No matter where you look, just about every creature
is obsessed with:
sex, real estate, who's the boss, and what's for dinner.
75 Animal Intelligence News Articles
for November of 2017
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
11-30-17 Bats in China carry all the ingredients to make a new SARS virus
Dangerous strains may arise when viral genes mix inside a bat. Viruses in bats may have mixed and matched genes to create the virus that gave rise to the deadly SARS outbreak in 2003, a new study suggests. And it could happen again. All of the ingredients needed to create a new SARS virus are found among viruses currently infecting horseshoe bats, researchers report November 30 in PLOS Pathogens. The viruses “are poised to cause future outbreaks,” says virologist Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, who was not involved in the study. “We can’t let our guard down.” Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is caused by a type of coronavirus. After the first human case of SARS was recorded in 2002 in Guangdong Province in southern China, a global epidemic of the disease sickened more than 8,000 people and killed 774 in 2003. In that outbreak, masked palm civet cats sold in live animal markets passed the virus to people. It wasn’t clear whether civets were the initial source of the virus, or if they caught it from some other animal. Since then, evidence has been building implicating species of horseshoe bats as the origin (SN: 11/30/13, p. 13). Until now, though, coronaviruses isolated from bats were genetically distinct from the one that caused the 2003 outbreak, suggesting that bat strains weren’t the direct ancestor of SARS. After five years of surveying bats in a cave in southern China’s Yunnan Province, Zhengli Shi and colleagues discovered 11 new strains of SARS-related viruses in horseshoe bats (especially in Rhinolophus sinicus). Within the strains, the researchers found all the genes to make a SARS coronavirus similar to the epidemic strain, says Shi, a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
11-30-17 Scallops’ amazing eyes use millions of tiny, square crystals to see
New look inside the sea creature’s eyeballs reveals their unusual workings. There’s stiff competition for the most elaborate eyeballs in the animal kingdom, but a mollusk that turns up on dinner plates might be a finalist. Each of a scallop’s eyes — it has up to 200 of them, each about a millimeter in diameter — contains millions of perfectly square, flat crystals that build up into a mirrored mosaic, new research shows. And that shiny surface is curved in a way that lets a scallop focus light onto two different retinas. Scientists have known for a long time that scallop eyes are unusual. In the 1960s, biologist Michael Land showed that each scallop eye uses a mirror to focus light into images, while most other eyes use lenses (SN: 5/28/17, p. 22). That natural mirror is made of crystals of guanine, Land determined — better known for its job as one of the four nucleotides that make up DNA. At the time, imaging technology wasn’t good enough to show how the bivalves built the mirror. Now, cryo-electron microscopy is bringing those blueprints out of their shell, researchers report in the Dec. 1 Science. “It’s such an unusual visual system,” says Daniel Speiser, a marine ecologist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia who wasn’t part of the study. “The closer you look, the more puzzling it gets.” For one thing, the guanine crystals that build the scallop’s eye mirror are perfectly square, says study coauthor Benjamin Palmer, a biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. “That's really weird,” he says. “It’s the first time we've seen a perfect square!”
11-30-17 Studying giant tortoise flips without tipping the animals over is a delicate business
When getting back on their feet, shell shape matters for these reptiles. It would be a memorable sight. But it would also be so wrong to tip over Galápagos giant tortoises to see how shell shape affects their efforts to leg-pump, neck-stretch and rock right-side up again. Shell shape matters, says evolutionary biologist Ylenia Chiari, though not the way she expected. It’s taken years, plus special insights from a coauthor who more typically studies scorpions, for Chiari and her team to measure and calculate their way to that conclusion. But no endangered species have been upended in the making of the study. “They’re amazing,” says Chiari of the dozen or so species of Chelonoidis grazing over the Galápagos Islands. Hatchlings start not quite the size of a tennis ball and after decades, depending on species and sex, “could be like — a desk,” says Chiari, of the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Two extremes among the species’ shell shapes intrigue Chiari: high-domed mountains versus mere hillocks called saddlebacks because of an upward flare saddling the neck. Researchers have dreamed up possible benefits for the shell differences, such as the saddleback flare letting tortoises stretch their necks higher upward in grazing on sparse plants.
11-29-17 Readers debate ethics of resurrecting extinct species
“You can bring these animals back physically, but many animal species also have culture and cultural evolution,” reader Greg wrote. “How are we to resurrect that?” The book Rise of the Necrofauna tackles the challenges of using gene-editing tools to bring woolly mammoths and other long-gone species back from the dead. These “de-extincted” creatures would have to contend with a radically changed world that includes new habitats and diseases, Tina Hesman Saey wrote in her review “Resurrecting extinct species raises ethical questions” (SN: 10/28/17, p. 28). Whether some animals have culture is hotly debated. Another reader agreed that resurrected species’ behaviors should be considered. “But that could be something that emerges naturally as they interact with the environment,” MJF Images wrote. “These animals would not be the same as those that went extinct,” and may have different behaviors. Reader John Turner noted that some breeding programs for endangered species already account for environment. For example, conservationists have reared endangered California condors using condorlike hand puppets and minimal human contact, Turner wrote. To resurrect the woolly mammoth, “we shall require numerous copies of the Mr. Snuffleupagus costume,” he joked.
11-29-17 Trophy hunting removes 'good genes' and raises extinction risk
Hunting animals that stand out from the crowd because of their impressive horns or lustrous manes could lead to extinction, according to a study. Research predicts that removing even 5% of high-quality males risks wiping out the entire population, for species under stress in a changing world. Animals prized by trophy hunters for their horns, antlers or tusks usually have the best genes, say UK scientists. Removing these could push a species over the edge, they warn. There is intense global debate over trophy hunting. Some argue that it should be banned or restricted, while others say it can provide valuable revenue for conservation. Dr Rob Knell of Queen Mary, University of London, who led the research, said the assumption that so-called selective harvesting is not especially threatening to a population of animals does not take into account recent work. ''Because these high-quality males with large secondary sexual traits tend to father a high proportion of the offspring, their 'good genes' can spread rapidly, so populations of strongly sexually selected animals can adapt quickly to new environments,'' he said. ''Removing these males reverses this effect and could have serious and unintended consequences.'' Human hunting is different from natural predation in that big-game trophy hunters target large animals, usually males. They may be awarded prizes for killing animals with exceptionally large antlers, horns or manes. And illegal poaching of animals such as elephants for the ivory trade also targets animals with the biggest tusks.
11-29-17 Weird ‘underground’ flower has evolved to look like a mushroom
The cast-iron plant's flowers bloom just above the surface of the soil and are often buried. They may mimic mushrooms and serve to attract a surprising pollinator. THERE is a plant whose flowers bloom almost underground – and that might be how it lures in its favourite pollinators, mushroom-eating flies. The cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior ) has drab flowers that are often buried in leaf litter. Biologists have long been puzzled about how these subterranean flowers are pollinated. Slugs, small crustaceans and insect-like springtails have all been named as possible candidates. To find out, Kenji Suetsugu at Kobe University and Masahiro Sueyoshi at the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute in Tsukuba studied wild cast-iron plants. “No one had conducted direct observations in the natural habitat,” says Suetsugu. The pair went to Japan’s Kuroshima Island, where the plants are common. Over two years, they noted the visitors to flowers, and counted how many became fruit each autumn. While many species visited, fungus gnats were the best pollinators. These small, mushroom-eating flies adeptly navigated the flower’s petals and the flowers they visited made the most fruit (Ecology, doi.org/cgp7). “The gnats were observed on multiple occasions departing from Aspidistra flowers with a lot of pollen grains on their bodies,” says Suetsugu.
11-28-17 Most blue whales are ‘righties,’ except for this one move
The animals tend to roll to the left when feeding near the ocean’s surface. Blue whales, it turns out, are a tad ambidextrous. When hunting in deep water, the whales tend to be “right-handed,” lunging at krill while twisting 180 degrees or less onto their right side. But when gobbling up the tiny crustaceans near the surface, the whales tend to be lefties, launching themselves upward while performing a 360-degree barrel roll to the left, researchers report in the Nov. 20 Current Biology. Rolling to the left at the surface may help the whales better see food with their dominant right eye, the scientists say. Many vertebrates tend to favor one side of the body over the other for certain tasks. This lateralization, or handedness, helps animals be more efficient at those jobs and has even been spotted in tiny crevice-dwelling ants (SN: 1/24/15, p. 11). The new research is the first to document handedness in blue whales and the first evidence of a marine mammal favoring a different side of its body depending on feeding depth, the researchers say. Though handedness has been described in other whales before, this study “demonstrates that you really need to consider the context of how animals are feeding in their environment,” says study coauthor Ari Friedlaender, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
11-28-17 Here’s yet more evidence that the mythical yeti was probably a bear
Campfire legends of massive, shaggy bipeds called yetis are grounded in a less mysterious truth: bears. Eight samples of remains such as fur, bones and teeth purportedly from mountain-dwelling yetis actually come from three different kinds of bears that live in the Himalayas, researchers report November 29 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. A ninth sample turned out to come from a dog. Previous analyses of smaller fragments of “yeti” DNA yielded controversial results. The new study looks at bigger chunks of DNA, analyzing the complete mitochondrial genomes from alleged yetis and comparing them with the mitochondrial genomes of various bears, including polar bears and Tibetan brown bears. The results also give new insight into the genetic relationships between the different bears that call the Tibetan Plateau home, which could guide efforts to protect these rare subspecies. During a period of glaciation about 660,000 years ago, Himalayan brown bears were one of the first groups to branch off and become distinct from other brown bears, the data suggest. Tibetan brown bears, on the other hand, share a more recent common ancestor with their relatives in Eurasia and North America. They might have migrated to the area around 340,000 years ago, but were probably kept geographically isolated from Himalayan brown bears by the rugged mountain terrain.
11-28-17 Madagascar’s lemurs close to extinction after population crash
Ring-tailed lemurs have experienced a precipitous decline over the last two decades and are now one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world. Cute they may be, but ring-tailed lemurs are in deep trouble in Madagascar, according to a report listing the world’s 25 most endangered primates. According to rough estimates two decades ago, ring-tailed lemurs once numbered “several hundred thousand” throughout the island. But according to a recent census included in the report, numbers have now crashed to between 2500 and 3000. “It’s so dramatic we felt we had to highlight it,” says lead author Christoph Schwitzer, director of conservation at Bristol Zoological Society. “They are the most abundant primate in zoos, but they’re being hammered in their natural habitat.” The report, published today, is titled Primates in Peril: The world’s 25 most endangered primates 2016-2018. Schwitzer says there are three major factors driving the rapid decline. One is the desperate poverty that drives citizens to kill lemurs for food: 69 per cent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. This poverty is aggravated by long-standing political instability and corruption, which has led to the withdrawal of donor aid on which the country depends for 75 per cent of its revenue. Poverty has forced people to turn to small-scale, subsistence rice farming, which is eating into the lemurs’ habitat. “We’re seeing very high rates of habitat loss exacerbated by the political instability,” says Schwitzer. “There’s almost no environmental law enforcement and poverty levels have shot up, so people poach lemurs, and it’s reaching unprecedented levels.” A third factor is the local pet trade. Baby ring-tailed lemurs are often captured in the wild and sold to hotels and restaurants for the amusement of guests.
