8-24-19 Extinction: Last chance to save 'rhinos of the oceans'
Conservationists say a key wildlife summit could be the "last chance saloon" for saving sharks and rays pushed to extinction by the shark fin trade. About 100 million sharks are estimated to be killed each year for their fins and meat. On Sunday, countries will discuss giving more species of sharks and rays protection under wildlife trade rules. These include mako sharks and the little-known "rhino rays". Wedgefish and guitarfish are collectively known as "rhino rays", because of their elongated snouts. They are now the most endangered marine fish group, according to a recent scientific assessment. "With this new science just come out, fresh in everyone's minds a month ago, on these wedgefish and guitarfish, it's clearly last chance saloon for them," Luke Warwick of the Wildlife Conservation Society told BBC News. The fins of wedgefish and guitarfish can be worth as much as a thousand dollars a kilogramme, he said, making them one of the most highly-valued species in the shark fin trade. There are proposals to add a further 18 sharks and rays to Appendix II of The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites). If passed, this would mean countries would have to ensure that all continued trade was sustainable and legal. Parties are meeting in Geneva for a second week of discussions. A number of shark species were listed for the first time six years ago at the Cites meeting in Thailand. The latest proposals include listings for two species of mako shark - the longfin and shortfin, which are sold for their high value "steak" meat. "They should number in the tens of millions in all of the world's oceans and we're taking them out by the hundreds of thousands or millions a year, so it's even looking bad for these highly migratory much more abundant sharks," said Luke Warwick.
8-23-19 The algae that kills dogs
Dog owners are being warned to look out for toxic algae in freshwater lakes and ponds, following a string of cases in which pets died soon after taking a swim in bloom-laden waters. Blue-green algae, known as cyanobacteria, multiply in freshwater when the weather is warm and the water stagnant or contaminated with fertilizer runoff and sewage. Once exposed to the bacteria, which can lurk below the surface and be hard to spot, dogs rarely survive: The blooms release toxins that can cause liver damage and respiratory paralysis. “A lot of times, the neurotoxins will kill the animal before they can get to the veterinarian,” Val Beasley, a veterinary professor at Penn State University, tells The New York Times. The algae can also cause ailments in people, but dogs are more susceptible, because they tend to gulp down water. The issue gained attention last week after three dogs belonging to a Wilmington, N.C., couple died within hours of taking a dip in a pond. In recent weeks, family pets have also died of cyanobacteria poisoning in Austin, Marietta, Ga., and elsewhere. Dog owners are advised to steer their pooches clear of water that smells bad or is an odd color.
8-23-19 Legal battle over the Endangered Species Act
Seven major environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, sued the Trump administration this week over new rules for enforcing the Endangered Species Act. The groups say the changes will gut the landmark law, which protects 1,663 imperiled animal and plant species. Under the new guidelines, species that are designated as “threatened” will no longer get the same protections as those deemed “endangered,” though species already on the “threatened” list will be exempt from the changes. Officials will be barred from protecting habitats of threatened species unless they can “reasonably determine” that environmental damage is “likely,” phrasing meant to prevent regulators from anticipating the effects of climate change. And, for the first time, officials will be allowed to calculate economic impacts of protecting a species, a move supported by some business groups. Conservationists, however, fear the changes will clear the way for mining, drilling, and other development in precious areas, ignoring the lessons of the law’s success since its bipartisan passage in 1973. The act is credited with saving the bald eagle, which was removed from the threatened list in 2007, as well as the humpback whale, grizzly bear, peregrine falcon, and American alligator. Several states, including California and Massachusetts, have also promised to file suit to block the administration’s changes. The world is experiencing “the highest rate of extinction since the loss of the dinosaurs,” said Ron Magill in the Miami Herald. Weeks before the Trump administration proposed these changes, the United Nations reported that up to 1 million species face extinction. Now is the worst possible time to begin considering the “cost” of conservation. Extinctions, even of something like “a tiny fish that feeds on mosquito larvae,” ripple across our ecosystem. When we lose such a species, “all the money in the world will not be able” to bring it back.
8-23-19 Kenya northern white rhinos: Vets harvest eggs from last two females
A team of vets has successfully managed to harvest 10 eggs from the last two surviving female northern white rhinos in Kenya, in an unprecedented procedure. It is hoped the harvested eggs will be fertilised using frozen sperm from a deceased northern white rhinoceros. The last male, who was named Sudan, died in March 2018. The rare rhino has been brought to the brink of extinction by poaching and loss of habitat. The procedure was a joint effort by Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research (IZW), Dvur Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). "We are delighted that this partnership gets us one step closer to prevent extinction of the northern white rhinos," said John Waweru, KWS director general. "This is particularly touching given the heartbreaking death of Sudan, the last male, who died of old age last year in Kenya." The two surviving rhinos, a mother and a daughter called Najin and Fatu, live under 24-hour armed guard at Ol Pejeta in central Kenya. For genetic reasons they are, however, both unable to breed. Any embryos will be implanted into a surrogate southern white rhino in the near future. The technique for the process has been developed over several years, experts say, but is not without risk. It remains uncertain if the implanted embryos will result in pregnancy. Last year, a team removed eggs from female southern rhinos and fertilised them with frozen sperm from a male northern white rhino, to create hybrid embryos. Rhinos are the second-largest land mammal after elephants. The white rhinoceros consists of two sub-species - the southern white rhino and the much rarer and critically endangered northern white rhino. Poaching is the primary threat facing all rhino species. Loss of habitat is the other main threat and conservationists say governmental protection of parks and reserves is now essential.
