7-30-21 Endangered maleo bird of Indonesia bouncing back from the brink
Maleos, colourful Indonesian birds that look a bit like quirky chickens, are endangered. But an initiative to protect the species has helped boost the number of nesting birds at some sites. The maleo (Macrocephalon maleo) has a flashy black and white body with a peach-coloured breast, a strange helmet-like head crest and a reddish orange beak. It lays eggs five times the size of a chicken egg, and the young can fly almost as soon as they hatch. The eggs are collected for food on Sulawesi and a small neighbouring island – the only places in the world where the bird occurs naturally. But this is driving this charismatic bird to extinction. “Even though they have protected status, the poaching of their eggs has gone on and on,” says Marcy Summers, director of the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation. One village was particularly concerned with the loss of these birds, and approached Summers’s organisation to help conserve the maleo. “The maleo is extremely iconic. It’s like the bald eagle for Sulawesi,” she says. The organisation agreed to pay the villagers to guard the eggs, which the birds bury in sand, where they are incubated through either the warmth of the sun or through heat from nearby geothermal springs. The project worked so well that the maximum number of maleos Summers and her team saw nesting at a given time quadrupled over 15 years, despite other ongoing problems like habitat loss. Word spread, and other villages at a different communal nesting site asked to be involved in the initiative. Their maleo numbers were very low, but they have also seen increases over the five years since they began to protect the birds. The villagers erected a maleo statue to celebrate their work, with help from the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation. “This project shows it’s not just economics that motivate people, but also their pride and their love of their natural heritage,” says Summers.
7-30-21 Viruses can kill wasp larvae that grow inside infected caterpillars
A new study is a take on the adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”. When parasitic wasps come calling, some caterpillars have a surprising ally: a viral infection. Insects called parasitoid wasps lay their eggs inside young moth larvae, turning the caterpillars into unwitting, destined-to-die incubators for possibly hundreds of wasp offspring. That’s bad news for viruses trying to use the caterpillars as replication factories. For the caterpillars, viral infections can be lethal, but their chances of survival are probably higher than if wasps choose them as a living nursery. Now, a study shows how certain viruses can help caterpillars stymie parasitoid wasps. A group of proteins dubbed parasitoid killing factor, or PKF, that are found in some insect viruses are incredibly toxic to young parasitoid wasps, researchers report in the July 30 Science. The new finding shows that viruses and caterpillars can come together to fight off a common wasp enemy, says study coauthor Madoka Nakai, an insect virologist at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. A parasitoid wasp would kill a host that the virus needs to survive, so the virus fights for its home. “It’s very clever,” Nakai says. What’s more, some moth caterpillars make the wasp-killing proteins themselves, the team found. It’s possible that in the distant past, a few moths survived a viral infection and “got some presents” in the form of genetic instructions for how to make the proteins, says study coauthor Salvador Herrero, an insect pathologist and geneticist at the University of Valencia in Spain. Those insects could have then passed the ability down to offspring. In this case, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Herrero says. Previous studies had shown that viruses and insects, including moths, can swap genes with each other. The new finding is one of the latest examples of this activity, says Michael Strand, an entomologist at the University of Georgia in Athens who was not involved in the work.
7-29-21 Polar bears sometimes bludgeon walruses to death with stones or ice
It’s long been said that a piece of ice is the perfect murder weapon. Walruses, weighing as much as 1,300 kilograms with huge tusks and nearly impenetrable skulls, are almost impossible for a hungry polar bear to kill. But new research suggests that some polar bears have invented a work-around — bashing walruses on the head with a block of stone or ice. For more than 200 years, Inuit in Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic have told stories of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) using such tools to aid in killing walruses. Yet explorers, naturalists and writers often dismissed such accounts, relegating them to myth along with tales about shape-shifting bears. The persistence of these reports, including one report from an Inuk hunter in the late 1990s, coupled with photos of a male polar bear named GoGo at a Japanese zoo using tools to obtain suspended meat compelled Ian Stirling and colleagues to investigate further. “It’s been my general observation that if an experienced Inuit hunter tells you that he’s seen something, it’s worth listening to and very likely to be correct,” says Stirling, one of the world’s leading polar bear biologists. The researchers reviewed historical, secondhand observations of tool use in polar bears reported by Inuit hunters to explorers and naturalists as well as recent observations by Inuit hunters and non-Inuit researchers and documented observations of GoGo and brown bears — polar bears’ closest relatives — using tools in captivity to access food. This review suggests that tool use in wild polar bears, though infrequent, does occur in the case of hunting walruses because of their large size, the researchers report in the June Arctic. “Really, the only species you would want to bonk on the head with a piece of ice would be a walrus,” says Andrew Derocher, director of the Polar Bear Science Lab at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, who wasn’t involved with the new study. He suspects that it might just be a few polar bears that do this behavior. For example, if a mother bear figured out how to use ice or stone in this way, “it’s something her offspring would pick up on,” but not necessarily a skill polar bears across the Arctic would acquire, he says.
7-29-21 First known wild chimpanzee with albinism was killed by other chimps
For the first time, a wild chimpanzee with albinism has been spotted. The baby ape was born with bright white fur and a total lack of pigmentation. It was an unprecedented opportunity to see how the other chimpanzees treated it. “We could actually document the behaviour of chimpanzees towards this individual,” says Maël Leroux of the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Unfortunately, the male baby chimp was born into a community noted for high rates of infanticide, and was killed by adults while just weeks old. “If it had happened in a different chimp community, there might have been a fantastic opportunity to observe this individual growing up,” says Adriana Lowe, previously at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, who wasn’t involved in the study. Leroux and his colleagues were tracking the Sonso chimpanzee community in Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda. In 2018, a female dubbed UP became pregnant. On 15 July that year, she was spotted carrying a white infant. Several adult chimpanzees approached UP and the baby. They made alarm calls and so-called waa barks, which are used when they meet dangerous animals like snakes. One adult male charged at UP and hit her. She soon disappeared into dense undergrowth with the baby. Early in the morning of 19 July, Leroux and a colleague found a group of chimps hidden in a thicket and making angry and alarmed calls. They heard what sounded like a fight and an infant screaming. The baby chimp died after attacks by the group’s alpha male, HW. After the chimps abandoned the body, the researchers autopsied it and confirmed a lack of pigment in the skin and hair, along with pink eyeballs – a clear sign of albinism. Leroux says there is no reason to think the infant was killed because of its appearance, because the Sonso community is so prone to infanticide. UP’s previous baby was also killed.
7-29-21 Near-invincible tardigrades may see only in black and white
A genetic analysis hints that the critters lack the right light-sensing proteins to see color. Next time you’re looking at a rainbow, be thankful you’re not a tardigrade. While the microscopic creatures, also known as water bears, are master survivors when it comes to radiation, space or extreme temperatures (SN: 7/14/17), they may lack one way to appreciate the world they live in: the ability to see in color. Tardigrades’ close arthropod relatives can see color and ultraviolet light. But tardigrades don’t have the same light-sensing proteins, called opsins, that arthropods do. That means they might not be able to see either visible or UV light, researchers report July 13 in Genome Biology and Evolution. While working at Keio University Institute of Advanced Biosciences in Yamagata, Japan, evolutionary biologist James Fleming and colleagues cataloged which opsins tardigrades have. Then the team used genetic analysis to figure out whether these opsins were active or not in two species: Hypsibius exemplaris and Ramazzottius variornatus. Despite having active opsins, R. variornatus doesn’t have eyes — a problem for seeing things. Still, “it’s doing something with [the opsins],” says Fleming, now at the University of Oslo Natural History Museum. What exactly that is remains unknown. H. exemplaris have eyes but don’t have opsins that can respond to multiple types of light, the team found — a crucial trait to detect different colors. And tardigrade eyes are fairly simple, Fleming says, meaning that even with additional opsins their vision might resemble a black and white silent film instead of a murky 1800s photo. Many of the opsin genes also were more active when the critters were eggs than when they were adults. “Understandably, there is not a lot of ecological use for being able to see whilst you’re inside of an egg,” Fleming says. But there might be other light-sensitive processes important for the egg’s development.
7-28-21 Do plants, fungi or microorganisms get cancer?
Do plants, fungi or microorganisms get cancer or analogous uncontrolled cellular growth? We usually say that an animal has cancer when it has a tumour, a clump of cells that multiply out of control. If we accept that as the definition of cancer then, yes, plants can get cancer. In plants, cancers can have many different causes, but they are usually the result of an infection. For example, swollen knot-like structures called crown galls that affect many species of tree are often caused by the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Similarly, in humans, cervical cancer is usually caused by the human papillomavirus. However, plant cancers differ from animal cancers in two main respects. First of all, plants don’t have cells that circulate through the system, so their cancers cannot metastasise. It is this spreading of the cancer cells to other tissues that usually kills the animal. The second difference is that plants don’t have any organs that are essential for life. If a tumour destroys an organ like our brain or our liver, we will die. Plants have it easier: if a branch or other part is killed by a tumour, they can always grow another one. A small but interesting group of plant diseases result in localised growth of the host tissue. These are all associated with a pathogen such as a virus or bacterium, or with pests such as certain insects. One common example is clubroot, which affects brassicas like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. It occurs when plants are infected by a soil-living organism called Plasmodiophora brassicae, and it leads to swollen and deformed roots. Another example is a disease called witches’ broom, which results in the sprouting of spindly stalks from infected tissue. In the cacao tree, it is caused by the fungus Moniliophthora perniciosa. The standard textbook of plant pathology by George Agrios makes no mention of tumours that aren’t linked to a pathogen, but I reckon that if you looked hard enough (very hard in the case of fungi and bacteria), they would be found.
7-28-21 Caffeine-fuelled bumblebees are better at foraging for nectar
Bumblebees that get a caffeine boost are better able to remember the odours of specific flowers, helping them to forage for them in future. The caffeine appears to enhance bees’ learning and memory skills, even if there is no caffeine in the flowers they ultimately choose. Previous research has shown that bees have a preference for flowers with naturally caffeinated nectar, such as coffee and citrus plants, but it was unclear whether the caffeine boosted their performance or if they actually craved the caffeine itself. Sarah Arnold and Jan-Hendrik Dudenhöffer at the University of Greenwich, UK, crafted a synthetic odour of strawberry flowers, which aren’t naturally caffeinated, and provided it along with sugar water to feed to laboratory bees in their nests. Then they added a small, tasteless dose of caffeine to the nectar in about half those nests. The researchers also fed unscented sugar water to a control group of bees. Starting the next day, Dudenhöffer let the bees explore an area containing eight flower-like robots which would distribute synthetic nectar when the bees landed on them, and then refill themselves. Half the robots smelled like strawberry flowers, and the other half smelled like linalool, an odour found in many kinds of flowers, but not strawberry plants. All the robots provided sweet nectar as a treat, but none of them contained caffeine. Bees that had fed on neutral sugar water in their nests showed no preference for any of the flower robots, visiting the strawberry-smelling ones about half the time. Those that had been fed a caffeine-free strawberry flower nectar selected the strawberry-smelling robots more frequently – about 60 per cent of the time. The bees that had had caffeine in their strawberry nectar, however, showed a strong preference for the strawberry-scented robots, visiting them 70 per cent of the time, says Arnold. In addition, they learned to gradually get faster as they foraged – even more so than the bees that had not had caffeine.
7-28-21 Why invertebrates should be included in animal welfare protections
FRANKLIN the cuttlefish considered the juicy prawn meat morsel in front of her. As mouth-watering as it looked, she resisted temptation and waited for her favourite meal to become available – live shrimp. Her self-control is impressive and comparable to what we see in chimpanzees and crows. Self-control is a vital cognitive skill that underpins decision-making and future planning. In humans, these abilities are linked to sentience because they are thought to involve conscious experience. Imagining future choices is accompanied by an awareness of the projection of self in time – what will my future self want, and how different will it be from what I want now? Some animals possess similar cognitive abilities, but cannot report their experiences, and so whether they are sentient is an ongoing debate. This topic has recently taken the spotlight in the UK with a new bill currently making its way through parliament that will recognise certain animals as sentient, including mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. This will give them greater protections in law, particularly in the context of reducing pain and suffering. This is a good step forward. However, as it stands, invertebrates like Franklin aren’t being included. Invertebrates show plenty of behavioural signs of sentience. But because their neurological architecture greatly differs from that of vertebrates, it is often wrongly assumed that they don’t possess the appropriate hardware to experience emotions. Despite the differences, there are many brain structures across both groups that perform similar functions. Invertebrates such as cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish, squid) and decapods (crayfish, crabs, lobsters, prawns) possess brain receptors and structures that can process negative emotions, such as the vertical lobe in cephalopods – responsible for learning and memory. They also possess nerve cords that transfer information about the location of an injury from the peripheral nerves to the central brain.
