Sioux Falls Zoologists

"Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent!"

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

77 Intelligence & Zoology News Articles
for March of 2022

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3-31-22 Bats can remember sounds they haven't heard for more than 4 years
Animals known to be highly intelligent, such as ravens and chimpanzees, have good long-term memory – and now it seems that some bats do too. When fringe-lipped bats learn the sound of a dinner bell, they remember it for years. The bats’ enduring memory is comparable to that of other animals renowned for their expansive cognitive skills, such as crows and primates. Fringe-lipped bats (Trachops cirrhosus) are native to rainforests in the Central and South American tropics. They are nocturnal predators with a broad diet, snatching up insects, frogs, lizards and small mammals. The bats have a keen ear and are able to discern between the calls of poisonous and non-poisonous prey. To see how well this ability sticks around over time, a team of researchers led by May Dixon at The Ohio State University in Columbus, took some bats to school. Dixon and her colleagues captured 49 fringe-lipped bats between 2010 and 2018 in Panama’s Soberanía National Park. In a flight cage, the researchers trained the bats to respond to recordings of frog calls coming from a speaker by giving them pieces of fish when the noise played. They then played a mix of frog calls and mobile phone ringtones, incrementally reducing the frog call volume and increasing the ringtone volume until the bats were trained to attack the pure ringtone sounds. The team then taught the bats to discriminate between ringtones, providing a tasty reward for some sounds and giving them nothing when others played. These bats were released into the wild, and eight of them were recaptured between 1 and 4.2 years later. When they were played their food-associated ringtones from training, all eight of the recaptured bats approached the speaker and six of them attacked it. When the researchers repeated this with 17 wild bats that never received the training, only one approached the speaker.

3-31-22 Stingrays and zebra mbuna fish know how to add and subtract
Stingrays and zebra mbuna fish shown fewer than five shapes can add or subtract "one" from the total to gain a reward. Stingrays and zebra mbuna fish can perform simple addition and subtraction involving numbers between 1 and 5. Several studies have shown that fish can tell the difference between higher and lower numbers. But it was unclear whether they can carry out mental tasks to add and subtract numbers from each other. Vera Schluessel at the University of Bonn in Germany and her colleagues designed tests to work out whether ocellate river stingrays (Potamotrygon motoro) and zebra mbuna (Pseudotropheus zebra) can add or subtract the numerical value of “one” from numbers between 1 and 5. The team first trained six zebra mbunas and four stingrays to make choices after seeing an initial stimulus. The fish started in a section where they were shown an initial picture of two shapes for 5 seconds. After this period, they could swim through an open door into a test area where there were two more pictures of shapes: one showing a single shape and another showing three shapes. If the two shapes in the initial picture were yellow, the fish were rewarded in the test area if they swam towards the image showing just one shape – a subtraction operation. If the two shapes in the initial image were blue, the fish were rewarded in the test area for swimming towards the image showing three shapes – an addition operation. Once the fish had been trained to associate yellow with subtraction and blue with addition, the team tested their ability to count. In the first test, the animals were presented with an initial image of three shapes in either yellow or blue. Then, in the test area, they could choose from either two shapes or four shapes. The zebra mbunas correctly chose addition (the four-shape option) 82 per cent of the time when they saw a blue stimulus, and successfully chose subtraction (the two-shape option) 68 per cent of the time following a yellow stimulus. Meanwhile, the stingrays successfully added 96 per cent of the time and correctly subtracted 90 per cent of the time.

3-30-22 Cow review: A moving and uncomfortable cow's-eye-view of farming
MOST documentaries chronicle exceptional lives that anyone would be curious about, or highly ordinary ones that warrant a second look. Andrea Arnold’s new film does both, providing an immersive look into the world of a dairy cow. Arnold is the celebrated director of projects as diverse as Red Road and Fish Tank, which explore working-class Britain; the Shia LaBeouf epic American Honey; a 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights; and episodes of Transparent and Big Little Lies. In Cow, her fifth feature and first documentary, Arnold turns her trademark unflinching gaze on a subject that is both familiar and entirely other: a cow named Luna on a cattle farm in the English countryside. Six years in the making, the BAFTA-nominated Cow follows Luna in her day-to-day life, from grazing and mating to birthing and milking. It is about as immersive and visceral a depiction of a non-human being as one can imagine, with Arnold filming from Luna’s perspective as much as possible and using zero narration. For many viewers, the first surprise may be the immediate, easy charisma of her subject: in an early scene, Luna holds the camera’s gaze, mooing insistently, in such a way that it leaves the audience in no doubt about her curiosity and appraising intelligence. Likewise, shots of her caring for her just-born calf and taking obvious pleasure from an open field suggest a multifaceted mind, which is portrayed clearly and without sentimentality. For an essentially quiet film, sound is used to great effect in Cow. Mournful pop songs by Billie Eilish and others are piped into the milking shed, adding pathos to the scenes of Luna’s everyday life, while snatches of chatter from her largely faceless farmers lend them structure. The emotion we come to feel for Luna, our investment in her well-being, is organic and earned.

3-30-22 Martin Wikelski interview: Tracking animals reveals their sixth sense
A network of 100,000 animals connected by trackers and watched from space could explain extraordinary animal behaviour and help forecast volcanic eruptions, extreme weather and emerging diseases. IN SEPTEMBER 2020, a blackbird flew 1530 kilometres from Belarus to Albania. As avian migrations go, it wasn’t that impressive. But this journey was tracked from the International Space Station, setting in motion an ambitious project that could solve some of the biggest mysteries in animal behaviour, from how crop-eating plagues of locusts form to whether some animals possess a sixth sense to predict natural disasters. ICARUS, International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space, is the brainchild of Martin Wikelski, a director at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany. His idea, conceived two decades ago, is to create what he calls an “internet of animals” by fitting 100,000 creatures with miniaturised transmitters that supply information about them. It took a while to win the support of German and Russian space agencies and bring together a global group of collaborators, but, since that first blackbird flight, hundreds of animals have been fitted with custom-made tags weighing just 5 grams. These don’t just monitor their location, they also log aspects of behaviour and physiology. A menagerie of birds, bats, goats, rhinos, tortoises and more has been sending signals to the ISS as well as Earth-based receivers. The information gathered is freely available to all. And increasing numbers of grassroots animal taggers are getting involved in ICARUS. As the project grows, so do Wikelski’s ambitions. He believes that, as well as shedding new light on animal behaviour, the internet of animals can also help us forecast environmental change, track emerging diseases, conserve endangered species and make humans more responsive to the needs of other creatures.

3-31-22 Rare albino turtle discovered in India
Wildlife photographers spotted an unusually pale, red-eyed turtle hatchling in Telangana state, which was identified as a flapshell turtle with albinism. A rare albino Indian flapshell turtle has been discovered in Telangana in southern India. Wildlife photographers Manoj Kumar Vittapu and Shravan Kumar Poshetty discovered the newly hatched turtle – which was 4 centimetres long and 3 centimetres wide – near a freshwater pond in Sirnapalli forest. Buddi Laxmi Narayana, a wildlife biologist at Nehru Zoological Park, Hyderabad, studied their photos of the hatchling and identified it as an Indian flapshell turtle (Lissemys punctata) with albinism. Albino animals have no melanin pigment in their skin or eyes, making their skin pale-coloured and their irises red. “A gene that plays a role in the production of pigments mutates and fails to function properly,” says Narayana. Normally, flapshell turtles have dark brown shells with light brown spots. Only a handful of flapshell turtles with albinism have been documented before in a few different regions of India. Indian flapshell turtles can live for up to 18 years, but being albino, this particular individual may not survive as long, says Narayana. “Lacking a full complement of eye pigments, true albinos often have poor eyesight and are unusually sensitive to sunlight,” he says. Some albino animals are also rejected by their species communities for looking different, he says.

3-31-22 Invasive joro spiders get huge and flashy — if they’re female
Males are the other half of the story, so tiny and drab they’re often missed in oversized webs. Some thumbnail-sized, brown male spiders in Georgia could be miffed if they paid the least attention to humans and our news obsessions. Recent stories have made much of “giant” joro spiders invading North America from eastern Asia, some large enough to span your palm. Lemon yellow bands cross their backs. Bright red bits can add drama, and a softer cheesecake yellow highlights the many joints on long black legs. The showy giants, however, are just the females of Trichonephila clavata. Males hardly get mentioned except for what they’re not: colorful or big. A he-spider hulk at 8 millimeters barely reaches half the length of small females. Even the species nickname ignores the guys. The word joro, borrowed from Japanese, translates to such unmasculine terms as “courtesan,” “lady-in-waiting” and even “entangling or binding bride.” Mismatched sexes are nothing new for spiders. The group shows the most extreme size differences between the sexes known among land animals, says evolutionary biologist Matja? Kuntner of the Evolutionary Zoology Lab in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The most dramatic case Kuntner has heard of comes from Arachnura logio scorpion spiders in East Asia, with females 14.8 times the size of the males. With such extreme size differences, mating conflicts in animals can get violent: females cannibalizing males and so on (SN: 11/13/99). As far as Kuntner knows, however, joro spiders don’t engage in these “sexually conflicted” extremes. Males being merely half size or thereabouts might explain the relatively peaceful encounters. When it comes to humans, these spiders don’t bother anybody who doesn’t bother them. But what a spectacle they make. “I’ve got dozens and dozens in my yard,” says ecologist Andy Davis at the University of Georgia in Athens. “One big web can be 3 or 4 feet in diameter.” Joro spiders have lived in northeastern Georgia since at least 2014.

3-30-22 Reality TV for birds shows that conservation research can pay off
Thousands of us are glued to the online dramas of two peregrines on the Cal Falcons webcam, but it is just the start of what tech can do for bird studies, writes Annalee Newitz. A FEW weeks after officials in California issued the first stay-at-home orders of the pandemic, back in 2020, something amazing happened on the internet. Well, not on the internet exactly – it happened in a gravel box high up on a bell tower, while thousands of us tuned in by webcam to see two peregrine falcons snuggling their freshly hatched chicks. Over the next few months, we watched the Cal Falcons webcam as the tiny chicks grew into fierce adults. The sight was a balm. It was a scientific wonder as well. Peregrines were locally extinct in many parts of North America 50 years ago, and endangered throughout the world, after the pesticide DDT nearly wiped them out. Now, thanks to decades of conservation efforts, the raptors are making homes in our cities, even in a noisy bell tower in the middle of the University of California, Berkeley, campus. “People have contacted me and said watching is our one solace during these huge events,” says Lynn Schofield, a founder of the Cal Falcons project and a biologist at the Institute for Bird Populations in Petaluma, California. She and her husband Sean Peterson, an environmental researcher at Syracuse University in New York, worked with a team to build the birds’ nest in 2017. Then, in 2019, they crowdfunded the Cal Falcons webcam to educate the public about urban wildlife. The birds have returned every year to rear a new clutch of young. The pair named the falcons Annie and Grinnell, and post videos from their lives, with scientific explanations for their generally adorable, often bloodthirsty, behaviour. They also host livestreams to take audience questions at key moments in the birds’ lives.

3-30-22 In the Seychelles, conservation efforts are paying off for the endangered green turtle
There is a welcome and wonderful sight appearing on beaches in the Seychelles. The endangered green turtle is making a comeback here, after several decades of protection and close monitoring. Turtle hunting was banned in the Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands off the coast of East Africa, in 1968, but it was a slow recovery. In the early 1980s, researchers would find just one or two turtle tracks on a beach, but by the mid-1990s, there would be 10 to 20. It's only been up from there. This month, a new study was published in Endangered Species Research about the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles. Researchers found that in the late 1960s, the annual number of green turtle clutches was in the 2,000 to 3,000 range, and that increased to more than 15,000 in the late 2010s. "There's potential for this population to double, triple, we're not even sure," lead author Adam Pritchard from the University of Exeter told Popular Science. "This could just be the start. It's amazing that, after slower growth in the beginning, there's been this real explosion in recent years." The Aldabra Atoll has one of the world's largest green turtle populations, and in addition to the hunting ban, the fact that the area was designated a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1982 has helped the species with its recovery. It takes at least 20 to 50 years for green turtles to reach sexual maturity and start reproducing, making long-term monitoring another important step in ensuring the population continues to grow. Over the last five decades, hundreds of people have been recording data on the green turtles, collecting information from more than 50 beaches across Aldabra. "One thing that people have learned is protection works," Jeanne Mortimer, founder and chair of Turtle Action Group Seychelles, told Popular Science. "But you may need to be patient and wait for 35 years."

3-30-22 How scientists found an African bat lost to science for 40 years
Now the first recording of the Hill’s horseshoe bat’s echolocation call may help find more. Julius Nziza still remembers the moment vividly. Just before dawn on a chilly January morning in 2019, he and his team gently extracted a tiny brown bat from a net purposely strung to catch the nocturnal fliers. A moment later, the researchers’ whoops and hollers pierced the heavy mist blanketing Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park. The team had just laid eyes on a Hill’s horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus hilli), which scientists hadn’t seen for nearly four decades. Nziza, a wildlife veterinarian at Gorilla Doctors in Musanze, Rwanda, and a self-described “bat champion,” had been looking for the critically endangered R. hilli since 2013. For several years, Nziza and Paul Webala from Maasai Mara University in Narok, Kenya, with the help of Nyungwe park rangers, surveyed the forest for spots where the bats might frequent. They didn’t find R. hilli, but it helped them narrow where to keep looking. In 2019, the team decided to concentrate on roughly four square kilometers in a high-elevation region of the forest where R. hilli had last been spotted in 1981. Accompanied by an international team of researchers, Nziza and Webala set out for a 10-day expedition in search of the elusive bat. It wasn’t rainy season yet, but the weather was already starting to turn. “It was very, very, very cold,” Nziza recalls. Every night, from sunset until close to midnight, the researchers stretched nets across trails, where bats are most likely to fly, and kept watch. Then, after a few hours of rest, they woke early to check the traps again. It was cold enough that the bats could die if stuck too long. At 4 a.m. on the fourth day, the researchers caught a bat with the distinctive horseshoe-shaped nose of all horseshoe bat species. But it looked slightly different from others they had captured. This one had darker fur and a pointed tip on its nose. Everyone began shouting: “This is it!”