8-21-19 Inside China's attempt to boost crop yields with electric fields
In greenhouses across China, scientists are exposing lettuces and cucumbers to powerful electric fields in an attempt to make them grow faster. Can electroculture work? AT FIRST blush, the huge commercial greenhouse on the outskirts of Beijing doesn’t seem unusual. Inside, lettuces sit in neat rows and light pours in through the glass above. But there is a soft hum and an intense feeling in the air, almost as if a thunderstorm is on the way. The most obvious sign that this is no ordinary growing space is the high-voltage electrical wiring strung over the crops. This place may be different, but it is far from unique. Over the past few years, greenhouses like this have sprouted up across China, part of a government-backed project to boost the yield of crops by bathing them in the invisible electric fields that radiate from power cables. From cucumbers to radishes, the results are, apparently, incredible. “The overall quality is excellent,” says Liu Binjiang, the lead scientist on the project. “We’re really entering a golden age for this technology.” Using electricity to boost plant growth – not by powering heaters or sprinkler systems, but simply by exposing plants to an electric field – is an old idea. It is also controversial. Electroculture was tested in Europe many decades ago and found wanting, with the results too inconsistent to be any use. The mechanism was also mysterious: no one knew how or why electric fields might boost growth. So what exactly is going on in China’s new greenhouses? Can you really improve agriculture through the power of electric fields – and if so, how? It was Finnish physicist Karl Selim Lemström who introduced the world to the idea of electroculture in the 1880s. He was studying the northern lights in Lapland when he noticed that trees grew well there in spite of the short growing season. He suggested it might be because of the electrical field produced by charged particles rushing into Earth’s atmosphere to create the aurora. Lemström carried out tests with plants growing under electric wires and achieved mixed results. In one experiment conducted in a field in Burgundy, France, he saw that “carrots gave an increase of 125 per cent and peas 75 per cent”.
8-22-19 Giraffes given greater protection from unregulated trade as numbers fall
Giraffe conservation has taken a big step forward with the world's tallest mammals receiving enhanced protection from unregulated trade. The move will regulate the trade in giraffes and their body parts under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The vote was overwhelmingly approved, although some countries opposed it. Giraffe numbers in Africa have fallen by 40% in the past 30 years, in what is being called a "silent extinction". The mammals are largely targeted for bushmeat but body parts are also used to make products including jewellery, bracelets and purses, the proposal stated. The motion came from the Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Senegal, where giraffe populations have been diminishing heavily. But there was resistance from southern African countries, including South Africa, Botswana and Tanzania, where giraffes have fared better. They argued that there was scant evidence to suggest international trade was contributing to the decline of the giraffe. Despite the opposition, 106 parties voted in favour of the motion, 21 voted against, with seven abstentions. Countries will now need to record the export of giraffe parts or artefacts and permits will be mandatory for their trade. "The giraffe is, in the wild, much rarer than African elephants, much rarer," Tom De Meulenaer, CITES' scientific services chief, told a news briefing. "We are talking about a few tens of thousands of giraffes, and about a few hundreds of thousands of African elephants. So we need to be careful," he said.
8-21-19 Fish recorded singing dawn chorus on reefs just like birds
The ocean might seem like a quiet place, but listen carefully and you might just hear the sounds of the fish choir. Most of this underwater music comes from soloist fish, repeating the same calls over and over. But when the calls of different fish overlap, they form a chorus. Robert McCauley and colleagues at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, recorded vocal fish in the coastal waters off Port Hedland in Western Australia over an 18-month period, and identified seven distinct fish choruses, happening at dawn and at dusk.The low “foghorn” call is made by the blackspotted croaker (Protonibea diacanthus) while the grunting call that researcher Miles Parsons compares to the “buzzer in the Operation board game” comes from a species of Terapontid. The third chorus is a quieter batfish that makes a “ba-ba-ba” call. “I’ve been listening to fish squawks, burble and pops for nearly 30 years now, and they still amaze me with their variety,” says McCauley, who led the research. Sound plays an important role in various fish behaviours such as reproduction, feeding and territorial disputes. Nocturnal predatory fish use calls to stay together to hunt, while fish that are active during the day use sound to defend their territory. “You get the dusk and dawn choruses like you would with the birds in the forest,” says Steve Simpson, a marine biologist at the University of Exeter, UK. The recordings were captured by two sea-noise loggers: the first positioned near the Port Hedland shore and the second 21.5 kilometres away in offshore waters. “This is a method that allows us to understand what’s happening at Port Hedland 24/7 for a year and a half,” says Simpson. “I don’t know any scuba diver that can stay down there that long!”
