4-30-19 Two species of colourful stick insects discovered in Madagascar
TWO new species of stick insect have been found in the far north of Madagascar. They were previously thought to be examples of two existing giant stick insect species. Achrioptera maroloko (pictured) and Achrioptera manga were discovered when Sven Bradler at the University of Göttingen, Germany, and his colleagues analysed the insects’ DNA. They found that the species are in fact more closely related to other types of Madagascan stick insects than to Achrioptera species elsewhere (Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, doi.org/c4nv). Named for their brightness – in the Malagasy language, the word maroloko means colourful – Achrioptera maroloko males develop their vivid colouration at sexual maturity. Before then, they resemble twigs. The team believes A. maroloko’s unusual colours may attract females or deter predators.
4-29-19 How aphids sacrifice themselves to fix their homes with fatty goo
When a predator bites a hole in a colony’s home, soldiers gush white gluey stuff for a patch. However badly that home renovation goes, be glad you’re not a young aphid. Colonies of tiny Nipponaphis monzeni aphids in eastern Asia use their own young as part repair crew, part repair goo. The tiny fluffs of juvenile insects end up dying after gushing white glop from their bodies to repair a hole in the wall protecting their colony in Asian winter hazel trees. New details of this patching chemistry suggest that these doomed young aphids are a colony’s version of immune system cells, researchers report April 15 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The need for repair can arise while hundreds or thousands of these aphids live inside a hard-shelled, closed lump called a gall, which forms on the trees and balloons around the insects over several years. When a caterpillar manages to chew through the wall, white wingless aphid youngsters called soldiers, swollen almost to bursting with fluids, rush to the breach. Some soldiers mob and sting the intruder. Others get on with patching the hole. They “erupt,” says evolutionary biologist and entomologist Takema Fukatsu of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, Japan. From paired openings, or cornicles, near the rear, each soldier pops out huge (in aphid terms) white gobs of fatty substances and other compounds that plaster the hole. Some aphids get fatally stuck in the hardening patch, and some perish marooned outside the gall. As for the rest, releasing so much fluid shrivels the half-millimeter-long youngsters down to about a third of their body size. That means “the soldiers must die sooner or later,” Fukatsu says.
4-29-19 Beluga whale with harness was trained by Russia, claim scientists
A beluga whale wearing a tight harness spotted by fishermen off the coast of Norway may have been trained by the Russian military, Norwegian scientists have claimed. The whale has been approaching boats and trying to rub off the straps, Norwegian broadcaster NRK reported. After seeing a video of the whale, staff from Norway’s Directorate of Fisheries’ Marine Service went out to find it and attracted it with cod fillets. A fisherman got into the water with the whale and managed to take off the harness, according to the VG newspaper. The whale then swam around the boat a few times before swimming off. The words “Equipment of St Petersburg” were printed on the inside of the harness. “I have been in contact with some Russian researchers and they can confirm that there is nothing they are doing,” Audun Rikardsen of Norwegian Arctic University in Tromsø told VG. “They tell me that most likely it’s the Russian Navy in Murmansk.” Jørgen Wiig, a marine biologist from the Directorate of Fisheries’ Marine Service, said that judging from the whale’s tame behaviour, it had probably been in captivity for some time. “It was very used to people, so I do not know if it will manage alone,” he told VG. There is a long history of whales and dolphins being trained for military purposes by various countries. The US Navy began a dolphin research programme in the 1960s that led to dolphins being deployed to defend ships in Vietnam. Russia launched its own programme during the Cold War, training dolphins to plant bombs and detect abandoned ships. Ukraine’s navy began a dolphin programme in 2012, but the animals fell into Russia’s hands with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. A Ukrainian government representative claimed that the dolphins died “patriotically” by going on hunger strike and refusing to cooperate with the Russians.
4-29-19 Norway finds 'Russian spy whale' off Arctic coast
A beluga whale found off Norway's coast wearing a special Russian harness was probably trained by the Russian navy, a Norwegian expert says. Marine biologist Prof Audun Rikardsen said the harness had a GoPro camera holder and a label sourcing it to St Petersburg. A Norwegian fisherman managed to remove it from the whale. He said a Russian fellow scientist had told him that it was not the sort of kit that Russian scientists would use. Russia has a naval base in the region. The tame beluga repeatedly approached Norwegian boats off Ingoya, an Arctic island about 415km (258 miles) from Murmansk, where Russia's Northern Fleet is based. Belugas are native to Arctic waters. Norway's public broadcaster NRK has put out a video showing the beluga's harness being released. Prof Rikardsen told the BBC that the harness "was attached really tightly round its head, in front of its pectoral fins and it had clips". He said there was a GoPro attachment, but no camera. "A Russian colleague said they don't do such experiments, but she knows the navy has caught belugas for some years and trained them - most likely it's related to that," he said. A Russian reserve colonel, who has written previously about the military use of marine mammals, shrugged off Norway's concern about the beluga. But he did not deny that it could have escaped from the Russian navy. Interviewed by Russian broadcaster Govorit Moskva, Col Viktor Baranets said "if we were using this animal for spying do you really think we'd attach a mobile phone number with the message 'please call this number'?" "We have military dolphins for combat roles, we don't cover that up," he said. "In Sevastopol (in Crimea) we have a centre for military dolphins, trained to solve various tasks, from analysing the seabed to protecting a stretch of water, killing foreign divers, attaching mines to the hulls of foreign ships."