3-29-22 UN biodiversity talks fail to agree on new targets to protect wildlife
There has been little progress at talks in Geneva aimed at encouraging countries to set new targets for protecting wildlife. Two weeks of negotiations to establish the draft of a new global deal to reverse the loss of wildlife and habitats have been branded a “major disappointment” after countries failed to agree on any new biodiversity targets. Officials from 195 countries met in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss the “post-2020 global biodiversity framework”, a new mission and set of 21 targets on everything from increasing the extent of protected areas to stemming species extinctions. But they failed to fully agree on any of the targets or even the overarching mission. That means a UN biodiversity summit to agree the final deal, in Kunming, China, will officially be delayed for a fourth time. As New Scientist recently reported, it will now take place in late August. An extra negotiating meeting will be held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 21 June to try to achieve breakthroughs on the deal. The draft of the deal agreed in Geneva is littered with square brackets, meaning countries have yet to agree. “It’s true that progress has been very slow,” says Guido Broekhoven at conservation group WWF International. He says it is worrying that key elements haven’t been agreed, but says there has been some progress on the new deal’s overall mission, which is converging on a “nature positive” commitment to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. There have also been promising signs that countries are nearing agreement on a target to protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans and land by 2030, says Sue Lieberman at the Wildlife Conservation Society. That would be up from 16.4 per cent for land and 7.74 per cent of oceans now. Another positive is that countries now “own” the draft text and there is a clear idea of what the final deal might look like, Lieberman adds. “If one is charitable, one could say it’s moving in the right direction,” she says. Much of the talks in Geneva got bogged down in countries airing their positions rather than trying to come closer together, says Brian O’Donnell at the Campaign for Nature, an alliance of more than 100 conservation organisations. “It’s a major disappointment that here we are two years delayed into the process and still feeling a long, long way from an agreement,” he says.

3-29-22 Biodiversity: What is it and how are we protecting it?
Governments from around the world are meeting later this year, to discuss how to stop human activities from causing the extinction of animal and plant species. They hope to come up with a long-term plan to reverse the threat to life on Earth - in all its varieties - at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in China. Biodiversity is the variety of all life on Earth - animals, plants, fungi and micro-organisms like bacteria. Animals and plants provide humans with everything needed to survive - including fresh water, food, and medicines. However, we cannot get these benefits from individual species - we need a variety of animals and plants to be able to work together and thrive. In other words, we need biodiversity. Plants are also very important for improving our physical environment - by cleaning the air we breathe, limiting rising temperatures and providing protection against climate change. Mangrove swamps and coral reefs can act as a barrier to erosion from rising sea levels. And common trees found in cities such as the London plane or the tulip tree, are excellent at absorbing carbon dioxide and removing pollutants from the air. It is normal for species to evolve and become extinct over time - 98% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. However, the extinction of species is now happening between 1,000 and 10,000 times more quickly than scientists would expect to see. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has kept a "red list" of threatened species since 1964. More than 142,000 species have been assessed and 29% are considered endangered, which means they have a very high risk of extinction. It is hoped an agreement can be reached to stop what scientists are calling the "sixth mass extinction" event. Governments will try to agree a long-term action plan - to be called the post-2020 Biodiversity Framework. Its key aim is to slow down the rate of biodiversity loss by 2030, and to make sure that by 2050, biodiversity is "valued, conserved, restored… and delivering benefits essential for all people".

3-29-22 Biodiversity: Pressure grows for deal to save nature
A global agreement to reverse the loss of nature and halt extinctions is inching closer, as talks in Geneva enter their final day. International negotiators are working on the text of a UN framework to safeguard nature ahead of a high-level summit in China later this year. Observers have slammed the "snail's pace" of negotiations and are pressing for a strengthening of ambitions. Divisions remain, including over financing the plans. "The science is very clear, we do not have any more time to waste; we need to take action now," Bernadette Fischler Hooper, head of international advocacy at WWF-UK, told BBC News. "Not only on biodiversity loss, but also on climate change which is a very inter-linked issue. So that is what's at stake here; it's actually the future of the planet and its people." The final version of the draft UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will be negotiated in Kunming, China, at the Cop15 summit, which is expected to take place at the end of August. The outcome will decide for the coming decades how the world will address the challenges of reducing the extinction risk threatening more than one million species, protecting 30% of land and sea, eliminating billions of dollars of environmentally-damaging government subsidies and restoring degraded ecosystems. Talks aimed at progressing the nascent agreement have been taking place in Geneva over the past two weeks. After the first week, observers hit out at what they saw as a "glacial" rate of progress, but momentum has gathered during the final days, although "thorny issues" remain, including the financing of the plans. The draft text contains the aim to increase finance to at least US $200bn a year by 2030, with funding from developed to developing countries to increase by at least US $10bn a year. "Resource mobilisation at this meeting has become a thorny issue," Ghanaian academic Alfred Oteng-Yeboah, who has played a key role in international efforts to protect biodiversity, told the news agency, AFP.

3-28-22 US biofirm plans to make hypoallergenic cats using CRISPR gene editing
A US company has deleted the genes for the allergy-causing protein in cat cells as a first step towards creating cats that don't trigger allergies. The two genes for the protein mainly responsible for allergic reactions to cats have been deleted from cat cells using CRISPR gene editing. It is a first step towards creating hypoallergenic cats, says US-based company InBio. “The estimated timeline for this is several years,” says Nicole Brackett, who leads the CRISPR cat team at InBio. About 15 per cent of people have allergic reactions to cats. The main cause of this is a small protein called Fel d 1 that is secreted by salivary and skin glands. It is spread over cats’ fur when felines clean themselves and can become airborne as the fur dries. What, if anything, Fel d 1 does for cats isn’t known. All cats produce Fel d 1, but a 2019 study found that levels in saliva vary greatly among typical domestic cats. It is often claimed that some specific breeds are less likely to trigger allergies, but no scientific studies have confirmed this. Fel d 1 consists of two different subunits, and there are two genes – called CH1 and CH2 – encoding each subunit. When Brackett and her colleagues compared the sequences of the CH1 and CH2 genes in domestic cats with those in other cat species such as lions, tigers, cougars and fishing cats, they found many changes. Because the sequence of genes with key functions tends to change little if at all, this suggests that Fel d 1 isn’t essential. The only way to find out for sure, however, will be to see what happens to cats that cannot produce any Fel d 1. Next, the team deleted either the CH1 or the CH2 gene from cat cells growing in culture using the CRISPR genome editing technique. The next step will be to delete all copies of the two genes at once, and to confirm that this prevents cells making the Fel d 1 protein. Only then the team will try to create cats that lack the genes.

3-28-22 Social mingling shapes how orangutans issue warning calls
“Kiss-squeaks” among red apes provide a peek into how social scenes mold vocal variety. Human language, in its many current forms, may owe an evolutionary debt to our distant ape ancestors who sounded off in groups of scattered individuals. Wild orangutans’ social worlds mold how they communicate vocally, much as local communities shape the way people speak, researchers report March 21 in Nature Ecology & Evolution. This finding suggests that social forces began engineering an expanding inventory of communication sounds among ancient ancestors of apes and humans, laying a foundation for the evolution of language, say evolutionary psychologist Adriano Lameira, of the University of Warwick in England, and his colleagues. Lameira’s group recorded predator-warning calls known as “kiss-squeaks” — which typically involve drawing in breath through pursed lips — of 76 orangutans from six populations living on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, where they face survival threats (SN: 2/15/18). The team tracked the animals and estimated their population densities from 2005 through 2010, with at least five consecutive months of observations and recordings in each population. Analyses of recordings then revealed how much individuals’ kiss-squeaks changed or remained the same over time. Orangutans in high-density populations, which up the odds of frequent social encounters, concoct many variations of kiss-squeaks, the researchers report. Novel reworkings of kiss-squeaks usually get modified further by other orangutans or drop out of use in crowded settings, they say. In spread-out populations that reduce social mingling, these apes produce relatively few kiss-squeak variants, Lameira’s group finds. But occasional kiss-squeak tweaks tend to catch on in their original form in dispersed groups, leading to larger call repertoires than in high-density populations.

3-28-22 How a virus turns caterpillars into zombies doomed to climb to their deaths
Manipulating the activity of genes used in vision triggers ‘tree-top disease’. Higher and higher still, the cotton bollworm moth caterpillar climbs, its tiny body ceaselessly scaling leaf after leaf. Reaching the top of a plant, it will die, facilitating the spread of the virus that steered the insect there. One virus behind this deadly ascent manipulates genes associated with caterpillars’ vision. As a result, the insects are more attracted to sunlight than usual, researchers report online March 8 in Molecular Ecology. The virus involved in this caterpillar takeover is a type of baculovirus. These viruses may have been evolving with their insect hosts for 200 million to 300 million years, says Xiaoxia Liu, an entomologist at China Agricultural University in Beijing. Baculoviruses can infect more than 800 insect species, mostly the caterpillars of moths and butterflies. Once infected, the hosts exhibit “tree-top disease,” compelled to climb before dying and leaving their elevated, infected cadavers for scavengers to feast upon. The clever trick of these viruses has been known for more than a century, Liu says. But how they turn caterpillars into zombies doomed to ascend to their own deaths wasn’t understood. Previous research suggested that infected caterpillars exhibit greater “phototaxis,” meaning they are more attracted to light than uninfected insects. Liu and her team confirmed this effect in the laboratory using cotton bollworm moth caterpillars (Helicoverpa armigera) infected with a baculovirus called HearNPV. The researchers compared infected and uninfected caterpillars’ positions in glass tubes surrounding a climbing mesh under an LED light. Uninfected caterpillars would wander up and down the mesh, but would return to the bottom before pupating. That behavior makes sense because in the wild, this species develops into adults underground. But infected hosts would end up dead at the top of the mesh. The higher the source of light, the higher infected hosts climbed.

3-26-22 1,000-year-old oaks used to create 'super forest'
Planting more trees is one of a combination of solutions to combating climate change, but some trees are far better than others. Which ones though? ??Scientists have designed an experimental forest in England to work out the best formula for achieving ambitious tree planting targets. "They've lived for so long; just think what they've seen." Forester Nick Baimbridge is gazing fondly at a majestic oak that has stood for more than a thousand years. On this wintry afternoon, birds sing from lichen-covered branches and a deer runs through the undergrowth. There's a sense of timelessness about this medieval forest, which contains the greatest collection of ancient oak trees anywhere in Europe. Blenheim Palace, a few miles away across the park, is a mere youngster at 300 years old, quips Baimbridge, the head forester of the Blenheim Estate. Standing under one of the oldest trees, he can only speculate on the turns of history witnessed by this "old girl", whose genetic heritage is set to live on through acorns collected from the forest floor. The acorns, and the new generation of oaks they spawn, are crucial to the ambitions of an experimental "super forest" that is being planted where the rivers Dorn and Glyme wind their way through the Oxfordshire countryside. The forest is spread across nine new neighbouring woodlands with the first trees planted out this winter. The Blenheim Estate has received a government grant of about £1m to plant 270,000 trees in the nine new woodlands covering 1sq km (0.6 miles) in an inaugural scheme paying landowners to create forests with public access. The autumn of 2020 was a "mast year," when the oaks produced a bumper crop of acorns, and foresters picked them off the forest floor and took them to a tree nursery on the estate, where they were planted into pots and left to grow. "We put them in compost and just wait for them to do their thing," says Baimbridge.

3-26-22 Lost genes may help explain how vampire bats survive on blood alone
Existing on a blood-only diet is something no other mammal can do. Surviving on blood alone is no picnic. But a handful of genetic tweaks may have helped vampire bats evolve to become the only mammal known to feed exclusively on the stuff. These bats have developed a range of physiological and behavioral strategies to exist on a blood-only diet. The genetic picture behind this sanguivorous behavior, however, is still blurry. But 13 genes that the bats appear to have lost over time could underpin some of the behavior, researchers report March 25 in Science Advances. “Sometimes losing genes in evolutionary time frames can actually be adaptive or beneficial,” says Michael Hiller, a genomicist now at the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research in Frankfurt. Hiller and his colleagues pieced together the genetic instruction book of the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) and compared it with the genomes of 26 other bat species, including six from the same family as vampire bats. The team then searched for genes in D. rotundus that had either been lost entirely or inactivated through mutations. Of the 13 missing genes, three had been previously reported in vampire bats. These genes are associated with sweet and bitter taste receptors in other animals, meaning vampire bats probably have a diminished sense of taste — all the better for drinking blood. The other 10 lost genes are newly identified in the bats, and the researchers propose several ideas about how the absence of these genes could support a blood-rich diet. Some of the genes help to raise levels of insulin in the body and convert ingested sugar into a form that can be stored. Given the low sugar content of blood, this processing and storage system may be less active in vampire bats and the genes probably aren’t that useful anymore. Another gene is linked in other mammals to gastric acid production, which helps break down solid food. That gene may have been lost as the vampire bat stomach evolved to mostly store and absorb fluid.

3-25-22 Vampire bats adapted to drinking blood by shedding several genes
Genes lost during vampire bats’ evolution may have helped them to adapt to their exclusive blood diet which is high in iron and fluid and low in calories. Vampire bats are missing several genes found in other bats, which may be related to their unique diet – they are the only mammals that feed exclusively on blood. Living on blood is challenging because it is mostly composed of water and low in calories. To get the energy they need, common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) have to ingest as much as 1.4 times their body weight in blood during each meal. Previous studies have uncovered some of the ways that vampire bats have adapted to their diet. For example, they have heat sensors in their face to detect victims’ blood vessels, sharp teeth to pierce them and anticoagulants in their saliva so they can drink blood without it clotting. They also have unusually large, stretchy stomachs for storing all the ingested fluid. To find out more, Moritz Blumer at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Germany and his colleagues sequenced the common vampire bat genome and compared it with the genomes of 26 other bat species. They discovered that the vampire bats are missing 13 genes that are found in other bats. The loss of these during their evolution may have occurred as they adapted to their unique diet, says Blumer. For example, three of the lost genes are responsible for taste receptors that tell different foods apart, which is redundant if you only feast on blood. Two other genes that the bats have shed are normally involved in managing blood sugar levels – called glycaemic control. “We think that the blood diet of vampire bats is so limited in carbohydrates that vampire bats have lost normal glycaemic control,” says Blumer. The loss of another gene – REP15 – may have occurred to allow the vampire bats to increase the amount of iron they can excrete, since their iron-rich blood diet puts them at risk of becoming overloaded with the mineral. One estimate suggests that a vampire bat’s relative iron intake is 800 times higher than ours.

