No matter where you look, just about every creature
is obsessed with:
sex, real estate, who's the boss, and what's for dinner.
43 Animal Intelligence & Zoology News Articles
for March of 2018
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
3-31-18 Rhino census in India's Kaziranga park counts 12 more
A census in India's Kaziranga National Park has counted 2,413 one-horned rhinos - up 12 from 2015. The Unesco World Heritage Site, in Assam state, is home to two-thirds of the world's population of the species. The census is carried out every three years. It is an incredible conservation success story given the fact that there were only a few hundred rhinos in the 1970s, says the BBC's South Asia editor Anbarasan Ethirajan. However, the conservation effort has not been without controversy. The government has in recent years given the park rangers extraordinary powers to protect the animals from harm - powers usually only given to soldiers intervening in civil unrest. About 150 rhinos have been killed for their horns since 2006, but in 2015, park guards shot dead more people than poachers killed rhinos.
3-30-18 Eggshell nanostructure protects a chick and helps it hatch
Nanoscale changes occur as a chicken egg incubates. A chicken eggshell has a tricky job: It must protect a developing chick, but then ultimately let the chick break free. The secret to its success lies in its complex nanostructure — and how that structure changes as the egg incubates. Chicken eggshells are about 95 percent calcium carbonate by mass. But they also contain hundreds of different kinds of proteins that influence how that calcium carbonate crystalizes. The interaction between the mineral crystals and the proteins yields an eggshell that’s initially crack-resistant, while making nanoscale adjustments over time that ultimately let a chick peck its way out, researchers report online March 30 in Science Advances. Researchers used a beam of ions to cut thin cross sections in chicken eggshells. They then analyzed the shells with electron microscopy and other high-resolution imaging techniques. The team found that proteins disrupt the crystallization of calcium carbonate, so that what seems at low resolution to be neatly aligned crystals is actually a more fragmented jumble. This misalignment can make materials more resilient: Instead of spreading unimpeded, a crack must zig and zag through scrambled crystals. Lab tests back up that finding: The researchers added a key shell-building protein called osteopontin to calcium carbonate to yield crystals like those seen in the eggshells. The presence of that protein makes calcium carbonate crystals form in a nanostructured pattern, rather than smooth and even crystal, study coauthor Marc McKee, a biomineralization researcher at McGill University in Montreal, and colleagues found.
3-30-18 How big data changed the way we look at the past
The field of paleontology has been drastically changed by the modern world. In 1981, when I was 9 years old, my father took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. Although I had to squint my eyes during some of the scary scenes, I loved it — in particular because I was fairly sure that Harrison Ford's character was based on my dad. My father was a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, and I'd gone on several field trips with him to the Rocky Mountains, where he seemed to transform into a rock-hammer-wielding superhero. That illusion was shattered some years later when I figured out what he actually did: Far from spending his time climbing dangerous cliffs and digging up dinosaurs, Jack Sepkoski spent most of his career in front of a computer, building what would become the first comprehensive database on the fossil record of life. The analysis that he and his colleagues performed revealed new understandings of phenomena such as diversification and extinction, and changed the way that paleontologists work. But he was about as different from Indiana Jones as you can get. The intertwining tales of my father and his discipline contain lessons for the current era of algorithmic analysis and artificial intelligence (AI), and points to the value-laden way in which we "see" data. My dad was part of a group of innovators in paleontology who identified as "paleobiologists" — meaning that they approached their science not as a branch of geology, but rather as the study of the biology and evolution of past life. Since Charles Darwin's time, paleontology — especially the study of the marine invertebrates that make up most of the record — involved descriptive tasks such as classifying or correlating fossils with layers of the Earth (known as stratigraphy). Some invertebrate paleontologists studied evolution, too, but often these studies were regarded by evolutionary biologists and geneticists as little more than "stamp collecting."
3-29-18 The frogs bouncing back after almost being wiped out by disease
A few amphibian species in Panama are recovering from near-extinction, after apparently evolving resistance to the deadly chytrid fungus. There’s a glimmer of hope for frogs and other amphibians that are being wiped out by a lethal disease. Some now seem to be evolving resistance to the killer “chytrid” fungus. In Panama, 9 affected species have virtually recovered to previous levels. “It offers us all hope,” says Jamie Voyles at the University of Nevada in Reno. The chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) has been causing mass die-offs of amphibians all over the world since the 1980s. The killer fungus is thought to be a hybrid strain created and spread by the global trade in amphibians. Field surveys carried out at three sites in Panama showed that, after the chytrid fungus arrived from 2004 onwards, the populations of many species plummeted. Among the victims were variable harlequin frogs (Atelopus varius), which are now critically endangered, and common rocket frogs (Colostethus panamansis). But continuing surveys by Voyles and her colleagues show that, even though the chytrid fungus is still present, there has been a steady recovery in 9 of the 12 species for which they have good data. The team’s tests show the fungus is just as deadly as before, so the most likely explanation is that these species – like a handful of others – have somehow evolved resistance.
3-29-18 Some frogs may be bouncing back after killer chytrid fungus
Tests show the invasive pathogen isn’t weakening even as some amphibian numbers rise. It’s tough to be a frog once a killer skin fungus moves in. But, in Panama, the amphibians might be fighting back, researchers propose. More than a decade ago, an amphibian-killing chytrid fungus nicknamed Bd swept through the country. Now some frog species that had nearly vanished from three regions are growing easier to spot again. But tests of the pathogen find no signs that it is weakening, says disease ecologist Jamie Voyles at the University of Nevada, Reno. With the fungus as dangerous as ever, frogs becoming resistant to the pathogen might be enabling the recovery, Voyles and her colleagues report in the March 30 Science. Despite any glimmer of hope, it’s too early to celebrate frog recovery, protests ecologist Karen Lips at the University of Maryland in College Park. She doesn’t doubt that researchers have found frogs in the devastated regions, but wants more rigorous monitoring before talking population trends.