4-29-19 How one woman beat mining giants and saved rare snow leopards
A woman from Mongolia has won a prestigious environment award after successfully campaigning to stop mining firms destroying a critical habitat for snow leopards. Bayarjargal Agvaantseren persuaded her government to create a huge nature reserve in the South Gobi Desert and cancel 37 mining contracts in the area. She is one of six people recognised for their work by the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize committee.
4-26-19 The birds and the bees
The birds and the bees, after Pornhub.com introduced a new “Beesexual” channel, featuring explicit footage of bees pollinating flowers. The site will make donations to a bee-conservation charity to help “ensure that bees continue to fornicate and pollinate.”
4-26-19 Gorillas imitate humans
A park ranger’s selfie with two female gorillas standing up like humans went viral around the world this week, helping to raise awareness of gorilla poaching. The image was taken at a gorilla orphanage in Congo’s Virunga National Park, where the great apes were raised after poachers killed their parents. Innocent Mburanumwe, the park’s deputy director, said he and the other staff have looked after the two gorillas since their mothers were killed in 2007. The gorillas, he said, think of the rangers as their parents and try to behave like them, including by walking erect. There are only about 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the world.
4-26-19 Endangered green sea turtles may be making a comeback in the U.S. Pacific
Tallying how many of these reptiles are swimming in the sea raises hopes for the species. Beleaguered populations of green sea turtles living in and around Hawaii and American Pacific island territories are increasing in number. From 2002 to 2015, scuba diving researchers circumnavigated 53 islands, atolls and coral reefs throughout the U.S. Pacific, conducting the first comprehensive survey in that region of the turtles’ ocean habitats. Over the 13 years, the divers counted more than 3,400 sea turtles. The vast majority — 90.1 percent — were green sea turtles; only 8.3 percent were hawksbills and 1.6 percent were unidentified. The number of green sea turtles spotted around Hawaii increased by an average of 8 percent each year, the team reports April 24 in PLOS ONE. Around American Samoa and the Mariana Islands, the turtles’ numbers increased by an average of 4 percent per year. “From a conservationist’s point of view, that’s pretty phenomenal,” says study coauthor Rusty Brainard, an oceanographer based in Honolulu who supervises the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s coral reef ecosystem program. Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The picture is less rosy for hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), which the IUCN lists as critically endangered. In the United States, both species are protected by the Endangered Species Act. “We didn’t spot enough of hawksbills to be able to analyze their population trends over time. It’s a sign that their population is really struggling,” says ecologist Sarah Becker of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. She coauthored the paper with Brainard and aquarium colleague and conservation ecologist Kyle Van Houtan.
4-25-19 Is China losing the battle against an incurable pig virus?
Global pandemics that impact on food supplies are scary things. The latest threat comes from African swine fever, a highly contagious virus with no known cure, and a near zero survival rate for infected pigs. The good news is that the disease is not harmful to human health. The bad news is that it will probably hurt our wallets. The epicentre of the current crisis is China, the world's biggest producer and consumer of pork. It alone accounts for more than half of the world's pig population. China is struggling to contain the disease, which has spread to every part of the country since August last year. After months of claiming the situation was under control, Beijing is now warning that pork prices in China could rise by more than 70% in the second half of this year. This in turn would have a knock-on impact on China's economy, given that pork prices are an important contributor to its inflation levels. Official data released over the past week reinforce the seriousness of the situation. China's National Bureau of Statistics says the country's pig population has fallen by nearly 40 million to 375.3 million from a year earlier, because of the swine fever outbreak. However some analysts believe that China has been under-reporting the situation, partly due to local farmers withholding information about outbreaks. Looking ahead, the epidemic could decimate around 200 million pigs in China, according to a grim report by Rabobank. It forecasts that China's pork output will fall by 30% this year, creating implications for global commodity markets."To give you some context, the decline here in China is now almost as much as the total amount of pork produced in the EU as a whole," says Rabobank global strategist Justin Sherrard. He says that China cannot import enough pigs to make up the shortfall. "We don't believe there's enough animal protein available in the world to make up the difference.
4-25-19 Antarctica: Thousands of emperor penguin chicks wiped out
Thousands of emperor penguin chicks drowned when the sea-ice on which they were being raised was destroyed in severe weather. The catastrophe occurred in 2016 in Antarctica's Weddell Sea. Scientists say the colony at the edge of the Brunt Ice Shelf has collapsed with adult birds showing no sign of trying to re-establish the population. And it would probably be pointless for them to try as a giant iceberg is about to disrupt the site. The dramatic loss of the young emperor birds is reported by a team from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Drs Peter Fretwell and Phil Trathan noticed the disappearance of the so-called Halley Bay colony in satellite pictures. It is possible even from 800km up to spot the animals' excrement, or guano, on the white ice and then to estimate the likely size of any gathering. But the Brunt population, which had sustained an average of 14,000 to 25,000 breeding pairs for several decades (5-9% of the global population), essentially disappeared overnight. Emperors are the tallest and heaviest of the penguin species and need reliable patches of sea-ice on which to breed, and this icy platform must persist from April, when the birds arrive, until December, when their chicks fledge. If the sea-ice breaks up too early, the young birds will not have the right feathers to start swimming. This appears to have been what happened in 2016. Strong winds hollowed out the sea-ice that had stuck hard to the side of the thicker Brunt shelf in its creeks, and never properly reformed. Not in 2017, nor in 2018. Dr Fretwell said: "The sea-ice that's formed since 2016 hasn't been as strong. Storm events that occur in October and November will now blow it out early. So there's been some sort of regime change. Sea-ice that was previously stable and reliable is now just untenable."
