2-28-22 Elephant seals seem to have precise mental maps for navigating home
Northern elephant seals seem to know how far they have travelled and when they need to head back towards the beaches where they breed. Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) return to the beaches where they breed at the same time every year after migrating thousands of kilometres. Ecologists have now found that they seem to know when to begin their journeys based on how far away they are – displaying an impressive sense of geography. Every year, between December and March, northern elephant seals breed on beaches along the west coast of Canada, the US and Mexico. Once pregnant, female elephant seals leave their breeding beaches and migrate into the north-east Pacific Ocean to search for food. They spend around 240 days at sea and travel roughly 10,000 kilometres before returning to their breeding beaches to give birth. Between 2004 and 2015, Roxanne Beltran at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and her colleagues tagged and tracked 108 adult female elephant seals that bred on a beach at Año Nuevo State Park in California, collecting data for 126 complete journeys. They found that the elephant seals would consistently return to their breeding beach to give birth within five days of arriving in January every year. Seals that were further from the beach would begin their migration earlier than those closer to the beach to give themselves time to complete the journey. “It seems like elephant seals evolved these incredible navigation skills to figure out where they are and how long they have to get back,” says Beltran. The timing of their journeys didn’t depend on how successful they were at foraging or their amount of body fat. It appears their navigation skills must be down to a strong mental compass, says Beltran, although we don’t yet know what cues they are using to navigate.
2-28-22 Female mammals that suckle another’s young have more offspring
An analysis of 1800 mammalian species shows that those in which females suckle not just their young but those of other females in the social group have larger litters. Mammals that share their milk produce more offspring over the course of the year – and the benefits are even greater than those seen when nursing mothers are supported in other ways, such as being provided with abundant food or parenting help. The findings suggest that, across mammalian species, from rodents to primates, shared nursing benefits the entire community, says Paola Cerrito at New York University. “We’re in a world of sharing now – sharing cars, sharing our homes on Airbnb when we’re not using them – where everyone wins,” says Cerrito. “And it’s a similar concept with sharing milk.” Cerrito’s grandmother used to tell her about women helping feed other women’s babies in Italy during the second world war, “at a time when they were all malnourished”, she says. Curious about this phenomenon, she and her colleague Jeffrey Spear, also at New York University, created models to assess the effects of different kinds of parental help on the reproductive performance of wild and domesticated mammals. They used previously published data on 1806 species representing all orders of placental mammals. They looked at offspring weight relative to maternal mass and at litter sizes, and also collected data on parent behaviour. Specifically, the researchers looked for published evidence of shared parenting and shared nursing. They also considered the effects of domestication, in which mothers generally receive shelter and ample food. The pair found that both domestication and shared parenting, including infant-carrying by the fathers, had a positive effect on litter size and offspring weight. In particular, over the course of a year, domesticated species produced 68.2 per cent greater offspring weight than wild species.
2-24-22 Pet dogs really do grieve the deaths of other dogs they live with
Nearly all dogs that lose a "companion" dog from the same household show behaviours like going off their food and seeking more human attention. Pet owners may have long suspected it, but now a study has found that nearly 90 per cent of dogs that experienced the death of a “companion” canine in the same household showed negative behaviours in the following months. This included becoming less playful, eating less, being more fearful and seeking more attention. “It could be indicative of suffering,” says Federica Pirrone at the University of Milan, Italy. While grief-like behaviour has been seen in wild animals such as elephants, orcas and chimpanzees, it hasn’t been studied in pet dogs, despite many reports of the phenomenon from their owners. Pirrone’s team surveyed 426 people who had at least two dogs, one of which had died, and asked about any changes to the behaviour of the surviving pets. These dogs were more likely to “mourn” their former companion if the two had had a friendly relationship, especially if they used to share food. But they were also more likely to be badly affected if their owner also felt more grief, suggesting they could be reacting to the owner’s changed behaviour as well. “Dogs have become extremely sensitive to human communicative gestures and facial expressions,” says Pirrone. “A caregiver and a dog develop an emotional connection.” The dogs’ reactions were unaffected by how long the two dogs had known each other, but nearly all had lived together for more than a year. In some ways, a dog’s mind is similar to that of a human child of about the age of 2, says Pirrone. “Separation from a companion could be expected to cause behavioural changes, which certainly overlap those behaviours that we normally interpret as being grief and mourning.”
2-24-22 Thousand edible plants identified as underused source of vitamins
Comparing 6400 understudied wild plants with the better-known plants they are related to suggests that 1000 of them are rich in the B group of vitamins. Wild plants are an overlooked source of vitamins and minerals that could help combat malnutrition. More than a thousand wild-growing edible plants have been identified that could supply five vitamins from the B group – thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5) and folate (B9). A lack of B vitamins is a frequent cause of malnutrition. For instance, more than four in 10 people in South and South-East Asia don’t get enough folate, one vitamin in the B group, and this can lead to babies being born with a condition called spina bifida. Lack of some of the other B vitamins can cause fatigue and weakness in muscles and nerves. While many thousands of different plants are edible, people around the world get most of their plant-based calories from just three crops: rice, maize and wheat. The vitamin and mineral content of most edible plants is unknown. Cantwell-Jones and her colleagues predicted the levels of the five B vitamins of about 6400 edible plants that grow in various countries, based on how closely each species is genetically related to other plants that have been nutritionally analysed. They checked that their prediction method worked using nearly 300 plants where the vitamin B content is known. Using this method they identified 1044 species as good sources of this group of vitamins, although 6 per cent of them are classed as threatened in the wild and a quarter haven’t been preserved in seed banks. They include several species of grass, such as the Ethiopian oat (Avena abyssinica) and a wild species of durian (Durio kutejensis) from the island of Borneo, which is threatened by deforestation and expanding agriculture.
2-24-22 Slug poo helps mushrooms start new colonies by spreading spores
Mantleslugs carry spores of dozens of fungal species in their faeces, and some of them even begin to germinate within the moist digestive tracts. Some mushroom-eating slugs may be important – if slow – dispersal vehicles for fungal spores, which the animals spread through their faeces. The languid molluscs deliver payloads of spores from a wide range of forest fungi, including honey (Armillaria) and rustgill (Gymnopilus) mushrooms, to microhabitats that are perfect for new fungal colonies. Nobuko Tuno at Kanazawa University in Japan had been studying the potential for fungi to make use of animals as spore dispersers. But she didn’t think much about slugs in this role, since they “were not very mobile”. However, when she and a colleague in her lab, Keiko Kitabayashi, found that faeces from mushroom-eating fly larvae increased fungal colonisation in soil, they took a closer look at the slugs as potential fungi ferries. Researchers collected mantleslugs (Meghimatium fruhstorferi) in a forest on the Kanazawa University campus, keeping them in captivity for a short time so they could collect droppings. The researchers used microscopes to detect spores in the faeces and DNA analysis to identify which species of fungi the slugs had eaten. Nearly three-quarters of the slugs from the forest had fungal spores in their droppings, and the researchers detected the DNA of dozens of different fungal species in the faeces of eight individual slugs. Most of the fungi were wood-rotting varieties, but there were also pathogenic species and fungi that form beneficial symbiotic relationships with trees. Going through the slugs’ digestive tracts wasn’t much of a problem for the spores. Many species’ spores didn’t experience any declines in germination rate after being excreted. In fact, some germinated even more readily, with some spores appearing to start germinating in the slugs’ guts. Tuno thinks moisture in the digestive tract and in fresh droppings may speed the process.
2-23-22 Purple 'superfood' tomato could finally go on sale in the US
A small company has applied for approval in the US to sell a genetically modified tomato that is rich in the beneficial pigments found in blueberries. A purple tomato genetically modified to make it rich in the beneficial pigments found in “superfoods” such as blueberries could soon go on sale in the US. A small company called Norfolk Plant Sciences applied for approval last year and is confident of getting the go-ahead. “We are optimistic that we will get the approvals that we need,” said Eric Ward, an adviser to Norfolk Plant Sciences, during an online presentation on 22 February. The company hopes to sell seeds to gardeners and supply fresh tomatoes and other tomato products to shops. The purple tomato was created by Cathie Martin at the John Innes Centre in the UK. In 2008, her team reported that mice whose diet was supplemented with purple tomato powder lived nearly 30 per cent longer than those on a standard diet or a diet supplemented with powder from normal tomatoes. “A 30 per cent longer lifespan is incredible,” she said during the presentation, though of course the results of animal studies don’t necessarily apply to people. There are already tomato varieties with purple skins, but the genetically modified purple tomatoes have purple flesh as well. They contain around 10 times more anthocyanins, which are antioxidant pigments. To achieve this, Martin added two genes from snapdragon (Antirrhinum) plants and one from thale cress (Arabidopsis). The added genes are active only in the fruits, where they boost the activity of the plants’ existing machinery for making anthocyanins. There are already tomato varieties with purple skins, but the genetically modified purple tomatoes have purple flesh as well. They contain around 10 times more anthocyanins, which are antioxidant pigments. To achieve this, Martin added two genes from snapdragon (Antirrhinum) plants and one from thale cress (Arabidopsis). The added genes are active only in the fruits, where they boost the activity of the plants’ existing machinery for making anthocyanins.
2-23-22 Antibiotic used on crops might make it harder for bumblebees to forage
Streptomycin, an antibiotic used to treat bacterial diseases in apple orchards, might have a negative impact on bee foraging behaviour. Exposure to streptomycin, an antibiotic used to treat crop diseases in the US, weakens the foraging ability of the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), which may have negative implications for plant pollination. The use of antibiotics for spraying crops has increased exponentially in recent years, with streptomycin predominantly used in the US to control the bacterial disease fire blight in apple and pear orchards. To assess the impact of contact with the drug on a key pollinator, Laura Avila at Emory University and her colleagues fed a group of B. impatiens a diet of sucrose mixed with streptomycin at a concentration of 200 parts per million – representative of those sprayed by growers. A control group received sucrose alone. After two days on these diets, the bees were given a series of tests. Bees exposed to streptomycin took longer to be trained to associate sucrose and water with different coloured strips. Also, in a two-hour foraging test in which the bees were tracked by radio tags, they visited fewer sucrose-filled artificial ‘flowers’ than bees in the control group. Separate tests showed that individual bees would choose to consume less antibiotic-laced sucrose than sucrose alone, suggesting that nectar tainted with antibiotics could be less attractive. “We are conducting follow-up work to see if these behavioural effects are driven by changes in the bee gut microbiome,” says Avila. “Laboratory studies from other research groups have shown that antibiotics can – unsurprisingly – disrupt bee gut microbiomes,” she says, “and work in honey bees and other insects has shown microbiome changes can impact insect behaviour.”
