5-11-21 Houston suspect arrested as pet tiger remains on the loose
A murder suspect in Texas who was out on bail has been taken back into custody after neighbours called the police to alert them to a pet tiger wandering around a Houston neighbourhood. When officers arrived on Sunday, the man put the Bengal tiger in an SUV, and drove off, police said. Victor Hugo Cuevas, 26, now faces a separate charge of evading arrest, police said. The tiger is still on the loose. Footage shared on social media appeared to show a tiger on the leafy suburban streets. Houston Police confirmed that Mr Cuevas had been arrested for evading arrest - but added that they did not know where the tiger was. Police Commander Ron Borza told reporters on Monday that the main concern had been finding both Mr Cuevas and the animal: "We have plenty of places we can take that tiger and keep it safe, and give it a home for the rest of its life. "A lot of time, people get desperate and do silly things. We want to get him and get the tiger to a safe place." Mr Cuevas' lawyer, Michael Elliott, said his client was not the owner of the tiger or taking care of the animal. He said his client was not guilty of any crime. Tigers are not allowed within Houston city limits unless the handler, such as a zoo, is licensed to have exotic animals, police said. Mr Borza said residents should not have such animals because they can be unpredictable. "If that tiger was to get out and start doing some damage yesterday [on Sunday], I'm sure one of these citizens would have shot the tiger. We have plenty of neighbours out here with guns, and we don't want to see that. "It's not the animal's fault. It's the breeder's fault. It's unacceptable," he said. (Webmaster's comment: This man is insane. Tigers see most humans as food!)
5-11-21 Scientists remotely controlled the social behavior of mice with light
The new devices allow complex wireless control of mouse brain activity. With the help of headsets and backpacks on mice, scientists are using light to switch nerve cells on and off in the rodents’ brains to probe the animals’ social behavior, a new study shows. These remote control experiments are revealing new insights on the neural circuitry underlying social interactions, supporting previous work suggesting minds in sync are more cooperative, researchers report online May 10 in Nature Neuroscience. The new devices rely on optogenetics, a technique in which researchers use bursts of light to activate or suppress the brain nerve cells, or neurons, often using tailored viruses to genetically modify cells so they respond to illumination (SN: 1/15/10). Scientists have used optogenetics to probe neural circuits in mice and other lab animals to yield insights on how they might work in humans (SN: 10/22/19). Optogenetic devices often feed light to neurons via fiber-optic cables, but such tethers can interfere with natural behaviors and social interactions. While scientists recently developed implantable wireless optogenetic devices, these depend on relatively simple remote controls or limited sets of preprogrammed instructions. These new fully implantable optogenetic arrays for mice and rats can enable more sophisticated research. Specifically, the researchers can adjust each device’s programming during the course of experiments, “so you can target what an animal does in a much more complex way,” says Genia Kozorovitskiy, a neurobiologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. These head-mounted and back-mounted devices are battery-free, wirelessly powered by the same high-frequency radio waves used to remotely control the intensity, duration and timing of the light pulses. The prototypes also allow scientists to simultaneously control four different neural circuits in an animal, thanks to LEDs that emit four hues — blue, green, yellow and red — instead of just one.
5-10-21 Taller and prettier plants are more likely to be studied by botanists
Plants that are taller and more attractive are more likely to be studied by botanists, suggests an analysis of research conducted over the past 45 years. Martino Adamo at the University of Turin in Italy and his colleagues analysed 280 scientific papers published between 1975 and 2020 that mention one or more of a selection of 113 small flowering plant species typical of the south-western Alps in Europe. Using a statistical model, they found that the physical appearance of a plant – its colour, the size of its flowers and the height of its stems – was the most important factor in explaining research interest amongst botanists, trumping ecological importance, rarity and abundance. Plants with blue flowers received the most attention. “Blue plants, such as Gentiana ligustica, in particular were really well studied,” says Adamo. Plants with white and red flowers were also significantly more researched than plants with brown and green flowers, which stand out the least from their background. “Looking at our model, plants taller than the average height in their habitat are more likely to be studied as well,” says Adamo. He and his team suggest that taller plants may have been more frequently examined because they are more accessible to researchers – they wouldn’t have to stoop to the ground to inspect the plant’s leaves, for instance. This may introduce a bias to botanical studies, as researchers are more likely to examine one type of plant than another, says Diego Fontaneto at Italy’s National Research Council. Adamo and his team hope to use these findings to inform better policies and conservation efforts aimed at avoiding the neglect of particular plants in the Alps. Although the analysis was only done on Alpine flora, the researchers are interested in investigating whether this pattern is seen in other ecosystems across the world.
