No matter where you look, just about every creature
is obsessed with:
sex, real estate, who's the boss, and what's for dinner.
54 Intelligence & Zoology News Articles
for August of 2018
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
8-31-18 Lazy Mollusks
The lazy, after a study into metabolic rates of mollusks during the Pliocene era concluded that “the best evolutionary strategy for animals is to be lassitudinous and sluggish,” with species that expend as little energy as possible having a greater likelihood of surviving.
8-31-18 Golden eagle genome study 'a conservation game changer'
British scientists have made a breakthrough that could help safeguard the future of one of the world's most admired birds - the golden eagle. The majestic king of birds is under threat in some areas, but a study led by the Wellcome Sanger Institute could help them return to those spots. The work to unravel their genetic code is part of a mission to sequence 25 new genomes of UK species. One of the team described the development as a "real game changer". "We're all made of the same four letters of code," explained Julia Wilson, association director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute. "It's a blueprint written in your DNA - half comes from your mum and half comes from your dad. "That makes you uniquely you. "But it's just the way those letters are arranged that makes you a human - or an eagle." Scientists selected the golden eagle to have its genome sequenced - to have every letter of its code read and recorded - because of the value of that genetic information to conserve the birds. Dr Rob Ogden, a conservation biologist from Edinburgh University's Roslin Institute, who was a lead scientist in the project, explained that this "blueprint for life" would support the management of the species - even helping conservationists to bring back eagles to areas where they have disappeared. "Having a whole genome for any species is a real game changer," he said. "It opens up a huge amount of potential research - everything from looking at the health of the bird to the ecology, to how it reproduces - and so this is the beginning of a much bigger journey into golden eagle biology. "In future, we want to be able to screen wild birds to select the best birds to move around."
8-29-18 What did the dolphin say to the porpoise?
A dolphin in Scotland's Firth of Clyde may be exchanging messages with porpoises. The dolphin, named Kylie, usually makes clicking sounds with a frequency of around 100KHz. But after interacting with a group of local porpoises he changed his tune. Research from the University of Strathclyde found that Kylie's clicking became higher than normal, and closer to that of his new found friends, who generally make sounds at 130KHz. He has made his home around a navigational buoy between Fairlie and the Isle of Cumbrae, in western Scotland. University of Strathclyde PhD student Mel Cosentino has been analysing the sounds. "We have some more recording to do with Kylie when he is on his own and when he is with the group of porpoises," she said. "We want to see whether he is imitating the porpoises, like when we bark back at a dog or there is something else going on." Ms Cosentino should know soon whether Kylie really is communicating or merely imitating. She said that if further analysis showed the latter to be the case, it would be the first time a common dolphin has demonstrated an ability for "production learning" - where it has learned to imitate another species.
8-30-18 A species of fish has passed the mirror test for the first time
The cleaner wrasse has become the first fish ever to pass the mirror test – a classic experiment used to gauge self-awareness in animals. The cleaner wrasse is only the size of a human finger but it has become the first fish ever to pass the mirror test – a classic experiment used to gauge self-awareness in animals. Until now, only relatively intelligent animals – including apes, dolphins, elephants and magpies – have passed the test, which demonstrates whether an individual can recognise itself. But in 2016, two manta rays were filmed checking out their reflections in a mirror in a fish tank, suggesting that fish may be able to pass this test too. To better test the self-awareness of fish, Masanori Kohda at Osaka City University, Japan, and his colleagues put 10 wild cleaner wrasses in individual tanks with a mirror. During the first few days, seven of the fish attacked their mirror images. But these fish then began to behave more unusually, dashing towards the mirror, and performing quick dances in front of it. These aren’t normal ways to behave in front of individuals from the same species, and had never been observed before. According to the team, this means cleaner wrasses are as successful at recognising themselves in a mirror as elephants. “This is the first report of successful passing of the mark test in vertebrates outside of mammals and birds,” they write.
8-29-18 Goats 'drawn to happy human faces'
Scientists have found that goats are drawn to humans with happy facial expressions. The result suggests a wider range of animals can read people's moods than was previously thought. The researchers showed goats pairs of photos of the same person, one of them featuring an angry expression, and the other a happy demeanour. The goats made a beeline for the happy faces, the team reports in the journal Royal Society Open Science. The result implies that the ability of animals to perceive human facial cues is not limited to those with a long history of working as human companions, such as dogs and horses. Instead, it seems, animals domesticated for food production, such as goats, can also decipher human facial cues. The study was carried out at the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, UK. Co-author Dr Alan McElligott, from Queen Mary, University of London, and colleagues set up pairs of black-and-white photos about 1.3m apart on one wall in their test area. Then, a goat would be let loose to explore the set-up. The researchers found that the goats strongly preferred the smiling faces, approaching the happy faces before acknowledging the angry photos. They also spent more time examining the smiling faces with their snouts.
8-28-18 As algae blooms increase, scientists seek better ways to predict these toxic tides
Knowing where — and how bad — toxic tides are can help protect health and the environment. The stench of thousands of dead, bloated fish has hung over the beaches of western Florida for months — casualties of an algae bloom that revisits the coastline almost every year. This year’s bloom is particularly intense — and toxic. Called red tides due to the water’s murky reddish tint, the blooms emit a neurotoxin that kills sea creatures, including dolphins and endangered sea turtles, and causes breathing problems for humans. But the Florida red tide is not the only dangerous algae bloom plaguing water these days. Throughout the United States, a variety of toxic tides are occurring, and they’re happening more frequently, in more places and lasting longer. On the West Coast, “things have just gotten so much worse” in recent decades, says oceanographer Clarissa Anderson from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. Freshwater bodies aren’t immune, either; Lake Erie, for instance, has experienced increasingly large blooms, some even lasting into winter. All of these algae blooms could have negative impacts on human health, animal health and industries like fishing that rely on healthy water ecosystems. Not all algae are bad. The term “algae” is a catch-all term used for a variety of organisms that photosynthesize and live in watery environments. They include bacteria, single-celled organisms and larger “macroalgae” like kelp.But the harmful algae blooms, nicknamed HABs, are worrisome enough that scientists are now developing forecasts to better predict when and where they might hit. Many of these forecast systems are still being tested, and most can predict blooms only three to seven days in advance.
8-27-18 Naked mole rats may become good parents by eating their queen’s faeces
It’s common for naked mole rats to eat faeces, and the hormones within their pregnant queen’s waste could trigger them to become more attentive to her pups. A naked mole rat queen relies on her colony to help raise her pups, and she may manipulate their parenting instincts through hormones hidden in her faeces – exploiting the fact that colony members willingly eat her waste. Naked mole rats live in colonies in which the queen is the only reproducing female, so she needs other colony members to help look after the pups. Kazutaka Mogi at Azabu University in Japan, and his colleagues wanted to know whether a pregnant queen could influence the parental instincts of other colony members. They studied a colony of naked rats with a pregnant queen, and found that the queen’s oestrogen levels were highest during gestation, and waned as she moved into the postpartum and non-lactating stages. It turned out that oestrogen levels in non-breeding colony members followed the same pattern. Mogi and his team wondered whether the hormones spread from the queen to other colony members through her faeces. Many animals eat faeces as a way to have a second go at extracting nutrients from a meal. Naked mole rats do so because their diet tends to include poor quality foods high in cellulose, which means their waste contains plenty of unconsumed nutrients. To explore the idea, Mogi and his team made food pellets of banana, oatmeal, and faeces from a pregnant queen that they offered to the female colony members. They found that oestradiol, a form of oestrogen, was transferred when the mole rats dined on their queen’s faeces.