2-23-22 Mountain gorilla inbreeding has distorted their facial features
The mountain gorilla population is small and inbreeding levels are high – and now there’s evidence this inbreeding may explain why some gorillas have distorted facial features. The degree of distortion in facial features is on the rise in certain endangered gorilla species, possibly due to inbreeding. Facial asymmetry in primates – including humans – is marked by a sort of spiraling of the facial features around a central point just above the jaw. Once thought to be a consequence of early life challenges, a study in gorillas suggests that the phenomenon may result from inbreeding, says Kate McGrath at the State University of New York. “It’s either that inbreeding is somehow directly affecting their facial development, or that [being] inbred is making them more susceptible to… illness or other things that pop up in early life,” she says. Or it may be a combination of both factors, she adds. Scientists have recognised facial asymmetry – which is “like there’s a hinge on one side of the face, and compression, which twists the face” – in mountain gorillas since at least the 1970s, says McGrath. At the time, researchers assumed this developed because the animals preferred to chew on one side of the mouth. Later, other research groups suggested that facial asymmetry might arise from difficult early life experiences, she says. But because mountain gorillas – with a population that, today, only includes 1000 individuals in two distinct groups – have such significant facial asymmetry, McGrath wondered if the trend were related instead to high levels of inbreeding. To investigate, she and her colleagues ran 3D shape analyses on the skulls of 40 Virunga mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) and compared them with those of 40 eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri) and 34 western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). All gorillas were adults and represented both males and females that had died between 1880 and 2008.
2-23-22 Guppy fish can see optical illusions - but not in the same way we do
The way guppy fish behave suggests they can be tricked into believing holes are larger or smaller than they really are – but they don’t always interpret the optical illusions in the same way humans do. Guppies can be fooled by optical illusions into believing objects are smaller or larger than they really are. This suggests they might not always make the best choices in their natural environment. The discovery means the fish now join primates, dogs, cats, horses and bearded dragons in showing an ability to be fooled by the visual effects, says Maria Santacà at the University of Padua in Italy. “If you’re tricked by these irrelevant [illusional] clues, such as the size of the hole you want to pass through, this is quite important because if you misjudge the size of the hole you could get [stuck and therefore] attacked by predators, or you could die,” says Santacà. “So this could have an important [consequence] on the daily life of fish.” Santacà and her colleagues first determined that guppies (Poecilia reticulata) would consistently swim through the larger of two holes in a barrier placed inside their aquarium – even when the larger hole had a diameter only 0.4 millimetres greater. Then they placed 36 of the guppies, six at a time, in a different tank with another barrier containing just two holes. Although both holes were of equal size, the researchers made them part of optical illusions known to fool humans into perceiving one of the two holes as larger. They then watched to see whether the guppies showed a preference for swimming through one hole over the other, which would suggest the fish also perceived one hole as larger. They found that the guppies did show a preference. When the team recreated what is known as the Ebbinghaus illusion, in which a ring of circles drawn around the central hole can make the hole appear either larger or smaller than it really is, the fish responded by swimming through the hole that a human would interpret as the larger of the two.
2-22-22 Rats can track the passage of time and judge their accuracy
Rats trained to leave 3.2 seconds between presses of a lever or to hold it down for this length of time seem able to judge whether they were accurate enough to have earned a reward. Rats can estimate the passage of time and then judge how accurately they did so. We already know that rats can distinguish between long and short periods of time, but it has been unclear whether they can assess their ability to guess the duration of a given time period. A study led by Tadeusz Kononowicz at the Polish Academy of Sciences suggests they can. “When we saw the first results it was disbelief. We were even thinking, are the rats somehow tricking us?” says Kononowicz. “Our results add a whole new richness to the way that rats represent time [in their minds].” Kononowicz and his colleagues trained eight rats to hold down a lever for as close as possible to a target time period of 3.2 seconds, and another eight rats to press and release the lever and then press it again as close as possible to 3.2 seconds later. The researchers then gave the rats a way to report on their own performance after each of hundreds of trials. This was achieved through the use of two “reward ports”, one on either side of the lever. The precise leeway each rat was given for its timekeeping during the testing depended on its performance during its training. If the animal was judged to be close to the target time of 3.2 seconds – within about 250 milliseconds, on average – it had the option of poking its nose into the left port to receive two food pellets. There were no food pellets in the right port. However, if the rat was judged less precise with its timing – if it was off by around 500 milliseconds, on average – the left port no longer delivered a reward. But the rat could poke its nose into the right port to receive one food pellet. By tracking the rats’ port choices after each test, the team found that the animals in both groups learned to judge their accuracy on the lever test. Rats that had been precise enough with their timing approached the left port for a large reward more than 60 per cent of the time. Those that had been less precise approached the right port for a small reward more than 60 per cent of the time. This suggests the rats could self monitor the size of their temporal errors.
2-22-22 Hedgehog population plummets in UK countryside, research suggests
The population of hedgehogs in rural Britain is continuing a "steep decline" according to research. The State of Britain's Hedgehogs report found numbers are down in rural areas by between 30% and 75% since 2000. It is a "stark contrast" in towns and cities though, where the data showed that hedgehog populations may be starting to recover. The familiar, prickly mammals need hedgerows and field margins; loss of those could be driving the decline. The report, by wildlife charities the People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and The British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS), used data gathered between 1981 and 2020 from five ongoing surveys. This showed that hedgehogs have undergone a long historic decline, but that there are now "vast differences" between urban and rural populations. Fay Vass, chief executive of BHPS, said that urgent action was needed to understand why rural areas no longer provide suitable hedgehog habitat. "They have lived here for at least half a million years," she said. "So we need to understand how conservationists, farmers and land managers can work together to prevent hedgehogs from becoming extinct in the countryside." The charities say that the picture in cities, towns and villages is, perhaps surprisingly, much more positive. While road mortality is highest around urban areas, well managed, wildlife-friendly gardens and parks can provide refuges for the animals. Grace Johnson runs an urban conservation campaign called Hedgehog Street, an effort to help people make sure their gardens provide a connected network of habitat in urban spaces. She said that the familiar mammals can travel about one mile (1.6km) every night through gardens and parks in search of food and mates." Gardens can be havens for hedgehogs, but only if they are connected via gaps in or under garden boundaries to let hedgehogs in and out. "A 'hedgehog highway' (a 13cm/5in or CD-case-sized square gap) will enable hedgehogs to roam between neighbouring gardens and green spaces, which is vital to their survival."
2-22-22 Scientists want to restore the oceans with artificial whale poo
Experiments will soon explore ways to emulate the fertilising effect of whale waste, which fuels blooms of algae that feed fish and lock away carbon. AN INTERNATIONAL project to see whether humans can artificially emulate the benefits of whale faeces for ocean ecosystems will begin off the west coast of India within the next two months. The hope is the technique will simultaneously boost fish populations and tackle climate change. The experiment is the first in a wider effort by David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, and a coalition of six universities and research centres to test the potential for an approach they have dubbed marine biomass regeneration. Whales naturally fertilise the ocean surface when they defecate, leading to phytoplankton blooms that can feed billions of fish. Improving biodiversity is the main aim of the approach, but a side benefit will come from the phytoplankton absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When fish eat the plankton and die, some of the carbon will be locked away in the seabed. Marine biologists call this effect a biological pump. The hunting of whales in the past century has weakened this ecosystem service. “We are trying to repopulate the ocean,” says King, who now heads the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, UK. “I don’t know whether the experiment will be the final answer. I’m very attracted to the idea that after a while… if the whale population [recovers], we can leave the whales as the biological pump.” Precisely what the artificial whale faeces will be made of is yet to be decided, but iron-rich sand or volcanic ash are two options being considered. Key will be ensuring it offers the right mix of nitrates, silicates, phosphates and iron, says King. The material will be loaded onto baked rice husks – a factory waste product – which will act as rafts to carry the material on the sea surface.
2-19-22 Ministers set to drop UK ban on foie gras and fur imports
The UK government is likely to drop plans to ban imports of fur and foie gras, amid cabinet opposition. The measures were due to be included in the Animals Abroad Bill, to be introduced soon. But several cabinet ministers have raised different concerns about the proposals. The government said a final decision had not been taken but sources said the measures look set to be parked to allow other elements of the bill to progress. A spokesperson for the government said it was "united in its commitment to upholding its world-leading standards in animal welfare". British farmers are already banned from producing foie gras, a liver-based luxury French food opposed by animal rights campaigners because its production involves force-feeding ducks or geese. Fur farming has also been illegal in the UK since 2000, but campaigners have long been pushing for an import ban on fur farmed abroad. The Animals Abroad Bill is one of three pieces of legislation the government has drafted in a bid to improve animal welfare. It will include measures to crack down on hunting animals for trophies, as well as holidays that lead to the neglect of animals like elephants. But the bill has been delayed, amid debate over how parts of the legislation would be enforced. Ministers have confirmed in recent weeks that they intend to ban importing hunting trophies from threatened species like lions, elephants and rhinos. But it's understood a ban on foie gras and fur imports is now likely to be dropped from the legislation, after a number of concerns raised by cabinet ministers. Some - including Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees Mogg - have raised concerns about personal choice. The BBC has been told that Mr Rees Mogg believes the government should not be imposing restrictions on consumers. He has also argued the planned ban would have no impact on animal welfare in the UK.