5-7-21 Grand Canyon lottery to kill bison gathers 45,000 entries
Over 45,000 people have applied to cull bison in the Grand Canyon after the US National Park Service (NPS) requested volunteers to help with overpopulation. The famed national park in Arizona is seeking 12 "skilled volunteers" to reduce the herd, which has grown large enough to cause environmental damage. The event is not being classified as a "hunt", as hunting is forbidden in US national parks. Some environmentalists have warned the move could set a dangerous precedent. The lottery opened on Monday and closed after 48 hours with 45,040 applicants. An initial 25 names will be selected. After being vetted by park officials for skills including marksmanship, 12 people will be given the opportunity to kill a bison in the park's North Rim area. Volunteers are permitted to bring a support crew along, according to the NPS rules. Bison can weigh over 2,000lbs (900kg), but the sharp-shooters must carry out any meat on foot without the help of motorised transport or pack animals. The event will take place in rugged, rocky and sometimes snowy terrain, with elevations exceeding 8,000ft (2,440m). Officials say the pilot programme is required after the herd rapidly grew to 600 bison in recent years. The NPS hopes to bring the herd residing on the North Rim down to about 200 in order to reduce trampling of Native American archaeological sites, soil erosion and water contamination. Before being hunted to near-extinction in the 19th Century, bison (which are also known in the US as buffalo) roamed across much of the continent. An estimated 30 to 60 million bison were reduced to only about 400 by the late 1800s. But environmentalists say there is little evidence that the Grand Canyon was ever part of their historic range. According to historians, the North Rim herd was introduced to the area after a frontiersman's failed attempt to interbreed bison with cattle in the early 1900s.(Webmaster's comment: These are 45,000 very sick people!)
5-7-21 US Navy is developing drones to exterminate birds' eggs near airfields
A new US Navy autonomous drone will seek out and locate birds’ nests near airfields, armed with a device to prevent their eggs from hatching. Bird strikes are a serious risk to aircraft, and the US Pentagon spends around $50 million a year managing birds around airfields. Oiling is a process that involves coating eggs with food-grade oil and blocking pores in the shells to deprive embryos of oxygen. When carried out correctly, it is considered to be a humane way to prevent embryos from developing by the Human Society of the United States, and doesn’t drive parent birds to start a new nest or lay more eggs. The method can selectively reduce populations of ground-nesting birds while protecting threatened and endangered species. Drones have previously been used to locate birds’ nests that could then be treated by human operators, but many of these nests are in inaccessible places including cliff faces, towers or other infrastructure. Hitron Technologies in Lexington, Kentucky, is developing the Intelligent Remote Egg-Oiling System (IREOS) for the US Navy, in collaboration with the University of South Carolina. IREOS is a commercial quadcopter equipped with real-time nest detection based on deep learning, a form of machine learning inspired by the brain, and an egg-oiling device. IREOS autonomously manoeuvres around obstacles, such as power lines and antennas, while finding nests and eggs. Once a nest is located, a human operator then confirms whether to go ahead with oiling. IREOS should be able to tackle multiple nests in a 20-to-30-minute session on one battery charge. The IREOS prototype is currently carrying out flight tests in a controlled environment. Later field testing may require permits from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
5-7-21 Rare fish set for return to River Severn breeding grounds
One of the UK's rarest fish is getting a chance to return to its historical breeding grounds on the River Severn. The little-known twaite shad, a member of the herring family, was once common in British waters with thousands of the fish migrating upstream in spring. Numbers dwindled after weirs constructed in the 19th Century posed barriers to migratory fish. A conservation project is trying to unlock the river for fish by creating routes around several weirs. It is hoped the move will benefit a host of species including salmon, lamprey and eels. This month could see the return of the twaite shad to stretches of the river north of Worcester. Volunteers are being sought to listen out for the distinctive splashing sounds the fish make when they breed at night. Jason Leach, programme director at the Canal & River Trust, said: "It's never too late to give nature the chance to recover. "Our project's night-time riverside spawning vigils are a fitting way to begin recording the recovery of the fish affected so badly when our predecessors inadvertently caused a big problem for migratory fish by the building of the weirs. "We hope lots of volunteers will be inspired to join us to witness and record the spring shad-spawning phenomenon." The Unlocking The Severn project by the Canal & River Trust, Severn Rivers Trust, Environment Agency and Natural England is in the process of reopening 150 miles (241km) of the river for the fish. Two specially constructed passes beside Victorian-era weirs at Diglis and Bevere, near Worcester, have been completed. A study by Swansea University estimates that 99% of the UK's rivers are fragmented by barriers such as weirs, dams, hydropower structures and culverts. The high number of barriers make it difficult for migratory fish to complete their journeys to reproduce and find food.