3-28-18 How birds focus even with eyes on opposite sides of their heads
Birds find it difficult to fix their gaze on an object, because their eyes don’t face forwards, but one species has found an ingenious solution. It’s difficult to focus your gaze on an object when your eyes are on opposite sides of your head. When European starlings want to focus their gaze, they do so in a unique way: rapidly bobbing their heads from side to side so both eyes get a look. We humans have our eyes on the front of our heads, so their fields of vision overlap, but most birds have theirs on the sides. Scientists have proposed three ways they might focus on an object: use just one eye, look at the object through the small area above their beak where they do have binocular vision, or alternate between using the left and right eye. All three methods would ensure that the most sensitive area of the retina, the fovea, is doing the looking. But when Shannon Butler of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana and her colleagues tracked the gazes of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) using video cameras, they found the birds did not use of any of these strategies. Instead, they used a previously unknown strategy that the team calls “monocular alternating fixation”. The starlings look several times with one eye, then turn their head so the other eye can take several looks, and so on. This results in a bobbing motion of the head. “This suggests that starlings are actually using multiple regions of the retina, not just the fovea, to look at objects,” says Butler.
3-27-18 The hypnotic face and emerald eyes of the yellow pygmy goby
These striking, tiny fish are just 2 centimetres long and rarely stray from their adopted homes - but seen up-close, they make quite an impact. STARE at this picture for too long and you could become hypnotised. This extreme close-up, with only those incredible emerald eyes in focus, has a distinct otherworldly feel. The animal is a yellow pygmy goby (Lubricogobius exiguus). Found throughout the Indo-Pacific, at just 2 centimetres long they live up to their name. “They often live in discarded bottles, which makes them relatively easy to approach, as they rarely stray far from their adopted homes,” says photographer Tony Wu. Wu found this particular fish sitting near the opening of a small hole in the sand at a depth of 21 metres, near the south-western tip of Shikoku Island in Japan. He thinks it may have made its home in a sea urchin skeleton buried in the sand. Its mate was probably hiding inside the hole – these gobies are usually seen in pairs – but there was no way to be sure without disturbing the fish. Over the course of half an hour, Wu was able to approach to within several centimetres. “The fish retreated several times, but in each instance it returned, seemingly more comfortable with my presence,” he says. To highlight the emerald eyes of the goby against the yellow of its body, Wu used a constant light rather than an underwater flash. That allowed him to find the exact angle at which the contrast between the two colours was strongest.
3-27-18 Beetlemania: How a supergroup scuttled to world domination
Handsome, hardy and diverse, beetles are supremely successful critters with a lot to teach us – but they’re suffering from our environmental waywardness. WHEN biologist J.B.S. Haldane was asked by a theologian back in the 1940s what we could infer about the mind of the creator from the works of creation, he supposedly replied, “an inordinate fondness for beetles”. The story is almost certainly apocryphal, but it reveals both an undeniable truth and an open question. Judging by their sheer numbers, God is certainly fond of beetles. But just how fond? The number of beetle species is just one lacuna in our knowledge of these extraordinarily successful creatures. Another is what makes them quite so successful. As we slowly fill in the gaps, we are beginning to appreciate the unique insights these insects can give us. Whether we want to understand evolution, the workings of the biosphere or how plate tectonics has shaped the continents, beetles hold the answers. But let’s deal with the numbers question first. New beetle species have been described at an average rate of about four a day since 1758, when Carl Linnaeus started cataloguing plants and animals using the two-part Latin scientific names we know today. Towards the end of the 20th century, there was general agreement that the total count was heading towards 400,000 species, based on specimens housed in the world’s museums and carefully documented in 250 years of scientific journals and monographs. Compare that with 5500 mammals, 10,000 birds, 85,000 molluscs and 250,000 plant species, and it is clear that in diversity beetles far outstrip any other multicellular organisms, perhaps quietly brushing aside nematode worms.
3-27-18 Beetlemania: Five amazing beetles from around the world
Whether it is harvesting water, doing origami or hitching free rides on termite backs, the sheer diversity of beetle behaviour is the key to their success.
- Head-stander beetles
- Hazel leaf-roller
- Giraffe weevil
- American burying beetle
- [No common name]
3-27-18 Why bear cubs are spending longer with their mothers
Brown bear cubs living in the forests of Sweden are spending longer with their mothers. Baby bears stay by their mother's side until they are aged two-and-a-half - an extra year compared with a few decades ago, according to a study. Although the size of the bear population remains stable, hunting pressures appear to be altering the bear's life history, say scientists. Bears can be legally hunted in Sweden, except when they have cubs. The shift towards extended care may be due to hunting regulations that protect females with dependent cubs, said Joanie Van de Walle of the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada. The longer females stay with their cubs, the more they avoid being killed. "Because females that care for their cubs longer survive better under the hunting regulation, we say that hunting has a selective effect (it artificially determines which females are going to survive and reproduce based on their reproductive behaviour)," she said. If this behaviour is genetically determined (if females caring for cubs longer give birth to females that also care for their cubs longer) then this could lead to evolution in the population, she added. Researchers analysed data on survival and reproduction in a heavily hunted bear population in the middle of the country. The mothers have two different strategies for looking after their cubs - either shorter periods, allowing them to breed again the following year, or longer periods, when they have fewer litters. In the past, Scandinavian bears tended to keep their cubs with them for a year-and-a-half only, and then produce a new litter the following year. However, in recent years females have shifted towards keeping their cubs by their side for an extra year. "Our hypothesis was thus that hunting regulation could favour longer maternal care in this population," said Joanie Van de Walle. "Therefore, the observed change in female reproductive behaviour could be the result of the increasing hunting pressure in the population."
3-26-18 Modern chimp brains share similarities with ancient hominids
Scans suggest certain folding patterns don’t mark humanlike neural advances after all. Groove patterns on the surface of modern chimpanzee brains throw a monkey wrench into proposals that some ancient southern African hominids evolved humanlike brain characteristics, a new study suggests. MRIs of eight living chimps reveal substantial variability in the shape and location of certain features on the brain surface. Some of these brains showed surface creases similar to ones that were thought to have signaled a turn toward humanlike brain organization in ancient hominids hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years ago. Paleoanthropologist Dean Falk of Florida State University in Tallahassee and colleagues report their findings online March 13 in Brain, Behavior and Evolution. The study casts doubt on a 2014 paper by Falk that was based on casts of the inside of fossil braincases, called endocasts, which preserve impressions of these surface features. At the time, Falk argued that four endocasts from southern African hominids — three Australopithecus africanus and one Australopithecus sediba — showed folding patterns that suggested that brain reorganization was underway as early as 3 million years ago in a frontal area involved in human speech production. But MRIs of three of the chimp brains reveal comparable creases, the researchers found. Two other chimps display other frontal tissue furrows that Falk had also previously described as distinctly humanlike.