2-18-22 Covering crops in red plastic can boost yields up to 37 per cent
A simple, cheap technology could help to boost food production and possibly allow crops to be grown in different places in order to cut down on food miles. The yields of some crops can be substantially boosted by covering them in a material that increases the amount of red light they receive. The simple technology could help to feed the world’s growing population, although more research is needed to see if it affects the flavour and nutrition of plants. Red wavelengths of sunlight are known to be the biggest drivers of plant growth because they stimulate leaves to produce chlorophyll, which is needed for photosynthesis. This is why some farms have started shining red LED lights on crops to boost their yields. But these lights are costly to install, are energy-draining and don’t distribute light as evenly to plants as sunlight. To address these issues, Alexander Soeriyadi and Alexander Falber at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, have developed a material called LLEAF that passively converts some of the green wavelengths in sunlight – which are less important for plant growth – to red ones. The material is a transparent plastic containing a fluorescent dye that absorbs green wavelengths of sunlight and re-emits them as red ones. It can be hung over existing greenhouses and creates a soft pink light inside. “It’s quite pretty,” says Soeriyadi. In greenhouse trials, the researchers found that the material increased plant yields by an astonishing amount for various crops, including 37 per cent for pak choi. “People were very sceptical when we told them because the greenhouse industry is already so optimised that you’re normally only expecting single-digit increases with new technologies,” says Soeriyadi. going hybrid, with a live in-person event in Manchester, UK, that you can also enjoy from the comfort of your own home, from 12 to 14 March 2022. Find out more. The material is now being tested in bigger, independent trials run by Western Sydney University and the New South Wales government’s Department of Primary Industries.
2-18-22 How lizards keep detachable tails from falling off
A complex hierarchical structure helps the lizard prevent accidental amputations. Lizards are famous for losing their tails, but perhaps the bigger question should be: How do their tails stay on? The answer may lie in the appendage’s internal design. A structure of prongs, micropillars and nanopores holds a lizard’s tail on tight enough to handle most jarring while remaining primed to drop the tail in case of emergency, researchers report in the Feb. 18 Science. Self-amputation, or autotomy, of a limb is a common defense strategy in the animal kingdom, including for many lizard species (SN: 3/8/21). But it’s a risky plan: A detachable limb brings with it increased risk of accidental loss from small bumps and snags. “It has to find the just right amount of attachment, so it doesn’t come off easily. But it should also come off whenever it’s needed,” says Yong-Ak Song, a bioengineer at New York University Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. “It’s a fine balance.” A lizard’s tail consists of a series of segments that connect in a row like plugs into sockets. The tail can break off along any of these points, called fracture planes, depending on how much of the tail the lizard needs to sacrifice. Between each segment, the prongs — eight cone-shaped bundles of muscles arranged in a circle — fit neatly into corresponding sockets, consisting of relatively smooth walls. Each prong is in turn covered in a forest of protrusions, or micropillars, that resemble tiny mushrooms. To uncover the function of this structure, Song and colleagues first amputated tails from three species of lizards with a gentle tug and then analyzed the broken appendages under a scanning electron microscope. Zooming in on the mushroom-like protuberances revealed that each one is pockmarked with holes, or nanopores.
2-17-22 Mosquitoes learn to avoid pesticides after just one non-lethal dose
Experiments show that two species of mosquitoes change their behaviour after exposure to five common pesticides, which could make the chemicals less effective. Mosquitoes can learn to avoid pesticides after just one exposure to them, which means current pesticides may not be as effective as we thought as against the insects. Millions of people a year contract diseases that are transmitted by mosquitoes, such as malaria, Zika, dengue and West Nile fever. Pesticides are a common tool for controlling mosquito populations, but insects become more resistant to them over time. This resistance arises due to a range of factors, including biological changes in mosquitoes. Frédéric Tripet at Keele University in the UK and his colleagues decided to test whether mosquitoes could also learn to avoid pesticides. In a laboratory, the researchers exposed two species of mosquitoes – Aedes aegypti and Culex quinquefasciatus – to non-lethal doses of five commonly used pesticides. Around 200 mosquitoes were introduced to each pesticide, all of which were female. After exposure, the mosquitoes underwent two tests. In the first, the insects were placed in a box with food at the other end. The mosquitoes and the food were separated by a net laced with the same pesticide they were previously exposed to. Just 15.4 per cent of A. aegypti and 12.1 per cent of C. quinquefasciatus mosquitoes that had been pre-exposed passed through the net, compared with 57.7 per cent and 54.4 per cent respectively that hadn’t been exposed before. In the second test, the researchers offered the mosquitoes the choice to rest in either a container that smelled like the pesticide they were exposed to or a control substance. They found that pre-exposed mosquitoes were much more likely to rest in the pesticide-free container than those that weren’t exposed.
2-17-22 Wild Wild Life newsletter: When species steal each other’s genes
Recent discoveries of horizontal gene transfer reveal that animals and plants are swapping genes across different species - but how do they do it and what might it mean for evolution? Spring in London is almost close enough to taste now, and the camellia, crocus and snowdrop blooms near our New Scientist office have been a testament to the city’s heat island. The first flowers of the year always seem to open a little earlier in central London than in its suburbs due to the higher temperatures of the urban environment. But earlier flowers aren’t just a city phenomenon – a study this month revealed that flowers in the UK are, on average, blooming a month earlier than they were before the mid-1980s due to climate change. In this month’s newsletter, I’ll be taking a look at organisms that swap genes and what it means for evolution, plus a moth rediscovered in the Andes, a new finding concerning panda breeding, and how birds migrate. Now, here’s something surprising. Computational analysis suggests that a species of whitefly (Bemisia tabaci, pictured above) has acquired 50 genes from the plants they eat. No discovery like this has ever been made before, and while we don’t know how the genes got into the flies, there are signs that the genes are functional. This particular story begins in March 2021, when a team published work revealing the first known case of a gene moving from plants into animals, in this same species of whitefly. The gene in question allows plants to store defensive toxins in a safe way, and the fly appears to use it to eat plants without being harmed by these toxins. The finding suggested that horizontal gene transfer – the movement of useful DNA codes between entirely different species – may be much more widespread in the natural world than we suspected. Now, a different team has analysed the DNA of the whitefly to identify a full 50 genes that appear to have come from plants, and experiments suggest that many of them are used by the fly.
2-16-22 Bearbnb: Polar bears make themselves at home in abandoned village
AN ABANDONED weather station and its surrounding settlement is an unconventional place to find polar bears, but then we are living in unconventional times. Wildlife photographer Dmitry Kokh happened upon the animals when the boat he was on took shelter from a storm at the Russian island of Kolyuchin in September 2021. It was too dangerous to walk on the island, so he took pictures of the station’s unusual residents using a camera drone fitted with low-noise propellers, so as not to disturb the bears too much. According to Kokh, there were about 20 individuals in sight, most of them male. Kolyuchin, off the coast of eastern Russia in the Chukchi Sea, hasn’t been inhabited by people for decades. It is also surrounded by sea ice – polar bears’ primary habitat – for most of the year, giving the bears easy access to the island in time for summer, when sea ice wanes.Whatever environmental conditions or opportunities for hunting led the animals to Kolyuchin, they certainly seemed to be making the most of their home comforts.
2-16-22 Orangutans can learn how to use stone tools as hammers and knives
Captive orangutans that had never seen stone tools could work out how to use them to hit or cut things – but they couldn’t get the hang of making them. Captive orangutans that had never seen stone tools have spontaneously picked up rocks and used them as hammers. One individual also used a sharp stone as a cutting tool. The finding suggests that even orangutans, which live in trees and rarely encounter stones, can figure out ways to use them. But there are limits: the animals never learned to make their own tools out of raw stone, even after being shown how. “We didn’t find the orangutans could combine these behaviours,” says Alba Motes Rodrigo, who led this research while at the University of Tübingen in Germany. Motes Rodrigo and her colleagues studied two male orangutans living at Kristiansand Zoo and Amusement Park in Norway. The apes were given a box containing a piece of fruit, sealed with rope. They were also given a concrete hammer and a lump of rock. In theory, the orangutans could have used the hammer to knock sharp flakes off the rock, and then used the flakes to cut the rope and reach the fruit. But they didn’t. The orangutans did hit things with the hammer, though. “We found percussion, which is interesting because orangutans in the wild very rarely interact with stones at all,” says Motes Rodrigo. The orangutans might have been playing, she suggests. In a follow-up experiment, Motes Rodrigo gave the orangutans a flint flake sharpened into an axe-like tool. “One individual, after trying to open the boxes in different ways, did get this sharp stone axe that I had made myself and used it to cut open the box and obtain the reward,” she says. “They can spontaneously, without any training, recognise that a sharp stone can be used for cutting and use it as such.”
2-16-22 Some humpback whales travel 6000 kilometres in search of a mate
Crowdsourced photographs reveal that some humpback whales travel between Mexico and Hawaii in one breeding season. Humpback whales may be far more mobile during their breeding season than previously thought, with some travelling up to 6000 kilometres in search of a mate. Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are found in all major oceans. Those in the North Pacific typically spend their summers feeding around Alaska and Canada before migrating south in the winter to waters near Mexico and Hawaii for breeding. Historically, scientists have assumed that the whales choose either Mexico or Hawaii as a breeding site. However, some evidence, such as shared whale songs, suggests that the two groups may mix. To investigate further, James Darling at Whale Trust Maui in Hawaii and his colleagues studied a database of photos of more than 26,000 individual humpback whales in the North Pacific taken by professional and amateur photographers since 1977. Whales have distinct skin pigment markings on the underside of their tails that allow them to be accurately identified. Using software, the researchers recognised two whales that were photographed in both Hawaii and Mexico during the same winter breeding seasons. One male had travelled 4545 kilometres in 53 days, leaving a group off Olowalu on the Hawaiian island of Maui to join a group of three whales off Isla Clarión in the Revillagigedo archipelago of Mexico in 2006. A second whale – probably also a male – had travelled 5944 kilometres from south of Zihuatanejo in Mexico to waters in the ?Au?au Channel off Maui 49 days later, in winter 2018. There, it was one of seven whales pursuing a single female, as a challenger to her primary mate. “Our first reaction was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’” says Darling. But distances that seem enormous to humans may not be significant to whales. “They might just be travelling the ocean like it’s their own backyard,” he says. “This really changes the way we think about whales.”