8-27-18 Naked mole rats eat the poop of their queen for parenting cues
The scat contains the sex hormone estradiol, which turns regular mole rats into caregivers. Dealing with poop is an unavoidable hazard of raising children, regardless of species. But for naked mole rats, that wisdom is especially salient. During pregnancy, the scat of a naked mole rat queen — the only female in the colony that reproduces, giving birth to a few dozen pups each year — contains high levels of the sex hormone estradiol. When subordinate female naked mole rats eat that poop, the estradiol they pick up cues them to snap into parenting mode and care for the queen’s offspring, researchers report the week of August 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In colonies of naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber), lower-ranking females don’t have developed ovaries and don’t reproduce. They also don’t experience the pregnancy-induced hormonal shifts that usually cue parenting behaviors, yet they still care for the queen’s babies. Researchers gave poop pellets from nonpregnant queens to subordinates for nine days. One group got pellets with added estradiol, to mimic pregnancy poop. Levels of estradiol increased in the dung of subordinate females that ate the hormone-packed pellets, suggesting that scat snacks could induce measurable hormonal changes. And those mole rats were more responsive to the cries of pups than those that didn’t get the hormone boost, the team found.
8-26-18 Meet an ivory trafficker's 'worst nightmare'
A groundbreaking technique looks set to turn man's best friend into a trafficker's worst nightmare. It will allow dogs to sniff out ivory, rhino horn and other illegal wildlife products hidden in large shipping containers, using a tiny sample of air. The method is being trialled at Kenya's Mombasa port - said to be Africa's most active hub for ivory trafficking. According to one report, more than 18,000kg of ivory was seized at the port between 2009 and 2014. To produce that much ivory, the report suggests more than 2,400 elephants may have died - and that is only the ivory they found. But conservationist Drew McVey is hopeful that statistics like that could soon be a thing of the past. "This technique could be a game-changer, reducing the number of endangered animal parts finding their way into overseas markets like south-east Asia," he said. "Dogs' incredible sense of smell means they can sniff out even the tiniest amount in a 40-foot container. "As organised criminal syndicates use ever more sophisticated methods to hide and transport illegal wildlife products it is vital that we continue to evolve our efforts to disrupt the barbaric trade." The new Remote Air Sampling for Canine Olfaction (Rasco) will see air sucked out of targeted shipping containers and passed through filters. These filters will then be presented to specially trained dogs, who will sit down if they smell anything suspicious items - from ivory to illicit animals, plants and timber products.
8-25-18 Abandoned tiger and lion cubs frolic with puppies at Beijing zoo
Photographs of baby animals playing together at a wildlife park in Beijing are melting hearts online. The images, taken on Thursday, show golden retriever puppies playing alongside lion and tiger cubs. They were all milked by the puppies' mother after the eight cubs - including Siberian tigers, a white tiger, spotted hyenas and an African lion - were abandoned by their mothers, reports said. The cubs have grown up together and have become close, local media reported. Beijing Wildlife Park says it has successfully raised abandoned infant animals, including bears, kangaroos and monkeys. The image set is trending on Twitter and has been shared thousands of times.
8-25-18 Colourful clownfish carry an unusual health warning for predators
Many animals use bright colours to advertise their toxicity – but clownfish are colourful because their sea anemone hosts are venomous. For anyone who has ever found clowns a bit sinister comes news that even clownfish are dressed to scare – but the warning message they send to other animals is unique. Whereas many small animals are brightly coloured to let predators know they are poisonous, clownfish use their colourful bodies to advertise the fact that nearby sea anemones are dangerous. Clownfish are a familiar feature of dentist office aquaria, and also found fame in the film Finding Nemo. But although the fish are instantly recognisable to many, researchers have given little thought to why they are so flamboyantly coloured. Did their bold orange and white stripes evolve as camouflage? Or do they help the fish distinguish members of their species from individuals belonging to related clownfish species? To find out, Sami Merilaita at the University of Turku in Finland and Jennifer Kelley at the University of Western Australia in Perth explored the scientific literature on the biology and evolution of the 30 or so species of clownfish. Each species of clownfish lives in close association with a species of venomous sea anemone, so the researchers looked at the biology of the anemones too. The two researchers found that the clownfish species that hung out in anemones with short, highly-venomous tentacles had fewer white stripes than those that lived with anemones sporting long, less venomous tentacles. The correlation between fish coloration and the defensive ability of the partner anemones was so strong, says Merilaita, that clownfish colours probably evolved as a form of defence system to warn predators to keep away.
8-24-18 A deadly invasive tick species
As if America’s fast-growing tick population weren’t worrying enough, for the first time in 50 years a new species of the disease-carrying bug has arrived in the U.S. First discovered in New Jersey last summer, the Asian long-horned tick has now been spotted in seven states along the Eastern Seaboard. Prevalent in Asia and Australasia, the ticks can spread quickly. After feeding, when they swell up like chunky raisins, females can lay hundreds of fertile eggs without mating. So far, none of the Asian long-horned ticks discovered in the U.S. has been found to carry a disease that affects humans, reports The New York Times. But as they gorge on mammals—they have so far been found on horses, dogs, deer, and livestock—they will likely pick up pathogens they can pass on to people. In East Asia, long-horned ticks transmit a virus that causes a disease with a general fatality rate of about 15 percent—50 percent among older people. “The jury’s still out on how big a threat [the tick] is,” says Ben Beard, from the Centers for Disease Control. “But we think it’s a very important question to address.”
8-24-18 There’s method in a firefly’s flashes
The light signals can be a mating call or a way to ward off predators. A firefly’s blinking behind is more than just a pretty summer sight. It’s known that fireflies flash to attract mates (SN Online: 8/12/15) — but the twinkles may serve another purpose as well. Jesse Barber, a biologist at Boise State University, had a hunch that the lights also warn off potential nighttime predators. He wasn’t the first person with this hypothesis. As far back as 1882, entomologist G.H. Bowles wrote of fireflies: “May not the light then serve … as a warning of their offensiveness to creatures that would devour them?” But the theory hadn’t been tested, until now. “We always assumed that bats don’t use vision for much,” Barber says. Many species of fireflies are “chemically protected,” meaning they taste awful to predators, Barber says. Yet if an insect doesn’t offer a warning of its bad taste, it may get sampled anyway. Barber noticed that, unlike moths, which signal their toxicity to bats with noises, fireflies don’t make a peep (SN Online: 7/3/13). He wondered if lightning bugs were warning bats of their disgusting taste with their blinking lights. Barber and colleagues wanted to see if it took bats longer to learn to avoid fireflies when the flashings were masked. The team began by introducing fireflies to three bats that had never encountered the bugs before. The bats learned to avoid the bright creatures “after just a few interactions,” Barber says. Those early exchanges went something like: catch, taste, drop. Soon, the bats avoided the fireflies completely.
8-23-18 The most trusted meerkats are those with impeccable reputations
Small foraging animals often put their trust in high-ranking or old group members to watch for danger – but meerkats trust sentries based on reputation. Experience beats age or rank when it comes to meerkat sentry duty. Individuals who stand guard while other group members forage for food gain trust through reputation, not through their social rank. Other foraging species that rely on sentries usually only pay attention to warnings from dominant or older individuals. When meerkats forage for insects and other prey they bury their heads in the sand, so having a reliable lookout means they don’t have to be on the alert themselves for predatory snakes, hawks, eagles and jackals. Good lookouts save lives by giving an alarm call when a nearby predator looks ready to attack. Likewise, reliable “all-clear” calls allow peers to confidently resume foraging. To find out what makes meerkats trust a sentinel, Ramona Rauber at the University of Zurich studied nine groups of foraging meerkats in South Africa’s Kalahari desert in 2016 and 2017. The groups ranged in size from three to 23 animals. Meerkats of any age and dominance serve as lookouts. But after observing each group for three months, Rauber ranked lookouts as “rare”, “common” or “super”. Super-guards were those that stood watch at least 50 per cent more frequently than any other individual. Rauber recorded “all-clear” calls from as many sentinels as possible, then played these back for periods of five minutes to individual meerkats temporarily foraging alone, and so free from peer influence. “I attached a small speaker to my leg while I positioned myself 1 to 2 metres from each test individual,” she says.