11-28-17 Bird pulled from brink of extinction facing poisoning threat
The red kite has become more common in the past 30 years in the UK, thanks to conservation schemes. But, while numbers of the birds of prey are on the rise, scientists say human factors threaten to derail progress. Post-mortem tests on wild red kites show many have been poisoned by lead shot, rat poison or pesticides. The study, published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research, suggests poisoning of red kites may be slowing their rate of recovery in England. Dr Jenny Jaffe of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), who worked on the study, said birds of prey, and especially scavengers, eat animals that contain lead shot, leading to lead poisoning. ''That can be changed by changing the shot gun cartridges to non lead, which a lot of countries do,'' she told BBC News. ''And, there is some legislation already in the UK, but it is very limited.'' Another threat - pesticide poisoning - is ''mostly deliberate'', she said, caused by baiting of bird or rabbit carcasses. ''You'll find red kites that are in good body condition that have died very suddenly and where toxicology shows that they have high levels of pesticides,'' said Dr Jaffe. ''It might not per se be focussed on red kites specifically, but the people who put out these poisons are focussed on killing predators of their, for example, game birds or livestock.'' (Webmaster's comment: In the long run the animals haven't got a chance!)
11-27-17 How bats keep an ear on their prey
A structure that allows sound information to be processed extremely fast has been identified in bats' brains. Researchers were able to analyse the echo-locating animals' neurones as they caught their insect prey in darkness. But the bats have to process a lot of sound information. "The vocalisations are insanely fast. It is a heavy processing load to perform this behaviour," said Dr Melville Wohlgemuth, who led the study. The research is published in the journal JNeurosci. The scientists wanted to find out whether this need to process over 120 sound clicks per second had resulted in the evolution of a more efficient brain structure. Dr Wohlgemuth located the "superior colliculus" structure in the bats' brain. This is the area of the brain that lets the bat know where things are in relation to themselves. He found that in the bats, this structure is uniquely adapted to analyse auditory data quickly and enable quick and accurate corrections of the body in response. In order to catch the insects, bats have to know where their body is, and put that in the context of where their prey is. And they need to do this fast. The neurones that help them process spatial and motor information were found to be very close together. This close proximity is likely to be what allows them to quickly process the echoes bouncing back from their prey. In most mammals, the brain structure identified in these bats is more closely associated with vision. When you move your eyes across the page, the precision with which you find the next word is dictated by this structure in the centre of your own brain.
11-27-17 Rough lessons can lessen the pull of human scent on a mosquito
Bursts of shaking teach the bloodsuckers to be indifferent to the odor of people's skin. After unpleasant lessons in the lab, mosquitoes can learn some restraint in their zest for pursuing the scent of human skin. The test, a kind of aversion therapy for mosquitoes to see if they can associate smells with bad experiences, was reported at the annual Entomological Society of America meeting. “Mosquitoes have this very challenging task of finding food that’s hidden under the skin of mobile and defensive hosts,” said Clément Vinauger of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. He’s investigating whether repeated scares such as near misses of a slapping hand might change mosquito reactions to odors. Female mosquitoes go about their dangerous blood quest by tracking a mix of cues: plumes of carbon dioxide, the sight of looming objects, up-close body heat and body scent (SN: 8/22/15, p. 15). The final targeting can be annoyingly picky. Even within the same target species, such as humans, some individuals turn out to be mosquito magnets, while others aren’t so alluring.
11-25-17 Mexico creates huge national park to protect marine life
The Mexican government has created a large marine reserve around a group of islands home to hundreds of species including rays, whales and sea turtles. The Revillagigedo Archipelago is a group of volcanic islands off the country's south-west coast. With a protection zone of 57,000 square miles (150,000km), it has become the largest ocean reserve in North America. The move will mean all fishing activity will be banned, and the area will be patrolled by the navy. It is hoped the move will help populations hit by commercial fishing operations in the area recover. The park was designated by a decree signed by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. It will also forbid natural resources being extracted from the land or the building of new hotel infrastructure. The area, which is about 250 miles (400km) south-east of the country's Baja California peninsula has been described as the Galapagos of North America, because of its volcanic nature and unique ecology. Sitting on the convergence of two ocean currents, the islands are a hub for open water and migratory species. It has hundreds of breeds of ocean wildlife, including humpback whales that use the shallow and coastal areas around the islands for breeding. Last year the Pacific Ocean site was named as a UNESCO world heritage area.
11-24-17 Flies more germ-laden than suspected
Scientists have discovered that flies carry more diseases than suspected. The house fly and the blowfly together harbour more than 600 different bacteria, according to a DNA analysis. Many are linked with human infections, including stomach bugs, blood poisoning and pneumonia. Flies can spread bacteria from place-to-place on their legs, feet and wings, experiments show. In fact, every step taken by a fly can transfer live bacteria, researchers said. ''People had some notion that there were pathogens that were carried by flies but had no idea of the extent to which this is true and the extent to which they are transferred," Prof Donald Bryant of Penn State University, a co-researcher on the study, told BBC News. DNA sequencing techniques were used to study the collection of microbes found in and on the bodies of the house fly (Musca domestica) and the blowfly (Chrysomya megacephala). The house fly, which is ubiquitous around the world, was found to harbour 351 types of bacteria. The blowfly, which is found in warmer climates, carried 316. A large number of these bacteria were carried by both types of fly. The researchers, who published their study in the journal Scientific Reports, say flies may have been overlooked by public health officials as a source of disease outbreaks. "We believe that this may show a mechanism for pathogen transmission that has been overlooked by public health officials, and flies may contribute to the rapid transmission of pathogens in outbreak situations," said Prof Bryant. "It will really make you think twice about eating that potato salad that's been sitting out at your next picnic," he added.
11-24-17 Fish Have Emotions
Fish, who can experience human-like emotions, including depression, marine biologists say. “Depressed people are withdrawn,” said biologist Culum Brown. “The same is true of fish.”
11-23-17 Galapagos finches caught in act of becoming new species
A population of finches on the Galapagos has been discovered in the process of becoming a new species. This is the first example of speciation that scientists have been able to observe directly in the field. Researchers followed the entire population of finches on a tiny Galapagos island called Daphne Major, for many years, and so they were able to watch the speciation in progress. The research was published in the journal Science. The group of finch species to which the Big Bird population belongs are collectively known as Darwin's finches and helped Charles Darwin to uncover the process of evolution by natural selection. In 1981, the researchers noticed the arrival of a male of a non-native species, the large cactus finch. Professors Rosemary and Peter Grant noticed that this male proceeded to mate with a female of one of the local species, a medium ground finch, producing fertile young. Almost 40 years later, the progeny of that original mating are still being observed, and number around 30 individuals. "It's an extreme case of something we're coming to realise more generally over the years. Evolution in general can happen very quickly," said Prof Roger Butlin, a speciation expert who wasn't involved in the study. This new finch population is sufficiently different in form and habits to the native birds, as to be marked out as a new species, and individuals from the different populations don't interbreed.
11-23-17 Bones show Dolly’s arthritis was normal for a sheep her age
X-rays reveal cloning probably didn’t cause the animal to age prematurely. In the scientific version of her obituary, Dolly the Sheep was reported to have suffered from severe arthritis in her knees. The finding and Dolly’s early death from an infection led many researchers to think that cloning might cause animals to age prematurely. But new X-rays of Dolly’s skeleton and those of other cloned sheep and Dolly’s naturally conceived daughter Bonnie indicate that the world’s first cloned mammal had the joints of normal sheep of her age. Just like other sheep, Dolly had a little bit of arthritis in her hips, knees and elbows, developmental biologist Kevin Sinclair of the University of Nottingham in England and colleagues report November 23 in Scientific Reports. The researchers decided to reexamine Dolly’s remains after finding that her cloned “sisters” have aged normally and didn’t have massive arthritis (SN: 8/20/16, p. 6). No formal records of Dolly’s original arthritis exams were kept, so Sinclair and colleagues got Dolly and Bonnie’s skeletons and those of two other cloned sheep, Megan and Morag, from the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh. Megan and Bonnie were both older than Dolly at the time of their deaths and had more bone damage than Dolly did. Morag died younger and had less damage.
11-23-17 Dolly the sheep health fears 'unfounded'
Concerns that Dolly the cloned sheep suffered from early-onset arthritis were unfounded, a study suggests. In fact, wear-and-tear in her joints was similar to that of other sheep of her age, regardless of how they were conceived, say researchers. Dolly, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, made countless headlines during her lifetime. She came under close scrutiny, due to fears that cloned animals might develop health problems or age prematurely. Researchers at the University of Nottingham, have re-examined her skeleton. "We felt we needed to set the record straight - how bad was Dolly?'' said Prof Kevin Sinclair. "It was very similar to what we saw in our own animals and other naturally conceived sheep.'' It took 277 attempts to clone Dolly, and for a while she was arguably the world's most famous sheep. She made countless headlines over the years, from her birth in July 1996 to her death in February 2003.
11-23-17 Birds have childhood sweethearts that they stay with as adults
Whooping cranes form long-term monogamous relationships, and over half of couples first get together before they are both sexually mature. Many pairs of bird parents were childhood sweethearts. The majority of whooping crane couples begin making friends at least a year before they first breed together. Most birds form monogamous couples, and bonded pairs often stick together for life. Little is known about how they form these long-term partnerships, but we know that some birds are already paired up when they arrive at breeding grounds. Claire Teitelbaum at the University of Georgia in Athens and colleagues tracked a population of whooping cranes that were reintroduced in the eastern United States from 2001. Every bird is fitted with a transmitter, and they are closely monitored during the breeding season in Wisconsin. Before mating in the spring, cranes perform courtship displays involving loud calls, leaping and flapping their wings. But the data reveal that they choose their partners much earlier. Out of 58 breeding pairs, 62 per cent started associating at least 12 months before breeding, and 26 per cent began associating over two years before breeding. Sixty per cent of pairs got together before at least one of them was sexually mature. “It is tempting to view these pre-breeding associations, often between sexually immature individuals, as testing each other and ways of learning about their potential future mates,” says Tamás Székely at the University of Bath, UK. The findings may help explain why birds go in for long-term monogamy.