2-16-22 Invasive poisonous toads are killing Madagascar's native snakes
There is evidence of a significant death rate among Malagasy snakes that attempt to eat the poisonous Asian common toad. Fears about the impact of invasive, poisonous toads in Madagascar appear to be justified, suggests new research. The amphibians are driving a spike in deaths of a native snake species. Asian common toads (Duttaphrynus melanostictus) are native to southern Asia, but were introduced to eastern Madagascar around 2010, probably as stowaways on a ship. Since then, the toads have been spreading from the point of arrival by about 2.5 kilometres per year, prompting anxiety among researchers that they could threaten Madagascar’s native wildlife just as Australia’s indigenous species came under threat after cane toads were introduced in the 1930s. A 2018 genetics study on a wide range of Madagascan predators found little evidence of resistance to the Asian common toads’ lethal toxins, suggesting the island’s unique fauna was particularly vulnerable to the invasion. Angelica Crottini at the University of Porto in Vairão, Portugal, and her colleagues were interested in the toads’ movement patterns, since it was unknown if they could infiltrate patches of forest. Working near a forest close to the seaport town of Toamasina, the team fitted eight toads with radio transmitters and tracked them. During this work, team member Fulvio Licata, also at the University of Porto, noticed carcasses of native Malagasay cat-eyed snakes (Madagascarophis colubrinus). It is rare to find carcasses while working in humid tropical regions, says Crottini, since they decompose rapidly. The researchers suspected the toads were responsible as they found more dead snakes, sometimes with dead toads nearby or in the snakes’ mouths. The team never found toads inside the snakes’ gut, hinting that the toxins kill remarkably quickly. “It was very sad to find the dead bodies of these beautiful native predators,” says Crottini.
2-16-22 Natural History Museum confirms stick insect is male and female
A pet stick insect surprised its owner when she noticed it was half male and half female - known as a gynandromorph. Charlie, a green bean stick insect, showed its true colours after it shed its skin at home in Suffolk to reveal the bright green body of a female and brown wings of a male. Experts at the Natural History Museum confirmed it was the "first reported gynandromorph" in that species. Charlie was also a "particularly impressive specimen", they said. Owner Lauren Garfield has donated her pet to the museum in London for scientific research. Charlie, a Diapherodes gigantea, originally looked just like the other stick insects Mrs Garfield keeps and breeds at her home in Waldringfield. Stick insects moult several times and when Charlie shed its skin, everyone began to notice the unusual creature. Mrs Garfield's photos of it, with its half bright green female body, together with the brown wings of a male, were spotted by Felixstowe Radio after she wrote a "weird post alert" on her Facebook page about her stick insect. She told the BBC: "I don't usually get attached to the stick insects, but Charlie is different." Her said her son was so excited, she took the stick insect into school to show to the other children. Mrs Garfield then got in touch with Paul Brock, an insect expert at the Natural History Museum, and after exchanging photographs, she agreed to carefully post Charlie to them to be examined. Mr Brock said: "It's the first time a gynandromorph has been reported in Diapherodes gigantea - but they are known in culture stocks of some other species." He described Mrs Garfield's stick insect as "noteworthy". "Many rearers of stick insects never see a gynandromorph," he said. "In 1958, an author showed a likelihood of 0.05% for the occurrence of gynandromorphs for the laboratory stick insect Carausius morosus, kept in culture in Europe and elsewhere since 1901. "Lauren's specimen has a largely brown (male) body form on the right hand side, with full length hind-wings. The left hand side is not as broad as a typical adult female, but broader than a normal male and mainly apple green, as in a normal female. "In a gynandromorph, including this individual, the genitalia are not properly formed so although male-like, it would not be able to mate properly with a female."
2-15-22 Lichens may take a million years to adapt to 1°C of climate warming
Lichens are important for stabilising soils and providing some animals with food, but the algae within them are adapting to climate change at a rate of just 1°C every million years. One of life’s most important symbiotic partnerships may be threatened by a warming climate. Lichens — a composite organism made from cyanobacteria or algae entangled within the body of a fungus — may be evolutionarily outpaced by changing climatic conditions thanks to a slow rate of evolution in the algal component of the ancient collaboration. Matthew Nelsen at the Field Museum in Chicago and his colleagues have been investigating how the climatic preferences of the lichen algae — which Nelsen describes as the “understudied” partner in lichen — have changed over evolutionary time, and how this relates to what the algae are facing with ongoing climate change. The team focused on a single genus of algae, Trebouxia, which is found in about 7000 species of lichen. For comparison, there are only about 6400 described mammal species on Earth today. “It really puts it in perspective that this is quite a lot of diversity these algae are responsible for maintaining,” says Nelsen. The team collected data on where Trebouxia occurs across the world, and noted the climatic conditions at each location. The group also used a database of Trebouxia genes to create a global family tree for the algae, which revealed which forms of the algae were ancestral to the others. Using all of this information, Nelsen’s team could estimate how rapidly Trebouxia – and the lichens it lives within – have adapted to changing climatic conditions in the past. The team found that the algae were slow to adapt to new climates, shifting temperature preferences by less than 1°C every million years. This rate is “substantially lower” than the 1°C to 4°C global temperature rise predicted over the next 80 years or so, says Nelsen.
2-12-22 Spider webs may act as most sensitive ‘ears’ in known natural world
The bridge spider (Larinioides sclopetarius) uses its web to detect the sounds made by insects flying nearby and prepare itself for a potential meal. Some spiders can pick up sounds in the air using their webs as acoustic antennae, and because the spider silk responds so precisely to vibrating air molecules, the webs may act as the most sensitive “eardrums” in the natural world. We already know that spiders can detect prey tangled in their webs by sensing vibrations in the silk using touch organs around their leg joints. Now, Jian Zhou at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and his colleagues have found evidence that bridge spiders (Larinioides sclopetarius) can use their webs to sense sounds travelling through the air from several metres away. The team placed 60 bridge spiders in glass chambers containing wooden frames on which the spiders wove their circular webs. The group then played sounds with a frequency of 200 Hertz – similar to those made by buzzing insects – onto each spider and its web for 3 seconds, from loudspeakers located 3 metres away. Over the next few seconds, 90 per cent of spiders responded by either crouching, lying flat, lifting their forelegs or turning slightly, suggesting that they had detected the distant sounds. By projecting sounds either from the left or the right of the webs, the team found that some of the spiders could even sense exactly where the noises were coming from. Five out of 12 tested spiders pivoted towards the direction of the sound source, while the others stayed put. The team explored if webs could act as acoustic sensors by playing sounds with frequencies ranging from 100 to 10,000 Hz onto the webs. Using a laser to map the nanoscale movements of the webs as sounds were projected onto them revealed that the silk strands could move at the same speed as the air molecules immediately around them, transmitting the full array of frequencies tested. This makes the webs far more sensitive than all known animal eardrums, which as membranes respond instead to bulk sound waves in the air.
2-11-22 Koalas: Australia lists marsupial as endangered species
Australia has listed the koala as an endangered species across most of its east coast, after a dramatic decline in numbers. The once-thriving marsupial has been ravaged by land clearing, bushfires, drought, disease and other threats. The federal government said the listing was for Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). It has been urged to do more to protect koalas from rapidly diminishing habitats and climate change. The species was listed as "vulnerable" in those states and territory only in 2012. Despite the rapid deterioration, governments have been accused of dithering. "This listing adds priority when it comes to the conservation of the koala," Environment Minister Sussan Ley said on Friday. She said officials were designing a recovery plan, and land development applications would now be assessed for impacts on the species. Last year, a New South Wales inquiry found koalas would be extinct there by 2050 unless there was urgent action. It estimated the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20 had killed 5,000 koalas and affected 24% of habitats in New South Wales alone. Australia's biggest Koala conservation group says that there may now only be as few as 50,000 of the animals left in the wild. "Koalas have gone from no-listing to vulnerable to endangered within a decade. That is a shockingly fast decline," said conservation scientist Stuart Blanch from WWF-Australia. "Today's decision is welcome, but it won't stop koalas from sliding towards extinction unless it's accompanied by stronger laws and landholder incentives to protect their forest homes." Scientists warn that climate change will also exacerbate bushfires and drought, and reduce the quality of the animal's eucalyptus leaf diet. Koalas are also found in South Australia and Victoria but their numbers are on the decline nationally, according to conservation groups.
2-11-22 Australian raspy cricket has the strongest bite of 650 insect species
Researchers have tested the bite force of hundreds of insects and found that the raspy cricket chomps down with 1200 times more force than the wasp with the weakest bite. The raspy cricket is the champion of chomp. Found in the rainforests of north-eastern Australia, this cricket has the strongest bite of around 650 insect species collected from four continents. Their bite strengths have been recorded in the largest ever database of such data, which could aid future research into the evolution of bite forces and their role in mating, feeding and fighting. “I was initially surprised by the raspy cricket. I would have expected that maybe predators are the strongest biters rather than herbivores,” says Peter Rühr at the University of Bonn in Germany. But it makes more sense when you consider that the raspy cricket (Chauliogryllacris acaropenates) bites into living wood to dig out nests at points in a tree where a branch has fallen off, he says. Before now, researchers had measured bite forces for only around 20 insect species. Now, Rühr and his colleagues have expanded this to hundreds more, including crickets, stag beetles, praying mantises, termites, wasps, bees and ants from Australia, China, Europe and Panama. Between 2018 and 2021, they collected insects using light traps, nets or by turning over stones. To measure the power of their jaws, the researchers built a tiny metal device containing a crystal that stores electrical energy. They placed the sensor between the tips of each insect’s mouthparts, called the mandibles. When an insect bites down, it compresses the crystal, converting the mechanical energy into an electrical current. The voltage produced is proportional to the bite strength. Some insects were hesitant to bite even with the device between their mandibles, so a threatening paintbrush was used to tickle their abdomen or head to spur a bite. Others, such as stoneflies, refused to bite at all.