7-27-21 How some lizards breathe underwater
Snout bubbles let anoles stay submerged in streams for up to about 20 minutes. Some anole lizards have a newfound superpower: They can breathe underwater by trapping air in a bubble on their snouts. What’s more, these reptiles can stay submerged for nearly 20 minutes by rebreathing exhaled air in the bubble, a new study shows. “As anyone who has encountered one of these lizards can tell you, they dive underwater when they feel threatened,” says evolutionary biologist Chris Boccia of Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. But how the lizards stay underwater for so long had been a mystery until now. Boccia was inspired to investigate by a story one of his professors told him when he was a student at the University of Toronto. In 2009, evolutionary biologist Luke Mahler had been studying an endangered species of Anolis lizard in Haiti. After releasing a lizard back into a clear, shallow stream, Mahler noticed something odd. As the animal clung to the rocky bottom, it exhaled an air bubble on its snout and appeared to repeatedly suck the air in and out of the bubble. Mahler had to move on to his next research site so he couldn’t explore more. But years later, he still remembered the bubble-headed lizard. Boccia and colleagues traveled to Costa Rica in 2017 in search of bubble-headed anoles, capturing the creatures at night. “Doing this when they’re sleeping makes things less stressful for them,” Boccia says. It’s also “easier for us to catch them.” Wearing head lamps to find the lizards in the dark, the researchers collected 300 anoles representing a range of species — 120 lizards were found near streams and 180 were found away from streams. Back at their camp, Boccia and colleagues gently dunked each lizard in containers of river water. While underwater, all of the anoles carried a bubble of air around their snouts and appeared to breathe the bubble in and out. But river-based lizards rebreathed more often and stayed submerged longer than their land-based relatives, Boccia, Mahler and colleagues report in the July 12 Current Biology.
7-27-21 Some male fish let rivals woo females and then hijack their courtship
The dominant males in one species of Amazonian fish have developed a simple way to grab mating opportunities. They stay hidden and watch while smaller, less-dominant males work hard to persuade a female to lay eggs – then they come forward and steal the receptive female’s attention. Lower-ranking male sailfin tetras (Crenuchus spilurus) put in a lot of time and effort to court females. They may spend several days circling aquatic weeds with their colourful fins extended fully. Tiago Pires at the National Institute for Amazonian Research in Amazonas, Brazil, witnessed the displays while snorkelling in small streams in the Amazon forest, collecting data for a different study on the species’ behaviour. But then he noticed something else: as soon as a male began leading the now-receptive female to a nesting area, a more dominant male emerged from hiding – and the female would choose to mate with him instead. The phenomenon is called ‘courtship piracy’, and while it might be unique to Chrenuchus fish, it is also possible that other animals are courtship “pirates” and that their tactic has not yet been noticed, he says. “This isn’t something mean the dominant males are doing,” Pires says. “They’re just being lazy and safe, sheltered from predators and protecting their nesting site, and waiting to take advantage of another male.” To study the behaviour in more detail, Pires and his colleagues collected fish and brought them back to the lab. They placed three fish – one large male, one small male, and one female – in each of 22 laboratory aquariums. Each aquarium also contained plastic plants for courting around and a PVC pipe that resembles the sailfin tetra’s usual nesting sites, rolled up leaves from the buriti palm (Mauritia flexuosa). In all 22 aquariums, the larger male took possession of the pipe within the first 5 minutes and hid there, while the smaller male made “energetic” efforts to court the female, Pires says.
7-26-21 ‘Wild Souls’ explores what we owe animals in a human-dominated world
The book grapples with the ethical dilemmas of saving Earth’s animals. On the Arctic Ocean’s fringe, polar bears stand on ice thinning from human-caused climate change. Without thick ice from which to powerfully pounce on seals, many of these symbols of the wild north can’t eat. Should we feed polar bears to right our wrongs? Or should we leave them alone, even if that means they starve to extinction? Emma Marris’ Wild Souls prompts readers to grapple with this question and more. An absorbing and nuanced blend of philosophy and science, the book explores what we owe the nonhuman world. Like her 2011 book Rambunctious Garden, which challenged the notion of “pristine wilderness” in a world where humans touch everything (SN: 9/23/11), Wild Souls questions the very concepts of wildness and nature. The result challenges readers to reconsider how they relate to nonhuman animals, from caged creatures to polar bears in the warming north. Marris guides readers through a series of case studies, from Indigenous hunting practices to municipal zoos, all brought to life through attentive on-the-ground reporting. Running through these examples is a central ethical tension: How do we weigh the tangible moral value of an individual sentient creature who can suffer against the more abstract value of species or ecosystems, which are of course unfeeling but rouse such depths of emotion in us when they are threatened or lost? Islands are a front line of this conflict, where life that’s blossomed in isolation is threatened by species we’ve introduced. Marris examines efforts, from the Galápagos to New Zealand, to kill (often painfully with poison) millions of individual mice, rats and other creatures in the name of preserving species deemed more important. Marris is frank on where she stands on certain issues, arguing, for example, that zoos are immoral. She also asks whether it’s ever right to save a species like the California condor — which once soared above most of North America but dwindled to just a handful of individuals in the 1980s — by caging them for captive breeding.
7-23-21 Vacuuming DNA from air can reveal which animals are present in an area
Vacuuming DNA out of the air can reveal which animals are present in an area, two teams have independently shown. The approach could make it much easier to monitor wildlife in terrestrial environments around the world, and even help study airflow. “This could have a profound impact on a lot of different fields,” says Elizabeth Clare at York University in Toronto. Looking at which aquatic animals are present by searching for so-called environmental DNA, or eDNA, in water has already had a massive impact on fisheries and conservation, says Clare. It has also helped detect rare species. When Clare did a recent report on eDNA, she initially wrote that it could be detected in air as well as in water and soil, because she assumed it could. But when she went looking for references to back this up, all she found was one Japanese high school project, so her team decided to try it for themselves. Meanwhile, Kristine Bohmann at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark had come up with the same idea. After initial lab experiments, both teams field-tested the approach in zoos where the animals present are known. Bohmann’s team vacuumed air through fine filters for between 30 minutes and 30 hours at various sites in Copenhagen Zoo and then analysed the samples using the eDNA techniques developed for water or soil samples. Her team detected DNA from animals in outside enclosures up to 300 metres away from the sampler, missing just a few species around the edge of the zoo and some birds kept in cages on the other side of a building. In a sample taken in the tropical house, Bohmann’s team even detected DNA from guppies in a tank as well as from the other denizens. Initially, the team thought there were some false positives, too, but all the species identified turned out to either be fed to the animals in the zoo, or to live in or around it.
7-23-21 Essential oils help to stop invasive beetles from eating palm trees
The red palm weevil, a beetle known for its devastating effect on palm trees, can be stopped in its tracks by clove and thyme oil – offering hope of new control options for growers hit hard by the insects’ damage to their crops. Researchers at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu tested the effect of eight chemicals derived from the two essential oils on feeding by larvae of the red palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus), one of the world’s most invasive species which severely impacts the date, coconut and palm oil industries. In a study of 225 larvae over a two-week period, daily consumption of blocks ofsago palm (Cycas revoluta) soaked with both clove and thyme oil derivatives was at least 35 per cent lower than untreated blocks. Of the chemical compounds found in these oils, ethers reduced weevil feeding more than esters, and two stood out as particularly effective. These have the potential to be used as targeted bioinsecticides, says the research team. “Botanical biopesticides are seen as increasingly important crop protection tools. This stems, in part, from the reduced availability of synthetic pesticides,” says Tom Pope at Harper Adams University, UK, who was not involved in the work. He says such insecticides derived from natural materials such as plants reduce the risk that comes with conventional pesticides of resistance developing in pest populations, and they linger in the environment for less time. “Despite this, all biopesticides should be integrated within dynamic pest management programmes and not seen as ‘silver bullets’,” he says. While a number of products work against red palm weevil under lab conditions, the problem is how to deliver such deterrents, says Michel Ferry at the French National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment, who was not involved in the research.
7-22-21 Cockatoos are figuring out how to open bins by copying each other
A few curious cockatoos learned how to open residential waste bins in Australia, and now other birds have started copying them, with incidences of bin-looting spreading across eastern Australia in easily traceable waves. “If they had learned it individually, we would have seen this popping up randomly, but their method is really spreading from one suburb to the next,” says Barbara Klump at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany. A few years ago, Richard Major at the Australian Museum Research Institute in Sydney filmed one of several sulphur-crested cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) lifting a bin lid, and he shared the video with Klump’s colleague. Intrigued, the researchers asked suburbanites around Sydney and Wollongong to help them trace the phenomenon by reporting whether they saw, or didn’t see, incidences of bin-looting in their neighbourhoods. When the team started the project in 2018, scientists had documented bin-opening by cockatoos in three suburbs. But by late 2019, based on 1396 reports, the birds were looting bins in 44 suburbs. Mapping the reported sightings, the scientists detected a clear pattern of knowledge-sharing as incidences spread geographically outward from the starting sites. Video analyses reveal a complex five-step process, including prying, opening, holding, walking and flipping, all requiring particular head and leg movements around the lid and positioning on the base. The researchers suspect that only a handful of individuals figured out how to open bins on their own. Variations in the technique also apparently followed a geographical spreading pattern. The team used small dots of paint to mark more than 500 birds in bin-raiding hotspots and found that about 10 per cent could open the bins. These were mostly bigger males, which might have found it easier to open the heavy lids or might have had more access to bins because they were more dominant, she says.
7-22-21 How intricate Venus’s-flower-baskets manipulate the flow of seawater
Simulations show that this deep-sea glass sponge’s skeleton is more than just pretty. A Venus’s-flower-basket isn’t all show. This stunning deep-sea sponge can also alter the flow of seawater in surprising ways. A lacy, barrel-shaped chamber forms the sponge’s glassy skeleton. Flow simulations reveal how this intricate structure alters the way water moves around and through the sponge, helping it endure unforgiving ocean currents and perhaps feed and reproduce, researchers report online July 21 in Nature. Previous studies have found that the gridlike construction of a Venus’s-flower-basket (Euplectella aspergillum) is strong and flexible. “But no one has ever tried to see if these beautiful structures have fluid-dynamic properties,” says mechanical engineer Giacomo Falcucci of Tor Vergata University of Rome. Harnessing supercomputers, Falcucci and colleagues simulated how water flows around and through the sponge’s body, with and without different skeletal components such as the sponge’s myriad pores. If the sponge were a solid cylinder, water flowing past would form a turbulent wake immediately downstream that could jostle the creature, Falcucci says. Instead water flows through and around the highly porous Venus’s-flower-basket and forms a gentle zone of water that flanks the sponge and displaces turbulence downstream, the team found. That way, the sponge’s body endures less stress. Ridges that spiral around the outside of the sponge’s skeleton also somehow cause water to slow and swirl inside the structure, the simulations showed. As a result, food and reproductive cells that drift into the sponge would become trapped for up to twice as long as in the same sponge without ridges. That lingering could help the filter feeders catch more plankton. And because Venus’s-flower-baskets can reproduce sexually, it could also enhance the chances that free-floating sperm encounter eggs, the researchers say.
