Sioux Falls Zoologists

"Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent!"

The mirror test is an experiment developed in 1970 by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. to determine whether an animal possesses the ability to recognize itself in a mirror. It is the primary indicator of self-awareness in non-human animals and marks entrance to the mirror stage by human children in developmental psychology. Animals that pass mirror test are: Humans older than 18 mo, Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Orangutans, Gorillas, Bottlenose Dolphins, Orcas (Killer Whales), Elephants, and European Magpies. Others showing signs of self-awareness are Pigs, some Gibbons, Rhesus Macaques, Capuchin Monkeys, some Corvids (Crows & Ravens) and Pigeons w/training. (Sorry Kitty!)

110 Intelligence & Zoology News Articles
for November of 2021

Click on the links below to get the full story from its source

1-8-22 Drug-resistant bacteria evolved on hedgehogs long before the use of antibiotics
Fungi on the animals produce natural antibiotics that may have promoted the evolution of resistance. Beneath the prickly spines of European hedgehogs, a microbial standoff may have bred a dangerous drug-resistant pathogen long before the era of antibiotic use in humans. It’s no question that antibiotic use accelerates drug-resistance in bacteria that colonize humans, says Jesper Larsen, a veterinarian at Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen. But, he says, these microbes had to get the genes to give them resistance from somewhere, and scientists don’t know where most of these genes come from. Now, for one type of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, Larsen and colleagues have tracked its evolution to hedgehogs hundreds of years ago. On the skin of these critters, a fungus that produces natural antibiotics may have created the environment for drug resistance to evolve in the bacteria, the researchers report January 5 in Nature. One of the most common drug-resistant pathogens, MRSA infects hundreds of thousands of people worldwide each year, and these infections can be hard to treat. The specific type of MRSA that the new study focuses on causes a fraction of the cases in humans. The team first found MRSA in hedgehogs by coincidence years ago when biologist Sophie Rasmussen, who was part of the new work and is now at the University of Oxford, approached Larsen’s team about sampling a freezer full of dead hedgehogs. Of these animals collected from Denmark, 61 percent carried MRSA. “We found this extremely high prevalence in hedgehogs,” Larsen says, suggesting that the animals were a reservoir for the drug-resistant superbug. In the new work, the scientists surveyed hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus and Erinaceus roumanicus) from 10 European countries and New Zealand. Workers at wildlife rescue centers swabbed the noses, skin and feet of 276 animals. MRSA was prevalent in hedgehogs in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and the Czech Republic.

1-8-22 See stunning fossils of insects, fish and plants from an ancient Australian forest
New specimens show a parasitoid wasp, fish that have dined on phantom midges and more. A new trove of plant, insect, fish and other fossils offers an unprecedented snapshot of Australia’s wetter, forest-dominated past. McGraths Flat in New South Wales contains thousands of beautifully preserved specimens of flowering plants, ferns, spiders, insects and fish, vertebrate paleontologist Matthew McCurry and colleagues report January 7 in Science Advances. Images of the fossils’ soft tissues, captured with scanning electron microscopy, reveal them in astonishing detail, from the facets of a crane fly’s compound eye to phantom midges trapped in a fish’s stomach. Once upon a time, Australia was carpeted with rainforests. During the Miocene Epoch, about 23 million to 5 million years ago, Earth underwent a climatic upheaval. For Australia, that meant drying out, with shrubs, grasses and deserts expanding into once-lush territory. McGraths Flat formed during that transition, between 16 million and 11 million years ago. At the time, it was part of a temperate forest around a small lake, new analyses of fossil pollen and leaves suggest. The fossils were cemented within fine layers of goethite, an iron hydroxide mineral that probably formed as acidic groundwater circulated through basalt rocks, leaching out their iron, the researchers suggest. As the groundwater seeped into the lake, the iron became oxidized and precipitated out as goethite particles. The tiny particles encased plants, insects and other creatures in the water — possibly while they were still alive — and later replaced some of the organisms’ interior structures. “Until we studied these fossils, we wouldn’t have thought to look for well-preserved fossils in this type of rock,” says McCurry, of the Australian Museum Research Institute in Sydney. At other fossil-rich sites known for preserving soft tissues, such as Canada’s Burgess Shale or China’s Qingjiang biota, the organisms tend to be encased in the sort of soft mud found at the bottom of a sea (SN: 11/28/11; SN: 3/21/19). But, McCurry says, this site shows that goethite “has everything you need to create exceptionally well-preserved specimens.”

1-7-22 Spider fossil sheds light on Australia’s ancient rainforest ecosystem
A suite of plant and animal fossils from a site in New South Wales date back about 16 million years to a time when the region was blanketed in lush rainforests. An immaculately preserved fossil of a mygalomorph spider (Mygalomorphae) has been uncovered by researchers excavating at the McGraths Flat, a fossil site in New South Wales, Australia. The 4-centimetre-long spider (pictured above) lived some 11 million to 16 million years ago when the area was dominated by rainforest. “It’s unlike anything that we have seen alive today in Australia,” says co-author Matthew McCurry at the Australian Museum Research Institute in Sydney. “One of the characteristics that’s quite different is the size of this first set of legs – it’s an extremely large spider.” A suite of equally well-preserved fossils of plants, insects and vertebrates were found at the McGraths Flat site, giving researchers an unprecedented insight into what Australia would have looked like during the Miocene Epoch. “These are sites that preserve even soft tissue structures inside the specimens,” says co-author Michael Frese at the University of Canberra. By analysing the properties of several leaf fossils from the site, McCurry, Frese and their colleagues reconstructed the region’s past climate using a computer model. The mean annual temperature of the area was estimated to have been around 17°C. They also found that during the three wettest and driest months of the year, rainfall was around 962 millimetres and 254 mm per month, respectively. Additionally, the researchers found evidence of interactions between organisms. For example, they discovered a freshwater mussel attached to the fin of a fish, which means the mussel used the fish to move around and feed. They also discovered a microscopic, parasitic nematode that appears to have hitched a ride on the back of a longhorn beetle.

1-7-22 World's smallest land snail could fit inside a grain of sand
A newly discovered snail has stolen the record for the smallest known on land. Angustopila psammion, discovered in cave sediment in northern Vietnam, has a shell just 0.48 millimetres tall and a shell volume of only 0.036 cubic millimetres. This makes the snails so small that you could fit about five of them inside the average grain of sand. Unsurprisingly, they are hard to spot. To find them, Barna Páll-Gergely, a land snail taxonomist at the Eötvös Loránd Research Network in Budapest, Hungary, and his colleagues gathered soil samples from caves and placed them in a bucket of water. They then removed the floating debris, dried it, sieved it and examined it under a microscope. “I cleaned the shells under the microscope with very precise brushes used by nail artists,” says Páll-Gergely. The snails probably didn’t live in the caves though, says Páll-Gergely. “We assume that the sediment had fallen in through crevices in the rock, because it contains bleached, opaque shells of surface-dwelling terrestrial gastropods. The living snails presumably live deep in limestone crevices close to or on root systems.” The researchers also discovered a not-quite-so-tiny snail in Laos, which they named Angustopila coprologos, which means dung gatherer in Ancient Greek. Standing a mighty 0.51 mm tall, it seems to arrange tiny granules of mud – possibly its own faeces – in a pattern of radial lines on the surface of its shell. Why they do it is unknown. “If it is camouflage, what would prey on these tiny snails?” asks Páll-Gergely. “If not camouflage, then what? It was surprising to see that in face of their extremely small size, these tiny snails have complex behavioural mechanisms that evolved as a response to certain environmental factors that we know nothing about.” The snails’ miniature size does give them advantages. “It is probable that by being small, these snails can reach food particles no other species can consume, and enter very narrow rock crevices,” says Páll-Gergely. They could also avoid predation by being smaller than what their predators normally look for, he says.

1-6-22 Newly identified tree species named in honour of Leonardo DiCaprio
An evergreen tree native to Cameroon’s tropical Ebo forest has been given the scientific name Uvariopsis dicaprio and is the first new plant species to be described in 2022. A tropical, evergreen tree from Cameroon, the first plant species to be named as new to science in 2022, has officially been labelled Uvariopsis dicaprio today in honour of the actor Leonardo DiCaprio. It adds to the list of the strange and spectacular plants that scientists have named in the past 12 months. Martin Cheek at the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and his colleagues – including researchers at the National Herbarium of Cameroon and the University of Yaounde´ I, Cameroon – analysed photos and specimens of the tree, which is found in Cameroon’s tropical Ebo forest. They determined it was previously unknown to science, and also appears to be unknown among local communities. The team named the species after actor and environmental activist DiCaprio to commemorate his campaigning efforts to protect Ebo forest from logging. Standing at around 4 metres tall, U. dicaprio can be identified by the distinctive and vibrant glossy yellow-green flowers that grow on its trunk. It is closely related to the ylang-ylang tree (Cananga odorata) which is native to India, South-East Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia. “This is a plant which, for a botanist, just jumps out at you,” says Cheek. “It’s so spectacular.” Currently, fewer than 50 individual trees have been spotted, and they are all confined to a single, unprotected area of Ebo forest. As a result, U. dicaprio is considered critically endangered. Over the past year, there have also been many other newly named plant species. In March 2021, 14 new species of blue-berried shrubs were named. These are all in the genus Chassalia, which belongs to the coffee family, and they include the species C. northiana, named after renowned Victorian artist Marianne North, who depicted the shrub in an 1876 oil painting.

1-6-22 Kew scientists name new tree after Leonardo DiCaprio
A tree that is new to science has been named after Leonardo DiCaprio. Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, say they wanted to honour the star for his help in saving a rainforest from logging. The tree, which has been given the official name, Uvariopsis dicaprio, grows only in the Cameroon forest known for its incredible biodiversity. "We think he was crucial in helping to stop the logging of the Ebo Forest," said Dr Martin Cheek of Kew. Scientists and conservationists were horrified when they heard of plans to allow vast swathes of the Ebo Forest to be opened up for logging. One of the largest relatively untouched rainforests in Central Africa, it is home to the Banen people and an array of unique flora and fauna, including threatened gorillas, chimps and forest elephants. International experts wrote a letter to the government documenting the precious animal and plant species at risk of extinction. The issue was picked up by DiCaprio, whose social media posts to his millions of followers added momentum to the campaign. The government later revoked plans to allow logging, although the forest has yet to be officially designated a national park. "This could just be a stay of execution," Dr Cheek added. The "dicaprio" tree is the first plant new to science to be officially named by Kew scientists in 2022, through publication in the scientific journal, PeerJ. The small tropical evergreen tree has glossy yellow flowers that grow from its trunk. A member of the ylang ylang family, it has been found only in a small area of the forest and is critically endangered. Last year, more than 200 plants and fungi from across the word were officially named by Kew scientists and their collaborators, including a pink lily from the same forest, an insect-trapping wild tobacco plant found in Australia and an orchid with star-like flowers from the island of Madagascar that can grow in darkness. Several of these new species are already extinct and many are threatened due to deforestation, land clearance and droughts, floods and fires driven by climate change. Of 16 new species of orchids found in Madagascar, three are thought to be extinct in the wild due to destruction of their habitat. One has disappeared due to forests being chopped down to grow plants for geranium oil used in the aromatherapy industry in Europe. And a new Cape primrose from Katanga in Congo is at risk from copper mining.

1-5-22 Do house spiders released outside survive, or navigate back?
I often catch house spiders and release them some distance away. Can they navigate back? If not, what are their chances of survival? The only place to release a house spider is a house. That’s their habitat. First, it depends on the type of spider. If it is one of the more active ground spiders, like a wolf or sac spider, it would appreciate being released outdoors. This is because these spiders often accidentally come into homes, where there isn’t a lot of prey for them. If they become trapped for too long, they can perish, so letting them go live back outside can be a huge favour for them. Other spiders, like cobweb spiders and cellar spiders, tend to do well in our homes for their entire life. In this case, they can be left alone, but if removed from the house, they will often find the nearest area that is suitable and do their best to survive. Such spiders don’t have good ways to find their way back to your house, and it would require a lot of energy and drive to do so. I would also caution that removing spiders from a home, with a specific temperature and humidity, into an environment that may be drastically different could harm the spider. For instance, if the temperature outside is too cold or hot, it may have negative effects. However, spiders are pretty hardy animals, so moving them usually doesn’t cause problems. All said, spiders are fairly adaptable to local habitats, and most don’t require special spaces, except places to build webs or areas to hunt for food.

1-5-22 A type of MRSA evolved in hedgehogs long before the first antibiotics
A strain of the antibiotic-resistant bacterium MRSA seems to have colonised the skin of hedgehogs more than 200 years ago – and many other similarly evasive bugs might exist in nature. A strain of the antibiotic-resistant bacterium MRSA seems to have evolved in hedgehogs in the early 1800s – long before the introduction of antibiotics. The finding demonstrates how antibiotic resistance can occur in nature – and underlines the need for cautious use of antibiotics. Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterium that can live harmlessly on our skin and up our noses. But it can sometimes cause infections of the skin and gut. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a type of these bacteria that can’t be killed with antibiotics like methicillin. As a result, it can cause infections that can be difficult to treat. Most cases are picked up in hospitals, and some are fatal. Over the past decade or so, researchers have begun to find a type of MRSA known as mecC-MRSA in all sorts of wildlife, including boars, storks, snakes and hedgehogs. While mecC-MRSA seems to be relatively uncommon in most of these species, researchers have found it in plenty of hedgehogs. To find out why, Ewan Harrison at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues studied swab samples from 276 European hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) from 10 European countries and New Zealand. Hedgehogs from Greece, Romania, France, Italy and Spain didn’t seem to have any mecC-MRSA on their skin. But others did – 66 per cent of hedgehogs from England and Wales tested positive for the bacteria, for example. These animals also had a fungus called Trichophyton erinacei living on their skin. This fungus is known to produce chemicals that can kill bacteria. In experiments, the team found that T. erinacei made an antibiotic called KPN that could kill mecC-MRSA only when the bacterium’s genes for antibiotic resistance were removed. This suggests that the antibiotic resistance genes are key for the bacteria to survive alongside the fungus on the hedgehog’s skin.

1-6-22 Antibiotic-resistant superbug evolved on hedgehogs
An antibiotic-resistant superbug - a type of MRSA - evolved naturally as a result of a battle between a fungus and bacteria on the skin of wild hedgehogs. The evidently "hedgehog-derived" bacteria developed in nature long before the antibiotics we are familiar with were discovered. An international research team found that a skin fungus common in hedgehogs naturally produces antibiotics. Bacteria on the animals' skin developed antibiotic resistance in response. The researchers say their findings, published in the journal Nature, shows how natural biological processes - not antibiotic use - drove the emergence of this particular superbug about 200 years ago. The specific bacterium, called mecC-MRSA, was first found in dairy cattle and it had been assumed that the use of antibiotics on dairy farms had caused it to develop its resistance. This is, though, just one, relatively rare example of antibiotic resistance arising naturally. And the discovery "represents a tiny fraction of the risks compared to overuse of antibiotics in a human medical context", one of the lead researchers, Prof Mark Holmes from the University of Cambridge, told BBC News. MecC-MRSA causes about one in 200 human MRSA infections. The overuse of antibiotics, both in humans and farm animals, continues to drive the emergence of other, resistant, disease-causing strains. The study itself has solved a long-standing mystery about the source of this particular type of MRSA, which veterinary scientists from the University of Cambridge discovered a decade ago. "We tried to work out how much of a problem it was - so we looked in wildlife and in farm animals and found that it was clearly very widely distributed in nature," explained Prof Holmes. "When we looked at hedgehogs in particular, about half of the animals we sampled had this type of MRSA." Teaming up with biologists, wildlife researchers and with hedgehog rescue centres all around Europe, the scientists then focused their investigations on hedgehogs

1-5-22 Fairywren birds can nest out of breeding season to boost numbers
Purple-crowned fairywrens are more flexible in their breeding behaviour than we thought, which has helped the bird population to grow in one wildlife sanctuary in Western Australia. For the second year in a row, researchers have spotted purple-crowned fairywrens – small birds that dwell near creeks and rivers in northern Australia – reproducing outside their usual breeding season. The findings indicate that the reproductive behaviour of the birds is more flexible than we had previously thought. Purple-crowned fairywrens (Malurus coronatus) are light-brown birds with pale bellies and long blue tails. Breeding males can be identified by their vibrant purple crown and black cheek patches. Females have grey heads and reddish-brown cheek patches. The birds typically breed during the Australian wet season, between December and April. However, Niki Teunissen at Monash University in Melbourne and her colleagues have found that dry season breeding has become more widespread among the western subspecies of the bird (M. coronatus coronatus) in recent years. During their 2020 and 2021 surveys of the birds at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, they found extensive evidence of fairywren reproduction throughout the dry months, from May to November. “I found that over half of the groups had young fledglings at the end of the dry season, which means that they had bred successfully during the dry season,” says Teunissen. “In addition, nearly half of the dominant females that I caught had a brood patch – a bare patch on the belly that they use to keep eggs warm – which is evidence of them having an active nest.”mThe extended breeding period has resulted in a substantial rise in the fairywren’s population at the sanctuary, from 143 individuals in November 2020 to 204 in November 2021.

1-5-22 The microscopic beauty of plankton and their predators
Plankton form the base of marine and freshwater food webs. They consist of phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (animals). Their name derives from the Greek word for “drifter”, since they are too tiny to fight tides or currents. Phytoplankton oxygenate the ocean through photosynthesis, enabling marine animals to thrive, and produce about half the world’s oxygen. Yet despite their abundance and fundamental role for life on Earth, their microscopic nature makes them easy to ignore. “The most exciting thing of the whole project was the discovery of this parallel, beautiful, strange, complex world, ” says photographer Jan van IJken, “there’s so much beauty around the corner that you’re not aware of”. Inspired by the microscopic beauty of plankton – and their predators, van IJken embarked on a photo and film project called Planktonium. Over a year, he collected a diverse array of species from various Dutch waters, including puddles, lakes and seas, “Every time it was [a] new discovery”, he says. “There’s such a diversity, it makes you humble”. Back in his studio, Van IJken used various microscope and photography techniques, including dark field microscopy and timelapse photography to capture the “beauty, fine detail and incredible shapes” of his subjects. To add impact to the film, he commissioned Norweigan musician, Jana Winderen to create a soundscape, made using aquatic audio recordings including of fish, icebergs, small crustaceans which made crackling sound and even the sounds of “fish howling to the moon”. Whilst van IJken’s project is artistically led, there is a serious side to his work. Plankton is threatened by climate change, and van IJken hopes by showcasing these microscopic organisms, he can inspire people to understand more about them. “It would be great if people just realise that there’s so much wonder, so much beauty around the corner”, he says, “hopefully it will touch people.”

1-5-22 Here’s how spider geckos survive on Earth’s hottest landscape
Migrating insects are key to the reptiles’ survival in Iran’s Lut Desert. A handful of small, nocturnal geckos have spilled their guts for science, revealing how the creatures get by in a part of Earth’s hottest landscape. Surface temperatures in the Lut Desert in Iran, home to the Misonne’s spider gecko (Rhinogecko misonnei), soar past 65° Celsius more frequently than anywhere else on the planet. The extreme heat makes it difficult for life to thrive, and for years, ecologists have regarded the desert as mostly barren. To find out how the geckos sustain themselves in this desolate oven, entomologist Hossein Rajaei of the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany and colleagues analyzed the stomach contents of six geckos using DNA metabarcoding (SN: 4/18/16). The technique compares chunks of DNA with a species identification database, like a bar code scanner in a grocery store. “It’s very accurate, very comprehensive and very trustable,” Rajaei says. Within the geckos’ digestive soup stewed DNA from 94 species, about 81 percent of which hail from outside the Lut Desert, the team reports November 18 in the Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research. The majority of these outsiders were winged insects such as flies, moths and wasps that migrate through the desert from bordering temperate landscapes. The remaining species — arachnids, arthropods and more moths — are endemic to the Lut, but are elusive in its heart, where the geckos were collected. The unexpected diversity highlights that there’s more living in this desert than meets the eye, Rajaei says. The findings underscore the importance of intertwined food webs for animals to survive in hostile habitats, says Robert Pringle, an ecologist at Princeton University who was not involved in the research. “The movement of insects from outside the immediate area subsidizes the geckos and helps them to persist in this extreme desert environment,” he says.