2-11-22 A diamondlike structure gives some starfish skeletons their strength
A microscale pattern compensates for the weakness of the calcite mineral. Some starfish made of a brittle material fortify themselves with architectural antics. Beneath a starfish’s skin lies a skeleton made of pebbly growths, called ossicles, which mostly consist of the mineral calcite. Calcite is usually fragile, and even more so when it is porous. But the hole-riddled ossicles of the knobby starfish (Protoreaster nodosus) are strengthened through an unexpected internal arrangement, researchers report in the Feb. 11 Science. “When we first saw the structure, we were really amazed,” says Ling Li, a materials scientist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. It looks like it’s been 3-D printed, he says. Li and colleagues used an electron microscope to zoom in on ossicles from several dozen dead knobby starfish. At a scale of 50 micrometers, about half the width of a human hair, the seemingly featureless body of each ossicle gives way to a meshlike pattern that mirrors how carbon atoms are arranged in a diamond. But the diamondlike lattice alone doesn’t fully explain how the ossicles stay strong. Within that lattice, the atoms that make up the calcite have their own pattern, which resembles a series of stacked hexagons. That pattern affects the strength of the calcite too. In general, a mineral’s strength isn’t uniform in all directions. So pushing on calcite in some directions is more likely to break it than force from other directions. In the ossicles, the atomic pattern and the diamondlike lattice align in a way that compensates for calcite’s intrinsic weakness. It’s a mystery how the animals make the diamondlike lattice. Li’s team is studying live knobby starfish, surveying the chemistry of how ossicles form. Understanding how the starfish build their ossicles may provide insights for creating stronger porous materials, including some ceramics. We can learn a lot from a creature like a starfish that we may think is primitive, Li says.
2-10-22 Court restores protections for gray wolves across much of U.S.
A federal judge on Thursday restored protections for gray wolves in most of the United States, reversing a Trump-era decision. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White in Northern California ruled that the protections will be put back in place in most of the lower 48 states, and federal officials will be in charge of managing wolf populations in the Great Lakes region and Pacific coast. Toward the end of the Trump administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed gray wolves from the list of endangered species. White wrote the agency did not use the best science available when making this decision and "failed to adequately consider the threats to wolves outside of the core populations in the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains in delisting the entire species." Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming are not part of the court case, and increased hunting in those states threatens gray wolves, environmental groups say. "We need the Biden administration to emergency-list the wolves in that area, the northern Rockies," Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark told The Washington Post. "Because the states are just no holds barred, the states are just clearly not doing right by the wolves." Gray wolves were almost entirely wiped out by hunters in the early 1900s, and environmental groups are concerned about their future. In Montana, restrictions on hunting were eased last year, with state fish and game commissioners ending wolf-hunting quotas north of Yellowstone. In the last several months, more than 20 wolves have been killed leaving the park, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland wrote in a USA Today editorial earlier this week that her department was "alarmed" by this. "[We] have communicated to state officials that these kinds of actions jeopardize the decades of federal and state partnerships that successfully recovered gray wolves in the northern Rockies," Haaland wrote.
2-9-22 Identify local wildlife and aid research with the iNaturalist app
Capture photos of wild plants and animals, identify species you come across and contribute to biodiversity and conservation research, suggests Layal Liverpool. ONE of my New Year’s resolutions was to spend more time outdoors, in nature. Inevitably, there are apps for that, and the one I decided to try allows me to contribute to scientific research. The iNaturalist smartphone app lets you photograph wild plants and animals and, aided by the app’s user community, identify species you find. Biodiversity and conservation scientists can access and analyse photographs the app deems to be “research grade”. You can also use iNaturalist to find online nature groups or citizen science projects in your area so you can contribute photos and data directly to them too. I am currently in the Netherlands, so I have been sharing my photos and observations with the Biodiversity of Netherlands group in the app. My first observation was of what I believe to be marram grass (genus Ammophila), which I spotted on coastal sand dunes in The Hague. The app told me that this grass (pictured above) can survive extreme winds and shifting sand thanks to its extensive underground stem system. Indeed, the grass helps to form and stabilise dunes, which are natural flood barriers. I am still a beginner on the app, so I don’t think my observations have led to any major scientific discoveries (yet). But iNaturalist users have collectively contributed to plenty of research findings. A recent analysis of 2700 photos uploaded to the app helped to suggest a connection between temperature rise and dragonfly wing colouration in North America. Climate change seems to be making male dragonflies less darkly coloured, possibly to reduce overheating in the sun. But this alteration may also make them less appealing to females.
2-9-22 Are any animals other than us aware of their own mortality?
Why else would they flee from a predator? They instinctively avoid threats because of learned and passed-on behaviour, but have no conception of mortality.All animals have an innate sense of mortality. Fight or flight, they all want to live another day. Whether they are actually aware why, I can’t answer. For any living system to be aware of complex thoughts such as their own mortality, they must exhibit a level of conscious complexity that allows for awareness of such thoughts. What does it mean to have an awareness of one’s own mortality? We could take it to mean understanding that you will inevitably die, that this is an unavoidable consequence of being alive. Understood like this, it is unlikely that non-linguistic animals can be aware of their mortality, because the notion of the inevitability of death seems to require knowledge accumulated and passed down through generations. None of us has direct proof that everyone dies. We only know this because we have been told. Without language, it is difficult to see how this idea could be reached. There is, however, a second, less-demanding sense in which, say, a monkey might have an awareness of its own mortality. This is the notion, not that it will die, but that it can die. That is, the idea that this is something that could happen to it, but not inevitably so. The notion of potential mortality could in principle fall within the reach of non-linguistic animals, because it can be acquired solely on the basis of personal experiences. How might our monkey reach this notion? It is implausible that it would spontaneously conclude anything about its own potential mortality; instead, an animal could only come to grasp this idea by first understanding something about the mortality of others. For instance, it might gather that sometimes its fellow creatures stop moving and doing the things they usually do, in a way that is different from when they fall asleep. It may come to associate this change of state with certain preceding events, such as falling from a tree or encountering a leopard, to the extent that it comes to expect that result when one of its kin falls from a tree or encounters a leopard. With enough of these experiences, coupled with a degree of self-awareness, the monkey may start to comprehend that the same thing could happen to it, if it were involved in those events. This might not engender existential angst, because the monkey could feel safe so long as it stays away from big cats and takes care when sitting on branches, but it still implies some understanding of death.
2-9-22 Giving drones barn owl-like tails may make them more efficient flyers
The barn owl’s tail has a surprisingly important role to play in making the bird more aerodynamic. The barn owl’s tail plays an unexpected role in flight by making the bird more aerodynamic, which may have implications for drone design. In aeronautical engineering, anything that provides lift – essentially whatever helps an object stay airborne – usually comes at a cost of drag. This is because a thing that offers lift creates a barrier that requires the flying object to use more energy to keep moving forward through the air, says James Usherwood at the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield, UK. Because the barn owl’s tail provides lift, while also helping to control stability and direction, Usherwood and his colleagues assumed it would also create drag. But their lab experiments found this wasn’t always the case when considering the bird as a whole. The researchers captured high-speed video of a barn owl (Tyto alba) gliding through an experimental flight corridor. They then used the footage to create a high-fidelity computational fluid dynamics (CFD) model of a barn owl in flight, before isolating the effects of the tail alone on flight performance. This involved testing 42 different tail positions. They found that the barn owl can use its tail to gain lift and support the bird’s weight, while resulting in less overall drag if it is travelling at low gliding speeds. This was confirmed in the real world by again recording the owl gliding through the flight corridor, but this time filling the corridor with more than 20,000 soap bubbles to record the owl’s influence on air flow. “We were standing in the lab and we went, ‘hmm, textbooks don’t say that should be happening behind the tail’, but we saw it there,” says Usherwood. “You didn’t particularly need the CFD to get the [finding],” he says. “You go: ‘Oh, my goodness, the bubbles are going the wrong way!’”
2-9-22 Deep-sea Arctic sponges feed on fossilized organisms to survive
The sponges, some over 300 years old, eat the remains of critters from at least 2,000 years ago. In the cold, dark depths of the Arctic Ocean, a feast of the dead is under way. A vast community of sponges, the densest group of these animals found in the Arctic, is consuming the remains of an ancient ecosystem to survive, researchers report February 8 in Nature Communications. The study highlights just how opportunistic sponges are, says Jasper de Goeij, a deep-sea ecologist at the University of Amsterdam not involved with this work. Evolutionarily speaking, sponges “are more than 600 million years old, and they inhabit all parts of our globe,” he says. Scientists might not know about all of them because many places that sponges inhabit are really difficult to get to, he adds. Sponges are predominantly filter feeders, and are crucial to nutrient recycling throughout the oceans. The existence of this colony, discovered by a research ship in 2016, however, has been an enigma. The sponges, which include the species Geodia parva, G. hentscheli and Stelletta rhaphidiophora, live between 700 and 1,000 meters down in the central Arctic Ocean, where there are virtually no currents to provide food, and sea ice covers the water year-round. What’s more, sponges are largely immobile, yet in 2021 researchers, including Teresa Morganti, a marine biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany, reported that these ones slowly move, using their spicules — microscopic skeletal structures — and leaving them as thick brown trails in their wake. In the new study, Morganti and colleagues turned their attention to the matted layer underneath the sponge colony, a smorgasbord of discarded spicules and blackened fossilized life, including empty worm tubes and mollusk shells. To see if this thick mat was a food source, the team analyzed samples of the sponges, the mat material and the surrounding water. The researchers also investigated the genetic makeup of the microbes that live within the sponge tissues, and those in the sediment.
2-9-22 'Alien-like' life thrives on dead matter in Arctic deep
Scientists say they've solved the mystery of how giant sponges flourish in the deep, icy waters of the Arctic. The sea sponges survive by feeding on the remains of worms and other extinct animals that perished thousands of years ago, they suggest. Sponges are very simple ancient animals found in seas across the world, from deep oceans to shallow tropical reefs. They have been found living in large numbers and to impressive size at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. These massive "sponge gardens" are part of a unique ecosystem thriving beneath the ice-covered ocean near the North Pole, said Dr Teresa Morganti from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany. "We have found massive sponges - they can reach up to one metre in diameter," she said. "This is the first evidence of sponges eating ancient fossil matter." By dangling a camera deep beneath the ice, researchers were able to photograph the collections of sponges that form a garden on the sea floor. At the time, they were mystified over how the primitive animals survived in the cold, dark depths far from any known food source. More recently, after analysing samples from the Arctic expedition, they found the sponges were on average 300 years old. And they survive by snacking on the leftovers of an extinct community of animals - with the help of friendly bacteria that produce antibiotics. "Where the sponges like to live, there is a layer of dead material, said Prof Antje Boetius of the Alfred Wegener institute in Bremerhaven, who led the expedition to the Arctic. "And finally it occurred to us that this might be the solution to why the sponges are so abundant, because they can tap into this organic matter with the help of the symbionts." The discovery shows we have much more to learn about Planet Earth and there may be more life forms waiting to be discovered beneath the ice, she added. "There is so much alien-like life and especially in the ice-covered seas where we barely have the technology to access, to look around and to make a map," she said. But with Arctic sea ice retreating at an unprecedented rate, the researchers warn that this unique web of life is coming under increasing pressure from climate change.