3-26-18 Humpback whale bumps have marine biologists stumped.
An acne-like condition on their skin has researchers worried. Off the Kohala coast on the Big Island of Hawaii, Christine Gabriele spots whale 875. The familiar propeller scar on its left side and the shape of its dorsal fin are like a telltale fingerprint. Gabriele, a marine biologist with the Hawaii Marine Mammal Consortium, confirms the whale’s identity against her extensive photo catalog. Both Gabriele and this male humpback have migrated to this Pacific Island from Southeastern Alaska. In those Alaska summer feeding grounds, Gabriele sees the same 300 or so whales “again and again.” But winter brings more than 10,000 whales to the waters of Hawaii from all over the North Pacific. Spotting 875 is like finding a needle in a haystack.Gabriele is here today to focus on the slew of worrisome bumps on the familiar traveler’s flank. The bumps are separate from the usual ones bulging from the head of a humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae). Those iconic oversize hair follicles are thought to be part of the sensory system. The smaller body bumps look more like bad acne or an allergic reaction. Noted on rare occasions in the 1970s, the condition called nodular dermatitis has become much more prevalent. These days, Gabriele and colleagues see these skin lesions on over 75 percent of Hawaii’s humpback visitors. The bumps coincide with other suggestions of declining health in the whales. In the nearly three decades that Gabriele has been studying whales, she would not describe the animals as skinny. Now, often “you can see their shoulder blades,” she says. “They look angular rather than round.”
3-23-18 Much of nature is near collapse and that means society is too
An assessment of Earth’s biodiversity predicts catastrophic losses within decades, with severe knock-on effects for human civilisation like shortages of food. Biodiversity will collapse everywhere on Earth if humans carry on as we are, according to 550 scientists from 100 countries. The biggest victims will be people, because we are so reliant on the natural world. A major assessment of Earth’s biodiversity concludes that exploitable fish stocks along Asia-Pacific coastlines will completely collapse by 2048. Meanwhile, half of all Africa’s mammals and birds face extinction by 2100, as do 37 per cent of Europe’s freshwater fish. These grim outcomes are predicted by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the biodiversity counterpart of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Today in Medellin, Colombia, IPBES launched four reports assessing biodiversity in four key regions: the Americas, Africa, Asia-Pacific, and Europe and Central Asia. The reports emphasise that human survival could itself be jeopardised in each region. Nature provides services that are worth trillions of dollars worldwide, such as food, shelter, water, weather and clean air. Unless these “ecosystem services” are safeguarded, we will lose them. The findings reinforce earlier warnings that, by failing to conserve biodiversity, the human race is sleepwalking towards disaster.
3-23-18 In 30 years Asian-Pacific fish will be gone, and then we’re next
An assessment of Earth’s biodiversity predicts catastrophic losses within decades, with severe knock-on effects for human civilisation like shortages of food. Biodiversity will collapse everywhere on Earth if humans carry on as we are, according to 550 scientists from 100 countries. The biggest victims will be people, because we are so reliant on the natural world. A major assessment of Earth’s biodiversity concludes that exploitable fish stocks along Asia-Pacific coastlines will completely collapse by 2048. Meanwhile, half of all Africa’s mammals and birds face extinction by 2100, as do 37 per cent of Europe’s freshwater fish. These grim outcomes are predicted by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the biodiversity counterpart of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Today in Medellin, Colombia, IPBES launched four reports assessing biodiversity in four key regions: the Americas, Africa, Asia-Pacific, and Europe and Central Asia. The reports emphasise that human survival could itself be jeopardised in each region. Nature provides services that are worth trillions of dollars worldwide, such as food, shelter, water, weather and clean air. Unless these “ecosystem services” are safeguarded, we will lose them. The findings reinforce earlier warnings that, by failing to conserve biodiversity, the human race is sleepwalking towards disaster. “Failure to prioritise policies and actions to stop and reverse biodiversity loss, and the continued degradation of nature’s contributions to people, seriously jeopardises the chances of any region, and almost every country, meeting their global development targets,” says Anne Larigauderie, the executive secretary of IPBES. Reversing all the declines will be difficult, but if we do not take action, humans will suffer alongside the rest of the natural world, the reports say.
3-23-18 Half of African species 'face extinction'
The actions of mankind could lead to the extinction of half of African birds and mammals by the end of 2100, a UN-backed study has said. The report conducted by 550 experts from around the world said reduced biodiversity could affect people's quality of life. It also found 42% of land-based animal and plant species in Europe and Central Asia have declined in the last decade. The findings come after the death of the last male northern white rhino. Despite the bleak findings, the study also pointed to some successes in reversing declines in wildlife. The study by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) showed forest cover in China and other parts of north-east Asia had risen by more than 20% between 1990 and 2015. It also found that animals, such as the amur leopard, which were once on the verge of the extinction had grown in population. Speaking at the 2018 Biodiversity Summit in Colombia, leading British scientist Sir Robert Watson said: "We must act to halt and reverse the unsustainable use of nature or risk the future we want and have. "Fortunately, the evidence also shows that we know how to protect and partially restore our vital natural assets." Academic volunteers looked through some 10,000 scientific publications for what is said to be the most extensive biodiversity survey since 2005. Among the list of the biggest threats to food and water security were pollution, climate change, and deforestation. Scientists say governments, businesses, and individuals must consider the impact on biodiversity when taking decisions on farming, fishing, forestry, mining, or infrastructure development.