12-30-21 Swimming in a school may help fish hear dolphins’ ultrasound clicks
Models suggest the arrangement of American shad in a shoal amplifies the ultrasonic clicks that dolphins use to hunt, helping the fish detect and evade these predators. A school of American shad may function as a giant ear that enables the fish to hear the ultrasonic clicks of hunting dolphins. Not many fish species are able to hear ultrasound, says Kourosh Shoele at Florida State University. American shad (Alosa sapidissima) can, and seem to use that ability to evade dolphins, which detect prey by listening for reflections of their clicks. “Very few of the fish found in the stomachs of dolphins are shad,” says Shoele’s student Yanni Giannareas. Experiments suggest the hearing of individual shad isn’t sensitive enough to pick up on dolphin clicks. But if they swim together, this changes, Shoele says. The team’s computer model suggests the school acts as a finely tuned echo chamber for the incoming sound. The sound waves bounce off the regularly spaced fish, and those reflections interact in such a way that their energy gets concentrated in a regularly spaced pattern as well. Each fish ends up with a spot of amplified sound right next to it. This enables the American shad to detect a dolphin’s sonar sooner and together start evading it. Giannareas presented preliminary results at a meeting of the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics in Phoenix, Arizona, in November. David Mann, a biologist who is now president of Loggerhead Instruments, an underwater acoustics firm in Sarasota, Florida, was the first to establish that this shad can hear ultrasound, in a study published in 1997. He isn’t convinced that an individual shad would be clueless about an approaching dolphin. “The shad ultrasound sensitivity is not super great, but dolphins also click at very high source levels,” he says. “The idea of increasing sensitivity of a school of fish to ambient sounds is interesting and leads one to think about experiments to test it.” Shoele and Giannareas hope their model will show biologists what to look for. The configuration of a school of American shad could provide evidence for this collective hearing ability. If they are optimising their spacing for sound detection, they would swim in a different formation from, for example, similarly sized tuna, a fish that behave like shad but can’t pick up ultrasound.

12-29-21 Do all Australian critters glow green under UV light, or is it borax?
Happy new year, happy new year – may we all have a vision, now and then, of a world where every neighbour is a friend! You catch us having our annual bath, singing along to ABBA’s traditional Swedish seasonal carol and possibly still feeling the effects of one too many Tío Pepes. Well, what do you expect in a column dated 1 January? We are put in a particularly good mood, however, by Tony Powers, who writes with a follow-up to an article last year about platypuses, those remarkable mammals that glow in UV light, produce venom and lay eggs (8 May 2021, p 41). Tony’s “sciencechildren” – like godchildren, only evidence-based – Sarah and Rebecca, aged 10 and 8, used a visit to the Australian Museum in Sydney to test animals for fluorescence using a UV hand torch. Their results in near-full: Platypus – do indeed glow green. Some specimens also have glowing white patches under the eyes; Long-beaked and short-beaked echidnas – quills and short hairs glow different colours; Mountain pygmy possum and rabbit-eared bandicoot (or bilby) – exposed skin and ear hair glows white; Koala – white fur patches glow; Wombat – nose glows blue; Masked owl – white feathers under eyes glow; Peregrine falcon – leg skin green. “They were unable to check if the fluorescence was an artefact of taxidermy,” Tony adds. “That will await a trip to the zoo.” Also faintly glowing, Guy Cox from Sydney in Australia joins a tidal wave of mainly self-professed older readers writing in defence of illuminated toilet bowls (27 November 2021). Guy also adds to our musings on how old the internet and other authorities assume we can be (30 October 2021) with a story from his days at the University of Oxford. “A friend of mine found that, as an ecology postgrad, he was expected to take over as Secretary of the Ashmolean Natural History Society,” he writes. “His first action was to remove from the mailing list everyone who had been on it for more than 100 years.”

12-29-21 Mesmerising photos reveal the microscopic beauty of plankton
THESE mesmerising shots reveal the microscopic beauty of plankton – and their predators. They are part of a film and photo project called Planktonium by photographer Jan van IJken, who captured this diverse array of species in various Dutch waters, including puddles, lakes and seas. Plankton form the base of marine and freshwater food webs. They consist of phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (animals). Their name derives from the Greek word for “drifter”, since they are too tiny to fight tides or currents. Phytoplankton oxygenate the ocean through photosynthesis, enabling marine animals to thrive, and produce about half the world’s oxygen. Above are: a larva of a polychaete worm during a stage of its life cycle when it is considered to be a plankton; a diatom phytoplankton – which have see-through cell walls made of silica – called Licmophora flabellata; and another diatom, Coscinodiscus. Next shows a single-celled radiolaria zooplankton, with internal skeletal structures and external spikes of silica. Below, a crustacean called a copepod gathers diatoms. Copepods feed on phytoplankton and tiny aquatic animals, and are a vital food source for larger species, such as fish. Last is another predator of plankton, the water flea Polyphemus pediculus, with two eggs in tow. Van IJken admires the “beauty, fine detail and incredible shapes” of plankton. “Their invisibility to the naked eye makes it even more interesting to observe the tiny creatures,” he says.

12-29-21 China must lead by example to make the 2022 biodiversity talks succeed
WHEN it comes to selecting venues for crunch talks on the future of the planet, the United Nations does a nice – if possibly unintentional – line in irony. Much was made of last year’s decision to hold the COP26 climate talks in the UK, which as the cradle of the industrial revolution is arguably also the birthplace of climate change. There are similar, more recent, historical ironies in the choice of Kunming, China, for negotiations of global biodiversity targets. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, the most likely evolutionary home of SARS-CoV-2, a virus that has been described as the first global blowback from the biodiversity crisis. Location does matter. The expectation is that the host nation will set the tone, lead by example and cajole other nations into going the extra mile. China has been criticised for a vacuum of leadership in the build-up to Kunming. It has a reputation as being part of the problem rather than part of the solution, with rampant infrastructure development, rising greenhouse gas emissions, poor air quality and an exploitative relationship with nature. Its most famous animal, the giant panda, has long been a symbol of endangered species. Its second-most famous, the Yangtze river dolphin, is almost certainly extinct. And it talks about creating an “ecological civilisation” while exporting its environmental problems on the back of its global belt and road project, say critics. Although similar charges can be levelled at most Western countries, this is extremely discouraging because the talks in Kunming are crucial to the future of the natural world. They will aim to create a new agreement for the protection of biodiversity to replace the 2010 Aichi targets, which expired completely unfulfilled at the end of 2020. New targets were supposed to be negotiated early last year, but the talks were postponed due to covid-19. Right now, there are no targets, and the 2030 deadline to reverse the destruction of nature is looming. There has been some progress. Preliminary talks in October produced a draft agreement that conservation group WWF gave a cautious thumbs-up to. Omicron permitting, negotiations will reconvene in Kunming in April and May.

12-29-21 Israel tries to contain avian flu outbreak after 5,000 wild cranes die
Tens of thousands of turkeys are being destroyed in Israel, as it tries to contain a serious avian flu outbreak. More than 5,000 migratory cranes have already died at the Hula Nature Reserve, which Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg called "the worst blow to wildlife" in Israel's history. Local farmers were also being forced to cull half a million chickens, prompting fears of a possible egg shortage. So far no transmission of the A(H5N1) virus to humans has been reported. However, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met his national security adviser and other experts on Monday to discuss efforts to stop that from happening. People who have been in close contact with infected birds are being given preventative treatment. Although transmission from birds to humans is a rare event, the deaths of 456 people infected with the virus have been reported worldwide since 2003, according to the World Health Organization. Images published by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority showed rangers in protective suits using a dinghy to retrieve the dead cranes from Hula Lake to prevent other wildlife being infected. The authority also reported that the remains of 250 cranes had been seen in the surrounding Hula Valley and that 30 sick cranes had been observed elsewhere in the country. The sight of tens of thousands of cranes from Europe wintering at the Hula Nature Reserve is usually a delight for bird-watchers. But the site was declared off-bounds to visitors last week because of the devastating avian flu outbreak. Avian flu viruses occur naturally in migratory waterfowl, which tend not to develop symptoms. Domestic birds are far more susceptible and once the virus is found in commercial or household flocks, rapid destruction is recommended of all birds that might be infected. Israeli media reported that more than half a million egg-laying chickens at Moshav Margaliot, a communal farm about 12km (7 miles) to the north, were being culled in an effort to contain the outbreak and minimise risk to humans. The moshav provides 7% of all the eggs consumed in Israel. The Times of Israel said the first outbreak of avian flu in Israel this autumn was reported on 18 October at Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley, about 60km south-west of the Hula Nature Reserve. In November, cases were reported at a kibbutz and two poultry farms, it added.

12-29-21 Biodiversity: The tale of the 'un-extinct' fish
"It's just a little fish, not very colourful - there's not much interest in terms of global conservation," explains Gerardo Garcia. The species that the Chester Zoo conservationist is talking about - the Tequila fish - has now been returned to the wild after being declared extinct. "Missing" since 2003, it is back in the rivers of south-west Mexico. The reintroduction is being held up as an example of how freshwater ecosystems and species can be saved. Freshwater habitats are some of the most threatened on Earth, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with freshwater-dependent species "going extinct more rapidly than terrestrial or marine wildlife". Threats including pollution continue to put pressure, not only on wildlife, but on clean water and food supplies that are dependent on rivers and lakes. Crucially, the local community - people who live close to the Tequila fish release site in Jalisco, Mexico - are playing a key role, monitoring the water quality of the rivers and lakes. Professor Omar Dominguez, from the Michoacana University of Mexico, whose team took a leading role in the reintroduction said: "We couldn't have done this without the local people - they're the ones doing the long-term conservation. "And this is the first time an extinct species of fish has ever been successfully reintroduced in Mexico, so it's a real landmark for conservation. "It's a project which has now set an important precedent for the future conservation of the many fish species in the country that are threatened or even extinct in the wild, but which rarely take our attention." While conservationists initially released 1,500 fish, they say the population is now expanding into the river system. It is a project - and a partnership - between conservationists in Mexico and the UK that goes back decades. In 1998, at the outset of the project, scientists at the Michoacana University of Mexico's Aquatic Biology Unit received five pairs of fish from Chester Zoo, delivered by the English aquarist Ivan Dibble. These 10 fish founded a new colony in the universities' laboratory, which experts there then maintained and expanded over the next 15 years. In preparation for the reintroduction, 40 males and 40 females from the colony were released into large, artificial ponds at the university, essentially training the captive-reared fish to a wild setting with fluctuating food resources, potential competitors, parasites, and predators. After four years, this population was estimated to have increased to 10,000 individuals and became the source for the reintroduction to the wild.

12-29-21 Australia’s bilbies and bettongs bounce back in predator-free areas
Conservationists are reintroducing threatened mammals to their former ranges with fences to keep out cats and foxes. Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world, having lost 34 mammal species in the past 200 years. To prevent other threatened mammals from disappearing, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy is returning them to their former ranges. Jennifer Anson, who is coordinating the project, tells New Scientist it has been a big success. Alice Klein: Why does Australia have such an abysmal mammal extinction record? Jennifer Anson: The primary driver is predation by feral cats and foxes that were introduced by Europeans 200 years ago and have spread across the continent. Small- to medium-sized native mammals are just unaware of how to deal with these sorts of predators, so they’re very vulnerable. There’s also very little predation pressure that’s exerted on foxes and cats because we don’t have a lot of predators in Australia that are bigger than them, apart from the dingo. How many native mammals have you reintroduced and where? We focus on species that are threatened or going extinct in the wild and try to restore them to parts of their former ranges. In the last 30 years, we’ve reintroduced 6500 individual animals belonging to 19 species. These include the greater bilby, brush-tailed bettong, mala, bridled nail-tail wallaby and numbat. We have eight sites where we reintroduce these mammals. These must be fenced to exclude foxes and cats, but some are very substantial in size. For example, our Newhaven site in the Northern Territory is 94 square kilometres. That means that free-ranging wild populations can establish within these fenced areas. How do you know if a reintroduction has been successful? We fit a subset of animals with radio or GPS collars so we can track their movements and set up camera traps [devices that photograph animals walking past]. We also catch animals and measure their weight, check if they have pouch young and look at other health parameters.

12-29-21 2022 preview: China to host crucial meeting in a bid to save nature
AS THE world examines the outcome of the COP26 climate summit, spare a thought for conservationists trying to protect the planet’s natural riches. A landmark UN biodiversity summit has been postponed three times because of the pandemic and now won’t be held in person in China until April, after a first session was held virtually last October. The delay means that, incredibly, there are currently no global goals for stopping biodiversity loss. While countries missed most of the targets set for 2020, a new set of goals for 2030 – known as the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework – is still seen as essential for slowing and eventually reversing the decline of wildlife and habitats. “I’m really hopeful that what’s adopted in Kunming will help move the needle on biodiversity,” says Susan Lieberman at the Wildlife Conservation Society, referring to the Chinese city where the COP15 biodiversity summit will be hosted. Chief among the possible outcomes is a pledge to designate 30 per cent of land and oceans a protected area by 2030, building on the 2020 pledge to protect 17 per cent of land and 10 per cent of the oceans. More than 70 countries, including India and the UK, have already thrown their support behind the idea. But key nations home to biodiversity hotspots are still missing, notably Brazil, Indonesia and COP15’s host, China. There is much more on the agenda for the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework to be agreed in Kunming. The “ecological integrity” of those enlarged protected areas – in other words, whether they are still functioning, healthy ecosystems – will be debated. Where to site them will come under the spotlight. And, vitally, countries will discuss how tough to be on language about reducing agricultural subsidies, some of which drive the conversion of forests to land used for palm oil, soya beans and cattle. Negotiations were set to continue in January in Geneva, Switzerland, but were postponed to March due to the omicron coronavirus variant.

12-29-21 E. O. Wilson: Extraordinary scholar who warned of biodiversity crisis
Naturalist and ant expert Edward O. Wilson, who died on 26 December, made at least five seminal contributions to ecology and was passionate about finding a more sustainable way for humans to live on Earth. E. O. Wilson was an extraordinary scholar in every sense of the word. Back in the 1980s, Milton Stetson, the chair of the biology department at the University of Delaware, told me that a scientist who makes a single seminal contribution to his or her field has been a success. By the time I met Edward O. Wilson in 1982, he had already made at least five such contributions to science. Wilson, who died on 26 December 2021 at the age of 92, discovered the chemical means by which ants communicate. He worked out the importance of habitat size and position within the landscape in sustaining animal populations. And he was the first to understand the evolutionary basis of both animal and human societies. Each of his seminal contributions fundamentally changed the way scientists approached these disciplines, and explained why E.O. – as he was fondly known – was an academic god for many young scientists like me. This astonishing record of achievement may have been due to his phenomenal ability to piece together new ideas using information garnered from disparate fields of study. In 1982 I cautiously sat down next to the great man during a break at a small conference on social insects. He turned, extended his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Ed Wilson. I don’t believe we’ve met.” Then we talked until it was time to get back to business. Three hours later I approached him again, this time without trepidation because surely now we were the best of friends. He turned, extended his hand, and said “Hi, I’m Ed Wilson. I don’t believe we’ve met.” Wilson forgetting me, but remaining kind and interested anyway, showed that beneath his many layers of brilliance was a real person and a compassionate one. I was fresh out of graduate school, and doubt that another person at that conference knew less than I — something I’m sure Wilson discovered as soon as I opened my mouth. Yet he didn’t hesitate to extend himself to me, not once but twice.

12-28-21 Dolphins may communicate by changing the volume of their whistles
Common bottlenose dolphins identify themselves with a unique call, but these whistles may carry extra information through variations in volume. Common bottlenose dolphins alter their volume throughout their signature whistles, perhaps as a way to communicate additional information besides just their identity. A signature whistle is a unique combination of sound frequencies – like musical notes – held for specific lengths of time to create a special call that each dolphin uses to identify itself. Created during their infancy, dolphins’ signature whistles hardly change throughout their lifetimes. But a new study has revealed that the cetaceans vary the amplitude – the volume – of their whistles, and that the amplitude pattern changes with nearly every call. “This seems a lot like the kind of non-word communication that we humans use, based on inflections, like putting emphasis in a certain area or how we sort of fade out and fade in so we know when it’s each other’s turn to talk,” says Brittany Jones at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, California. The findings suggest that the dolphins might be using frequency as an identity stamp and amplitude to convey additional information to each other, says Jones. Scientists have been studying the frequency of signature whistles in common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) for nearly 60 years. But it is more difficult to capture differences in amplitude in underwater animals that are constantly moving around in different directions. Now, improved technology in underwater microphones, called hydrophones, along with more advanced sound analysis equipment and a more controlled recording environment have made it possible to study dolphins’ whistle amplitudes with greater accuracy, says Jones.

12-27-21 Wildlife's winners and losers of 2021 - and how extreme weather set the tone
Wildlife across the UK is increasingly suffering the impacts of extreme weather events and natural disasters, says the National Trust as it publishes its annual reckoning of UK wildlife "winners and losers". The conservation charity also warns some of the landscapes it cares for are being altered forever as climate change makes some forms of extreme weather the new normal. It points to the very dry spring that saw wildfires devastate parts of National Trust estates in the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland and Marsden Moor in Yorkshire. The fires destroyed habitats for a range of threatened species including golden plover and Irish hare. Meanwhile our warmer, wetter winters have accelerated the spread of diseases such as ash dieback, causing significant loss of trees, the charity says. This year's settled and warm autumn led to a spectacular show of colour but that was brought to an abrupt end when Storm Arwen ripped through the north of the country in November causing widespread destruction. It uprooted thousands of trees on National Trust land in the Lake District and destroyed hundreds of irreplaceable trees and plants at its Bodnant Garden in Wales. At Wallington in Northumberland, where gusts reached 98mph, more than half of the 250-year-old oak and beech trees were uprooted. "These extreme events are putting even more pressure on Britain's wildlife", warns Ben McCarthy, head of nature conservation at the trust. He says more than half of UK species are already in decline and 15% of wildlife species are under threat of extinction. "Isolated or small populations are the most at risk from climate impacts," he says, but not all species have suffered. Some animals and plants have actually flourished this year. Here's a selection of the National Trust's run down of winners and losers on the 250,000 hectares of countryside, 780 miles of coastline and 500 historic properties, gardens and nature reserves it looks after:

12-25-21 French zoo closed temporarily after pack of nine wolves escape
A French zoo has been temporarily shut down by local authorities after a pack of nine wolves escaped from their enclosure during visiting hours. No people were injured during incident last weekend at Trois Vallées zoo in Montredon-Labessonnie, southern France. The animals destroyed safety hatches and climbed a fence, but never went outside the zoo. Four were shot dead for "dangerous behaviour", local official Fabien Chollet told AFP news agency. The remaining five were returned to their enclosure and anaesthetised by local officials who had been called to the scene. "There were not many people in the zoo at the time and at no time was the public in immediate danger," said Mr Chollet. But he added that the zoo needed to be closed until security concerns were fixed. On its website, Trois Vallées zoo said it would shut until mid-January due to "urgent works". Park owner Sauveur Ferrara told AFP that the wolves had only recently arrived at the zoo, and stressed members of the public had immediately been evacuated after the escape. The park, spanning more than 60 hectares, holds more than 600 animals including lions, monkeys and flamingos. It is not the first time it has been ordered to close. Last October Barbara Pompili, France's Minister of the Ecological Transition, forced the zoo to shut down, citing concerns for animal welfare and staff safety. However a court overturned this decision a few days later, allowing the zoo to keep its animals.