2-7-22 Chimpanzees spotted apparently using insects to treat their wounds
Chimps at Loango National Park in Gabon apply small winged insects to their wounds in an apparent form of self-medication, but it is unclear why. A community of chimpanzees in Loango National Park in Gabon put insects onto their open wounds, seemingly as a form of first aid. While there has been evidence of animals using plants to self-medicate, these are the first known instances with insects. In November 2019, Alessandra Mascaro, who works on the Ozouga Chimpanzee Project at Loango National Park, watched and filmed a female chimpanzee named Suzee nursing the injured foot of her son, Sia. Unexpectedly, she noticed Suzee take something from between her lips and apply it to the open wound. When analysing video footage of the exchange, Mascaro and her colleagues realised that Suzee had placed a winged insect on Sia’s wound. “We had witnessed something really amazing,” says team member Simone Pika at Osnabrück University in Germany. After the initial observation, the researchers continued to monitor Suzee and the roughly 45 other chimps in her community until February 2021. In total, they observed the behaviour in 22 chimps. In 19 cases, chimps would catch a small winged insect and press it between their lips, then rub it onto their own exposed wounds using their lips or fingers before removing the insect. The researchers are unsure why the chimps do this. “What is intriguing me at the moment is, which insect species are they catching? And do they understand what they’re doing?” says Pika. It could be that the unknown insects have medicinal properties, say the researchers. “You can find many amazing substances in insects which are antibiotic, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal. They can have a soothing effect or help you to decrease the inflammation,” says Pika.
2-7-22 Living through a hurricane accelerated the ageing process for monkeys
In 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Caribbean communities, and we now know it had an impact on monkeys too - macaques that lived through the stressful experience have aged at an accelerated rate. Hurricane Maria increased the biological age of macaques by an average of almost two years. Maria devastated homes, infrastructure and vegetation in the north-eastern Caribbean in 2017. At the time, Noah Snyder-Mackler at Arizona State University and his colleagues were studying 435 macaques on the island of Cayo Santiago, 1 kilometre off the southern coast of Puerto Rico. They compared the blood samples of a cross-section of the macaques before and after the hurricane to see whether there were detectable changes in the levels of biomarkers associated with ageing. Gene expression – the way that information in DNA is converted into instructions for making proteins and other molecules – changes as people get older and can give an indication of someone’s age. The same is thought to be true of animals including monkeys. About 4 per cent of the genes expressed by the macaques’ immune cells were found to behave differently after Maria hit. What’s more, markers in the blood showed the monkeys had more inflammation and greater disruption of protein-folding genes. These are changes associated with ageing, says Snyder-Mackler. The researchers say this suggests the macaques’ biological age increased by 2 years, on average. They say this is the equivalent of between seven and eight years for a human. The destruction of the macaque’s ecosystem by the storm probably caused them acute stress, which aged them more quickly, he says. Not all of the primates exhibited the changes associated with ageing, however. Previous research shows some expanded their social networks in response to the event, and these animals were less affected, says Snyder-Mackler. He speculates that this is because they had created a “social buffer” that gave them more emotional stability.
2-7-22 Fear of predators means sparrows struggle to raise chicks to adulthood
Sparrows on a collection of Canadian islands change their behaviour when they fear predators are nearby, and an experiment shows this reduces their ability to raise their offspring to adulthood. The fear of predators alone is enough to halve a bird population in just four years, a study in Canada suggests. Predators slow the population growth of their prey by killing and eating them, but how their presence affects the behaviour of their prey is little understood. To simulate the presence of natural predators, Liana Zanette at Western University in Ontario and colleagues hung speakers from trees in 104 territories of wild song sparrows across five islands in British Columbia, Canada. In 51 of the territories, the researchers used the speakers to expose the sparrows to the vocal calls of their predators, including hawks, raccoons and ravens. In the other 53 territories, the speakers were used to play the vocal calls of harmless species, such as geese. The experiment continued over the course of three breeding seasons. The speakers were regularly moved, and the audio recordings of the predator or harmless species changed slightly to prevent the sparrows becoming accustomed to the audio recordings. What’s more, all of the sparrows’ nesting sites were protected from real predators with electric fences and nets with holes large enough for them to pass through, but too small for hawks and ravens to navigate. The sparrows that heard the predator sounds managed, on average, to raise 53 per cent fewer offspring to a reproductive age than sparrows that heard recordings of harmless species. Previous studies have found that the fear of predators reduces the number of eggs that birds lay, but didn’t study whether the birds experience any problems raising their chicks. When all factors were considered – from the number of eggs laid, to how many hatched and chicks’ development – the researchers project that a local sparrow population will halve in size in four years as a result of the presence – or perceived presence – of predators.
2-7-22 Earth may have 9,200 more tree species than previously thought
More than a third are probably hiding out in South America, researchers say. Trillions of trees are growing on Earth, though how many kinds there are has been underestimated, a new study finds. Earth hosts roughly 64,100 known tree species. But there could be at least 73,300 — about 14 percent more than previously thought — a global collaboration of researchers reports in the Feb. 8 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. More than a third of the 9,200 undiscovered species are probably rare and hiding out in South America’s biodiversity hot spots, such as the Amazon and tropical Andes, biologist Roberto Cazzolla Gatti of the University of Bologna in Italy and colleagues say. To estimate the number of Earth’s existing tree species, the team analyzed global forest data from two databases — the Global Forest Biodiversity Initiative and TREECHANGE. The researchers used a statistical analysis to account for the number of rare, infrequent trees that could be overlooked, revealing the new difference between documented species and novel ones. If more than 9,000 types of stationary, comparatively massive trees remain undetected, Cazzolla Gatti says, then the number of much smaller and more mobile animal species that are still unknown must be even greater. The research could help scientists target conservation efforts amid accelerating biodiversity loss worldwide (SN: 4/22/20). In vulnerable places such as the Amazon, where deforestation and fires are quickly erasing habitat, many plants and animals could be being wiped off the map before they are ever documented (SN: 9/1/21). Continuing to invest in conservation and preserving biodiversity is vital, Cazzolla Gatti says. Without it, “we have not many chances to keep our planet alive.”
2-7-22 Dog waste may harm nature reserve biodiversity by fertilising the soil
Dogs’ urine and faeces bring large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus into suburban nature reserves, which could be harmful to plant biodiversity. Taking your dog for a walk in a nature reserve could harm biodiversity because its faeces and urine bring in excess nitrogen and phosphorus to the ecosystem. While the effects of dogs on wildlife, through disease transmission and disturbance, have been well-studied, little is known about the impact of their waste. To investigate, Pieter De Frenne at Ghent University in Belgium and his colleagues monitored the number of dogs at four sites in nature reserves less than 5 kilometres from the centre of Ghent between February 2020 and June 2021. They included forests, grassland and a meadow that were both popular for recreation and considered important for biodiversity. In total, the researchers counted 1629 dogs across the sites, which corresponded to 1530 dogs per hectare per year. They assumed dogs spent one hour at the two larger sites and half an hour at the two smaller ones, on average. Using known values of nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations in dog faeces and urine, they then calculated the amounts that dogs would have brought into these ecosystems. They estimate that dogs bring 5 kilograms of phosphorus per hectare per year and 11 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per year into suburban nature reserves. “That’s 50 per cent of the nitrogen that comes in via the rain,” says De Frenne. However, this assumes that the dogs’ owners don’t take any of the waste away with them. These figures are significant, says De Frenne. Too much phosphorus or nitrogen – common components of fertilisers – in the soil can lead to loss of plant biodiversity and habitat degradation. “Dogs bring substantial amounts of nutrients to nature reserves and woodlands that should not be neglected,” says De Frenne. “Dog owners should be aware that their dog is behaving as a fertiliser, and if this is not yet the case, pick up their faeces more.” The study found that if owners picked up all of the dogs’ faeces, this would reduce the nitrogen input by 57 per cent and the phosphorus input by 97 per cent.
2-5-22 Parrots for sale: The internet's role in illicit trade
Row after row of thin barred cages hold brilliantly coloured birds whose screeches fill the air with a deafening noise. Faiz Ahmed sits at a desk, oblivious, as he turns to a team of undercover BBC News journalists. He's busy with his business of importing and selling birds. It's a popular line of trade in Bangladesh, where he's based, particularly among people with connections and money to invest. The conversation had started over the purchase of legal captive-bred parrots, but turned to a particular species, the African grey. "Wild grey parrots are good. Many people are breeding from wild ones," he says. It is illegal under international law to sell wild-caught African greys, which are endangered and on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. However, Faiz calmly told us how he could evade checks at customs. "It's hard to get import permission for grey parrots. There's another species almost the same as the grey parrots, Timneh parrots. It's possible to get permission for Timneh parrots and import grey parrots instead," he said. On the surface, the illicit wildlife trade is as it always has been - secret shipment routes, forged customs documents, and covert warehouses. But how we've arrived at Faiz's establishment is a sign of how drastically the illicit trade in endangered plants and animals has transformed. He has been openly advertising the sale of endangered birds and animals across social media. "The internet has made the setting up of trade routes much easier, and buyers and sellers can communicate with each other much more easily than before," says Simone Haysom, from Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (Gitoc). Some time after the initial meeting with Faiz, he told our reporters that the Bangladesh authorities were getting stricter, so he could still import the birds but couldn't take responsibility for them at airport customs.