3-23-18 CRISPR immune system lets silkworms defeat viral infections
The CRISPR immune system from bacteria has been engineered into silkworms, allowing them to fight off a virus that plagues the silk industry. A team in China has made genetically engineered silkworms that can fight off a lethal virus. They did it by giving the silkworms CRISPR: an immune system found in many bacteria. The same approach might protect a wide range of animals and plants from viral diseases. The silk industry suffers huge losses because of a disease caused by the Bombyx mori nucleopolyhedrovirus (BmNPV). “It would be incredibly important to have virus-resistant silkworm,” says Fritz Vollrath of the University of Oxford, UK, who studies insect silks and their uses. The key could be CRISPR. It has become famous as the genome-editing tool revolutionising biology, but it evolved in bacteria as a kind of immune system to protect against viruses. In these bacteria, CRISPR proteins first recognise the DNA of invading viruses, using “guide RNAs” that contain a matching sequence. They then cut up the viral DNA, preventing the virus making more copies of itself. Zhanqi Dong of the State Key Laboratory of Silkworm Genome Biology at Southwest University in Chongqing, China, and his colleagues have given silkworms the genes for the CRISPR Cas9 protein, along with guide RNAs targeting BmNPV sequences. They then exposed silkworms to the virus to test their resistance.
3-22-18 How bees defend against some controversial insecticides
Researchers have discovered enzymes that can help resist some neonicotinoids. Honeybees and bumblebees have a way to resist toxic compounds in some widely used insecticides. These bees make enzymes that help the insects break down a type of neonicotinoid called thiacloprid, scientists report March 22 in Current Biology. Neonicotinoids have been linked to negative effects on bee health, such as difficulty reproducing in honeybees (SN: 7/26/16, p 16). But bees respond to different types of the insecticides in various ways. This finding could help scientists design versions of neonicotinoids that are less harmful to bees, the researchers say. Such work could have broad ramifications, says study coauthor Chris Bass, an applied entomologist at the University of Exeter in England. “Bees are hugely important to the pollination of crops and wild flowers and biodiversity in general.” Neonicotinoids are typically coated on seeds such as corn and sometimes sprayed on crops to protect the plants from insect pests. The chemicals are effective, but their use has been suspected to be involved in worrisome declines in numbers of wild pollinators (SN Online: 4/5/12).
3-22-18 Heavy metal poisoning may be changing birds’ personalities
Great tits exposed to toxic metals like cadmium and lead alter their behaviour, becoming less exploratory and more cautious, suggesting their personalities have been reshaped. Exposure to toxic metals may alter the personalities of songbirds. Great tits may be less curious and unwilling to explore new places if their habitat is contaminated with heavy metals. Great tits (Parus major) have personalities. That means each bird consistently behaves in certain ways, while others consistently behave differently. For example, some great tits are bolder than others when it comes to exploring new places. Andrea Grunst at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and her colleagues examined whether exposure to heavy metals can alter these behavioural traits. They studied five populations of great tits living outside Antwerp, near a smelter and metal refinery known for emitting toxic metals like cadmium and lead. The five sites were at varying distances from the plant, ranging from zero to 8.5 kilometres. The team captured a total of 249 great tits and brought them to a lab. There the birds were placed in a new environment with artificial trees, to see how boldly they explored it. The closer the birds lived to the smelter, the slower they were to explore the novel surrounding.
3-22-18 Earwigs take origami to extremes to fold their wings
The insects’ springy wing joints are inspiring robotics design. To quickly unfurl and refold their wings, earwigs stretch the rules of origami. Yes, those garden pests that scurry out from under overturned flowerpots can also fly. Because earwigs spend most of their time underground and only occasionally take to the air, they pack their wings into packages with a surface area more than 10 times smaller than when unfurled, using an origami-like series of folds. Springy wing joints let the insects bypass some of the mathematical constraints that normally limit the way a rigid two-dimensional material can be folded, researchers report March 23 in Science. Earwig wings’ folding pattern should be impossible according to mathematical equations that predict the three-dimensional designs that can be made by folding a two-dimensional material like a sheet of paper, says study coauthor Andres Arrieta, a mechanical engineer at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Origami theory assumes that the material being folded is perfectly rigid. But the joints of earwigs’ wings — where creases form — are rich in a rubbery polymer called resilin. This little bit of stretch lets earwig wings do what a regular origami structure can’t: lock into two different conformations, open or folded up, and transition between the two.
3-22-18 A very pregnant female ray had to fend off four courting males
Giant devil rays have been filmed courting for the first time, and it turns out the males do not even wait for the females to give birth. For the first time, giant devil rays have been filmed courting in the waters of New Zealand. It seems males start pursuing females while they are still pregnant. In March 2017, recreational fisherman Scott Tindale of the International Game Fish Association in Albany saw a heavily pregnant female giant devil ray (Mobula mobular) being pursued by four mature males. The female swam ahead of the males and repeatedly changed direction, as if trying to throw them off. She mostly swam at or near the surface, preventing the males from getting on top of her. Tindale has now described the incident with biologist Clinton Duffy of the Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand. “She must have been close to giving birth, judging by the size of her,” says Duffy. This suggests mating happens almost immediately after birth. “Many sharks and rays are thought to have a resting period between pregnancies, but this behaviour suggests that is not the case in giant devil rays.” Such rapid mating is not unheard of, says Guy Stevens at the Manta Trust in Dorchester, UK. Female reef manta rays mate within hours or days of giving birth, and may quickly become pregnant again. “This was documented with a female manta in captivity, where food is always plentiful and energy expenditure is minimal, and I see it in the wild quite a lot as well.”
3-22-18 How oral vaccines could save Ethiopian wolves from extinction
One-Health focused mass vaccination programs could go wild in 2018. Deep in the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia, wildlife workers trek up above 9,800 feet to save some of the world’s most rare carnivores, Ethiopian wolves. “It’s cold, tough work,” says Eric Bedin, who leads the field monitoring team in its uphill battle. In this sparse, sometimes snowy landscape, the lanky and ginger-colored wolves (Canis simensis) reign as the region’s apex predators. Yet the combined threats of rabies, canine distemper and habitat reduction have the animals cornered. Bedin and his colleagues, traveling by horse and on foot through dramatically shifting temperatures and weather, track these solitary hunters for weeks at a time. Team members know every wolf in most packs in these mountains. The team has vaccinated some wolves against rabies, only to have hopes dashed when the animals died of distemper months later. “These guys work their asses off to protect these wolves,” says Claudio Sillero, a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford who heads up the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme, of which the field monitoring team is an integral part. Down the line, humans stand to benefit from all this work too.