12-24-21 Switzerland's wolves get too close for comfort
One or perhaps two wolves, spotted at a distance, roaming the mountains from which they were driven to extinction a century ago may be a good thing - a sign of nature rebalancing itself, of diversity restored. A whole pack, prowling through alpine villages, lurking along the paths children take to school, is something different. When the first wolf returned to Switzerland almost 30 years ago, wandering over the border from Italy, environmental groups were delighted. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of species disappeared from the Swiss Alps: the brown bear, the lynx and the wolf. The high mountain environment, so often regarded as pure and untouched, had been ravaged by one particular predator - humans. Now all three species are back. The bears and the wolves returned naturally, the lynx has been successfully reintroduced. But the dream of people and animals living harmoniously side by side has turned, for some alpine farming communities, into a bit of a nightmare. Just this month a sheep farmer close to the Swiss capital Bern woke to find seven of his 35 sheep dead, their throats ripped out by a wolf that had apparently jumped over the electric fence designed to protect the flock. Unlike their predecessors in the Middle Ages who were constantly aware of the danger wolves could pose, today's farmers rarely employ shepherds to keep an eye on their flocks. Even the traditional sheep dog, which can help keep wolves at bay, has gone out of fashion. Thirty years on, that lone Swiss wolf has become close to 100, forming at least eight packs across the country. They regularly prey on livestock which angers farmers. Over the summer the Swiss Farmers Union complained that "attacks on livestock have taken on a new dimension", forcing farmers to bring their animals down from summer pastures early to protect them. The entire alpine economy, the farmers said, was at risk. More worrying, some wolf packs are showing an interest not just in sheep but in people. Last winter a wolf was spotted watching as children learned to ski. In August, a farmer and her dog were followed by a wolf in canton Grisons and days later the same farmer was followed by three wolves which attacked the dog. In the same region, hikers reported being followed by a wolf pack. And this month a group of children in Heinzenberg met wolves on the path as they walked to school.

12-24-21 Archerfish prove they can count by spitting at computer screens
Previous research has suggested that fish have an innate sense of numbers, but critics say these experiments aren't the final word. Now, a new study has shown that archerfish really can count. Can fish count? An experiment involving archerfish spitting at computer monitors has provided the best evidence yet that they really can distinguish between different numbers. Various studies over the past decade or so have suggested that fish have an innate sense of numbers like many birds and mammals do and are surprisingly good at mathematics. But these typically involved tests such as individual fish choosing to join the largest of two shoals. Critics say these experiments show only that fish have a sense of size, rather than of number. For instance, if fish have to choose between two sets of dots, they might be picking the higher number based on more dots covering a larger area, rather than the actual number of them. “There is a debate regarding the existence of a number sense, based on the fact that it is empirically impossible to separate numerical information from all other continuous properties at once,” says Davide Potrich at the University of Trento in Italy. “Several experiments have tried to address this issue, but usually not in a complete way.” Now, Potrich and his colleagues have developed software that controls for other factors that might influence choices by randomly changing the size of the dots, their arrangement and other details. For instance, when fish had to pick a higher number of dots, these would sometimes take up a smaller area than the lower number of dots. For the study, the team decided to use banded archerfish (Toxotes jaculatrix) that spit jets of water at prey both above and below the surface. They can be trained to hit targets on a computer monitor above the water.

12-24-21 Rare pink handfish spotted in Australia for first time in decades
A rare "walking" handfish which is native only to Australia has been spotted for the first time in 22 years off the Tasmanian coast. The pink handfish was last sighted by a diver off Tasmania in 1999 and has only been seen four other times. Fearing for its survival, officials had recently classified it as endangered. But Australian researchers say they have found it again, on a deep sea camera recording taken earlier this year in a marine park. The new vision shows the fish in deeper and more open waters than it had lived in previously. Scientists had thought the fish was a shallow water species that lived in sheltered bays - but it has now been found at a depth of 150m (390 ft) off Tasmania's wild south coast. "This is an exciting discovery and offers hope for the ongoing survival of pink handfish, as clearly they have a wider habitat and distribution than previously thought," said lead researcher and marine biologist Neville Barrett, an associate professor at the University of Tasmania. As per their name, the species has over-sized "hands" on which they "walk" along the seabed in addition to swimming. In February, his team had dropped a baited camera on the seabed of the Tasman Fracture Marine Park to survey the coral, lobster and fish species down there. The protected park - the size of Switzerland - is known for having a long crack in the earth's crust that has allowed marine life to be found in depths of over 4,000m. A research assistant trawling through the footage in October spotted the peculiar creature among the crowd of larger animals attracted to the bait. "I was watching one of our rough videos and there was a little fish that popped up on this reef ledge that looked a bit odd," said Ashlee Bastiaansen from the university's Institute of Antarctic and Marine Studies. "I had a closer look and you could see its little hands," she told the ABC. The vision shows the 15cm fish emerge from a ledge after being disturbed by a rock lobster.

12-22-21 Meat-eating mammals are more susceptible to cancer than herbivores
Understanding why plant-eating mammals like antelopes and sheep are far less likely to die of cancer than carnivores may help protect us from cancer too. Mammals that live on meat are more likely to die of cancer than those that only eat plants, according to a study of tens of thousands of zoo animals from around the world. analysed post-mortem records for 110,148 animals from 191 mammal species that died in zoos to determine their risk of dying from cancer. They found that carnivorous mammals were much more likely to die of cancer than mammals that rarely or never eat animals. The artiodactyls, a mostly herbivorous group that includes antelopes, sheep and cows, was the least cancer-prone order of mammals. The most cancer-prone species was the kowari (Dasyuroides byrnei), a small, carnivorous, Australian marsupial, with 16 of the 28 post-mortem records available for the species stating cancer as the cause of death. In contrast, none of the 196 blackbucks (Antilope cervicapra) or the 213 Patagonian maras (Dolichotis patagonum) were recorded as having cancer when they died. Blackbucks are grass-eating antelopes native to India and the Patagonian mara is a large, grass-eating rodent found in Argentina. The findings challenge the common belief that bigger animals with longer lifespans are most at risk of getting cancer, since they have more cells that can mutate and there is more time for mutations to occur. Instead, cancer risk appears to be heavily influenced by diet, although more research is needed to confirm whether the relationship seen in captive mammals is also found in wild populations, say the researchers. One reason why carnivores may be more prone to cancer is that raw meat can contain viruses that have the potential to cause cancer when ingested, says Vincze. For example, cancers in some captive lions have been found to be related to papillomavirus in cow carcasses they ate, she says.

12-22-21 Breeding with farmed fish is changing the life cycle of wild salmon
The evolutionary fitness of Atlantic salmon is being damaged by genetic contamination as wild fish breed with escapees from fish farms. When wild Atlantic salmon breed with escaped farmed salmon, their descendants grow faster and mature at a younger age, undermining the ability of the species to survive and reproduce in its natural environment. Aquaculture is expected to meet most of the world’s extra demand for fish in the coming decades. Fish farming can harm wild populations in various ways, from genetic contamination to disease, but most of our understanding of these dangers has been gleaned from experiments in laboratories and controlled settings. To get a better idea of how the spread of farmed salmon’s genes is affecting wild fish, Geir Bolstad at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Trondheim and his colleagues collected scales from 7000 adult salmon in 105 rivers in Norway, the world’s biggest producer of farmed fish. By examining a scale from each fish and genotyping just over half of them, the team analysed what genetic ancestry with farmed fish means for their pace of development. The biggest change came at an early stage of life when the fish in fresh water adapt themselves for saltwater before heading out to sea, a process known as smolting. On average, it happened much earlier for salmon descended from farmed fish. Later in life, these salmon also matured more quickly and returned from the sea earlier to lay eggs. The net result: females descended from farmed salmon reached maturity 0.29 years younger and males 0.43 years younger than genetically wild ones. This faster pace of life due to genetic contamination is bad news because it is linked to a whole suite of traits that make salmon less well adapted to their environment, such as increased boldness and aggression. Studies have found that the offspring of farmed salmon are less likely to survive as juveniles in the wild, in part because they are more susceptible to predators.

12-22-21 ‘Near impossible’ plant-growing technique could revolutionise farming
For the first time, grafting has been made to work in monocots, a type of plant including oats, wheats and bananas – and it might improve disease tolerance among these important crops. A new technique for grafting plants could increase production and eliminate diseases for some of the world’s most imperilled crops, such as bananas and date palms. Plant grafting, where the root of one plant is attached to the shoot of another, has been used in agriculture for thousands of years to improve crop growth and eradicate diseases, in plants such as apples and citrus fruits. But this technique wasn’t thought to work for a major group of plants: the monocotyledons (or monocots). This group includes all grasses like wheat and oats, as well as other high-value crops like bananas and date palms. These plants lack a tissue called vascular cambium, which helps grafts heal and fuse in many other plants. Now, Julian Hibberd at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues have found an approach that allows monocots to be grafted. They extracted a form of embryonic plant tissue from inside a monocot plant seed and applied it to the potential graft site between two monocot specimens belonging to the same species – wheat, for instance. The tissue stimulated growth and fused the two plant halves together. The research team used fluorescent dyes to verify that the root and shoots had fused and could transport liquids and nutrients up and down the stem. “I have written on the record that I thought it was near impossible. So, as a science breakthrough, it’s pretty amazing,” says Colin Turnbull at Imperial College London. The method appeared to work on a wide range of monocot plant families, including important crops such as pineapple, banana, onion, tequila agave, oil palm and date palm. The team’s preliminary studies in the lab also suggest that the grafting can work between species. They grafted a wheat shoot to disease-resistant oat roots. This may protect the wheat from soil-borne disease, although it is still unclear whether this protection would be feasible in the real world.

12-21-21 Here are 7 incredible things we learned this year that animals can do
From powerlifting to growing an entirely new body, these are the capabilities that most impressed us. This year, animals of all shapes and sizes surprised us with amazing abilities we didn’t know they had. From powerlifting to walking on the underside of water, these are the creature capabilities that most impressed us in 2021. Sea slugs that grow new bodies: In a spectacular feat of whole-body regeneration, some Elysia sea slugs can grow a new body from just the head (SN: 4/10/21, p. 4). This feat may come in handy when animals are riddled with parasites and need a fresh start. The head simply detaches itself, crawls away and regrows an entirely new body, including the heart. These are the only animals with a heart that are known to regenerate so much of themselves. Squirrels that parkour: We’ve all seen squirrels pull off death-defying maneuvers, but now we know more about how the rodents pull off their stunts. Like masters of parkour — the sport in which people leap, bounce and climb through an obstacle course — squirrels gauge the bendiness of branches when jumping. The rodents also use parkour-style jumps off of vertical surfaces to slow down and stick landings, researchers found (SN: 8/28/21, p. 14). Animals that eat surprising animals: This year upended notions of predator and prey, revealing animals making meals of one another in surprising ways. Researchers found that more than 40 species from 11 families of spiders eat snakes, using sticky silk and venomous bites to subdue serpents up to 30 times their size (SN Online: 8/4/21). What’s more, one Seychelles giant tortoise apparently didn’t get the memo that tortoises are gentle herbivores. It was spotted stalking, catching and eating a bird chick whole, the first documented example of a tortoise hunting prey (SN: 9/25/21, p. 5).

12-20-21 Remarkable trove of species found living beneath Antarctic ice shelf
The variety of species found below an Antarctic ice shelf shows that life can survive in hostile, food-poor environments for thousands of years. An astonishing variety of marine life has been discovered on the seabed in the darkness hundreds of metres below Antarctica’s ice shelves, including corals, clams, sea mosses, snails and worms. In 2018, a German research team drilled holes in the Ekström ice shelf using hot water and collected samples from two sites on the seabed beneath. An analysis of the samples suggests the environment is home to 77 species – a greater number than found during all previous studies below Antarctica’s ice put together. “It’s a tantalising view of one of our least-known habitats,” says David Barnes at the British Antarctic Survey, who studied the organisms under the microscope. “These two samples are very rich. The thing that really leaps out is just how rich the bryozoans – the sea moss animals – are.” Radiocarbon dating shows some of the bryozoans are several thousand years old. Most of the species found are immobile, so their discovery in such a hostile and low-food environment suggests they are surviving on phytoplankton carried by poorly understood currents beneath the ice shelves. They appear to be growing just as fast as the same species found growing on open-water continental shelves, to Barnes’s surprise. He says it shows how long life can persist with very little food and by conserving energy. The research follows another study earlier this year that found a surprising array of sponges on a boulder deep beneath Antarctica’s ice. The variety of life found this time suggests that environments below the ice are more habitable than previously thought, says Barnes. “Perhaps life is capable of surviving much more ice cover than we thought was the case,” he says. However, Barnes and his colleagues note that this undisturbed and biodiverse habitat beneath the ice “could be the first habitat to go extinct” as Antarctica’s ice shelves collapse due to climate change.

12-20-21 The world's first octopus farm - should it go ahead?
News that the world's first commercial octopus farm is closer to becoming reality has been met with dismay by scientists and conservationists. They argue such intelligent "sentient" creatures - considered able to feel pain and emotions - should never be commercially reared for food. Playing with a Giant Pacific Octopus is part of Stacey Tonkin's job. When she lifts the lid on the tank to feed the creature known as DJ - short for Davy Jones - he often scoots out from his cave to see her and stick his arms on the glass. That's if he's in a good mood. Octopuses live to be about four - so, at one year old, she says that he's the equivalent of a teenager. "He definitely exhibits what you'd expect a teenager to be like - some days he's really grumpy and sleeps all day. Then other days he's really playful and active and wants to charge around his tank and show off." Stacey is one of a team of five aquarists at Bristol Aquarium, and she sees DJ reacting differently to each of them. She says he will happily stay still, and hold her hand with his tentacles. The keepers feed the octopus with mussels and prawns and bits of fish and crab. Sometimes they put the food in a dog toy for him to tease out with his tentacles, so he can practise his hunting skills. She says his colour changes with his moods. "When he's an orangey brown, it's more like an active or playful kind of feeling. Speckly is more curious and interested. So he'll be swimming around orange and brown, then he'll come over and sit beside you and go all speckly and just look at you, which is quite amazing. Stacey says the octopus shows his intelligence through his eyes. "When you look at him, and he looks at you, you can sense there's something there." The level of awareness that Stacey witnesses first-hand is to be recognised in UK law through an amendment to the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. The change has come after a team of experts sifted through more than 300 scientific studies and concluded that octopuses were "sentient beings" and there was "strong scientific evidence" that they could experience pleasure, excitement and joy - but also pain, distress and harm. The authors said they were "convinced that high-welfare octopus farming was impossible" and the government "could consider a ban on imported farmed octopus" in future.

12-20-21 Scientists asked pet rat owners for tips on looking after lab rats
Owners’ insights on the behaviour of their pet rats could help researchers improve the welfare of rats in the laboratory. Laboratory rats might live better lives if they had cages that let them stand up, climb and romp about, according to researchers who gathered lessons on the animals’ behaviour from pet rat owners. Vikki Neville at the University of Bristol in the UK turned to private owners’ expertise to learn how to improve rats’ living environments and recognise possible indicators of their well-being. “Allowing rats to express natural behaviours is really, really important for their welfare and for better science,” says Neville. As a scientist who has 18 former lab rats now living as pets in her home, Neville says pet rat owners have untapped potential for learning about the rodents’ behaviour. “I’ve taken rats home from every study that I’ve completed so far, and I have learned so much just by having them at home, watching them and seeing behaviours that I had never seen in the lab before,” she says.“I’ve taken rats home from every study that I’ve completed so far, and I have learned so much just by having them at home, watching them and seeing behaviours that I had never seen in the lab before,” she says. Neville and her colleagues gathered data from an online survey completed by 677 owners in the UK with a total of 3893 pet rats.The owners reported that younger rats in particular like to play, climb and stand upright – called “rearing” in rats. In general, rats like to dig into their bedding, hoard food, nest and bound across the cage floor in “dolphin-like” leaps, says Neville. However, most laboratory cages would prevent such natural behaviours, she says. Measuring only 48 centimetres long and 38 cm wide with a height of 21 cm, standard lab rat cages restrict activities like bounding, climbing and standing up. As adults, rats can rear to a height of around 30 cm. Bigger laboratory cages with deep bedding for digging could offer rats better welfare, says Neville. If that isn’t feasible, laboratories could install “playpens” – large, tall cages enriched with toys and bedding where rats could spend a few hours a day with other rats.

12-17-21 Fourteen new species of shrew discovered on an Indonesian island
Fourteen new species of shrew have been discovered during a decade-long survey of small mammals on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Shrews are a diverse group of small mammals that can be found almost anywhere in the world. Despite their global distribution, not a lot has been documented about shrews that dwell in the world’s mountainous, tropical regions. To investigate these animals on Sulawesi, Jake Esselstyn at Louisiana State University and his colleagues began setting several pitfall traps across the island in 2010, including on dozens of mountains at different elevations. Over 10 years, they trapped and examined 1368 individual shrews spread evenly across the island. Analysis of their physical features and DNA revealed that the team had found 21 species of shrew, and they all live exclusively on Sulawesi. Of the 21 species, 14 were previously unknown. These discoveries make Sulawesi the host of three times more shrew species than any other island in the world. This may be because the island fosters remarkable biodiversity, or it could be that shrews on other islands are poorly documented, he says. The researchers suspect that Sulawesi’s geography may be a reason for the diversity in the shrews. It is uniquely shaped: its four peninsulas form a K-like shape and are also quite mountainous, with six peaks reaching at least 3000 metres tall. The peninsulas may promote isolation between populations, and the high mountains create strong climatic gradients that could lead to big differences in the vegetation. It is possible that shrews diversified in response to the geography, though this idea is yet to be tested, says Esselstyn. “We hope that our findings can encourage more work and funding to study biodiversity on mountains,” says co-author Heru Handika, also at Louisiana State University. “With the rapidly growing economy of Indonesia and the growing population, deforestation on mountains would increase in the near future. Many of those species would be gone before we know they exist.”

12-17-21 Tardigrade is first multicellular organism to be quantum entangled
A tardigrade has been quantum entangled with a superconducting qubit – and lived to tell the tale. It is the first time a multicellular organism has been placed in this strange quantum state and raises questions about what it means for living things to be entangled. Tardigrades are microscopic animals that can survive extreme temperatures and pressures in a hibernating state called a tun. Rainer Dumke and his colleagues at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, placed one of these hibernating tardigrades on a superconducting qubit, an element of a quantum computer. They then lowered the pressure and temperature to almost a perfect vacuum and near absolute zero, reducing any outside influence, or excitations, on the qubit and tardigrade. “Because all the excitations are frozen out, you can actually describe [the system] in terms of physics, there’s no need to describe it in terms of biology,” says Dumke. When researchers measured the natural frequency at which the tardigrade and qubit combination vibrates, the result only made sense if the two objects were in a state of quantum entanglement, meaning that their quantum properties were linked. After they had finished making measurements, the researchers slowly depressurised and warmed up the tardigrade, bringing it out of its tun state and back to life. The temperature involved, just 0.01°C above absolute zero, is the lowest a tardigrade has ever survived. The fact that the creatures can tolerate such extreme conditions suggests their hardiness is a result of completely shutting off their metabolic processes. “There was still some discussion that perhaps there is a little bit of metabolism that actually goes on [in the tun tardigrade],” says team member Tomasz Paterek at the University of Gdansk, Poland. “But this experiment shows – because it’s so cold, and for such a long time – that it’s really ametabolic. There is no chemistry going on in this piece of stuff.”