3-25-22 Rice and maize yields boosted up to 10 per cent by CRISPR gene editing
It is possible to significantly boost the yield of rice and maize using CRISPR gene editing, trials in farm fields show Turning off a particular gene in maize and rice could enhance grain yields by 10 per cent and 8 per cent respectively, according to a new study. By exploring similar genes in other cereal grains, global crop production could be boosted. Maize and rice are staple foods around the world, and each has a distinct history of cultivation for large-scale consumption. It is believed that maize originated in Mexico, while rice came from China. Despite the independent evolution of these species, plant biologists have noted that they possess some very similar traits. This is known as convergent evolution. To investigate these resemblances, Xiaohong Yang at China Agricultural University in Beijing and her colleagues mapped the genomes of maize (Zea mays L. ssp. mays) and rice (Oryza sativa). They found 490 pairs of genes that seemed to serve analogous functions in both grains. From these pairs, the researchers identified two genes – known as KRN2 in maize and OsKRN2 in rice – that affected their grain yield. By using CRISPR gene editing to switch off these genes, they could increase grain yield by 10 per cent in maize and 8 per cent in rice. These figures came from real-world tests in farm fields. “These are excellent results,” says Yang, who hopes to continue exploring the 490 gene pairs to further improve rice and maize production. “These are two species that are the most important in terms of the economy,” says co-author Alisdair Fernie at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam, Germany. “They have such different domestication histories with different centres of origin, and very different habitats to a large extent. The fact that convergent evolution happened with so many genes is fascinating.”

3-25-22 Ostrich necks act as a radiator to control their head temperature
Infrared images of ostrich necks show that they help the birds keep their heads cool in warm temperatures, lowering their heat stress and helping them reproduce more successfully. The ostrich’s long, flexible neck is an important means of staying cool in the heat and keeping warm in cooler weather, and it may have evolved partially as an adaptation to wildly variable climatic conditions. Large animals are vulnerable to rapid temperature changes because their big bodies tend to hold on to heat. To investigate how they evolve thermal tolerance, Erik Svensson at Lund University, Sweden, and his colleagues looked to the world’s largest bird: the common ostrich (Struthio camelus). From 2012 to 2017, they took nearly 5600 photos of 794 ostriches at an ostrich research farm in Klein Karoo, South Africa, with an infrared thermography camera. The researchers found that the neck was a “thermal window”, emitting excess heat in hot conditions and retaining heat in the cold, stabilising the temperature of the head and brain. African elephants’ ears and the bony casque on cassowaries’ heads have similar radiator-like qualities. The farm hosts three distinct populations of the birds: South African “black” ostriches, Zimbabwean “blue” ostriches, and the Kenyan “reds”. Ostriches from populations that evolved in South Africa or Zimbabwe, regions with more climatic variability, were more efficient at shifting the temperature in their necks. On hot days, female ostriches with a greater difference between their head and neck temperatures laid more eggs in the following days compared with those with a smaller heat gap. This all suggests that the neck is a buffer for heat stress, the researchers argue. They also suggest that, as the planet warms, ostrich necks could evolve to become even longer as an adaptation to harsher temperatures. Using pedigree data from ostriches on the farm, the researchers confirmed that the neck radiator’s efficiency is heritable.

3-25-22 RSPB: Bitterns make booming recovery in UK wetlands
Britain's loudest bird, the "booming" bittern, is making a recovery after almost disappearing from the UK twice. The RSPB reported the birds had had a "record-breaking year" in 2021, with 228 males counted, up from 209 in 2019. Ornithologist Dr Alex Lees described it as a "spectacular conservation success story" thanks to the restoration of wetland habitats. "It shows that conservation does work," the Manchester Metropolitan scientist told BBC News. Bitterns, a member of the heron family, are well camouflaged wetland birds that hide in reed beds. The best way for conservation scientists to count them is during the breeding season - by listening for the male's booming "foghorn" call, which can be heard three miles (5km) away. Unlike other birds, the male bittern does not use its voice box but muscles around his windpipe to expand his entire gullet into an echo chamber. The birds were driven to extinction across the UK in the 1870s. A combination of hunting and draining of their wetland homes for agriculture led to their disappearance. They returned to Britain in the early 20th Century but numbers were very low when the first annual surveys began in 1990. And in 1997, there were estimated to be just 11 males across the whole of the UK, putting them on the brink of a second national extinction. But systematic restoration and re-creation of wetlands over recent decades has allowed their numbers to more than double in the past 10 years, the RSPB says. Simon Wotton, a senior conservation scientist from the wildlife charity, said: "[Their] recovery shows how quickly nature can bounce back when given the chance." Dr Lees said the success of wetland conservation "isn't just about bitterns". "We've invested millions in restoring and creating wetlands and that's meant species like cranes, spoonbills, little egrets and great egrets have returned too. "Wetland birds are probably the biggest conservation success story of the last 40 years - it's the group of species that's really bucking the trend of nature loss." Wetlands also play a role in flood protection and combatting climate change, by locking away carbon-rich plant matter in their mud. So their restoration was a "win-win for wildlife and people", Mr Wooton said. "We hope that one day the boom of the bittern will be heard around the UK once more."

3-25-22 Boa constrictors move ribs to avoid suffocating when they kill prey
The boa constrictor has developed a way to control air movement in its lungs using ribs in the lower part of its body, so it can breathe while it squeezes the life out of its prey. The boa constrictor can move different parts of its ribcage independently, allowing it to breathe even while it crushes prey using its body. The mammals, reptiles and birds that this snake hunts can survive for several minutes as the constrictor squeezes the life out of them using the upper third of its body. But that part of its body also contains the lungs, so at first glance this might suggest these snakes risk suffocating themselves while killing prey. John Capano at Brown University, Rhode Island, and his colleagues have worked out how the snakes cope. Capano says they draw air into their constricted lungs by selectively rotating ribs farther down the body. “They seem to have very refined control over which segment of their body they actually are ventilating with,” he says. “This explains how it is that they’re using a ribcage to ‘kill’ another ribcage, but that they themselves are fine.” Snakes lack diaphragms, which means they have to move their ribs in order to inhale and exhale. While they have very long lungs that extend beyond the bodily region used for constricting, the bottom part of the lungs is “literally just like a balloon” and can’t actually respire, says Capano. Like many biologists, Capano and his colleagues wondered if this so-called “saccular” lung region played a role in helping boas breathe during the relatively long constriction process. They placed a human blood pressure cuff over different parts of three boa constrictors (Boa constrictor) and observed the body movement of each during hissing – which requires deep breathing.

3-25-22 Here’s how boa constrictors squeeze their dinner without suffocating themselves
Tracking the snakes’ ribs in X-ray videos revealed careful control over their bones’ movements. The boa constrictor’s choke hold is an iconic animal attack. By coiling around its prey, a snake can squeeze the life out of a victim in mere minutes before gulping it down whole (SN: 8/9/15). But it’s been unclear just how Boa constrictor squeezes so hard — or swallows something as big as a monkey — without suffocating itself. Now, experiments show that when one part of a boa constrictor’s rib cage is compressed — preventing the part of its lungs enclosed there from drawing in air — the snake can move another section of its rib cage to inflate its lungs there. Boas and other snakes probably couldn’t have started throttling and swallowing large prey without this ability, researchers report March 24 in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Biologist John Capano of Brown University in Providence, R.I., and colleagues implanted metal markers on the ribs of three boa constrictors, about one-third and halfway down the animals’ bodies. Tracking those markers in X-ray videos of the animals let the researchers map rib motions over different parts of the snakes’ lungs. In these videos, the team wrapped a blood pressure cuff around different parts of the animals’ bodies. Then, the scientists increased the cuff’s pressure until the rib cage couldn’t move in that area — mimicking the effect of a snake using that part of its body to grip or gulp down prey.When gripped by a cuff about one-third of the way down their body, snakes breathed by moving some ribs closer to their tails. When wrapped in a cuff about halfway down their body, snakes breathed by moving some ribs closer to their heads. “They can basically just breathe wherever they want,” Capano says. That makes him wonder whether snakes also adjust their breathing during other activities that compress their bodies, such as slithering.

3-25-22 50 years ago, scientists thought a desert shrub might help save endangered whales
Excerpt from the March 25, 1972 issue of Science News. The sperm whale is an endangered species. A major reason is that the whale oil is heat-resistant and chemically and physically stable. This makes it useful for lubricating delicate machinery. The only substitute is expensive carnauba wax from the leaves of palm trees that grow only in Brazil … [but] wax from the seeds of the jojoba, an evergreen desert shrub, is nearly as good. After sperm whale oil was banned in the early 1970s, the United States sought to replenish its reserves with eco-friendly oil from jojoba seeds (SN: 5/17/75, p. 335). Jojoba oil’s chemical structure is nearly identical to that of sperm whale oil, and the shrub is native to some North American desert ecosystems, making the plant an appealing replacement. Today, jojoba shrubs are cultivated around the world on almost every continent. Jojoba oil is used in hundreds of products, including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, adhesives and lubricants. Meanwhile, sperm whale populations have started to recover under international anti-whaling agreements (SN: 2/27/21, p. 4).

3-24-22 Orchards vanishing from the landscape, says National Trust
Orchards are vanishing from the landscape with an area the size of the Isle of Wight lost since 1900, according to research carried out by the National Trust. The disappearance of more than half of orchards across England and Wales is having an impact on flora and fauna, the organisation said. Orchards have been torn down to make way for houses and farming. The biggest decline has been seen in the south west. Annie Reilly of the National Trust said: "Many of the orchards which were once on the peripheries of our towns and cities in the 18th and 19th centuries have been lost with urban expansion and often remain as map evidence or street names only." The colourful display of springtime blossom has been part of British folklore and culture for centuries, with fruit trees in orchards among the first to bloom. "It matters for people to be able to enjoy the beauty of that burst of blossom in the spring and it matters for nature," said head of historic environment at the trust, Tom Dommett. Traditional orchards can support wildlife, such as flies, bees, bats and birds. The knotted trunks and branches of trees provide a home for patrolling bats; while flowers are a food source for pollinating insects. The researchers used artificial intelligence to analyse historic maps held by the National Library of Scotland, combined with data sets compiled by Natural England and The People's Trust for Endangered Species. According to the National Trust: Modern and traditional orchards across England and Wales have declined by 56%, with 43,017 hectares (106,297 acres) left growing today - equivalent to an area slightly larger than the Isle of Wight. Traditional orchards in England and Wales have declined by 81% (78,874 hectares/194,902 acres). Kent is the English county with the highest total orchard cover today. Alongside Suffolk and East Sussex, it is one of only three English counties that has more orchards now than 100 years ago, due to more modern orchards being planted. The National Trust has vowed to plant four million blossoming trees as part of its commitment to plant and establish 20 million trees across England, Wales and Northern Ireland by 2030.

3-23-22 Do we or other animals benefit from a symbiosis with fungi?
Plants and fungi share highly developed symbiotic relationships, but do humans, or any other animal, enjoy similar beneficial relationships? Or is it all just itchy feet and flaky skin? The human mycobiome, or fungal microbiome, consists of a variety of fungi including Aspergillus, Candida, Saccharomyces, Cladosporium and Malassezia that occur on human skin, in the mouth, gut and vagina. These fungi, which include yeasts, have generally been regarded as either commensal (living on us without causing disease) or as pathogens. In reality, it is a sliding scale of effects. For example, the yeast Candida albicans is frequently found in the vagina after puberty and its effects seem to vary from infection through commensalism to symbiosis according to the person’s health. Its presence can be symbiotic in preventing colonisation by E. coli bacteria from the gut, which can cause infection. Symbiotic relationships in the gut mycobiome are also a possibility. Itchy feet are frequently blamed on fungal infections, but the culprit causing the most damage is most likely to be the bacterium Brevibacterium epidermidis. This is due to enzymes it releases, which break down proteins such as skin keratin. Generally, our best symbiotic relationship with fungi seems to be when we keep them at arms length for production of fermented foods and drinks. Looking out of my window, I see beans, lettuces, apples, apricots and grapes enjoying a symbiotic relationship with at least one human being. I work hard to make sure that they have an easy life, are well nourished, watered and free of predators. In return, they get eaten. There is some cost on both sides, but overall, a benefit to all. None of those plants would have been as prolific before we entered into this Faustian bargain. My supermarket provides about six kinds of fungus that I can eat, courtesy of the same bargain. As for other animals, leaf-cutter ants are famous for farming a fungus, feeding it with leaf segments, then eating it. Again, there is a cost on both sides – ants have to work, fungus gets eaten – but overall, there is a mutual benefit.

3-23-22 Humans have spread diseases to other animals many times
A review has found plenty of evidence of wild and captive animals contracting diseases from close contact with humans. Covid-19 originally passed from other animals to people, but diseases have spread the other way too – with such “spillback” events being described in nearly 100 studies. And the documented reports of people passing diseases to other animals are probably just the “tip of the iceberg”, says Anna Fagre at Colorado State University. Fagre’s team searched previously published research for all papers that describe human-to-animal disease transmission that didn’t involve the new coronavirus. The group found 97 reports, involving bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Of these cases, 57 involved transmission to primates – probably because it is easier for pathogens to jump between humans and more closely related species. Many of the transmission events involved zoo animals – for instance, a cheetah that caught a human flu strain – but they also involved wild animals, such as mountain gorillas in Uganda catching several bacterial infections that cause diarrhoea. There were no confirmed cases of a disease crossing to an animal species and continuing to spread between individuals. But several wild skunk have been found to be infected with human influenza, which suggests that there may be ongoing transmission. And the virus that causes covid-19 is now spreading widely among white-tailed deer in North America. There is a chance these diseases could harm affected animals, but there is also the danger that the human pathogen mutates while in another host and becomes more dangerous for people, if it crosses back. “I think there’s a lot more transmission happening than we are currently picking up,” says Fagre. “When we are not conducting robust sampling, there are so many pathways we might be missing.”