3-21-18 Medicine for sick koalas turns out to actually kill them
Koalas are often given antibiotics to treat a lethal strain of chlamydia, but the medicines often kill the koalas by wiping out friendly bacteria in their guts. Curing chlamydia in koalas can be just as deadly as the disease itself, and now we know why. In humans, chlamydia is a common infection and can cause reproductive health issues. But for koalas it is more serious: the strain that infects them is often lethal. Koala chlamydia is transmitted during sex and, more commonly, through pap: a faecal product that females use to wean their joeys. A vaccine is in the works but it’s not ready yet. So for now the best option seems to be antibiotics to kill the infection. But koalas often suffer serious side effects from antibiotics, so Katherine Dahlhausen at the University of California Davis and her colleagues tried to find out why. They gathered faecal samples from sick koalas and scanned them to see what microorganisms were living in them. Like humans many other animals, koalas have “friendly bacteria” living in their guts that help them digest food. The team found that antibiotics had little effect on most of the friendly bacteria, but one species was often completely wiped out: Lonepinella koalarum. This species is crucial because it breaks down harmful chemicals called tannins, allowing the koalas to digest the tough eucalyptus leaves that make up almost all of their diet. Without L. koalarum to detox the tannin, the koalas seem to literally starve to death. The research is preliminary, says Dahlhausen, so other gut bacteria may also be involved.
3-20-18 Northern white rhino: Last male Sudan dies in Kenya
The world's last surviving male northern white rhino has died after months of poor health, his carers say. Sudan, who was 45, lived at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. He was put to sleep on Monday after age-related complications worsened significantly. His death leaves only two females - his daughter and granddaughter - of the subspecies alive in the world. Hope for preserving the northern white rhino now lies in developing in vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques. "His death is a cruel symbol of human disregard for nature and it saddened everyone who knew him," said Jan Stejskal, an official at Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic, where Sudan had lived until 2009. "But we should not give up," he added in quotes carried by AFP news agency. "We must take advantage of the unique situation in which cellular technologies are utilised for conservation of critically endangered species. It may sound unbelievable, but thanks to the newly developed techniques even Sudan could still have an offspring." Rhinoceroses - of which there are five species - are the second-largest land mammal after elephants. The white rhinoceros consists of two sub-species: the southern white rhino and the much rarer and critically endangered northern white rhino. (Webmaster's comment: Another species bits the dust thanks to 7.6 billion people.)
3-20-18 There’s no point reviving the northern white rhino – yet
With Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, dead it is natural to ask if we can bring these animals back with biotechnology - but there is nowhere for them to live. The last male northern white rhino has died. Known as Sudan, he was put down on Monday after months of poor health. He was 45 years old. Sudan’s death means there are only two northern white rhinos left on the planet. Both are females, so cannot breed. It would seem the species is doomed to extinction. But perhaps we could bring them back. Plans are afoot to create new northern white rhinos from samples of stored tissue kept in freezers.The trouble is, this is almost entirely pointless. Northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) are one of two subspecies of the white rhinoceros. The other subspecies is the southern white rhino (C. simum simum), which lives in southern Africa and is doing much better, with a population of around 20,000. The plan to save northern white rhinos involves creating embryos using egg cells from the remaining females and stored sperm from the last few males. There is also a more technically challenging proposal to take other stored tissue and change it into stem cells, which can then make both sperm and eggs. These embryos would be implanted in southern white rhinos, as the remaining two northern white rhinos are too vulnerable to risk on an experimental pregnancy. There are plenty of potential pitfalls for this scheme. Much of the technology is unproven, so the failure rate will be high. That also makes it expensive. And crucially, we only have tissue samples from a handful of northern white rhinos, so the resulting population would have little genetic diversity – leaving them vulnerable to disease.
3-15-18 Lab-grown pet food promises a wholesome vegan lifestyle for dogs
Fungi grown in bioreactors might give dogs a vegan lifestyle, but we don’t know if it will be a healthy one. Vegan numbers are on the rise. To try to encourage everyone and their dog to join the movement, a startup in California are growing fungus-based dog food in bioreactors. Wild Earth touts its vegan food as ‘clean protein’ that has all the nutrients a dog needs, hoping to appeal to people concerned about the significant carbon footprint of pet food, as well as the use of low-quality animal byproducts. The company makes the unusual food by pumping sugar into a bioreactor, a large cylindrical apparatus for growing fungi. This allows their fast-growing fungus called Aspergillus oryzae to thrive, with its cells dividing every 2 to 4 hours. Technicians then strain the solution and bake the result into dog pellets. Aspergillus oryzae is the same fungus used to make fermented foods like sake, miso soup, and soy sauce. Both dogs and human owners appear to have enjoyed eating Wild Earth’s product, which has a savory “umami” flavor, says CEO Ryan Bethencourt. “It kind of looks like tuna,” he says. If America’s 180 million domestic pets were a sovereign nation, they would rank fifth in the world in global meat consumption, producing as much as 64 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Switching to lab-grown food could have a dramatic effect, with estimates ranging between a 15 per cent and 90 per cent overall decrease.
3-15-18 These searing hot chilli peppers are in danger thanks to snakes
The donne’ sali chilli is a major feature of the cuisine of the Mariana Islands, but thanks to an invasive snake this pepper faces an uncertain future. The donne’ sali chilli is the hottest pepper in the West Pacific’s Mariana Islands. It features prominently in the local cuisine and is beloved by the local people. But the pepper is facing an unexpected danger: snakes. The donne’ sali chilli is a variant of Capsicum frutescens, the species that also gives us Tabasco chilli. It was probably introduced to the Mariana Islands in the 17th century. Nowadays it grows wild in the understory. Birds were thought to be the main consumers of the chilli’s fruits, since they don’t feel its spicy capsaicin compounds. Indeed, the name donne’ sali is an indigenous Chamorro term referring to the “sali bird” or Micronesian starling (Aplonis opaca). But nobody had actually tested this, until Monika Egerer of the University of California, Santa Cruz went to the Marianas to investigate. Egerer and her team began by hunting down wild donne’ sali plants on the archipelago. They found few on the island of Guam, but many on Tinian and Saipan. Camera footage of the plants on Saipan revealed that sali birds were indeed the main consumers. What’s more, the birds help disperse the plants’ seeds. In captive feeding experiments, seeds that had been eaten and excreted sprouted sooner and more often than those from whole fruits. The results help explain the near absence of donne’ sali on Guam. The island’s native forest birds have been almost wiped out by invasive brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis). The snakes have since been sighted on Rota and Tinian, and there may be a small population on Saipan.