12-17-21 A terrifying robot can thwart invasive mosquito fish
A lab experiment shows how fear can render some exotic species less harmful. Invasive mosquito fish are often fearless. Free from the predators of their native range, these mosquito fish run rampant, throwing naive ecosystems from Europe to Australia out of whack. To keep the problematic fish in check, scientists are trying to strike fear back into the hearts of these swimmers with a high-tech tool: robots. In a laboratory experiment, a robotic fish designed to mimic one of mosquito fish’s natural predators increased fear and stress responses in mosquito fish, impairing their survival and reproduction, researchers report December 16 in iScience. While robofish won’t be deployed in the wild anytime soon, the research highlights that there are “more creative ways of preventing unwanted behavior from a species” than simply killing them, says Michael Culshaw-Maurer, an ecologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who wasn’t involved in the study. “It’s just wonderful seeing work in this area.” Native to parts of the western and southeastern United States, mosquito fish (Gambusia spp.) were let loose in freshwater ecosystems around the globe last century in a foolhardy effort to control malaria. But instead of eating malaria-transmitting mosquito larvae, the mosquito fish mostly gobble up the eggs and gnaw at the tails of native fish and amphibians, making them one of the world’s most destructive invasive species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Efforts to combat mosquito fish, and many other introduced, invasive species, usually rely on mass killing with traps, poison or other blunt methods, says Giovanni Polverino, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth. “For most of the invasive species considered problematic, this doesn’t work,” he says, and can often harm native species too.

12-16-21 Robotic fish scares invasive species so badly that it cannot breed
Eastern mosquitofish, a problem invasive species, can be prevented from reproducing using a robot fish that they find scary. Robotic fish might help solve an ecological problem by scaring an invasive fish species so profoundly that it is put off breeding. Eastern mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki) were introduced in many parts of the world to eat mosquito larvae and keep the disease-spreading insects under control. But they have had a negative and unintended consequence on local fauna: they chew the tails of native freshwater fish and tadpoles, then leave them to die. Reducing numbers of eastern mosquitofish without harming other wildlife is a difficult prospect, but Giovanni Polverino at the University of Western Australia and his colleagues have come up with a potential solution. They designed a robotic version of the largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides), which naturally preys on mosquitofish. The robot fish looks like the real predator and even mimics its swimming behaviour. It is controlled from underneath an aquarium via magnets. Polverino’s team ran experiments in aquariums with six wild-caught eastern mosquitofish and six wild-caught tadpoles. When an overhead camera saw a mosquitofish move to attack the tadpoles, the robot fish simulated its own attack on the mosquitofish. The researchers say that after these robot attacks, the eastern mosquitofish exhibited weight loss, changes in body shape and a reduction in fertility, which they believe would lead to reduced numbers. Male fish began to develop thinner and more streamlined bodies with stronger tail muscles to escape predators, while females produced lighter eggs. These effects lasted several weeks even without subsequent attacks. “This global pest is a serious threat to many aquatic animals,” said Polverino. “Instead of killing them one by one, we’re presenting an approach that can inform better strategies to control this global pest. We made their worst nightmare become real.”

12-16-21 Millipede in Australia is first to actually have more than 1000 legs
A millipede with 1306 legs has smashed the world record after being discovered 60 metres underground in Australia. A millipede with over 1300 legs has smashed the world record for the most limbs, beating the previous holder’s mere 750. The word millipede comes from the Latin words for thousand and foot, but most of them have a few hundred legs. The new record holder is the first to have more than 1000. The species was found deep underground in the Goldfields region of Western Australia. “When I laid eyes on the millipede, I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is extremely long’,” says Bruno Buzatto at Bennelongia Environmental Consultants in Perth, Western Australia. Buzatto and his colleagues were surveying the area’s subterranean fauna to check for species that may be vulnerable to planned mining projects. The team lowered traps with baits down deep, narrow holes – each about 15 centimetres wide and up to 80 metres deep – that had been drilled by mining companies looking for mineral deposits. They left the traps for several months to allow creatures from the surrounding soil to crawl in, then pulled them up and took them to a lab to see what was inside. The team collected eight of the unusual-looking millipedes, mostly from a trap laid 60 metres down a drill hole. They sent them to Paul Marek, a millipede expert at Virginia Tech, who sequenced their DNA and studied them in detail under an electron microscope. The longest individual – an adult female – was found to have 1306 legs, while the shortest had 778. Millipedes gradually become longer and grow more legs over their lifetimes, so the longest was probably the oldest, says Buzatto. Future surveys may uncover older individuals with even more legs, he says. DNA sequencing showed that the Australian millipede was a newly discovered species, which has been named Eumillipes persephone after the Greek and Latin words for “true thousand feet” and Persephone, the queen of the underworld in Greek mythology.

12-16-21 Bird songs bump stars off Australian music chart
An album made up entirely of the tweets and squawks of endangered Australian birds has debuted in the top five of the country's Aria music charts. Songs of Disappearance is surpassing the likes of Abba and The Weeknd - not to mention Christmas favourites Michael Bublé and Mariah Carey. Created by BirdLife Australia, the album features the birdsongs of 53 of Australia's most threatened species. Some sounds took hours of waiting in the bush to record one short tweet. David Stewart, a wildlife sound recordist, has spent more than 30 years collecting often rarely heard sounds of Australia's wildlife. It is his bird recordings that have been used on the album. When it was released on 3 December, a social media campaign was launched to get the album into Australia's Aria music sales charts - and it worked. Songs of Disappearance has made history by becoming the first album of its kind to chart in the top five. Proceeds from the sales will go towards BirdLife Australia's conservation projects. "This album is a very special record with some rare recordings of birds that may not survive if we don't come together to protect them," BirdLife Australia CEO Paul Sullivan told The Music Network. "While this campaign is fun, there's a serious side to what we're doing, and it's been heartening to see bird enthusiasts showing governments and businesses that Australians care about these important birds," he added. One in six Australian birds are now threatened, according to a study by Charles Darwin University - that is, 216 out of 1,299 species. The study, which included input from more than 300 bird experts, found that climate change was pushing species closer to extinction. The massive bushfires of 2019 and 2020 devastated their habitat, and BirdLife Australia estimates that the number of threatened bird species has increased by as much as 25%.

12-16-21 Newly hatched gloomy octopuses may seek out light to catch tiny prey
Two-millimetre-long gloomy octopus hatchlings move towards a source of light, possibly because it makes it easier to hunt prey. Tiny, newly hatched gloomy octopuses seek out light – possibly to help them find their minuscule prey. Adult gloomy octopuses (Octopus tetricus) – also known as the common Sydney octopus – weigh around 5 kilograms and live on the ocean floor around Australia and New Zealand. The sharp-beaked, smooth-skinned cephalopods are covered in textured spots that allow them to disguise themselves as seaweed. Almost fully transparent, 2-millimetre-long gloomy octopus hatchlings – called paralarvae – are shaped like adult squid. They begin to hunt tiny marine life, such as crab larvae, from the time they leave their latex-like eggs. Human demand for the animal is on the rise, says Stefan Spreitzenbarth at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Octopuses are a popular seafood, and the animals’ large neurons, behavioural complexity, problem-solving skills and ability for camouflage make them a sought-after research specimen. Research from the 1970s suggested that gloomy octopus paralarvae move away from light. But given that light plays an important role in the survival of larvae and paralarvae in other aquatic species, Spreitzenbarth decided to test this out. In a series of experiments, Spreitzenbarth and his colleague Andrew Jeffs, also at the University of Auckland, placed newly hatched octopuses from wild-caught females in a dark seawater tank. Within half an hour, the paralarvae were spread evenly throughout the tank.The pair then switched on a white, blue, pale blue or green LED light, aimed at the centre of the water’s surface. Within 15 minutes of turning on a light of any colour, most of the paralarvae congregated in the top third of the tank’s volume. There, light intensity was more than twice as strong as it was in the bottom two-thirds of the tank, says Spreitzenbarth.

12-16-21 Tougher action needed to stop oak-killing moth's spread in the UK
Seven years of concerted action to slow the spread of oak processionary moth have failed to stop its consistent outward expansion from London. Tougher action will be needed to stop a caterpillar threatening England’s oak trees from continuing to spread across the country, say researchers who found efforts to control the pest have failed to slow its steady growth. The oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea) – or OPM – has spread as far as the M25 motorway around London, and occasionally even further afield, since it was first detected in south-west London in 2006 after being accidentally imported. The invasive species’ caterpillars eat oak leaves. In great enough numbers they can strip trees bare, leaving them more vulnerable to disease. The species is also a risk to human health, as the tiny hairs its caterpillars shed can irritate skin. There have been concerted efforts to physically remove the pest’s nests from oaks in public parks and woods, and insecticides have been used to kill the caterpillars, with a helicopter being used to apply the poison in one case. But a team of researchers has now concluded “further controls are needed to reduce the infestation rate”. Laura Wadkin at Newcastle University and colleagues collected information on the number of nests removed from London’s Bushy Park and Richmond Park between 2013 and 2020 and used it to build a mathematical model of the species’ advance. The team found OPM’s reproduction number – a measure usually used for infectious disease such as covid-19 – has been consistently above one, meaning it is still spreading. “We can see the infestation rate’s been kinda steady since 2013,” says Wadkin, whose paper has been published as a preprint but not yet peer-reviewed. “It shows the controls are keeping it down to a certain extent, because it’s not been increasing off the charts. But still, we are going to need something more to stop the steady creep outwards.”

12-15-21 2021 in review: CRISPR-edited food goes on sale to public
In September, GABA-enriched tomatoes in Japan became the first foods modified by CRISPR gene editing to go on sale to the public They may look ordinary, but in September these tomatoes became the first CRISPR-edited food to go on sale to the public. The tomatoes were developed by Hiroshi Ezura (pictured) at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. They are available only in Japan and have five times the normal amount of the nutrient GABA. A lot more CRISPR foods could soon start to arrive on supermarket shelves in many countries. Next up could be a red sea bream edited to produce more flesh. Others in development include wheat that produces less of a carcinogenic substance when toasted, a lettuce that stays greener for longer and strawberries that are less likely to go mushy if damaged. This year, we have taken on two massive existential threats, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency, but there were more headline-grabbing stories that give us reasons for optimism going into 2022.

12-15-21 What doing magic tricks for birds is revealing about animal minds
Scientists have teamed up with magicians to perform illusions on Eurasian jays, revealing flaws in their perception – and modes of thinking we didn’t know they had. IN HIS right hand, Elias Garcia-Pelegrin holds a worm. He pretends to grab it with his left but, while his fingers obscure it, he lets it drop back into the right – a classic sleight of hand called the French drop. Garcia-Pelegrin, who began performing magic when he was a student, has fooled countless people with this trick. But today’s audience isn’t buying it: Stuka the Eurasian jay moves her beak towards his right hand, which he opens to give her the treat. Comparative psychologists have often employed deception to explore how animals think. For example, they have used boxes with false bottoms to switch one type of food for another, studying the reactions of dogs and apes to understand how they form mental representations of hidden objects. But the French drop experiment is something new. It is part of the first study to explicitly compare how animals and people react to magic tricks designed to fool humans. Such illusions offer a fascinating window on our minds: they highlight gaps in our perception and attention that magicians exploit to disguise what is in front of our eyes. But what about other animals – do they fall for the same tricks we do? Could their susceptibility to magic tricks highlight flaws in their perception, or even reveal kinds of intelligence we didn’t know they had? “The interesting thing is the comparison with us,” says Garcia-Pelegrin at the University of Cambridge. “Once we have the theory of why a trick works on humans, we can see why it works, or not, on another species, and that tells us about their vision system, their attentional system, their perceptive system and maybe their metacognitive systems. A lot of magic capitalises on you thinking about thinking.”

12-15-21 Scientists keep inventing ways for pigs to breathe via their rectum
Flushing trillions of tiny oxygen bubbles through the rectum increases blood oxygen in pigs and could be an alternative to ventilation for people with damaged lungs. The injection of trillions of tiny oxygen bubbles into the rectum has been shown to raise blood oxygen levels and lower carbon dioxide levels in pigs whose lungs were damaged by smoke. The researchers are now seeking the go-ahead to do safety tests of the procedure in healthy volunteers. The approach could help people, whatever the cause of their low blood oxygen. For instance, people with covid-19 often come into hospitals with very low oxygen levels, says Robert Scribner at Respirogen, a Colorado-based company set up to commercialise the approach. “This could be a good bridging therapy to raise the oxygen saturation in those patients,” he says, and it might mean they don’t need to be put on a ventilator, which can have many harmful side effects. While the pig tests lasted only a few hours, the treatment should work over longer periods, says team member Keely Buesing at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “There’s no reason why you couldn’t just cycle these oxygen microbubbles in and out of the body,” she says. “With the colonic delivery method, it could in theory be a long-term sustaining therapy for severely injured patients, we just haven’t tested it out to those time points.” The key to the approach is that the oxygen is enclosed in micrometre-sized bubbles of fat, says team member Mark Borden at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who originally developed these microbubbles in the 1990s to improve ultrasound scans. Compared with pure oxygen gas, the tiny bubbles enormously increase the surface area and allow much more oxygen to diffuse through the colon into the bloodstream, he says.

12-15-21 Freshwater fish can recover from mercury pollution in just a few years
Mercury pollution is a major global environmental problem, with small-scale gold mining and coal burning the two biggest sources, but fish can recover quickly when the pollution stops. Fish populations appear to recover rapidly from mercury pollution once humans stop adding it to their environment. A 15-year study of a lake in Canada found that eight years after the metal’s supply ceased, concentrations of methylmercury – a highly toxic substance made from mercury by bacteria in aquatic ecosystems – fell by 76 per cent in northern pike (Esox lucius) and 38 per cent in lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis). “I can’t imagine a much faster recovery,” says Paul Blanchfield at government agency Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who led the research. The team are not suggesting the fish excrete the mercury quickly – the experiment in fact shows they hang on to it for a long time – but that quick turnover of generations sees concentrations fall fast when new pollution stops. Mercury pollution is still a major global environmental problem, with small-scale gold mining and coal burning being the two biggest sources. Transported in the atmosphere and rained down on lakes and oceans, the metal’s accumulation in freshwater and marine species has raised concerns over the human health impact of eating fish. Yet little is known from observations about how fast mercury levels decline once the pollution stops. To find out, the team ran a study in the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario, Canada, a remote set of lakes set aside for science. The researchers added mercury to a lake there for seven years, on a par with average amounts found in mercury-polluted waterways of North America. They used mercury with a distinctive isotope so the pollutant could be distinguished from any that fell in rain.

12-15-21 Ambergris: What fragrant whale excretions tell us about ancient oceans
Ancient whale poo, known as ambergris, has long been prized by perfumiers – but it also contains precious information about ancient oceans that could help save today’s whales. THEY say, where there’s muck, there’s brass. Anyone who has stumbled upon ambergris will confirm this. The weathered whale excrement is extremely rare, but it can be found on beaches in many parts of the world. It is unprepossessing: dusty grey or brown with the faintest whiff of earth and sea, mixed with something unfathomably animal. Yet this stuff is so prized by perfume-makers that a lump the size of a human head could fetch you £50,000 or more. Traditionally used to boost the staying power of scents, these days a synthetic alternative means that ambergris is found only in some luxury fragrances. But now scientists have discovered that it harbours another treasure. Adrift in the oceans for decades, even centuries, before washing ashore, each lump is a message in a bottle from a long-departed whale. It holds clues about the lives of these animals before whalers came to plunder them. “There’s really quite exciting potential to look at the impact of whaling on whale health and diversity,” says Ruairidh Macleod at the University of Cambridge. Ambergris also contains historical information about the oceans, especially the marine species foraged by the whales that produce it. It could even give insights into how these animals might respond to the challenges they face as a result of climate change. Ambergris usually makes landfall after a long voyage, originating as black, waxy lumps in a sperm whale’s colon. Nobody knows exactly why it forms. It may encase the sharp beaks of the squid that the whales prey on to stop them damaging the gut, or it may simply be a quirk of metabolism. The fresh stuff, reeking of faeces, has much less value than ambergris matured by a long soak in the sea. This latter form, known as jetsam ambergris, is composed chiefly of ambrein, an organic chemical capable of stabilising volatile scents, which is what made ambergris so sought-after by perfumiers. But it is ambrein’s ability to repel water and resist decay that first drew the attention of Macleod and his Cambridge colleague Matthew Collins. They realised that ambergris could encase DNA and protect it from the elements. What’s more, it could do this for centuries: in 2019, a team led by chemist Steven Rowland at the University of Plymouth, UK, carbon-dated a collection of ambergris to show that some lumps had been in the environment for around 1000 years.

12-15-21 When geckos play ball and spiders spar: The strange evolution of fun
The ability to play is being spotted in some unexpected creatures, from swans to Komodo dragons. Are they really fooling around? And if so, why do they do it? AS I write, my kitten is having a funny 5 minutes – or rather a funny 2 hours and counting. A toy mouse has been thoroughly tortured and my laptop keyboard co-opted for a tap-dancing session. It seems obvious to me that Peggy is playing, and that she is enjoying herself. We are used to the idea of certain warm-blooded creatures, especially our pets, larking around. But what about a crocodile toying with a ball or Komodo dragons playing tug of war with their keepers seemingly for the hell of it? It could be that these animals really are playing – or that we are projecting our own playful nature onto their behaviour. “There’s lots of anecdotal little stories out there,” says Gordon Burghardt at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In the past, “without photographic or film evidence, they could be easily dismissed by scientists”, he says. Today, though, evidence of play in unexpected creatures is building. Biologists have reported examples from the furthest reaches of the animal kingdom: not just primates and house pets, but reptiles, fish, octopuses and even spiders and wasps. Play isn’t universal, says Burghardt, but it is more common than was once thought. So why is it beneficial to spend time mucking about? To answer this, we need to understand how and why the capacity to play evolved. A key problem is how to define play – especially as we can’t ask animals if they are having fun. Many thinkers have tackled this question, and Burghardt has attempted a synthesis of the various definitions. He devised five criteria for whether a behaviour counts as play. The action shouldn’t achieve anything, at least not immediately: my kitten may attack her toy mouse, but she doesn’t get any nutrition from it. It also should be voluntary, perhaps because it is enjoyable, and it needs to be different from the functional equivalent: when animals play-fight, they either don’t bite or only do so gently. What’s more, the behaviour must be repeated, and it only counts as play if animals do it when they are relaxed and sated, not hungry or fearful. “All five criteria needed to be met before I was confident that the behaviour we were seeing was play,” says Burghardt.

12-15-21 Heartbreak over 'failed' bid to remove Gough Island's mice
The head of an ambitious plan to eradicate mice from an island in the South Atlantic says he's "heartbroken" by the project's apparent failure. Footage from a camera trap on Gough Island showed that at least one mouse had survived a hugely complex effort to completely remove them. The rodents are thought to have been introduced to the island by sailors in the 19th century. They have been feeding on the chicks and eggs of seabirds. Millions of birds nest on the remote island, but the invasive mice have been having a growing impact on bird numbers. "The presumption is that where there is one mouse there are likely to be more mice," Andrew Callender, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told BBC News. "That will mean that the project has not been successful in its primary goal." Mr Callender has been overseeing the project for the last three years and said he was "heartbroken" and his team "devastated" by the mouse sighting. Efforts are now being made to try and see how many others have survived. Gough Island is roughly halfway between Africa and South America and is home to one of the world's largest seabird colonies. Until the arrival of the mice several hundred years ago, it hosted no mammals, meaning that endangered and critically endangered species like the Tristan albatross and MacGillivray's prion could breed and nest safely. "The seabirds have not evolved to have defences against mammalian predators," said Mr Callender. "When eggs are hatching very often the birds are being killed by mice within hours." During the southern hemisphere's winter (British summer) of 2021, a hugely complex mice eradication programme was undertaken with some calling it the conservation equivalent of the Moon landing. The participants reached Gough Island by travelling for a week by boat from South Africa in often treacherous conditions. On the days the weather enabled them to fly, helicopters targeted the mice by scattering poison across the island. With the entire project costing more than nine million pounds, the aim was that it would be a "one off", to turn the clock back and eliminate the mice once and for all.