7-21-21 What would become of dogs without humans? Here’s how they’d evolve
EVEN to their biggest fans, dogs can seem ridiculously lacking in survival skills. Rufus takes off at full pelt after a squirrel with an expression of great determination, only to reach a nearby tree long after the squirrel has scampered to safety. Bella barks ferociously at a metal statue of an elk. Poppy stalks a wind-blown paper bag down the pavement. Dickens refuses to go outside to urinate because it is raining. Jethro runs home with his tail between his legs when he encounters a wild animal nearby. Such anecdotes are a common source of amusement at dog parks, on social media and in dog-related conversations. But behind the laughter lurks an serious scientific question: if humans were to suddenly disappear from the scene, could dogs survive? After at least 14,000 years of domestication, could this species we have co-evolved with cope without provisions of food, care and regular cuddles? Intrigued by this question, we have explored it as a thought experiment in our upcoming book, A Dog’s World. Using evolutionary theory and the growing body of research on free-ranging dogs, we imagine a post-human future for pooches. We try to work out what they would look like; how they might forage, reproduce and raise young; the nature of their social lives; and the cognitive and emotional skills they would need to successfully navigate a world in which they must compete, cooperate and coexist with other animals. Where we wound up surprised us. Not only did it highlight the immense flexibility of our canine friends, it also revealed some important lessons about how humans can improve the lot of dogs while we are still here. Dogs are among the most successful species of mammal on the planet. A billion or so of them inhabit every corner of the globe, living in all sorts of places, from homes and urban metropolises to deserts, rainforests and high Tibetan plateaus. When asked to imagine a dog, most people in the UK and US will picture a pet on a leash, chasing a ball in a park or gobbling a bowl of food. In fact, only a small minority of the world’s dogs live as companion animals, whereas between 80 and 85 per cent live independently as feral, village, street or community dogs.
7-21-21 This butterfly is the first U.S. insect known to go extinct because of people
DNA from a 93-year-old specimen shows the Xerces blue was its own species, not just a subgroup. It’s been roughly 80 years since the Xerces blue butterfly was last spotted flitting about on pastel wings across coastal California sand dunes. But scientists are still learning about the insect. New research on DNA from a nearly century-old museum specimen shows that the butterfly was a distinct species. What’s more, that finding means that the Xerces blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche xerces) is the first U.S. insect species known to go extinct because of humans, researchers report July 21 in Biology Letters. The butterfly used to live only on the San Francisco Peninsula. But by the early 1940s, less than a century after its formal scientific description in the 1850s, the gossamer-winged butterfly had vanished. Its rapid disappearance is attributed to the loss of habitat and native plant food as a result of urban development and, possibly, an influx of invasive ants likely spread though the shipment of goods. But it’s long been unclear if the Xerces blue butterfly was its own species, or simply an isolated population of another, more widespread species of blue butterfly, says Corrie Moreau, an entomologist at Cornell University. To find out, Moreau and colleagues turned to a 93-year-old Xerces specimen housed at Chicago’s Field Museum, extracting DNA from a tiny bit of the insect’s tissue. Despite the DNA being degraded from age, the team could compare selected Xerces genes with those of other closely related blue butterflies. The researchers also compared the genomes, or genetic instruction books, of the insects’ mitochondria — cellular structures involved in energy production that have their own set of DNA.
7-20-21 Dogs will ignore you if they know you are lying, unlike young children
Dogs tend to ignore suggestions from people who are lying, hinting that – unlike human infants and some non-human primates – they might recognise when a person is being deceptive. “We thought dogs would behave like children under age 5 and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful,” says Ludwig Huber at the University of Vienna in Austria. “Maybe they think, ‘This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].’ It’s possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying.” Huber and his colleagues trained 260 dogs of various pure breeds to find hidden food in one of two covered bowls. The dogs learned to follow the suggestion of a person they had never met – the “communicator” – who would touch the food-filled bowl, glance at the dog, and say, “Look, this is very good!” Dogs appeared to trust this new person when they were reliably following the signal, says Huber. Once that trust was established, the team had the dogs witness another person move the food from the first to the second bowl. The communicators were either in the room, and also witnessed the switch, or were briefly absent and so apparently unaware that the food had been switched. In either case, the communicators would later recommend the first bowl – which was now empty. In previous versions of this experiment with children under age 5, Japanese macaques or chimpanzees, the participants reacted in particular ways. If a communicator had been absent during the food switch, it would appear that they couldn’t know where the treat really was. As such, the children, chimps or macaques would typically ignore a communicator who gave honest – but misleading – advice on where the food was, says Huber.
7-20-21 Male and female mammals kill their own species for different reasons
Adult mammals have the capacity to kill other members of their own species, but males and females generally seem to kill for different reasons. Biologists have already studied mammalian infanticide, the killing of infants by adults of the same species, but the same isn’t true for killing adults. This means we don’t know as much about why adult mammals sometimes kill other adults within their species. In order to figure out whether there are any patterns in killing behaviour, José María Gómez Reyes at the National Research Council Arid Zones Experimental Station in Spain and his colleagues analysed the causes of death among 1384 mammal species. Of these, the team found evidence of adult killing in 352 species. It was particularly common among ungulates, primates and carnivores, but almost unheard of among bats, whales, dolphins and rabbits. The team found that males were more likely to kill than females. Males were also more likely to target other males rather than females. What’s more, the male and female mammals generally had different motivations for killing adults of their species. “It was interesting the relationship that we found between infanticide and female adulticide,” says Gómez Reyes. While male mammals are more likely to kill other adult males to rid themselves of competition, female mammals kill more often to defend their young from attacking adults. However, females may also kill the young of other females when resources are scarce. “Male contribution to reproduction is really light. They just produce sperm, and they mate as often as they can. So, to me it makes complete sense that the females are killing other adults in the context of protecting their young from infanticide,” says Kate Durrant at the University of Nottingham in the UK. “It’s protecting this investment that they’ve made, this heavy resource investment they’ve made in their offspring. They’re not gonna let them go without a fight.”
7-20-21 Sharks' spiral-shaped intestines resemble a Nikola Tesla invention
Sharks have spiral-shaped intestines that work in a similar way to an unusual valve designed by Nikola Tesla. Studying their anatomy could help improve industrial fluid-pump technology. Most animals have tubular intestines that use muscle contractions to push food along like squeezing a tube of toothpaste. But sharks slowly channel their meals through spirals without needing muscles to push the food. Their intestines are also shaped in a way that only allows food to flow one way – like a performance-enhanced Tesla valve, says Samantha Leigh at California State University Dominguez Hills. “Sharks have all these different little tweaks to the Tesla valve design that could be making them more efficient,” she says. Leigh and her colleagues surgically removed the entire digestive tubes from 32 dead sharks that had either been donated to their project or conserved in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, representing 22 shark families. Each has one of four different kinds of spiral intestine: columnar, which looks like a spiral staircase; scroll, which looks like a rolled-up sheet of paper; and two types with either upward-facing or downward-facing funnels. The researchers filled all the intestines with fluid and freeze-dried them to keep their natural shape before scanning them using computed tomography. From those scans, they created virtual 3D models, offering the first glimpse of how these “natural” Tesla valves are structured and function, says Leigh. Then, using an unfrozen sample of each of the four types of intestine, the researchers found that liquids took about 35 minutes to run through the spirals in the normal direction of flow. However, when they turned the spiral intestines upside down – opposite the normal flow – liquids took up to twice as long to pass through the two funnel types as they did previously.
7-20-21 Tomatoes have a kind of nervous system that warns about attacks
Tomatoes that are being eaten by insects use electrical signals to send an alert to the rest of the plant, similar to the way our nervous systems warn of damage. The messages seem to help the plant muster defences such as releasing hydrogen peroxide, a reactive chemical that combats microbial infections of damaged tissues, a study has found. Human nervous systems use specialised cells called neurons to send electrical signals between different parts of the body. Plants lack neurons, but they do have long, thin tubes called xylem and phloem for moving sap between their roots, leaves and fruit. Charged ions flowing in and out of these tubes can propagate electrical signals around different parts of the plant in a similar way to neurons, although much less is known about the process in plants than in animals. Previous work found that leaves that are physically damaged send electrical signals to other leaves. In a new study, Gabriela Niemeyer Reissig at the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil and her colleagues investigated if this could happen with fruit. They studied small cherry tomato plants (tomatoes are a fruit, botanically speaking) by placing them inside Faraday cages, which block external electric fields, and confined caterpillars of the moth Helicoverpa armigera on the surface of fruit within plastic bags. Electrodes placed in the fruit stalks showed that the patterns of electrical activity changed during and after the caterpillars started eating. They also varied depending on whether the fruits were ripe or green. “The electrical activity of the fruit is constantly changing every second,” says Niemeyer Reissig. “We can find a [distinct] pattern in the electrical activity when an insect attacks.” There was also a rise in levels of hydrogen peroxide produced by untouched fruit and leaves all over an attacked plant. “This is probably to avoid microbial infections of damaged plant tissue or as a strategy to cause cell death in the affected region, preventing the spread of pathogens,” says Niemeyer Reissig.
7-20-21 Galapagos tortoises use their self-destructing cells to avoid cancer
Galapagos giant tortoises are long-lived in part because their cells are surprisingly sensitive to certain forms of stress. As well as informing research into human medicine, the finding reveals how animals have evolved different ways to resist cancer and ageing. “There’s lots of different ways to get to a large body and a long, healthy lifespan,” says Vincent Lynch at the University at Buffalo, New York. We would expect large animals to be more susceptible to cancer because they have a greater number of cells, each of which has a small chance to become cancerous. But recent studies have shown how big, long-lived animals such as elephants experience paradoxically low cancer rates by having extra copies of genes involved in suppressing tumour development. These studies have mostly been done in mammals, raising the question of how other animals have evolved similar adaptations. So Lynch and his colleagues turned to turtles, which come in a large range of body sizes, have lower rates of cancer and can show remarkable longevity. Galapagos giant tortoises, for example, can live for more than 150 years. Lynch’s team found that Galapagos giant tortoises have evolved a marked reduction in cancer risk, and that their genomes contain extra copies of genes involved in responding to cellular stress caused by damaged or misshaped proteins. The accumulation of such proteins in cells has been associated with ageing and cancer. When the researchers applied a drug that triggers this kind of stress to giant tortoise cells in a lab dish, they were surprised to see that the cells immediately self-destructed. “We thought that they might be super resistant to the kinds of stresses that cause cancer, but it ends up that they’re very sensitive,” says Lynch. Killing damaged cells before they turn cancerous protects the animal from developing tumours, he says, adding that this is likely to be just one of many ways in which giant tortoises reduce their risk.
7-20-21 Pikas survive winter using a slower metabolism and, at times, yak poop
Rabbitlike mammals on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau put fussy eaters everywhere to shame. Winter on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is unfriendly to pikas. Temperatures across the barren, windy highlands routinely dip below –30° Celsius, and the grass that typically sustains the rabbitlike mammals becomes dry and brittle. It would seem the perfect time for these critters to hibernate, or subsist on stores of grass in burrows to stay warm, like the North American pika. Instead, plateau pika (Ochotona curzoniae) continue foraging in winter, but reduce their metabolism by about 30 percent to conserve energy, researchers report July 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some pikas also resort to unusual rations: yak poop. Camera data from four sites confirmed that pikas regularly brave the cold to forage. “Clearly they’re doing something fancy with their metabolism that’s not hibernation,” says John Speakman, an ecophysiologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Speakman and colleagues measured daily energy expenditure of 156 plateau pikas in summer and winter, and implanted 27 animals with temperature sensors. While many nonhibernating animals keep warm in winter by using more energy, these pikas did the opposite (SN: 1/22/14). On average, pikas reduced their metabolism by 29.7 percent, in part by cooling their bodies a couple degrees overnight. The animals were also less active, relative to summertime levels. But at sites with yaks, pikas were more abundant but even less active. That puzzled the researchers “until we found a sort of half-eaten yak turd in one of the burrows,” Speakman says. Eating excrement can cause sickness. But with few options, yak poop could be an abundant, easily digestible meal that “massively reduces the amount of time [pikas] need to spend on the surface,” he says. The researchers caught pikas scarfing scat on video, and DNA evidence from stomach contents solidified that this behavior is common. Whether dining on dung has downsides remains to be seen, but clearly, not being too picky pays off for pika.