3-14-18 Two herbivores gang up and silence a plant’s cries for help
Caterpillar presence mutes broccoli's production of chemicals that attract aphid parasitoids, allowing both pests to wreak havoc. APHIDS and caterpillars both like to eat broccoli. Aphids suck the plant’s juices, and caterpillars chew the leaves, but they are still competing to extract the most nutrients. Surprisingly, though, caterpillars can benefit aphids. Carmen Blubaugh at Clemson University in South Carolina found that when caterpillars also snack on plants infested by aphids, the number of parasitoid wasps that attack the aphids decreases (Ecology, doi.org/ck8v). “The plant uses a different toolkit to defend against a caterpillar,” she says. When set on by aphids, the plant produces chemicals to attract wasps that parasitise the aphid – but if caterpillars join in, the plant doesn’t have the resources to summon wasps.
3-13-18 Why sharks like it hot - but not too hot
Scientists have calculated the water temperature at which tiger sharks are most active and abundant. They say the sharks, which are second only to great whites in attacking people, prefer a balmy 22C. Shark populations may shift range as the oceans heat up, bringing them into greater conflict with humans, according to the scientific study. For instance, tiger sharks may move into waters off Sydney in both winter and summer months. Dr Nicholas Payne of Queen's University Belfast and the University of Roehampton led the research. "Our study suggests that 22 degrees is not too cold for the animals and it's not too hot for them," he said. "It's about right in terms of their optimal preference for temperature." Most sharks are cold blooded. Their body temperatures match the temperature of the water around them. The research, reported in the journal Global Change Biology, could lead to new ways to predict when and where tiger shark attacks might happen.
3-12-18 Daft male spiders prefer females who are more likely to eat them
Female brown widow spiders become less fertile as they age, and more likely to kill and eat their mates – yet males still prefer them over younger females. Female brown widow spiders get grumpy in their old age. They demand more courtship displays from males, and are more likely to eat the suitor. Despite that, given the choice males will pursue them instead of younger, more fertile females who won’t eat them. For male brown widow spiders (Latrodectus geometricus), sex can be lethal. Like other spiders, such as black widows, females sometimes kill and devour males after sex. This is especially true of older females. A team led by Ally Harari of the Agricultural Research Organization near Tel-Aviv, Israel, introduced virgin males to adolescent females, young adult females and older adult females. All were able to reproduce. 57 per cent of males that mated with older females were cannibalised, as were 48 per cent of those that mated with young adults, but adolescent females never ate their partners. Nevertheless, males courted older females for longer than they did young females, and spent hardly any time wooing adolescents. Sometimes a male brown widow stops copulating and performs a somersault, pushing his abdomen into the female’s mouth. This can get him eaten. Harari found males almost always somersaulted when mating with older females, but rarely did when mating with adolescents.
3-12-18 Feed the birds, but be aware of risks, say wildlife experts
Scientists are warning of the risks of wild birds spreading diseases when they gather at feeders in gardens. Experts led by Zoological Society of London say people should continue to feed birds, especially in winter, but should be aware of the risks. If birds look sick, food should be withdrawn temporarily, they say. The review of 25 years' worth of data identified emerging threats to garden birds. Finches, doves and pigeons are vulnerable to a parasite infection. Meanwhile, a form of bird pox is becoming more common, causing warty-like lumps on the bodies of great tits and other birds. Other disease threats, such as salmonella, appear to be declining. "Our study shows how three of the most common diseases that affect British garden birds have changed both dramatically and unpredictably over the past decade, both in terms of the species they affect and their patterns of occurrence," said Dr Becki Lawson from ZSL's Institute of Zoology. Common signs that a wild bird is ill include unusually fluffed-up plumage and lethargy. Diseases can be spread through droppings or regurgitated food around bird feeders. Finding out more about the changing pattern of diseases will help to ensure that garden birds can be fed safely, say the researchers. ZSL, working with experts from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), say people who notice sick birds should take practical steps to minimise risks:
- Report their observations to the Garden Wildlife Health Project
- Seek advice from a vet
- Withdraw food for a while to let birds disperse over a wider area
- Feed birds in moderation, clean bird feeders regularly, and rotate feeding sites.
3-8-18 Elephant parts to U.S.
The Trump administration has quietly scrapped the ban on importing body parts of African elephants and other animals hunted for sport. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said last fall it would lift an Obama-era ban on the import of lion and elephant trophies. But after an outcry, President Trump intervened for the elephants, tweeting that he was unlikely to be convinced that “this horror show in any way helps conservation.” On March 1, however, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke—an avid hunter who had the arcade game Big Buck Hunter Pro installed in the Interior Department’s cafeteria—ordered that importation be allowed. Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr. are big-game hunters; photos from a 2011 safari to Zimbabwe show Eric with a dead leopard and Donald Jr. holding up the severed tail of a dead elephant.
3-8-18 Leopards that live in cities are protecting people from rabies
Wild leopards wander into the Indian city of Mumbai to prey on feral dogs – and in doing so they stop the dogs biting people and passing on the rabies virus. When leopards stray into a city, people often fear them because of the danger they pose. But it turns out these big cats could be valuable neighbours: by preying on feral dogs in Mumbai, they are reducing the risk of people catching rabies. About 20,000 people die of rabies in India every year. Feral dogs are the main source, as they bite people and pass on the rabies virus. Christopher O’Bryan and Alexander Braczkowski at the University of Queensland and their colleagues compiled existing data on the diet of leopards living in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, on the edges of Mumbai. They found that 40 per cent of the average leopard’s diet consists of feral dogs. All told, the 35 leopards in the park probably eat 1,500 dogs per year. Given how often the dogs bite people and how many of them have rabies, the leopards’ kills are preventing about 1,000 bite incidents per year – and 90 potential rabies cases. “This study is a striking example of a large carnivorous animal providing a direct benefit to humans,” says O’Bryan.