8-22-19 Huge beehive discovered inside ceiling
A giant hive was removed from a woman's house in Brisbane, Australia. The ten-month-old hive weighed 50kg and was holding 60,000 bees.
8-21-19 We could use bees' honey to track environmental lead pollution
Bees’ honey is a surprisingly effective tool for monitoring lead in the environment and could be used to track pollution in areas where more established methods of sampling are hard to organise. We know that bees carry tiny amounts of pollutants, including lead, to their hives after touching plants, flowers and simply flying through the air. So Kate Smith at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and her colleagues analysed honey samples from dozens of Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) hives to see what was in them. They found that the ratio of two types of lead atoms, lead-206 and lead-208, varied in the samples depending on where the hives were. Honey that came from land that is used heavily by humans had a different signature to honey that came from rural areas. This is probably because the lead comes from different sources, perhaps the burning of fuel in urban areas and from geological sources in the countryside. Rocks naturally give off tiny amounts of lead over time. The levels of lead found in the honey were well below recommended limits, meaning it is safe to eat, says Smith. At the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Barcelona, this week Smith reported that honey can provide estimates of environmental lead concentrations that are similar in accuracy to those obtained by more established sampling methods, such as looking at topsoil and particles in the air. She also measured bee tissue and found it matched too. “The gradient matches beautifully,” she says. This means honey could be a useful tool in places that don’t have established infrastructure for pollution monitoring, says Smith. The use of bees for monitoring environmental contamination is potentially better than existing methods, says Mark Taylor at Macquarie University in Australia who undertook similar research on honey in a mining town.
8-21-19 Florida panthers are struggling to walk and no one knows why
A mysterious brain condition may be causing some panthers in the US state of Florida to have difficulty walking. Footage released by the state's conservation commission shows the animals struggling to co-ordinate their movements. Gil McRae, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission's Wildlife Research Institute, said, "numerous diseases and possible causes have been ruled out; a definitive cause has not yet been determined."
8-21-19 Giving koalas faecal transplants could help them adapt to a new diet
Koalas may need faecal transplants to be able to change diet. The finding could be used to help the animals adapt to habitat loss. Michaela Blyton at the University of Queensland first noticed something unusual while studying a koala population that had suffered a dramatic drop in numbers. In 2013, their population had grown so large that they had stripped leaves off their preferred food tree, manna gums (Eucalyptus viminalis), to such an extent that trees died. This resulted in the death of more than 70 per cent of the population. Despite moving some of the surviving koalas to a new area, these starving animals had little interest in feeding off a similar nearby gum, the messmate (Eucalyptus obliqua). Blyton and her colleagues knew these koalas could eat messmate in theory because other koala populations live off it exclusively. To see whether koalas’ gut microbes had anything to do with this strange finding, Blyton and her colleagues collected faeces from wild koalas that ate messmate, concentrated the microorganisms from it and then transplanted these into koalas that only ate manna gum. Over the next 18 days, they found that koalas who had the faecal transplant were able to eat more of the messmate than those in the control group who were given manna gum microbes. Koalas who were given the faecal transplant had microbiomes that began to resemble the donors’ microbiome over the course of the study. The authors say that capsules like this could be used to protect koalas when moving them to a new, safer environment.
8-20-19 Big and bold wasp queens may create more successful colonies
Differences in how social insect groups perform may be, in part, chalked up to leadership. A society’s success can hinge on its head honcho. That’s true even for insects under the rule of a queen. One way to judge the success of social insects such as paper wasps is by the size of their colonies, with bigger typically meaning better. Polistes metricus paper wasp queens with bold personalities and big bodies tend to produce larger colonies than their smaller, shyer counterparts, a new study finds. These queenly characteristics can help to predict a colony’s success, even a month before there’s even a colony to speak of, says Colin Wright, a behavioral ecologist at Penn State. Colony-founding P. metricus paper wasp queens blaze their own trails. These females often strike out alone, build their own nests and raise their young. Once they’ve reared a brood, they defend the nest from invaders while policing workers’ behavior and preventing workers from reproducing. In May 2016, Wright and colleagues collected 40 paper wasp queens and their nests, within a couple of weeks of the females founding the nests. The researchers gave the insects a “personality” test by poking them in the face, up to 50 times, to see if the wasps would stay put or fly away. “Some queens, you can prod them up to a hundred times, and they’ll stand their ground,” Wright says. Less tenacious queens would fly away after one or two jabs. The researchers also measured the queens’ heads to estimate body size, and then returned the wasps to their nests and the nests to the field. To track colony growth, the team monitored the populations of 27 colonies led by queens that didn’t abandon their nests over several months.