11-22-17 Seeds coated in a common pesticide might affect birds’ migration
Eating even a few pesticide-coated seeds can disorient white-crowned sparrows, new studies suggest. Pesticides that kill insects can also have short-term effects on seed-eating birds. Ingesting even small amounts of imidacloprid, a common neonicotinoid pesticide, can disorient migratory white-crowned sparrows, researchers report. Neonicotinoid pesticides were designed to be safer than traditional pesticides: toxic to insects, but comparatively harmless to other animals. But the new findings add to evidence suggesting that the widely used pesticides, which are chemically similar to nicotine, might be sending ecological ripples beyond the intended targets. In lab studies, researchers captured wild white-crowned sparrows, Zonotrichia leucophrys, that were migrating north and fed them small doses of imidacloprid for three days — the amount that birds would get from eating a few pesticide-coated wheat seeds. The birds that ate the pesticides lost weight, study coauthor Margaret Eng reported November 15 at the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry North America. And when placed in a large, inverted funnel used to study birds’ migratory orientations, the neonic-fed birds tried to fly in directions other than north. Birds that consumed sunflower oil instead showed no ill effects.
11-22-17 EU ban on bird imports sees 'massive' cuts in global trade
A new study says that an EU ban on the trade in wild birds has helped reduce the global business by 90%. Prior to the 2005 regulation that limited the market, European countries were the foremost importers of birds, mainly from West Africa. These imported creatures often escaped and posed threats to local populations and ecosystems. Latin America has now become the main bird source, and is now responsible for 50% of the much smaller global market. It was in response to concerns about the spread of avian influenza that the EU imposed a temporary ban on wild bird imports in October 2005. This was made permanent two years later. Prior to the ban, the global trade saw around 1.3 million birds bought and sold every year, according to the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The EU was the world's biggest importer of birds at the time with Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain accounting for two thirds of all wild birds sold on the global market. About 70% of them came from West Africa, mainly from Guinea, Mali and Senegal. "There is some redirection of trade to other areas and some may have gone underground, but the global drop is so massive that those cannot account for it on their own," author Dr Diederik Strubbe, from the University of Copenhagen, told BBC News. "By implementing this ban the trade has effectively eliminated a lot of demand from the market and the main picture that emerges is that the trade has largely collapsed."
11-22-17 UK vote didn’t deny animal sentience but could harm welfare
Campaigners say a recent UK vote will deny sentience to animals, but the reality is rather different. The real issue is what happens to animal welfare post-Brexit. “MPs quietly voted ‘that animals cannot feel pain or emotions’,” claimed one headline, after the UK’s parliament voted against an amendment on animal sentience. That has led to widespread outrage on social media, and more than one petition. But MPs did not really vote that animals cannot feel pain and suffering. Rather, they voted against the UK government having a duty to take this into account post-Brexit. All members of the European Union signed the Lisbon treaty, which came into force in 2009. Article 13 of the treaty states that “since animals are sentient beings, [countries must] pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals”. Sentience is the ability to feel pain and fear, as well as joy and happiness. Scientifically, there is now an overwhelming amount of research to suggest that many animals are sentient. “The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates,” declared a group of prominent researchers in 2012. (Webmaster's comment: Animals scream and cry out when we physically harm them. And the central emotional parts of our brains are essentially the same as they are in animals because that's where ours evolved from.)
11-22-17 Let’s hope chickless penguin colony can come back from the brink
Last season, a huge colony of Adélie penguins saw just two young survive. As they gather to breed again, a repeat would be alarming, says Olive Heffernan. For the Adélie penguins on Petrel Island in East Antarctica, this is a critical moment. It is early summer and adult birds are returning in their tens of thousands to breed. If all goes well, the island should soon be abuzz with the squawks of raucous chicks calling for food. Taking turns to waddle and slide across the ice, their parents fetch fish and krill to feed their hungry young. In the normal course of events, it is much as you would expect from watching Happy Feet. But a far from happy scene greeted French scientists visiting to count the new arrivals last season. The bodies of thousands of tiny, starved chicks were strewn across the ground, their downy plumage sodden. Also dotted across the stark, glacial landscape were numerous unhatched eggs. From a breeding colony of 18,000 pairs of Adélie penguins – a species described as a bellwether of climate change – just two chicks survived. In the past 50 years, this colony has only once before faced a similar catastrophe, in 2013. That was a “zero year” – with no surviving chicks – in which thick ice and freak weather thwarted the adults’ unflagging efforts to feed and care for their young. A third disaster would bolster suspicions that these are not coincidences, but evidence of something more sinister. Ordinarily, the Adélie parents seek out large areas of open water in the sea ice, called polynyas, where they dive for food. We know that in 2013, few polynyas opened up because thick sea ice was pushing right up against the coast, forcing the adults to travel further. Scientists studying the colony say the thick ice was formed by unusual sea currents in the region around Petrel Island, the result of a huge iceberg – as big as Luxembourg – breaking off Antarctica’s Mertz glacier in 2010 and dumping vast quantities of fresh water into the sea.
11-21-17 The dietary habits of the emerald ash borer beetle are complicated
The insect's larvae doom trees by chewing tunnels under the bark. An invasive beetle has unexpected — and potentially troublesome — tastes in trees. Now two new studies are clarifying the insects’ dining habits, researchers reported at the annual Entomological Society of America meeting. Metallic-green Asian beetles called emerald ash borers (Agrilus planipennis) have devastated wide swaths of forest in North America. For years, researchers believed that only various kinds of ash trees were at risk. But in 2014, researchers noticed infestations in white fringe trees (Chionanthus virginicus), a multi-stemmed tree native to the southeastern United States with flowers like a cluster of streamers. And after looking at trees related to ashes, researchers reported lab evidence in 2017 that the beetle larvae can grow to adulthood in the Manzanilla variety of commercial olive trees (Olea europaea). Whether the beetle poses a serious or slight risk to the overlooked targets is still being researched. Emerald ash borers, accidentally imported probably in wood packing materials during the 1980s or 1990s, have killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in 31 states and two Canadian provinces. Larvae chewing tunnels through trees’ internal nutrient channels can doom a tree. It’s “a major, major pest,” says entomologist Jackie Hoban of the University of Maryland in College Park. “It’s so sad — you see entire patches of trees just dead.”
11-21-17 Even a tiny oil spill spells bad news for birds
Eating small amounts of the crude form left the animals lagging. Birds don’t need to be drenched in crude oil to be harmed by spills and leaks. Ingesting even small amounts of oil can interfere with the animals’ normal behavior, researchers reported November 15 at the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry North America. Birds can take in these smaller doses by preening slightly greasy feathers or eating contaminated food, for example. Big oil spills, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, leave a trail of dead and visibly oily birds (SN: 4/18/15, p. 22). But incidents like last week’s 5,000-barrel spill from the Keystone pipeline — and smaller spills that don’t make national headlines — can also impact wildlife, even if they don’t spur dramatic photos. To test how oil snacks might affect birds, researchers fed zebra finches small amounts of crude oil or peanut oil for two weeks, then analyzed the birds’ blood and behavior. Birds fed the crude oil were less active and spent less time preening their feathers than birds fed peanut oil, said study coauthor Christopher Goodchild, an ecotoxicologist at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Oil-soaked birds will often preen excessively to try to remove the oil, sometimes at the expense of other important activities such as feeding. But in this case, the birds didn’t have any crude oil on their feathers, so the decrease in preening is probably a sign they’re not feeling well, the researchers say. (Webmaster's comment: It like being bathed in poison. Thnaks people!)
11-20-17 Albatrosses hit by fishing and climate
The spectacular wandering albatrosses in Sunday's Blue Planet programme on the BBC have suffered a major decline in numbers over the past three decades. New research suggests breeding pairs of this species are now little more than half what they were in the 1980s. Scientists say the losses are the result of careless fishing practices and climate pressures. The researchers are affiliated to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), which organised the filming for the TV show. BAS has been running a long-term tagging and monitoring study on Bird Island, a 4km-long stretch of land on the western fringes of South Georgia in the South Atlantic. The animals' global population is spread across only a handful of sub-Antarctic territories. The wandering albatrosses are not the only species, though, to experience a slump. Black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses have followed a similar trend. "These populations have all declined over the period we've been monitoring them," said BAS expert Richard Phillips. "There have been different phases, so for the wandering albatrosses there was a gradual decline and then it got really steep before things slowed up. Some of the variability is down to a changing environment; some of it is down to fishing effort." (Webmaster's comment: Destroying all life on Earth, one species at a time!)
11-20-17 Whales switch from right to left-handed when diving for food
A study using video cameras attached to the backs of whales has shown how they switch laterality when feeding. Ambidextrous behaviour by “right-handed” blue whales has surprised scientists studying the huge creatures’ feeding habits. Like many other animals, blue whales display laterality, or “handedness” – generally a bias towards the right. But a study using video cameras attached to the backs of whales has shown how they switch laterality when feeding. Over a period of six years, the team attached suction “tags” fitted with video cameras, hydrophones and motion sensors to the backs of 63 blue whales off the coast of southern California. The tags were designed to detach after several hours and float to the surface, so they could be recovered and their data downloaded. Blue whales are famous for their dramatic “lunge feeding” acrobatics close to the ocean surface. As they launch themselves upwards into swarms of the tiny crustaceans, called krill, on which they feed, the whales execute 360 degree barrel rolls. And according to the video evidence, they almost always roll to the left. This is in marked contrast to the way they normally feed at greater depths, when they execute 90-degree right-handed side rolls. Rolling to the left while lunge feeding allows the blue whale’s dominant right eye to target smaller patches of krill more effectively, suggests US lead researcher Ari Friedlaender, at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute.
11-20-17 How a tiny fly can ‘scuba dive’ in a salty and toxic lake
Alkali flies plunge into the salty and alkaline Mono Lake, to feed and lay their eggs, but until now it has been unclear how they manage to survive. A strange fly can “scuba dive” within a perfectly-formed bubble of air, and we may now know how it does it. It has long been known that alkali flies (Ephydra hians) can pop below the surface of the super salty and alkaline Mono Lake in California, to feed on underwater algae. Each fly’s air bubble is well fitted to the skin on its body: it doesn’t cover the fly’s eyes, allowing it to see clearly. American author Mark Twain observed alkali flies. In his 1872 book Roughing It, he wrote: “You can hold them under water as long as you please – they do not mind it – they are only proud of it.” Michael Dickinson and Floris van Breugel at the California Institute of Technology placed alkali flies and six other fly species into basins of water containing varying concentrations of salts. When plunged into solutions with high levels of sodium carbonate salts – known to be abundant at Mono Lake – the alkali flies did much better than the other fly species at staying dry and escaping the water. “That’s when we discovered there was something very weird about the lake – it’s very ‘wet’,” says Dickinson. Insects generally stay dry with a mix of tiny hairs and wax, but this was not enough to keep the Mono Lake water off their skin. Dickinson and van Breugel looked at the alkali flies using an electron microscope and found that they are extra hairy, which may help repel the water. The alkali flies’ hydrocarbon-based wax may also create a barrier to electricity, insulating the flies’ positively-charged skin from the Mono Lake water – which contains a lot of negatively-charged particles.