5-6-21 Many US cities will lose nearly all ash trees by 2060
An invasive pest called the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) will kill up to 99 per cent of the ash trees on the streets of many US cities by 2060, according to modelling by Emma Hudgins at McGill University in Canada and colleagues. Invasive pests and diseases, such as Dutch elm disease, have had a devastating impact on some types of tree in many places around the world. Hudgins has previously found that despite the different nature of these pests, it is relatively simple to model their spread because they are being carried around by people – in firewood, for instance. “Humans are doing the transport of these species,” she says. Hudgins’ team has now applied this finding to model how the spread of the pests already present in the US will affect street trees in cities. The researchers found the emerald ash borer is set to have the biggest impact. This Asian insect, first detected in in the US in 2002, attacks all native ash tree species. It is poised to wipe out most ashes in forests and will hit cities hard too. Some, including New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia could lose 99 per cent of their ash trees, the model suggests. That means the loss of the many benefits of urban trees until replacements grow. Greener cities are good for people’s mental well-being, Hudgins says, and trees provide habitat for animals, too. They also cool places in summer, improving the health of those who can’t afford air conditioning and reducing the bills of those who can. Clearing dead ash trees could cost each city up to $13 million, the team forecast. “If they fall on someone that’s a huge liability,” Hudgins says. Cities replanting trees or planting new ones should plant a diverse mix of pest-resistant species, she says, rather than having streets lined with genetically identical trees.
5-6-21 Income inequality 'drives global wildlife trade'
More than 420 million wild animals have been traded in 226 nations over two decades, according to new figures. Researchers say income inequality is driving the trade and suggest high-income countries should pay poorer ones to conserve wildlife. The international trade in animals and plants stands as one of the biggest threats to endangered species. The analysis shows wild animals are mostly moved from low-income countries to rich developed nations. For instance, wild frogs are traded between Madagascar and the US, and wild fish exported from Thailand to Hong Kong. Researchers argue that the lack of socioeconomic incentives in current multi-national agreements may be limiting the potential to crackdown on harmful trade. Jia Huan Liew of the University of Hong Kong, who led the study, said countries supplying the most wildlife products should be given financial incentives to reduce trade over a set time period. "At the end of this period, the exporting country will receive a pre-agreed sum if the target is met," he told BBC News. "Funding would ideally be drawn from wealthy countries, given their commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and the fact that they play a disproportionately large role in the global wildlife market." The researchers believe the pandemic could lead to a decline in international wildlife trade, due to a number of factors including bans on wildlife consumption in China. They say this should be viewed as the foundation for change. "To avoid returning to business as usual, we should take advantage of the public's awareness of the possible consequences of consuming wildlife products to reduce demand, and make the Chinese ban on wildlife consumption permanent," Dr Liew said. The study, published in Science Advances, found that between 1998 and 2018, the global trade network was more extensive among pairs of nations with greater wealth divides. The largest exporters of wildlife products were Indonesia, Jamaica and Honduras, while the US was the biggest importer, with France and Italy a distant second and third.
5-5-21 The platypus: What nature’s weirdest mammal says about our origins
Platypuses glow in UV light, produce venom and lay eggs. Yet despite their oddities, their newly sequenced genome illuminates the evolution of mammals. WHEN news reached London of a mole-like animal with webbed feet and a duck’s bill, many people thought it was a hoax. It was the late 18th century, Britain had just begun colonising Australia and the strange creature had been spotted by no less a figure than David Collins, founder of New South Wales. However, when zoologist George Shaw at the British Museum examined sketches and specimens of the animal, he was sceptical. “It naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means,” he wrote. Attitudes changed as more specimens arrived. In 1799, Shaw was the first to scientifically describe the creature, giving it the name Platypus anatinus, meaning “flat-footed duck”. It was later referred to as the “paradoxical bird-snout” before being officially renamed Ornithorhynchus anatinus, meaning “duck-like bird snout”. Today, most people just call it the platypus. It took more than 80 years just to work out how this animal fits into the tree of life. Since then, biologists have gone even further and found that it possesses a range of features that mean it is among the most unusual creatures on Earth. But it isn’t simply an oddity. As a mammal that shares many characteristics with birds and reptiles, the platypus holds the key to unlocking some fundamental evolutionary mysteries. Now, geneticists have mapped its entire genome and are starting to understand how it came to be so strange – and what it can tell us about the origins of all mammals, including us. Even today, it turns out, the platypus has the ability to surprise. The platypus is one of just five remaining species from an ancient group of mammals called monotremes that lay eggs rather than giving birth to live young, as other mammals do. The other extant monotremes, the four species of echidna, are equally strange. Found only in waterways across Tasmania and eastern Australia, platypuses are nocturnal and grow to about half a metre long. They may look like a mash-up of various animals, but, ecologically, they make sense. “They are exquisitely adapted to what they do,” says biologist Jonathan Losos at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Their webbed feet, sprawled body and dense, waterproof fur are perfect for their semi-aquatic lifestyle. Their claws make them efficient diggers: they excavate tunnels around 5 metres long in riverbanks in which to live. And platypuses’ distinctive, duck-like bills allow them to search for crustaceans and insects while swimming underwater with their eyes, ears and noses shut. “It has this amazing electroreception sense in its bill that can detect the muscular activity of its prey, even slight muscle twitches,” says Losos.