8-20-19 Why one biologist chases hurricanes to study spider evolution
Hurricanes might give social spiders an evolutionary nudge toward greater aggression. Don’t just sit there. If you really want to bring scientific rigor to studying evolution and spider aggression, drive into a hurricane. That’s the notion that turned Jonathan Pruitt of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, into evolutionary biology’s storm chaser. He has rushed to the southeastern United States to collect spider data right before a storm and within 48 hours afterward. “I grew up in Florida,” Pruitt says; he knows hurricanes. As a kid ready for a break from school, “I would always hope that our hurricanes hit during a weekday instead of on a weekend.” Most studies of what hurricanes do to wildlife are just lemonade squeezed from the bad luck of storms that trashed some unrelated project in a forest, bird colony or other research site. An ideal hurricane study, however, needs replications and undamaged sites for comparison. Otherwise, “you just have one site where something bad happened,” Pruitt says.What sparked him to try something different was an unusual 2018 Nature paper from researchers checking Turks and Caicos anole lizards before and several weeks after two Category 5 hurricanes blasted the islands. Survivors tended to have bigger toe pads than usual, said researchers based at Washington University in St. Louis. They proposed that bigger pads might give the anoles a better grip during high winds. Such a shift in anole survivors could be a rare sign that killer storms, even though sporadic, might count as an evolutionary force that tweaks animal traits. The researchers explored lizard behavior in high winds by aiming a leaf-blower at small, brown lizards gamely gripping poles.
8-17-19 Elephant protection debate to dominate conservation meeting
Different approaches to protecting elephants are set to dominate the debate at a key conservation conference starting in Geneva today. Delegates from more than 180 countries are gathering for the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Some African nations are again pushing to reopen the trade in ivory. However others are seeking the highest possible protections for all of Africa's elephants. The Cites meeting, held every three years, will discuss a record 56 proposals submitted by governments to the Conference of the Parties, known as COP18. The COP was due to be held in Sri Lanka earlier this year but was moved to Switzerland in the wake of the bomb attacks at Easter. Key among the items on the agenda will be competing ideas on how to protect African elephants, which have seen a huge decline in numbers due to poaching over the past 20 years. A study published in 2016 estimated that 30-40,000 of the giant creatures were killed by poachers every year with roughly 400,000 left in total. In many parts of Africa, elephants are protected under Cites Appendix I, which means that trade is only permitted under exceptional circumstances. At this meeting, Zambia is seeking to have its elephants downlisted to Appendix II. This would allow a commercial trade in registered raw ivory with approved trading partners. Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe are also proposing that ivory from elephants in their region be traded. On the other end of the scale, a number of countries including Kenya, Nigeria and Gabon are proposing that all elephants in Africa be listed as Appendix I, the highest form of protection available to Cites. "The elephant is in the centre of the debate once again," said Vera Weber from the Franz Weber Foundation, which campaigns to protect endangered species.
8-17-19 Famous dugong dies after eating plastic
An orphaned dugong, made famous after it was rescued earlier this year in Thailand, has died. The animal named Mariam died on Saturday from an infection that was exacerbated by bits of plastic lining her stomach, according to officials. Mariam became an internet star after images showed her nuzzling into rescuers when she became stranded on a beach in April. There are only a few hundred of the sea mammals left in Thailand. The eight-month-old dugong was found ill a week ago and refused to eat. She died around midnight on Saturday after going into shock. Efforts to resuscitate her failed. Chaiyapruk Werawong, head of Trang province marine park, told AFP: "She died from a blood infection and pus in her stomach." During an autopsy, several pieces of plastic including one measuring 20cm (eight inches) were found inside her stomach. Nantarika Chansue, one of the vets who looked at Mariam, said: "Everyone is saddened by the loss, but it reiterates that we need to save the environment to save these rare animals." (Webmaster's comment: Not only save the animals but to save ourselves from the same fate.) Mariam featured in live webcasts alongside Jamil, another dugong rescued shortly after her. The webcasts showed her being fed and receiving treatment from vets. Many people have shared their sadness at her death on social media.
8-16-19 Conservation cutbacks
The Trump administration this week issued new rules that weaken the Endangered Species Act, clearing the way for drilling and development in habitats of protected species. For the first time, regulators will be allowed to make economic assessments when deciding whether species warrant protection, a victory for industries that say the landmark 1973 law is too onerous. The changes make it easier to remove species from the endangered list and reduce protections for threatened species, while making it harder to protect wildlife from threats posed by climate change: Federal officials have used climate models to anticipate habitat losses for polar bears as far as 2090, but the new rules limit impact predictions to the “foreseeable future.” Several states promised lawsuits. The changes focus on the law’s “ultimate goal—recovery of our rarest species,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, said.