11-18-17 Trump puts elephant trophy imports on hold
President Donald Trump has suspended the import of elephant hunting trophies, only a day after a ban was relaxed by his administration. Imports of trophies from elephants legally hunted in Zambia and Zimbabwe had been set to resume, reversing a 2014 Obama-era ban. But late on Friday, President Trump tweeted the change was on hold until he could "review all conservation facts". The move to relax the ban had sparked immediate anger from animal activists. "Your shameful actions confirm the rumours that you are unfit for office," said French actress and animal-rights activist Brigitte Bardot in a letter to President Trump. Protests spread on social media with many sharing images of President Trump's sons posing with dead animals during their hunting trips in Africa. One photo of Donald Trump Jr shows him holding the amputated tail of a dead elephant. (Webmaster's comment: What a hero! What a man! From a safe distance he snuffs out the life of one of the most intelligent animals on the planet with his big elephant gun and then cuts off it's tail as a trophy. Just who is the animal in this picture!) The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had argued that hunting fees could aid conservation of the endangered animals. Experts say that populations of African elephants are plummeting. Their numbers dropped by about 30% from 2007-14, according to the 2016 Great Elephant Census.
11-17-17 Blue tits divorce their partners if they turn up late to mate
Blue tits were 5 times less likely to stay faithful if one partner had to wait more than 3 days for the other to arrive. Blue tits divorce their partners if they turn up late to annual breeding season. About 85 per cent of birds are socially monogamous, meaning they form couples and share the workload of raising their young. Staying together long-term is thought to be beneficial because they can focus on breeding and parenting rather than having to look for new mates. However, break-ups have been observed in 92 per cent of these socially-monogamous species, including blue tits. To work out why some blue tits divorce, Carol Gilsenan at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany and her colleagues studied over 100 breeding pairs in a southern German forest for 8 years. The birds were microchipped to identify when they visited 277 breeding boxes in the area. The study revealed advantages to being faithful: females that mated with the same male during consecutive breeding seasons laid eggs 1 day earlier, had 0.5 more eggs, and produced 0.7 more chicks on average. The couple’s familiarity meant they could get down to business quicker and capitalise on optimal food and laying conditions. In spite of this, only 20 to 50 per cent of blue tit couples stayed together from one year to the next.
11-16-17 Gene drives can beat pests, but we can’t afford any mistakes
Invasive pests could be eliminated by so-called gene drives, but we must make sure they can’t spread beyond our control. Pest control can sometimes get out of hand. In 1995, Australia was testing the deadly calicivirus for controlling rabbits on an island. Somehow the virus escaped and spread across the entire country. New Zealand, which also has a serious rabbit problem, decided not to introduce the virus. But a group of farmers took it upon themselves to smuggle the virus into the country in 1997, where it still circulates today. Now New Zealand is considering using genetic “extinction” drives to tackle invaders such as rats, possums and stoats. These gene drives are essentially genetic parasites that can spread and wipe out populations. But leading gene drive researchers are calling for caution, lest history repeats itself. In a paper published in PLOS Biology, they argue that no country should use gene drives to tackle invasive species unless they can be certain they won’t spread beyond that country’s borders. Possums, for instance, are protected species in Australia, so it would be a disaster if a possum-killing gene drive was deliberately or accidentally introduced there. Instead, conservationists should release only smart gene drives that cannot spread in other countries.
11-16-17 Current CRISPR gene drives are too strong for outdoor use, studies warn
Heritable gene-editing tools need reliable brakes to prevent them from spreading worldwide. Gene-editing tools heralded as hope for fighting invader rats, malarial mosquitoes and other scourges may be too powerful to use in their current form, two new papers warn. Standard forms of CRISPR gene drives, as the tools are called, can make tweaked DNA race through a population so easily that a small number of stray animals or plants could spread it to new territory, predicts a computer simulation released November 16 at bioRxiv.org. Such an event would have unknown, potentially damaging, ramifications, says a PLOS Biology paper released the same day. “We need to get out of the ivory tower and have this discussion in the open, because ecological engineering will affect everyone living in the area,” says Kevin Esvelt of MIT, a coauthor of both papers who studies genetic solutions to ecological problems. What’s a pest in one place may be valued in another, so getting consent to use a gene drive could mean consulting people across a species’s whole range, be it several nations or continents.
11-16-17 Trump to let Americans import ivory and hunting trophies again
Donald Trump's administration is reversing a ban on the imports of elephant trophies—including ivory—from Zimbabwe and Zambia. Donald Trump’s administration is reversing a ban on the imports of elephant trophies—including ivory—from two African nations. The practice was previously banned in 2014 by the Obama administration. This U-turn applies to the taxidermied heads and tusks of elephants killed in Zimbabwe on or after January 21, 2016, and on or before 31 December, 2018, and elephants taken in Zambia from 2016 to 2018. The onus for the change, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency tasked with the regulation, is that hunting wild African elephants in Zimbabwe and Zambia, “will enhance the survival of the species in the wild” as funds from the practice would be funneled towards conservation. The elephants are a threatened species with only about 350,000 left in the wild. The problem with that rationale, says the opposition, is that much like legalising rhino horn elsewhere on the continent, it encourages poaching. The Humane Society says that poaching in Zimbabwe has ramped up in recent years, and this decision will only exacerbate the problem. According to 2016’s Great Elephant Census, savannah populations declined by 30 per cent across 18 African nations from 2007 to 2014. In parts of the greater Zambezi ecosystem, which includes Zimbabwe, declines were as much as 74 per cent in that period.
11-16-17 US to lift ban on elephant hunting trophy imports
The Trump administration will allow American hunters to import elephant trophies to the US, reversing an Obama-era 2014 ban, US media report. A federal government agency said imports could resume on Friday for elephants that are legally hunted only in Zambia and Zimbabwe. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said hunting fees could aid conservation of the endangered animals. Experts say that populations of African elephants are plummeting. Their numbers dropped by about 30% from 2007-14, according to the 2016 Great Elephant Census. (Webmaster's comment: Such courage have these men that hunt for sport. Armed with "elephant" guns these men easily kill these intelligent creatures with no danger to themselves! They are sick! I only hope a lion hunts them and has them for dinner!)
11-16-17 Crabs and lobsters can probably feel pain. So why are we still boiling them alive?
Crabs and lobsters have a tough time at the hands of humans. In most countries, they are excluded from the scope of animal welfare legislation, so nothing you do to them is illegal. The result is that they are treated in ways that would clearly be cruel if inflicted on a vertebrate. This might in part be because they are so alien to us. It is hard to begin to imagine the inner life of a 10-legged, faceless creature with a nervous system distributed throughout its body. Worse still, crustaceans lack the headline-grabbing intelligence of the octopus. With only about 100,000 neurons in their nervous system compared with the octopus's 500 million, crabs and lobsters are unlikely to set the ocean alight with their cognitive prowess. They are easy to overlook and difficult to empathize with. Nevertheless, if you care about animal welfare, you should care what happens to crabs and lobsters. Consider live boiling. The animal often takes minutes to die, during which it writhes around and sheds its limbs. Crustaceans can be killed in seconds with knives, but most non-specialists don't know the right technique. Electrocution using a "Crustastun" takes about 10 seconds, and is probably as humane as it gets, but the expense of this device means it is hardly standard kitchen equipment. Some processing plants use them (and some U.K. supermarkets require their suppliers to do so), but many do not, and there is no legal requirement to stun. Crabs are often still, as one recent study put it, "processed in a live state." "Processed" here is a euphemism for "carved alive." Does any of this matter ethically? For many, the key question here is whether these animals are capable of feeling anything — whether they are sentient. If they feel nothing as they are boiled or carved alive, then ethical qualms about these practices seem as misplaced as they would be for vegetables. But if they do feel — if they are sentient — then they are cruel and inhumane.
11-15-17 The ingenious priest who discovered how bats ‘see’ in the dark
Almost 150 years before anyone recorded their ultrasound calls, Lazzaro Spallanzani’s cunning yet gruesome experiments revealed how bats navigate in darkness. LAZZARO SPALLANZANI watched by the flickering light of a single candle as a bat flew hither and yon around his simple room in Reggio nell’Emilia, Italy. Then he made a remarkable observation: when he blew out the candle, the bat’s flight was unaffected. It flew in total darkness as if it were light! Spallanzani, an ordained Catholic priest and tireless, self-taught scientist, knew this because he had tied some string around one of the bat’s bony ankles. Holding tightly to it like a strange kite, he occasionally felt the bat tugging in different directions as it flew around in the pitch-black room. When he repeated the test with his tame barn owl – or “night-bird”, as he called it – the owl became clumsy in total darkness. It flew into the walls. It collided gracelessly with objects in the room. How was the bat different to the owl? With this simple question i n 1793, Spallanzani began an ingenious series of experiments that still hold up today – in terms of rigour, if not ethics. His studies might have been revolutionary, if everyone had known about them. Instead, most of the work went unpublished. It was sent in letters to correspondents. Other findings he committed to notebooks, unread until the 1940s. Instead, it would take another century and a half from the time of his discovery for researchers to uncover the complex system of echolocation that bats use to navigate. Born in 1729, Spallanzani wrote widely about the natural world – about swallows, owls and eels. His interests seemed endless. He filled his notebooks with observations about reproduction, breathing and the maintenance of body temperature. He was widely known as an expert on sperm. In one study, he proved that sperm is involved in frog reproduction by dressing male frogs in tight taffeta pants to prevent its release. He was so industrious that his contemporaries called him Magnifico. And as you might expect from any historical figure with such a nickname, he was zealous. For example, to better understand digestion, he swallowed little food-filled cheesecloth bags tied to string and, at regular intervals, hauled them up from his stomach to assess their contents.