8-22-18 Parrots make wise investment decisions to get what they want: walnuts
Macaws and African grey parrots can learn the value of tokens and choose to make investments that will earn them a better snack in the long-run. Tests involving four species of parrot have found that these birds are capable of making complex economic decisions. The study involved 33 individual macaws and African greys who were taught to recognise the value of different tokens that could be exchanged for food rewards. The birds were then pushed to make difficult decisions about whether to accept an immediate reward, or choose to invest in tokens that would guarantee them a better snack later on. The highest reward available was a piece of walnut, while the worst treat on offer was a sunflower seed. The birds were also offered a middle option – a nugget of dry corn. In various tests, the parrots consistently rejected disappointing immediate rewards in favour of choosing a token – but only if the token would get them a better treat later. The team behind the study say this shows that the birds are capable of making deliberate, profit-maximising decisions, and that the birds can perform as well as chimpanzees have done in similar tests.
8-22-18 Fireflies don’t just glow for sex – they do it to warn away bats too
We’ve long known that fireflies light up to woo mates, but now we know they also do it to warn bats that they taste disgusting. Fireflies don’t only light up their behinds to woo mates – they also do it to tell predatory bats to keep away. This twist in the tale of the trait that gives fireflies their name was discovered by Jesse Barber at Boise State University in Idaho and his colleagues. The characteristic benefits both fireflies and bats, because these insects taste disgusting to the mammals. When swallowed, chemicals emitted by fireflies cause bats to vomit them back up, meaning both species are keen to avoid such an interaction. Researchers placed eight bats in a dark room with three to four fireflies plus three times as many palatable insects, including beetles and moths, for four days. During the first night, all the bats captured at least one firefly. But by the fourth night, most bats had learned to avoid fireflies and catch all the other prey instead. When the team painted fireflies’ light organs dark, a new set of bats took twice as long to learn to avoid them. “This is the first time we have good experimental data on the warning displays of fireflies,” Barber says. It had long been thought that fireflies’ bioluminescence mainly acted as a mating signal, but the new finding explains why firefly larvae also glow despite being sexually immature. But bats don’t depend on bioluminescence alone to avoid making a meal of an unpalatable firefly. The team also found bats can use echolocation to distinguish fireflies from other insects by their wingbeat rate. “The ability of bats to use combined sensory system to detect fireflies is truly amazing,” Barber says.
8-22-18 Call off the grizzly bear trophy hunt, it’s immoral and unscientific
The first grizzly bear hunt in Wyoming for over 40 years ignores the questionable conservation status and emotional capacities of these iconic animals, says Marc Bekoff. Some people enjoy killing other animals for recreation. In the latest example, 21 of more than 7000 applicants who entered a lottery for a permit will soon be allowed to kill grizzly bears near Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks in Wyoming. It is the result of these magnificent carnivores no longer being protected by the Endangered Species Act. Many bear biologists and others familiar with the bears’ behaviour, ecology, reproductive physiology and population dynamics are extremely wary about the hunt, even if not all are anti-hunting. Those supporting the shoot of up to 22 bears are playing a questionable numbers game based on past population gains. They also argue it raises conservation cash, but the money from the permits won’t go far and is a tiny fraction of what tourism brings in. At the moment, there are around 700 bears in and around the parks, up from an estimated 136 in 1975 when they were put on the US endangered species list. Many biologists are concerned that 700 is not a sustainable population and so we ought not be killing these animals. In addition, bear numbers aren’t currently growing because climate change is reducing the availability of food, especially cutthroat trout and whitebark pine trees and their nuts.
8-22-18 Ancient fossil turtle had no shell
Scientists have found new evidence confirming that turtles once lived without shells. The almost-complete fossil dates back 228 million years and is bigger than a double bed. It was discovered in the Guizhou province of south west China Dr Nicholas Fraser, keeper of natural sciences at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, said: "It looked like a turtle but then lacked everything of the shell underneath and also the one on top." "It has the scaffolding in place for the shell to go on to but it doesn't have the shell." "It has a very characteristic beak at the front end." The ancient reptile has been named Eorhynchochelys sinensis, which means "Dawn turtle with a beak from China". The shell is there to help protect turtles, but it can also help them live underwater for longer. This is because it stores potassium and magnesium which can help protect it from a build-up of lactic acid. It is made up of around 50 bones, with ribs, shoulder bones and vertebrae fused together to form a hard external layer. Dr Fraser says "Turtles are very strange animals. They have a straightjacket of a shell. "If you can imagine yourself with your shoulders within your rib cage, you'd be pretty restricted." "They're pretty unusual animals but they have survived over 200 million years."
8-22-18 Lobster krill fight off big penguins with their tiny pincers
Penguin-mounted cameras show that 7-centimetre-long crustaceans can sometimes fend off attacks from predators 10 times as large. Seven-centimetre-long lobster krill look like easy prey for 90-centimetre-tall gentoo penguins, but they don’t go down without a fight. Cameras mounted on the penguins to study their hunting behaviour reveal that the krill fight back with their tiny pincers – and they often succeed in deterring their attackers. Jonathan Handley of Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and colleagues attached cameras and depth recorders to 38 gentoo penguins in the Falkland Islands as they set out on foraging trips early in the day. “We were hoping to discover what’s happening in the underwater lives of these birds,” says Handley. The footage showed the penguins hunt lobster krill and small fish, and occasionally larger fish and squid. The penguins usually attack while ascending from deeper water, so that their prey is easily visible against the light sky. On a number of occasions, lobster krill avoided capture by defending themselves with their pincers. “That was a unique finding that we weren’t really expecting,” says Handley. Groups of lobster krill also defended themselves successfully by forming tightly clustered swarms. When penguins approached these swarms, they weren’t able to pick off any individuals.
8-22-18 More protection needed for Chinese pangolins
Pangolins should be considered a top priority for conservation in China, with nature reserves set up in key mountain habitats. That's the message of scientists studying the decline of the scaly mammals in eastern China. Pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are considered to be the world's most trafficked wild mammal. Research found numbers had dropped by more than 50% over three decades since the 1970s. The animals are poached in Asia and Africa for their meat and also for their scales, which are sought after for use in traditional medicine. Pangolins are now mainly confined to the Wuyi Mountains in northern Fujian province, where many rare and unusual animals are found. Yang Li, Xiaofeng Luan and Minhao Chen of Beijing Forestry University in China say pangolins deserve more attention from scientists and local people. "Pangolins have been listed in the list of China's state key protected wild animals as level II," they say. "According to our research and previous research, we suggest that [the] protection level should change into level I." The scientists are calling for a monitoring network to be established in the area together with education to encourage local people to take part in pangolin protection projects. Eight species of pangolin are found on two continents. All are protected under national and international laws, however the illegal international trade in pangolins is continuing.
8-21-18 Beaked whales may frequent a seabed spot marked for mining
A series of seafloor grooves look a lot like those made by the deep-diving marine mammals. Whales may have made their mark on the seafloor in a part of the Pacific Ocean designated for future deep-sea mining. Thousands of grooves found carved into the seabed could be the first evidence that large marine mammals visit this little-explored region, researchers report August 22 in Royal Society Open Science. If deep-diving whales are indeed using the region for foraging or other activities, scientists say, authorities must take that into account when planning how to manage future mining activities. The Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, or CCZ, is a vast plain on the deep seafloor that spans about 4.5 million square kilometers between Hawaii and Mexico. The region is littered with trillions of small but potentially valuable rocky nodules containing manganese, copper, cobalt and rare earth elements. Little is known of the seafloor ecosystems in this region that might be disturbed by mining of the nodules. So several research cruises have visited the area since 2013 to conduct baseline assessments of what creatures might live on or near the seafloor.