2-5-22 Iceland whaling: Fisheries minister signals end from 2024
Commercial whaling in Iceland could be banned within two years, after a government minister said there was little justification for the practice. The northern European country, an island in the North Atlantic, is one of few places to allow whale hunting. But demand for the mammals' meat has decreased dramatically since Japan - Iceland's main market - resumed commercial whaling in 2019. Iceland's fisheries minister says whaling is no longer profitable. "Why should Iceland take the risk of keeping up whaling, which has not brought any economic gain, in order to sell a product for which there is hardly any demand?" Svandis Svavarsdottir wrote on Friday in the Morgunbladid newspaper. Iceland's most recent annual quotas allow for the hunting of 209 fin whales, which are considered endangered, and 217 minke whales - one of the smallest species. But Ms Svavarsdottir, a member of the Left-Green Movement, said the fact that only one whale had been killed in the past three years showed that the practice had little economic benefit for the country. She said this would be a key factor in the decision over whether to extend whaling beyond 2023. When Japan resumed commercial whaling in 2019, after a three decade hiatus, it caused a significant drop in demand for Iceland's whale exports, making hunting less profitable. Other factors have also made whaling more challenging. Social distancing rules made Icelandic whale meat processing plants less efficient, and the extension of a no-fishing coastal zone pushed up the cost of whale hunting. Ms Svavarsdottir also said that Iceland's whaling activities can have a negative impact the economy, for example the US-based chain Whole Foods stopped marketing Icelandic products when commercial whaling resumed there in 2006. The news has been welcomed by campaigners, who have been calling for an end to whaling in Iceland for many years.
2-5-22 Huge bank of dead fish spotted off French Atlantic coast
France's fisheries minister has called for an investigation after a spillage of more than 100,000 dead fish off the country's Atlantic coast. Video footage filmed by environmental activists shows a mass of corpses floating on the sea surface. An industry statement said the Margiris, the world's second-largest super trawler, had reported a "fishing incident" after its net broke. It said the fish were blue whiting, a species of the cod family. The lost fish would be deducted from the vessel's quota, the statement added. The Sea Shepherd France environmental group filmed the fish on Thursday, saying they covered an area of about 3,000 sq m (32,300 sq ft). Its head Lamya Essemlali told Reuters it wanted to "raise awareness among the French public" about the trawler, which it said had been banned from Australian waters and frequented the Bay of Biscay. Fisheries Minister Annick Girardin tweeted (in French) that she was investigating, and that the images were shocking. The EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevicius, also said he was seeking "exhaustive information and evidence about the case". The Pelagic Freezer-Trawler Association issued a statement saying a net on the Margiris had ruptured at 05:50 local time (04:50 GMT) on Thursday morning, adding that this was a "very rare occurrence". "In line with EU law, this has been recorded in the vessel's log book and reported to the authorities of the vessel's flag state, Lithuania," it said.
2-4-22 Male elephant seals aim to get huge or die trying
Only the largest males get to mate, so the pressure to eat and grow is extreme. If you’re a male northern elephant seal, your car-sized bulk is crucial to your genetic legacy, since only a fraction of the very largest males will have access to mates. Now, scientists have found that male elephant seals are so driven to eat and grow that they take on great personal risk and are much more likely than females to die while foraging for food. The findings, described in the January Royal Society Open Science, reveal a dramatic divide in how and where male and female elephant seals mostly feed and how their different mating strategies play a role in choosing those locations. Male and female northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) look quite different from each other. Females can weigh hundreds of kilograms, but males are truly humongous, growing three to seven times as large as females. Despite these physical differences between the sexes, much of the scientific research has targeted just females, says ecophysiologist Sarah Kienle at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Kienle wanted to know how the substantial size differences between the sexes impact their feeding behaviors. As part of a long-term, ongoing monitoring project of elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park in California, Kienle and colleagues attached depth loggers and satellite and radio transmitters to more than 200 seals from 2006 to 2015. The researchers measured the seals’ fat stores and used this information, along with the animals’ location and depth data, to determine how and where they were foraging and how well their efforts converted into blubbery heft. The team found that the two sexes hunt for food in very different places. Females spent most of their foraging time in the open ocean, diving deep for prey, while males stuck to shallower, nearshore habitats, feeding continuously on prey on the continental shelf. This helped males accumulate six times as much mass, on average, as females, gobbling up calories more than four times as fast.
2-3-22 Gory footage confirms orca pods can kill adult blue whales
No one knew if orcas could take down the largest animal on the planet – until now. Killer whales are skilled assassins, hunting everything from herring to great white sharks. Now, for the first time, scientists witnessed a pod of killer whales bring down the world’s largest animal: an adult blue whale. “This is the biggest predation event on the planet,” says Robert Pitman, a cetacean ecologist at Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute in Newport. “We haven’t seen things like this since dinosaurs were here, and probably not even then.” It’s been debated for decades whether killer whales, or orcas (Orcinus orca), are capable of preying on full-grown large whales. Past accounts have described attempted attacks on blue whales, but no one had observed orcas complete the job until March 21, 2019. It was “a really ominous, bad weather day” off the Western Australia coast, says John Totterdell, a biologist at Cetacean Research Centre in Esperance, Australia. Totterdell and his colleagues, who recount their whale tale January 21 in Marine Mammal Science, were still an hour out from their usual orca-observing site when they slowed to remove some debris from the water. In the pouring rain, they almost missed the splashing — and the telltale dorsal fins of killer whales. “Within seconds, we realized they were attacking something big. Then we realized, oh my, it was a blue whale,” says Totterdell. The team had stumbled upon a dozen orcas assailing an adult blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), estimated at between 18 and 22 meters long. Tooth marks crisscrossed its flank, and its dorsal fin was mostly bitten off. The most brutal injury was on its face: The flesh of the whale’s snout was ripped away along the top lip, exposing bone. Three orcas slammed into the whale’s side like a battering ram, as another orca began feeding on its tongue. The blue whale finally died about an hour after the research team arrived.
2-3-22 Vaccine trial for killer elephant virus begins
"She's our wonder baby!" says elephant keeper Katie Morrison, smiling broadly. Katie points to five-year-old Indali, an elephant survivor of an often deadly virus, which has killed seven calves at Chester Zoo. Now, the zoo, with scientists at the University of Surrey, is embarking on a world first - a trial, in elephants, of a potentially life-saving vaccine. The disease, called elephant endotheliotrophic herpes virus (EEHV), has a mortality rate of up to 85%. "We've lost elephants usually between the ages of 18 months and three years," Katie explains. "When we see symptoms - lethargy, mouth lesions - it's usually too late". The virus was discovered in 1990 and formally characterised in 1999 by researchers at the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington DC. They linked 10 cases of a "highly fatal haemorrhagic disease" in young Asian and African elephants in zoos. In each case, they found "herpes virus-like particles" in cells of dead elephants' hearts, livers and tongues. Since then, the virus has been a zoo's worst nightmare. A recent study, led by Berlin-based veterinary scientist Sonia Jesus Fontes, calculated that it had caused 52% of the deaths of Asian elephants in European zoos since 1985. In North American zoos, it accounted for 50% of deaths since 1980. It has now been detected in sanctuaries, safari parks and, more worryingly, in wild elephant herds in nine countries. Cruelly, it usually affects the youngest animals. Since 2010, Chester Zoo has had just one calf survive to five years of age - Indali. All the others died of EEHV. In 2018, it claimed three-year-old Nandita and 18-month-old Aayu in the course of a single day. "It's so tough - you do everything you can, and it's not enough," says Katie. Groups of researchers around the world study EEHV, but Chester Zoo is now taking an important step with the vaccine trial, as the lead scientist behind its development, Prof Falko Steinbach from the University of Surrey, explains. "We know it's almost impossible to prevent infection - we're trying to prevent serious disease and death," he tells BBC News.
2-2-22 Protect your plants from cold snaps with home-made cloches
IN MY garden, bulbs such as snowdrops are coming up. Every year, I wonder if spring is arriving earlier due to climate change. One study from 2006 found that many signs of spring, such as plant species unfurling their leaves, had been hastened by 7.5 days across Europe in the previous 30 years (Global Change Biology, doi.org/b7vmgk). And research published this week has found that UK plants are flowering nearly a month earlier than they did before the mid-1980s, probably due to warmer temperatures from January to April. You might think that warmer weather would be welcomed by gardeners, but some plants, particularly fruit trees and bushes, require a period of cold before they break their winter dormancy, so warmer winters could lead to worse crops. In the UK, blackcurrant bushes may be especially vulnerable, although new varieties are being bred to tolerate a warmer climate. Early springs are good for many crops, as they extend the growing season, letting you sow seeds and plant seedlings earlier. But gardeners need to beware of late frosts, when an unexpected cold spell means temperatures overnight fall below freezing, which can blacken foliage and kill off tender plants. After a few disasters, including a year when I lost my entire crop of new potatoes, I now keep a close eye on the weather forecast. If plants look in danger, they can be protected by overlaying them with a thin sheet of fabric called horticultural fleece. In a pinch, old sheets or net curtains will suffice. Another option to protect new seedlings is a cloche, a transparent dome that creates a miniature greenhouse around a young plant. You can buy them or make your own by cutting large soft-drink bottles in half and pushing each dome firmly into the soil. “You’re bringing a plant on by changing its microclimate to a warmer one, so it will grow and develop faster,” says Tim Sparks at the University of Cambridge, who was involved in both the 2006 study and the new flowering research.
2-2-22 Do pet dogs truly love us or just experience Stockholm syndrome?
Are pet dogs just suffering from Stockholm syndrome, or do they genuinely enjoy our company? It’s true, our dogs are trapped with us, not allowed to leave the house unless tethered to a human on a leash and, yes, fully dependent on us for everything they need in life – and yet their love for us transcends anything like Stockholm syndrome. I see this most obviously when I return home from a walk with my dog, Xephos. Her joy at seeing my wife and son transcends how a kidnapped person would respond to being returned to their jailers. This is also clear when we consider that the majority of the world’s 800 million dogs don’t live as pets, captive inside a house. Most roam the streets of poorer countries. These aren’t anyone’s captives and yet they still form emotional bonds with individual people. Studies by Anindita Bhadra at the Indian Institute of Science and Education in Kolkata, India, and her colleagues show that street dogs rapidly form affectionate ties with people who treat them gently. Light petting builds a bond of trust faster even than offering pieces of chicken. There is considerable value in being clear-eyed about the way we constrain our dogs’ lives, but that doesn’t mean that their love for us amounts to Stockholm syndrome. Not sure about dogs, but with cats, it’s the other way around.