7-19-21 Climate change may be leading to overcounts of endangered bonobos
Fewer of the great apes could be left in the wild than previously thought. Climate change is interfering with how researchers count bonobos, possibly leading to gross overestimates of the endangered apes, a new study suggests. Like other great apes, bonobos build elevated nests out of tree branches and foliage to sleep in. Counts of these nests can be used to estimate numbers of bonobos — as long as researchers have a good idea of how long a nest sticks around before it’s broken down by the environment, what’s known as the nest decay time. New data on rainfall and bonobo nests show that the nests are persisting longer in the forests in Congo, from roughly 87 days, on average, in 2003–2007 to about 107 days in 2016–2018, largely as a result of declining precipitation. This increase in nests’ decay time could be dramatically skewing population counts of the endangered apes and imperiling conservation efforts, researchers report June 30 in PLOS ONE. “Imagine going in that forest … you count nests, but each single nest is around longer than it used to be 15 years ago, which means that you think that there are more bonobos than there really are,” says Barbara Fruth, a behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany. Lowland tropical forests, south of the Congo River in Africa, are the only place in the world where bonobos (Pan paniscus) still live in the wild (SN: 3/18/21). Estimates suggest that there are at least 15,000 to 20,000 bonobos there. But there could be as many as 50,000 individuals. “The area of potential distribution is rather big, but there have been very few surveys,” Fruth says. From 2003 to 2007, and then again from 2016 to 2018, Fruth and colleagues followed wild bonobos in Congo’s LuiKotale rain forest, monitoring 1,511 nests. “The idea is that you follow [the bonobos] always,” says Mattia Bessone, a wildlife researcher at the Liverpool John Moores University in England. “You need to be up early in the morning so that you can be at the spot where the bonobos have nested, in time for them to wake up, and then you follow them till they nest again.”
7-17-21 UK looks to extend ivory ban to hippos and other animals
Hippos, walruses and whales could receive greater legal protection under UK government proposals to crack down on ivory poaching. Ministers want to extend the Ivory Act because they say elephants are not the only animals at risk. Conservationists have welcomed the move as sending a "clear signal to the rest of the world". Boris Johnson has previously announced that funding to tackle the illegal wildlife trade will be increased. The Ivory Act, which gained Royal Assent in 2018, will introduce a near total ban on the import, export and dealing of items containing elephant ivory in the UK, but it has not yet become law. Now the environment department says it needs to go further. Under the new plans - which open for public consultation on Saturday - it would be broadened to cover other animals facing threats from hunters. Ministers say hippos are also at risk from poachers, while killer whales and sperm whales are targeted for their teeth and narwhals and walruses for their tusks. The consultation puts forward three options: retaining the current ban on elephant ivory in the UK only, extending the Act to hippo ivory only, and extending it the five listed species. International Environment Minister Lord Goldsmith said: "The Ivory Act is one of the toughest bans of its kind in the world and sends a clear message that we are doing all that we can to save elephants from the threat of extinction. "However the ivory trade is a conservation threat for other magnificent species such as the hippo, narwhal and walrus that are at threat. "So I urge everyone to share their views to help ensure we can protect more animals from the grim ivory trade." Dr Mark Jones, head of policy at the Born Free Foundation, said: "Closing down elephant ivory markets is an essential step towards securing a future for elephants."However, by focusing only on the trade in elephant ivory, other ivory-bearing species could suffer as ivory traders and consumers turn to alternatives.
7-17-21 Mystery 19th Century botanist tracked down following appeal
A mystery 19th-Century botanist has been found, thanks to sleuthing work by the public. Isabella Anne Allen had been known only by the secrets she left behind, tucked between the pages of an old book. But following an appeal for information, on the BBC News website, she has now been traced to the village of Madresfield, Worcestershire. Her story came to light when clues such as pressed flowers, poems and doodles were found inside The English Flora. Donated to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) decades ago, the botanical text was rediscovered by staff sorting through boxes ahead of a move to a new library. And libraries and exhibitions head Fiona Davison said the clues within revealed its original owner "would have been a figure in the local society and in public". "She is a gardener as well as a botanist - it has become part and parcel of being an intelligent, well-to-do, well respected pillar of the community," she said. Within hours of the story's publication on the BBC News website, there were several suggested leads, from Cornwall to York. But one individual cropped up several times. The United Kingdom Census of 1851 confirmed spinster and landowner Isabella Anne Allen, born in 1810, lived with her parents, John Henry and Susannah Rebekah, and several servants at Rhydd House, Madresfield. The property, with its gardens and woodlands at the foot of the Malvern Hills close to the River Severn, offered plenty of opportunities for plant collecting. And an article in the Worcestershire Chronicle, from July 1860, revealed "several excellent roses were sent to the [Malvern Horticultural and Floral Show] by Miss Allen of the Rhydd". Allen died five years later and was buried in Madresfield, leaving her personal possessions to her sister, Ann, who in turn bequeathed her "old set of books and wild flowers" to her niece Maria Alice Empson. It may have been Empson who donated the four volumes of The English Flora to the RHS library before her death in 1948. And further scrutiny of the book, given to Allen at the age of 18 by her friend Mrs Green, revealed the words "The Rhydd, Worcestershire" pencilled next to an entry for Vinca major (greater periwinkle, a trailing vine with violet flowers).
7-16-21 The Big Butterfly Count has just kicked off - here’s how to help
WITH summer truly under way in the northern hemisphere, now is a perfect time to spot butterflies and day-flying moths. If you live in the UK, you can help conservation scientists by participating in this year’s Big Butterfly Count. By simply counting the amount and type of butterflies and moths you see, and logging your results via the Big Butterfly Count app or website, you can help researchers investigate where different species in the UK are located and how they are responding to climate change. “You can’t conserve something unless you know where it’s found,” says Zoë Randle, senior surveys officer at the UK charity behind the count, Butterfly Conservation. This year’s Big Butterfly Count has now started and runs until 8 August, so there is still plenty of time to join in. Once you have chosen a place to spot butterflies and day-flying moths, wait and watch for 15 minutes and record which species you see out of 20 target species, and the highest number of individuals of that species you see at one time. Don’t worry if you don’t know your painted ladies from your commas – a handy ID chart is available on the Big Butterfly Count app or website, where you can also record your observations. Sunny weather is ideal for spotting butterflies, says Randle. “Butterflies are insects – they’re cold-blooded and they need the warmth from the sun,” she says. Data provided through the Big Butterfly Count and other research efforts indicate that while some species are expanding their range as the planet heats up, others are faring less well. “The ringlet butterfly is expanding its range due to climate change, [as are] the speckled wood and the comma,” says Randle. But the small tortoiseshell butterfly, often spotted in gardens in the UK, has fallen by 79 per cent since 1976, she says.
7-16-21 Most bats have noise-cancelling genes that may stop them going deaf
Echolocating bats have noise-cancelling genes that may help explain why they don’t go deaf despite producing very loud ultrasonic sounds as they fly. The finding could help unravel how echolocation evolved and might also lead to treatments for hearing loss in humans. Most bats produce and hear intense high-pitched sounds that bounce off objects, enabling them to navigate and find food in the dark. These sonar calls are beyond human hearing’s frequency range, but they are often louder than 100 decibels. Some bats can even produce sounds exceeding 135 decibels. A normal conversation between people is at about 60 decibels, but prolonged exposure to anything above 80 decibels can cause ear damage in most mammals, including us. Above 120 decibels, it becomes painful. That is because extreme noise can irreparably harm or kill sensitive hair cells in a mammalian cochlea – a spiral-shaped cavity in the inner ear – that are responsible for hearing. Echolocating bats have a muscle in their ears that dampens incoming sounds, but the effect isn’t enough to explain how their hearing – essential for their echolocation abilities – isn’t damaged by the constant cacophony they generate when flying. Seeking an answer, Peng Shi at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues attached brainwave-recording electrodes to the heads of anaesthetised mice, a non-echolocating fruit bat species and five echolocating bat species. Sounds within their hearing range were then played to them at 120 decibels for 2 hours. A week later, the researchers performed the same experiment again. Results showed that the mice and fruit bats experienced hearing loss and had lost a significant amount of cochlea hair cells, but the echolocating bats were unaffected. By comparing the genetics of bats that do and don’t echolocate, the researchers discovered that the five species of echolocating bats have several genes that over-produce proteins that seem to protect their cochlear hair cells.
7-15-21 Would dogs return the favor if you gave them treats? It’s complicated
A study raises questions about both dogs’ ability to reciprocate and how experiments are set up. Dogs may not be inclined to return favors to people, at least when it involves food. The result, published July 14 in PLOS ONE, is somewhat surprising since a previous study showed dogs will return favors in the form of food to other dogs. In other studies, dogs helped their owners when the people appeared to be trapped, and canines were able to distinguish between helpful and unhelpful people. So it seems reasonable to think dogs might reciprocate good deeds by humans. To find out, comparative psychologist Jim McGetrick and colleagues at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna trained pet dogs how to use a button to get food from a nearby dispenser. Each dog was then paired with a human, visible in an adjacent enclosure, who pressed the button to dispense food in the dog’s enclosure. On separate occasions, the dog was also paired with another human who didn’t press the button. When it was the dogs’ turn to offer food to their human partners, the canines were no more likely to press the button to provide food for the helpful human than for the stingy one. Why didn’t dogs return the humans’ food favors? It may be that they aren’t willing to, or perhaps aren’t able to form this sort of complicated tit-for-tat social contract with humans. Or, there’s another possibility, the study authors note: The dogs simply may not have understood what was being asked of them, which could come down to how the experiment was designed. Science News talked to McGetrick about the challenges of testing whether animals like dogs are capable of complex social behaviors. His answers have been edited for clarity and length: What aspects of the experiment may have influenced why a dog didn’t return the favor for a human? One possible explanation is the fact that dogs don’t provide humans with food. We feed them all the time, but it’s not something natural that they do. At the same time, dogs have been shown to reciprocate the receipt of food with other dogs [even though] adult dogs also don’t normally provide food to other adult dogs. So, if one applies the argument that this is an unusual setup because dogs don’t provide food to humans, I think one also needs to explain why it would be normal for a dog to provide food to another dog. (Webmsters Comment: Crows understand reciprocity, dogs do not.)
7-15-21 Insects had flashy, noise-making wings as early as 310 million years ago
A grasshopper-like creature’s fossilized wing suggests it could crackle and reflect light. Modern insects are versatile wing conversationalists. Crickets can scrape a leg against a wing or rub two wings together. Some grasshoppers beat their wings like castanets; others crackle and snap the thin membranes. Many butterfly wings play with light, manipulating it to hide in plain sight or reflecting it in flashes along iridescent or multifaceted surfaces (SN: 6/21/21). Now, the discovery of the fossilized wing of a grasshopper-like insect suggests this conversation got started as far back as 310 million years ago. The wing structures resemble those of living insects that use light or sound to communicate, researchers report July 8 in Communications Biology. Named Theiatitan azari — after Theia, the Titan goddess of light in Greek mythology — the insect was a member of Titanoptera, a group of giant predatory insects. Large-winged insects thrived in the Carboniferous Period, which spanned 359 million to 299 million years ago. Some grew to astounding sizes in the oxygen-rich atmosphere (SN: 12/13/05). (The terrifying dragonfly-like Meganeura was roughly the size of a small dog.) T. azari predates other Titanoptera by about 50 million years. But like other insects in the group, the thin membranes of its forewings are divided by networks of veins into a mosaic of smaller sections. Based on the patterns of those mosaics, Titanoptera, including T. azari, may have had a range of communication tools at their wingtips, including crackles, flashes of light, or both, say Thomas Schubnel, an evolutionary biologist at the Institute of Systematics, Evolution, Biodiversity in Paris, and colleagues. Scientists don’t yet know whether the ancient insects used those abilities to call to potential mates or warn off predators. But this discovery suggests there’s plenty more these ancient wings can tell them.