8-21-18 A fossil mistaken for a bat may shake up lemurs’ evolutionary history
Aye-aye ancestors may have reached Madagascar on their own. In one published swoop, an ancient fossil fruit bat has turned into a lemur. If that transformation holds, it suggests that lemur ancestors made two tricky sea crossings from Africa to Madagascar, not one as researchers have often assumed. A new fossil analysis finds that the ancient species Propotto leakeyi, which lived in East Africa between 23 million and 16 million years ago, was not a bat, as scientists thought, but a primate closely related to modern aye-ayes. These strange-looking lemurs are found only on Madagascar along with another closely related lemur lineage. What’s more, Propotto teeth and jaws display key similarities with fossils of a roughly 34-million-year-old primate, Plesiopithecus teras, previously found in Egypt, researchers say. Plesiopithecus, previously suspected to have been a primate, was an ancestor of Propotto and of modern aye-ayes, they conclude. Together, the findings, published August 21 in Nature Communications, may help rewrite lemurs’ evolutionary history. The research challenges a long-standing view that all Madagascar lemurs, including aye-ayes, evolved from a single population of African ancestors that somehow reached the island at least 54 million years ago. That estimate rests largely on genetic studies of modern lemurs and other primates. Destruction of ancient lemurs’ African habitats by global cooling around 34 million years ago left their kind isolated on Madagascar, according to this scenario.
8-21-18 New perspective on how lemurs got to Madagascar
The lemurs of Madagascar are at the centre of a new mystery. Scientists believe the story of how they arrived on the island is more complex than we thought. After looking again at the fossil evidence, they question the idea that lemurs have been evolving in isolation on the island for 50 million years. Finding out more about lemurs' ancient history could help conservation efforts. A recent study found that almost all species of lemur face extinction. "It deepens the mystery," Erik Sieffert of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, told BBC News. "It makes it even more important that we try to find out more about the evolution of this group and maybe with some perspective from the past, it will give us some information we can use in the present about how to protect these species." The conventional view is that lemurs arrived in Madagascar 40-50 million years ago, long after it became an island. It's thought they floated over from the African continent on rafts of vegetation. Lemurs didn't have any predators on the island, so they spread rapidly and evolved into many different species. This is why lemurs are now found only on the island and not all over Africa.
8-20-18 Ants show 'lazy' approach may be best for digging
A new study on ants and robots has shown that having more workers is not necessarily better when working in confined spaces. If there are too many bodies then the workspace can get clogged. A less busy approach in which some workers are purposely idle can avoid jams. The findings might help devise strategies to avoid clumping in confined and crowded environments, such as disaster relief operations. The research has been published in the journal Science. Prof Daniel Goldman, a physicist and robotics expert at Georgia Institute of Technology, has been studying invasive fire ants for eight years, since he realised that understanding how they cooperate to dig tunnels could have real-life consequences for robot design. The new study has shown that sometimes a laid back approach can get the job done. Unlike cars that clump together or buses that arrive at the same time, ants rarely seem to have traffic jams. Prof Goldman said: "We painted the abdomens of ants with oil-based markers and by monitoring which ants showed up in the tunnel, we found that in fact about 30% of the ants in a group did about 70% of the work, because they came to the tunnel more often and they excavated more pellets." He added: "We wanted to know why only about 30% of ants were excavating, and to understand how basic laws of physics might be at work." It turned out that the inequality in ant labour is not because the hardest working individuals have a specialist "qualification" in tunnel engineering.
8-17-18 How salamanders can regrow nearly complete tails but lizards can’t
Neural stem cells in the spinal cord prevent the reptiles from regenerating nerve cells. Salamanders and lizards can both regrow their tails, but not to equal perfection. While a regenerated salamander tail closely mimics the original, bone and all, a lizard’s replacement is filled with cartilage and lacks nerve cells. That contrast is due to differences between stem cells in the animals’ spinal cords, researchers report online August 13 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. When a salamander loses its tail, neural stem cells in the creature’s spinal cord can develop into any type of nervous system cell, including nerve cells, or neurons. But through evolution, lizard neural stem cells “have lost this ability,” says study coauthor Thomas Lozito, a biologist at the University of Pittsburgh. Lizards, while they can regrow cartilage and skin, cannot regenerate neurons, the researchers found. Lozito and colleagues studied neural stem cells from the axolotl salamander (Ambystoma mexicanum) and from two lizard species — the green anole (Anolis carolinensis) and the mourning gecko (Lepidodactylus lugubris). The team also wondered if the lizard stem cells themselves weren’t capable of developing into neurons or if there was something about the environment of the lizard tail that prevented their regrowth. So the researchers implanted salamander neural stem cells into five gecko tail stumps. Some of the cells became neurons in the regrown tails, showing that the lizard stem cells were the problem. The finding suggests that scientists would have to alter only the lizard stem cells instead of other parts of the tail to regrow a more complete appendage.
8-16-18 Future robot swarms should copy lazy ants who let others do the work
The optimum strategy for tunnelling ants is to leave all of the digging to just a few workers. Swarms of robots could use similar techniques for clearing rubble. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and the same goes for ants. A study into how ants cooperate has found that the optimum strategy is for most of them not to do any work. The findings may be useful for creating large swarms of robots. Ants create networks of narrow underground tunnels by excavating soil bit by bit as a team. To understand the strategies they use, Daniel Goldman at Georgia Tech and his colleagues placed 30 ants into a transparent container filled with glass soil-like particles. For 48 hours ants entered and exited the tunnels hundreds of times to extend the network, but surprisingly only 30 per cent of the ants did around 70 per cent of the work. “Only a few ants would do the majority of the work, with the rest just hanging out trying to avoid clogging up the tunnel,” says Goldman. To further understand the process, Goldman and his colleagues tested out different strategies with four excavation robots. “One dug OK. Two dug OK. Three was kind of good. But with four the robots just couldn’t get anywhere,” says Goldman. However smart his team made the robots they kept causing clogs unless some took a back seat. The results suggest when groups of individuals work together, the best strategy may be for some to hang back, he says. The work can help uncover some of the strategies that biological organisms have evolved to use, but may also help write better software for controlling swarms of robots.
8-16-18 Here’s what robots could learn from fire ants
In tight quarters, sharing the work equally leads to traffic jams. Robots, take note: When working in tight, crowded spaces, fire ants know how to avoid too many cooks in the kitchen. Observations of fire ants digging an underground nest reveal that a few industrious ants do most of the work while others dawdle. Computer simulations confirm that, while this strategy may not be the fairest, it is the most efficient because it helps reduce overcrowding in tunnels that would gum up the works. Following fire ants’ example could help robot squads work together more efficiently, researchers report in the Aug. 17 Science. Robots that can work in close, crowded quarters without tripping each other up may be especially good at digging through rubble for search-and-rescue missions, disaster cleanup or construction, says Justin Werfel, a collective behavior researcher at Harvard University who has designed insect-inspired robot swarms (SN: 3/22/14, p. 8).
8-16-18 The male fish who eat their eggs because they want better babies
When male barred-chin blenny fish are unimpressed by their latest batch of offspring, they often eat them so they can start a new family as soon as possible. Raising kids is hard work. Male blenny fish sometimes eat their babies if they think they’re not worth the effort and want a better batch. The barred-chin blenny (Rhabdoblennius nitidus), a fish found in Asia, has an unusual parenting arrangement. After females lay eggs, they leave their male partners in sole charge of caring for them until they hatch. This arrangement usually works well. But if the female leaves only a small number of eggs – less than one thousand or so – the male typically eats them instead of looking after them. Until recently, it was thought this was because the nutritional value of eating the small number of eggs outweighed the benefits of protecting only a few offspring. But Yukio Matsumoto at Nagasaki University in Japan and his colleagues found that the motivation was actually to breed again as soon as possible to get a larger, healthier batch of children. They showed that the breeding cycle of male R. nitidus fish is tightly controlled by the presence or absence of eggs. When eggs are laid in their nests, their testosterone levels drop and they cannot mate – perhaps to make them stick to the task of parenting. When the eggs hatch and their offspring leave the nest about a week later, their testosterone levels shoot back up and they can court females once again. When males are left with only a meagre number of eggs, they may choose to eat them straight away so that their empty nest signals for their testosterone levels to be restored, says Matsumoto. That way they can find a mate to give them more children with better survival prospects as soon as possible, he says.