3-22-22 Seabird discovered by science this year may be critically endangered
Scientists estimate there are just 100 to 1000 breeding pairs of New Caledonia storm petrels, which have been identified on the South Pacific Ocean. A diminutive seabird from the south-western Pacific Ocean may be at risk of extinction despite only being classified as a species this year. Researchers estimate there are fewer than 1000 breeding pairs of the recently identified New Caledonian storm petrel, which is about the size of a sparrow and spends little time on land. The birds were identified by scientists in 2008, south of the islands of New Caledonia in the South Pacific Ocean. The petrels, which have a distinctly streaked plumage, were officially sighted again in 2010, some across the Coral Sea off the coast of north-east Australia. Vincent Bretagnolle at La Rochelle University in France thought the sightings resembled five storm petrel specimens in museum collections. Dating back as far as the mid-19th century, the specimens were considered to be divergent versions of a few known species, such as the black-bellied storm petrel (Fregetta tropica). Bretagnolle and his colleagues measured the museum specimens against other storm petrel species, as well as analysing the birds’ genetics. The team found that two of the museum specimens and some of the living petrels collected at sea make up a newly identified species, dubbed Fregetta lineata. F. lineata is one of two storm petrel species with a streaked plumage, says Bretagnolle. The second is the New Zealand storm petrel (Fregetta maoriana), which was thought to be extinct for 150 years until its rediscovery by scientists in 2003. New birds are rarely discovered by science, with about five new species being described each year, says Helen James at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

3-23-22 Humans have spread diseases to other animals many times
A review has found plenty of evidence of wild and captive animals contracting diseases from close contact with humans. Covid-19 originally passed from other animals to people, but diseases have spread the other way too – with such “spillback” events being described in nearly 100 studies. And the documented reports of people passing diseases to other animals are probably just the “tip of the iceberg”, says Anna Fagre at Colorado State University. Fagre’s team searched previously published research for all papers that describe human-to-animal disease transmission that didn’t involve the new coronavirus. The group found 97 reports, involving bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Of these cases, 57 involved transmission to primates – probably because it is easier for pathogens to jump between humans and more closely related species. Many of the transmission events involved zoo animals – for instance, a cheetah that caught a human flu strain – but they also involved wild animals, such as mountain gorillas in Uganda catching several bacterial infections that cause diarrhoea. There were no confirmed cases of a disease crossing to an animal species and continuing to spread between individuals. But several wild skunk have been found to be infected with human influenza, which suggests that there may be ongoing transmission. And the virus that causes covid-19 is now spreading widely among white-tailed deer in North America. There is a chance these diseases could harm affected animals, but there is also the danger that the human pathogen mutates while in another host and becomes more dangerous for people, if it crosses back. “I think there’s a lot more transmission happening than we are currently picking up,” says Fagre. “When we are not conducting robust sampling, there are so many pathways we might be missing.”

3-22-22 Seabird discovered by science this year may be critically endangered
Scientists estimate there are just 100 to 1000 breeding pairs of New Caledonia storm petrels, which have been identified on the South Pacific Ocean. A diminutive seabird from the south-western Pacific Ocean may be at risk of extinction despite only being classified as a species this year. Researchers estimate there are fewer than 1000 breeding pairs of the recently identified New Caledonian storm petrel, which is about the size of a sparrow and spends little time on land. The birds were identified by scientists in 2008, south of the islands of New Caledonia in the South Pacific Ocean. The petrels, which have a distinctly streaked plumage, were officially sighted again in 2010, some across the Coral Sea off the coast of north-east Australia. Vincent Bretagnolle at La Rochelle University in France thought the sightings resembled five storm petrel specimens in museum collections. Dating back as far as the mid-19th century, the specimens were considered to be divergent versions of a few known species, such as the black-bellied storm petrel (Fregetta tropica). Bretagnolle and his colleagues measured the museum specimens against other storm petrel species, as well as analysing the birds’ genetics. The team found that two of the museum specimens and some of the living petrels collected at sea make up a newly identified species, dubbed Fregetta lineata. F. lineata is one of two storm petrel species with a streaked plumage, says Bretagnolle. The second is the New Zealand storm petrel (Fregetta maoriana), which was thought to be extinct for 150 years until its rediscovery by scientists in 2003. New birds are rarely discovered by science, with about five new species being described each year, says Helen James at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

3-22-22 Wild Wild Life newsletter: The world’s most controversial animals
Around the world, human-animal conflict is rife in our cities. Yet despite the problems some animals cause, we can't help but love them. The birdsong where I live in London has really picked up in recent weeks and I’m enjoying the regular rattle of great spotted woodpeckers on my morning walks. Most of the increased animal activity in spring is familiar from childhood, but these have been enhanced for me by some recent sightings of a red kite or two – sightings that would have been unimaginable to me when I was a child growing up in this city. Do you feed your local pigeons? I’ve never knowingly met someone who does, but I’ve always wondered why some people do it. Pigeons are noisy, messy and gather in large numbers in areas where people regularly put out food for them – a practice that can attract other vermin species. A resident roost of feral pigeons is a nuisance, yet many people do regularly put out bread or seeds for these birds. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what’s known as human-animal conflict, when animals pose a problem to the daily lives of people. I’m especially interested in those species that inspire love and adoration in the communities experiencing those problems. I’ll start off by saying that, of course, we are the ones to blame – we create these food-rich urban environments that encourage pigeons, foxes, rats and an array of more exciting species to thrive close to us. Take, for example, the white-tailed deer of Staten Island in New York. Since the turn of the millennium, these deer have been recolonising the island, seemingly by swimming over from New Jersey. Now the deer population there is booming and has become a local controversy, as detailed in this fascinating New Yorker piece by Brooke Jarvis. Many Staten Islanders are pleased to see the deer return. As Jarvis writes, white-tailed deer are seen as “icons of the American wilderness”, although this symbolism is partially rooted in a misinformed nostalgia.

3-22-22 2 newly-identified species of glass frogs named in Ecuador
Two newly identified species of glass frogs have been identified in Ecuador, and while they look exactly alike, scientists discovered there is much more than meets the eye. The see-through frogs were found living 13 miles apart, just outside Quito. One of the species, named Hyalinobatrachium mashpi, lives in the Mashpi and Tayra Reserves, while the second, the Hyalinobatrachium nouns, resides in a valley in the Toisan Range. "At first, when we started to collect them, we thought they were the same species," Juan Manuel Guayasamin, evolutionary biologist at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, told National Geographic. There are 156 known species of glass frogs in Central America, the Caribbean, and South America, and Guayasamin and other researchers have sequenced genes for most of them. After taking DNA samples of the two glass frogs found near Quito, researchers learned that they "diverge genetically by nearly 5 percent, a large gap for such otherwise similar amphibians," National Geographic writes. Despite being similar sizes, having transparent bellies that reveal their internal organs, and living so close to one another, Hyalinobatrachium mashpi and Hyalinobatrachium nouns are still divided by a valley, and "when you have populations separated by a geographic barrier, you start having an accumulation of mutations in each group, and in time, they become genetically different," Guayasamin said. Guayasamin is the lead author of a paper about the new species, published last week in the journal PeerJ. They are an example of cryptic diversity, meaning the characteristics that make them different are not apparent just by looking at the frogs. The tropical Andes is home to more than 1,000 amphibian species, and it's believed there are many more types of glass frogs just waiting to be discovered.

3-22-22 Bone-boosting lettuce could help Mars astronauts stay healthy
Eating lettuce containing a hormone that boosts bone formation might help astronauts from losing bone mass in space – and might even help treat osteoporosis on Earth too. Lettuce genetically-modified to produce a bone-forming hormone could be eaten by astronauts to keep them healthier on long missions. Bone loss, or osteoporosis, is a common problem when people spend a long time in the microgravity of space. Astronauts on the International Space Station need to exercise for at least 2 hours each day and take a bone-preserving drug to limit such effects. But on longer missions, like a human spaceflight to Mars, stronger bone-forming drugs that require injections could be needed, which would take up valuable cargo space. Kevin Yates at the University of California, Davis, and his colleagues used a soil bacterium to transfer a gene that produces a variant of the human version of parathyroid hormone (PTH) into lettuce. The same variant is commonly used as a drug to stimulate bone formation. The researchers screened a number of modified lettuce plants and observed that the most productive specimens produced 10 to 12 milligrams of PTH per kilogram. An astronaut could get all the PTH they need by eating 380 grams of the lettuce per day. Yates and his team think that they will be able to improve on the initial results, which they presented today at the American Chemical Society Spring 2022 conference in San Diego, California. They hope that extracting medicine from produce grown from seeds in space could become the norm for future missions. “This is a new way of thinking and solving problems for space exploration,” says Yates. “Typically in the past it’s been abiotic solutions – just package stuff up and fly it with you or have consumables that you use up and have more sent to you from Earth.” Yates also speculates the lettuce could be used to treat osteoporosis on Earth too, where the condition is seen in millions of people.

3-17-22 Octopus brains may have become complex the same way human brains did
The relatively high intelligence of octopuses may be due in part to high numbers of microRNAs that could let them generate more types of neurons. A study of the activity of RNA, a type of genetic material, in the bodies of octopuses suggests that the brains of cephalopods evolved greater complexity in the same way as vertebrate brains did – by using a lot more regulatory RNAs called microRNAs (miRNAs) to control gene activity. “We show that the major RNA innovation of soft-bodied cephalopods is a massive expansion of the miRNA gene repertoire,” states a study yet to be formally peer reviewed, led by Nikolaus Rajewsky at the Max Delbrück Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin. “The only comparable miRNA expansions happened, strikingly, in vertebrates.” The relatively high intelligence of octopuses, squid and cuttlefish has long intrigued biologists, not least because it is so unusual among molluscs and invertebrates generally. It is widely assumed that high intelligence requires a more complex brain, so various groups have been looking at how cephalopod brains evolved to be more complex. Rajewsky’s team found that the number of different miRNAs in cephalopods is comparable with the number in vertebrates. In particular, more than 50 miRNAs arose in the ancestors of squid and octopuses, and have been conserved ever since these lineages split more than 300 million years ago. The fact that they have been conserved suggests their function is important. No other invertebrates evolved so many miRNAs. The main RNA molecules made by cells are known as messenger RNAs. These are copies of the genes in our genome and they carry instructions for making proteins to a cell’s protein-making factories. However, miRNAs are small pieces of RNA that don’t code for proteins. Instead, they regulate the activities of many different genes, typically by interacting with many different messenger RNAs.

3-16-22 Don't miss: The chance to get life lessons from plants and fungi
Don’t Trust Your Gut says data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. You probably know less than you think about how to be healthy and happy. So, it may be time to ignore your instincts and try self-help by data. Out on 9 June. Rooted Beings can teach us a lot about how to connect with each other, according to this exhibition on plants and fungi. Work from the botanical archives will be shown alongside new art at London’s Wellcome Collection from 24 March. The Flight of the Aphrodite is a thrilling new sci-fiction novel from S. J. Morden about an eventful mission to Jupiter’s moons. Ship and crew are already at breaking point and then it seems they have uninvited company.

3-16-22 Beautiful new photos of flamingos thriving in Mexico's wetlands
Flamingos prefer their habitats "just so", and the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico ticks all the boxes, as revealed by Claudio Contreras Koob's delightful photographs. THESE dazzling photos showcase one of the world’s most distinctive birds: the flamingo. Taken by biologist and photographer Claudio Contreras Koob, the images are a selection from his new photography book, Flamingo, which captures the lives of colonies in the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico. An aerial view of Yucatán’s flamingos is shown in the final photo. The Ría Lagartos delta, located at the northern edge of the peninsula, and the Celestun estuary, which is a few hundred kilometres to the west, provide wetlands that are an ideal habitat for these wading birds. Shallow waters make these estuaries excellent for nesting and feeding. The region sustains some of the world’s largest populations of flamingos. In the lead photo, a flamingo chick peeks out from the bright pink-orange plumage of its parent, while the images following it show a lone adult and one of the peninsula’s crowded nesting sites. Flamingo mud nests must be continuously maintained to ensure rising water doesn’t wash away any eggs.

3-16-22 Rabbits face a fresh onslaught akin to myxomatosis – can they survive?
After bouncing back from one viral threat, rabbits are being sucker-punched by a second killer disease – and these unsung eco-warriors need our help. MR MCGREGOR’s only desire was to keep Peter and his pesky playmates off his vegetable patch – and, if he got lucky, to make a pie out of them, according to Beatrix Potter. Meanwhile Elmer Fudd’s fervent wish was to put a bullet through his arch-nemesis, Bugs. Popular culture depicts a certain antagonism between human and rabbit, while often emphasising the bunnies’ role as sassy survivors. But having already seen off one huge existential threat in the past century, the viral disease myxomatosis, rabbits now face another horrendous adversary, rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus, or RHDV. At the same time, we have come to realise that rabbits aren’t just fast-breeding agricultural pests, but key to many healthy, functioning ecosystems worldwide. “Rabbits are in a lot of trouble,” says Pip Mountjoy at UK government agency Natural England. “They need our help.” The European rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, evolved around half a million years ago. It was once widespread across Europe, including the British Isles, before being penned into Iberia by the last ice age. Their global expansion began in the 1st century BC with the Romans, who domesticated rabbits for food and fur and spread them back across their former range. Some say the Romans reintroduced the rabbit to Britain, others point to the Normans. It was definitely the British who brought them to Australia in 1859 and New Zealand in the 1860s. A small colony established in the US in 1875 to control weeds quickly expanded across North America. The European rabbit is now one of the most widespread species on Earth, living on every continent except Antarctica. That is partly because rabbits breed like, well, rabbits. Females are reproductively mature at three to four months and have frequent litters of up to six kits. A breeding pair can produce 40 kits a year, and fertile males roam widely (see “Rabbit rules”). In the 19th and early 20th centuries, developments such as the planting of winter fodder crops for livestock and the slaughter of natural predators also boosted populations, making rabbits a serious agricultural pest in many parts.

3-16-22 Inconsistent human behaviour around animals putting wildlife at risk
A computer model suggests that wildlife may face survival problems if some of the humans in the environment help wild animals while others hunt them. Well-meaning humans might be inadvertently putting wildlife in danger by being kind and generous, in a world where not all humans are kind and generous. Wild animals might quickly learn whether humans are trustworthy, based on their own experiences and those of their group members. But different humans act differently towards animals – and these “mixed messages” put animals at risk of trusting the wrong humans, says Madeleine Goumas at the University of Exeter, UK. “When we feed wild animals, for example, it feels nice for us, and it’s a selfless thing we’re doing,” she says. “But we don’t know later on if that animal is going to wander up to someone who’s not going to be as appreciative.” Unlike other animals – especially predators – humans show widely different individual behaviours towards other species, says Goumas. Some people ignore or avoid wild animals; others approach, feed or even pet them; and still others pursue, capture, harm or hunt them. This makes it complicated for animals to know how to act around humans – especially because they can benefit if they feel safe around people while their non-human predators don’t. Goumas and her colleagues have developed a computer model to assess how wild animals cope with the mixed messages that humans send out. The model allows for animals to learn information about humans in different ways – by learning from observing other animals, for instance – and at different speeds. It also allows for human populations containing different mixes of friendly or hostile people, and gives the animals different abilities to recognise and remember which humans were which. The model suggests that animals that learn rapidly whether to trust humans are better able to survive in places where humans generally act in the same way – either being friendly or hostile to animals – says Goumas. Transferring those findings to the real world means, for example, that deer can take advantage of more grazing grounds in urban areas, where people leave them alone or are even friendly to them. Deer living in wooded areas that are popular among hunters, meanwhile, can survive better by quickly learning to hide from people.