8-16-19 Modern families
Modern families, after two gay male penguins at the Berlin Zoo adopted an abandoned egg and will hatch a chick in early September. Skipper and Ping, who are inseparable, are “taking turns to keep the egg warm,” said a zoo spokesman. And Tango Makes Three
8-16-19 Tardigrades on the moon
There could now be life on the moon, thanks to a botched mission launched from here on Earth. When the unmanned Israeli spacecraft Beresheet crash-landed on the moon in April, it likely spilled its unusual cargo: a few thousand tiny tardigrades, the toughest animals on Earth. Only a millimeter or so long, these microscopic “water bears” become almost indestructible when they enter a state known as cryptobiosis, in which they expel all moisture from their bodies and mummify themselves in a protective coat of sugar. Dormant tardigrades can survive without food and water for up to three decades, in temperatures as low as minus 328 degrees Fahrenheit and as high as 284 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the vacuum of space. Beresheet was carrying thousands of dehydrated tardigrades that had been taped between DVD-sized etched nickel discs that contained a “library” of human civilization. The creator of that library, Nova Spivack of the nonprofit Arch Mission, tells Wired.com that the discs were probably safely ejected. “Our payload,” he says, “may be the only surviving thing from that mission.” There’s no danger of the tardigrades colonizing the moon; to reproduce, they’d need to return to Earth and rehydrate.
8-16-19 Emotional support animal
A Pennsylvania man has won approval from his doctor to use an alligator as an emotional support animal. Joie Henney, 65, said Wally is “just like a dog” and “wants to be loved and petted.” Since Wally helps lift his depression, Henney said, his doctor figured, “Why not?” Now the two go shopping together and pay visits to local nursing homes to cheer up residents. Wally is 5 feet long and could triple in size, but, Henney said, “I don’t know what I would have done without him.” (Webmaster's comment: There's more going on in a reptile's brain than we would have ever imagined.)
8-16-19 How to pet a cat
- Appreciate the cat mindset. Cats were domesticated long after dogs, so they do have more of a wild streak. They have to learn to enjoy human interaction when young—ideally between two and seven weeks old—or they’ll always be fairly standoffish.
- Give them control. Leave it to the cat to approach you. If the cat doesn’t know you, kneel and hold out your hand as you would with a dog. Nuzzling and purring means you have permission to pet.
- Know where to stroke. Most friendly cats like being touched at the base of their ears, under their chins, and on their cheeks (but not on the whiskers). Cats often don’t like to be touched on their stomachs, backs, paws, or the base of their tails.
- Recognize danger signs. A sudden turn of the head, flattened ears, and a twitching tail all are trying to tell you, “You should really stop…like, now.”
8-16-19 Wildlife summit to consider global ban on saiga antelope trade
The US and Mongolia are backing a ban on the trade of a critically endangered species of antelope that has seen its numbers in the central Asian steppes devastated by hunting and disease. The saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) once lived across Europe and Asia but is today confined to Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. In 2015, the species was hit by an outbreak of a bacterial infection that killed more than half of its population. At a major international conference on the trade in endangered plants and animals that begins in Geneva on Saturday, governments will decide whether to upgrade protections for the iconic antelope. The plan to move the species to “appendix I”, the highest level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), will likely face opposition from Kazakhstan. “The saiga is a big one: their population is critically endangered by poaching and the die-offs,” says Sue Lieberman of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society. The antelope’s numbers are slowly starting to rise in Kazakhstan, leading those with trade interests to say the species has recovered, she says. Some conservationists, such as trade monitoring group TRAFFIC, oppose a ban, saying it would lead to “implementation challenges” as Saiga tatarica would have a different listing to another antelope, Saiga borealis. But some form of action seems needed – two Kazakh rangers have been killed this year, mostly recently in July, by antelope poachers. The species is predominantly killed for its horn, which is used in traditional medicine in Singapore, China and other countries. Lieberman is hopeful that the proposal to move the species from appendix II, which controls trade but doesn’t prohibit it, to appendix I will pass. If countries can’t reach a consensus, then the decision, like all CITES resolutions, will be reached by majority vote. It is one of 53 new proposals on the table at the summit, which was moved from its planned venue in Sri Lanka after bombings earlier this year.
8-16-19 Cyanide bombs: US reverses policy on wildlife-killing traps
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has withdrawn support for so-called cyanide bombs, which are used to kill predators of livestock. Use of the deadly devices known as M-44s began in the 1960s and was re-authorised by the agency in June, sparking a new backlash. M-44s have been known to harm humans and kill endangered wild species that are not considered pests to ranchers. They work by drawing animals with bait then spraying poison into their mouths. The EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, said the "issue warrants further analysis and additional discussions" in order to "ensure US livestock remain well-protected from dangerous predators while simultaneously minimising off-target impacts on both humans and non-predatory animals". The bombs are meant to kill coyotes, foxes and other animals that prey on livestock. But the EPA has acknowledged it has also killed hundreds of unintended targets. The Center for Biological Diversity, which spearheaded a public comments campaign to complain to the EPA, cheered the backtrack. It called for a "permanent ban to protect people, pets and imperilled wildlife from this poison".