8-15-18 New pesticides 'may have risks for bees'
Attempts to find a new generation of pesticides to replace neonicotinoids have been dealt a potential blow. Neonicotinoids are the most commonly used insecticide in the world, but had been linked to bee declines. Studies suggest a new type of pesticide seen as an alternative to the chemicals, which have been banned in many countries, may have similar risks. The new insecticides may reduce bumblebee reproduction in the wild, according to a study by UK scientists. The alternatives had been sought because of the evidence linking neonicotinoids to declines in bee populations - leading to the bans and restrictions on their use. A study, published in Nature journal, looked at how one of the new class, known as sulfoxaflor, impacts on healthy, wild bumblebees. Exposed bees had fewer offspring when released into the wild compared with unexposed bees. "Our results show that sulfoxaflor can have a negative impact on the reproductive output of bumblebee colonies under certain conditions," said study researcher Harry Siviter of Royal Holloway, University of London.
8-15-18 Sterile fish could help wild salmon dodge the ‘gene pollution’ effect
Farmed Atlantic salmon make the local wild salmon population weaker. Making them sterile could work – but there’s a catch. FROM Norway to Canada, farmed Atlantic salmon are escaping in such large numbers that they are a threat to the local salmon. This could be prevented by making the farmed fish sterile. But there is a catch: the sterile fish are less nutritious. Salmon farming has satisfied soaring demand without the need to catch ever more wild salmon. But it has also created an entirely new threat. Farmed salmon have been transformed into a domesticated animal by selective breeding. They eat more, grow faster and have less fear of predators. This means they are less likely to survive in the wild and so weaken wild salmon when they interbreed with them. Norway is tackling the problem in several ways, from trying to reduce the number of escapees to having snorkellers spear farmed salmon that turn up in rivers before they can interbreed. But some experimental farms there are already testing the ultimate solution: making farmed salmon sterile. One way to do this is to briefly pressurise fertilised eggs, which makes them retain an extra set of chromosomes. The resulting fish are triploid: they have three sets of chromosomes. This method is already used worldwide to sterilise trout for release in rivers. Now David Murray at the University of East Anglia, UK, has confirmed that triploid salmon are also effectively sterile. The females didn’t develop gonads and while the males did produce sperm, less than 1 per cent of the eggs they fertilised survived to the 5-week stage, when the experiment stopped (Royal Society Open Science, DOI: 10.1098/rsos.180493).
8-14-18 Palm oil: A new threat to Africa's monkeys and apes?
Endangered monkeys and apes could face new risks if Africa becomes a big player in the palm oil industry. Most areas suitable for growing the oil crop are key habitats for primates, a study suggests. The researchers, who are examining palm oil's possible effect on Africa's biodiversity, say consumers can help by choosing sustainably-grown palm oil. This may mean paying more for food, cosmetics and cleaning products that contain the oil, or limiting their use. "If we are concerned about the environment, we have to pay for it," said Serge Wich, professor of primate biology at Liverpool John Moores University, and leader of the study. "In the products that we buy, the cost to the environment has to be incorporated." Palm oil comes from the oil palm tree, which is native to West Africa. However, most palm oil is currently grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. Environmentalists say the region's forests have paid the price, with native trees cut down to make way for palm trees. Oil palm expansion is a major driver of deforestation, which in turn threatens wildlife, such as the critically endangered orangutan of Borneo.
8-13-18 Orca who carried her dead infant is not alone – many animals grieve
A female orca has been seen carrying the body of her dead calf for 17 days, apparently grieving. Such displays of grief are remarkably common in nature. Over the last few weeks, many people have been deeply moved by the story of a female orca who spent over a fortnight swimming with the dead body of her calf, apparently grieving. The story is a dramatic illustration of something that has become increasingly clear in recent years: many animals grieve for their dead. The orca is called Tahlequah and belongs to a pod known as J, which roams the north-east Pacific Ocean. Her baby died shortly after it was born on 24 July, according to the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington. Tahlequah proceeded to carry the body for at least 17 days, during which time she covered 1600 kilometres. On Saturday 11 August, the Center reported that she was no longer carrying the body. Instead she joined her fellow pod members in chasing a school of salmon, and seemed “remarkably frisky”. Among certain kinds of animal, such grieving behaviours appear to be quite common. Grief seems to be most common in highly social animals that live in tight-knit groups. This makes sense: social animals would come to value their friends and family, and accordingly would feel a loss when they die. In contrast, animals that live solitary lives and do not care for their offspring would have nobody to grieve.
8-13-18 In the animal kingdom, what does it mean to be promiscuous?
There’s little consensus over the use of the word in scientific studies, an analysis shows. When it comes to the sex lives of animals, scientists have a slate of explicit terms to describe the proclivities of species. But researchers may be playing a little fast and loose with one of those words. Just what sort of activity qualifies an animal as promiscuous? A review of almost 350 studies published in scientific journals in 2015 and 2016 found that the label was being applied to a surprisingly wide range of mating behaviors in animals, including humans. “This idea of promiscuity seems to mean different things to different people,” says Sarah Jane Alger, a behavioral neurobiologist at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. Promiscuity was referenced in about half of the studies, says Alger, a coauthor on the study presented August 3 at the annual Animal Behavior Society conference. She and colleagues found that the term was used to describe everything from rats that mate multiple times with any rat of the opposite sex they encounter, to kingbirds that pair up for several years and share parental duties but also mate with other birds, to some populations of lagoon triggerfish that don’t encounter enough potential mates to be choosy. Lumping all of these disparate scenarios under one term “misses the potential to explore some really interesting and complicated patterns in animal mating systems,” says behavioral ecologist Brent Burt of Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. (Webmaster's comment: Applying human morality terms to animals is rediculous!)
8-12-18 Killer whale mother finally lets dead newborn calf go, after 17 days
A killer whale has stopped carrying her dead newborn calf after at least 17 days, during which she covered 1,000 miles (1,600km), scientists say. The whale "vigorously chased a school of salmon with her pod-mates in Haro Strait" off Canada's Vancouver Island, the Center for Whale Research said. "Her tour of grief is now over and her behaviour is remarkably frisky." Killer whales have been known to carry dead calves for a week, but scientists believe this mother "sets a record". The mother whale - known as J35 - has captivated the world's attention in the past few days. "Telephoto digital images taken from shore show that this mother whale appears to be in good physical condition," CWR said in a statement on Saturday. "The carcass has probably sunk to the bottom of these inland marine waters of the Salish Sea [between Canada and the US], and researchers may not get a chance to examine it for necropsy (autopsy of an animal)." The mother whale was first spotted carrying her dead calf on 24 July, off the shore of Vancouver Island.
8-11-18 French theme park deploys crows to collect litter
A theme park in France is set to deploy six "intelligent" crows to pick up rubbish and spruce up the grounds. The birds at the Puy du Fou theme park in the west of the country have been taught to collect cigarette ends and other small bits of rubbish. They then deposit the litter into a small box which will deliver some bird food as a reward for their hard work. The first crow cleaners have already been put to work, with the rest set to join them on Monday. Nicolas de Villiers, the head of the park, told AFP news agency that it was not just about keeping the area clean. "The goal is not just to clear up, because the visitors are generally careful to keep things clean". It was also about showing "that nature itself can teach us to take care of the environment". He added that the rooks, which are a member of the crow family that also includes ravens and jackdaws, are "particularly intelligent" and "like to communicate with humans and establish a relationship through play". This is not the first time crows have displayed their intelligence. Earlier this year, scientists created a vending machine that showed the bird's ability to solve problems. The machine required a particular size of paper token to release a treat. Scientists found that the crows could remember the right size of paper, and they even trimmed bigger pieces until they could fit into the machine.