3-16-22 Lithium mining may be putting some flamingos in Chile at risk
The quest to produce “greener” batteries may take a toll on biodiversity in some regions. Flamingos may be a kind of canary in the coal mine when it comes to warning of a hidden cost of green technologies. Lithium mining appears to be a major threat to the iconic pink birds that rely on ecologically fragile salt flats bordering the high Andes Mountains. Mining of the metal and climate change together are causing the decline of two flamingo species found only on Andean plateaus, researchers report March 9 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Lithium, used in lightweight, rechargeable batteries for electric cars, smartphones and other items, is expected to play a major role in helping fight climate change. Within the next decade or so, global demand for the metal is estimated to quadruple (SN: 5/7/19). The new finding highlights that the quest for lithium is not without drawbacks, fitting into a growing body of research revealing lithium mining’s adverse impacts on ecosystems. One of the world’s richest deposits of lithium spans parts of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, an area sometimes referred to as the “lithium triangle.” The region is also home to the Atacama Desert plateau, one of the driest places on Earth, and hosts a series of shallow, salt flat lake ecosystems that depend on the limited water supply. These ecologically sensitive “salares” nourish cyanobacteria and diatom algae, which in turn are eaten by three types of flamingos, half of the world’s flamingo species. This fragile ecosystem is now in an existential conflict because lithium refinement ponds and other industrial mining processes use a massive amount of water — an estimated 400,000 liters per ton of lithium, says Nathan Senner, a population ecologist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. And there’s only so much water to go around. “This is literally the driest desert in the world,” Senner says. “Much of that [mining] water has to come from groundwater.”

3-15-22 Fall armyworms with offspring-killing gene tested on farms in Brazil
Male fall armyworms carrying a gene that kills female offspring were released on farms in Brazil as a possible way to control wild populations of a major pest. Fall armyworms genetically modified to wipe out wild populations of the pests have been released in corn fields in São Paulo State in Brazil in the first farm trial of the new technology. The test was a success and is now being expanded, says Oxitec, the UK-based company that created the modified armyworms. Fall armyworms (Spodoptera frugiperda) are in fact moth caterpillars. They get their name from the fact that they multiply very fast and feed on many plants. Swarms of armyworms can devastate everything from lawns to crops in just days. They are native to the Americas, but in recent years have spread across Africa, Asia and Australia, reducing harvests of some crops by up to half. Conventional control methods aren’t working well because some strains have evolved resistance to many pesticides. “There is a lot of interest in new solutions to this pest,” says Neil Morrison at Oxitec. “Growers are struggling to control it through insecticidal means.” For its method of control, Oxitec took a strain of fall armyworm that is still susceptible to pesticides and modified males so that their female offspring can survive only in the presence of a specific chemical. In other words, the males carry a gene that kills all their female offspring in the wild. When the modified fall armyworms are released, they mate with wild females. Only male offspring survive, and they can mate and spread the female-killing gene to another generation. Unlike with pesticides, no other species are harmed. If no more “Friendly™ fall armyworms”, as Oxitec calls them, are released, the female-killing genes rapidly disappear from the wild population. If large enough numbers of modified males are released, wild armyworms can be wiped out locally.

3-15-22 How to make irresistible traps for Asian giant hornets using sex
Traps placed near nests in China attracted thousands of males. Male Asian giant hornets captivated by the chemical signals of a ready-to-mate queen could one day find themselves stuck in a trap instead. In a new study, scientists identified three chemicals in the sex pheromone of Asian giant hornet queens. When traps with those chemicals were placed near the hornets’ nests in China — part of their native range — the traps ensnared thousands of males but no other insects, researchers report March 14 in Current Biology. The finding is a step toward designing pheromone traps, a common tool to monitor or control insect populations, for these hornets, says James Nieh, a behavioral ecologist at the University of California, San Diego. Starting in 2019, nests housing Asian giant hornets (Vespa mandarinia) — nicknamed “murder hornets” for their habit of feasting on honeybees — have popped up in a few places in western North America (SN: 5/29/20). Studies hint that the insects could spread across eastern Washington, Oregon and British Columbia in Canada, and scientists have launched efforts to control the invasion (SN: 10/1/20). The Washington State Department of Agriculture even encourages state residents to help trap the hornets using plastic bottles, orange juice and rice cooking wine. North American researchers have mounted efforts to track down Asian giant hornet nests — like this one collected in its native territory in Kunming, China — in an effort to control the invasive insect’s spread. But potent insect traps should provide “something that would ideally be irresistible,” Nieh says. Using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, Nieh and colleagues identified hexanoic acid, octanoic acid and decanoic acid as key components of a queen’s sex pheromone. In the lab, male hornet antennae reacted — a sign of attraction — to each of the pure compounds as well as a mixture of the three. The team then crafted traps using a sticky board, a dummy male hornet and a vial filled with each of the individual pure acids, a mix of the three or extracts from the pheromone-secreting glands from a queen.

3-11-22 Common toads surprise biologists by climbing trees
Citizen surveys have revealed that common toads often climb trees to hide in hollows or in nest boxes. The common toad is a rather rotund animal with short legs and an ungainly gait. It certainly doesn’t look like a good tree climber – yet citizen surveys suggest that common toads often climb trees to hide in hollows and nest boxes. “It’s quite extraordinary,” says Silviu Petrovan at the University of Cambridge. “The people who do surveying for bats were like, ‘Oh yeah, we do find toads from time to time’. But nobody working with toads knows this.” The finding emerged from a dormouse-monitoring scheme run by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) in the UK. The nesting boxes are typically placed at least at a metre above the ground on tree trunks, so small animals can only get into them by climbing the trees. In 2016, a volunteers monitoring the nesting boxes found a toad in one of them and asked why it was there. When Petrovan learned of this, he was intrigued. “How did the toad climb the tree? Why would it,” he says. He and his team couldn’t find any published reports of toads climbing trees, so they asked other volunteers with the PTES dormouse scheme if they had seen any amphibians. Sure enough, some had kept records of finding toads, even though they hadn’t been asked to. Petrovan also looked at records of the occupants of tree hollows collected by another UK initiative called the Bat Tree Habitat Key project. Altogether, his team has now found around 50 reports of amphibians in trees, almost all of them common toads (Bufo bufo). This might sound like a small number, says Petrovan, but these are tiny surveys. If the findings are representative, this behaviour may be very common. For instance, just 1400 of the 3 billion trees in the UK were surveyed for the bat study. During these surveys, blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) – a common UK bird – were found in tree cavities on 94 occasions, while toads were found on 19 occasions. “When you compare the records of toads with the records of blue tits in these cavities, they really do compare very well,” says Petrovan. “And we know that blue tits really do go into these cavities.”

3-10-22 Red and purple microbes give Australia’s mysterious pink lake its hue
DNA sequencing has revealed that a bright pink lake on an island off Western Australia gets its colour from a mix of salt-loving bacteria and algae. The unusual bubblegum pink colour of a remote lake in Western Australia has long been a mystery, but new research suggests it is caused by a mix of colourful bacteria and algae. Lake Hillier is located on Middle Island off the southern coast of Western Australia. The lake is 600 metres long, 250 metres wide and extremely salty – about eight times saltier than the ocean. Scott Tighe at the University of Vermont in Burlington became interested in Lake Hillier after seeing it on a television programme. “I thought, that’s amazing. I’ve got to get over there and grab samples and sequence the heck out of it,” he says. Tighe is a co-founder of the Extreme Microbiome Project (XMP), an international collaboration seeking to genetically profile extreme environments around the world to discover new and interesting microbes. He teamed up with Ken McGrath at Microba, a microbial genomics company in Brisbane, Australia, who visited Lake Hillier to collect water and sediment samples. Tighe, McGrath and their colleagues analysed the samples using a technique called metagenomics, which sequences all the DNA in an environmental sample at once. Powerful computers then tease out the genomes of individual microbes. Their analysis revealed that Lake Hillier contains almost 500 extremophiles – organisms that thrive in extreme environments – including bacteria, archaea, algae and viruses. Most were halophiles, a sub-group of extremophiles that can tolerate high levels of salt. Several of these halophiles were colourful microbes like purple sulphur bacteria; Salinibacter ruber, which are red-orange bacteria; and red-coloured algae called Dunaliella salina. The mix of these microbes, and possibly others, explains the pink colour of the lake, says Tighe.

3-10-22 Genetically modified mosquitoes could be tested in California soon
The EPA also OK’d a Florida project for more trials. Now both states will decide next steps. Genetically modified mosquitoes might soon be whining on both U.S. coasts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved two more years of testing Oxitec’s genetically modified mosquitoes as living pest controls, continuing a pilot program started in 2021 in the Florida Keys and expanding it to up to four counties in California. Now the Florida and California state governments will consider whether to grant permission. The male mosquitoes, OX5034 Aedes aegypti engineered by the biotech company Oxitec, carry daughter-killing genes that get passed generation to generation. When these males mate with local females outside a lab, only the sons should survive. Those inheriting the sabotage gene will grow up to mate with normal females, dooming their daughters too. The wild A. aegypti species, an invader in North America, can spread dengue, Zika, yellow fever and other diseases (SN: 7/29/16). California first reported the invader in 2013, and by February 2022 had found it in 22 counties. The EPA permission, issued March 7, will now allow testing of the GM mosquitoes, if desired, in Stanislaus, Fresno, Tulare and San Bernadino counties. In Florida, the permit covers just one county, Monroe, which stretches down the Keys. The 2021 mosquito releases there came after more than a decade of heated debate (SN: 5/14/21). Despite approval of the previous tests, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services needs to vote again on the new plans. The last time, the group voted at its next board meeting after EPA announced its decision, but “we are not sure that will happen this time around,” says Chad Huff of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. If approved and fulfilled to the EPA-set limits in both locations, nearly 2.5 billion of these GM mosquitoes could be released before permission expires April 30, 2024. Fortunately, male mosquitoes, GM or otherwise, don’t bite.

3-10-22 The spongy moth’s new name replaces an ethnic slur
Entomologists chose the common name as a nod to the invasive species’ eggs. A menacing pest just became a bit less problematic, at least socially, after getting an update to its common name. Lymantria dispar is an invasive insect previously known as the gypsy moth — a label that contains an ethnic slur. On March 2, the Entomological Society of America renamed L. dispar the spongy moth. The updated term is a nod to the moth’s porous egg casing. It was selected through ESA’s Better Common Names Project, after hundreds of new name suggestions for L. dispar poured in from the public after the society retired the old name last July (SN: 8/25/21). ESA elected the moth for a rebrand primarily due to its frequent presence in conversation. Now, entomologists and gardeners alike can discuss the pervasive pest without using pejorative language. It’s one action in a larger mission to decolonize science, which aims, in part, to create a more diverse and inclusive atmosphere in science. “Decolonizing science is actually a really broad process,” says Jessica Ware, the president of ESA and an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History. “Addressing common names is just one piece of that.” This is the first rebranding that the project has tackled. It will continue to gather input on insect names that perpetuate stereotypes or contain insulting references. Ware says dozens of species are waiting to be addressed, such as the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia). And insects aren’t the only offenders: Birds, mammals and plants often have names referencing racial or ethnic slurs or white colonizers.

3-10-22 An extinct rat shows CRISPR’s limits for resurrecting species
Even a few missing genes in animals’ re-created genomes could be a problem, a study suggests. Before the early 1900s, if it walked like a Christmas Island rat and talked like a Christmas Island rat, it probably was a Christmas Island rat. But if one of these now-extinct rats ever walks the Earth again, it will actually be a genetically modified Norway brown rat. And the rodent won’t be as similar to the Christmas Island rat as some would hope, a new study finds. With the advent of gene-editing technology such as CRISPR, scientists have shifted from cloning to genetic engineering as the most promising method for “de-extinction,” or the resurrection of species that have died out (SN: 10/7/20). But unlike cloning, genetic engineering wouldn’t create an exact replica of an extinct species. Instead, the technique would edit an existing animal’s genome so that it resembles that of the desired extinct animal. The challenge is making that proxy as similar to the extinct species as possible. To explore the limits of this method, researchers attempted to recover the genome of the Christmas Island rat. By comparing fragments of the extinct rat’s genetic instruction book with the genome of a living relative, the Norway brown rat, the team was able to recover about 95 percent of the extinct genome. That sounds like a lot, but it means that 5 percent of the genes were still missing, including some important to smell and the immune system, scientists report in the April 11 Current Biology. “You can only bring back what you can find. And our point is we can’t find everything,” says Tom Gilbert, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Copenhagen. To get the extinct rat’s genome, Gilbert and his colleagues took ancient DNA from two preserved skin samples of the Christmas Island rat. Ancient DNA, extracted from specimens that died anywhere from a few decades to thousands of years ago, is far from perfect (SN: 5/19/08). Gilbert describes an extinct species’ genome as a book that has been shredded. One way to reconstruct this shredded book is to scan the fragments and compare them with a reference.

3-9-22 Beautiful images illustrate the dawn of modern botany
These delicately detailed representations of plants by a founding figure of modern botany are given a new lease of life in the book Leonhart Fuchs: The New Herbal. THESE delicately detailed representations of medicinal plants are the work of Leonhart Fuchs, a 16th-century German physician and botanist commonly considered one of the founding figures of modern botany. The images are taken from the book Leonhart Fuchs: The New Herbal by historian Werner Dressendörfer and published by Taschen. It is based on Fuchs’s original catalogue of about 500 herbal plants and their properties. Fuchs’s work, De Historia Stirpium, released in 1543, was based on previous botanical knowledge and his own research. It is widely recognised for the accuracy and high quality of Fuchs’s illustrations, a selection of which are shown here. First is garden balsam (Impatiens balsamina), a native of Asia historically used to treat skin ailments, such as burns (with the flowers) and warts (the leaves). The following four images show: a variety of Cucurbita pepo, a group of vegetables high in antioxidants and other beneficial molecules. Other varieties are cultivated to produce crops including pumpkins and courgettes. Next is a pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), which contains the medically active compound anemonin. Bottom right is mandrake (Mandragora), once used in Europe as a laxative, ointment and alleged aphrodisiac, among other applications. Finally, there is Arum maculatum, also known as lords-and-ladies. The tubers of this have been used to create homeopathic tinctures to, supposedly, treat sore throats. Remember though, some of the plants listed can be toxic.