4-24-19 ‘Rule-breaking’ crab fossils have weird shrimp and lobster features
Fossils of a mixed-up crab from the Cretaceous have perplexed researchers with their bizarre anatomical features. Around 70 of the fossil crabs have been found in the Andes mountain range in Colombia, which was a shallow coastal sea 90 million years ago when these animals were alive. “We started looking at these fossils and we found they had what looked like the eyes of a larva, the mouth of a shrimp, the claws of a frog crab, and the carapace of a lobster,” says Javier Luque, of the University of Alberta, Canada. “We have an idea of what a typical crab looks like – and these new fossils break all those rules.” The animal’s strange anatomy has been preserved well, enabling Luque and his colleagues to pick out details such as paddle-like legs and bulging eyes, which suggest the crab spent more time swimming than crawling in the sand. The team have named the crab Callichimaera perplexa, which means “perplexing beautiful chimera”. In Greek mythology, the Chimera was a monster with a lion’s head, goat’s body, and snake’s tail. “Callichimaera perplexa is so unique and strange that it can be considered the platypus of the crab world,” says Luque.
4-24-19 Biodiversity: 'Beast of Beddau' is new millipede find
The Beast of Beddau has joined the Maerdy Monster as a new bug species found at old coal mine sites in the UK. The small, white millipede is one of more than 900 different species found during a three-year study which highlights the importance of colliery spoil sites in south Wales to wildlife. It was found at the old Cwm Colliery near Beddau, described as one of the most biodiverse in the region. Researchers had already discovered the 12mm-long Maerdy Monster. This was believed to have been the first millipede species found in the UK since 1993. But at only 5mm long, the Beast of Beddau - found about 13 miles (21km) from the earlier discovery - is half the size. It was found underneath stones by naturalist Christian Owen - who also found the Maerdy Monster. The "Beast" has seven or eight lenses in its eyes - unlike the six found in a similar species. Scientists in Canada examined its genes as part of the research. Altogether, surveys were conducted across 15 colliery spoil sites - eight in Rhondda Cynon Taf and seven in Neath Port Talbot - between 2015 and 2018. Spoil from old coal mines is low in nutrients but researchers found the earth can be quite complex and allow lichen-heath and even wetland habitat to develop. But it is still widely seen as derelict land, suitable only for reclamation, re-development or tree-planting. Liam Olds, the insect expert behind the research, said colliery spoil sites were becoming an "increasingly important refuge" for species declining in the wider countryside. "On a single colliery site you can have anything from woodland, to flower-rich grassland, lakes, ponds and reed beds - providing the variety needed for insects to complete their life cycle," he said. The tips had become "little islands where biodiversity can thrive."
4-22-19 Australia’s dingoes may keep feral cats in check and protect wildlife
Dingoes are cunning predators and no friend to Australian sheep farmers, but they could play a pivotal role in suppressing the number of feral cats that devastate the country’s wildlife. You can find feral cats in just about every part of Australia. They have contributed to the extinction of 20 native mammals and threatened many more. As such, they are seen as a pest by many people. Dingoes are a pest too, in the eyes of many sheep farmers. They arrived in Australia between 5000 and 10,000 years ago and quickly spread. Their deadly impact on livestock was so severe that about a century ago, the authorities began construction on what is now a 5600-kilometre-long fence, stretching from near the east coast of Queensland to near the south coast of South Australia. The fence formed part of a strategy, together with culling, to remove dingoes from the fertile land of the southeast corner of the country. But the fence has also given biologists a research opportunity. By studying ecosystems on both sides, they can assess how wildlife – particularly prey animals and feral cats – behave in the presence or absence of dingoes. Between 2011 and 2017, Mike Letnic and his colleagues from the University of New South Wales, visited sites on both sides of the fence. They collected cat and dingo faeces, as well as information on sightings of both predators. They also gathered data on the abundance of rabbits and dusky hopping mice, which are among the most common prey for feral cats and dingoes. Dingoes were around 65 times less common on the southeast side, whereas cats were 5 times more common. The prey species were almost 11 times less common on the southeast side of the fence. As expected, cat populations rose and fell in line with the abundance of prey on the southeast side of the fence. This indicates that the availability of prey is driving their numbers, Letnic says. On the opposite side, where dingoes were more common, the numbers of cats and dingoes initially mirrored the abundance of prey. But there was a decline in prey in 2013 – and the numbers of cats never recovered, even as prey numbers increased again. In other words, it seems that dingoes might help keep cat numbers down in some situations.
4-22-19 Gorillas pose for selfie with DR Congo anti-poaching unit
Two gorillas have been photographed posing for a relaxed selfie with the rangers who rescued them as babies. The image was taken at a gorilla orphanage in Virunga National Park, DR Congo, where the animals were raised after poachers killed their parents. The park's deputy director told BBC Newsday that they had learned to imitate their carers, who have looked after them since they were found. The gorillas, he added, think of the rangers as their parents. Innocent Mburanumwe, deputy director of Virunga, told the BBC that that the gorillas' mothers were both killed in July 2007. The gorillas were just two and four months old at the time. Shortly afterwards, they were found and taken to Senkwekwe Sanctuary in Virunga, where they have lived ever since. Because they've grown up with the rangers who rescued them, Mr Mburanumwe added, "they are imitating the humans" - and standing on two legs is their way of "learning to be human beings". But it "doesn't happen normally", he said. "I was very surprised to see it... so it's very funny. It's very curious to see how a gorilla can imitate a human and stand up." Being a ranger, however, is not always fun - it is mainly dangerous work. Five rangers were killed in Virunga National Park last year in an ambush by suspected rebels, and more than 130 park rangers have been killed in Virunga since 1996.