11-15-17 Porpoises twist laws of physics to aim their focused sonar beams
Porpoises scrunch up their heads to direct their sonar beams and keep prey within "sight". Understanding how they point sound could help us design better sonar. PORPOISES have the combination of acoustic controls built into their heads to thank for their ability to focus a directed beam of sonar on prey. The bone, air and tissues in their skulls behave like a metamaterial, a material designed to defy the normal laws of physics. These sea mammals can convert non-directional sound waves into a narrow laser of sound. Like dolphins, porpoises use echolocation to detect prey under water up to 30 metres away. To do this, they emit high frequency clicks in a focused beam in front of their faces, controlling the direction of the beam without moving their heads. They can also widen the beam as they approach their target, helping them catch fish that try to escape. How they focus the beam is something of a mystery, particularly as the structures that produce the sound – called phonic lips – are smaller than the wavelength of the clicks they produce. This should result in the waveform being spread out instead of targeted. A large fatty organ in the front of the head, called the melon, appears to be important, but the details of the role it plays have been unclear. To investigate, Yu Zhang of Xiamen University in China and his colleagues have carried out computed tomography (CT) scans of a finless porpoise to measure the acoustic properties of different tissues in its head. Their work will be published in Physical Review Applied. They have also gathered field recordings of porpoise signals and built a mathematical model to simulate how porpoises generate and control their sound beams.
11-15-17 Coconut crabs are a bird’s worst nightmare
A biologist documents the balance of crab and bird populations on a remote archipelago. Imagine you’re a red-footed booby napping on a not-quite-high-enough branch of a tree. It’s nighttime on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and you can’t see much of what’s around you. Then, out of the darkness comes a monster. Its claw grabs you, breaking bones and dragging you to the ground. You don’t realize it yet, but you’re doomed. The creature breaks more of your bones. You struggle, but it’s a fruitless effort. Soon the other monsters smell your blood and converge on your body, ripping it apart over the next few hours. The monster in this horror-film scenario is a coconut crab, the world’s largest terrestrial invertebrate, which has a leg span wider than a meter and can weigh more than four kilograms. But this is no page from a screenplay. Biologist Mark Laidre of Dartmouth University actually witnessed this scene in March 2016, during a two-month field expedition to study the crabs in the Chagos Archipelago.
11-15-17 Spiders reset body clocks to avoid 5-hour jet-lag every day
Some species of spider have short biological clocks that have to be reset each morning. Being out of sync with the 24-hour cycle in this way might help them avoid prey. Some species of spider have such short biological clocks that it’s like they are jetlagged by more than five hours every morning. Somehow, they seem to feel no ill effects. Small orb-weaver spiders are the most common kind of spiders that make a circular web. They become active during the night, hunting prey and rebuilding a clean web during the pre-dawn hours. To study these spiders’ rhythms, Biologist Darrell Moore of East Tennessee State University and his team documented the activity patterns of different closely related orb-weaver species. The spiders were placed in glass tubes in darkness and their activity was monitored by infrared sensors. Moore found that three of the species had biological clocks averaging just 17,4, 18.5, and 19 hours. He also identified two species that have exceptionally slow clocks, averaging 28.2 and 28.5 hours respectively, and one species that is completely arrhythmic — without an internal clock at all. Then the team conducted shift experiments, advancing or delaying daylight by 6 hours. They found that the spiders were able to adjust within 24 hours, where other animals would be jetlagged and out of sync for about a week.
11-14-17 These spiders may have the world’s fastest body clocks
Three arachnid species experience the equivalent of five-hour jet lag every day. If it takes you a while to recover from a few lost hours of sleep, be grateful you aren’t an orb weaver. Three orb-weaving spiders — Allocyclosa bifurca, Cyclosa turbinata and Gasteracantha cancriformis — may have the shortest natural circadian rhythms discovered in an animal thus far, researchers reported November 12 at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting. Most animals have natural body clocks that run closer to the 24-hour day-night cycle, plus or minus a couple hours, and light helps reset the body’s timing each day. But the three orb weavers’ body clocks average at about 17.4, 18.5 and 19 hours respectively. This means the crawlers must shift their cycle of activity and inactivity — the spider equivalent of wake and sleep cycles — by about five hours each day to keep up with the normal solar cycle. “That’s like flying across more than five time zones, and experiencing that much jet lag each day in order to stay synchronized with the typical day-night cycle,” said Darrell Moore, a neurobiologist at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.
11-14-17 Prairie vole partners split up if one drinks more than the other
Prairie voles mate for life, but the bond is likely to break down if one partner drinks more alcohol than the other. Heavy drinkers and abstainers don’t make the best couples. In humans, one partner that drinks more than the other is thought to be a recipe for a breakup. The same appears to be true for prairie voles, one of the only other mammals known to form long-term monogamous relationships. The finding suggests the link between alcohol consumption and relationship failure may have a biological basis, say the researchers. “There is an increase in divorce in couples in which there is discordant drinking,” says Andrey Ryabinin at Oregon Health and Science University. Money is thought to play a role, but nobody knows the precise causes because a randomised study in people would be unethical. “You can’t tell people to start drinking,” he says. To explore the question in animals, Ryabinin and his colleague Andre Walcott turned to prairie voles: the only rodents known to form lasting, monogamous relationships. “They maintain the same pair bond for their entire lives,” says Ryabinin. Unlike other rodents, both partners take care of offspring. And rather than leaving the nest as soon as they reach adolescence, the young stay and look after their younger siblings. Prairie voles are also the only rodents known to willingly drink alcohol. While mice and rats avoid the stuff, prairie voles prefer it to water, says Ryabinin. Ryabinin has previously shown that alcohol consumption affects prairie vole relationships. When given a choice between their partner and a new female, male voles that drank more alcohol were more likely to go and mate with the new female than those that abstained. Alcohol seemed to have the opposite effect in females – those that drank more alcohol more strongly preferred their original partner.
11-13-17 Monkeys learn to play ‘chicken’ in a virtual driving game
Macaque monkeys have been trained to play a computer version of “chicken”, driving virtual cards towards each other to see who flinches first. Monkeys have something in common with daredevil teenagers: an aptitude for the potentially deadly car driving contest, “chicken”. In the human version of the game, two people drive their cars towards each other down a long, straight road. Whoever turns aside first is the chicken; if neither does, there’s a head-on crash. Four macaques were trained to play a version of this nerve-testing game on a computer, getting rewards of fruit juice if they avoid a crash. They were given the most juice if they were the one who didn’t give up and swerve. In parallels with human social mores, more submissive monkeys were more likely to swerve. “Hierarchy really matters,” says Wei Song Ong, of the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a bit like James Dean.” Pairs of macaques played the game while sitting across from each other at a table-top computer screen, using joysticks to control their cars. As well as watching the progress of their cars on the screen below, Ong’s team found that the monkeys often looked at each other’s eyes. Monkeys that were about to yield tended to look to the side of the screen, where their car was about to veer off – information that could be exploited by their partner to avoid yielding if the other is about to. “If one monkey sees the other is looking at the swerve target, we think they are attributing intention to that,” says Ong.
11-13-17 The Lord Howe stick insect is officially back from the dead
DNA evidence shows the insects survived what scientists thought was an extinction. It’s a rare triumph when a species comes back from the dead. A new genetic analysis has officially established what many entomologists and conservation biologists hoped was true: The Lord Howe stick insect (Dryococelus australis) lives. Nicknamed “tree lobsters,” the dark-brown crawlers are nocturnal, flightless creatures that can grow up to 15 centimeters long. They feed on tea trees, which are dense shrubs found on Lord Howe Island in New South Wales, Australia. Black rats, introduced to the island in the 1920s, wiped out the walking sticks. Or so researchers thought. In 2001, scientists climbing Ball’s Pyramid, a treacherous rocky outcrop southeast of Lord Howe Island, discovered three stick insects feeding on a lone bush. The following year, researchers spotted 24 more. The insects looked eerily similar to the Lord Howe insects, but some physical differences between the new finds and museum specimens called for genetic testing to see if the two were the same. Now, a comparison of the DNA of the Ball’s Pyramid stick insects with that of the museum specimens from Lord Howe suggests that the two are the same species. Though the museum specimens have a flatter body, larger spines on their legs and a lighter brown coloring, DNA found within the mitochondria of the two populations is more than 99 percent identical, the researchers report October 23 in Current Biology.
11-10-17 Watch a monkey floss its teeth with a bird feather
Nicobar long-tailed macaques have learned to use an array of tools, from wrapping prickly food in leaves to avoid getting hurt, to using bird feathers to floss their teeth. Monkeys living on an island have learned to use a startling variety of tools and techniques to obtain the juicy innards of different foods – and to floss their teeth afterwards. The Nicobar long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis umbrosus) is only found on three islands in the eastern Indian Ocean. One of them is Great Nicobar Island. To find out about the macaques’ eating habits, Honnavalli Kumara at the Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History in Coimbatore, India, and colleagues followed 20 around a small coastal village on the island. Many of the macaques’ favoured foods are thorny, slimy, hairy or mucky. To get rid of these inedible coatings, the macaques either wash the foods in puddles or wrap them in leaves and rub them clean. They also wrap leaves around certain foods to make them easier to hold. Trash like paper, cloth or plastic is also used for wrapping and wiping foods. The macaques eat coconuts too, plucking them from the tree by twisting them around or using their teeth to cut them off. If it is tender, the macaques de-husk the coconut using their teeth, holding it down with their feet and hands, in order to get to the water and juicy bits inside. If the coconut is ripe, however, they also have to crack its shell. To do so, they take it to a hard surface like a rock or concrete, and pound it. It’s not just tool use. The macaques were seen beating bushes with their hands to disturb insects hiding within, catching those that fly out or drop to the ground.
11-9-17 Crested pigeons sound the alarm with their wings
Specialized feathers produce high and low tones when the birds flee in a hurry. Crested pigeons communicate without even opening their beaks. The birds have a built-in alarm system that’s set off by fluttering feathers when flying away from danger, researchers report November 9 in Current Biology. In animals, nonvocal sounds are not uncommon. “All animals produce sound as we move, even humans, and that sound can be useful to those that hear it,” says study coauthor Trevor Murray, a biologist at the Australian National University in Canberra. Among birds, the go-to instruments for creating these sounds are the wings. Some birds, like Ecuador’s club-winged manakins, use wing sounds in mating rituals, while other species such as mourning doves make nonvocal sounds in times of perceived peril (SN: 7/30/05, p. 67). But whether such noises truly represent communication in the same manner that bird songs and calls do is hard to prove. Crested pigeons (Ochyphaps lophotes) have 10 primary flight feathers on each wing. The eighth — that is, the third from the top of a bird’s extended wing — doesn’t look like a normal feather; it’s slender and oddly shaped. A 2009 study suggested that this specialized wing feather might be behind the noisy takeoffs that occur when crested pigeons sense danger.