3-7-18 A deadly predator could save the UK’s threatened red squirrels
Britain’s native red squirrels have been retreating for decades in the face of invasive grey squirrels, but predators called pine martens could help save them. YOUR enemy’s enemy is your friend. The UK’s endangered red squirrels are getting an unexpected helping hand – from predators that kill the grey squirrels that threaten them. Grey squirrels are native to North America. They got settled in the UK in the 19th century after being brought over by a silk manufacturer, and soon began to suppress the native red squirrels. They are bigger, bolder and eat a more varied diet, and also carry a virus deadly to red squirrels. Today, they have driven red squirrels out of much of the UK – although in Europe the red squirrels remain widespread. It has been suggested that predators called pine martens might help restore the UK’s red squirrels, by driving down grey squirrel populations. Pine martens look like a cross between an otter and a weasel. They were almost wiped out in the UK, but have been recovering since the 1970s. Emma Sheehy at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and her colleagues studied the populations of all three animals in Scotland during 2016. They enticed pine martens and squirrels to feeders and recorded their numbers, using DNA analysis and cameras. This revealed how often red and grey squirrels encountered pine martens, and how this affected them.
3-7-18 Red squirrel numbers boosted by predator
The pine marten has emerged as an unlikely ally for the beleaguered native red squirrel in its battle with the grey squirrel. This is according to scientists at the University of Aberdeen, who carried out an in-depth forensic study of the relationship between the three species. The pine marten is a predator of the reds, but in areas where it thrives, the number of grey squirrels reduces. The findings are published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The journal study suggests that the pine martens reverse the "typical relationship" between red and grey squirrels, where the red always loses out, according to lead researcher Dr Emma Sheehy. "Where pine marten activity is high, grey squirrel populations are actually heavily suppressed. And that gives the competitive advantage to red squirrels," she said. "So you see lots of red squirrels and you see them coming back into areas where they hadn't been for quite some time."
3-6-18 Drones reveal huge colonies of 1.5 million penguins on islands
Two massive colonies of Adélie penguins have been discovered on the Danger Islands off the coast of Antarctica, bringing the global population to 8 million. TWO huge colonies of Adélie penguins have been discovered hiding in plain sight on Antarctic islands. Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) were known to nest on the Danger Islands, near the tip of the west Antarctic Peninsula. But only in 2014 did satellite images reveal large areas stained with guano. A team led by Heather Lynch of Stony Brook University in New York has now surveyed the birds, using drones specially adapted for the cold. They found 1.5 million Adélie penguins, taking the total number in the world to 8 million (Scientific Reports, doi.org/ck5j). There were also smaller colonies of gentoo and chinstrap penguins. The global population of Adélie penguins was already increasing, for unknown reasons. However, numbers have fallen around the west Antarctic Peninsula, which has warmed rapidly in recent decades because of climate change. An east Antarctic colony, on Petrel Island, has suffered two bad breeding seasons in the last decade. (Webmaster's comment: Animal populations in a few millions don't impress me. They need to be in the tens if not hundreds of millions. Remember they are competing with 7 billion of us with billions more to come. We are simply overwheming all other life by our numbers!)
3-6-18 Monarch butterfly numbers down for second year in Mexico
The population of monarch butterflies in Mexico has gone down for the second consecutive year, government officials say. In the autumn, the orange and black butterflies migrate from Canada and the US to central Mexico, where they hibernate in pine and fir trees. Every year, scientists measure the area in which the monarchs cluster. Mexico's Commissioner for Protected Areas Alejandro del Mazo said numbers had diminished by 14.8% this winter. Speaking at a news conference in Mexico City, officials said nine colonies of monarch butterflies had been recorded in Mexico in the 2017/2018 winter months, down from 13 last year. Mr del Mazo said that "extreme meteorological events" could be a leading cause in the decline of the numbers of Monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico. World Wildlife Fund's Mexico Director Jorge Rickards said a particularly busy hurricane season across the insects' migration route, which stretches almost 5,000km (3,100 miles) from Canada to Mexico, could be a factor. "These climate phenomena without a doubt have an impact on the migration," he said. Monarchs are one of the few insects to migrate such a vast distance and scientists recently found that they use a kind of internal solar compass to guide them. While the area in which the monarch butterflies hibernate in central Mexico went up in the winter of 2015/16, the overall trend for the past two decades has been a downward one. In 1996/97 the butterflies could be found in about 18 hectares of forest in the states of Mexico and Michoacán. This past winter, only 2.48 hectares had monarch colonies.
3-6-18 In a pack hunt, it’s every goatfish for itself
Despite being selfish, these fish catch prey better together than alone. The only fish known to hunt with wolf pack moves may not be true team players, just lemon-yellow me-firsts. Yellow saddle goatfish (Parupeneus cyclostomus) do more than school together as they dart over Indo-Pacific coral reefs. Like wolves, the goatfish take different roles in a pursuit. One or two fish may rush straight toward prey as the others shoot to the sides, blocking escape. “They look harmless, but they’re vicious predators,” says Redouan Bshary of the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. “That’s why it’s fun to follow them — there’s always action.” He and his colleagues have documented other fishy hunting partnerships, such as groupers pairing with crevice-wriggling moray eels. Goatfish collaborate with their own species, though probably not their close kin, Bshary’s team has reported. The fish chase other small, fast reef fish, “a little bit like Ultimate Frisbee,” says Dominique Roche, in Bshary’s lab. “It’s a game of sprinting and stopping.” The bright yellow goatfish dart into a reef “like a lightning flash.”