8-10-18 Coral reefs 'weathered dinosaur extinction'
Corals may have teamed up with the microscopic algae which live inside them as much as 160 million years ago, according to new research. The two organisms have a symbiotic relationship, meaning they need each other to survive. But this partnership was previously thought to have developed about 60 million years ago. The new findings suggest that reef algae may have weathered significant environmental changes over time. This includes the mass extinction that wiped out most of the dinosaurs. Algae's resilience to temperature changes has been of concern to scientists recently, as warming events on the Great Barrier Reef have seen the coral "bleached" of its algae. The study, conducted by an international team of scientists, aimed to explore the diversity of algae species co-habiting with corals. Looking at the species group Symbiodinium, the researchers found that it contained more varieties than previously thought. Although scientists had been aware of the algae's diversity, it had not been classified into many separate species - which now appears to be the case. Using DNA analysis, the team found that these algae likely evolved and began their partnership with coral during the Middle Jurassic, well before the extinction event that affected the dinosaurs. "Our recognition of the true origin of those microbes that give corals life is major revelation," lead author Prof Todd LaJeunesse told BBC News. "They are way older than was previously estimated. Meaning that [this partnership has] been around for a hell of a long time!" added the Pennsylvania State University researcher.
8-10-18 Gluten-free dogs? Pets deserve better than this evidence-free fad
Animal owners are increasingly falling for potentially risky fad pet diets or homeopathic alternatives to vaccines, warn vets Danny Chambers and Zoe Belshaw. Despite overwhelming evidence of vaccines’ efficacy and safety, the anti-vaccine lobby is growing. Raw and grain-free diets with unproven health claims are also gaining popularity. Proponents of homeopathy continue to argue that the power of their treatments cannot be validated using traditional scientific methods. Familiar territory, you may think. But we’re not talking about human healthcare. This is pet dogs and cats. Recently, the aggressive promotion of alternative therapies for animal diseases has become widespread. Closed Facebook groups, some with tens of thousands of members, discuss their mistrust of vets and the pharmaceutical industry, urging the use of “safer” options such as homeopathy, reiki, Chinese medicine and chiropractic interventions. In some groups, pet psychics even offer direct therapy via Facebook Messenger. Such is the level of suspicion about animal vaccines, that the British Veterinary Association put out a statement this year to dispel the myth that they are linked to autism in dogs. The most recent manifestation of such distrust is a backlash against supposedly dangerous ingredients in commercially available dog and cat diets. Hence these groups advising members to feed their pets raw meat-based, grain-free, organic, or even vegan diets, echoing human food fads such as gluten-free. For cats, a meat-free diet is lethal if not supplemented with specific amino acids.
8-10-18 What ‘The Meg’ gets wrong — and right — about megalodon sharks
A paleobiologist helps Science News separate fact from fiction in the film. OK, so what if a giant prehistoric shark, thought to be extinct for about 2.5 million years, is actually still lurking in the depths of the ocean? That’s the premise of the new flick The Meg, which opens August 10 and pits massive Carcharocles megalodon against a grizzled and fearless deep-sea rescue diver, played by Jason Statham, and a handful of resourceful scientists. The protagonists discover the sharks in a deep oceanic trench about 300 kilometers off the coast of China — a trench, the film suggests, that extends down more than 11,000 meters below the ocean surface. (That depth makes it even deeper than the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep, the actual deepest known point in the ocean). Hydrothermal vents down in the trench supposedly keep those dark waters warm enough to support an ecosystem teeming with life. And — spoiler alert! — of course, the scientists’ investigation inadvertently helps megalodons escape from the depths. The giant living fossils head to the surface, where they terrorize shark fishermen and beachgoers a la Jaws. But could a population of megalodons actually have survived down there? To explore what is and isn’t possible and what we still don’t know about sharks, Science News went to the movies with paleobiologist Meghan Balk of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., who studies the ancient predators.
8-10-18 The Meg: real Megalodon shark would eat Jason Statham for breakfast
Jason Statham’s new film The Meg looks gloriously silly and good luck to it, but it got us thinking about what its giant prehistoric shark was really like and why it died out. This week you can go to the cinema and see Jason Statham take on a giant prehistoric shark. The Meg sees the action star face off against a Megalodon, a long-extinct shark far larger than today’s great whites. The film looks gloriously silly and is expected to do well at the box office, partly because it seems to have embraced the inherent daftness of its premise. Unlike Jaws, which featured a living species of shark – albeit with an uncharacteristic taste for human flesh, rather than seal – The Meg is the Jurassic World of shark movies. That’s a good thing. Unlike Jaws, The Meg is unlikely to scare anyone out of the water or encourage a “kill them all” attitude towards sharks – many of which are threatened species in need of protection. For an extinct creature, Megalodon gets a lot of press, which gives the impression we know a lot about it. We don’t, says palaeontologist Darren Naish of the University of Southampton, UK. Pretty much all we have is teeth, which are startlingly big. “The record is 16.8 centimetres from base to tip,” says Naish. Otherwise, their bodies have not been preserved. Being sharks, their skeleton was made of cartilage rather than bone, which doesn’t fossilise. There are a few vertebrae, which were bonier than the rest of the skeleton, but that’s all.
8-9-18 A ghost gene leaves ocean mammals vulnerable to some pesticides
Manatees, for example, don't produce a protein that breaks down organophosphates. A gene that helps mammals break down certain toxic chemicals appears to be faulty in marine mammals — potentially leaving manatees, dolphins and other warm-blooded water dwellers more sensitive to dangerous pesticides. The gene, PON1, carries instructions for making a protein that interacts with fatty acids ingested with food. But that protein has taken on another role in recent decades: breaking down toxic chemicals found in a popular class of pesticides called organophosphates. As the chemicals drain from agricultural fields, they can poison waterways and coastal areas and harm wildlife, says Wynn Meyer, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Pittsburgh. An inspection of the genetic instructions of 53 land mammal species found the gene intact. But in six marine mammal species, PON1 was riddled with mutations that made it useless, Meyer and colleagues report in the Aug. 10 Science. The gene became defunct about 64 million to 21 million years ago, possibly due to dietary or behavioral changes related to marine mammal ancestors’ move from land to sea, the researchers say.
8-7-18 New Scientist Live: dogs and people, a 40,000-year love story
In London this September, Juliane Kaminski will be arguing that dogs have spent so long living alongside humans that they have evolved to think just like us. Man’s best friend is also our oldest friend – DNA suggests that dogs split from wolves 40,000 years ago, and this may have happened multiple times. But it’s only recently that researchers have begun to investigate dogs as a man-made species, uncovering what makes our relationship with them so special. Juliane Kaminski, of the University of Portsmouth, UK, will be arguing at New Scientist Live this September that dogs have spent so long living alongside people that they have evolved to think just like us. The relationship between our species is so close that dogs can see, hear and even smell our emotions, and then adopt them as their own. They are good judges of character, too, preferring people who help others over those who don’t cooperate. And they have been discovered to resort to deception to get treats from unreliable humans. The dog brain processes language in the same way as ours, and dogs can tell when we’re using positive words and encouraging intonation to praise them. Dogs are often better than our closest primate relatives at understanding human gestures, and they know exactly when to make puppy eyes at people.