3-9-22 Creatures living in our cities are evolving in some surprising ways
From mosquitoes and rats to foxes and birds, the urban environment is transforming animals that live among us – but which new species should we expect next? TO THE naturalist in me, the world is full of sorrows: extinctions, the deaths of ancient forests, fires and floods. But the evolutionary biologist in me is more sanguine. The process of evolution continues unabated. If anything, humans have caused it to speed up. Look closely enough and you can see a new world evolving around us. Witness it in the London Underground, where, beside the rumbling trains, a new species of mosquito is in the midst of an evolutionary flowering. And it is far from alone. For centuries, evolutionary processes were thought to happen at a glacial pace compared with the speed of daily experience. However, over the past decades we have come to realise that evolution can in fact occur very quickly, even within days, as the virus that causes covid-19 has demonstrated. As I argue in my book, A Natural History of the Future, this evolution is occurring disproportionately fast in our cities. These urban landscapes might seem a far cry from the Galapagos Islands and the other wild places where the rules of evolution were first uncovered, but no amount of environmental tinkering or destruction by humans can rewrite the rules of nature. And by considering the laws of evolution, we can make predictions about the kinds of new species that will emerge via the radical biological change taking place, mostly unnoticed, right under our noses. We might have anticipated this rapid urban evolution a long time ago thanks to one of the most robust and influential models of the natural world: the theory of island biogeography. This was devised by the mathematical ecologist Robert MacArthur and the big-thinking ant biologist E. O. Wilson to explain the dynamics of life on islands. Their 1967 book on this concept outlined how the closer an island is to a mainland, the more species will colonise it, and the bigger it is, the more species will be able to survive without going extinct.

3-9-22 Culturally prized mountain goats may be vanishing from Indigenous land in Canada
First Nation peoples in British Columbia partnered with academics to assess goat populations. For thousands of years, members of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation in Canada have prized the mountain goats that roam the craggy peaks of British Columbia’s central coast. The animals have long been an important food source, explains Kitasoo/Xai’xais Chief Councillor Doug Neasloss. And “we use the mountain goat in a lot of our cultural events — songs and dances and stories.” Formerly a wildlife tour guide, Neasloss remembers seeing lots of the goats in the region in past decades, but no longer. And many in the community have noticed a similar trend. Goats in Kitasoo/Xai’xais territory are thought to occur at lower densities than farther east in the goats’ range in the higher Rocky Mountains. But there has been “almost zero research” on British Columbia’s coastal mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus), until now, says Tyler Jessen, a conservation biologist at the University of Victoria in Canada. Kitasoo/Xai’xais community members partnered with Jessen and his colleagues to investigate the mountain goats’ status. Numbers of the animals do seem to have undergone a decline since the 1980s, the team reports March 8 in Conservation Science and Practice. The reasons why remain unknown but might be a result of a warming climate, the researchers say. To estimate contemporary goat numbers and density, the researchers conducted aerial surveys in 2019 and 2020, scrutinizing habitats higher than 1,000 meters above sea level in Kitasoo/Xai’xais territory near Klemtu, British Columbia. To estimate how goat numbers have changed over time, the research team interviewed individuals from the local community who regularly hunt wildlife, guide, conduct research or fish the region. For each decade back to the 1980s, participants gave estimates for how many days out of 10 they saw goats.

3-9-22 Mirror beetles’ shiny bodies may not act as camouflage after all
A fake beetle test takes the shine off the idea that metallic high gloss can confound predators. This is a story about camouflage, but forget mud-blob brown, mealy beige and somber green. Here scientists study mirror glitz and the paradoxical notion that there’s a shiny side to camo. Mirrorlike surfaces have evolved in open-ocean fishes as well as in spiders, butterfly chrysalises and most branches of the vast diversity of beetles, says visual ecologist Amanda Franklin of the University of Melbourne. One popular idea proposes that these living mirrors might confound predators by reflecting water, leaves, twigs or whatever. For a test of dry-land mirrors, Franklin and her colleagues turned to a showy group of about 40 species of scarab beetles, some with a natural gleam. In golds, bronzes, greens and blues, they climb into eucalyptus trees to flirt and mate during their native Australia’s high summer in December. “People love Christmas beetles,” Franklin says. To see if good reflection gives protection, Franklin set out to create nubs of clay roughly the shape of two greenish Christmas beetles, one with a mirror finish and one matte like their real-life counterparts, Anoplognathus parvulus (shiny) and A. prasinus (dull). Creating a “brushed-metal” look was easy, but she needed fake beetles with a full muscle car metal shine. Also she needed something fast to make. “If you have to sand it all day, you’re not going to be able to make a thousand,” Franklin says. But prototype after prototype failed to shine. After about six weeks of frustration, “we probably had hundreds in the throw-out bin.” Working with a specialist in a hobby shop where her father for years bought supplies for making model World War II planes finally cracked the mirror mystery.

3-8-22 How a rodent’s fear of cats shapes rainforests in Panama
As rodents called agoutis avoid areas where ocelots prowl, they spread fewer of the palm seeds they eat, which could lead to a cascade of changes in biodiversity throughout Panama’s forests. A game of cat and mouse is playing out in Panama’s rainforests, with large rodents called agoutis using their keen sense of smell to avoid ocelots that hunt them. The fear the rodents have for these predators and the ways it directs their behaviour have ripple effects that could alter the diversity of plants around them. Most research on this “ecology of fear” has been centred on temperate ecosystems, says Dumas Gálvez at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. To see how the phenomenon could play out in the tropics, he and Marisol Hernández at the University of Panama looked to Central American agoutis (Dasyprocta punctata) and ocelots (Leopardus pardalis). Agoutis, like many rodents, are prolific seed spreaders. They hoard seeds and retrieve them from buried caches later, but many of these will be abandoned and allowed to sprout. This benefits plants by dispersing them in a forest. To see if fear of ocelots disrupted the agoutis’ seed-shuttling habits, Gálvez and Hernández attached strings and numbered flags to palm seeds so their locations could be spotted after being cached by agoutis. The pair set the seeds out in the forest in Metropolitan Natural Park in Panama City, both in areas with high and low densities of ocelots. Where ocelots were plentiful – that is, spotted by trail cameras every week – the palm seeds were moved 50 to 300 per cent less than in areas of lower ocelot density, depending on the season. The agoutis also didn’t return to caches as often in areas with a large number of ocelots. The rodents have a keen sense of smell and were probably reacting to the odours of the ocelots’ faeces and urine, says Gálvez. The team confirmed this in a forest near Gamboa, Panama, by setting out palm seeds and trail cameras. In some locations, the seeds were placed next to a rag soaked in ocelot urine and a small pile of faeces. The agoutis were more cautious near the ocelot scents, taking longer to remove the seeds compared with those in places not marked with ocelot waste.

3-8-22 Crucial COP15 biodiversity summit set to be delayed a fourth time
The COP15 summit on the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework, due to be held at Kunming in China during April and May, will now be held in August instead, New Scientist understands. A crunch United Nations summit to agree a new global deal to arrest declining biodiversity and the destruction of nature will soon be postponed for a fourth time, New Scientist understands. A senior UN source said that the COP15 conference, which was due to be held at Kunming in China during April and May, will now start at the end of August instead. Past delays have been blamed on the covid-19 pandemic, despite similar major meetings on climate change going ahead. The latest postponement means that COP15 will now take place almost two years later than originally scheduled, and leaves the world without targets for stemming extinctions and stopping habitat losses this decade. An official announcement hasn’t yet been made, but is expected when negotiations resume in Geneva, Switzerland, on 14 March. A spokesperson for the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN body behind the COP15 summit, told New Scientist: “The COP [conference of the parties] bureau, at its last meeting, discussed that the UN Biodiversity Conference could be moved to the third quarter. However, the official decision on this has not yet been taken.” One of the key parts of the deal being negotiated, known as the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework, is a goal to make 30 per cent of Earth’s land and seas into protected areas by 2030. Other issues include the ecological integrity of those areas and the agricultural subsidies that are a key driver of biodiversity loss. While conservationists and economists regard a new global biodiversity deal as essential, the world has a poor track record in this area. None of the 20 goals that governments set in 2010 for 2020, including halving the rate at which natural habitats are being lost, were fully met. The UK government last year paused publishing new data monitoring the state of the country’s wildlife and ecosystems.

3-7-22 Mouse pups born from unfertilised eggs through genetic manipulation
Parthenogenesis, the development of offspring from unfertilised eggs, was thought to be impossible in mammals, but researchers have used genetic trickery to make it happen. A genetically manipulated mouse pup born from an unfertilised egg survived to adulthood and reproduced, demonstrating a type of reproduction that was thought to be impossible in mammals. In many plants and some animals, offspring can develop from unfertilised eggs or ovules in a process called parthenogenesis. In normal sexual reproduction in animals, an egg and a sperm – each containing one set of genetic material – fuse, giving the embryo two copies of each gene. To avoid conflicts between two versions of the same gene, certain genes are switched off in either the maternal or paternal-derived DNA, in a process called imprinting. To make an unfertilised egg develop into an embryo, it needs to have two sets of DNA from its mother. This means the pattern of imprinting is the same on both sets, so some genes either clash or fail to activate altogether. Yanchang Wei at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China and his colleagues created unfertilised mouse eggs with double the normal number of chromosomes, by adding back in DNA that is ejected in the early stages of egg development. Then they used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to target seven imprinted gene regions previously identified as important in embryo development, and to change the so-called epigenetic marks, which turn genes on or off. This made the second copy of the mother’s genetic code appear as if it were male, “tricking” the egg into developing into an embryo. The researchers didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article. “It’s going to turn out to be an important piece of the jigsaw about the mechanism of very early embryo development and the way that the two parental genomes are regulated,” says Tony Perry at the University of Bath, UK. “And secondly, it’s an important technical demonstration of the kind of potency of these [CRISPR tools].”

3-7-22 Social spiders synchronise to catch prey hundreds of times their size
Some spider species that live in groups of thousands on enormous webs synchronise their movements to catch insects up to 700 times heavier than an individual spider. Spiders that hunt in packs use web vibrations to coordinate their attacks, allowing them to kill prey hundreds of times larger than they could on their own. Of the 50,000 known spider species, just one or two hunt as a group, with thousands of individuals spread across webs that can span several cubic metres. When prey insects land on their web, the spiders synchronise their attack, moving as one to catch animals up to 700 times heavier than an individual arachnid. To better understand how this works, researchers led by Raphaël Jeanson at the University of Toulouse, France, disturbed the webs of two colonies of Anelosimus eximius, a social spider species. They mimicked the movement of prey by creating vibrations in different parts of the webs, while filming the spiders’ movements. Jeanson and his team then analysed the movements frame by frame, finding that the spiders pause their motion towards prey, and restart it, at the same time. The stopping time corresponded with the amount of “noise” in the web, according to computer models of the spiders’ motion. The arachnids only stayed still for as long as they had to in order to distinguish the vibrations caused by their fellow spiders from those of their prey. “It’s like when there are lots of people talking in a crowded room and then there’s this other noise, like a telephone that rings, and everyone has to hush to find the source of the noise,” says Jeanson. “Of course, the louder the telephone’s ring, the less people have to be quiet to find the phone and it’s the same thing with these social spiders.” “Depending on the size of the prey – and the vibrations that the prey creates on the web – the spiders have to be more or less quiet and still in order to localise the prey without getting disturbed by the vibrations of other spiders that are moving around,” he says.

3-7-22 Geese may have been the first birds to be domesticated 7000 years ago
Goose bones from Stone Age China suggest the birds were being domesticated there 7000 years ago, which could mean they were domesticated before chickens. Geese may have been domesticated as early as 7000 years ago in what is now China, according to a study of preserved goose bones. That may make them the first bird to be domesticated, before chickens – although the timing of chicken domestication is uncertain. The finding extends the history of goose domestication and potentially the history of domestic poultry as a whole, says Masaki Eda at Hokkaido University Museum in Sapporo, Japan. Eda is part of a team that has excavated an archaeological site in east China called Tianluoshan, which was a Stone Age village between about 7000 and 5500 years ago. Its inhabitants “were basically hunter-gatherers”, says Eda, but they also grew rice in paddy fields. The researchers have identified 232 goose bones at Tianluoshan and say there are multiple lines of evidence that some of the geese were at least partially domesticated. Four of the bones belonged to immature geese that were less than 16 weeks old, with the youngest probably less than eight weeks old. This implies they must have hatched at Tianluoshan, says Eda, because they were too young to have flown in from elsewhere. However, no wild geese breed in the area today and it is unlikely they did so 7000 years ago, he says. Some of the adult geese also seem to have been locally bred, based on the chemical make-up of their bones, which reflects the water they drank. These locally bred birds were all roughly the same size, indicating captive breeding. Finally, the researchers carbon-dated the bones and found that the locally bred geese lived about 7000 years ago. Taken together, the findings suggest the geese were at an early stage of domestication, says Eda.

3-7-22 This newfound tarantula is the first known to make its home in bamboo
Nicknamed ‘bambootula,’ the spider was discovered by a YouTuber in northern Thailand. Meet “bambootula.” This newfound tarantula gets its nickname from the tall, stiff-shafted grass in which it makes a home in northern Thailand. Taksinus bambus, as the spider is officially known, “is the world’s first tarantula with a biology tied to bamboo,” says arachnologist Narin Chomphuphuang of Khon Kaen University in Thailand. Bamboo stems, or culms, give the tarantula ready-made burrows and nests. But T. bambus lacks the tools to bore into culms, so it relies on natural forces or animals such as borer beetles and rodents to create openings, Chomphuphuang and colleagues report January 4 in ZooKeys. Once inside, bambootula builds a silk “retreat tube” that keeps the spider secure and helps it move around easily. Chomphuphuang was introduced to the tarantula by JoCho Sippawat, a popular wildlife YouTuber who discovered it when cutting bamboo in the forest near his home. Chomphuphuang’s team confirmed the spider belonged to a new genus and species based on the size and shape of its reproductive organs. It’s the first time in 104 years that anyone has turned up a new genus of tarantula in Asia, the researchers say. Habitat type also was key to confirming the spider’s novelty, Chomphuphuang says. Other Asian tree-dwelling tarantulas are found in habitats unlike where bambootula showed up — a bamboo forest about 1,000 meters above sea level. Cornell University arachnologist Linda Rayor isn’t too surprised by the find. So far, some 49,000 species of spiders are known to science and new ones are frequently discovered (SN: 2/4/16). Researchers estimate that 1 in every 3 to 5 spider species alive has yet to be found and named. Anyone can find a new spider, she says, including “local people looking and exploring and watching things.”

