data on sources of artificial light in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah from the NASA-NOAA Suomi polar-orbiting satellite. They then compared this with GPS location data for hundreds of cougars (Puma concolor) and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) in the region, and the locations of more than 1500 sites where cougars killed mule deer. Taken together, the team found that mule deer in floodlit areas are drawn closer to the light source – often a home surrounded by tasty, green vegetation. Cougars must target these deer by hunting from the shadows in the darkest parts of the landscape. This contrasts with how cougars normally hunt at night. They typically choose to hunt in spots that are slightly brighter than their surroundings – although these spots are still dim. The findings also suggest that if there is a lot of artificial light, deer sometimes change their behaviour again. They begin to congregate in darker pockets instead, leaving the cougars only well-lit areas full of humans from which to hunt. Cougars may avoid these places entirely, allowing the deer to live another day.
11-2-20 Corals are first animals seen to pass on mutations acquired as adults
Corals have an evolutionary superpower. Adult corals can pass on mutations they have acquired during their lives to their offspring, overturning a long-standing belief that no animals can hand down such mutations – although most can’t. “Juvenile corals inherited mutations that were acquired during the parents’ lifespan,” says Iliana Baums at Pennsylvania State University. “It has not been observed before in animals, but it has been observed in plants.” Corals belong to one of the oldest animal groups. They are similar to plants in many ways, such as spending most of their lives fixed in one place, in their case on reefs, says Baums. One way that corals and their relatives differ from mammals or birds is in their germ line, the cells in their bodies that form eggs or sperm. In most animals, including humans, the germ-line cells are strictly separated from the rest of the body. This limits which genetic mutations can be passed on. For example, a gene might mutate in one cell of a person’s body and change that cell’s behaviour – perhaps turning it cancerous – but the mutation won’t be passed to their children. Only mutations in germ-line cells can be inherited. Biologists already knew that coral germ lines aren’t like this. Adult corals have groups of primordial stem cells that can give rise to both germ-line cells and body cells. Body cells sometimes change back into stem cells, and then into germ-line cells. This blurs the line between the germ line and the rest of the body. Baums and her colleagues have now found evidence that mutations that arise during a coral’s lifespan can enter the germ line and be passed on. They studied elkhorn corals (Acropora palmata) from Florida and Curaçao. These live in colonies of genetically identical polyps that divide asexually, allowing the colony to grow. They also release sperm and eggs into the water that were thought to need to encounter sperm or eggs from another colony to develop.