8-6-18 The first detailed map of red foxes’ DNA may reveal domestication secrets
For nearly 60 years, scientists in Russia have bred tame and aggressive Vulpes vulpes. For nearly 60 years, scientists in Siberia have bred silver foxes in an attempt to replay how domestication occurred thousands of years ago. Now, in a first, researchers have compiled the genetic instruction book, or genome, of Vulpes vulpes, the red fox species that includes the silver-coated variant. This long-awaited study of the foxes’ DNA may reveal genetic changes that drove domestication of animals such as cats and dogs, the team reports online August 6 in Nature Ecology & Evolution. At the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk, Russia, researchers bred one group of foxes for ever-tamer behavior, while another group was bred for increasing aggressiveness toward humans (SN: 5/13/17, p. 29). Rif, the male silver fox whose DNA serves as the example, or reference, genome for all members of the species, was the son of an aggressive vixen and a tame male. Geneticist Anna Kukekova of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and colleagues also conducted less-detailed examinations of 30 foxes’ DNA: 10 foxes each from the tame and aggressive groups and 10 animals from a “conventional” group that hadn’t been bred for either friendliness or aggression. Those genomes are an invaluable resource for researchers studying domestication, behavioral and population genetics and even human disorders such as autism and mental illness, says Ben Sacks, a canid evolutionary geneticist at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. “It makes all kinds of research possible that weren’t before,” he says.
8-6-18 This killifish can go from egg to sex in two weeks
Unpredictable and rapidly vanishing rain-puddle nurseries dictate this need for speed. A fish that lives in rain puddles has beaten its own record for the fastest known sexual maturity among vertebrates. Turquoise killifish (Nothobranchius furzeri) that hatch after unpredictable deluges in Mozambique can go from hatchling to ready-to-breed adult in 14 days, researchers announce August 6 in Current Biology. Killifish in cushy lab conditions had already grown up faster than other vertebrates, developing fully in 18 days. Some other vertebrates come close, but they take shortcuts, says coauthor Martin Reichard, an evolutionary ecologist at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Brno. House mice, for instance, sometimes grow up in 23 to 30 days. Yet they’re born at a more advanced stage of development than the hatchling fish, Reichard says, and get a boost from mouse milk. And a kind of goby fish “matures” in 23 days by just growing a gonad on a larval body. Tramping around the killifish’s natural savannah habitat showed that these fish manage a more impressive feat. Hatchlings can grow from just 5 millimeters up to 54 millimeters with functional gonads in just two weeks. When puddles dry, fertilized eggs can stay alive without hatching for months until it rains again. These fish “do not waste time with anything,” Reichard says. “Mating does not involve much elaborate courtship.” A male briefly extends his fins, and if he’s accepted, the female lays one egg before swimming off to find another mate. She manages 20 to 100 eggs a day, “typically before noon,” he says.
8-4-18 US wildlife refuges end ban on neonics and GM crops
The Trump administration has overturned bans on the use of pesticides linked to declining bee populations and the cultivation of genetically modified crops in US national wildlife refuges. The move, reversing a policy adopted in 2014, has attracted heavy criticism from environmentalists. It was announced in a memo by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Limited agricultural activity is allowed on some national wildlife refuges. The Fish and Wildlife Service's deputy director, Greg Sheehan, said in the memo that the blanket ban on neonicotinoid pesticides and GM crops on refuges would end, with decisions about their use being made on a case-by-case basis. He said genetically modified organisms helped "maximise production", and that neonics might be required "to fulfil needed farming practices". Mr Sheehan added that the move on GM crops would improve the supply of food for migratory birds including ducks and geese, which are shot by hunters on many of the nation's refuges. The memo names more than 50 national wildlife refuges where the new policy now applies, covering about 150 million acres across the US. (Webmaster's comment: Given time Trump will destroy all protection of the environment and wildlife in favor of profits for corporate executives.)
8-3-18 Small dogs urinate higher up lamp posts to make themselves seem bigger
It seems when smaller dogs urinate on objects they might be using this opportunity to deceive, by making it look like their mark was left by a bigger dog. Call it small dog syndrome. It seems when smaller dogs urinate on objects on their walks they might be using this opportunity to deceive, by aiming higher to give the impression that their mark was made by a much bigger animal. When male dogs spray urine, they are “scent marking”: laying down an odour-based message to other dogs that communicates health, sex, and age. In this way, scent marking is considered an “honest signal,” relaying accurate information to potential competitors and mates about the animal’s attributes. But when Betty McGuire at Cornell University looked at how body size influenced scent marking, she and her team noticed a curious pattern. Small dogs urinated more frequently than larger dogs, and they were more likely to urinate towards vertically-oriented targets. “Small males seemed to make an extra effort to raise their leg high—some small males would almost topple over”, says McGuire. “So, we wondered whether small males try to exaggerate their body size by leaving high urine marks.”
8-2-18 A bird's eye view: Songbirds perceive colour like humans
Faced with a glorious spectrum of colour, songbirds, just like humans, look for the big picture. They can lump nearby hues in the colour spectrum into categories, such as shades that are generally red, or generally orange. A study now shows that this affects their ability to distinguish between certain colours. The findings, by a team from Duke University in North Carolina, are published in the journal Nature. Female songbirds were rewarded with food if they flipped over a circular disc of two colours. The two-colour discs had different pairs of colours selected from an orange-to-red spectrum. This mirrors the colour range found in the male songbird beak. One idea was that the birds would be able to pick up on all detectable differences in colour across the spectrum. But instead, the birds do something known as "categorical perception". This means that they respond more if the difference in colour between the two halves of the disc is between distinct colour categories, so that one is distinctly orange and the other distinctly red. However, shades that were close to one another on the spectrum did not get such an obvious reaction. It happens in primates, including humans, but this is the first time that another animal has been shown to exhibit categorical perception of colour.
8-2-18 Lemur extinction: Vast majority of species under threat
Almost every species of lemur, wide-eyed primates unique to Madagascar, is under threat of extinction. That is the conclusion of an international group of conservationists, who carried out an assessment of the animals' status. This "Primate Specialist Group" reviewed and compared the latest research into lemur populations and the threats to their habitat and survival. Lemurs, they concluded, are the most endangered primates in the world. In a statement, Russ Mittermeier, from the charity Global Wildlife Conservation, who is chair of the Primate Specialist Group which delivered the alarming conclusions, said that it highlighted the "very high extinction risk to Madagascar's unique lemurs" and was "indicative of the grave threats to Madagascar biodiversity as a whole". "Madagascar's unique and wonderful species are its greatest asset," he added. The animals face a variety of threats, primarily the destruction of their tropical forest habitat, from so-called slash-and-burn agriculture, illegal logging, charcoal production and mining. The hunting of lemurs for food, and their live capture for the pet trade has also emerged as a serious threat to their survival. Specialist Group. He told the BBC: "More and more, we are seeing unsustainable levels of lemur poaching. "We see commercial hunting as well - probably for local restaurants. And this is a new phenomenon for Madagascar - we didn't see it at this scale 15 years ago." There are 111 known species and subspecies of lemur, all endemic to Madagascar, and this group concluded that 105 of those were under threat.
8-2-18 Modified mosquitoes wipe out whole city’s dengue for the first time
Anti-dengue mosquitoes have eliminated the virus from Townsville, Australia - the first successful large-scale use of modified mosquitoes to wipe out disease. Dengue virus has effectively been wiped out in Townsville, Australia, following the release of anti-dengue mosquitoes in 2014. The Queensland city has recorded zero cases of locally-transmitted dengue in the four years since the modified mosquitoes were released, compared to 54 cases in the previous four years. The trial represents the first successful use of modified mosquitoes to eliminate a mosquito-borne virus across a whole city. Scott O’Neill at Monash University and his colleagues infected Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with naturally-occurring Wolbachia bacteria, which hamper the mosquitoes from transmitting the dengue virus. They released 4 million of the infected mosquitoes across Townsville over a two-year period. Once the infected mosquitoes were released, they bred with wild mosquitoes and passed on the Wolbachia bacteria, so that these became protected against dengue too, says O’Neill. The global incidence of dengue infections has increased 30-fold in the last 50 years, and 390 million people now contract the virus each year, leading to 25,000 deaths.