11-9-17 This deep-sea fish uses weird eyes to see in dark and light
The pearlside contradicts previously held ideas about rods and cones. Light-sensitive cells in the eyes of some fish do double-duty. In pearlsides, cells that look like rods — the stars of low-light vision — actually act more like cones, which only respond to brighter light, researchers report November 8 in Science Advances. It’s probably an adaptation to give the deep-sea fish acute vision at dawn and dusk, when they come to the surface of the water to feed. Rods and cones studding the retina can work in tandem to give an animal good vision in a wide variety of light conditions. Some species that live in dark environments, like many deep-sea fish, have dropped cones entirely. But pearlside eyes have confused scientists: The shimmery fish snack at the water’s surface at dusk and dawn, catching more sun than fish that feed at night. Most animals active at these times of day use a mixture of rods and cones to see, but pearlside eyes appear to contain only rods. “That’s actually not the case when you look at it in more detail,” says study coauthor Fanny de Busserolles, a sensory biologist at the University of Queensland in Australia. She and her colleagues investigated which light-responsive genes those rod-shaped cells were turning on. The cells were making light-sensitive proteins usually found in cones, the researchers found, rather than the rod-specific versions of those proteins.
11-9-17 Portuguese trawler nets 'prehistoric shark'
Portuguese scientists have captured a "shark from the age of the dinosaurs" off the Algarve coast. Researchers caught the rare frilled shark aboard a trawler, where they were working on a European Union project to "minimise unwanted catches in commercial fishing", Sic Noticias TV reports. The scientists from the country's Institute for the Sea and Atmosphere dubbed the shark a "living fossil" because remains have been dated back 80 million years, making it one of very few species of such antiquity still around today. The Institute said the male fish measured 1.5 metres (5ft) in length and was caught at a depth of 700 metres (2,300 ft) in waters off the resort of Portimao. The shark, which has a long, slim, snake-like body, is "little known in terms of its biology or environment", according to the scientists, because it lives at great depths in the Atlantic and off the coasts of Australia, New Zealand and Japan. It is rarely caught, and even then examples do not often make it to research laboratories. There is also little footage of the shark in its natural habitat. Professor Margarida Castro of the University of the Algarve told Sic Noticias that the shark gets its name from the frilled arrangement of its 300 teeth, "which allows it to trap squid, fish and other sharks in sudden lunges". The reporter dubbed it a "monster of the deep", and it is true that Samuel Garman, the first scientist to study the frilled shark, thought its snake-like movements may have inspired sailors' stories of sea serpents.
11-9-17 Extinct wolf-sized otter had powerful bite
A giant otter that roamed southwestern China six million years ago had a surprisingly strong bite and could have been a top predator, say scientists. Studies of the animal's fossilised skull reveal that it had the chewing ability of a bear. Unlike its living relatives, which feed on fish and shellfish, the otter may have eaten a wide range of prey. It was capable of crushing big mollusc shells or the bones of birds and rodents, according to a new study. The research, published in the journal, Scientific Reports, provides insight into the life of this oversized otter. Known as Siamogale melilutra, it weighed more than 50kg and was the size of a wolf. Not only was it larger than living otters, but its jaws were more powerful. "We conducted a series of engineering simulations on the jaw models of fossil otters as well as ten living otter species and what we found was that the fossil otter had a jaw that was six times as strong as expected, based on what we see in living species," Dr Jack Tseng of the University at Buffalo, US, who led the research, told BBC News. The fossil record of the animal is incomplete. The few skull fragments that have been discovered were found in what was once a swamp or shallow lake surrounded by evergreen forest or dense woodland. The site, known as Shuitangba, has yielded hundreds of fossils of animals and plants, which are exceptionally well preserved.
11-9-17 Honeybees fumble their way to blueberry pollination
But the berry pollen doesn’t end up in the insects’ hives. Honeybees may be the world’s most famous pollinator, but a new study shows that blueberry blooms reduce the insects to improvisational klutzes. Not useless ones though. Pollination specialists have realized that the pollen haul found in hives of Apis mellifera honeybees has little, if any, from blueberry flowers, ecologist George Hoffman said November 5 at the Entomology 2017 meeting. Yet big commercial blueberry growers bring in hives of honeybees in the belief that the insects will help wild pollinators and boost the berry harvest. It isn’t easy for honeybees to stick their heads into jar-shaped blueberry flowers, which narrow at the top, to get at the nectar. Nor do honeybees do the buzz-in-place move that some other bees use to shake pollen out of the pores on the blueberry flower anthers. Still, fumbling honeybees often get blueberry pollen on their bodies as they grab and stretch, sometimes even poking a leg down into a bloom. In more than 60 percent of bee visits analyzed, a leg brushed against the receptive female part of the flower, Hoffman, of Oregon State University in Corvallis, found. And more of the pollen sticks to their legs than to the more usual pollination pickup spots around the bees’ heads, he observed (SN: 9/30/17, p. 32).
11-9-17 Giant coconut crab sneaks up on a sleeping bird and kills it
Coconut crabs were thought to be purely opportunistic scavengers, but these huge arthropods are actually active predators that may dominate their island homes. A giant coconut crab has been filmed stalking, killing and devouring a seabird. It is the first time these whopping crustaceans have been seen actively hunting large, back-boned animals, and suggests they might dominate their island ecosystems. Coconut crabs (Birgus latro), also known as robber crabs, are an imposing sight. They can weigh up to 4 kilograms, as much as a house cat, and sport legs that span almost a metre. This makes them the largest invertebrates – animals without backbones – on land. The crabs live on coral atolls in the tropical Indian and Pacific oceans. They are renowned for their tree-climbing abilities and taste for coconuts, which they crack open with their powerful claws. They do sometimes eat meat, but until now it was thought that they only obtained it by opportunistic scavenging. Between January and March 2016, Mark Laidre of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire visited the Chagos Archipelago, a remote series of atolls in the Indian Ocean. Chagos is ideal for studying coconut crabs: it is in pristine condition, is surrounded by one of the largest marine reserves on Earth and has lots of coconut crabs, making them easier to find and observe. One night, Laidre saw a coconut crab slowly climb a tree and so he began filming. The crab inched towards a common seabird called a red-footed booby, which was sleeping in a nest near the ground. It then lunged with a claw, pinching and breaking the bone in one of the bird’s wings and causing it to tumble out of the tree.
11-8-17 EPA OKs first living pest-control mosquito for use in United States
Asian tiger mosquitoes made bad dad by Wolbachia bacteria can suppress local populations. In a big step toward catching up with the rest of the world, the United States cleared the way for using mosquitoes as a commercial pest control for the first time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved using a strain of male Asian tiger mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus) as a biopesticide in the District of Columbia and 20 states, including California and New York. Kentucky-based MosquitoMate was granted the right to sell these mosquitoes, called ZAP Males, for the next five years, the agency announced November 7. These male mosquitoes are not genetically modified. Instead they carry a strain of Wolbachia bacteria that turns them into saboteur dads. When they mate with wild females not carrying the strain, the offspring will die and the population should dwindle. Males don’t bite, so releasing them should not add extra vexation. Releases of Wolbachia-bearing mosquitoes for pest control already go on in other countries, such as Brazil, although with a different bacterial strain and a different strategy.
11-8-17 Sheep learn to recognise celebrity faces from different angles
The animals were as good as humans at recognising mugshots of the same celebs from different angles, showing sophisticated brain processing of imagery. They’re looking at ewe. Sheep have shown an unexpected capacity to recognise straight mugshots of four celebrities, but then to identify those same megastars in side profiles they’d not seen before. Humans and monkeys are the only other creatures known to do this from two-dimensional images. The eight sheep that took part were trained to familiarise themselves with straight mugshots of four celebrities: former US president Barack Obama, UK newsreader Fiona Bruce, and actors Emma Watson and Jack Gyllenhaal. The sheep viewed pairs of pictures, one of which was always one of the four celebrities. They “chose” the celeb pic by approaching it, and were rewarded with a cereal pellet in the trough below. They got nothing if they chose the other image. At first, the celebrity mugshots were paired with black oblongs, then with non-human objects shaped like faces, and finally with mugshots of other people selected because they looked like the celebrities. By the end of training, the sheep correctly picked the celebrity over the stranger 79 per cent of the time. Next, the researchers showed the sheep the same celebs and a stranger, but now both faces were shown as left- or right-sided profiles. This tested whether the sheep were simply recognising the mugshots as stand-alone images, or actually identifying the people. Again, the sheep excelled, picking out the celebs in 66 per cent of their choices.
11-8-17 Sheep 'can recognise human faces'
Sheep have demonstrated the ability to recognise familiar human faces, according to a study. Cambridge University researchers were able to train sheep to identify the faces of actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Emma Watson, former US President Barack Obama and BBC newsreader Fiona Bruce. After training, the sheep chose photos of familiar faces over unfamiliar ones significantly more often than not. It shows that sheep possess similar face recognition abilities to primates. Previous studies had shown that sheep could identify other sheep and human handlers that they already knew. "What we did is ask whether a sheep could learn to recognise someone from a photograph," the study's lead author Prof Jenny Morton said. "We focused on whether or not an animal was capable of processing a two-dimensional object as a person." (Webmaster's comment: Studies have shown crows can recognize faces of humans that have threatened them. It's a survival factor for them.)
11-7-17 Face it: Sheep are just like us when it comes to recognizing people
In facial-recognition tests, the animals picked images of familiar faces over pictures of strangers. Emma Watson, Jake Gyllenhaal, journalist Fiona Bruce and Barack Obama all walk into a sheep pen. No, this isn’t the beginning of a baaa-d joke. By training sheep using pictures of these celebrities, researchers from the University of Cambridge discovered that the animals are able to recognize familiar faces from 2-D images. Given a choice, the sheep picked the familiar celebrity’s face over an unfamiliar face the majority of the time, the researchers report November 8 in Royal Society Open Science. Even when a celeb’s face was slightly tilted rather than face-on, the sheep still picked the image more often than not. That means the sheep were not just memorizing images, demonstrating for the first time that sheep have advanced face-recognition capabilities similar to those of humans and other primates, say neurobiologist Jennifer Morton and her colleagues. Sheep have been known to pick out pictures of individuals in their flock, and even familiar handlers (SN: 10/6/12, p. 20). But it’s been unclear whether the skill was real recognition or simple memorization. Sheep now join other animals, including horses, dogs, rhesus macaques and mockingbirds, that are able to distinguish between individuals of other species. (Webmaster's comment: Even crows can recognize different humans and communicate dangerous humans to other crows. I suspect most animals are much better at facial recognition than humans are. We can't tell one crow from another.)