12-15-21 Southern right whales: Tracking unexpected Southern Ocean migrations
New Zealand's southern right whales were almost hunted to extinction a century ago. Their recovery now depends on the health of the oceans - but where exactly do they feed? The answer has surprised scientists and provided hope for the species amid climate change.

12-14-21 Pet dogs respond to an average of 89 distinct words or phrases
A survey of dog owners has concluded that the average pet can respond to 89 words or phrases, with some dogs responding to 215. Domestic dogs respond to 89 words and phrases, on average – including verbs, nouns and terms of endearment – suggesting that their human vocabulary skills extend well beyond intentional cues like “sit” and “stay”. Sophie Jacques and Catherine Reeve at Dalhousie University in Canada created an initial inventory of 172 words and phrases they suspected pet and working dogs might be most likely to recognise. That list was based on prior studies, dog training courses, items marketed for dogs in pet shops, places dogs often go, their own experiences with dogs and recommendations from a group of dog owners. Then, the pair collected information from 165 dog owners responding to their online questionnaire, shared mainly via social media. The survey asked owners to rate how well their dogs consistently and clearly responded to the English words and phrases on the list. By “responding”, the researchers meant not only performing a trick or obedience behaviour, says Jacques, but any other specific reaction like enthusiastic tail wagging, a directed gaze or searching around. They also asked participants to suggest additional relevant terms not included on the list. On average, the owners reported that their dogs responded to 78 items on the original list as well as 11 owner-added terms, meaning the average dog responded to 89 words or phrases. The list of expressions in the current study probably helped trigger owners’ memories of words their dogs recognised and inspired them to think of others, says Jacques. In total, owners added around 1000 unique words to the researchers’ list based on their own dogs’ experiences. Individually, dogs’ vocabulary levels ranged from 15 to 215 words and phrases, three times more than shown in previous research. The repertoire comprises words and expressions the animals probably learned incidentally through living with humans, such as “outside”, “dinner”, “vet”, “who’s that?”, “I love you”, room names and the names of family members and other pets, says Jacques.

12-14-21 Cicada science heats up when Brood X emerges. 2021 was no exception
Mating madness of big, bumbling 17-year-old bugs awed East Coast nature watchers. In one of history’s weird coincidences, the second summer of a global pandemic brought Johns Hopkins biologist Ethan Allen Andrews out on a Baltimore lawn to watch the massive Brood X cicada mating frenzy. The year was 1919 and a great influenza was still spreading around the world. In 2021, the second summer of a different pandemic with many heartbreaking parallels, Brood X cicadas again sent people in the eastern United States onto their lawns in wonder, or into hiding from the mini projectiles and their high-decibel din. Every 17 years, big-eyed Brood X Magicicada bugs as fat as fingers and defenseless as gummy bears fumble out of the ground by the millions. They orient toward various trees as if mystically called, then seethe over lawns in masses to converge and climb. “Astonishing,” Andrews called the view near a large tree. And that was before the mobs took their adult flying form and, after 17 asexual years, the males finally chorused for females. “Ear drums nearly shattered by boiler-foundry din,” the Baltimore Sun exclaimed on May 30, 1919. Yet Andrews sounded thrilled. For three years, he had dug test holes to check on the young cicadas maturing underground. When they finally crawled into daylight, he sampled and calculated. “The entire number emerging from an acre of such suburban land runs up toward one hundred thousand,” he estimated. Six Brood X cicada–lifetimes later (102 years), the most recent crop of the big, goofy bugs clambered above ground on schedule in patches scattered across 15 states. Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, researchers took to the field, or the lawn. Magicicada species live hypercoordinated, “periodical” lives. To be considered periodical, a whole geographic population, called a brood, must live through a multiyear life cycle, synchronizing big events. North America’s periodical cicadas, depending on location, emerge either every 13 or 17 years, mating only in the last month or so of life. Imagine, for a second, whole cities of humans who hit some of the big milestones of life — being born, having babies and then dying — within weeks of each other.

12-11-21 Destructive pest moth stripped of sex appeal by gene editing
Female beet armyworms with a deleted gene don’t produce sex pheromones, which could be exploited as a way to control numbers of this agricultural pest. Deleting a gene linked to the production of sex pheromones in the beet armyworm (Spodoptera exigua) causes females to lose their attractiveness to males, offering a new potential route to control the species, considered one of the world’s worst agricultural pests. Shabbir Ahmed at Andong National University in South Korea and his colleagues used the CRISPR genome-editing technology to delete the gene SexiDES5 in caterpillars of the moth, which feed on a wide range of crops such as vegetables, cotton and flowers. The deletion meant that mutant females no longer produced three pheromones associated with mating in the species. In laboratory tests, 90 per cent of males moved towards chambers containing wild-type females over mutant females when given a choice between the two. Further trials in a field near an onion crop found that while 160 males were attracted to traps containing wild-type females over a week, none were caught in traps containing mutants. “Our results suggest that SexiDES5 plays a crucial role in producing sex pheromones of S. exigua,” the researchers write. They suggest that numbers of the species could be reduced using a gene-drive approach, which uses “parasitic” DNA to ensure a mutation, in this case the deleted SexiDES5, spreads quicker through a population than it would by chance when mutants are introduced into the wild. “This paper exhibits promising new paths to understanding and exploiting the ecology of insect pests by applying CRISPR techniques to manipulate pheromone production for this species,” says Mandela Fernández-Grandon at the University of Greenwich in London.

12-10-21 UK plan to ban animal trophies too slow - conservation groups
Conservation groups and campaigners have called on the government to move faster with plans to ban the import of animal hunting trophies. On Friday, the government published its long-awaited response to a public consultation on the issue and promised a ban. But it stopped short of naming a date when legislation would be introduced. Trophies made from hunted lions and elephants are brought into the UK each year. "The longer it goes on, the more animals are being shot and brought back to Britain as trophies," Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting founder Eduardo Goncalves told BBC News. "It's encouraging that the government is setting out its plans - but it's deeply frustrating that we still don't have any timetable". Every year, hunters from the UK travel abroad, often to southern Africa, and pay thousands of pounds to legally shoot animals such as lions and elephants. With the right paperwork, they can then bring trophies, such as stuffed heads or horns, back to the UK. Announcing details of the new bill, Environment Secretary George Eustace said the legislation would go further than originally promised. The import ban would include not just endangered and threatened species but also more than 1,000 others, such as zebra and reindeer. "This would be one of the toughest bans in the world, and goes beyond our manifesto commitment," Mr Eustace said. "We will be leading the way in protecting endangered animals and helping to strengthen and support long-term conservation." In 2020, despite the pandemic restricting travel, elephant tusks, hippo skulls, lion, baboon and giraffe were among the trophies legally brought back to the UK from southern Africa, the latest, incomplete data shows. And between 2015 and 2019, there were 335 documented imports of trophies from animals covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the government report says.

12-10-21 Turkeys with pale plumage are more fearful than dark-feathered birds
Domesticated turkeys in Nigeria come in a variety of colours, and those with lavender-coloured feathers are more fearful than black-feathered birds. The feather colours of certain kinds of turkeys can predict how they cope with life on the farm. Raised for their meat and eggs, domesticated Nigerian indigenous turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are born with either black, white or lavender – also called bronze – plumes. Despite descending from the same genetic line, black turkeys display the boldest and most adventurous behaviour, while lavender ones often act fearfully. Birds with white plumage appear to lie somewhere in between, says Samuel Durosaro at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, in Nigeria. The findings could guide farmers to customise their management techniques to the particular needs of the differently coloured turkeys so as to improve their welfare, says Durosaro. Durosaro and his colleagues ran five standardised fearfulness tests on 75 turkey chicks – known as poults. The animals came from the same genetic line and included 13 males and 12 females of each colour. The birds underwent testing every other day from ages 7 to 16 days. For some fearfulness tests – in which, for instance, the birds were held upside down by their legs and the amount they flapped their wings was recorded – plumage and leg colour didn’t seem to make any difference. However, for one test – in which birds were placed in a dark box with one small exit hole – the black turkeys were five times faster than the white and lavender birds to escape. This result suggests that black birds are bolder and less fearful, says Durosaro. And in another test, in which the researchers placed the birds one by one in a large open box, the black turkeys showed boldness by exploring more regions of the box than the lavender turkeys. White turkeys explored slightly more than either black or lavender birds. But, overall, black birds did appear to be the boldest, and attempted to escape from the box seven times more often than birds of the other colours. The lavender poults, in contrast, essentially spent their time “pacing in a small area”, says Durosaro.

12-10-21 Plants prioritise keeping their flowers cool during hot, dry weather
Under heat and water stress, plants sacrifice their leaves to keep their sexual organs cool – a strategy that we could harness to protect crops from climate change. In hot, dry weather, plants sacrifice their leaves to cool and protect flowers, which contain their sexual organs. The strategy could be harnessed to defend crop yields against climate change. Plants lose nearly all the water they absorb through evaporation via pores known as stomata. This process, known as transpiration, cools the plant and helps them suck up more nutrient-filled water from the ground, like drinking through a straw. When the weather is hot, the stomata open to release water and heat. But when water is scarce, stomata stay closed, preserving moisture but raising the temperature. The combination of heat and drought can disrupt complex reproductive processes and devastate crop yields. Ron Mittler at the University of Missouri in Columbia and his colleagues studied soya bean plants (Glycine max) grown under artificial conditions. When the plants began to flower, some of them were subjected to excess heat, drought, or a combination of both, while others grew in ideal conditions. After 10 days, the team measured inner flower and leaf temperatures, whether stomata were open, and transpiration. Plants facing heat and drought were hotter and drier than all other groups. They also developed higher densities of stomata in the flowers and leaves. In their leaves, these plants closed their stomata and transpiration levels fell. Yet surprisingly to the researchers, they opened stomata in the flowers, and transpiration remained high. This suggests that the plants prioritised where cooling was taking place. By repeating the experiment and preventing transpiration, the researchers found the behaviour cooled the inner flower by between 2 and 3°C. They also repeated the experiment with tobacco plants (Nicotiana tabacum) and found a similar pattern.

12-9-21 London cat 'serial killer' was just foxes, DNA analysis confirms
Between 2014 and 2018, more than 300 mutilated cat carcasses were found on London streets, leading to sensational media reports that a feline-targeting serial killer was on the loose. The fact that the cats often had their heads or tails cut off, as well as the cleanliness of their wounds, led many to suspect human involvement. Others dismissed the suggestion, pointing the finger at foxes instead. To find out more, Henny Martineau at the Royal Veterinary College in the UK and her colleagues analysed 32 mutilated cat carcasses found by the public between 2016 and 2018. The bodies had been stored by the Hertfordshire and Metropolitan police forces as part of an investigation. The researchers conducted post-mortem examinations on the cats, as well as CT scans. They also swabbed the cats’ fur to test whether they could find DNA belonging to other animals such as dogs, foxes or badgers. The police struggled to pinpoint the true killer of the cats because of how different all the carcasses looked, says Martineau. “In our study, there were 13 different combinations of missing body parts, so it was difficult to spot patterns initially.” Testing for DNA, the researchers concluded that the cats had all been mutilated by foxes after they had died. The post-mortem examination revealed that there was no single cause of death among the cats. They suspect that just 10 of the 32 cats they analysed were killed by foxes. Meanwhile, eight probably died from natural heart or lung failure, while six probably died after being hit by a vehicle. The findings reinforce the conclusions made by the Metropolitan Police in 2018. Martineau suspects the reason that many of the cats’ tails and heads were chopped off is because foxes have a weak jaw and scavenge alone. “So they are going to target areas that are easy to remove,” she says.

12-9-21 UK chief vet warns avian flu at phenomenal level in UK
The UK's chief veterinary officer has told the BBC there is a "phenomenal level" of avian flu in the UK. Tens of thousands of farmed birds have already been culled, as the" largest number of premises ever" in an avian influenza outbreak are infected. Officials say the risk to human health is low - there is no link to the Covid-19 pandemic - but infected birds should not be touched. "It has huge human, animal, and trade implications," the chief vet said. Lessons learned from the foot-and-mouth outbreak are being used to try to control the outbreak, Dr Christine Middlemiss added. As of Wednesday there were 38 confirmed infected premises in the UK - 31 in England, three in Wales, two in Scotland, and two in Northern Ireland. The total last year was 26 confirmed cases. The disease is largely spread by migratory wild birds which return to Britain and pass it on to other birds. Dr Middlemiss said the UK was only a few weeks into the migratory season, which normally goes on until March. "We are going to need to keep up these levels of heightened biosecurity for all that time." An Avian Influenza Prevention Zone was declared across the UK on 3 November. It was extended on 29 November, requiring all bird owners to keep the animals indoors. Dr Middlemiss said there was a high level of infection in wild birds returning from the north of Russia and the east of Europe, where they spent the summer. The advice from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), is that the risk to human health from the avian flu A(H5N1) virus is "very low". However, members of the public are strongly advised not to touch diseased birds. The availability of eggs in supermarkets is unlikely to be affected, said Dr Middlemiss, because the number of farms affected is low compared to overall egg production. "Whilst we're happy that there are not going to be any food supply issues, because of the overall large number of chickens and eggs and things we produce, it is devastating for those individual companies involved. It's also devastating for people who keep yard flocks."

12-9-21 Dragonflies disappearing as wetlands are lost
The loss of marshes, bogs and swamps is driving a rapid, global decline in dragonflies, researchers say. Their plight has been highlighted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's latest Red List of Threatened Species, following its first comprehensive assessment of this colourful group of insects. Wetlands loss is due to urbanisation and unsustainable agriculture, it says. And now, 16% of the world's dragonflies are under threat of extinction. "Marshes and other wetlands provide us with essential services," IUCN director general Dr Bruno Oberle said. "They store carbon, give us clean water and food, protect us from floods, as well as offer habitats for one in 10 of the world's known species. "But these ecosystems are disappearing three times faster than forests." Red-list head Craig Hilton-Taylor told BBC News the most recent scientific assessments showed the world had lost 35% of its wetlands between1970 and 2015. "That rate of loss appears to be increasing," he said. "And it's all because of this perception of wetlands as wastelands that need to be reclaimed, when actually they're really important. "We hope that by showcasing these beautiful insects, and highlighting that we're in danger of losing them, we can [spread the message] that we need to do more to protect the world's wetlands." With Thursday's red-list update, the number of species officially listed as at risk of extinction now exceeds 40,000. Another of those highlighted in this update is the semi-aquatic Pyrenean desman, a mammal found only in rivers in Andorra, France, Portugal and Spain. This tube-nosed creature has been "up-listed" from "vulnerable" to "endangered". With its long sensitive nose and large webbed feet, it is one of only two remaining desman species in the world. The Pyrenean desman population has declined by about half since 2011, mainly because of human impacts on its river habitats, including hydropower plant, dam and reservoir construction and water extraction for agriculture.

12-8-21 If mosquitoes were eradicated, what would be the consequences?
Mosquitoes are a major food source for many bird and bat species, and larval mosquitoes are regularly eaten by various freshwater fish and aquatic insects such as backswimmers, larval dragonflies and diving beetles. These mosquito consumers in turn provide food and other resources for other organisms. Bats, for example, play a critical role in the health of cave ecosystems; they also consume, and help control, many agricultural pests. The eradication of mosquitoes might please humans in the short term, but would eventually damage many ecosystems due to a cascade of negative consequences as more and more species were affected. A better plan might be to eradicate the disease-causing parasites that use mosquitoes as a vector. This is a variant of the “what is the point of…?” question that often gets posed about species we consider to be pests. The eradication of mosquitoes would certainly have consequences. Firstly, there is the question of how the mosquitoes would be eradicated. Spraying pesticides is the most common method, and it is inevitable that non-target species are also affected. The second question is what effect would the absence of mosquitoes have? Although we are mainly familiar with the bloodsucking habits of mosquitoes, their principal food source is flower nectar. Blood is only consumed by females to provide the additional protein required for egg production. Through their flower visiting, they are part of the overall guild of insects that act as pollinators. Another potential impact of mosquito eradication is on the behaviour of other species. In places with many flying biting insects, cattle, horses and other large grazers spend parts of the day resting in dusty, vegetation-free areas that are exposed to the wind, as a means of gaining respite from the insects.

12-8-21 Fish ‘whoops and growls’ recorded on restored reef
Scientists who "eavesdropped" on a restored coral reef in Indonesia say their recordings of fish "whooping, croaking and growling" are the reef coming back to life. Over a decade, the reef has been re-seeded with new corals. The researchers used underwater microphones to record at the site. The sounds, some of which have never been recorded before, provide an audible measure of the health of the reef, researchers say. They published their findings in the Journal of Applied Ecology. The team also compared the recordings they captured at the restored reef to healthy reefs nearby, and to very degraded reefs close to the same site. Restored reefs sound "more like the healthy, thriving reefs", explained lead researcher Dr Tim Lamont from the University of Exeter. "Our study shows that this restoration can really work, but it's only part of a solution that must also include rapid action on climate change and other threats to reefs worldwide." Parts of the reef the researchers studied are being restored from rubble. Decades of dynamite fishing - where sticks of explosive are thrown into the reef and floating dead fish are collected from the surface - had "blown it to smithereens". "What's left behind is a rubble field," Dr Lamont explained. "It's very difficult for coral to grow because there's no solid substrate on the seabed." To repair the damage, that rubble is stabilised with metal frames, while small fragments of live coral are attached to those structures. Describing the recordings, Dr Lamont said the "backing track of the reef" was snapping shrimp. "That sounds like a bit like the static on the radio or frying bacon. Then, through that sound, you'll occasionally hear little trills, whoops or croaks." The species responsible for many of these unusual sounds remain a mystery. Dr Lamont said the diversity of the sounds that fish produced was "as much as the diversity of birdsong". "In some cases we can make an educated guess about what animal is making the noise, and in other cases we have no idea," he told BBC Radio 4's Inside Science. "For me, that's part of the excitement of this whole field - the the joy of knowing that you might hear something that nobody else has ever heard before."

12-8-21 Zebra finch songs alter the behaviour of their chicks' mitochondria
In warm weather, zebra finches sing heat calls to their unborn offspring, and this programs the nestlings to produce less heat inside their cells. Zebra finches sing a special song to their eggs to warn them about hot weather, and these calls seem to program the hatchlings’ cells to harness energy from food without creating excessive heat. This may help their offspring adapt to warmer temperatures. Zebra finches, which mostly live in arid areas of Australia, sing “heat calls” at temperatures above 26°C. Previous studies have found that the calls seem to reduce the growth of offspring in hot nests and increase their reproductive success as adults. A smaller body size may help young birds cope better in higher temperatures, as the result is a larger surface area to volume ratio which means they can lose heat more efficiently. Now, for the first time, we have evidence that when zebra finch eggs are exposed to heat calls, it changes how energy-generating units inside cells, called mitochondria, work in chicks after they hatch. Mitochondria convert energy from sugars and fats into a molecule called adenosine trisphosphate (ATP), which powers cells. They can also use energy from food to generate heat by a process called leak respiration. “Hearing heat calls changes the balance of how much ATP versus heat mitochondria produce,” says Mylene Mariette at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia. “Under mild heat [below 35°C], mitochondria of heat-call exposed birds produce relatively more ATP, because they don’t need to produce as much body heat.” To investigate, Mariette and her colleagues allowed 59 male and 52 female zebra finches to breed and collected the eggs on the same day they were laid. The team kept the eggs at 37°C for 10 days, before transferring them into one of two incubators.