4-20-19 Bees living on Notre-Dame cathedral roof survive blaze
Notre-Dame's smallest residents have survived the devastating fire which destroyed most of the cathedral's roof and toppled its famous spire. Some 200,000 bees living in hives on the roof were initially thought to have perished in the blaze. However Nicolas Géant, the cathedral's beekeeper, has confirmed that the bees are alive and buzzing. Mr Géant has looked after the cathedral's three beehives since 2013, when they were installed. That was part of an initiative to boost bee numbers across Paris. The hives sit on top of the sacristy by Notre-Dame's south side, around 30m (98 ft) below the main roof. As a result, Mr Géant says they remained untouched by the flames.European bees - unlike other species - stay by their hive after sensing danger, gorging on honey and working to protect their queen. High temperatures would have posed the biggest risk, but Mr Géant explained that any smoke would have simply intoxicated them. "Instead of killing them, the carbon dioxide makes them drunk, puts them to sleep," he told AP. Beekeepers commonly use smoke to sedate the insects and gain access to their hive.
4-20-19 Baby boom for the kakapo, New Zealand’s critically endangered parrot
There is new hope for the world’s fattest parrot, the critically endangered kakapo, after the birth of a record-breaking number of chicks. Fewer than 150 adult kakapo live in New Zealand today after their numbers were decimated by hunting, pests and deforestation. But an enormous effort to regrow the population is paying off, with almost 90 chicks expected to hatch over the breeding season. The nocturnal, flightless bird breeds when the rimu tree – a conifer – is full with fruit, and this only happens every few years. An unusually abundant amount of fruit on the trees this year seems to have driven the females to start breeding early, and sometimes even to nest again after their chicks have grown. But conservationists have also played an important role, by relocating the green, owl-faced birds to a predator-free island and by using semen samples from males on one side of the island to artificially inseminate females on the other. They have also been tracking the birds’ breeding and nesting behaviour with hidden cameras. It’s not all good news, however. Half a dozen chicks have already died, and several had to be moved from their nests after signs of poor growth. All of the chicks will be fitted with radio transmitters when they are about two months old, Andrew Digby, at the New Zealand department of conservation, said on Twitter. The whiskered parrot, which can grow to a height of more than 50 centimetres and weigh up to 4 kilograms, was once one of New Zealand’s most common birds. (Webmaster's comment: Their culture has been lost and the adults probably no longer know how to care for their young. Much of that is learned behavior.)
4-19-19 A scientist used chalk in a box to show that bats use sunsets to migrate
Oliver Lindecke devised a new device that was partly inspired by a snow-covered Berlin street. When it comes to migration science, birds rule. Although many mammals — antelopes, whales, bats — migrate, too, scientists know far less about how those animals do it. But a new device, invented by animal navigation researcher Oliver Lindecke, could open a new way to test how far-ranging bats find their way. Lindecke, of Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, has been studying bat migration since 2011. He started with analyzing different forms of hydrogen atoms in wild bats to infer where they had flown from. But figuring out how the bats knew where to go was trickier. Lindecke needed a field setup that let him test what possible cues from nature helped bats navigate across vast distances. The first step was studying in which direction the bats first take flight. Such experiments on birds typically involve confining the animals in small, enclosed spaces. But that doesn’t work for bats, which tend to fall asleep in such spaces. “My challenge was to build a box that bats won’t sleep in, but will show me how they take off,” Lindecke says. So he invented what he calls the circular release box: a flat-bottom, funnel-shaped container topped by a wider lid. To escape, the bat crawls up the wall and takes off from the edge. Bat tracks in a layer of chalk (Lindecke says he was inspired by a snow-covered Berlin street) indicate where the bat took off. In August 2017, Lindecke captured 54 soprano pipistrelle bats (Pipistrellus pygmaeus) in a large, 50-meter-wide trap at the Pape Ornithological Research Station in Latvia as the animals were migrating along the coast of the Baltic Sea toward Central Europe. Experiments with the new device showed that the adult bats flew straight in the direction in which they took off, Lindecke and colleagues report online March 1 in the Journal of Zoology.
4-19-19 Homeless Australian man reunited with lost rat pet by police
A homeless man in Sydney, Australia, has been reunited with his pet rat which disappeared earlier this month. Chris, 59, is a well known figure in downtown Sydney where the rat, called Lucy, is usually curled up on a box in front of him. But one day his little companion disappeared as he stepped away to take a toilet break. After a social media appeal, New South Wales police tracked down the missing pet and reunited the pair on Thursday. Chris had assumed Lucy was stolen after she disappeared from the milk crate where he'd left her. Desperate to find her, he put a note up on his box, asking if anyone had seen her. What followed was an outpouring of support, with people posting their own pictures of the pair, hoping that someone had seen Lucy or the person who'd taken her. Police appealed for information, believing Lucy had been stolen, but eventually found the missing rodent. "A woman, who walked past and saw Lucy alone, believed she had been abandoned, so took her home and cared for her," police said in a statement. Lucy was returned to Chris at a local police station on Thursday. When officers asked him to make sure they had got the right animal he replied: "Yes, that's her! She's got the blind eye. She remembers me!" Picking her up from a cardboard box, Chris was visibly relieved, thanking the officers for their efforts. "Sorry for putting you all through the trouble of looking for her. "It feels wonderful. Thank you very much, everybody," he said as his little furry friend scurried around his shoulders. "She knows she's missed me too."