7-14-21 Fantastic fungi images capture the magic of mushrooms
THESE enchanting images look like illustrations from a book of fairy tales, but the magic is really that of the natural world of fungi. The image above shows night falling on clusters of Mycena fungi – notable for their bell-shaped caps and their small size of only a few centimetres. The amethyst deceiver (Laccaria amethystina) grows in the leaf litter of forests and is a key food source for fly larvae. It is edible for humans, but not considered a choice mushroom. Collectors must be careful to avoid the poisonous lilac fibrecap (Inocybe geophylla var. lilacina) that the amethyst deceiver resembles. The image above is a variable oysterling fungus (Crepidotus variabilis) with its distinct kidney shapes, which grows on dead branches and isn’t edible. Below is the hallucinogenic but deadly fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), a species native to the northern hemisphere. The shots come from a collection called Mushroom Magic by photographer Guy Edwardes. He took various images of the very different fungi growing near his home in Dorset, UK, highlighting the diversity of fungal species.
7-14-21 Frogs are battling their own terrible pandemic – can we stop it?
The deadly chytrid fungus has wiped out 90 species of amphibians, and is threatening ecosystems. Now there's hope that several new treatments could help us fight the plague. UP IN the mountains of northern Majorca, a group of toads live in a series of rocky, rain-fed pools. They aren’t much to look at, with their spotted, greyish-brown skin and pale underbellies. But they are, in their own way, very special amphibians. If you had visited the rocky pools a few years ago, you would have found the toads in an awful state: those not dead would have been lethargic, some with red, peeling skin. They were infected with a deadly fungus that has been careening through the world’s amphibians, and has already wiped out dozens of species of frogs, a group of animals that includes toads. The Majorca midwife toads are the only species of frogs in the wild in which the disease has been eradicated. Now there is a feeling among conservationists that we have to protect our remaining frogs before they croak their last. “It’s such a race against time, because as this fungus spreads further, it’s affecting more and more species,” says conservationist Jonathan Kolby. “It’s not being controlled at all and we’re running out of clean habitat.” Failing to put the brakes on this situation would be disastrous, and not just because frogs are beautiful animals that act as linchpins for their ecosystems. We have also recently learned first-hand how terrible it can be when animal diseases spill over into other species. Luckily, we are making progress. We know where this “frog pandemic” came from and – although it will be difficult – we are in the early stages of a global fightback. We first realised frogs were in trouble in 1993, when several species started dying off at once in Queensland, Australia. Researchers quickly realised the frogs were all being killed by the same mystery disease, which we now call chytridiomycosis. It wasn’t until a few years later that the culprit was identified. In 1998, biologist Lee Berger at James Cook University in Australia and her colleagues described the microscopic fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd, and showed that it caused the disease.
7-14-21 Climate change may rob male dragonfly wings of their dark spots
Shadowy areas are a heat-absorbing liability, but losing them may mess with the insects’ mating. Many dragonflies zip through the air with their translucent wings painted in an array of dark spots and bands. But — for males at least — those dapper decorations could soon fall out of style as a result of climate change. Males’ dark wing patches are smaller in dragonflies of a given species that live in warmer climates than in cooler regions, researchers report in the July 13 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That finding suggests that dragonfly populations over time may experience their spots shrinking as temperatures rise. The evolutionary change may not only dampen the male insects’ flair, but also their dating life. Understanding how organisms have adapted to warmer climates over the years is key to understanding how they may adapt to future climate conditions, says Michael Moore, an evolutionary ecologist at Washington University in St. Louis. Heavy wing pigmentation can help dragonflies stay warm in chillier regions, but could be dangerous in hotter weather. The dark spots absorb sunlight and can heat wings by as much as 2 degrees Celsius, which may cause tissue damage and interfere with flight, Moore says. Tossing or shrinking the spots is a way to beat the heat, and could result in a color shift response to climate change among dragonflies akin to owls (SN: 7/11/14) and hares (SN: 1/26/16). But the adaptation could also garble communication with mates. Male dragonflies use wing spots to attract mates and intimidate rivals, and females rely on those spots to recognize potential mates of the same species. The markings differ greatly among species, ranging from small speckles near the wing’s base to extensive bands or panels spread across the entire wing. Most organisms, Moore says, “don’t just need to survive in order to persist and perpetuate their species within the habitats they live in, they also have to be able to reproduce.”
7-14-21 Froghoppers are the super-suckers of the animal world
Tiny insects can produce negative pressures equivalent to people sucking a 100-meter-long straw. To tap an unlikely source of nutrition, insects small enough to sit on a pencil eraser have to suck harder than any known creature. Philaenus spumarius froghoppers pierce plants with their mouthparts to feed solely on xylem sap, a fluid made mostly of water that moves through plants’ internal plumbing. Not only is the substance largely bereft of nutrients, but it’s also under negative pressures, akin to a vacuum. Sucking the sap requires suction power equivalent to a person drinking water from a 100-meter-long straw. Such a feat seemed so unlikely for the tiny insects that some scientists questioned whether xylem sap truly could be under such negative pressures. But both biomechanical and metabolic evidence suggests that froghoppers can produce negative pressures greater than one megapascal, researchers report July 14 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. “It’s incredibly impressive. [The scientists] used a range of techniques to tackle a long-standing problem,” says Jake Socha, a biomechanist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg who wasn’t involved in the work. “These insects are really well-adapted for generating” extreme negative pressures. The problem is long-standing because measuring negative pressures is tricky. Within xylem, sap is pulled like a string, caught in a tug-of-war between spongy soil and airy leaves. Piercing the plant with pressure probes can easily break that internal tension, so scientists typically use a more indirect method. By cutting off part of a plant and sticking the leafy end in a pressure chamber with the stem sticking out, researchers can turn up the pressure exerted on the outside of the plant until it just exceeds the plant’s internal pressure and xylem sap oozes from the stem. This strategy suggests that the negative pressures of xylem sap can exceed one megapascal.
7-13-21 Dogs tune into people in ways even human-raised wolves don’t
A study supports the idea that domestication has wired dogs’ brains for communicating with people. Wiggles and wobbles and a powerful pull toward people — that’s what 8-week-old puppies are made of. From an early age, dogs outpace wolves at engaging with and interpreting cues from humans, even if the dogs have had less exposure to people, researchers report online July 12 in Current Biology. The result suggests that domestication has reworked dogs’ brains to make the pooches innately drawn to people — and perhaps to intuit human gestures. Compared with human-raised wolf pups, dog puppies that had limited exposure to people were still 30 times as likely to approach a strange human, and five times as likely to approach a familiar person. “I think that is by far the clearest result in the paper, and is powerful and meaningful,” says Clive Wynne, a canine behavioral scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe who was not involved in the study. Wolf pups are naturally less entranced by people than dogs are. “When I walked into the [wolf] pen for the first time, they would all just run into the corner and hide,” says Hannah Salomons, an evolutionary anthropologist studying dog cognition at Duke University. Over time, Salomons says, most came to ignore her, “acting like I was a piece of furniture.” But dogs can’t seem to resist humans’ allure (SN: 7/19/17). They respond much more readily to people, following where a person points, for example. That ability may seem simple, but it’s a skill even chimpanzees — humans’ close relatives — don’t show. Human babies don’t learn how to do it until near their first birthday. When wolves have been put to the task, the results have been mixed, suggesting that wolves need explicit training to learn the skill. Scientists haven’t been sure if dogs’ ability is learned or, after at least 14,000 years of domestication, has become innate (SN: 1/7/21).
7-13-21 Giant goldfish problem in US lake prompts warning to pet owners
A city in the US state of Minnesota has urged residents not to release their unwanted pet fish into the wild after finding huge goldfish in a lake. The common household pets can grow far bigger in the wild and cause major disruption to ecosystems. The city of Burnsville shared images showing several monster goldfish caught during a survey of Keller Lake. It said goldfish could contribute to poor water quality by disturbing sediment and uprooting plants. "Please don't release your pet goldfish into ponds and lakes!" the city wrote in a tweet. In Minnesota, goldfish are a regulated invasive species, which means it is illegal to release them into public waters. A goldfish kept in a home aquarium typically grows to about 2in (5.1cm) in length. But once they are established in public waters, wildlife officials say, goldfish can grow far larger and be difficult to remove - reproducing rapidly and dominating native species. In its warning, the city of Burnsville advised pet owners to "please consider other options for finding them a new home". Wildlife officials have been dealing with a similar problem in nearby Carver County, where 50,000 goldfish were removed from a creek in October last year. The removal was part of a three-year plan to study and manage the species, which have caused problems across the US. But the US isn't the only country to suffer from marauding goldfish. In 2017, Munich city council in Germany said shoals of goldfish were starving out all rivals in local ponds and lakes. The problem got so bad, the council threatened to fine anyone caught releasing their pets into public waters. Large goldfish have been found in the UK's wild waters as well. In 2010, a British teenager pulled a 5lb (2.2kg), 16in fish from a lake in Dorset.
7-12-21 UN plan would protect 30% of oceans and land to stem extinctions
Nearly a third of the world’s oceans and land should be protected by 2030 to stem extinctions and ensure humanity lives in harmony with nature. That is the suggestion from 195 countries in a proposed United Nations plan to tackle the global destruction of nature. The measure is one of 21 targets in the first draft of the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). Others include reforming planning systems to protect species, ending farming subsidies that are driving wildlife losses, and boosting conservation funding by at least $200 billion a year. Overall funding today is about $100 billion a year. “Despite ongoing efforts, biodiversity is deteriorating worldwide and this decline is projected to continue or worsen under business-as-usual scenarios,” says the draft, which negotiators will need to finalise in time for a major UN biodiversity summit in October. The plan, roughly the nature equivalent of the Paris Agreement on climate change, ultimately aims to halt or reverse extinction rates. The transformation of forests and other habits into farmland and cities is currently driving a loss of species so great that scientists consider the world to be in the middle of a sixth mass extinction. The new international targets are the first that governments will set for beyond 2020. However, none of the world’s previous biodiversity goals were met by a 2020 deadline. One of the key new targets is to protect 30 per cent of the world’s land and oceans by 2030, for example as national parks, up from 16.64 per cent of land and 7.74 per cent of oceans today. “It’s important, an essential part of the picture, that we increase the area,” says David Cooper of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. He adds the quality and location of the areas will be vital too. Ending the discharge of plastic waste into the environment is another target, along with countering the release of 10 billion tonnes a year of the world’s annual 34 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning using natural solutions, which could include tree-planting and restoration of peatland.
7-12-21 Florida breaks manatee death record in first six months of 2021
A record number of manatees have died this year in the US state of Florida, primarily from starvation, wildlife authorities say. At least 841 of the marine mammals died in waters near the eastern state between 1 January and 2 July. That breaks the previous record set in 2013, when 830 manatees died after exposure to harmful algae. This year biologists say seagrass beds manatees rely on for food are dying out because of rising water pollution. They say the main issue is the increasing waste contamination of Florida's waterways, which triggers the accumulation of algae and the loss of seagrass. Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute said most of the deaths had happened during the colder months, when manatees migrated to the Indian River Lagoon, where most seagrass had died. As temperatures warmed and the animals dispersed along the Atlantic coast, boat strikes became a leading cause of death last month, official data show. At least 63 manatees, also known as sea cows, have been struck and killed by boats so far this year. Boat strikes "continue to be recognised as a concern for the population", the research institute said. The federal government changed the status of the manatee from endangered to threatened in 2017, but conservationists say greater protection is again needed. The manatee is a large, slow-moving mammal which has become an unofficial mascot for Florida. About 6,300 manatees currently live in Florida waters, according to the government. In recent months, marine biologists and lawmakers in Florida have been paying close attention to the deaths of manatees. In March, wildlife officials declared an Unusual Mortality Event, which allows the federal government to investigate the cause of the deaths in partnership with the state. Last month a coalition of environmental groups and local businesses urged Republican Governor Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency to address the manatee crisis. But state environment officials said such an order was unnecessary because they already had the necessary resources.
7-11-21 Thousands of fish dropped from plane to restock Utah lakes
This gives a new meaning to flying fish - wildlife authorities in Utah are restocking lakes with fish by dropping them out of a plane. Thousands can be dropped in a single flight into water that is inaccessible to other forms of transport.