8-1-18 With one island’s losses, the king penguin species shrinks by a third
It’s unclear what has happened to what was the largest of king penguin colonies in the 1980s. What was once the king of the king penguin colonies has lost 85 percent or more of its big showy birds since the 1980s, a drop perhaps big enough to shrink the whole species population by a third. In its glory days, an island called Île aux Cochons in the southern Indian Ocean ranked as the largest colony of king penguins. Satellite data suggest numbers peaked at around 500,000 breeding pairs amidst a total of 2 million birds in the 1980s, says seabird specialist Henri Weimerskirch based at University of La Rochelle with CNRS, the French national research service. A 2015 satellite analysis and a 2016 helicopter survey, however, respectively showed only 77,000 and 51,000 breeding pairs on the island, Weimerskirch and colleagues report in the August Antarctic Science. The International Union for Conservation of Nature ranks king penguins in the category of least concern for risk of extinction. That may change, Weimerskirch says, “since the species has lost nearly one third of its population.” The second tallest penguins after the emperors, Aptendodytes patagonicus can densely pack themselves into the breeding space with about two per square meter. The panorama of so many birds once was “breathtaking,” Weimerskirch says, with underlying ridges in the terrain creating the illusion of waves in a sea of penguins.
8-1-18 Jellyfish sting dozens as Germany and Sweden battle plague
Ninety people at a single beach in Germany were treated for jellyfish stings in just three days, amid a surge of the creatures in European waters. Regional newspaper Ostsee Zeitung said "tens of thousands" of lion's mane jellyfish washed ashore at the weekend. The lion's mane is the largest jellyfish species, and while its sting is rarely fatal it often requires medical attention. One of the 90 people affected had a severe allergic reaction. Jellyfish numbers have dropped since the weekend peak, but the relief may only be temporary. Germany's lifeguard association said only a few specimens had been counted on Tuesday. But jellyfish tend to drift on currents, meaning water temperatures or a change in the wind could wash them ashore in droves again. Sudden plagues of jellyfish have been spotted across Europe in recent weeks. Sweden's west coast has suddenly found itself home to the clinging jellyfish - a species that Swedish broadcaster SVT said had not been seen there in 88 years. The tiny creatures are barely a few centimetres in diameter, and were only discovered when a marine biologist investigated reports of bathers being stung in the waters off Tjörn.
8-1-18 Trial to test if GM fed salmon are more nutritious
Researchers in the Highlands of Scotland are giving farmed salmon feed made from genetically modified crops. The aim of the scientific trial is to increase the nutritional value of the fish. The feed is rich in healthy fish oils, which the team hope will be absorbed by the salmon. Critics argue that GM technology is "propping up" an unsustainable system of industrial food production. Tests have shown that levels of an oil called omega-3 have decreased by half in farmed salmon in the past 10 years. It is what makes the fish so healthy. The oil is thought to be involved in brain development and reduces the risk of heart disease, arthritis and diabetes. Even at current levels, farmed salmon is still a rich source of omega-3 - but levels are continuing to fall. The salmon get their omega-3 from eating other oily fish, such as anchovies, that have been ground up and added to pellets that are sprayed into their pens. But there's a limited supply of anchovies and a growing demand for the salmon. So that means that all across the world there's less oily fish to go round to make food for salmon. (Webmaster's comment: Wild caught salmon have a deepeer color and are much tastier than farm raised salmon. I am willing to bet they are much more nutritional and much better for you to eat too!)
8-1-18 Dengue fever outbreak stopped by special mosquitoes
Australian researchers say for the first time an entire city has been protected from viral disease dengue. Captive-bred mosquitoes with a naturally occurring bacteria were released in the city of Townsville, where they mated with local mosquitoes. By spreading the bacteria Wolbachia, which hinders dengue transmission, the city has been dengue-free since 2014. Researchers from Monash University also believe their work could stop mosquito-borne diseases Zika and malaria. "Nothing we've got is slowing these diseases down - they are getting worse," said Scott O'Neill, director of the World Mosquito Program, quoted by the Guardian. "I think we've got something here that's going to have a significant impact and I think this study is the first indication that it's looking very promising." Over four monsoon seasons, researchers released the Wolbachia-carrying mosquitoes across 66km sq (25 sq miles) in the Queensland tropical town of 187,000 people. The community embraced the project, with even school children releasing the special mosquitoes that passed on their bacteria to the local population of mosquitoes. "At a cost of around A$15 (£8.50) per person, the Townsville trial demonstrates the approach can be rolled out quickly, efficiently and cost effectively to help provide communities ongoing protection from mosquito-borne diseases," Professor O'Neill said. The programme is currently working in 11 countries and aims to deploy the Wolbachia mosquitoes in larger and poorer parts around the world with a target of reducing the cost to just US$1 (75p) per person.
8-1-18 Lemurs self-medicate by rubbing toxic millipedes over their bottoms
Red-fronted lemurs sometimes pick up a millipede, give it a chew to make it secrete toxins, then rub it on the skin around their anus - but why? Lemurs have been spotted chewing on toxic millipedes then rubbing the leggy critters all over their genitals and anuses. The bizarre behaviour may be a way to combat parasites that would otherwise set up home in the lemurs’ guts. In November 2016, Louise Peckre of the Leibniz Institute for Primate Research in Göttingen, Germany was observing red-fronted lemurs (Eulemur rufifrons) in a forest in central Madagascar. The first heavy rains had just arrived, prompting many millipedes to emerge from underground. Peckre watched as an adult female rubbed her tail, genitals and anal region with a millipede she was holding in her hand. The lemur then gave the millipede a quick chew before rubbing it on herself again. She repeated this several times. At one point she dribbled a large volume of orange liquid from her mouth. Eventually she ate the millipede. “This was a completely opportunistic observation,” says Peckre. Over the course of that day, five other lemurs did the same thing: they picked up a millipede and alternated chewing it and rubbing it on their bodies around their anuses. All the millipedes belonged to the genus Sechelleptus, which like many millipedes can secrete defensive toxins. Peckre and her colleagues suspect the lemurs were self-medicating. Red-fronted lemurs are exposed to a range of gastrointestinal parasites, many of which are transmitted through faeces that the lemurs unwittingly eat. Smothering their anal regions with millipede toxins might kill these parasites, helping the lemurs either treat an infection or avoid contracting it in the first place.
8-1-18 An Amazonian snake has two types of venom that kill different prey
The Amazon puffing snake has evolved to deliver two kinds of venom with one bite – one kills lizards and birds but doesn’t harm mammals, and the other does the opposite. The venomous fangs of the Amazon puffing snake are a double-edged sword. This South American tree snake has developed a venom with toxins that target different prey – one for killing small mammals like rodents, and another that targets birds and lizards. “Other tree snakes, when they feed on mammals, they use constriction,” says Stephen Mackessy at the University of Northern Colorado, who studied the venom produced by Spilotes sulphurous. “These Amazon puffing snakes are not very good constrictors, so they’re at a disadvantage,” he says. But he found that the snakes’ venom gives them a different kind of advantage. Mackessy and his team extracted the venom from three Amazon puffing snakes – no easy feat, as they can grow as long as 2.7 metres in length and their venom flows fairly slowly – and then analysed the toxins present. They also tested the dosage lizards or mammals could withstand using house geckos and mice. They found both sulditoxin, which is highly toxic to lizards and birds, but non-toxic to mammals even when the dose is 22 times higher than what would be delivered by the bite of an Amazon puffing snake. They also found sulmotoxin 1, which works the opposite way around: it is lethal to mammals but not birds or lizards. While other snakes have developed prey-specific neurotoxins in their venom, this is the first time such a pattern has been shown, says Bryan Fry at the University of Queensland in Australia, who was not involved in this work.