11-7-17 India award for burning elephant photo
An image of two elephants fleeing a mob that set them on fire has won top entry in a wildlife photography competition. Biplab Hazra's picture shows a calf on fire as it and an adult elephant run for their lives in eastern India. Announcing the award, Sanctuary magazine said "this sort of humiliation... is routine". The photo was taken in West Bengal, where human-elephant conflict is rife. It's unclear what eventually happened to the two elephants in the award-winning picture, which was taken in Bankura district. The district has often been in the news for human deaths caused by encounters with elephants. (Webmaster's comment: The most primitive nation on earth continues to earn its reputation! Gang rapes and murders, burning wives alive after their husband's natural deaths, drinking out of the sewer of a river, the Ganges, only half the population has toilets, the list is endless.)
11-7-17 Why burying loved ones in unmarked graves could save wildlife
If we all abandoned traditional burials and instead were buried in nature reserves, the money raised could help preserve every endangered species on land. It’s the circle of life. Natural burials are not only better for the environment, they could also help raise billions of dollars for conservation – in theory, almost enough to help preserve every threatened species on land. Traditional burials contaminate the soil with embalming chemicals and coffin materials, while cremation pollutes the air. They are also expensive, typically costing around $7000. However, there is a growing interest in natural burials, in which bodies are buried in biodegradable containers. The existing landscape is preserved as much as possible. Loved ones find the site using GPS, or natural markers like trees. The latest development is conservation burials. These use the money saved from switching to cheaper natural burials to fund conservation. Tracts of land are turned into burial sites that double as refuges for endangered native species. For example, Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina is a 28-hectare conservation burial site. Bodies are naturally buried in a forest and planted over with endangered native species, like crested coralroot orchids (Hexalectris spicata) and purple-flowered flaxleaf false foxgloves (Agalinis linifolia). The park also provides protection for coyotes, black bears and birds. Matthew Holden at the University of Queensland in Australia calculated how much could be raised if conservation burials became commonplace in the US. He found that, if the 1.2 million Americans buried traditionally each year instead had natural burials, $3.8 billion could be channelled to conservation.
11-5-17 Invasive species are a growing global threat
New book blames invasions on climate change and humankind. Burmese pythons are consuming large numbers of mammals in the Everglades and nearby ecosystems. Remote Bouvet Island, a tiny, glacier-smothered landmass in the South Atlantic rimmed by 500-meter-tall cliffs, has a notable distinction: It’s the only known spot on Earth, scientists say, that has zero invasive species. Every other place, and every person, on the planet is at least indirectly affected by one or more species that has been transported — either intentionally or inadvertently — to new lands from the ecosystems in which the species evolved. In The Aliens Among Us, biologist and science journalist Leslie Anthony chronicles the detrimental effects of invasive species, as well as how these organisms spread and how they can be fought. In the United States, such interlopers — everything from zebra mussels in the Great Lakes to Burmese pythons in the Everglades — damage crops, infrastructure or otherwise cost taxpayers about $145 billion annually. Invasive species, Anthony writes, are “children born of globalization and consumerism.” Their numbers increase as international trade widens and accelerates. Some species surreptitiously hitch a ride to their new homes on human transport: Think seeds and burrs on hikers’ clothing, or fish in ballast water of cargo ships. Others have been deliberately released, like earthworms or baitfish set loose by fishermen, or exotic lizards and snakes set free by careless pet owners. Rats, the world’s foremost invasive species, have traveled the world with explorers and traders; so have tropical fire ants, which genetic studies suggest have hitchhiked from southwestern Mexico to Asia and beyond starting in the 16th century in soil used as ballast in Spanish ships.
11-4-17 This robot was inspired by bees. And it can swim.
"What's better than a robot inspired by bees? A robot inspired by bees that can swim." "What's better than a robot inspired by bees? A robot inspired by bees that can swim," said Katherine Ellen Foley at Quartz. Researchers guided by a team of scientists from Harvard University have developed a tiny, bee-size bot, weighing the same as "about two feathers," to study the ocean. The robot has "insect-inspired wings that can both flap and rotate," allowing it to dive into water, swim, take off again, and land safely. It also comes equipped with its own "little chemical lab" to help it break the water's surface tension after it has taken a plunge. The bot converts water into oxygen and hydrogen, and once enough gas is generated, "a lighter sets it on fire, the force of which shoots the robot about 12 inches into the air." Scientists hope the robots will be able to "keep tabs on fish and algae populations," monitor water pollution, and even participate in search-and-rescue missions at sea.
11-3-17 A last refuge for Europe's blighted killer whales
Europe's killer whales wowed in the BBC's Blue Planet II series but these animals face extinction. Chris Gibson travelled to the small Norwegian island of Kvaløya where the orcas retain a strong foothold. But for how much longer? It was one of those television moments. The sight of killer whales herding shoals of herring into tighter and tighter balls to trap the prey near the surface of the water. The killer whales work as a pack of skilful hunters before deploying their secret weapon - tail-slapping the fish so hard they are either dazed or die. The story behind those shots is even more remarkable. They were filmed in the majestic Norwegian fjords. These long, narrow inlets are now among the few places in Europe you can see a pod of killer whales. Across Europe, these cetaceans are declining rapidly. In the Mediterranean and the North Sea, they have vanished. Elsewhere, there are now only eight killer whales in the NW Scotland-Ireland population, and only 36 left in the Strait of Gibraltar population. Scientists believe they are doomed to extinction due to harmful chemicals manufactured by man. (Webmaster's comment: As are all the animal populations of the world. We are in the middle of a mass extinction caused by the world's greatest enemy, MAN!)
11-3-17 Here’s why some water striders have fans on their legs
The appendages help the insects navigate flowing water For an animal already amazing enough to walk on water, what could growing feather fans on its legs possibly add? These fans have preoccupied Abderrahman Khila of the University of Lyon in France, who keeps some 30 species of bugs called water striders walking the tanks in his lab without getting their long, elegant legs wet. “Walk” may be too humdrum a word. The 2,200 or so known species of water striders worldwide can zip, skim, skate and streak. Among such damp-defying acrobats, however, only the Rhagovelia genus grows a fan of delicate feathers on the middle pair of its six legs. Even little hatchlings head-banging their way out of underwater eggs have a pair of feathery microfluffs for their perilous swim up to cruise the water’s surface. A first guess at a function — maybe plumes help support bigger adults — would be wrong, Khila says. The Rhagovelia are not giants among water striders. In a jar of alcohol in his lab, he treasures a specimen of a much bigger species, with a body about the size of a peanut and a leg span that can straddle a CD. Yet this King Kong among striders, found in Vietnam and China, slides over the water as other species do, cushioned by air trapped in dense hydrophobic leg bristles. No froufrou feathers needed.
11-3-17 Why dogs make puppy eyes
All dog owners have fallen victim to “puppy eyes,” the wide-eyed, pleading look from their pet that’s virtually impossible to resist. But a new study find that dogs do not use these heart-melting expressions just to get food. They’re trying to connect with us. Researchers recorded the behaviors and measured the facial expressions of 24 family dogs of various breeds, under four different scenarios: with a person either facing them or turned away, and either holding food or empty-handed. They found that the pets were significantly more expressive—raising their eyebrows and widening their eyes—when someone was looking at them, regardless of whether or not treats were involved, LiveScience.com reports. Lead author Juliane Kaminski, from the University of Portsmouth in England, says the findings suggest dogs’ expressions are “potentially active attempts to communicate, not simple emotional displays.” The researchers speculate that over the 30,000 years in which dogs have evolved alongside humans, they have learned that people are typically drawn to baby-like traits such as big, round eyes.
11-3-17 Man’s best friend
Man’s best friend, after two new studies found that people have more empathy for dogs suffering pain than human beings in pain, and would be more likely to donate money to save a homeless dog than a homeless person.
11-3-17 Australia cockatoos chew billion-dollar broadband
Australia's multimillion dollar broadband network is under attack - from cockatoos. The National Broadband Network (NBN) company said it has spent tens of thousands of dollars so far fixing cables chewed by the birds. Australian broadband is already criticised for being slow. According to a recent report it ranks 50th in the world for internet speed. NBN estimates the bill will rise sharply as more damage is uncovered. In an attempt to improve Australia's internet speed - currently lagging behind many developed countries at 11.1 megabits per second - a national telecommunications infrastructure project has been instigated and is due for completion in 2021. (Webmaster's comment: America ranks 28th.)
11-3-17 Alligators eat sharks — and a whole lot more
A alligator was spotted munching a nurse shark in a wildlife refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida, in August 2003, helping to confirm that shark is part of some gators’ diets. Alligators don’t just stick to freshwater and the prey they find there. These crafty reptiles can live quite easily, at least for a bit, in salty waters and find plenty to eat — including crabs, sea turtles and even sharks. “They should change the textbooks,” says James Nifong, an ecologist with the Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Kansas State University in Manhattan, who has spent years documenting the estuarine gator diet. Nifong’s most recent discovery, splashed all over the news last month, is that the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) eats at least three species of shark and two species of rays, he and wildlife biologist Russell Lowers report in the September Southeastern Naturalist. Lowers captured a female gator with a young Atlantic stingray in her jaws near where he works at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. And he and Nifong gathered several other eyewitness accounts: A U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee spotted a gator consuming a nurse shark in a Florida mangrove swamp in 2003. A birder photographed an alligator eating a bonnethead shark in a Florida salt marsh in 2006. One of Nifong’s collaborators, a marine turtle researcher, saw gators consuming both bonnethead and lemon sharks in the late 1990s. And Nifong found yet another report of a gator eating a bonnethead shark in Hilton Head, S.C., after their paper was published. All of these snacks required gators to venture into salty waters.
11-3-17 Cephalopod parade
Dozens of octopuses marched out of the sea and up a Welsh beach this week, alarming beachgoers, one of whom likened the scene to “an end-of-days scenario.” Passersby tried to return the curled octopuses—which measured about 20 inches in length—to the water, only to find some of them washed up dead the next day. Some scientists speculated that recent heavy storms might have confused or injured the animals. Others said they might just be addled with old age: Extremely intelligent, octopuses live for only about a year, dying soon after they lay their eggs.
11-3-17 Leafhoppers use tiny light-absorbing balls to conceal their eggs
The insects produce the antireflective microspheres themselves. Nature has no shortage of animal camouflage tricks. One newly recognized form of deception, used by plant-eating insects called leafhoppers, was thought to have a whole different purpose. Leafhoppers are found worldwide in temperate and tropical regions. Most of the insects, of which there are about 20,000 described species, produce small quantities of microspheres called brochosomes — tiny soccer ball–like particles with honeycomb indentations. Researchers figured out that the brochosomes, which leafhoppers rub on their bodies, were used primarily to make the insects water-repellent. But why the bugs also used the balls to cover their eggs, which the insects lay on young leaves, was a mystery. Now, using a novel method to manufacture brochosomes in large quantities, engineers found that the microparticles have the exact shape and size to prevent reflection of light in any direction. As a result, surfaces covered with brochosomes appear similar to a leaf in the spectrum of light that is visible to insects, mechanical engineer Tak-Sing Wong and his team at Penn State report online November 3 in Nature Communications. That suggests that the antireflective property of the spheres functions as camouflage for the eggs, protecting them from would-be predators such as birds or other insects.