7-9-21 Fish brains grow when they have to think more and shrink if they don't
Fish literally get brainier when they have to think harder, and less brainy when they don’t. At least, that the implication of two studies by Frederic Laberge at the University of Guelph in Canada and colleagues that show fish brains grow larger relative to their body size in more challenging environments and shrink in less challenging ones. Changing relative brain size as needed could help fish save vital resources. “The brain is known to be one of the most energetically expensive tissues to maintain,” says Laberge. In one study, Laberge and colleagues studied lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) across six consecutive seasons in two different lakes. They found that brain size relative to body size increased in autumn and winter and decreased in spring in summer. Lake trout avoid warm water so they are limited to deeper water in the summer, Laberge says. But during the winter they forage in shallower waters near the shore, which is a more complex environment. This higher cognitive demand appears to boost brain growth. “That’s the assumption,” Laberge says, though the study cannot show why these changes happened. In a second study, he and colleagues compared the brain sizes of rainbow trout that had escaped from a fish farm and begun living wild in a lake with those that remained captive. After seven months, the brains of the escaped trout were 15 per cent heavier relative to body size than those of the captive trout. This increase was specific to the brain, Laberge says. There was no change in the relative size of the heart, for instance. Previous lab studies by other groups have suggested that fish brains are plastic and change size as needed, Laberge says. Fish in labs have smaller brains compared with the same fish in the wild, and enriching their environment increases brain size. But his team is the first to show this happening in the wild.
7-9-21 China takes giant pandas off its endangered species list
China announced this week that it has removed the giant panda from its list of endangered species, celebrating the status change as a success of China's long-term conservation efforts, including the creation of a giant national park for the iconic animals. "The panda population in the wild has risen to about 1,800, which reflects their improved living conditions and China's efforts in keeping their habitats integrated," Cui Shuhong, head of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment's Department of Nature and Ecology Conservation, said at a news conference. China said it will still classify the giant panda, considered a national treasure, as vulnerable and protected under conservation laws. That puts China's status for pandas in line with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which switched the animals from endangered to vulnerable in 2016. A panda conservation staff member told China Daily that China solved several major breeding issues since 2000, and "since 2006, we have managed to breed an increasing number of pandas in captivity, and about nine of them survived after being released into the wild."
7-9-21 How Romanesco cauliflower forms its spiraling fractals
By tweaking just three genes in a common lab plant, scientists have replicated the pattern. The swirling green cones that make up the head of Romanesco cauliflower also form a fractal pattern — one that repeats itself on multiple scales. Now, the genes that underlie this stunning structure have been identified, and the fractal pattern has been replicated in a common lab plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, researchers report in the July 9 Science. “Romanesco is one of the most conspicuous fractal shapes that you can find in nature,” says Christophe Godin, a computer scientist with the National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology who is based at ENS de Lyon in France. “The question is, why is that so?” The answer has long eluded scientists. Godin and his colleagues knew an Arabidopsis variant could produce small cauliflower-like structures. So the team manipulated the genes of A. thaliana in both computer simulations and growing experiments in the lab. Working with the extensively studied plant helped the researchers simplify their experiments and distill the essential fractal-spawning mechanism (SN: 6/15/21). By altering three genes, the researchers grew a Romanesco-like head on A. thaliana. Two of those genetic tweaks hampered flower growth and triggered runaway shoot growth. In place of a flower, the plant grows a shoot, and on that shoot, it grows another shoot, and so on, says plant biologist François Parcy at CNRS in Paris. “It’s a chain reaction.” The researchers then altered one other gene, which increased the growing area at the end of each shoot and provided space for spiraling conical fractals to form. “You don’t need to change the genetics much to get this form to appear,” says Parcy. The team’s next step, he says, “will be to manipulate these genes in cauliflower.”
7-9-21 Sea otters stay warm thanks to leaky mitochondria in their muscles
The smallest mammal in the ocean doesn’t rely on blubber or a large body to keep toasty. Sea otters’ secret to staying warm isn’t in thick stores of blubber. It’s in their muscles. Leaks in the energy-generating parts of muscle cells help otters maintain a resting metabolism three times as fast as predicted for a creature their size, researchers report in the July 9 Science. The find shows how otters meet the challenge of staying warm at sea — and could apply to other marine mammals, too. “This could be a game changer in terms of how we think about the evolution of all marine mammals, not just sea otters,” says Terrie Williams, an ecophysiologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not involved in the study. To dwell in cold oceans, mammals must have developed ways to regulate their body temperature amid the chill. “To me, this is probably one of the clearest pieces of evidence saying, ‘Here’s how they did it,’” Williams says. Other marine mammals have high metabolisms to cope with cold water, too, but they also often rely on large bodies and blubber to stay toasty (SN: 12/14/18). Sea otters are lean and compact, the smallest mammals in the ocean, bobbing like furry barrels on waves. And the insulating properties of sea otters’ fur — the densest on the planet — can’t fully protect them from losing too much heat. Water transfers heat 23 times as efficiently as air, and small bodies with less surface area lose heat faster, even when covered in fluff. “Being a small-bodied marine mammal in cold waters presents a real thermal challenge,” says Traver Wright, a comparative physiologist at Texas A&M University in College Station. Scientists already knew sea otters rely on an extreme metabolism to maintain, on average, a 37° Celsius body temperature, eating 25 percent of their body mass in food every day (SN: 6/13/14). But researchers didn’t understand the cellular origins of “that revved-up metabolism for heat generation,” Wright says.
7-8-21 Sea otters use muscles to chemically generate heat without shivering
The muscles of sea otters have a far greater capacity to turn food directly into heat than those of any other animal of a similar size. The findings explain how these small animals stay warm in cold waters. Most marine mammals have large bodies insulated by a thick layer of blubber to help them retain heat. Sea otters are relatively small and usually weigh between 14 and 45 kilograms, with only the air trapped in their fur for insulation. They have the densest fur of any mammal, but this isn’t enough to keep them warm, so they have to burn lots of energy. Their metabolic rate is around three times higher than normal for a mammal of their size, which makes it the highest of any mammal that weighs more than a kilogram. “We knew these guys had this high metabolic rate, but we weren’t really sure where this energy was coming from,” says Traver Wright at Texas A&M University in College Station. So he and his team studied tiny pieces of living muscle tissue from both northern sea otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) and southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis). It wasn’t necessary to kill animals to obtain the specimens – for instance, some samples came from rescued animals that were undergoing surgery to treat injuries. Muscles generate heat when they move and many animals shiver when they get cold, but constant shivering isn’t a great strategy for a creature that lives and hunts in chilly waters. Instead, the mitochondria inside the otters’ muscle cells produce heat directly. All mitochondria use the energy derived from “burning” food to pump out protons, creating a proton gradient. Normally, when protons flow back into mitochondria during this process, this potential energy is used to make an energy-rich molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This fuels processes that require energy, such as muscle contractions.
7-8-21 Weird fractal Romanesco cauliflowers start life as failed flowers
The Romanesco cauliflower, one of the strangest looking vegetables because of its fractal florets, owes its unique shape to the fact that it forms from failed flowers. Like regular cauliflowers, Romanescos are a product of selective breeding of the plant Brassica oleracea, from which several other common vegetables like cabbage, broccoli and kale also originate. François Parcy at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and his colleagues have figured out that cauliflowers, including Romanesco, gain their shape because they start off as flower buds that fail to become flowers. These buds become shoots that make new flowers which also fail – and the process is repeated again and again in a sort of chain reaction. “Really, what I was thinking immediately was, ‘yay, finally an answer’. These are regular patterns that we see over and over again,” says Alexander Bucksch at the University of Georgia in the US, who wasn’t involved in this research. “We can measure them, but why they are there and how they are controlled biologically was always kind of a bigger question.” While we still don’t have all the answers, we do now know the biological mechanism through which the fractals form. Parcy and his colleagues studied the genes involved and built a 3D computational model of plant development to explain how this happens. “They start as flowers then lose their identity,” says Parcy. “If you imagine a firework, it explodes and makes light. It’s like if each of them was exploding again and again. And what you get, the structure of this cauliflower, is the result of all those consecutive explosions.” The difference between regular cauliflowers and Romanesco is that each individual failed flower is visible in the final Romanesco. This is because Romanesco shoots produce more buds at an accelerating rate which lifts the growing tip away from the centre of the growing cauliflower, creating the familiar array of conical shapes that characterise the Romanesco. Other cauliflower buds are produced at a constant rate, which gives the finished vegetable a different appearance with rounded, hummocky florets.
7-8-21 Australia mice plague: How farmers are fighting back
There's a debate in Australia about how to deal with a huge plague of mice across the east of the country. Poison? Regulator says no. Snakes? That could create another problem. So what then? Steve Evans of The Canberra Times goes in search of answers. A friend of mine still remembers the last plague of mice. They took over his house in Dubbo in northern New South Wales. They were everywhere, hundreds of them, coming under doors, running loudly in the loft, leaving a revolting stench, not least by dying in inaccessible cavities. His answer was a brutal trap made of sticky paper. The mice would stick to it and he would drown them in a bucket. He still remembers the horror of the squealing. In the current plague, all kinds of other ingenious methods have been devised. Most hardware stores have run short of commercial mice traps, so people are improvising. One fills buckets with water and coats the rims with vegetable oil, placing a peanut butter lure in the water. Mice find the peanut butter irresistible and slip on the edge of the bucket to their doom. "Plaster of Paris in flour will kill a mouse eventually but I prefer to see where the mice die and being able to get rid of the carcass," Sue Hodge, a cleaner in the tiny town of Canowindra, three hours' drive north from Canberra, told me. She prefers traps, though they aren't infallible. She reckons that what she calls "light-footed mice" can still lick a trap clean and get away alive. Some farmers around here have turned whole shipping containers into traps. The trick is to lure the mice in their hundreds in at one end and funnel them through to the bait and a drowning in a tank at the other end. But that is arduous and inadequate for the numbers involved, so some favour industrial scale poison. In response, the government of New South Wales has allocated A$50m (£27m; $37m) in grants for a chemical called bromadiolone which has been described as "napalm for mice".
7-8-21 Nature: Backyard moth spotting rises during lockdown
Lockdown sparked a surge in interest in moths, with a rise in rare species spotted last year. Sightings were up by about a third - and many counties across the UK recorded species new to their area. Experts are heartened by a new found fascination for the insects, which they say are ecologically important but underappreciated and under threat. They say July is the perfect month to find moths - and are calling for the public to go in search of them. Mark Tunmore, editor of Atropos, the journal for butterfly, moth and dragonfly enthusiasts, said all the evidence points to a surge of interest during lockdown. "It's not surprising in many ways, because moth trapping is an ideal activity for the garden," he said. "All you need is a moth trap, which is something you can construct yourself or buy from specialist dealers, and once you've got that, you can run it in your garden and the moths come to you." Data from the National Moth Recording Scheme suggests there was a rise of around a third in the numbers of people submitting sightings of moth species in 2020, while sales of moth traps also rose. In Cheshire, seven species new to the county were recorded in 2020, including Light Feathered Rustic and Beautiful Marbled. Several species new to Cornwall were spotted in the county, and it was also a record year for numbers of some scarce migrant species such as Crimson Speckled, Slender Burnished Brass and Scar Bank Gem. In Yorkshire, the number of annual moth records submitted rose by around a quarter in 2020. There was also a surge in interest in moth hunting in Shetland, with four species new to the islands recorded last year. With many people desperate to find things to do in their own backyard during lockdown, moth trapping provided a distraction and interest, Mark Tunmore said. "It's a whole new world once people start looking at moths and they're amazed by what's in their garden," he explained. "Even in a very simple garden you can have dozens or hundreds of species, potentially, recorded over a long period of time."
7-7-21 How Stella Learned to Talk review: Can a dog really talk?