3-7-22 Some deep-sea octopuses aren’t the long-haul moms scientists thought they were
Strategically laying eggs in the warmer water of geothermal springs speeds up hatching. Octopuses living in the deep sea off the coast of California are breeding far faster than expected. The animals lay their eggs near geothermal springs, and the warmer water speeds up embryonic development, researchers report February 28 at the virtual 2022 Ocean Sciences Meeting. That reproductive sleight of hand means that the octopus moms brood for less than two years, instead of the estimated 12. In 2018, scientists working off the coast of California discovered thousands of deep-sea octopuses (Muusoctopus robustus) congregated on a patch of seafloor about 3,200 meters below the surface. Many of the grapefruit-sized animals were females brooding clutches of eggs, leading researchers to dub the site the Octopus Garden. But with water temperatures hovering around a frigid 1.6° Celsius, growth in this garden was predicted to be leisurely. In octopuses, embryonic development tends to slow down at low temperatures, says marine ecologist Jim Barry of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, Calif. “When you get really cold, down near zero, that’s when brood periods get really long.” The record for the longest brood period of any animal, just over four years, is held by a different species of octopus living in warmer water (SN: 7/30/14). M. robustus, thriving in the chilly depths of the Octopus Garden, was therefore a serious contender to snatch that title, Barry says. “If you look at its predicted brood period at 1.6° C, it’s over 12 years.” To verify what would be a record-setting stint of motherhood, Barry and his colleagues repeatedly visited the Octopus Garden from 2019 to 2021 using a remotely operated vehicle. The team trained cameras at the octopus eggs, which resemble white fingers, to monitor their rate of development. With one of the submersible’s robotic arms, the researchers also gently nudged dozens of octopuses aside and measured the water temperature in their nests.

3-4-22 Adjusting to a new sibling is highly stressful for bonobo infants
Cortisol levels in bonobo infants jumped fivefold when they got a younger sibling and stayed high for 7 months, suggesting they found it extremely stressful. Bonobo infants become highly stressed when they get a younger sibling and they don’t recover for seven months, according to a study that monitored levels of a stress marker in their urine. In humans, many firstborn children struggle with the arrival of a sibling because “they’ve lived in a world where they have pretty unlimited access to parental time and attention, and now they’re having to share it”, says Matthew Sanders at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. To explore whether this transition is also difficult for older siblings in related species, Verena Behringer at the German Primate Center in Göttingen, Germany, and her colleagues studied bonobo infants when they gained a sibling. They picked bonobos because, similarly to us, additional offspring are often born while older siblings are still dependent on their mother for care. The researchers studied 20 female and six male bonobo offspring aged 2 to 8 years old living in the wild in Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They observed the infants’ behaviour when their mothers gave birth to younger siblings and also collected regular samples of their urine. The bonobos made more body contact with their mothers for a short period after their siblings were born, possibly to try to regain attention or because they were curious to see the new infant, says Behringer. The level of a stress hormone called cortisol in their urine also jumped to five times its normal level on average after the sibling was born, and stayed high for seven months before returning to the baseline. This stress response wasn’t because the older offspring were forced to stop nursing when their younger siblings were born, since most had already weaned. “Instead, we speculate that the overall change in their environment, such as less attention by the mother, change in their social environment and other new situations, may be responsible for the increased stress levels,” says Behringer.

3-4-22 A hit of dopamine sends mice into dreamland
What triggers shifts between non-REM and REM sleep has been a mystery. A quick surge of dopamine shifts mice into a dreamy stage of sleep. In the rodents’ brains, the chemical messenger triggers rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM, researchers report in the March 4 Science. During a night’s sleep, people and other animals cycle between phases called non-REM sleep and REM, a sleep stage that usually comes with vivid dreams. But what causes those transitions is mysterious, says neurologist and sleep researcher Thomas Scammell of Harvard Medical School who wasn’t involved in the study. These new results are some of the first to show a trigger for the shifts, Scammell says. Understanding these transitions in more detail could ultimately point to ways to treat sleep disorders in people. Certain nerve cells residing in a part of the mouse brain called the ventral tegmental area can pump out dopamine, a molecule that has been linked to pleasure, movement and learning, among other things. These cells can deliver dopamine to the amygdalae, two almond-shaped structures deep in the brain that are closely tied to emotions. Using a molecular sensor that can tell exactly when and where dopamine is released, neuroscientist Takeshi Sakurai from the University of Tsukuba in Japan and colleagues saw that dopamine levels rose in the amygdalae just before mice shifted from non-REM sleep to REM sleep. Next, the researchers forced the mice into the REM phase by controlling those dopamine-producing nerve cells using lasers and genetic techniques — a method called optogenetics. Compelled with light, the nerve cells released dopamine in the amygdalae while mice were in non-REM sleep. The mice then shifted into REM sleep sooner than they typically did, after an average of about two minutes compared with about eight minutes for mice that weren’t prompted to release dopamine. Stimulating these cells every half hour increased the mice’s total amount of REM sleep.

3-4-22 Silkworms fed quantum dots make silk that glows in the dark
Nanometre-sized semiconductors extracted from mulberry leaves make silkworms and their silk emit a strong red glow. Silkworms that eat nanometre-sized particles called quantum dots produce glow-in-the-dark silk. Researchers have previously used gene editing to make fluorescent silkworms, but these methods can be costly and introduce random genetic mutations that are harmful to the worms. Instead, Huan-Ming Xiong at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, and his colleagues extracted carbon quantum dots, nanometre-sized semiconductors that emit specific wavelengths of light, from mulberry leaves and fed them to the silkworms. Xiong and his team tested dozens of different carbon dots on the silkworms to find candidates with good fluorescence, biocompatibility and safety for the animals. “It is very lucky for us that we can make red-emissive carbon dots from mulberry leaves, because silkworms like to eat them,” says Xiong. Once the silkworms had eaten the quantum dots, the researchers observed that the worms, as well as their silk, eggs, cocoons and moths, gave off a strong red glow when irradiated with visible light. The second generation of silkworms, which hatched from eggs normally, no longer glowed. Apart from its aesthetic qualities, the researchers hope the fluorescent silk might be used in biomedical research. For example, it could be used to encapsulate drugs and see where they are released as the silk breaks down, without needing any special equipment. “Fluorescent silkworms are an excellent model for bioimaging research,” says Xiong. “Now, the laser confocal microscope and animal imaging system are not needed, because we can see the fluorescence from the body directly by the naked eye.” The mulberry leaf method also appears to be more sustainable compared with other techniques, says Antonios Kelarakis at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, UK. “It is a readily scalable method that does not require any change of practice or financial investment from the producer.” But further studies will be needed to see whether the red carbon dots have any long-term toxicity for the silkworms or environment, he says.

3-3-22 Blue wings give Morpho dragonflies stealth capabilities
The way light reflects off Morpho dragonflies’ bright blue wings helps the insects blend in with water when viewed from above, making them invisible to predators and prey. With dazzling blue iridescent wings, male Morpho dragonflies should be hard to miss, but their wings are simultaneously capable of both spectacle and stealth. When viewed against a shining, watery background, the insects can vanish. Male Morpho dragonflies (Zenithoptera lanei), native to Central and northern South America, have wings that generate intense colour by using special, layered structures that alter how light reflects off their surface. The male dragonflies use their wings in flickering courtship displays to attract females and deter rival males. Rodrigo Cezário at the University of São Paulo in Brazil and his colleagues wondered if the dragonflies could also use their iridescence as camouflage. Cezário and his colleagues collected 10 male Morpho dragonflies in São Paulo state. In the lab, the researchers measured the light wavelengths reflected off the wings. They combined this with visual acuity models of birds and flies – the dragonflies’ predators and prey – as well as other male dragonflies that compete for mates. Using this, they determined how easily the shiny wings could be detected against habitat backgrounds like savannah vegetation or the surface of a pond. Based on the wings’ hue and saturation, the team found that other dragonflies, prey insects and birds could probably spot the structures against vegetation backgrounds. But the wings’ brightness matched that of the surface of water, providing “counter-brightness” camouflage. This means the dragonflies would blend in with a pond, say, if they were viewed from above by wary prey, hungry predators or aggressive competitors. The researchers contend that this is the first known case of an insect using brightness matching as camouflage against the surface of water.

3-3-22 Watch first video of a possible rare sponge reef found near California
Vast mounds of sponges stretching for hundreds of metres have been discovered 600 metres down near the Channel Islands off California. Vast mounds made of the skeletons of glass sponges have been discovered 600 metres down on the seabed of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off California. The mounds are unlike anything found before in the area and could be examples of a very rare kind of habitat known as a sponge reef. The reef-like mounds were first spotted by researchers in 2020, during a dive by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) from the research ship EV Nautilus. “We started seeing patches of dead sponges,” said Abigail Powell, a contractor for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, during a virtual talk at the Ocean Sciences Meeting 2022. “It just got denser and denser, and soon we were climbing over great mounds of it.” The area is relatively well explored, so the discovery was a surprise. “There have been many dives here over the years, but never over this particular track,” said Powell. The mounds consist mainly of the silica skeletons of dead glass sponges, turned brownish by a coating of sediment. However, there are many other species living on and in the mounds, including fish, clams and sponges of both the reef-building and non-reef-building kinds. In 2021, the ship returned to the sponge mound site and an ROV zigzagged over two of the mounds. This revealed that the largest mound was more than a kilometre long, 500 metres wide and at least several metres thick in some places. “The continuous extent of the patches over hundreds of metres is unlike anything we have encountered before,” Powell said. ponge reefs were common during the time of the dinosaurs, but were thought to have vanished completely from modern oceans. Then in the 1980s, living sponge reefs were found off the coast of British Columbia in Canada, and a few others have been found elsewhere.

3-3-22 Foam made from algae and tree bark acts as good forest camouflage
A camouflage system made using algae and tree bark can hide objects from both visible and infrared light. Camouflage made from biodegradable foams of cellulose, algae and tree bark could make objects in forests difficult to spot with visible and infrared light. Full spectrum cameras can detect a wide range of wavelengths of light, so it is no longer good enough for camouflage to conceal objects in the visible part of the spectrum alone. Päivi Laaksonen at the Häme University of Applied Sciences, Finland, and her colleagues combined the insulating properties of a cellulose-based foam with the visual properties of microalgae and lignin – a component of plant cell walls – to make a green and brown camouflage. Not only do their colours blend in with forest hues, they release little heat and so are also hidden from infrared light, which can be picked up using a thermal detector. “The idea was to make something like polar bear hair,” says Laaksonen. “We would have this very porous material that would have great thermal insulation properties, but then we added… natural dyes and pigments from a biological origin.” To make the foam, Laaksonen and her team passed birch pulp through a series of high-pressure chambers to extract cellulose nanofibres. They then mixed these fibres with water and a dye and used a high-pressure pump to produce a foam. It is difficult to camouflage objects using the greens found in nature because they are based on chlorophyll, which is unstable once it has been harvested from plants. “If you just tried to extract the green chlorophyll out of some fresh leaves or something, you lose the colour very, very quickly,” says Laaksonen. The team instead used chlorophyll in a living microalga called Chlorella vulgaris, which gave the foam a stable green colour that matched some forest shades.

3-2-22 The underwater sea farm that's like a space station
Nemo’s Garden is a unique underwater farm for terrestrial plants where the gardeners need scuba diving suits. This novel experiment uses biospheres 10 metres under the water off Noli on the Italian Riviera, and was created to find sustainable ways of growing vegetables and herbs.

3-2-22 How to grow strawberries and protect them from slugs
Shop-bought strawberries can taste disappointing, but home grown ones are delicious. Here's how to succeed in growing these delicate fruits, says Clare Wilson. THERE are plenty of reasons people grow their own fruit and vegetables: it is a satisfying outdoor hobby, it gets you some exercise and the produce has low food miles, usually making it good for the planet too. Another reason is that many home-grown fruits and vegetables taste better than the ones on sale in shops. The difference is particularly noticeable for some types of produce, such as new potatoes, asparagus, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. There can be several explanations. One is that the varieties grown by farmers are often different to those sold for home growing. Farmers use varieties best able to be picked and transported to supermarkets without bruising or rotting, or those for which all the fruit reliably ripen at the same time, making for an easier harvest. Recent work by researchers at the University of Florida into what makes for the tastiest tomatoes has found it is driven by differences in sugar and acidity, as well as numerous “volatiles” – biochemicals that are in gas form at room temperatures. As we chew and swallow the flesh of a tomato, these aromatic compounds reach the nose via the back of the throat; what we think of as the tomato’s taste is really a mixture of its taste and smell. The same is true for strawberries, a crop renowned for sometimes having disappointing flavour when bought from a shop. A key problem for commercial growers is that these fruits may be harvested before they are fully ripe – when volatiles called esters are at their peak – or the fruit gets too bruised during transportation. Once picked, levels of sugars, acids and volatiles in the fruit start to decline, so it is really worth growing them at home or visiting a pick-your-own farm.

3-2-22 Artificial leaves: Bionic photosynthesis as good as the real thing
Converting sunlight into liquid fuel through artificial photosynthesis would be a huge environmental victory – and the latest prototypes look surprisingly effective. Our insatiable appetite for energy has got us into a mess, with the burning of fossil fuels releasing greenhouse gases that are heating the atmosphere. It is enough to make you envious of plants, which produce their own energy – through photosynthesis – in a way that actually uses up the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. If we could learn to mimic this trick on a grand scale, it would enable us to effectively liquefy sunlight to create a clean, green fuel. Unfortunately, photosynthesis is a tough chemical reaction to copy. It involves many processes, including capturing sunlight, splitting apart water molecules to yield protons, and joining these protons with carbon atoms from CO2 to ultimately produce fuel in the form of sugars. In nature, these jobs are performed by proteins that have had hundreds of millions of years to evolve – and they still only manage to turn energy from sunlight into fuel with an efficiency of 1 per cent at best. A decade ago, chemist Daniel Nocera at Harvard University made a big stride forwards when he developed catalysts based on nickel and cobalt that could break apart water. That is just one part of recreating photosynthesis, however, and progress has since stuttered. Then people started to realise that instead of recreating photosynthesis from scratch, we could combine the best bits of chemistry and biology in a bionic leaf. Such leaves typically employ materials that efficiently absorb sunlight as well as natural proteins that excel at stitching together fuel molecules. A team led by Erwin Reisner at the University of Cambridge recently used a material called a perovskite to gather light and coupled it with an enzyme called formate dehydrogenase. The resulting bionic leaf converts light into formate, a chemical that can be used in fuel cells, with almost 1 per cent efficiency – on a par with what nature can achieve.