4-18-19 Why cats won’t be called
If your cat ignores you when you call its name, it’s not because it doesn’t recognize it—it’s just because it doesn’t feel like responding. That’s the conclusion of a new Japanese study into the feline mind. The research involved 78 cats who were each played recordings of people reading out four random nouns and then the kitty’s name. Scientists found that the feline subjects generally responded to their name by pricking up their ears or moving their heads—but unlike dogs, didn’t show any major signs of excitement, such as moving their tails or jumping off the couch. Cats may not understand they’re being personally addressed, reports SmithsonianMag.com. They simply associate the sound of their name with a reward, such as food or playtime. And while dogs want to please their owners, says Jennifer Vonk, an expert in animal cognition, cats “are not really as motivated. They’re better at manipulating our behavior than vice versa.”
4-17-19 Parenting chores cut into how much these bird dads fool around
Black coucals are one of the few avian species where only males care for chicks. The extreme dads of the bird world do all the work raising chicks while females fight intruders. The result: Male black coucals don’t sleep around as much when busy parenting. On occasion, a male black coucal (Centropus grillii) slips over to another male’s nest to sire a chick. The demands of incubating eggs, however, reduce a male’s excursions about 17 percent, on average, compared with male birds that didn’t have chicks. And during the frantic first week of parenting after eggs hatch, those philandering excursions drop by almost 50 percent, researchers report April 10 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. That’s when male coucals, native to sub-Saharan Africa, spend much of their days catching grasshoppers, frogs and other critters to feed chicks too frail to leave their woven grass nests, says behavioral ecologist Wolfgang Goymann at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. Even when chicks can leave the nest, they’ll need at least two more weeks of dad’s care. These coucals are among the few bird species in which females, rather than males, stake out territories and defend them from other females. The females are bigger than the males and warn interlopers with “hoot, hoot” exchanges, which deepen in pitch if antagonists get closer. If hooting fails, one female will fly at the other bird to fight. “You see just the grass moving, and you hear a grumbling,” Goymann says. Sometimes he spots females “with huge wounds on their heads.” A female’s territory has up to five males nesting in it. She builds the basics of a nest and lays eggs with each male in her realm. Unlike other nestlings with dad-only care, these chicks hatch very early in development. They don’t even have enough fluff for warmth, and dad needs to snuggle them for about a week before they can leave the nest.
4-17-19 Rare kakapo parrots have best breeding season on record
Kakapos - the world's fattest species of parrot - have had their most successful breeding season on record, according to New Zealand's Department of Conservation (DOC). The flightless, nocturnal parrots were once one of the country's most common birds, but only 147 adults are left. This year, 76 chicks have been hatched under the DOC's conservation scheme, with 60 expected to reach adulthood. The new batch is more than double that of the last breeding season in 2016. Kakapos only breed every two to four years when their favourite fruit grows in New Zealand's Rimu trees - the period is known as a "mast year". Their numbers have also been curbed by hunting, deforestation, and predators like stoats which were introduced by European settlers. One scientific advisor to the DOC, Dr Andrew Digby, says scientists have seen bumper quantities of fruit on Rimu trees in recent years, an occurrence possibly caused by climate change. With so much fruit, many female kakapos have bred earlier and, in some cases, laid two clutches of eggs. Until the 1970s, kakapos were thought to be extinct but a group was discovered on Stewart Island, south of the country's South Island. Just 18 were known to exist by 1977, but New Zealand's DOC has spearheaded efforts to boost its population on two remote, predator-free islands. Under the scheme, all newborn kakapo chicks are raised in a secure facility and later released into the wild, tagged with a transmitter. Each parrot also has its nest fitted with sensors and cameras, and is given a tailored diet via nearby feeding stations. "They don't get a lot of privacy," Dr Digby said. "I can log online and see what they're doing, see who they've mated with, how long for, and even the quality of the mating. "It's probably one of the most intensively managed species in the world, certainly in New Zealand." (Webmaster's comment: 147 adult is not a viable population. Their culture has also been destroyed.)
4-14-19 Baby boom for North Atlantic right whales off US coast
One of the world's most endangered whale species is experiencing a mini baby boom off the US state of Massachusetts. Researchers at the Center for Coastal Studies have announced they have seen three North Atlantic right whale mother and calf pairs in Cape Cod bay. The whales give birth off Georgia and Florida in the winter before moving up the US east coast in the spring. Only about 450 of the species are believed to remain. Scientists reportedly did not spot any right whale newborns in 2018, so researchers were elated to report the sighting of two pairs of right whales in Cape Cod bay this week. The Scientist magazine reports that seven calves have been spotted off Florida so far this year. North Atlantic right whales were hunted virtually to extinction by the early 1890s, and have been listed as endangered since 1970. The mammals tend to stay near to coasts and have a high blubber content, making them a valuable target for whalers. It remains illegal to come within 500 yards (457 metres) of a North Atlantic right whale without a Federal Research Permit. There are three species of right whale around the world. The Southern right whale can be found throughout the southern hemisphere, and several thousand are thought to remain. But the North Pacific right whale is even rarer than its North Atlantic relative. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports there are likely fewer than 200 left.