How Stella Learned to Talk: The groundbreaking story of the world’s first talking dog. WHEN Stella, a chocolate brown dog, began moving around the house, Christina Hunger realised her dog was unusual. The 8-week-old puppy acted like the children that Hunger, a speech-language pathologist, worked with. “She was communicating how toddlers communicate right before they start saying words,” she writes in How Stella Learned to Talk, her book about her experiences with the dog. Hunger asked a simple question: if dogs can understand words, what if they had another way to say words? Her book charts attempts to get Stella to communicate using an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device, similar to the ones she uses with children who don’t speak. Hunger now claims Stella is “the world’s first talking dog”, and encourages others to coax their dogs to “talk” by pushing paw-sized buttons associated with different words. One of the key apparent breakthroughs in communication came when Hunger was watering plants and Stella was watching her. The dog left the room and went to her AAC. There, she pressed the word Hunger had programmed for water. “I started realising she might be able to use words for different functions, not just requesting something,” says Hunger. Stella seemingly began combining words for the situations she was trying to communicate to Hunger. That, says Hunger, is evidence that Stella was engaging in communication, not being conditioned to hit a button when an environmental change occurred. Though others dispute this. Stella is still developing her language skills, says Hunger. She is able to combine up to five words to create phrases and short, simple sentences. Stella uses her vocabulary every day, mixing up the words to communicate different goals to different people. The success with Stella shows that we need to keep researching this area, says Hunger, because dogs are hearing human words every day and making associations. “They just haven’t had a way to say them themselves. As more and more people keep teaching their dogs, we’re going to discover this range is normal, just like it is with human language,” she writes.
7-7-21 Traded wild animals carry 75 per cent of diseases humans can catch
Bats, primates and other mammals sold in the wildlife trade play host to three quarters of infectious diseases capable of spilling over from animals to humans. Just a quarter of the traded species can carry such zoonotic viruses. Conservationists say the findings, part of the first detailed, global look at pathogens in traded mammals, highlight ways to target high-risk traded species to reduce the chance of future pandemics. The World Health Organization considers a wildlife market in Huanan, China, to be one possible origin of covid-19. Most previous research in this area has assessed disease risk by looking at the frequency with which animals are being traded. Instead, a US-India team took an existing data set on mammals that are reservoirs for known zoonotic viruses, supplemented it with scientific literature and then married it with a database on whether animals are in the wildlife trade or not. The researchers found that 26.5 per cent of traded mammals carry 75 per cent of known zoonotic viruses. By comparison, domesticated mammals play host to 51.7 per cent of known zoonotic viruses and non-traded ones carry 64.2 per cent. The biggest disease risk among traded species was from primates, bats, carnivores and hoofed animals known as ungulates. “I think the outcome is fairly alarming,” says team member Joseph Kiesecker at The Nature Conservancy, a US non-profit. The analysis suggests marsupials will join the high-risk list in the future, based on which animals are traded today, how they are expected to decline and how they may be substituted with other animals in future. The results don’t necessarily mean an outright ban on the wildlife trade is possible or even desirable, given that this may drive the market underground and deprive people who rely on it for food of an important source of protein, says Kiesecker. “What it shows, though, is that viruses are not equally distributed across all critters, so we can target those species that are known to carry more viruses,” he says. “You can be finer scale on how you focus restrictions.”
7-7-21 What is consciousness like for other animals and when did it evolve?
The conscious experiences of non-human animals, from whales and birds to octopuses and bees, are revealing fresh clues about when consciousness evolved and what it’s for. Children know the fun of throwing a ball into the sea, only to watch the waves fling it back. Jennifer Mather and Roland Anderson at the Seattle Aquarium were surprised to find octopuses playing similar games. Their toy was a floating pill bottle, which they were free to ignore or explore as they wished. Six of the aquarium’s octopuses soon lost interest, but two showed childlike curiosity, pushing it with their arms or shooting jets of water to move it against the tank’s current. It is hard to interpret this as anything other than play, which many researchers argue requires some form of conscious awareness. Many animals exhibit behaviours similarly suggestive of an inner life. Conscious creatures may include our primate cousins, cetaceans and corvids – and potentially many invertebrates, including bees, spiders and cephalopods such as octopuses, cuttlefish and squid. The challenge, of course, is to understand how the inner lives of these creatures differ from our own. In the past, scientists spoke about “levels of consciousness”, as if there were a hierarchy with humans on top. But in a paper published in 2020, Jonathan Birch, a philosopher at the London School of Economics and his colleagues argue that we would do better to consider five separate elements of conscious experience. The first is perceptual richness, or how well an animal can discriminate different details in each of its senses. The second is evaluative richness – broadly speaking, the capacity to differentiate between positive rewards and noxious stimuli, which could be analogous to human emotions such as pleasure or pain. The third, unity, concerns the extent to which an animal integrates the information from its sensory organs into a single experience. Then there is temporality: does the creature’s past experience influence its present behaviour, and can it plan for the future? The fifth dimension is selfhood. This may be tested by assessing whether an animal recognises itself in the mirror, or has so-called theory of mind – the ability to understand that another animal has its own mind.
7-7-21 Lubricant found in a beetle's leg is more slippery than Teflon
A lubricant harvested from beetle legs reduces friction more than Teflon. The wax-like material could be used in microrobotics and small prosthetics, if a cost-effective way to synthesise it can be found. Many beetles are known to have a natural lubricant in their joints that prevents wear and tear. But Konstantin Nadein at the University of Kiel in Germany and his colleagues discovered that a species of darkling beetle called Zophobas morio has a particularly large amount of this substance, which displays unusually potent properties. The team found that pores in the shell of the beetle around the leg joint exude the waxy lubricant in cylinders up to 1 micrometre wide. It is spread around when the joint moves. Researchers harvested the protein-based substance and tested its friction-reducing ability by placing it between two small pieces of glass and measuring how much force was required to slide one over the other. The team found that friction was lowered even more than by Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene), a material used on non-stick surfaces such as frying pans. The research also suggests the insect lubricant has other functions. Under a high load, chunks of it deformed and created a squashable layer between two surfaces that acted like a shock absorber and prevented abrasive contact. However, extracting the lubricant from beetles is far too expensive to be economic: the time and effort involved would make it several times pricier than gold. The team hopes to find a way to synthesise it instead. “First of all, we need to understand the molecular structure, and then perhaps it is possible. Maybe it is necessary to involve biotechnology and use bacteria to produce it,” says Nadein.
7-6-21 Fish are becoming addicted to methamphetamines seeping into rivers
Illicit drug use is a growing global health concern that causes a financial burden of hundreds of billions of dollars in the US alone. But hidden beneath the societal costs of this human epidemic is a potential ecological crisis. As methamphetamine levels rise in freshwater streams, fish are increasingly becoming addicted. “Where methamphetamine users are, there is also methamphetamine pollution,” says Pavel Horký at the Czech University of Life Sciences. Humans excrete methamphetamines into wastewater, but treatment plants aren’t designed to deal with such substances. Because of this, as treated wastewater flows into streams, so do methamphetamines and other drugs. In some streams in the Czech Republic, methamphetamine concentrations have been measured at hundreds of nanograms per litre, according to Horký and his colleagues, but the effect of these levels on aquatic animals has been unclear. To investigate, they set up an experiment to detect possible adverse side effects of this hidden ecological epidemic. They divided 120 hatchery reared brown trout (Salmo trutta) into two 350 litre tanks. The water in one tank contained methamphetamines matching concentrations measured in wild streams while the other was left uncontaminated as a control. After eight weeks, the researchers removed the methamphetamine from the experimental tank. During the following 10-day “withdrawal” period, Horký tested fish selected at random from both groups for signs of addiction and withdrawal. To do this, he constructed a tank in which water could flow in on one side and out the other as if a stream were passing through the enclosure. One side of the flow, however, contained the same level of methamphetamine that the experimental tank had contained. The control fish showed no preference for one side of the simulated stream or the other, but the methamphetamine-exposed fish repeatedly chose to stay in the drugged water.
7-6-21 Sharks in the Gulf of Mexico hunt in shifts to avoid each other
The sharks in the Gulf of Mexico have a hunting timetable. We previously thought that all sharks hunted at around the same time – dusk or dawn – but it turns out that different shark species sharing the same space have their own scheduled times for foraging. This might help them share resources and avoid one another. Karissa Lear at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, was mapping out the activity patterns of sharks in the eastern Gulf of Mexico when she noticed there were differences between species. This was unexpected, so she and her colleagues looked more closely at whether different species were partitioning their foraging times. They found that different shark species with overlapping diets share resources by foraging at different times each day. It was a surprising discovery, as this type of time-based resource division isn’t thought to be common in nature, says Lear. “Very few instances of time partitioning on a daily scale have been observed,” she says. “However, this could be more common than we think in marine ecosystems, which haven’t been widely studied in this way because tracking and observing underwater animals can be more difficult.” Lear and her colleagues looked at the foraging behaviour of six coastal shark species. They tagged a total of 172 individual animals with acceleration data loggers, then monitored their activity levels over time, obtaining 3766 hours of data. Bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) were most active in the early morning, while tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) were out more during midday. Afternoons were for sandbar sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus) and evenings for blacktips (Carcharhinus limbatus). Both scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini) and great hammerheads (Sphyrna mokarran) were most active during night hours.
7-6-21 Cattle vaccine to be trialled in England in fight against bovine TB
A vaccine and new test to tackle bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in cattle are being deployed in field trials in England in a world-first, as the country’s government shifts away from its reliance on culling badgers to curb the disease. The UK’s chief vet says the new approach could be a “game changer” for farmers in lower-income countries, too. Bovine TB costs UK citizens around £100 million a year, including compensation for farmers whose cows are slaughtered when infected. Government action in England has focused for the past decade on killing badgers – a protected species that can transmit the pathogen to cattle – alongside biosecurity on farms. A modified BCG vaccine against TB has existed for a few years. However, the UK government’s Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs is now trialling a new skin test that can identify proteins present in infected animals that aren’t present in vaccinated cows, enabling the two to be told apart for the first time. Doing so is critical for removing infected animals from herds and, later, paving the way for vaccinated animals to be exported for trade. Trials on the specificity of the test are under way on a farm in Hertfordshire, to check it doesn’t yield too many false negatives. Results should be available later this year. If they are promising, a second trial phase will see the test combined with vaccines. Christine Middlemiss, the UK’s chief veterinary officer, says “a realistic timetable” would see a cattle vaccination programme launched around 2026. The vaccine and skin test could help many countries beyond England. “If you look globally, where TB, particularly in the developing world, is such a scourge in terms of animal infections and associated human infections, having a vaccine in those circumstances, particularly in cultures and religions where you cannot cull cattle as a control measure, internationally it will be a game changer,” says Middlemiss.
7-5-21 Male dragonflies may become less colourful as the climate warms
Climate change may make the male dragonflies of North America less colourful – which might also make them less sexually attractive to females. Michael Moore at the Living Earth Collaborative and Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, and his colleagues examined hundreds of thousands of records of dragonflies representing 319 North American species and compared them with the animals’ home climates. They found that the cooler the region, the darker and more elaborate the wing colouration on males of each species. The team then focused on 10 dragonfly species with a particularly wide geographical range across North America, and examined 2700 photographs of these species uploaded to the iNaturalist community science platform. This revealed that, even within each dragonfly species, males had wings that were less colourful in warmer climates. This makes sense, because colourful wings absorb more sunlight – and become warmer – than colourless wings. In fact, coloured patterns can raise wing temperatures more than 2°C, damaging wing tissue, which can even lead to death by overheating. It also suggests that, as the climate warms, male dragonflies might stand a better chance of surviving if they have less colourful wings. “It’s very likely that dragonflies will lose a moderate amount of their wing colouration as they adapt to warmer temperatures associated with climate change,” says Moore. “It becomes a cost-benefit question.” Finally, the team took a closer look at how the 10 focus species have changed in the recent past. This revealed that male dragonflies photographed between 2005 and 2019 tended to have less colourful wings in warmer years and more colourful wings in cooler years. The implication is that, when it is hotter, only the less colourful male dragonflies survive. Female dragonflies have colourful wings too, but they are less likely to lose their colour in hotter years. This may be because females prefer to hide in the shade while males fly in the sunlight.