3-2-22 Deep-sea ‘octopus garden’ has warm water that speeds egg hatching
Thousands of brooding octopus mothers gather at a spot 3200 metres deep off the coast of California because warmer water there dramatically reduces hatching times. Thousands of octopus mothers lay and tend their eggs at a deep-sea site with warm hydrothermal vents because it dramatically reduces hatching times, from more than 14 years to under two years. “They have about a 90 per cent reduction in brood period because, I think, they are brooding in warm water,” said Jim Barry at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, during a virtual talk at the Ocean Sciences Meeting 2022. In 2018, other researchers found thousands of abyssal octopuses (Muusoctopus robustus) clustered together at a site 3200 metres deep near the base of the Davidson Seamount off California. The site was dubbed the octopus garden after the 1969 Beatles song. The water temperature in this part of the ocean is usually around 1.6°C, but at this particular site, hydrothermal vents raise it to around 5°C. As the octopuses are all females caring for eggs, the leading suggestion for why they gather here has been to speed the development of their eggs. Barry’s team has now directly measured egg development times. Female octopuses stay with their eggs to protect and tend them. They stop feeding during brooding and die around the time the eggs hatch. In warm tropical waters, this process lasts only a few weeks. But in cold waters the egg development time increases dramatically. One brooding octopus found 1300 metres down in the Monterey Canyon, also off the California coast and with a water temperature around 3°C, was observed several times by a remotely operated vehicle. It took more than four years for her eggs to hatch, by far the longest egg-brooding period known for any animal. The condition of the “octomom”, as the animal was dubbed, steadily deteriorated over this time.

3-2-22 Rory Mc Donnell interview: The slug hunter with a strange new weapon
Invasive slugs and snails are not only troublesome for gardeners – they cause millions of dollars’ worth of damage to crops every year. Ecologist Rory Mc Donnell is on a mission to find evidence-based ways to get rid of these pesky gastropods. SLUGS and snails may not look frightening, but don’t be fooled. Poking out from beneath their slimy bodies is a tongue-like appendage called a radula, covered with thousands of tiny teeth. As gardeners know to their cost, this is a tool of extreme destructive power, which can shred stems and leaves like a grater. From dandelions to dahlias, few plants are safe. Native slugs and snails are a vital part of ecosystems. They provide a food source to other animals, digest dead and decaying matter and eat pests. But invasive species can throw things off balance and it can be tough to control them. Many gardeners have their own tried and trusted methods of attempting to make their plants safe from these gastropods, from the classic technique of circling the stem with crushed eggshells to the application of copper tape to flowerpots. For professional growers, it isn’t just their plants that are eaten up, but their profits too. Six years ago, grower communities in Oregon had had enough and representatives from the grass seed, vegetable and Christmas tree industries demanded the state act immediately to stop invasive slugs and snails. In response, the state called in ecologist Rory Mc Donnell, one of the world’s foremost slug and snail experts. For the past few years, Mc Donnell, now based at Oregon State University, has been looking for ways to control invasive slugs and snails and has developed an effective method. He tells New Scientist about the toll of invasive slugs and snails and why the best way to control them is almost certainly already in your kitchen.

3-2-22 UK allows emergency use of bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticide
The UK government has authorised the emergency use of a type of pesticide almost entirely banned in the EU because of the harm it can cause bees. A Defra spokesperson said the use of one type of neonicotinoid on sugar beet was "based on robust scientific assessment". The use would be subject to strict conditions, Defra said. But the Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trusts, Craig Bennett, called it "scandalous". Studies have shown that the group of pesticides damage the nervous systems and navigational abilities of bees and other pollinators. The pesticides can also end up in streams and rivers and harm aquatic life, and can persist for a long time in the environment. Their outdoor use was banned in almost all EU countries in 2018. At the time of the ban, Michael Gove, then environment secretary, said the UK was in favour because it couldn't "afford to put our pollinator populations at risk". The government is now authorising one type, thiamethoxam, to be used on sugar beet in England in 2022 because of the potential risk of yellows viruses, spread by aphids, which can severely damage crops. It estimates that almost 70% of the national sugar beet crop could be affected. A Defra spokesperson said that the decision "was not taken lightly". "We evaluate the risks very carefully and only grant temporary emergency authorisations for restricted pesticides in special circumstances when strict requirements are met and there are no alternatives." The chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, Craig Bennett, criticised the decision. "The Government has outlined ambitions to restore nature, promising to protect 30% of land by 2030 and reverse declines of precious wildlife - but at the same time, it is giving a green light to use a highly toxic chemical that could harm pollinating insects and pollute soils and rivers," he said. According to the National Farmers' Union (NFU), there are 3,000 farmers who grow sugar beet, and the wider industry supports around 9,500 jobs in England, largely in the East. To minimise risks to bees, farmers will be banned from growing flowering plants for 32 months after the sugar beet crop.

3-2-22 Artificial leaves: Bionic photosynthesis as good as the real thing
Converting sunlight into liquid fuel through artificial photosynthesis would be a huge environmental victory – and the latest prototypes look surprisingly effective. Our insatiable appetite for energy has got us into a mess, with the burning of fossil fuels releasing greenhouse gases that are heating the atmosphere. It is enough to make you envious of plants, which produce their own energy – through photosynthesis – in a way that actually uses up the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. If we could learn to mimic this trick on a grand scale, it would enable us to effectively liquefy sunlight to create a clean, green fuel. Unfortunately, photosynthesis is a tough chemical reaction to copy. It involves many processes, including capturing sunlight, splitting apart water molecules to yield protons, and joining these protons with carbon atoms from CO2 to ultimately produce fuel in the form of sugars. In nature, these jobs are performed by proteins that have had hundreds of millions of years to evolve – and they still only manage to turn energy from sunlight into fuel with an efficiency of 1 per cent at best. A decade ago, chemist Daniel Nocera at Harvard University made a big stride forwards when he developed catalysts based on nickel and cobalt that could break apart water. That is just one part of recreating photosynthesis, however, and progress has since stuttered. Then people started to realise that instead of recreating photosynthesis from scratch, we could combine the best bits of chemistry and biology in a bionic leaf. Such leaves typically employ materials that efficiently absorb sunlight as well as natural proteins that excel at stitching together fuel molecules. A team led by Erwin Reisner at the University of Cambridge recently used a material called a perovskite to gather light and coupled it with an enzyme called formate dehydrogenase. The resulting bionic leaf converts light into formate, a chemical that can be used in fuel cells, with almost 1 per cent efficiency – on a par with what nature can achieve. Nocera has embraced a similar approach. In 2016, he unveiled a system in which his water-splitting catalysts produced protons and electrons and fed these to bioengineered bacteria. The set-up could use sunlight to turn CO2 into fuel and biomass with an efficiency of almost 11 per cent. “We did a complete artificial photosynthesis that’s 10 to 100 times better than nature,” says Nocera.

3-2-22 ‘Fresh Banana Leaves’ shows how Western conservation has harmed Indigenous people
Environmental scientist Jessica Hernandez talks with Science News about her new book. During the civil war in El Salvador that began in the 1970s, an injured Victor Hernandez hid from falling bombs beneath the fronds of a banana tree. The child soldier, a member of the Maya Ch’orti’ group indigenous to the region, made a crutch from a branch of the tree and limped toward Guatemala, toward freedom. “I strongly believe that it was this banana tree that saved my life,” he told his daughter, Jessica Hernandez, who shares the story in Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science. “It is ironic because banana trees are not native to El Salvador,” he said. Jessica Hernandez, an environmental scientist, draws parallels between her father’s story and that of the banana tree. The banana tree’s journey from Southeast Asia via colonial European ships forced the resilient plant to adapt to its new home in the Americas. Similarly, her father adjusted to being displaced, eventually settling in the United States, often experiencing less-than-warm welcomes along the way. Hernandez uses her father’s stories and other first-person accounts to frame a complex discussion on the interplay between colonialism, the displacement of Indigenous peoples, land degradation, and differences between how Western researchers and Indigenous people approach conservation. Western restoration can often focus on rooting out invasive species, Hernandez points out. But such a narrow focus, she contends, fails to understand that Indigenous people — the lands’ original stewards — are integral parts of imperiled landscapes. Some researchers are now taking a community-based approach to conservation, in which Indigenous people participate in project planning instead of serving as study subjects. But this still doesn’t go far enough, Hernandez argues: In such studies, non-Indigenous people often end up speaking for Indigenous communities.

3-2-22 Africa’s fynbos plants hold their ground with the world’s thinnest roots
The fynbos shrubland weaponizes its very thin roots in the race to suck up nutrients. Some plant roots draw a line in the sand — literally. In South Africa, you can move between cool, green forest and sunbaked shrubland in a single stride. These narrow borders between dramatically different ecosystems are maintained by intense competition between plants’ roots, new research suggests. Fynbos — a type of species-rich shrubland found only on the far southern tip of Africa — has the thinnest roots by far of any plant community in the world, researchers report in the March 1 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These nutrient-gobbling roots, plus some fire-encouraging adaptations, help turn the fynbos into an austere realm where only fynbos plants can survive. Interested in what factors organize nature at very broad scales, ecologist Lars Hedin and his colleagues wanted to look at places where environmental changes over time can flip the ecosystem between two distinct states. Enter the fynbos. It’s a low, shrubby habitat home to mind-blowing plant diversity: more than 7,000 species, most of which are found nowhere else in the world (SN: 8/24/2004). “It’s one of the most floristically biodiverse systems in the world,” says Hedin, of Princeton University. “It’s essentially as diverse as a tropical forest.” But right next to this hot, flower-filled wonderland — with the same climate and underlying geologic composition — is the lush Afro-temperate forest, flourishing with tall trees and moss, but fewer species overall. “The boundary is as sharp as one meter. It’s like a binary, zero to one transition,” says study coauthor Mingzhen Lu, an ecologist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. This is far narrower than the transition zone between savanna and tropical rainforest, he says, which can occur over many kilometers.

3-2-22 Virus outbreak in wild boars led to more oak trees in Polish forest
An outbreak of African swine fever in 2015 reduced the wild boar population by 90 per cent in Bialowiez?a primeval forest, so more acorns grew into trees. An outbreak of African swine fever led to the growth of more oak trees in a Polish forest. African swine fever is a highly contagious and deadly viral disease that affects domestic and wild pigs. It has been present in Poland since 2014, and reached Bialowiez?a primeval forest in March 2015. Michal Bogdziewicz at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, and his colleagues analysed what effect the outbreak had on oak trees in the forest. Acorns, the nuts produced by oak trees, can form up to 70 per cent of a wild boar’s diet, says Bogdziewicz. The more acorns are eaten, the fewer are left to grow into trees. The researchers monitored the acorn production of 29 oak trees in the forest between 2009 and 2020. They also counted the number of acorns littered on the floor near the trees. Oak trees produce acorns during distinct periods every few years, a strategy called masting. In a mast year, all the trees in a community produce lots of the nuts at the same time. As a result, animals cannot eat them all. In the intervening years, when oak trees don’t produce acorns, there is less food for seed-eating animals and their populations decline. This strategy works well for oak trees when it comes to smaller rodents, but is less effective with boars. “Boars can move further to look for other sources of food and they also have wider diets that allow them to switch to other stuff in years of famine,” says Bogdziewicz. The 2015 outbreak of swine fever in the forest led to a 90 per cent drop in boar numbers in the following year. After the outbreak, twice the number of oak trees were successfully established compared with before 2015, the study found. “What the virus did today will have its mark on the forest for centuries to come,” says Bogdziewicz.

3-1-22 Humpback whales are thriving in Australian waters
Conservation efforts have paid off in Australia, with the country removing humpback whales from its threatened species list. Before whaling operations ceased in Australia in 1963, and international protections were put in place two years later, more than 30,000 humpback whales were killed by whalers in Australia and New Zealand, The Guardian reports. Only about 1,500 humpbacks were in Australian waters at the time, and today, it's estimated there are at least 40,000. Australian Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley said that removing humpback whales from the threatened species list is "a recognition of the success of the outstanding conservation efforts that are in place." There are still domestic and international protections to safeguard the species, Ley added, and Australia will keep working with the International Whaling Commission to "to promote whale conservation and maintain the global moratorium on commercial whaling." Australia's decision to remove the humpback whale from its threatened species list is "based on science and sends a clear signal about what can be achieved through coordinated action," Ley continued. "It is a message of hope for the welfare of a number of species." Environmentalists still caution that rising sea temperatures will likely harm the krill populations in Antarctica, a feeding ground for the whales.

3-1-22 Genes from bacteria may have helped plants colonise the land
When aquatic plants first transitioned onto land, their success may have been due to genes they got from bacteria and fungi that let them take up nutrients from soil. Around 500 million years ago, aquatic plants migrated from water to land, and they may have been able to do it with genes adopted from bacteria, fungi and viruses. “The movement of green plants from water to land represents a major habitat transition, and plants have been intimately associated with bacteria and fungi,” says Jinling Huang at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. This physical proximity is key, because it could allow a process called horizontal gene transfer (HGT), in which organisms gain genes from another species. This may have given early plants traits that made life on land possible, as the acquired genes may allow the recipient to adapt to new habitats or exploit new resources. Previous research by other groups already hinted at genes hopping from bacteria and fungi into early land plants. Huang and his team analysed genomic data, the full set of genetic instructions, for 31 species representing the primary plant groups – mosses, ferns, seed plants and so on – and charophytes, the algaes mostly closely related to plants. They carefully screened the data for genes acquired from other organisms and then built family trees to determine the evolutionary history and the direction of transfer. The researchers found that 593 families of genes in these plants originated in a mix of fungi, bacteria and viruses. Many of the acquired genes had roles in biological processes key to living on land. For instance, the LEA2 gene family is involved in desiccation resistance. The pectin esterase gene families have a role in the development of cell walls, which lend important structural support for upright growth in land plants. Both LEA2 and pectin esterase gene families came from bacteria. An ammonia transporter gene family important for the uptake of nitrogen from soil came from fungi.


77 Animal Intelligence & Zoology News Articles
for March 
of 2022

Animal Intelligence News Articles for February of 2022