3-5-18 Tree loss pushing beetles to the brink
The loss of trees across Europe is pushing beetles to the brink of extinction, according to a new report. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature assessed the status of 700 European beetles that live in old and hollowed wood. Almost a fifth (18%) are at risk of extinction due to the decline of ancient trees, the European Red List of Saproxylic Beetles report found. This puts them among the most threatened insect groups in Europe. Saproxylic beetles play a role in natural processes, such as decomposition and the recycling of nutrients. They also provide an important food source for birds and mammals and some are involved in pollination. "Some beetle species require old trees that need hundreds of years to grow, so conservation efforts need to focus on long-term strategies to protect old trees across different landscapes in Europe, to ensure that the vital ecosystem services provided by these beetles continue," said Jane Smart, director of the IUCN Global Species Programme. Logging, tree loss and wood harvesting all contribute to the loss of habitat for the beetles, said the IUCN. Other major threats include urbanisation and tourism development, and an increase in wildfires in the Mediterranean region. Conservation efforts need to focus on long-term strategies to protect old trees and deadwood across forests, pastureland, orchards and urban areas, the report recommended. It said there should be inventories of ancient and veteran trees for each European country, to ensure these trees are protected in all landscapes. "It is critical for the Common Agricultural Policy to promote the appropriate management of wood pasture habitats containing veteran trees across Europe," said Luc Bas, director of the IUCN European Regional Office.
3-2-18 Fish called ‘sarcastic fringehead’ has a wider mouth than body
Sarcastic fringeheads have a truly spectacular threat display: they open their mouths until they’re gaping wide, displaying two rows of teeth and fluorescent cheeks. Sarcastic fringeheads have a stronger temper than your average fish, but it isn’t a sharp tongue that you have to look out for: it’s their gaping, fluorescent mouth. When threatened by other males, these fish can open their mouths about as large as their entire head, displaying an outer and inner row of teeth. It’s all an effort to show other fringeheads that “I’m bigger than you and you shouldn’t come into my area,” says Watchaparong Hongjamrassilp at the University of California Los Angeles. While working at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, Hongjamrassilp studied how the fringeheads can open their mouths so wide. Sarcastic fringeheads are about 20 to 30 centimetres long, with very large heads in proportion to their bodies. They may have been named for the sardonic expression they appear to have if you encounter them with their mouths closed.
3-2-18 Penguin supercolony discovered in Antarctica
It was the guano that gave the birds away. On an expedition to an icy island chain off the Antarctic Peninsula’s northern tip, researchers discovered a massive supercolony of more than 1.5 million Adélie penguins, according to a study published March 2 in Scientific Reports. Scientists had known of an Adélie penguin colony (Pygoscelis adeliae) in these Danger Islands, but satellite images revealed more guano on the rocky islands than could be explained by the colony’s expected numbers. Even though the tiny island chain is only about 10 kilometers across, researchers hadn’t realized the extent of the penguin population, says study coauthor Heather Lynch, an ecologist at Stony Brook University in New York. “In the Antarctic, distances are so vast, something major could be just around the corner and you wouldn’t know.”
3-2-18 Penguin super-colony spotted from space
Scientists have stumbled across a huge group of previously unknown Adélie penguins on the most northerly point of the Antarctic Peninsula. Numbering more than 1.5 million birds, they were first noticed when great patches of their poo, or guano, showed up in pictures taken from space. The animals are crammed on to a rocky archipelago called the Danger Islands. The researchers, who detail the discovery in the journal Scientific Reports, say it is a total surprise. "It's a classic case of finding something where no-one really looked! The Danger Islands are hard to reach, so people didn't really try that hard," team-member Dr Tom Hart from Oxford University, UK, told BBC News. The scientists used an algorithm to search images from the American Landsat spacecraft for sites of possible penguin activity. Landsat does not return especially high-resolution pictures and so when the system flagged potential colonies, they had to be followed up with much sharper pictures for confirmation. "And the sheer size of what we were looking at took our breath away," said Dr Heather Lynch from Stony Brook University, New York. "We thought, 'Wow! If what we're seeing is true, these are going to be some of the largest Adélie penguin colonies in the world, and it's going to be well worth our while sending in an expedition to count them properly."
3-2-18 A weird underground plant has been rediscovered after 151 years
A species of subterranean plant was only seen once, in 1866, and was assumed to be extinct – until researchers stumbled across living specimens in Borneo. A peculiar plant has been found in the rainforests of Borneo after having been lost for over 150 years. Thismia neptunis was discovered in 1866 by the Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in the Gunung Matang massif in western Sarawak, Malaysia. He formally described it a few years later. There are no records of anyone seeing it since, so it was assumed extinct. But in January 2017, Michal Sochor of the Crop Research Institute in Olomouc, Czech Republic and his colleagues found a few specimens in the same area and photographed them for the first time. T. neptunis belongs to a group of plants that shun the light. Instead they live underground and steal food from fungi. This behaviour has evolved independently about 40 times. There are around 500 species of “underground plant”, says Vincent Merckx of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands, who studies these “mycoheterotrophs”. They have lost their leaves and chlorophyll, and cannot photosynthesize like normal green plants. “They completely rely on fungi,” Merckx says.
3-1-18 It’s official: Termites are just cockroaches with a fancy social life
Reordering demotes one infamous insect group to being a mere branch of an equally infamous one. Termites are the new cockroach. Literally. The Entomological Society of America is updating its master list of insect names to reflect decades of genetic and other evidence that termites belong in the cockroach order, called Blattodea. As of February 15, “it’s official that termites no longer have their own order,” says Mike Merchant of Texas A&M University in College Station, chair of the organization’s common names committee. Now all termites on the list are being recategorized. The demotion brings to mind Pluto getting kicked off the roster of planets, says termite biologist Paul Eggleton of the Natural History Museum in London. He does not, however, expect a galactic outpouring of heartbreak and protest over the termite downgrade. Among specialists, discussions of termites as a form of roaches go back at least to 1934, when researchers reported that several groups of microbes that digest wood in termite guts live in some wood-eating cockroaches too. Once biologists figured out how to use DNA to work out genealogical relationships, evidence began to grow that termites had evolved as a branch on the many-limbed family tree of cockroaches. In 2007, Eggleton and two museum colleagues used genetic evidence from an unusually broad sampling of species to publish a new tree of these insects (SN: 5/19/07, p. 318). Titled “Death of an order,” the study placed termites on the tree near a Cryptocercus cockroach.