8-14-19 How killer bees evolved into chiller bees in just one decade
While killer bees terrorised the US, in Puerto Rico, an extraordinary accident of evolution has transformed them into a beacon of hope against the threat of insectogeddon. STEPPING out of his house to survey the destruction, Hermes Conde felt like he had been transported to another world. “It was as if an atomic bomb had hit. Nothing was standing,” he says. “I couldn’t recognise the landscape around my own home.” It was 21 September 2017 and Hurricane Maria had just torn Puerto Rico to shreds. An estimated 2975 people died in the worst natural disaster the Caribbean island has ever witnessed. From the early hours of 20 September through to mid-afternoon the next day, Maria bisected Puerto Rico like a 100-kilometre-wide buzz saw. It plucked up trees and hurled roofs from homes like Frisbees. The pounding rain sent flash floods, metres deep, rushing into populated areas. Downed trees and power lines blocked the roads. Electricity and water supplies were cut off for months after the storm. Conde’s first priority was to get petrol for his generator. It would take him 23 hours on foot, but fuel wasn’t the only thing he was looking for. Conde is a beekeeper and along the way he tapped into a network of fellow apiarists trying to discover the fate of their insects. The situation looked bleak. Hurricane Maria had almost annihilated Puerto Rico’s bees, but Conde was determined to rescue the survivors. It may sound like a strange mission in the middle of such chaos, but these are no ordinary bees. They are among the most incredible insects in modern evolutionary history. In just a decade, they have mysteriously transformed from killers to docile honey makers. They may even hold secrets that will help us breed disease-resistant bees in the future.
8-14-19 Plant growth has declined drastically around the world due to dry air
A lack of water vapour in the atmosphere has caused a global decline in plant growth over the past two decades, resulting in a decline in growth rates in 59 per cent of vegetated areas worldwide. Studying four global climate datasets, Wenping Yuan at Sun Yat-sen University in Zhuhai, China and his colleagues found that the decline is correlated with a vapour pressure deficit in the atmosphere, which has increased sharply over more than 53 percent of vegetated areas since the late 1990s. Vapour pressure deficit (VPD) is the difference between the pressure that would be exerted by water vapour when the air is fully saturated and the pressure it actually exerts. When this deficit increases, the pores on the surface of leaves that facilitate gas exchange close up, resulting in lower photosynthesis rates. The complex dynamics of climate change may be responsible, says Yuan. There has been a decrease in wind speeds over the oceans, which means water vapour doesn’t blow over land as readily, and can lead to this deficit over vegetated areas. The warming planet also plays a role. At a given temperature, the atmosphere can only hold a certain amount of water vapour. As temperatures on land increase, the upper limit on the amount of water vapour the atmosphere can hold increases, so the deficit gets larger, he says. The team analysed satellite images and found a corresponding drop in the growth rates of global vegetation and leaf coverage, which had previously increased between 1982 and 1998. They also looked at the width of tree rings, which is commonly used as a measure of growth. After 1998, there was a decrease in average ring width at more than 100 of 171 sites around the world.
8-13-19 A mussel poop diet could fuel invasive carp’s spread across Lake Michigan
The fish are just a human-made waterway away from getting into the Great Lake. If invasive carp reach Lake Michigan, a buffet of mussel poop and other junk food could help the fish survive and spread. Once thought to be a food desert for these fish, the lake may provide enough nutrition for two Asian carp species, bighead (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis) and silver carp (H. molitrix), thanks to their not-so-picky eating habits, researchers report August 12 in Freshwater Biology. That’s bad news because the carp, which have spread to the Illinois River since their introduction to the United States in the 1970s, are just a human-made waterway away from getting into Lake Michigan. “We should be doing everything we can to keep bighead and silver carps out of the Great Lakes,” says Sandra Cooke, a freshwater ecologist at High Point University in North Carolina who was not involved with the work. If carp gain a finhold, their populations could eventually take off, with difficult-to-predict consequences for the lake’s ecosystem. It’s a familiar trajectory for invasive species (SN: 3/18/17, p. 30). “Time and again, what we actually observe is worse than what we predicted in the first place,” she says. Earlier studies, including by Cooke, suggested that these fish could survive in some nearshore spots, based on levels of carp’s preferred food, microscopic algae known as phytoplankton, in the top meter of water. But when better options aren’t available, carp will eat detritus, including fish poop or decomposing dead organisms, says Peter Alsip, a freshwater ecologist at the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In fact, he says, the scrappy fish can subsist entirely on the low-quality food that comes from mussels’ fecal pellets and regurgitated particles.
8-13-19 Black squirrels the result of 'interbreeding' grey squirrels, study finds
Black squirrels are the result of "interbreeding" between their grey cousins and the North American fox squirrel, a study has concluded. Research published in BMC Evolutionary Biology found the black fur emerged from a faulty pigment gene. The study by Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in Cambridge say the difference between black and grey squirrels is simply the colour of their fur. Author Dr Helen McRobie said grey and fox squirrels share the "same root". There are thought to be around 25,000 black squirrels in the UK, with numbers largely concentrated in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. The first wild black squirrel was recorded in Woburn in 1912, and was believed to have escaped from a private zoo having been imported from the United States. The new findings build on earlier work by Dr McRobie which found that the black fur in grey squirrels is caused by a missing piece of DNA in its pigment gene. Squirrels take part in "mating chases" and a male black fox squirrel "most likely" mated with a female grey, Dr McRobie said. Dr McRobie, a senior lecturer in biomedical science, collaborated with researchers from the University of Cambridge and the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the United States. She said people have mixed feelings about black squirrels with some regarding them as a "menace". "The most likely explanation for the black version of the gene being found in the grey squirrel is that a male black fox squirrel mated with a female grey squirrel," she said. "The fact black grey squirrels have become so common right across North America is possibly because black fur offers a thermal advantage, helping them inhabit regions with extremely cold winters. "This may have contributed to the expansion of the grey squirrel's range during the past 11,000 years, following the end of the most recent ice age, helping them spread further north into Canada."