7-5-21 Male seahorses can get pregnant because they lack key immunity genes
A missing or dysfunctional part of the vertebrate immune system might explain why male seahorses and pipefishes can carry a pregnancy – and could possibly inspire novel treatments for immune-related diseases in humans and other animals. Olivia Roth at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, wanted to understand how seahorses and their relatives – members of the Syngnathidae fish family – became the only animals in the world known to have developed biological male pregnancy. So she and her colleagues sequenced the full genomes of 12 species of syngnathids, including some pipefish species in which males don’t actually become pregnant but instead carry fertilised eggs outside the body. They found that certain major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes involved in the immune system – such as MHC-2 genes, which have long been considered critical for recognising viruses, bacteria and other invaders – were either inactivated or missing in the species in which males become pregnant, but not in those where eggs are deposited into the water or are carried by the male outside the body. The findings make some sense from an evolutionary perspective because active MHC-2 genes would make a pregnant male’s body attack embryos as invaders, says Roth, who presented her research at the SyngBio 2021 meeting in Guangzhou, China, earlier in the year. But the results also create a mystery. Seahorses and their relatives thrive in “an ocean of microbes”, according to Roth. It now seems that they do so despite having inactive or absent MHC-2 genes. Roth says this suggests that other animals with a backbone, including humans, could successfully fight off infections when MHC-2 pathway activity is hampered – for instance, by HIV infection. “We used to think all vertebrates had [a] set immune system pathway, but now it seems that a lot more flexibility is possible,” she says. “For immunology, this is really revolutionising because, potentially, we could activate different pathways of the immune system and compensate for certain losses.”
7-4-21 Critically endangered antelope saiga makes comeback
The population of a rare type of antelope has more than doubled since 2019, in a remarkable turn around in fortunes. According to the first aerial survey in two years, the number of saiga in their Kazakhstan heartland has risen from 334,000 to 842,000. There were fears the animal was on the brink of extinction following a mass die-off in 2015. Distressing images of carcasses strewn over the steppes made world headlines. Following a series of conservation measures, including a government crackdown on poaching, and local and international conservation work, numbers have started to bounce back. That, together with the natural resilience of the species, gives hope for their future, said Albert Salemgareyev of the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK). "They give birth to twins every year, which gives high potential for the species to quickly recover," he told BBC News. The saiga has seen a dramatic turnaround in fortunes. But even with the current boom, numbers will never return to the millions estimated in Soviet times due to looming threats, including the impact of state infrastructure projects and oil and gas development, said Albert Salemgareyev. The latest survey, carried out in April, shows not only a big increase in the total numbers, but that one particular population in Ustyurt in the south of the country, has made a dramatic recovery. In 2015, there were barely more than 1,000 animals left in the area, but there's been a big increase to 12,000 in this year's census. The UK-based non-profit organisation, Fauna & Flora International, has been involved in efforts to protect the Ustyurt population by establishing a new anti-poaching ranger team and using satellite collaring to monitor saiga movements. David Gill, FFI senior programme manager for Central Asia, said the new census was the best evidence yet that decades of conservation efforts to protect the saiga were paying off.
7-2-21 Sri Lanka: Hundreds of sea animals washed ashore after ship disaster
Hundreds of dead sea animals have washed up in Sri Lanka, weeks after a cargo ship carrying dangerous chemicals caught fire and sank. The X-Press Pearl sank in early June off the coast of Colombo after it had been on fire for days. The remains of 176 turtles, 20 dolphins and four whales have washed ashore since, a court has heard. Experts fear the ship, which carried tonnes of oil in its tanks, will remain an environmental hazard for decades. The X-Press Pearl had had been carrying 278 tonnes of bunker fuel oil and 50 tonnes of gas oil when it caught fire on 20 May. It was also carrying 25 tonnes nitric acid, along with other chemicals and cosmetics. One environmental group had earlier said the ship's toxic cargo threatened to create "a chemical soup" in the area. A government minister said it was uncommon for animal deaths to be high at this time of year. "During the south-western monsoon season, sea creatures never die in this way," Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera told reporters, according to a Reuters report. "Most of these carcasses are found on the west coast directly affected by the shipwreck." The 186m-long (610ft) X-Press Pearl left the Indian port of Hazira heading for Colombo on 15 May. The fire broke out when it was anchored off the Colombo port. The coastal stretch near the site of the wreck - home to some of the country's most pristine beaches - soon afterwards saw oil, debris and plastic pellet pollution and dead marine life began washing up. Fishing in area was initially banned though some of those restrictions have since been lifted. The Sri Lankan government has also made an initial insurance claim of $40m for the costs fighting the fire and compensating the loss of income for about 50,000 people, most of them fishermen. Sri Lankan officials believe the fire was caused by a nitric acid leak which the crew had been aware of since 11 May. The highly corrosive acid is widely used in the manufacture of fertilisers and explosives. The ship's owners confirmed the crew had been aware of the leak, but said they were denied permission by both Qatar and India to dock the ship there.
7-1-21 Covid common in cats and dogs, study finds
Covid is common in pet cats and dogs whose owners have the disease, research suggests. Swabs were taken from 310 pets in 196 households where a human infection had been detected. Six cats and seven dogs returned a positive PCR result, while 54 animals tested positive for virus antibodies. "If you have Covid, you should avoid contact with your cat or dog, just as you would do with other people," Dr Els Broens, from Utrecht University, said. "The main concern is not the animals' health but the potential risk that pets could act as a reservoir of the virus and reintroduce it into the human population." The authors of the study said no evidence of pet-to-owner transmission had been recorded to date but it would be difficult to detect while the virus was still spreading easily between humans. Most infected pets tend to be asymptomatic or display mild Covid symptoms. Researchers from Utrecht University sent a mobile veterinary clinic to households in the Netherlands that had tested positive for Covid at some point in the past 200 days. Swabs were taken from their pet cats and dogs to test for evidence of a current infection, while blood samples were also tested for antibodies suggesting a past exposure to Covid. The results were presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases: 4.2% showed evidence of a current infection, 17.4% tested positive for antibodies. Follow-up tests showed all the PCR-positive (polymerase chain reaction) animals cleared the infection and went on to develop antibodies. The researchers say the most likely route of virus transmission is from human to animal, rather than the other way round. "We can't say there is a 0% risk of owners catching Covid from their pets," Veterinary Microbiological Diagnostic Centre Dr Broens said. "At the moment, the pandemic is still being driven by human-to-human infections, so we just wouldn't detect it."
7-1-21 Amazon eagle faces starvation in 'last stronghold'
Conservationists say one of the world's largest eagles has "nearly zero" chance of surviving Amazon deforestation. According to a new study, the bird is struggling to feed its young in parts of the rainforest that have been stripped of trees. About 17% of the Amazon has been destroyed over the past 50 years, and losses have recently been on the rise. The harpy eagle is the largest in the Americas, with huge talons for hunting monkeys and sloths in the treetops. The Amazon is regarded as the "last stronghold" for the harpy, with more than 90% of the existing population thought to reside there. The bird is among millions of animals in the Amazon whose geographic range is shrinking, said study researcher Carlos Peres, professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, UK. "Considering that harpy eagles have the slowest life cycle of all bird species, their chances of adapting to highly deforested landscapes are nearly zero," he said. Conservation measures, such as moving young eagles and supplementing their diets, will be critical to the survival of the species, Prof Peres added. The harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) is one of the largest raptors in the world, with adult females weighing in at up to 10 kg (22 lbs). The birds live in tropical forests from Central America to northern Argentina, but have disappeared in large parts of their former range. The escalating rate of forest destruction in the region, along with hunting, is threatening the bird's existence. Despite having legal protection in several countries, including Brazil, Panama and Suriname, safeguards are difficult to enforce in remote areas of forest. In the study, researchers led by Dr Everton Miranda of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, monitored 16 nests in Amazonian forests in Mato Grosso, Brazil using cameras.
7-1-21 Focusing on Asian giant hornets distorts the view of invasive species
A withered old male hornet shows that repeat invasions are the not-so-new normal. Fingers crossed for finding nothing: July marks the main trapping season to check for Asian giant hornets still infesting Washington state. The first of these invasive hornets found in North America in 2021, in June, was probably not from a nest made this year, scientists say. So that find doesn’t say how well, or if, the pests might have survived the winter. Yet that hornet shows quite well the relentless risk of newly arriving insects. That initial specimen, a “crispy” dead male insect lying on a lawn in Marysville, Wash., belongs to the hefty species Vespa mandarinia. Nicknamed murder hornets, these were detected flying loose in Canada for the first time in 2019 and in the United States in 2020 (SN: 5/29/20). Yet the “dry, crispy” male is not part of known hornet invasions, said entomologist Sven Spichiger at a news conference on June 16. Testing shows the male “is definitely not the same genetic line as the ones we have found,” said Spichiger, of the Washington State Department of Agriculture in Olympia. Neither the U.S. finds, until now all from Washington’s Whatcom County, nor British Columbia’s on the other side of the border are closely related to the newfound hornet. It’s a separate incursion no one had noticed until now. This oddball new specimen may help correct the skewed impression that sneaky invasive arrivals are rare. The hornets’ appearance in North America may have been a shock to some, but in reality, worrisome insects show up often, and will probably keep doing so. Fortunately making a permanent home is harder than getting here, scientists say. When news of the Asian giant hornets’ arrival first broke in 2019, one of the people who was not at all surprised at a foreign species was entomologist Doug Yanega of the University of California, Riverside. “It is very fair to say that there are many invasive species,” he emphasizes. “We just got a new African mantis species in California this past year in LA, and the expectation is that it is likely to spread.”
7-1-21 Strange new fairy lantern plant is already critically endangered
This bizarre-shaped plant from a Malaysian rainforest appears to be so vanishingly rare it should already be considered critically endangered. Described this week by a UK and Malaysian team, it was first found near a mountain trail in 2019 by Nikong Dome, who lives alongside Indigenous communities in the rainforests of Terengganu state. “This was a completely unexpected and astonishing discovery. It’s only a couple of centimetres high, orange, a beautiful-looking thing,” says Chris Thorogood at the University of Oxford. Named Thismia sitimeriamiae, the species belongs to a mysterious group of plants called fairy lanterns. Around 25 new species of the group have been discovered in the past five years, from Asia to the US. The new species has no leaves or chlorophyll, instead taking food from nearby fungi. The evolutionary reason for the plant’s strange geometry could be linked to its reproductive strategy, Thorogood speculates, with fungus gnats pollinating the species after mistaking it for a fungus. Thismia sitimeriamiae remains elusive in the wild. It only flowers briefly before withering, and the original plant’s home was later found destroyed by wild boars, with only a single specimen discovered each time on two subsequent visits to the area.
7-1-21 Aquatic beetle caught walking upside down on the undersurface of water
It isn’t a circus trick. An Australian beetle has been seen walking upside down in a pool of water, on the underside of the water’s surface. Researchers think it is a style of locomotion that has never been recorded before in an animal with legs. John Gould at the University of Newcastle in Australia came across the beetle (in the family Hydrophilidae) by chance while searching for tadpoles during fieldwork in the Watagan mountains in Australia. He quickly pulled out his phone to film it. “To see something walk along the underside of the water’s surface as if it was just any regular solid was pretty incredible,” he says. A beetle’s ability to walk on the underside of water has been mentioned a handful of times in scientific papers, but has never been described or captured on video before. The beetle that Gould observed would typically move in a straight line on the water’s undersurface, frequently stopping then continuing. During a stride, a leg would touch the surface of the water, slightly deforming it but not breaking surface tension, then swing through the water to take its next step. A layer of trapped air could also be seen on the beetle’s abdomen. Aquatic beetles are known to carry a bubble as a temporary oxygen supply when they venture underwater to lay eggs or search for food. But the air bubble can have another role too. Diving insects called backswimmers, for example, use it to achieve buoyancy in a water column, allowing them to remain in the same position without having to swim continuously. Jose Valdez, a researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig, Germany, who studied the upside-down beetle with Gould, thinks that this air bubble on the Australian beetle’s abdomen is used in a similar way and is key to the inverted water-walking. The bubble helps the beetle attach itself to the underside of the water.