2-2-22 Female baboons that had a tough infancy are less sociable as adults
Baboons are sociable primates, but females that had a tough early life – because of the loss of their mother or a lack of food – find socialising harder. Female baboons that had a harder life as youngsters tend to end up struggling in social situations as adults. These individuals often fail to give the friendly grunt that usually precedes social interactions between baboons, which might make them “socially awkward” and could lead to them being approached and groomed less by peers, says Sam Patterson at New York University. “Basically, if a female approaches another baboon and grunts, she’s saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to be friendly and not attack you; everything’s good’,” says Patterson. “But if the female approaches and doesn’t grunt, that’s stressful [for the other baboon] because it’s unpredictable.” Patterson and their fellow researchers in the US and Kenya investigated 50 years’ worth of historical data on three groups of wild female olive baboons (Papio anubis) in Kenya, all part of the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project. The team also recorded more than 2600 hours of observations of 31 female olive baboons from the three groups, noting their activity, social interactions, social partners and their vocalisations. The researchers rated the levels of early life adversity on a scale from 0 to 5 for each of these 31 animals. To do so, they considered a number of factors relating to each individual’s early life. For instance, they looked at food availability – based on grassland condition – for the year of the baboon’s birth; competition the individual might have experienced based on the group size at the time of her birth; personal trauma based on whether or not the individual lost her mother early in life; the mother’s health condition based on number of years since she had previously given birth; and the mother’s parenting experience – essentially whether the individual was the mother’s firstborn or not.
2-2-22 Britain's cranes have most successful year since 1600s
Cranes had their most successful year in the UK since the 17th Century with a record-breaking 72 pairs, conservationists said. The common crane was absent as a breeding bird for 400 years due to wetland drainage and hunting. But now the UK's tallest bird has made a strong comeback since a small number returned to Norfolk's Broads in 1979. Damon Bridge, chairman of the UK Crane Working Group, said: "The population is rapidly expanding." Adult cranes stand at around 1.2m (4ft) tall and are known for their complex "display" behaviour, where they perform bows, pirouettes and bobs. The crane is thought to have been a common breeding bird in Britain during the Middle Ages. English place names with the prefix "cran", such as Cranfield in Bedfordshire, refer to areas frequented by the birds. Their initial spread after their reintroduction was aided by the creation and improvement of their favoured habitat at the RSPB's Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk and Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire. Since 2010, a project has also been hand-rearing and releasing young birds on the Somerset Levels and Moors. The latest breeding survey showed that of the 72 pairs, up to 65 had bred and these fledged 40 chicks, the RSPB said. The highest number of young fledged previously was 26 in 2019. A new population estimate now stands at more than 200 birds. Mr Bridge said: "Although climate change poses a huge challenge for many species, opportunities to restore peatlands and floodplains to reduce carbon emissions and better manage increased flood risk can go hand in hand with the delivery of habitats perfect for cranes and other wetlands species." Andrew Stanbury, RSPB conservation scientist, said: "The recovery of the UK crane population, now at its highest level since the 17th Century, showcases that conservation action can make a real difference." The RSPB said as well as in eastern England and Somerset, cranes could be spotted at its reserve at the Loch of Strathbeg in Aberdeenshire.
2-2-22 Learning styles in fruit flies may not be related to nature or nurture
Genetically identical fruit flies raised in the same environment still learn at different rates, suggesting that random differences in brain development may have evolved to produce variation in a species. Genetically similar fruit flies raised in an identical environment still learn in different ways, suggesting that individuality may not be influenced by nature or nurture alone, but might have a third key factor: randomness. Despite having essentially the same genetic code and being raised in exactly the same experimental conditions, individual fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) learn to avoid negative experiences, such as electric shocks and bad tastes, at different rates. Random factors – or possibly extremely slight differences in experience – might therefore contribute to a species’ ability to adapt to a changing world by ensuring a healthy variety of individual traits, says Benjamin de Bivort at Harvard University. “If the world is unpredictable in how reliable learning cues are, it may be a good strategy to produce some flies that are early adopters – which would be helpful when cues are reliable – alongside sceptics, which are helpful when cues are unreliable,” says de Bivort. “That way, no matter the state of the world, some of the progeny will have the right learning strategy.” In previous studies, fruit flies that have been genetically modified or bred in order to have essentially identical genomes, and then raised in identical laboratory settings, have shown individual preferences for light, temperature, postures and turning left or right. De Bivort and his colleagues wondered whether the flies would also behave differently in a learned, rather than innate, context. They tested the flies’ abilities in learning tasks using 1-week-old female fruit flies that had been genetically modified to have nearly identical genomes, housed together and fed the same cornmeal diet. The researchers placed each fly in a testing arena with two tunnels, each with a different odour. One odour was initially associated with either an electric shock or a bitter taste – and the next day, the scientists switched which odour was associated with the negative stimulus.
2-2-22 Vinegar eels can synchronize swim
Confined to a water droplet, nematodes displayed an ability rare in the animal kingdom. Trapped within a bead of water, thousands of tiny worms wiggle in hypnotic synchrony as they stream around the globule’s rim. And at the center of this undulating gyre some of the creatures congregate into a writhing mass, like the pupil of a demonic eye. These squiggling creatures are Turbatrix aceti, a species of nematode commonly known as vinegar eels. Individual vinegar eels are often found swimming freely in jars of raw vinegar or in fish tanks. But when troupes of them assemble, vinegar eels showcase a unique juggling act of behaviors; they can wiggle in synch as they move together in swarms, researchers report January 10 in Soft Matter. This captivating ability is exceedingly rare in nature. Birds and fish can move collectively, while some bacteria can coordinate the waving of whiplike appendages (SN: 7/31/14; SN: 5/28/19; SN: 7/13/15). Vinegar eels, however, are capable of more. “This is a combination of two different kinds of synchronization,” says Anton Peshkov, a physicist at the University of Rochester in New York. “Motion and oscillation.” Peshkov and his colleagues first heard rumors of vinegar eels’ weird motions while studying the group movements of brine shrimp, another common aquarium dweller. Intrigued, they packed thousands of T. aceti into droplets to observe under a microscope. The nematodes first roamed randomly, but over the course of an hour, some began clustering in the middle. Others swarmed to the edges, where they circled the rim. After a while, individual nematodes started oscillating in synch, and the swarm itself began undulating, like fans doing the wave at a sports game. These collective undulations stirred up flows that prevented the water drop’s edge from contracting as it evaporated. But as evaporation progressed, the edge instead gradually tilted inwards, weakening the swarm’s outward push, until the walls finally began to close in. At this tipping point, the researchers measured the drop’s dimensions, which let them estimate that each vinegar eel generated 1 micronewton of force. They could move objects hundreds of times their own weight, Peshkov says.
2-1-22 Huge genetic database includes over 9000 species of flowering plants
Public library of DNA sequences will allow botanists to track the complex evolutionary history of flowering plants in unprecedented detail. More than 9000 species of plants have had sections of their genomes sequenced as part of the Plant and Fungal Trees of Life (PAFTOL) project led by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the UK. This is the largest genetic database of flowering plants ever built, and it could help botanists to identify and conserve species under threat. Plants that fruit or flower are called angiosperms and make up the vast majority of plant life on Earth, except for the groups that contain conifers, ferns and mosses. They play a vital role across terrestrial ecosystems, storing substantial amounts of carbon and producing vast amounts of oxygen. They also make up most of the calories we ingest. In 2016, researchers at Kew began an effort to complete the trees of life – descriptions of the evolutionary relationships between organisms – for all genera of plants and fungi. The first phase of this has focused on flowering plants, which comprise around 13,600 genera. Rather than sequencing whole genomes, William Baker at Kew and his colleagues targeted 353 specific genes that can be found in all green plants. “Having a whole genome doesn’t always do you many favours. You end up with a vast computational challenge,” says Baker. The team designed a set of probes – short strands of DNA that search for complementary sequences in genes they wanted to target, which give them enough information to establish the relationships between the species. The project has now compiled genetic codes from 9823 flowering plant specimens. These specimens represent 99 per cent of all flowering plant families, as well as 55 per cent of all flowering plant genera – many of which had never been sequenced before. This accounts for 9404 unique species out of the roughly 340,000 angiosperm species that are thought to exist.
2-1-22 Longleat welcomes first southern koala joey
Longleat safari park has welcomed a new addition to its koala clan at England’s only koala colony. The southern koala joey arrived into the world six months ago and is the first of its kind to be born in Europe. Its mother Violet was brought to England from Australia over three years ago and has since been looked after by koala keepers. In addition to milk, joeys eat 'pap' - a liquefied form of the mother's faeces which provides the baby with the microbes it needs to digest eucalyptus leaves.
2-1-22 Earth has more tree species than we thought
There are 14% more tree species than previously thought, according to what researchers are calling the first "scientifically credible" estimate. Of the 73,300 estimated species, the researchers predict there are 9,200 that are yet to be discovered. But most rare species are in tropical forests, fast disappearing because of climate change and deforestation. The study is based on a database of tens of millions of trees in more than 100,000 forest plots around the world. The researchers used statistical techniques to predict the likely number of tree species, correcting for gaps in existing data. The findings suggest more must be done to protect the incredible life forms needed for food, timber and medicine and to fight climate change by sucking carbon dioxide from the air. Lead researcher Dr Peter Reich, of the University of Minnesota in St Paul, said the findings highlighted the vulnerability of global forest biodiversity. "Our data will help us assess where biodiversity is the most threatened," he told BBC News. "This is in the tropics and subtropics of South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania and those are places where we discovered hotspots of known and unknown rare species. "Knowing about these hotspots, hopefully, can help prioritise future conservation efforts." South America - the continent with the most "missing" species - has about 43% of the total number. Diverse natural forests are the most healthy and productive, important to the global economy and to nature. More than 140 international researchers worked on the study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. Dr Yadvinder Malhi, of the University of Oxford, said tropical forests were the "global treasure chests of biodiversity" and significant absorbers of carbon dioxide emissions, slowing global warming. "This study shows that tropical forests are even more diverse in their trees than we had previously imagined," he said.