8-12-19 Environmentalists warn Trump 'weakening' endangered species protections
The US federal government has announced an overhaul of the way it enforces the Endangered Species Act, a law credited with preventing countless extinctions. Trump officials say the new plan will reduce regulations, but environmental groups warn it will "crash a bulldozer" through the landmark 1973 legislation. The plan removes automatic protections for threatened species and allows economic factors to be considered. Critics say the new rules will speed extinction for vulnerable wildlife. Ten state attorneys general have announced plans to sue over the new regulation. The Endangered Species Act, which Republican President Richard Nixon signed into law in 1973, protects more than 1,600 plant and animals species today, and is credited with saving the California condor, the Florida manatee, the gray whale and grizzly bear among others. The new rules, which go into effect in 30 days, will for the first time allow economic factors to be considered when weighing what protections should be provided to vulnerable species. Under current law, wildlife management decisions are only allowed to be based on science and "without reference to possible economic or other impacts of determination". Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, announced the change on Monday, saying the change allowed the law to "ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal - recovery of our rarest species," he said. "An effectively administered act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation." Gary Frazer, assistant director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters that cost of care will be disclosed to the public, and will not violate Congress' stipulation that economic costs not be weighed. "Nothing in here in my view is a radical change for how we have been consulting and listing species for the last decade or so," he said. Critics said the rule change would speed the extinction of many species, and was done just to allow industries to expand onto land required for ecological diversity. (Webmaster's comment: Trump is taking a wrecking ball to the progressive society we have been building for the last 70 years.)
8-12-19 Plants don’t have feelings and aren’t conscious, a biologist argues
Lincoln Taiz and colleagues lament the rise of ‘plant neurobiology’. Lincoln Taiz is peeved. Over the last decade or so, the retired plant biologist has watched the rise of the field of “plant neurobiology” with growing dismay. That controversial field, which debuted in a 2006 article in Trends in Plant Science, is based on the idea that plants — which do not possess brains — nonetheless handle information in ways that resemble sophisticated animal nervous systems. This thinking implies that plants could feel happiness or sorrow or pain, make intentional decisions and even possess consciousness. But the chances of that are “effectively nil,” Taiz and colleagues write in an opinion piece in the Aug. 1 Trends in Plant Science. “There’s nothing in the plant remotely comparable to the complexity of the animal brain,” says Taiz, of the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Nothing. And I’m a plant biologist. I love plants” — not because plants think like humans, he says, but for “how they live their plant lives.” Some plants are capable of sophisticated behavior. Wounded leaves can send warning signals to other parts of the plant, and noxious chemicals can deter munching predators. Some plants may even have a version of short-term memory: Tiny sensing hairs that line Venus flytraps’ insect prisons can count the touches that come from a bumbling insect (SN Online: 1/24/16). But plants perform these feats with equipment that’s very different from the nervous systems of animals, no brain required, Taiz contends. He and colleagues point out methodological flaws in some of the studies that claim plants have brainlike command centers, animal-like nerve cells and oscillating patterns of electricity that are reminiscent of activity in animal brains. But beyond the debate over how these studies are conducted, Taiz’s team argues that plant consciousness doesn’t even make sense from an evolutionary point of view.
8-12-19 In fighting deep fakes, mice may be great listeners
There may be a new weapon in the war against misinformation: mice. As part of the evolving battle against “deep fakes” - videos and audio featuring famous figures, created using machine learning, designed to look and sound genuine - researchers are turning to new methods in an attempt to get ahead of the increasingly sophisticated technology. And it’s at the University of Oregon’s Institute of Neuroscience where one of the more outlandish ideas is being tested. A research team is working on training mice to understand irregularities within speech, a task the animals can do with remarkable accuracy. It is hoped that eventually the research could be used to help sites such as Facebook and YouTube detect deep fakes before they are able to spread online - though, to be clear, the companies won’t need their own mice. “The goal is to take the lessons we learn from the way that they do it, and then implement that in the computer.” Mr Saunders and team trained their mice to understand a small set of phonemes, the sounds we make that distinguish one word from another. “We've taught mice to tell us the difference between a ‘buh’ and a ‘guh’ sound across a bunch of different contexts, surrounded by different vowels, so they know ‘boe’ and ‘bih’ and ‘bah’ - all these different fancy things that we take for granted. “And because they can learn this really complex problem of categorising different speech sounds, we think that it should be possible to train the mice to detect fake and real speech.” The mice were given a reward each time they correctly identified speech sounds, which was up to 80% of the time. That's not perfect, but coupled with existing methods of detecting deep fakes, it could be extremely valuable input.