12-8-21 Gut bacteria let vulture bees eat rotting flesh without getting sick
Specialized microbes help the insects avoid food poisoning. Mention foraging bees and most people will picture insects flitting from flower to flower in search of nectar. But in the jungles of Central and South America, “vulture bees” have developed a taste for decaying flesh. They are “the weirdos of the bee world,” says insect biologist Jessica Maccaro of the University of California, Riverside. Most bees are vegetarian. Scientists have puzzled over why the stingless buzzers seem to prefer rotting carcasses to nectar (SN: 2/11/04). Now, Maccaro and colleagues think they have cracked the riddle by looking into the bees’ guts. Vulture bees (Trigona spp.) have a lot more acid-producing gut bacteria than their vegetarian counterparts do, Maccaro and colleagues report November 23 in mBio. And those bacteria are the same types that protect carrion feeders such as vultures and hyenas from getting sick on rotting meat. To probe the bees’ insides, Maccaro’s colleagues trekked into a Costa Rican jungle. Since vulture bees feed on almost any dead animal, including lizards and snakes, the researchers cut up store-bought chicken and suspended the raw flesh from tree branches. To deter ants, the team smeared petroleum jelly on the string that the meat dangled from. “The funny thing is we’re all vegetarians,” says entomologist Quinn McFrederick, also of UC Riverside. “It was kind of gross for us to cut up the chicken.” That gross factor quickly intensified in the warm, humid jungle: The meat rotted, turning slimy and stinky. Bees took the bait within a day. As the scavengers stopped by to dine, the researchers trapped about 30 bees. The team also captured another 30 or so of two other types of local bees — one that feeds on only flowers and one type that dines on both flowers and rotting meat. All bees were stored in alcohol-filled vials to preserve the insects’ DNA for analysis, as well as the DNA of any gut microbes.

11-30-21 A new book shows how animals are already coping with climate change
‘Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid’ offers both good news and bad news. As a conservation biologist, Thor Hanson has seen firsthand the effects of climate change on plants and animals in the wild: the green macaws of Central America migrating along with their food sources, the brown bears of Alaska fattening up on early-ripening berry crops, the conifers of New England seeking refuge from vanishing habitats. And as an engaging author who has celebrated the wonders of nature in books about feathers, seeds, forests and bees (SN: 7/21/18, p. 28), he’s an ideal guide to a topic that might otherwise send readers down a well of despair. Hanson does not despair in his latest book, Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid. Though he outlines the many ways that global warming is changing life on our planet, his tone is not one of hand-wringing. Instead, Hanson invites the reader into the stories of particular people, places and creatures of all sorts. He draws these tales from his own experiences and those of other scientists, combining reporting with narrative tales of species that serve as examples of broader trends in the natural world. A trip to La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, for example, has Hanson reliving the experience of tropical ecologist and climatologist Leslie Holdridge, who founded the research station in the 1950s and described, among other things, how climate creates different habitats, or life zones, as elevation increases. As Hanson sweats his way up a tropical mountainside so he can witness a shift in life zones, he notes, “I had to earn every foot of elevation gain the hard way.” I could almost feel the heat that he describes as “a steaming towel draped over my head.” His vivid descriptions bring home the reason why so many species have now been documented moving upslope to cooler climes.

11-30-21 Wood Wide Web: Scientists to map hotspots of fungal life
A science mission is set to explore one of the final frontiers of untapped knowledge on the planet - the fungal networks in the soil beneath us. Fungi form an underground network of connections with plant roots, helping to recycle nutrients and to lock up planet-warming CO2 in the soil. But little is known about this giant mesh of fungi and its role in fighting climate change. It is part of what's popularly known as the Wood Wide Web. This is an underground network of plant roots and fungi that, among other things, allows trees to share nutrients. And scientists say "underground conservation" has been long overlooked. The initiative to map and preserve the Earth's underground fungal networks is led by the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks. It is the start of an "underground climate movement" to protect "this ancient life support system" said Toby Kiers, professor of evolutionary biology at VU University in Amsterdam. Local experts, dubbed "myconauts" after mycology, the study of fungi, will collect 10,000 samples over the next 18 months to compile a global map of fungal hotspots. And machine learning will be used to build up a picture of the function of fungal networks and their role as carbon sinks - something that absorbs more carbon-containing compounds - such as carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - than it releases. Scientists say fungal networks are under threat due to agricultural expansion, the use of fertilisers and pesticides, deforestation and urbanisation. Current estimates put the amount of carbon dioxide taken out of the air and locked up in the soil with the help of fungal networks at five billion tonnes - although it could be more than three times higher. "If we lose this system, this is going to have really serious consequences for our ability to fight climate change," Prof Kiers told BBC News. Fungi are "the invisible ecosystem engineers and their loss is totally undocumented", she added. Soils are home to 25% of all species on Earth, yet current plans to conserve biodiversity hotspots above ground fail to protect over 50% of biodiversity below ground. The total length of the fungal network in the top 10cm of soil is more than 450 quadrillion kilometres: around half the width of our galaxy.

11-29-21 Heirloom tomatoes are less genetically diverse than standard varieties
A study of traditional ‘heirloom’ tomato varieties from Europe has revealed little genetic diversity despite their enormous variety in size, shape and colour. Yellow, streaked or purple, enormous or tiny, round, plum or lobed – the colours, sizes and shapes of the tomato varieties traditionally grown in Europe vary greatly. But it turns out this diversity is only skin deep. Apart from the few genes controlling these obvious characteristics, these tomatoes are virtually identical genetically. “It’s like a desert with some oases of variety,” says Jose Blanca at Valencia Polytechnic University in Spain. “The tomatoes that you find in the supermarket nowadays, they have more diversity than the traditional [European] ones.” A handful of varieties of tomato were brought to Europe from the Americas around the 16th century, where they were grown mostly by poorer farmers in Spain and Italy. These farmers bred hundreds of varieties. “People think these are natural, but they are not,” says Blanca. “These are artificial. They are human artefacts.” The fruit became popular in the UK and North America in the 19th century, and nowadays most tomatoes grown commercially are modern varieties created by seed companies. However, seed banks and a few amateur growers around the world are trying to conserve the vintage or “heirloom” varieties. To assess the diversity of European varieties, Blanca’s team partially sequenced the genomes of more than 1000 heirloom tomatoes developed in Europe alongside another 200 or so modern varieties. The researchers found significant diversity at just 300 sites in the genome of the heirloom varieties. “There are few diverse sites, but the ones that are diverse, they are very diverse,” says Blanca. “The rest, they are all the same.” This is because the European farmers selected for mutants that had an obvious effect, he says. But because all the varieties derive from just a few plants that arrived in Europe in the 16th century, they remain very similar otherwise.

11-25-21 Feeding pet dogs just once a day might keep them healthier as they age
Dogs fed once a day are less likely to be diagnosed with age-related conditions than dogs fed more often, according to an analysis of surveys completed by 24,000 owners of pet dogs. For now, dog owners should stick with their current regime, says Matt Kaeberlein at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Based on this study, we are not recommending that people make a change in the way they are feeding their dogs.” In 2019, Kaeberlein helped establish the Dog Aging Project to study the genetic and environmental causes of ageing in dogs and other animals, including people. Any dog owner in the US can take part by filling in a survey once a year. There is some evidence that intermittent fasting can slow ageing in some animals, such as mice. Kaeberlein analysed the project data to see if dogs fed once a day were more or less likely to be diagnosed with various categories of age-related conditions, from cancers to the canine equivalent of dementia, than those fed more often. In most cases, dogs fed once per day were significantly less likely to have had such a diagnosis. “In my view, it’s pretty compelling correlative evidence,” says Kaeberlein. However, the study hasn’t established causation, he says. The total amount that a dog eats, rather than how often it eats, might explain the correlation. Dogs fed twice a day or more might be more likely to be obese, for instance. The project team plans to ask owners how much their dogs eat and whether they are obese. But measuring caloric intake accurately is hard to do in surveys, says Kaeberlein. Ideally, the team would like to carry out a trial involving switching some dogs to once-a-day-feeding to see if it affects their health. “The strength of the study is that numbers are large and the statistical methods are sound,” says Alex German at the University of Liverpool in the UK. But it also has many weaknesses, he says, and he “strongly agrees that people shouldn’t change the way they feed their dogs until further studies are done.”

11-25-21 Wild Wild Life newsletter: How you can 'do your bit' for wildlife
Greenwashing is rife and full of ineffectual suggestions for saving the planet. Here are four lifestyle changes that actually do make a difference for biodiversity. Hello, and welcome to November’s Wild Wild Life, the monthly newsletter that celebrates the biodiversity of our planet’s animals plants and other organisms. To receive this free, monthly newsletter in your inbox, sign up here. I’ve been breaking in a new pair of walking boots on woodland walks, spotting as many fungi as I can. I can’t pretend to be anywhere near an expert – the UK is home to more than 15,000 species of fungi. That number isn’t quite as daunting as it sounds, though, because many of these species are microscopic and not mushroom-forming. I’ve had some successes in identifying the most common species, but I still marvel at anyone who is confident enough to eat those that they identify as edible. This month, in the aftermath of COP26, I’m looking at actions we can meaningfully take to help wildlife and lessen the biodiversity crisis. Plus, why it pays to have really red feathers if you’re a waxbill, and a newly recognised species of octopus. The COP26 summit in Glasgow, UK, this month was the biggest opportunity to tackle climate change since the Paris Agreement, back in 2015. Amid all the breaking news, big pledges and grand announcements, something kept niggling at me. I couldn’t turn on the TV without an advert telling me I could “do my bit” by recycling a plastic bag or eating a veggie burger. My problem with such messages is that they are nowhere near enough to be “my bit” – anything that’s promoting easy swaps or simple lifestyle changes sounds great but is unlikely to have any impact on the problem. Greenwashing has become a familiar concept now, and I’ve written before about more meaningful action that people can take both to tackle climate change and cope with eco-anxiety. But what about the other great planetary crisis besides climate change: the biodiversity crisis? Humans and our domesticated animals now make up more than 90 per cent of the mammalian mass living on our planet. The things we do are threatening around 1 in 8 species with extinction, and just 3 per cent of Earth’s land is classed as ecologically intact.

11-24-21 Albatrosses divorce more often when ocean waters warm
The typically monogamous birds seek new partners when conditions are harsher than usual. When it comes to fidelity, birds fit the bill: Over 90 percent of all bird species are monogamous and — mostly — stay faithful, perhaps none more famously than the majestic albatross. Albatross couples rarely separate, sticking with the same breeding partner year after year. But when ocean waters are warmer than average, more of the birds split up, a new study finds. In years when the water was warmer than usual, the divorce rate — typically less than 4 percent on average — rose to nearly 8 percent among albatrosses in part of the Falkland Islands, researchers report November 24 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It’s the first evidence that the environment, not just breeding failure, affects divorce in wild birds. In fact, the team found that during warmer years, even some females that had bred successfully ditched their partners. The result suggests that as the climate changes as a result of human activity, higher instances of divorce in albatrosses and perhaps other socially monogamous animals may be “an overlooked consequence,” the researchers write. Albatrosses can live for decades, sometimes spending years out on the ocean searching for food and returning to land only to breed. Pairs that stay together have the benefits of familiarity and improved coordination, which help when raising young. This stability is particularly important in dynamic, marine environments, says Francesco Ventura, a conservation biologist at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. But if breeding doesn’t work out, many birds — mostly females — leave their partner and try to find better luck elsewhere (SN: 3/7/98). Breeding is more likely to fail in years with more difficult conditions, with knock-on effects on divorce rates the following years. Ventura wanted to find out whether the environment also has a direct impact: changing the rate of divorce regardless of whether the breeding had gone well.

11-24-21 Hybrid salmon found in Canada may be a result of climate change
Salmon found near the mouth of the Cowichan river on Vancouver Island are a hybrid species of coho and Chinook, which may have arisen as the timing and location of their spawning grounds overlapped. Hybrid salmon have emerged near Vancouver Island in Canada, possibly due to environmental changes in the waterways where they hatched. Andres Araujo at Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Nanaimo and his colleagues analysed the genes of salmon surveyed mostly within the Strait of Georgia, which separates Vancouver Island from the mainland, between 2013 and 2019. They found that samples from what they assumed to be young Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) had unusual genetic markers. More sampling and genetic analysis revealed that these fish were hybrids, crossed with coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), another species found in the region. Many of the hybrids look like a mix of the two species, says Araujo. Some have grey-lined gums, intermediate between the Chinook’s black gums and pale coho gums, for example. Hybrid salmon have been documented before, but very rarely. In the latest study, the team found a persistent, low-level presence of hybrids, most of which were found near the mouth of the Cowichan river, an important spawning ground for the two species. The team says nearly 5 per cent of the fish sampled that are thought to have originated in the Cowichan are hybrids. Araujo and his colleagues think these hybrids could be a result of the impact of climate change on the Cowichan. In recent years, dry conditions have lowered the river’s water level, delaying the start of the Chinook salmon’s late summer spawning. This increases the chance that the coho – which arrive and spawn in the autumn – will overlap with the Chinook spawning, possibly resulting in interbreeding.

11-22-21 Octopus-inspired camouflage fabric can change colour to blend in
Many camouflage materials are limited by the need for power or external sensors as they effectively record video of what is behind an object to be hidden and display it on the front. Instead, a new material inspired by octopuses and squid shines an infrared torch on an object to match its surroundings. Xuesong Jiang at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China and his colleagues have created the material from two layers, each of which has a different thermal expansion rate. One layer is infused with pigments of mixed colours and the other is made to be the same colour as the background. When the material is cool, the layers have different tensions, which causes tiny wrinkles and creases to form on the surface. Light shone onto the surface warms up the layers, causing them to expand at different rates and making the two materials smooth again. Creating and eradicating these wrinkles allows the colour of any reflected light to be controlled. In the wrinkled state, a mixed spectrum of bright colour is reflected, but when the material smoothes out, the reflected colour matches the background, and whatever is clad in the material becomes camouflaged. Because the system doesn’t use sensors or power, researchers believe it could create inexpensive adaptive camouflage uniforms. The US Army has previously made a call for proposals for wearable camouflage with chameleon-like abilities.

11-18-21 Red crabs swarm across roads and bridges in Australia
Tens of millions of red crabs have covered roads and bridges on Christmas Island as they undertake their annual migration. The crabs are travelling from the forest to the coast to spawn, the migration beginning shortly after the first rainfall of the wet season.

11-18-21 This eco-friendly glitter gets its color from plants, not plastic
Minuscule arrangements in cellulose reflect light in specific ways to give rise to vibrant hues. All that glitters is not green. Glitter and shimmery pigments are often made using toxic compounds or pollutive microplastics (SN: 4/15/19). That makes the sparkly stuff, notoriously difficult to clean up in the house, a scourge on the environment too. A new, nontoxic, biodegradable alternative could change that. In the material, cellulose — the main building block of plant cell walls — creates nanoscale patterns that give rise to vibrant structural colors (SN: 9/28/21). Such a material could be used to make eco-friendly glitter and shiny pigments for paints, cosmetics or packaging, researchers report November 11 in Nature Materials. The inspiration to harness cellulose came from the African plant Pollia condensata, which produces bright, iridescent blue fruits called marble berries. Tiny patterns of cellulose fibers in the berries’ cell walls reflect specific wavelengths of light to create the signature hue. “I thought, if the plants can make it, we should be able to make it,” says chemist Silvia Vignolini of the University of Cambridge. Vignolini and colleagues whipped up a watery mixture containing cellulose fibers and poured it onto plastic. As the liquid dried into a film, the rodlike fibers settled into helical structures resembling spiral staircases. Tweaking factors such as the steepness of those staircases changed which wavelengths of light the cellulose arrangements reflected, and therefore the color of the film. That allowed the researchers, like fairy-tale characters spinning straw into gold, to transform their clear, plant-based slurry into meter-long shimmery ribbons in a rainbow of colors. These swaths could then be peeled off their plastic platform and ground up to make glitter.

11-17-21 An inside look at oysters – and how to enjoy them safely
I LOVE raw oysters, so hoped to write a column saying there is no need to worry about food poisoning. When I looked into it, though, I found cause for concern. But there are safe ways to enjoy delicious oysters. Folklore has it that oysters can be eaten in any month with an “r” in it – in other words, avoiding the summer months, when they spawn. This discernment may date back to ancient times. By measuring parasitic snails in oyster shells, a study of a 4300-year-old human habitation in Georgia, US, found that ancient people mostly harvested oysters in the autumn, winter and spring. During the spawning season, oysters convert their resources into sperm or eggs, which renders them less palatable. People may also have avoided taking oysters in summer to allow populations to recover. Nowadays, farmed oysters are available and good to eat all year round and are among the most sustainable seafoods. Since the 1980s, many farmed oysters have been triploid: they have three sets of chromosomes and are therefore infertile. These oysters grow faster than natural oysters and remain firm and plump in the summer. As filter-feeders, oysters can pick up pathogens lurking in the water. To reduce this risk, they are usually kept in clean water for 42 hours after harvesting in the UK, a process called depuration. Sadly, this isn’t completely effective – particularly with respect to norovirus, one of the most common causes of gastroenteritis. A 2017 report found that between 100 and 1000 copies of the norovirus genome may remain in each gram of oyster tissue after depuration. Just 10 copies are thought to constitute an infectious dose. In the UK, about 13,000 people a year experience illness after eating seafood, usually raw oysters. Given that more than 13 million oyster meals are served each year, you might consider this a low risk. But recent headlines about raw sewage discharged around British coasts may make you think twice.

11-17-21 Why haven’t cats evolved since domestication, unlike other animals?
Cats were domesticated in ancient Egypt, yet unlike other domesticated animals, don’t seem to have evolved significantly since. Why? I have come to the conclusion that humans are at the whim of three things in life: the weather, hormones and cats. Ask any cat owner and you will discover that they have to do exactly as the animal bids, whether that means sitting uncomfortably so as not to disturb the cat sleeping on their knee, or holding open a door while it twitches its “tail of indecision” before running the other way. I therefore suggest that humans have subtly evolved to meet the needs of cats rather than the other way round. It could be argued that the domesticated European house cat has reached the top of the evolutionary ladder, with all the benefits of a 21st-century Western lifestyle and none of the drawbacks. It is worth thinking about this next time Tiddles jumps into your warm spot as you head off to work on a winter morning! When travelling in Egypt, visiting tombs from pharaonic times and looking at 4000-year-old frescos and statues featuring cats, one gets the impression that they were essential to the afterlife of kings, nobles, craftsmen and scribes. There are so many depictions of them throughout that period. There are the ferocious tomcats cutting off the head of a serpent demon, cats under the chairs of noble people, statues of cat-like goddesses and many cat mummies. These cats resemble present-day barn, village and house cats. Does this mean that cats were domesticated in Egypt but haven’t changed since? As is true for the history of all domestic animals, the reality is much more complex. First of all, cats were probably domesticated in the Middle East at the dawn of agriculture thousands of years before they were introduced to Egyptian households. In the Middle East, the local wildcats must have been attracted by the rodents prowling around granaries in the settlements of early farmers. A special human-cat relationship was established that mutually benefited both partners: the cats must have been happy to feast on these rodents, while the farmers must have been happy to get rid of the pests.

11-17-21 AI predicts which mammals are most likely to spread covid-19
Water buffalo, Sunda pangolins and mink are among the 540 mammals predicted to be likely to spread the coronavirus based on their biology and where they live. An AI tool has predicted 540 mammalian species that are most likely to spread covid-19 using information about where they live and aspects of their biology. According to the model, mink, Sunda pangolins and bats are among the top 10 per cent of species most likely to spread covid-19, which matches results from lab experiments. The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes covid-19, invades human and animal cells by engaging the ACE2 protein on host cells with its spike protein. This step is required to infect an animal and be transmitted to other hosts. Distinct species have different versions of the protein, so understanding how well their ACE2 protein binds to the coronavirus spike protein can help scientists predict which animals are most likely to spread covid-19. But the amino acid sequences that make up the ACE2 protein are available for only around 300 species. Barbara Han at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York and her colleagues built a machine learning tool to predict whether the ACE2 protein from 5400 mammalian species can bind strongly enough to the spike protein from the original coronavirus variant to spread the virus, even without knowing their ACE2 amino acid sequences. The species predicted to be able to harbour the virus include white-tailed deer, which were recently found to have very high rates of infection in North America. Striped skunk and 76 rodent species including rats and deer mice were also deemed likely to spread the coronavirus, along with some farmed species such as water buffalo. To create the model, the team first estimated how strongly the spike protein binds to the ACE2 protein from 142 mammalian species for which the ACE2 sequences are known, and whether or not these species are likely to spread the coronavirus based on this binding strength.