5-5-21 Ant species given first gender-neutral scientific name
A newly discovered species of ant from Ecuador has been named with the suffix “-they”, rather than a traditional gendered Latin suffix, to celebrate gender diversity. The ant was discovered by Philipp Hoenle at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, in 2018. He sent a photograph to taxonomic expert Douglas Booher at Yale University, who recognised it as a new species in the genus Strumigenys. In contrast to traditional species-naming practices, which only recognise one of two distinct genders with the suffixes “-ae” for women and “-i” for men, Booher suggested using the gender non-binary identifier “they” instead, naming the ant Strumigenys ayersthey after artist and human rights activist Jeremy Ayers. Ayers was a protégé of Andy Warhol in the 1970s under the pseudonym of Silva Thinn. He died in 2016. “He identified as a gay man outside of his Warhol character, but I’m naming it after him with the suffix added to include all non-binary people for his activism,” says Booher. Booher also asked Michael Stipe, the lead singer of the band R.E.M. and a mutual friend with Ayers, to join him in writing the etymology section of the paper outlining the new species. According to Booher, there are 853 species in the Strumigenys genus, but the new ant was immediately identifiable as unique. “It’s very different from any ant in the genus,” he says. “There’s a lot of convergent evolution, so a lot of species in different countries look alike but aren’t related. So it was a special ant and I was waiting for something like this to represent gender diversity and biological diversity.” Asked whether he will use the -they suffix to name future new species, Booher says he will use a female, male or non-binary suffix depending on the wishes of the person the species is named after.
5-5-21 Floating googly eyes on a stick scare seabirds away from fishing nets
Buoys fitted with cartoon-like eyes act in a similar way to scarecrows, keeping seabirds safely away from areas of the sea where they might get caught in fishing nets. An estimated 400,000 diving birds drown each year when they become entangled in vertically oriented gill nets that hang down in water between floats or buoys. In a bid to reduce deaths, a team of bird conservation researchers led by Yann Rouxel at the BirdLife International Marine Programme in Glasgow, UK, has developed and tested a method of turning the buoys into marine scarecrows. Researchers previously hoped that LED lighting would alert seabirds to the nearly transparent nets, but the birds got tangled up and drowned anyway, says Rouxel. Then he and his team noticed that digital, moving eyes on the screens surrounding airport runways successfully keep birds away from planes. Rouxel and his colleagues decided to adapt the concept for use by the fishing industry, with a device that needs no electricity to run and is both lightweight and inexpensive. Based on previous studies about seabird vision and what changes their flight patterns and brain activity, the researchers created a Looming-Eyes Buoy (LEB) prototype out of carbon and steel. It features a panel that rotates in the wind like a weather vane. On one side of the panel, the researchers added a small pair of eyes; on the opposite side, they added a larger pair of eyes, so that as the device spins it gives the impression of a strange creature that is appearing, or looming, in the field of vision. “The wind changes a lot, so that creates a looming-eye movement that is hard to predict and could keep the birds from habituating [getting used to the threat] too quickly,” says Rouxel. This sort of looming phenomenon has been shown to trigger “collision neurons” in bird brains that prevent them from running into objects or each other, he says.