4-13-19 The history of dog breeds
Modern dog breeds were created in Victorian Britain. The evolution of the domestic dog goes back tens of thousands of years — however, the multiple forms we see today are just 150 years old. Before the Victorian era, there were different types of dog, but there were not that many, and they were largely defined by their function. They were like the colors of a rainbow: variations within each type, shading into each other at the margins. And many terms were used for the different dogs: breed, kind, race, sort, strain, type, and variety. By the time the Victorian era came to an end, only one term was used — breed. This was more than a change in language. Dog breeds were something entirely new, defined by their form and not their function. With the invention of breed, the different types became like the blocks on a paint color card — discrete, uniform, and standardized. The greater differentiation of breeds increased their number. In the 1840s, just two types of terrier were recognized; by the end of the Victorian period, there were 10, and proliferation continued — today there are 27. The advent of dog shows drove the creation of breed. The groups running these events and driving changes were styled the "dog fancy," and the aficionados of the new canines "doggy people." Breed standards were contingent and contested, decided as competitions selected the best dogs in each class. Owners gained prestige, and some income, from sales and stud fees. Competition at shows and in the market drove specialization, in the specification of ideal forms; standardization, in the designs of physical conformations; objectification, in viewing dogs' bodies as made up of parts; commodification, in promoting dogs as tradable goods; differentiation, in the proliferation of breeds; and alienation, as ability and character became secondary to form. The templates for breed conformation standards drew upon history, art, natural history, physiology and anatomy, and aesthetics. There was a tension in breeding between earned and inherited worth, that is, between "best in breed" winners, chosen in competitions, and "pure blood" dogs with pedigrees showing superior inheritance.
4-12-19 An amphibian apocalypse
A disease that has ripped through the world’s amphibian species—killing frogs, salamanders, and other creatures by eating away at their skin and triggering heart failure—is more than twice as deadly as scientists thought. Previous research into chytridiomycosis, which is caused by a fungus that’s invisible to the naked eye, estimated that the disease had caused the decline or extinction of some 200 frog species. But the new research concludes that the fungus has in fact caused declines in at least 501 amphibian species, nearly 7 percent of the known total. Of these, 90 species are presumed or confirmed extinct, and another 124 have experienced population declines of more than 90 percent. Species in tropical areas of Australia, South America, and Central America have been hardest hit, but North America, Europe, and Africa have also seen losses. “It’s a staggering thing to consider,” study co-author Jonathan Kolby, from James Cook University in Australia, tells The Washington Post. “We’ve never before had a single disease that had the power to make multiple species extinct, on multiple continents, all at the same time.” The declines have almost certainly affected ecosystems around the world: Many amphibians clear waterways of vegetation while in the tadpole stage of development; frogs can help keep mosquito numbers down by eating their larvae.
4-10-19 The forgotten riches of the most densely biodiverse country on Earth
THE AK-47 rifles hanging at the waists of the camo-clad visitors suggested they had little interest in birds. For ornithologist Andrés Cuervo, the knock at his cabin amid the isolated mountains, rivers and waterfalls of the Serranía de San Lucas region heralded just one of many unnerving encounters that punctuated his work. “Nobody knew the guerrillas were there, but they knew everything about us,” he says. For decades, this region of northern Colombia was one of many disputed in a civil war that left 260,000 people dead and 7 million displaced. What was a human tragedy proved a boon for biodiversity, however, as the conflict zones were spared the exploitation that ravaged similar environments elsewhere. Now, with the conflict largely at an end, at least officially, biologists such as Cuervo are returning in force to discover, record and understand the country’s astonishing lifeforms, and perhaps to unlock the secrets to novel medicines. But new threats are gathering force. They may not have much time. Colombia is by some measures the most biodiverse nation on Earth. It lags behind only Brazil in the total number of species it hosts, but has more species per square kilometre. It is thought to be home to nearly one in 10 of every type of the world’s flora and fauna, and there are more kinds of bird, amphibian and butterfly here than anywhere else. That is down to geography: bordering both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, the country lies at the northern end of the Andes mountains, which splits into three parallel ranges, the Western, Central and Eastern Cordilleras. This creates a unique patchwork of environments, from boggy moors to dense Amazonian forests and ice-capped peaks to Caribbean mangrove swamps. The remote Serranía de San Lucas massif lies in the Bolivar department at the northern tip of the Central Cordillera. Its highly diverse tropical rainforest marks where the mountains meet the Caribbean plains. For Cuervo, head of collections at the Humboldt Institute headquartered in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, what drew him there despite the risks was the region’s 350-odd known species of bird. Similar riches attracted colleagues working in other fields.
4-9-19 Wolves return to Netherlands after 140 years
The Netherlands has its first resident wolf population in 140 years, according to ecologists. Wolves were hunted out of many European countries over a century ago but have gradually been migrating back across the continental mainland. Occasional wolf sightings have been made in the Netherlands since 2015. But these animals were previously thought to be animals that had crossed over temporarily from Germany and would subsequently return there. Ecologists from campaign groups FreeNature and Wolven in Nederland have been tracking two females in the Veluwe area, collecting wolf prints and scat (droppings) from which they can identify DNA."It's like Tinder," said ecologist Mirte Kruit, "it can say if it's a male or female, are they single and looking for a mate and [tell you] about their family." They've told BBC Radio 4's Costing the Earth that their data now confirms one of the females has stayed continuously for six months and can now be considered "established". A male has also been seen in the area so the first Dutch wolf pack could be months away. They are still collecting data on the second female. Wolves are controversial, however. In France, since returning from Italy in 1992, their population has grown rapidly and sheep and goat farmers say they're suffering rising attacks, with around 12,000 incidents reported. Farmers can receive compensation if they have protection measures in place, like electric fences or guard dogs, but many are still angry about the damage caused to the flock. The French Government formed a cohabitation plan and in February last year set a target wolf population of 500 by 2023. However its thought this number may be reached or surpassed by this Winter and it's proposing to increase the cull rate from 12% to 17% if that's confirmed. 4-7-19
Will the tiny inherit the Earth?