11-2-17 There is a third species of orangutan and somehow nobody noticed
Meet your newest cousin. We thought there were only two species of orangutan, but the discovery of the Tapanuli orangutan means there are three. The hominid family just got a little bigger. A new orangutan species has been found hiding in the forests of Sumatra. The Tapanuli orangutan is only the third orangutan species, and the seventh non-human great ape. But they may not be around for long: there are only 800 of them and they live in an area smaller than London. For years, researchers have recognised two species of orangutan living in Indonesia: the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran orangutan (P. abelii). Both are critically endangered. In the late 1930s there were reports of a population of orangutans in Tapanuli, in the Batang Toru area, south of the range of Sumatran orangutans, but the claims were never fully investigated. The Tapanuli population was only rediscovered in 1997 by Erik Meijaard at the Australian National University in Canberra. Initial genetic studies suggested the population was unique, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the nearest orangutan neighbours were 100 kilometres away. Then in 2013, a male Tapanuli orangutan called Raya died of his wounds after a conflict with local villagers. Finally, scientists were able to study a Tapanuli specimen and compare it to its Sumatran and Bornean brethren.
11-2-17 No more than 800 orangutans from this newly identified species remain
Endangered population represents oldest surviving red ape lineage. Orangutans living in forested foothills on the Indonesian island of Sumatra represent a previously unknown species, researchers say. Skeletal and genetic evidence puts these apes on a separate evolutionary trajectory from other orangutans in Sumatra (Pongo abelii) and Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), says a team led by evolutionary anthropologist Michael Krützen of the University of Zurich. The researchers named the new species Pongo tapanuliensis, or the Tapanuli orangutan. Krützen’s team reports its findings online November 2 in Current Biology. The name P. tapanuliensis refers to three north Sumatran districts — North, Central and South Tapanuli — where no more than 800 of these orangutans inhabit several forested areas. Tapanuli orangutans live on the brink of extinction due to road construction, illegal forest clearing and killings by villagers and hunters, the scientists say. Estimates vary, but the World Wildlife Fund puts the total number of living orangutans at nearly 120,000.
11-2-17 New great ape species identified in Indonesia
Scientists who have been puzzling for years over the genetic "peculiarity" of a tiny population of orangutans in Sumatra have finally concluded that they are a new species to science. The apes in question were only reported to exist after an expedition into the remote mountain forests there in 1997. Since then, a research project has unpicked their biological secret. The species has been named the Tapanuli orangutan - a third species in addition to the Bornean and Sumatran. It is the first new great ape to be described for almost a century. Publishing their work in the journal Current Biology, the team - including researchers from the University of Zurich, Liverpool John Moores University and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme - pointed out that there are only 800 individuals remaining, making this one of the world's most threatened ape species.
11-2-17 Ants were among the world’s first farmers
Leaf-cutter ants (Atta laevigata) cultivate fungus gardens in Brazil. Ant species belonging to this genus have been tending fungus gardens for some 60 million years. Finding the chemical basis for the close association between the Attine ants, inhabiting an area extending from Argentina to the southern United States, and the fungus they culture is the aim of research … by Prof. Michael M. Martin of the University of Michigan. Although many animals feed on fungi, the culturing of fungus by the Attine ants is the only known example of creatures growing their own. — Science News, November 11, 1967 Update: Attine ants, a group of more than 200 species, began cultivating fungus “gardens” for food around 60 million years ago. Total codependence between the ants and fungi evolved around 30 million years ago, scientists wrote in April in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. During a global shift to a more arid climate with long seasonal dry periods, the moisture-loving fungi may have had a harder time surviving outside of ant-tended plots. Ants also became more dependent on fungi, losing, among other things, the ability to produce the amino acid arginine.
11-1-17 A third of animals are vanishing as roads spread through forests
The world’s forests are being criss-crossed by roads and clearings, and as a result many backboned animals are becoming less abundant. Imagine you could teleport to any forest on Earth. When you land, you have a 50 per cent chance of being within half a kilometre of the forest’s edge. That is how badly our planet’s forests have been sliced and diced. A new study shows that 85 per cent of animals are being affected by living in these dismembered forests. The findings will help conservationists figure out how best to protect these species. While the fragmentation of forests is known to affect biodiversity and ecosystems, the effects studied so far are local and specific to particular species, making for a chaotic picture. Marion Pfeifer of Newcastle University in the UK and her colleagues came up with a new method to make sense of the data. Instead of simply separating regions into forest and non-forest, they also took into account changes to the land that surrounds the forests. Using existing population data, they mapped the abundances of 1673 vertebrate species – including amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals – in 22 tropical regions in the Americas, Asia and Africa. These included many threatened species such as the Sunda pangolin and Baird’s tapir. Of the species whose abundance changed near forest edges, 46 per cent have become more abundant over the last few decades, compared with 39 per cent that became less abundant. This may be good news for some species, although life on the forest edge may well change their behaviours. However, others that prefer to live deep in the forest only reached their peak abundances more than 200 to 400 metres from the forest edges. These species seem to be dependent on large, continuous forests. If forests continue to be fragmented, these species may be driven out.
11-1-17 In Germany, flying insects are disappearing at a rapid rate
"There's basically a kind of wholesale collapse of wild insects". Flying insect populations dropped by more than 75 percent during the last three decades in dozens of protected areas across Germany, researchers have found. A club of mostly amateur entomologists used traps to capture insects and measure their biomass at 63 nature protection areas in Germany since 1989. "It's not just one species, it seems there's basically a kind of wholesale collapse of wild insects," says Dave Goulson, a co-author of a study published recently in the online journal PLoS ONE. The study did not pinpoint a reason for the precipitous drop, but Goulson notes that many nature preserves are surrounded by agricultural lands. "I think it's likely [that] it's how the surrounding land is being managed, because the nature reserves themselves haven't really changed, but the surrounding landscape is full of these big monoculture crops treated with lots of insecticides," says Goulson, a biology professor at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K. "We've turned a huge proportion of the surface of the world into a fairly bleak and inhospitable place for life other than the crop." Insects may often seem a nuisance to humans, but they're vital pollinators and food sources for species higher on the food chain. An estimated 80 percent of wild plants species are pollinated by insects, and more than half of birds rely on insects as a food sources, according to the study. "If we were to lose the insects, we would lose most of our crops, we would lose all the flowers from the countryside, and we'd lose most of the bird life, the mammal life, and so on," Goulson told The World in an interview. "So essentially we're talking about complete catastrophe for life on Earth." The study found that the decline in insects occurred regardless of habitat type, and changes in weather patterns, land use, and habitat don't explain the overall decline.
11-1-17 Freeloading mites are squatting on spider webs and stealing food
A newly-discovered species of mite sets up home on a spider’s web and nibbles away at any insects the spider catches – and the spider doesn’t seem to mind. In caves in Brazil, there lives a newly-discovered mite that is a freeloader. Groups of these mites live on a spider’s web and steal its food. They are the first mites known to do this. Leopoldo Ferreira de Oliveira Bernardi at the Federal University of Lavras in Minas Gerais first saw live mites dotting a spider web by the entrance of Brazil’s Lapa Nova cave in 2007. The relationship between mites and spider immediately intrigued him. After observing the same thing in another cave, Bernardi and his colleagues designed an experiment. They placed live bait – a cave moth – on the web of a recluse spider where mites were present. The spider immediately attacked the moth and began feeding. But in the next 5 to 40 minutes, mites, which were previously scattered all over the web, gathered to feed on the moth. The team has named the newly-discovered mite Callidosoma cassiculophylla: “cassiculus” means “spider web” and “phylla” means “friend”. “Spiders and their webs are predictable sources of food, and many animals regularly exploit this resource,” says zoologist Lidianne Salvatierra at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil. “These ‘thieves’ are specialised spiders, scorpion flies, flies, plant bugs, gnats and also hummingbirds.” However, until now mites have never been reported stealing from spiders.
11-1-17 People who illegally kill birds of prey are getting away with it
There were 81 confirmed cases of protected birds of prey being attacked or killed in Britain in 2016, yet the authorities didn’t take a single person to court. The British authorities stand accused of turning a blind eye to “blatant” killings of endangered birds of prey. A new study found 81 confirmed attacks on protected raptors during 2016, but not one prosecution. “In most other countries, they would never have allowed this to occur,” says Arjun Amar, a bird conservationist at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. The cases included 40 shootings and 22 poisonings of hen harriers, peregrine falcons, red kites and buzzards. Yet the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which carried out the Birdcrime study, says they were “the tip of the iceberg”. Most of the incidents were on moorlands in Scotland, the Peak District and North Yorkshire that are used for commercial grouse shooting, the report says. Raptors hunt grouse. Persecution is the main factor limiting the growth of populations of raptors in much of the country, says RSPB investigations officer Guy Shorrock. “There are laws to protect these birds, but they are clearly not being put into action.” In recent years, six people on average have been prosecuted annually for offences against birds of prey, he says. He wouldn’t speculate on why there were none last year. The number of killings is small compared with some other European countries. More than 20 million birds are killed or captured over Europe each year, mostly during mass migrations over the Mediterranean, according to a 2016 study by BirdLife International and others. Perhaps 80,000 of those are raptors. However, the impact of the British losses may be greater because the local raptor populations are so small, says Amar.
11-1-17 Defining ‘species’ is a fuzzy art
A schoolroom word. A vital concept. A beast to define. The funniest thing I’ve ever said to any botanist was, “What is a species?” Well, it certainly got the most spontaneous laugh. I don’t think Barbara Ertter, who doesn’t remember the long-ago moment, was being mean. Her laugh was more of a “where do I even start” response to an almost impossible question. At first glance, “species” is a basic vocabulary word schoolchildren can ace on a test by reciting something close to: a group of living things that create fertile offspring when mating with each other but not when mating with outsiders. Ask scientists who devote careers to designating those species, however, and there’s no typical answer. Scientists do not agree. “You may be stirring up a hornet’s nest,” warns evolutionary zoologist Frank E. Zachos of Austria’s Natural History Museum Vienna when I ask my “what is a species” question. “People sometimes react very emotionally when it comes to species concepts.” He should know, having cataloged 32 of them in his 2016 overview, Species Concepts in Biology. The widespread schoolroom definition above, known as the biological species concept, is No. 2 in his catalog, which he tactfully arranges in alphabetical order. This single concept has been so pervasive that whenever Science News publishes something about species interbreeding, readers want to know if we have lost our grip on logic. Separate species, by definition, can do no such thing.