11-17-21 Pale barn owls in UK and Ireland hint at ancient land bridge
The barn owls of northern Europe are typically dark-feathered, making the pale-feathered barn owls of the UK and Ireland an anomaly - now a study suggests they arrived via an ancient land bridge connecting the area to Iberia. Barn owls are one of the most widely distributed birds, being found on six continents. In Europe, they follow a general pattern: southern areas host pale owls and darker birds dominate in the north. But barn owls in the UK and Ireland are consistently a stark white, and a new analysis explains why. Ana Paula Machado studied the owls (Tyto alba) while at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. She and her colleagues analysed DNA from 147 barn owls across six European populations. They targeted a gene called MC1R, which is known to influence feather pigmentation in barn owls, along with 22 other genes the owls carry that have been linked to feather colour. In particular, they were looking for evidence that owls from Ireland and the UK had dark-feathered ancestors and then underwent strong selection for pale feathers, as an adaptation to local conditions. They didn’t find any. “We didn’t see that one coming,” says Machado, so they began looking for an alternative explanation. She and her colleagues used data on the habitats that barn owls occupy today to predict how they would have been distributed across Europe under ancient climatic conditions. This revealed a now-submerged land corridor of suitable owl habitat along the Bay of Biscay, bridging Iberia and the Ireland-UK region some 20,000 years ago. This suggests owls in the UK and Ireland had pale-feathered ancestors from southern Europe. The genetic data corroborates this, showing that owls from the region have close relations with those from Portugal. The Iberian route is a surprise. Most animals that recolonised the UK and Ireland after the Pleistocene ice sheets retreated around 18,000 years ago are thought to have entered via Doggerland, a boggy land bridge that existed at the time and connected Belgium with southern England.

11-13-21 Climate change may be shrinking tropical birds
Even a subtle decrease in size could help animals stay cooler, researchers suspec. In a remote corner of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, researchers have spent decades catching and measuring birds in a large swath of forest unmarred by roads or deforestation. An exemplar of the Amazon’s dazzling diversity, the experimental plot was to act as a baseline that would reveal how habitat fragmentation, from logging or roads, can hollow out rainforests’ wild menagerie. But in this pristine pocket of wilderness, a more subtle shift is happening: The birds are shrinking. Over 40 years, dozens of Amazonian bird species have declined in mass. Many species have lost nearly 2 percent of their average body weight each decade, researchers report November 12 in Science Advances. What’s more, some species have grown longer wings. The changes coincide with a hotter, more variable climate, which could put a premium on leaner, more efficient bodies that help birds stay cool, the researchers say. “Climate change isn’t something of the future. It’s happening now and has been happening and has effects we haven’t thought of,” says Ben Winger, an ornithologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who wasn’t involved in the research but has documented similar shrinkage in migratory birds. Seeing the same patterns in so many bird species across widely different contexts “speaks to a more universal phenomenon,” he says. Biologists have long linked body size and temperature. In colder climates, it pays to be big because having a smaller surface area relative to one’s volume reduces heat loss through the skin and keeps the body warmer. As the climate warms, “you’d expect shrinking body sizes to help organisms off-load heat better,” says Vitek Jirinec, an ecologist at the Integral Ecology Research Center in Blue Lake, Calif.

11-12-21 Birds in the Amazon are adapting to climate change by getting smaller
An analysis of 77 tropical bird species in the Amazon shows that all of them have shrunk and a third developed longer wings over the past 40 years. Tropical birds deep in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest are shrinking and developing longer wings as they adapt to climate change. Researchers studied data for 77 tropical bird species over the past 40 years and found that all of them had lost body mass, with some species losing nearly 2 per cent of their weight per decade. A third of the species studied also developed longer wings. A landmark 2019 study of birds that had crashed into buildings in Chicago, Illinois, found that they had lost mass and gained wingspan over a 40-year period, but those species were migratory. To see whether seasonal migration, the birds gradually shifting latitude or the direct effects of human activity had been driving the change, researchers examined the records of 15,000 non-migratory birds inhabiting a pristine tract of rainforest a few hours drive from the city of Manaus in north-west Brazil. “We see these pretty remarkable changes in their bodies that are consistent with what we would expect under climate change,” says Vitek Jirinec at the Integral Ecology Research Center in California, who led the study. The mean temperature of the birds’ habitat today is 1°C warmer in the wet season and 1.65°C warmer in the dry season compared with 1966. Weather patterns are also more extreme, with 13 per cent more rain falling in the wet season and 15 per cent less in the dry season. The birds lost mass more sharply following extremely dry or wet seasons. This could be a short-term response to changes in their environment, such as a lack of rainfall causing a decline in the number of insects that the birds feed on. But wingspan was significantly larger in one third of the species and the wing-to-mass ratio significantly smaller in two thirds of them, suggesting that the mechanisms behind the change could be complex and genetic rather than temporary. “Mass is a generally good index of body condition in birds,” says Jirinec. “If they are simply not getting enough to eat, you would expect them to lose weight. But why would they have more energy to grow their wings?”

11-12-21 The Amazon's pink river dolphin population is in freefall
The population of botos, river dolphins found in the Brazilian Amazon, is declining due to fishing with gill nets and is predicted to fall by at least 95 per cent in less than 50 years. Strange, pink, small-eyed freshwater dolphins glide through today’s turbid waters of the Amazon River basin. But they are speedily approaching extinction. The Amazon river dolphin, or “boto” (Inia geoffrensis) is one of the few remaining dolphins on the planet that are restricted to freshwater, with two other superficially similar species persisting in South Asia. Anthony Martin at the University of Dundee in Scotland and his colleagues have spent more than two decades studying the botos around Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve in the Brazilian Amazon. Using their wealth of long-term data, Martin and Vera da Silva at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Brazil calculated how the population was trending. The team used 22 years of survival and reproductive data on more than 650 dolphins to create a model that predicts the botos’ population size in the coming decades. “When we first started this work, there were dolphins everywhere, and we thought of them as actually very abundant,” says Martin. But their model delivered a shock. “It knocked our socks off,” says Martin. “The decline is far more profound than we had imagined.” In all six of their simulations, the dolphins’ numbers are predicted to fall by at least 95 per cent in less than 50 years. The extinction of the boto may occur in just over a century. In this part of the central Amazon, the botos’ precipitous decline is largely due to entanglement and drowning in monofilament gill nets, and people catching and using the dolphins as fish bait. Martin says that the boto is treading the same path as the baiji, a river dolphin native to the Yangtze River in China that is likely now extinct. “All of the true river dolphins – the ones that can’t get away from humans – they’re all going down the plughole.”

11-11-21 Deep-sea rockfish that live to be 200 hint at genes for longevity
Longevity research often focuses on short-lived lab animals like mice – but a study of long-lived rockfish might offer new genetic clues for extending lifespans. Rockfish are among the longest-living animals known to exist, and by studying the natural variation in their lifespans, researchers have discovered key insights into the genetic basis of longevity. Studies into ageing have traditionally focused on laboratory mice because they are easy to work with. However, Peter Sudmant at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues adopted a different approach, studying longevity in creatures with longer lifespans. The researchers performed a genomic analysis of 88 species of Pacific Ocean rockfish (genus Sebastes) – deep-sea creatures that live between 11 and 200 years – to map out the genetic underpinnings of their lifespans. They accounted for factors such as body size and their environment, which are variables that are known to affect ageing in many organisms. “We found genes associated with many different pathways — genes involved in DNA repair, metabolism and immune response,” says Sudmant. It is possible that a set of genes called butyrophilins, which are known to influence many human diseases of inflammation, contribute to the extreme lifespan of long-lived rockfishes. “We found that these genes, which we think play an immunosuppressive role, have higher ‘copy number’ [meaning some have been duplicated] in ultra-long-lived species,” says Sudmant. “This highlights a specific set of genes and pathways that might be important to follow up in humans.” An investigation into the lives of these long-lived animals is critical to learning how to enhance and prolong human health, says Steven Austad at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I don’t believe we will make much headway in extending human health if we only study short-lived organisms like fruit flies and mice.”

11-10-21 Chimpanzees dislike the smell of death like we do
Some chimpanzees will carry around an infant that did not survive, which made researchers wonder if they are as sensitive to the chemicals that produce odours in dead bodies. Chimpanzees avoid the smell of dead things, much like we do. This odour may play a key role when chimpanzee mothers grieve their young. It is thought that humans and some other animals evolved disgust for putrescine – the chemical odour compound associated with decomposing bodies – to protect them from disease or predation by scavengers. However, nobody had tested whether chimpanzees were sensitive to the smell of death, says James Anderson at Kyoto University in Japan. He and his colleagues investigated this with two female and four male chimpanzees, all aged between 24 and 48 years old, that were housed in Kyoto University’s Kumamoto Sanctuary. One night a week over a six-week period, the chimpanzees returned to their cages after roaming in the sanctuary to find either a stuffed dead bird or a stuffed glove in a cardboard box just outside their cages. The researchers dispersed odours from a bucket, using a fan to waft the scents of water, putrescine or other substances. The chimpanzees avoided the object significantly more when putrescine was diffused, regardless of whether it was a bird or a glove, says Anderson. “With the putrescine, it was clear that the chimps wanted away from there,” he says. The two oldest individuals, aged 46 and 48, were the least repulsed by the smell of putrescine. Chimpanzee mothers sometimes carry dead infants for weeks or months. The researchers didn’t test such mothers, but they suspect that these apes accept the odours due to attachment to their infants, or they might just get used to the smell. Post-partum chimpanzees may also have a reduced sense of smell, but studies would be needed to test this, says Anderson. Eventually, often at a time when the putrescine odour would be the strongest – around two to four days after death – chimpanzee mothers abandon their dead babies, says Anderson.

11-10-21 Cats can mentally map their owner’s location from voice alone
In tests with hidden loudspeakers, cats show signs of being surprised when their owner’s voice seemed to quickly "teleport" from one side of a room to another. Domestic cats can mentally map their owner’s location simply from the sound of their voice. Previous studies of cats (Felis catus) have revealed they are able to track objects that move out of sight – showcasing a level of what is known as “object permanence”, the recognition that an object continues to exist even if it can no longer be seen. But few studies have tested how cats use their other senses to track objects and individuals. Saho Takagi at Kyoto University in Japan and her colleagues put cats’ hearing to the test by investigating how they responded to their owner’s voice. To do so, they studied 50 domestic cats – 27 of which live at “cat cafes” where people can pay to watch and play with cats, while the remaining 23 were house cats. The team placed each cat alone in a test room with two doors and a window. They placed a speaker outside the room near one door and a second speaker outside near the second door or the window. The two speakers were at least 4 metres apart. To observe the cats, the team set up five video cameras in the room. Read more: Cats refuse to snuggle with objects that smell like their owners During each test, the researchers used the speakers to play recordings of the cat’s owner – whether a cafe owner or a member of the household – or a stranger calling the cat’s name. The voice was played twice, 2.5 seconds apart, and could come from either the same speaker both times or once from each speaker. Eight people then evaluated each cat’s response by carefully analysing the video footage. The results suggest that cats show little surprise – indicated by moving their ears or changing head direction – when their owner’s voice was played twice from the same speaker, or when the stranger’s voice was played either twice from the same speaker or once from each speaker.

11-10-21 Asian honeybees scream in alarm when giant hornets attack the hive
Asian honeybees produce what has been described as a disturbing scream-like sound when their hive is attacked by giant hornets. A frenzied alarm signal produced by a type of Asian honeybee during a giant hornet attack has been identified for the first time. Hornets are Asian honeybees’ most devastating predators and can wipe out entire colonies. Heather Mattila at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and her colleagues recorded sounds inside hives containing Asian honeybees (Apis cerana) as they came under attack either by a type of giant hornet (Vespa soror) related to the infamous “murder” hornet (Vespa mandarinia), or a smaller hornet species (Vespa velutina). The team also recorded sounds from the hives in the absence of predators. In total, the researchers captured nearly 30,000 bee signals in more than 1300 minutes of recording, from three beekeeping yards in Hanoi, Vietnam. By analysing pictures of the sound patterns, the team discovered that bees produce a previously undescribed set of harsh and irregular noises that can change rapidly in frequency when giant hornets, but not smaller hornets, arrive at the hive. They named these signals “antipredator pipes”. No such sounds were detected in the absence of threats. “I found it really disturbing. When you analyse the recordings, part of you is scared for the bees, and part of you is so excited for how unusual these sounds were,” says Mattila. The acoustic properties are very similar to alarm shrieks and fear screams made by other animals like primates and birds, says Mattila. Using cameras to film the hive entrances, the team found that the antipredator pipes seemed to rally more bees to the hive entrance. Once here, the bees placed more animal dung around colony entrances, a behaviour known to deter hornets. The arrival of smaller hornets didn’t lead to increased dung-depositing by the bees.

11-10-21 Researchers have unlocked the secret to pearls’ incredible symmetry
The discovery could inspire more optimal materials for solar panels and space travel. For centuries, researchers have puzzled over how oysters grow stunningly symmetrical, perfectly round pearls around irregularly shaped grains of sand or bits of debris. Now a team has shown that oysters, mussels and other mollusks use a complex process to grow the gems that follows mathematical rules seen throughout nature. Pearls are formed when an irritant gets trapped inside a mollusk, and the animal protects itself by building smooth layers of mineral and protein — together called nacre — around it. Each new layer of nacre built over this asymmetrical center adapts precisely to the ones preceding it, smoothing out irregularities to result in a round pearl, according to an analysis published October 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Nacre is this incredibly beautiful, iridescent, shiny material that we see in the insides of some seashells or on the outside of pearls,” says Laura Otter, a biogeochemist at the Australian National University in Canberra. A pearl’s symmetrical growth as it lays down layers of nacre relies on the mollusk balancing two basic capabilities, Otter and her colleagues discovered. It corrects growth aberrations that appear as the pearl forms, preventing those variations from propagating over the pearl’s many layers. Otherwise, the resulting gem would be lopsided. Additionally, the mollusk modulates the thickness of nacre layers, so that if one layer is especially thick, subsequent layers will be thinner in response (SN: 3/24/14). This helps the pearl maintain a similar average thickness over its thousands of layers so that it looks perfectly round and uniform. Without that constant adjustment, a pearl might resemble stratified sedimentary rock, amplifying small imperfections that detract from its spherical shape.

11-9-21 Newly recognised octopus species described in south-west Australia
Octopus djinda is caught in fisheries and eaten by people, but has only now been recognised as a separate species from another Australian octopus. A new species of octopus has been described in south-west Australia, after a study determined it is different enough from its eastern Australian relative to be considered taxonomically distinct. Although the species has only now been given its own name, people have long been catching and eating the animal, which supports one of the world’s few sustainable octopus fisheries. The new species has been named Octopus djinda, following consultation with the Aboriginal Advisory Committee of the Western Australian Museum in Perth. Djinda means “star” in the Nyungar language. The octopus is found along the south-west coast of Australia. It was previously believed to belong to the O. tetricus species that lives along Australia’s east coast and New Zealand, but Michael Amor at the Western Australian Museum and Anthony Hart at the Western Australian Fisheries and Marine Research Laboratories have found that O. djinda has more suckers along its arms. “It may not sound like much,” says Amor, but when trying to identify species of octopus hiding in plain sight, “a few suckers can be a big deal”. Genetic analysis also suggests that the octopus is sufficiently distinct from O. tetricus to be considered a separate species. O. djinda is targeted by the Western Australia octopus fishery, which is the largest and fastest-growing such fishery in Australia. But it has appropriate catch limits, says Amor, and is one of only two octopus fisheries worldwide that has been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. However, it is often the case that many types of octopus are lumped together in fishing statistics, which makes it difficult to assess how many of a particular species are being caught. “This is a major problem when trying to interpret catch trends, especially with increasing fishing pressure and climate change,” says Amor. “Now that O. djinda is formally recognised as a species and, importantly, distinguished from O. tetricus, formal catch statistics reporting can proceed at the species-level in Australia and globally,” he says.

11-9-21 Some songbirds now migrate east to west. Climate change may play a role
A dramatic shift in some Richard’s pipits’ winter plans might be linked to a warming Europe. As the chill of autumn encroaches on Siberia’s grasslands, Richard’s pipits usually begin their southward trek to warmer latitudes. But a growing number of the slender, larklike songbirds seem to be heading west instead, possibly establishing a new migratory route for the species. This would be the first new route known to emerge on an east-west axis in a long-distance migratory bird, researchers report October 22 in Current Biology. The finding could have implications for how scientists understand the evolution of bird migration routes over time and how the animals adapt to a shifting climate. Richard’s pipits (Anthus richardi) typically breed in Siberia during the summer and travel south for the winter to southern Asia. Occasionally, “vagrant” birds get lost and show up far from this range, including in Europe. But as a Ph.D. student at the Université Grenoble Alpes in France, evolutionary biologist Paul Dufour noticed, along with colleagues, that described sightings and photo records of the pipits wintering in southern France had increased from a handful of birds annually in the 1980s and 1990s to many dozens in recent years. So, Dufour, now at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and his team started monitoring the pipits in France and Spain to see where the birds were coming from, and if the birds were visiting Europe on purpose or just getting lost. The researchers captured seven pipits in France during the winter of 2019–2020, tagging them with a sensor that estimates the birds’ geographic positions based on light levels and length of day. The team then released the birds. The next winter, the team successfully recaptured three of them. Those sensors showed that the birds had all flown back to the same part of southwestern Siberia for the summer before returning to France.

11-8-21 Wild honeybees believed to have been wiped out discovered in ancient woodlands
A bee conservationist made an unexpected discovery in the ancient woodlands surrounding Blenheim Palace in England. Filipe Salbany found hundreds of thousands of rare honeybees that appear to be the last wild descendants of Britain's native honeybee population, The Guardian reports. These bees are smaller, furrier, and darker than their counterparts that live in managed beehives, and they "live in nests in very small cavities, as bees have for millions of years," Salbany said. In the early 1990s, the varroa mite arrived in Britain and was thought to have wiped out the wild honeybee population, but Salbany said he believes the bees he came across have evolved to survive such threats. DNA samples have been extracted from the bees for testing, and Salbany said it's clear their wings are smaller and their veins are "very distinct," distinguishing them from imported bees. The woodlands are not open to the public and there is no gardening or planting activity, so there is "very little human interaction," Salbany told The Guardian. The bees are so relaxed that he's able to touch them safely, and they make "incredibly pure" honey. Salbany said he thinks it's likely there are other spots with hidden wild bee populations, and that's why "we need to protect our ancient woodlands. Because that's where we are likely to find these bees."