Bigger species have all the advantages. But they might just be outlived. As I scuba dive in Oslob Bay off Cebu Island in the Philippines, I see a tiny shadow dart over the surface of the spherical coral block — a minute fish, a goby of the genus Eviota, among the smallest vertebrates in existence, only about a centimeter long and weighing less than 1/10th of a gram. It's about a million times smaller than myself, with the same basic vertebrate body: a spinal cord, a bony skull, a brain, kidneys, and a liver. With the exception of gills and lungs, the tiny fish and I share similar sets of organs, just at a very dissimilar size. But looking at gobies is not why I came to Oslob. I leave the coral block, and swim towards the shore as the sun darkens — not because of clouds but, rather, a truly gigantic fish swimming directly above me. It's what I had hoped to see: a whale shark, Rhincodon typus, the largest living fish. Large adults weigh up to 34 tons, more than 300 times my own weight. The difference in weight between the tiny goby and the whale shark is a startling eight orders of magnitude. Some truly gigantic animals populate the Earth. These massive disparities in animal sizes have fascinated biologists for more than a century. And there are enormous advantages that come with being large. Big animals have an easier time avoiding predators: Some of the tiny gobies have an attrition rate to predation of more than 6 percent per day, while whale sharks live for decades, and are known to have survived tiger shark attacks. Bigger animals can also invest more in reproduction: While a female goby's body produces only about 250 tiny eggs per lifetime to hatch into larvae, a female whale shark can give birth to a few hundred fully developed shark pups in a lifetime, each more than half a meter in length. And there are more advantages to a big body size. In large warm-blooded animals, maintaining a constant body temperature is easier due to their better surface-to-volume ratio. And in large herbivores, the larger volume of the intestines leads to more effective fermentation processes, which are needed to break down plant material. It pays to be big. Indeed, many lineages of animals have vastly increased in size during the course of their evolution. This trend is called Cope's rule, named after the 19th-century paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope. Prominent examples of lineages following Cope's rule are dinosaurs, which originated from an already sizeable two-meter-long reptile alive in the mid-Triassic (231 million years ago). During the following 165 million years, dinosaurs evolved into the largest land animals ever, the Titanosaurs (up to 37 meters long), and the largest land predator ever, the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex. Another striking example are the cetaceans: whales and dolphins. These secondary marine mammals descended from a cat-sized amphibious omnivore roaming around India 48 million years ago called Indohyus. When becoming fully aquatic, the cetaceans' size increased, with the ancient Basilosaurid whales 41 million years ago already up to 25 meters long. The size increase of baleen whales further accelerated during the past 10 million years, and today's blue whale is the largest animal to ever live, with adults attaining lengths of up to 30 meters and weighing close to 200 tonnes. Given all these advantages of large body sizes, an obvious question to ask is: Why aren't all animal species big? One reason is that species of small animals give rise to new species more rapidly. In a recent theoretical study, we connected the well-established fact that small animals are more numerous (there are more gobies than whale sharks in the ocean) to the insight that larger populations give rise to new species — a process called speciation — at a faster rate.
4-4-19 Pet cats know their names they just sometimes prefer to ignore you
Most cat owners know the hopeless feeling of trying to call the name of their beloved pet, only to be ignored or, even worse, abandoned with a dismissive flick of the tail. An analysis of feline behaviour has found that cats really do know their names, it seems they just don’t care when you use them. Astuko Saito at Sophia University in Japan and her colleagues wanted to see if pet cats could distinguish between their own name and other similar-sounding words, even when a stranger called the name. The team visited cat cafes, where the pets mingle with diners, and households and analysed the way the animals’ ears, heads, tails and feet moved in response to the sound of various words. With the owner out of sight, they played recordings of the owner saying four words with the same length and accent as their cat’s name, 15 seconds apart. This was followed by a recording of the cat’s name. Many of the cats were likely to become accustomed to the sounds being made, so if they did really recognise their name, Saito and her colleagues believed they would see a different reaction when it was spoken. In the experiment, 11 out of 16 cats showed a drop off in activity between the first and the fourth word being spoken, suggesting they were getting used to the recordings. Of those 11, nine reacted again when their name was played. Cats who didn’t grow accustomed to the words were excluded from the analysis. When Saito performed the same test with a stranger’s voice, this time 20 cats became habituated to the words and 13 of these responded again to their own names. As for why cats don’t always come when called, Saito says they are just ignoring you.
4-4-19 Cats recognize their own names
A study suggests our feline friends can tell the familiar sound of their name from other words. Whether practical, dramatical or pragmatical, domestic cats appear to recognize the familiar sound of their own names and can distinguish them from other words, researchers report April 4 in Scientific Reports. While dog responses to human behavior and speech have received much attention (SN: 10/1/16, p. 11), researchers are just scratching the surface of human-cat interactions. Research has shown that domestic cats (Felis catus) appear to respond to human facial expressions, and can distinguish between different human voices. But can cats recognize their own names? “I think many cat owners feel that cats know their names, or the word ‘food,’” but until now, there was no scientific evidence to back that up, says Atsuko Saito, a psychologist at Sophia University in Tokyo and a cat owner. So Saito and her colleagues pounced on that research question. They asked cat owners to say four nouns of similar length followed by the cat’s name. Cats gradually lost interest with each noun, but then reacted strongly to their names — moving their ears, head or tail, shifting their hind paw position or, of course, meowing. The results held up with cats living alone, with other cats and at a cat café, where customers can hang out with cats. And when someone other than the owner said the name, the cats still responded to their names more than to other nouns. One finding did give the team pause. Cat café cats almost always reacted to their names and those of other cats living there. Housecats did so much less frequently. Lots of humans visit cat cafés, and cats’ names are frequently called together, so it may be harder for cats to associate their own names with positive reinforcement in these environments, the researchers write.