5-4-21 A species of yeast produces near-identical clones when it has sex
A species of yeast has weird sex. While most organisms use sex to reshuffle their genes and create offspring that are genetically different from their parents, this one goes to extreme lengths to avoid recombining its DNA. The yeast, called Saccharomycodes ludwigii, illustrates a problem that all sexually reproducing species face: while sex has evolutionary benefits, it also has costs. In some circumstances, reshuffling genes can produce individuals that can’t survive, so it is better not to do it too much. “This species is an extreme case,” says Michael Knop at Heidelberg University in Germany. Knop and his colleagues have spent more than a decade studying S. ludwigii. Like other yeasts, it is a single-celled fungus and can reproduce sexually. They do this through a process called meiosis: a yeast species starts out with two copies of every chromosome, and therefore two copies of every gene. Each “adult” cell then shuffles genes between its chromosomes through a process called recombination, before producing daughter cells that carry just one copy of each chromosome. Because of the recombination, the chromosomes that these daughter cells carry are genetically distinct from those present in the adult – and so when two such daughter cells fuse together to form offspring with two copies of every chromosome, these offspring will also be genetically distinct from the original adults. But this isn’t the case in S. ludwigii. Knop and his team found that this yeast hardly ever performs recombination. They sequenced parent and offspring yeast and couldn’t find any pieces of chromosome that had been swapped. This result held true when the researchers examined 10 different strains of the species, suggesting that it has behaved this way for a long time. It isn’t that S. ludwigii can’t perform recombination – the researchers found that it still has the majority of the genes required to do so.
5-3-21 Bats don’t have to learn the speed of sound – they’re born knowing it
Bats are born knowing the speed of sound. This may not be shocking, as they rely on echolocation to find food and avoid crashing into trees in the dark. But unlike birds that learn their songs, or lions that learn to hunt, bats seem to be born knowing how to echolocate. Bats make high-pitched calls that reflect off distant objects, and then they translate the time until the echo returns into some measure of distance. Depending on air temperature, sound can move faster or slower, and it is a reasonable expectation that bats would accommodate for this. To see whether bats can adjust their echolocation to accommodate changes in the speed of sound, Eran Amichai and Yossi Yovel at Tel Aviv University in Israel trained eight adult Kuhl’s pipistrelle bats (Pipistrellus kuhlii) to fly to a perch within a chamber pumped full of oxygen and helium. Because helium is less dense than other atmospheric gases, sound travels faster through it. The helium interfered with the bats’ echolocation timing and caused them to aim short of the perch. At first, this was expected, but the adult bats never learned to adjust. “We were surprised by the results. Honestly, we didn’t trust them at first,” says Amichai, now at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Amichai and Yovel then tried the experiment with pups instead of adults. They hand-reared 11 bats, raising half of them from birth in the helium-enriched chamber. When the bats were old enough to fly, Amichai trained the pups to fly to the perch like the adults. Still, despite the environment the pups were raised in, neither group could accurately sense the distance to the perch in the helium environment. Both experiments indicate that bats have a rigid, innate reference for the speed of sound. The team says they expect this to be the same in all bats, as the brain structures involved in echolocation are similar across species.
5-3-21 Nanoscale nutrients can protect plants from fungal diseases
Tuning the chemistries of nanomaterials changes the plants’ response levels to fungal pathogens. Chances are, most — if not all — of the produce in your kitchen is threatened by fungal diseases. The threat looms large for food staples of the world such as rice, wheat, potatoes and maize (SN: 9/22/05). Pathogenic fungi are also coming for our coffee, sugarcane, bananas and other economically important crops. Annually, fungal diseases destroy a third of all harvests and pose a dire threat to global food security. To stop the spread of fungal diseases, farmers fumigate the soil with toxic chemicals that lay waste to the land, sparing not even the beneficial microbes teeming in the earth. Or they ply plants with fungicides. But fungicide use is effective only in the short run — until the pathogenic fungi evolve resistance against these synthetic chemicals. Now, a new idea is taking root: Help plants stand their ground by giving them the tools to fight their own battles. A team led by Jason White, an environmental toxicologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, is fortifying crops with nutrients fashioned into nanosized packages, which boost plants’ innate immunity against pathogenic fungi more efficiently than traditional plant feeding. Over the past few years, the researchers have devised various nanonutrient concoctions that boost the fungal resistance of soybeans, tomatoes, watermelons and, recently, eggplants, as reported in the April Plant Disease. The concept “tackles the challenge at the origin rather than trying to put a Band-Aid on the [problem],” says Leanne Gilbertson, an environmental engineer at the University of Pittsburgh who was not involved in the research. White’s strategy provides plants with the nutrients they need to trigger enzyme production to guard against pathogenic attack. Without any synthetic chemicals introduced, the strategy sidesteps any opportunity for malignant fungi to develop resistances, she says.