11-6-21 Watch first footage of Asia’s long-lost bird, the black-browed babbler
The black-browed babbler had been missing for 172 years before its unexpected rediscovery last year – now we have our first footage of the bird in the wild. The enigmatic black-browed babbler has been studied in the wild for the first time following its reappearance after a 172-year absence. No Asian bird has been missing for as long as the black-browed babbler (Malacocincla perspicillata) was before its rediscovery in 2020. Following the unexpected first sighting, Panji Gusti Akbar from Birdpacker, a birdwatching group in Indonesia, and his colleagues set out in September 2021 to explore the enigmatic bird’s habitat in the limestone hills of Kotabaru Regency, in Indonesian Borneo. The team spotted a pair of babblers in dense shrubbery near the side of the cliffs. Akbar noted that the birds moved very quietly and discreetly, which may be the reason they were hidden from us for so long. Once the birds were close enough, the team captured the first images and videos of the birds in their natural habitat. The babbler can be identified by a prominent bill, grey and brown feathers, and a distinctive black eyestripe. Before its rediscovery, our only evidence of the bird’s existence came in the form of a single stuffed specimen and a number of natural history accounts dating back to the mid-19th century. Akbar said in a statement: “It was a breathtaking moment to finally see this species in the wild, as most of its natural history is entirely unknown, so that every single behaviour we observed can be new to science.” Paul Insua Cao, chair of the Oriental Bird Club’s conservation committee, said in a statement that the rediscovery spotlights the biodiversity crisis happening around the world. The black-browed babbler would probably have become extinct had it not been for its rediscovery, as we can now start looking to protect its habitat, said Cao.

11-4-21 Baleen whales eat (and poop) a lot more than we realized
In a single day, a blue whale can gulp down the caloric equivalent of 30,000 Big Macs. Whalers have plucked giant whales from the sea for much of the last century, reducing their numbers by up to 99 percent for certain species. Some scientists thought that krill — the tiny crustaceans that many whales eat in gargantuan gulps — would explode in number as a result, mostly free from the feeding pressure of the largest animals that have ever lived. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Antarctic krill numbers have dwindled since the mid-20th century, by more than 80 percent in areas heavily trafficked by whalers. Many other consumers of krill, like seabirds and fish, have suffered too in the absence of the crustaceans and their giant eaters. Now, scientists have a clearer idea why this happened: whale poop, or rather, the lack of it. A new study finds that baleen whales, including blue and humpback whales, eat on average three times as much krill and other food as previously thought, and more food in means more poop out. Paradoxically, the collapse of the krill may stem from fewer whales excreting iron-rich, digested krill, denying these ecosystems some crucial nutrients they need to thrive. Phytoplankton blooms, which sustain krill and many other parts of the food web, rely on that iron. Restoring whale populations to prewhaling levels could help bolster these ecosystems and even store more carbon in the ocean, researchers report in the Nov. 4 Nature. “It’s hard to know what role whales play in ecosystems without knowing how much they’re eating,” says Joe Roman, a marine ecologist at the University of Vermont in Burlington who wasn’t involved in the research. Whale food intake was coarsely understood before, he says, and this study will “allow us to better understand how the widespread depletion of whales has impacted ocean ecosystems.”

11-3-21 Baleen whales eat three times more krill than we thought
Baleen whales are the largest animals on Earth, and they are even hungrier than we had assumed, which has huge implications for marine ecosystems. Baleen whales, the largest animals in the world, eat three times more prey than previous estimates suggested. The discovery implies that these whales play a larger role in sustaining marine ecosystems than we had thought. Matthew Savoca at Stanford University in California and his colleagues tracked 321 tagged baleen whales from seven species, including the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) and the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). The researchers followed these whales throughout the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Oceans and estimated their feeding patterns using aerial photographs of the whales’ foraging areas and acoustic measurements of prey density, primarily crustaceans such as Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba). The team found that the average amount of prey consumed per day by the seven baleen species was between 5 and 30 per cent of their body mass – a range that is three times higher than previous average estimates. In the Southern Ocean, the team estimated baleen whales ate around 430 million tonnes of krill per year before industrial whaling began in the early 20th century. This is twice the estimated mass of krill in our oceans today. “This new higher estimate is important for the functioning of ocean ecosystems because whales act as giant nutrient recycling plants,” says Savoca, “By consuming even more prey than previously thought in most cases, they are also pooping more, and that poop is actually marine fertiliser.” This fertiliser sparks the growth of marine plants, including phytoplankton, and provides food for krill and other small fish.

11-3-21 Do you speak elephant? With this new dictionary you will
An ambitious directory of elephant behaviours and vocalisations offers amazing insights into their minds and culture – and could help save these magnificent beasts from extinction. A HERD of around 40 elephants processes across open grassland in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. Led by a matriarch named Valente, they are headed towards a newly felled tree, a potential food source. The tree is out of sight: perhaps the elephants detected vibrations from the impact through their feet. That’s cool, and the procession is impressive – but elephant scientist Joyce Poole isn’t sure why this particular video went viral. Since May, she and her husband Petter Granli have been posting clips of elephants daily on social media, and others are far cuter or odder. The duo are co-founders of a US-based non-profit organisation called ElephantVoices, and these videos are part of a project they have been working on for the past five years. Called the Elephant Ethogram, it is a freely available online library of elephant behaviours and vocalisations, along with their meanings. Since it went live, Poole and Granli have been inundated with messages expressing wonder and gratitude. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The human desire to decipher other animals is ancient, and science has recently brought that dream closer – through, for example, the use of artificial intelligence to start decoding the vocalisations of whales and birds. The Elephant Ethogram is less flashy, but far more impressive. Andrew Whiten, who studies animal behaviour at the University of St Andrews, UK, calls it a “staggering achievement”. It is probably the most ambitious ethogram ever created. As well as giving anyone the pleasure of understanding elephants more intimately, it could transform the way researchers see these magnificent animals – and even help avert their extinction.

11-3-21 Bats’ landing styles differ depending on where they roos
An analysis of 35 bat species found in Central America, Bulgaria and China shows that the landing style each species takes is related to the make-up of their roost. Bats are unique among mammals thanks to their ability to fly, but what goes up must come back down. An analysis of bats’ landing methods has revealed that their touchdown techniques can give insights into other aspects of their lifestyle, such as the kind of shelter they live in. “If you’re going to be able to fly, you have to be able to land without dying,” says David Boerma at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Pulling off a safe landing is tied directly to a critical resource: the roosts where bats seek shelter and raise their young. Roosts provide protection and a social life, and act as an anchor for how bats interact with their surrounding environment. While at Brown University in Rhode Island, Boerma and his colleague Sharon Swartz, also at Brown University, investigated the mechanics of bat landings by recording footage of 665 landings from 35 species of bats, mostly at field sites in Central America, Bulgaria and China. They then compared the bats’ landing techniques with the properties of their roosts and the evolutionary relationships between the species. The pair found that a bat’s landing style was related to the physical properties of the landing surface, rather than the roost’s location. Boerma was surprised, as he originally expected that bat species that were closely related or had around the same body size would land similarly regardless of their roost characteristics. Some bats landed with a flip as they grasped the surface with their feet. This approach seems to have evolved multiple times and is linked to stiff, horizontal roosts, like cave ceilings. Four-point landings, in which the bat touches down with all four feet at once, are the simplest and oldest method, derived from the grappling descent of gliding ancestors, and were common with surfaces like foliage that have a bit more give. Some three-point landings worked well in cramped situations.

11-3-21 Dogs may get worse separation anxiety when left alone with another dog
Some dogs will bark and howl when left alone by their owner, but an analysis of video footage shows getting a second dog may make the problem worse. Dogs living with other dogs often bark more than those in single-dog households when their owners leave home for a few hours – and they whine and howl just as much. The discovery suggests that getting a second dog might not be a reliable way to resolve the anxiety that some dogs experience when they are separated from their humans. It also overturns a popular belief that dogs that are separated from their owners but are in the company of others of their kind are “not that alone”, says Gerrit Stephan at the Academy for Animal Naturopathy in Switzerland. “We do not suggest that dogs in single-dog households [in general] are better off when left alone, but we observed more separation-related behaviour in multi-dog households,” he says. “Canine company may help dogs cope with separation from human attachment figures in individual cases, but our results indicate that this is not granted and should be checked carefully by owners.” In fact, because one dog barking can set off barking in other dogs, a person attempting to calm separation anxiety in their first dog by getting a second one might make the situation worse, he says. Stephan and his colleagues reached these conclusions after studying videos captured inside the homes of dog-owners and recording dogs’ reactions when their humans left the house without them as part of their regular routine. They looked at footage of 32 dogs living alone and 45 dogs living with others. Most of the time, the dogs lay around doing nothing, says Stephan. Minor activity – like sitting or standing still, or raising their head – took up 22 per cent of their time, and the animals were actively moving around for less than 2 per cent of the time.

11-3-21 Red feathers determine which common waxbill is the boss
For a songbird called the common waxbill, dominance isn't governed by body size, intelligence, or even temperament, but by the intensity of the colours in their chest feathers. Common waxbills with the highest social ranks aren’t necessarily larger or more intelligent than their peers – but they do have chest feathers that are a richer shade of red. This may be because individuals are so healthy that they can spare resources on accentuating their colours. Patrícia Beltrão at the University of Porto in Portugal and her colleagues discovered this by evaluating dozens of common waxbills (Estrilda astrild) that were captured as adults in a large outdoor netted area. The researchers measured the birds’ body size and then used digital photography and reflectance spectrophotometry to determine the size and saturation levels of the red-feathered chest patches. They also ran standard behaviour tests on each bird to judge their intelligence, stress tolerance and level of aggression or passivity. Then, they monitored bird feeders in the netted area, recording when a bird recognised another as higher-ranking by giving up its place at the feeder. The researchers found that the only obvious factor linked with rank and dominance was the saturation level of the red chest plumage, says Beltrão. If a bird has more saturated red colouring, it could indicate that it is healthy enough to spare nutrients in food for pigment use, so the feathers could act as a “badge of honour”, says Beltrão. “But that’s just a hypothesis.”

11-3-21 Vampire bats that live together share a common gut microbiome
Vampire bats form tight social groups and even share regurgitated food – and doing so means the bats end up with a similar gut microbiome. Microbes may be transferred between vampire bats when they lick and groom one another and share regurgitated food – and this means the bats living together end up with a common “social microbiome”. What’s more, within each colony, the more one bat touches another with its mouth and tongue – a sign of how socially close the pair are – the more the pair’s microbiota align with one other, says Gerald Carter at the Ohio State University in Columbus. “Their relationships map right onto their microbiome similarity.” Carter and his colleagues ran DNA sequencing on faecal samples from common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) colonies in six US zoos and one wild colony in Belize. They also took faecal and inner gut samples from an experimentally grouped colony of bats, which originally lived in three separate wild colonies in Panama and were then housed together for four months. For this last group, they also ran infrared video recording for six hours a day throughout the experiment to observe social contacts, especially licking. Bats living in the same colony – whether in the wild or in zoos – typically had gut microbiomes that were similar to each other and dissimilar to those from other colonies, in terms of the microorganisms present and their relative abundances, says Carter. Despite living together for only four months, the microbiomes of bats in the experimentally merged group were also similar to each other, but less so than those in the natural colonies in zoos and in the wild. The more physical – and especially oral – contact there was between any two bats in that colony, the more similar their microbiomes were. The findings suggest that while bats might get their gut microbiota from their parents, their environment and their diet (which is exclusively blood), their microbiomes can change easily and rapidly to line up with those of bats in their social community, says Carter.

11-3-21 Nursery web spiders woo mates with food wrapped in chemical-laced silk
Chemicals in the silk of male nursery web spiders help them attract a mate when used as gift wrap. Male nursery web spiders persuade females to mate by wrapping food in their own silk, which is laced with attractive chemicals. This gift-giving is a common part of courtship among nursery web spiders (Pisaura mirabilis), but Michelle Beyer and her colleagues at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany wanted to find out more about how it works. The team gave freshly euthanised houseflies to P. mirabilis male spiders and allowed them to wrap the prey in silk. They then either unwrapped the fly before submerging the silk in ethanol and water and then re-wrapping a fresh fly inside, or left the gifts untouched. They also prepared unwrapped dead flies as a control. The researchers used tongs to offer the food gifts to 35 female spiders and found that unwashed gifts were accepted around 75 per cent of the time, while washed gifts were accepted around 40 per cent of the time, suggesting that molecules on the unwashed silk swayed the females towards gift acceptance, though exactly which substances is unclear. “Since both ethanol and water are known to remove, among others, acids, esters, alcohols or ketones, I would expect the chemicals involved to belong to one of these groups. If the females are satisfied with what they sense, for example chemical presence or concentration, they could indeed feel more attracted to the males,” says Beyer. The unwrapped control gifts were only accepted around half the time, supporting the idea that chemicals in the silk make the giver more attractive. “Females accepted wrapped gifts more often than a dead fly in plain view,” says Beyer. It is possible that the chemicals require a lot energy to produce, suggesting that the amount of chemicals present indicates how healthy a male is, helping females to pick the fittest mates, says Beyer.

11-2-21 Falling bird numbers mean quieter birdsong in Europe and North America
The natural soundscape of birdsong has probably become quieter in Europe and North America over the past 25 years because of a decline in bird numbers. Springtime birdsong may be becoming quieter and less diverse in North America and Europe due to declining bird populations, which is bad for ecological diversity and may also have a negative impact on human health and well-being. Natural soundscapes are an important way to connect people with nature, and doing so has been shown to benefit both our physical and mental well-being. The familiar trills, whistles and caws of birds are a major component of these soundscapes. Simon Butler at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, and his colleagues compiled bird count data from 202,737 sites in North America and 16,524 sites in Europe, collected between 1996 and 2018. The team then used the data and recordings of 1067 bird species taken from an online database to reconstruct the likely bird soundscape that existed at each site for every year. For each individual bird spotted at a site on a particular year, 25-second clips of their songs were randomly inserted by the team into an empty 5-minute sound file. The volume of individual birds was also randomly sampled to represent birds singing from different distances. “Ideally, it should sound like had you taken a recorder out into the field as the person was doing the bird survey,” says Butler. The researchers then analysed the clips with acoustic modelling, which quantified the songs’ acoustic characteristics, including the volume and pitch, and the amount of variation in these properties. They found a significant decline in the diversity and intensity of birdsongs across both continents over the past 25 years, which means soundscapes in these regions have become quieter and less varied. The results reflect widespread declines in bird populations and biodiversity in North America and Europe over the same period.

11-2-21 Grumpy and aggressive shelter cats become more friendly over time
Some animals can develop problematic behaviours the longer they stay in an animal shelter, but cats tend to become friendlier and less aggressive. Many unfriendly or aggressive shelter cats can become much more sociable with humans – and hence more adoptable – if just given time. Unlike dogs, which can develop problematic behaviours and appear less sociable as they spend more time in animal shelters, cats tend to become friendlier the longer they stay. Cats may need the extra weeks or even several months to recover from stress, veterinary issues or the change in environment that make them less approachable, says Veronika Vojtkovská at the University of Veterinary Sciences Brno in the Czech Republic. Vojtkovská and her colleagues rated the sociability of 158 cats entering an animal shelter over a 12-month period in the Czech Republic, where euthanasia for non-veterinary reasons is illegal. The animals lived indoors in a group of about 25 cats at a time with access to an outdoor enclosure. The cats – all at least 3 months old – underwent their first evaluation after an approximately 14-day quarantine, and then again every two weeks as long as they stayed at the shelter. At the first evaluation, most of the cats were rated as friendly or very friendly, the highest scores on a 5-point scale. Over time in the shelter, these cats either stayed just as friendly or became even friendlier. However, nearly 20 per cent of the incoming cats were initially rated as neutral, unfriendly or so unfriendly that they couldn’t be touched. Of these, more than half showed permanent improvement over time – sometimes taking several months. The longer the cats stayed, the more social they became. “This work supports the idea that human interaction is an important aspect of a shelter cat’s social life,” says Kristyn Vitale at Unity College in Maine. “It is possible that as cats get more comfortable in their surroundings and new routines, they also feel more confident to engage in a higher diversity of behaviours, such as engaging in social behaviour with people,” says Vitale.

11-1-21 Barn owls make mental maps of their surroundings while they are flying
Neurons that help humans make mental maps, called place cells, have now been seen in flying birds for the first time. Owls may make maps of their surroundings in their brains just like humans do. The fact that this ability has been seen in mammals and non-mammals could suggest it evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. Yoram Gutfreund at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and his colleagues implanted a wireless neural recording device into the brains of six barn owls (Tyto alba), using these to analyse brain activity as they flew back and forth between two perches. The researchers were looking for evidence of place cells – neurons that fire when an animal visits a specific place. These cells let an animal make a mental map of its surroundings and have been found in humans, rodents and bats. They have never been recorded in flying birds before, although they have been seen in a tufted titmouse, a type of songbird, as it walks. The team recorded each bird for about 20 minutes, tracking flight with eight high-speed infrared cameras, repeating the experiment several times with each bird. By combining data from the owls’ brains with the infrared recordings, the team found that certain hippocampus neurons fired more strongly at specific points in the flight path and depending on which direction a bird was going in. This response was unaffected by lighting changes or movements by the experimenter in the room. Place cells in rodents display similar behaviour. But the team notes that the cells could instead be time-sensitive and their firing dependent on how long the birds have been in the air. Cells have been found in rodents that fire at distinct time points after the initiation of an action.

11-1-21 Gene-edited stem cells help geckos regrow more perfect tails
Experiments coaxed the geckos to regrow tails with some nerve tissue and bonelike cartilage. Regenerating body parts is never easy. For instance, some lizards can grow back their tails, but these new appendages are pale imitations of the original. Now, genetically modified stem cells are helping geckos grow back better tails. Tweaking and implanting embryonic stem cells on the tail stumps of mourning geckos (Lepidodactylus lugubris) allowed the reptiles to grow tails that are more like the original than ever before, researchers report October 14 in Nature Communications. These findings are a stepping-stone to developing regenerative therapies in humans that may one day treat hard-to-heal wounds. A gecko’s tail is an extension of its spine — with the vertebrae to prove it. Regenerated tails, however, are simpler affairs. “It’s just a bunch of concentric tubes of fat, muscle and skin,” says Thomas Lozito, a biologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. That’s because stem cells in adult geckos produce a molecular signal that encourages the formation of cartilage in new tails, but not bone or nervous tissues (SN: 8/17/18). Lozito and his colleagues used embryonic stem cells, which can develop into a wider range of tissues than adult stem cells, modified them to ignore this signal and then implanted them on the tail stumps of geckos that had their tails surgically removed. The tails that grew from these modified stem cells had bonelike grooves in the cartilage and generated new neural tissue at the top of the tail. These modified tails still lack a spinal cord, making them a far cry from the original. “We fixed one problem, but there are still many imperfections,” Lozito says. “We’re still on the hunt for the perfect tail.”

11-1-21 New Zealand bat flies away with bird of the year award
A bat has been named as New Zealand's bird of the year, in a controversial move that has ruffled feathers. The long-tailed bat had swooped in to clinch the title in an online poll. Contest organisers had included the bat, one of the country's few land-based native mammals, to raise its profile as a critically endangered species. But the victory has annoyed some, with one commenter saying the country had gone "batty". Outraged bird-lovers cried fowl on Twitter, calling it a "total farce", a "stolen election", as well as more colourful and unprintable terms. Some on social media also saw it as a much-needed public relations victory for bats, after a particularly trying two years. But environmental group Forest and Bird, which organises the competition every year, said the bat's inclusion was not a bid to restore its image in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Spokesperson Laura Keown said in a statement that "a vote for bats is also a vote for predator control, habitat restoration, and climate action to protect our bats and their feathered neighbours!" The Bird of the Year contest has been seen as a way to raise awareness of New Zealand's biodiversity and species that are under threat. In apparent defiance of the laws of scientific taxonomy, Forest and Bird had decided to include a land mammal for the first time this year, saying they faced similar challenges as birds. The long-tailed bat, also known as the pekapeka-tou-roa and is only the size of a thumb, beat a flightless parrot to win the title. More than 56,700 people cast their votes, with more than 7,000 for the bat and just over 4,000 for the kakapo, which won the contest last year. This is not the first time the contest has flown into controversy. In 2019, hundreds of votes were found to have come from Russia, spurring fears of voter fraud. Organisers later determined that they were likely to have come from Russian bird-lovers, instead of hackers intent on manipulating the vote.

110 Animal Intelligence & Zoology News Articles
for November of 2021

Animal Intelligence News Articles for October of 2021