4-4-19 A major crop pest can make tomato plants lie to their neighbors
Whiteflies use plants’ chemical eavesdropping powers to get an easier meal. Don’t blame the tomato. Tiny pests called silverleaf whiteflies can make a tomato plant spread deceptive scents that leave its neighbors vulnerable to attach. Sap-sucking Bemisia tabaci, an invasive menace to a wide range of crops, are definitely insects. Yet when they attack a tomato plant, prompting a silent shriek of scents, the plant starts smelling as if bacteria or fungi have struck instead. Those phony odors prime neighboring tomato plants for an attack, but not from an insect, an international research team found. Those plants prepare to mount a fast and strong resistance against an incoming pathogen. But that high alert suppresses the plants’ chemistry for resisting insects and “leaves them far more vulnerable to the whiteflies when they arrive,” says Xiao-Ping Yu, an entomologist at China Jiliang University in Hangzhou. Tomato plants that spent 24 hours in a chamber with just the odor of a major whitefly attack managed to produce only half the surge of an insect-fighter hormone as plants taken by surprise by an insect attack, Yu and colleagues report March 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Plant defense chemistry often poses this one-or-the-other dilemma. To put up a good fight against insects, plants typically rev up a system of defenses controlled by the hormone jasmonic acid, or JA. But throwing that system into full gear suppresses the defenses controlled by salicylic acid, SA, which are more useful against pathogens.
4-3-19 A chimp's hug shows it's time to accept that animals have feelings too
In Mama’s Last Hug, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that we can no longer deny that animals have feelings and we need to look closely at their inner lives. UNTIL recently, it was heretical for a biologist to argue that animals have a mental life. Because animals can’t tell us what they are feeling, most scientists thought it safest to assume that they don’t feel much at all, or that their behaviours derive from simple instinct or learning. Emotions, empathy and intelligence were considered exclusively human traits – they were what defined us as human. Frans de Waal, who has been studying the behaviour of primates for more than four decades, has always opposed this view, which is still prevalent in some circles. For him, there has never been any question that animals experience the same emotions as humans. “Why did we go out of our way to deny or deride something so obvious?” he asks in his latest book, Mama’s Last Hug, written before he retires this year. “Considering how much animals act like us, share our physiological reactions, have the same facial expressions, and possess the same sort of brains, wouldn’t it be strange indeed if their internal experiences were radically different?” The title of de Waal’s book refers to a final reunion between Mama, a dying 58-year-old chimpanzee, and Jan van Hooff, a 79-year-old biologist who had known her for 40 years (the YouTube video of this event has been watched more than 10 million times since it was posted in 2016). When she realises who he is, Mama rouses herself from her lethargy, grins expansively and embraces van Hooff. It is hard not to interpret her reaction as sheer joy, and de Waal believes that we are right to do so. “Instead of tiptoeing around [the emotions], it’s time for us to squarely face the degree to which all animals are driven by them,” he writes.
4-3-19 Animal testing: US closes 'kitten slaughterhouse' after outcry
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) says it will stop killing cats in a research programme, following strong public criticism. Cats and kittens have been used to research toxoplasmosis - a potentially deadly parasitic illness usually caught from cats or tainted food. The animals were fed infected meat, and the parasite's eggs harvested for use in other experiments. After the research the animals were euthanised. Veterinary groups say that the disease is treatable and the cats should have been adopted. More than 3,000 kittens have been put down since the programme was launched in 1982, campaigners the White Coat Waste Project (WCWP) say, with the programme costing more than $22m (£17m). In March, bipartisan legislation, known as the Kitten Act, was introduced in Congress to end the practice, describing it as "taxpayer-funded kitten slaughter". In a statement, the USDA said that "toxoplasmosis research has been redirected and the use of cats... has been discontinued and will not be reinstated". One of the key figures behind the bill, Democrat Representative Jimmy Panetta, said the announcement showed what was possible in politics. The 14 remaining cats on the programme are to be adopted by USDA employees. The department has said its research helped halve the rate of toxoplasmosis infections, which is particularly dangerous for unborn children and people with compromised immune systems.
4-3-19 Tiny pumpkin toadlets have glowing bony plates on their backs
Researchers suggest the structures may help the deaf frogs communicate. When a group of biologists realized that pumpkin toadlets had no middle ear bone, the team was stumped. That meant that these tiny, toxic frogs couldn’t hear each other’s high-pitched chirps, which is how most frogs attract mates. “We scratched our heads about how they could communicate by other means,” says Sandra Goutte, an evolutionary biologist at New York University Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Suspecting that the frogs use a less obvious form of communication, similar to parrots attracting mates with feathers that emanate ultraviolet light (SN:1/19/02, p. 40), the researchers aimed a UV lamp at the frogs’ neon orange skin and saw a pattern glowing in blue. “I couldn’t stop smiling for the whole day” after discovering that the frogs had glowing bony plates just beneath the skin on their heads and backs, Goutte says. The finding, reported online March 29 in Scientific Reports, marks the first known case of an amphibian showing bone fluorescence. Among terrestrial vertebrates, only chameleons have been found with this trait. Skeletal and tissue comparisons of two toadlet species — Brachycephalus ephippium and B. pitanga — with a third frog relative revealed that the plates were skin that had turned to bone. All bone fluoresces under UV light, but usually layers of skin, muscle and fat block that light from getting out. The skin covering the frogs’ plates, however, is thin enough for the light to be seen, and it lacks pigmented cells called melanophores that help block UV light from getting through skin. These traits may allow the frogs to communicate with fluorescence, possibly for luring potential mates or warning would-be predators, the researchers suggest.