8-11-19 A company has used trees to find gold deep underground in Australia
A technique that uses trees to spot minerals in the ground has had one of its first major successes, after a company struck gold in South Australia. Trees act as deep underground pumps that bring water up bearing minerals. By analysing leaves from trees it’s possible to see if gold is below. However, the method is difficult because the quantity of mineral is small. Now Australia-based firm Marmota has discovered a vein six metres thick with 3.4 grams of gold per ton, 44 metres below the surface. It is 450 metres away from any previously known deposits. The firm had previously tested the technique, but this is the first time it has been used for genuine prospecting. To make the find, the company collected Senna leaves from the area, which showed high levels of gold, and drilling confirmed the presence of the vein. “For each new area, we need to work out what plants are present on site, which part of the plant – leaves, twigs, bark etc – is likely to give the best response, and potentially adjust for any seasonal or local factors,” says Aaron Brown at Marmota. The work has been aided by new developments in analysis tools to detect traces of minerals, such as coupled plasma mass spectrometry, which uses a plasma at around 10,000°C to break a sample into atoms that can then be analysed. Usually gold prospecting involves taking surface soil samples. The new approach has the advantage that it sees much further below the surface, but also doesn’t require digging up areas to sample the soil. “It is also a relatively cheap method for a first pass across an area,” says Nathan Reid at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia.
8-10-19 Should the government kill wild animals?
Wildlife Services is a federal agency that shoots, traps, and poisons wild animals en masse at the behest of state governments, agricultural interests, and more. With a purported mission to reduce human-wildlife conflict and mitigate economic damage caused by wildlife, it kills many thousands of critters that come between ranchers or farmers and their profits, and it has done so for more than a century. Earlier this summer, it released up-to-date data about its nationwide operations in 2018 and, as usual, the numbers were eye-popping. According to the agency, which is housed under the United States Department of Agriculture, its trappers and field operatives killed more than 1.5 million native animals last year. The list of the dead includes roughly 515,000 red-winged black birds (Why?), 68,000 coyotes, 22,500 beavers, 19,900 mourning doves (Why?), 17,000 black-tailed prairie dogs, 10,000 double-crested cormorants (Why?), 2,000 mallard ducks (Why?), 1,784 gray foxes, 1,300 red-tailed hawks (Why?), 1,000 bobcats, hundreds of owls (Why?), 357 wolves, 350 black bears, one grizzly bear, and many, many more. This sort of killing is quite normal for Wildlife Services, an opaque bureaucracy that has proven remarkably immune to reform over the decades. In his fierce forthcoming book This Land, Christopher Ketcham, a public lands journalist who has covered Wildlife Services for Harper's, describes the long-tenured agency like this: "True to its mandate, Wildlife Services kills anything under the sun perceived as a threat to stockmen, deploying an arsenal of poisons, traps, and aerial gunships at a cost of tens of millions of dollars a year annually. Between 2000 and 2014, two million native mammals fell to this machine, including 20 species of carnivores and 12 taxa of mammals listed as endangered, threatened, or as candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act." "During the 20th century," he adds, "the agency was probably responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of animals," including huge numbers of wolves, cougars, prairie dogs, and other species deemed detrimental to private agricultural interests. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture wrote in a statement that Wildlife Services works to "mitigate the serious economic impacts" related to wildlife-human conflicts, working closely with state agencies, local governments, and more to "manage wildlife damage using the best available science" and in compliance with all federal, state, and local laws. (Webmaster's comment: Appeals to the brute male desire to kill anything that moves!)
8-10-19 Dolphin spotted juggling with jellyfish in Denmark
Two friends have captured footage of a dolphin flipping jellyfish with its nose, in the harbour at Sønderborg, in the south of Denmark.
8-9-19 The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator
Never underestimate that tiny insect whining in your ear, said Keith Johnson in Foreign Policy. “The mosquito, far and away mankind’s deadliest enemy, has killed half of all the people who have ever lived.” Per the calculations of historian Timothy C. Winegard, 52 billion people in all have died of malaria, yellow fever, and other mosquito-borne diseases, making the tiny pest the malevolent Zelig to our own species’ long journey through the ages. Winegard “finds no shortage of pivotal events to pin on the little critter.” The rise of Rome into an empire was aided by the invader-proof malarial swamps that surrounded the city. Mosquitoes also ended Alexander the Great’s campaigns. And they were major contributors to the British defeat at Yorktown. Though Winegard’s book is sometimes florid and sometimes repetitive, it “serves up an eye-opening, deeply alarming, and absolutely engrossing view of humanity’s most tenacious foe.” “There is very little of human history mosquitoes have not touched,” said Brian Bethune in Maclean’s. Though we’ve only known for a century that it is the mosquito, not “bad air,” that spreads malaria, humans have been in a fierce battle with the disease since the dawn of agriculture. About 8,000 years ago, when Bantu farmers in West Central Africa expanded their territory, the malaria parasite was waiting for them, and it proved so deadly that our bodies developed emergency genetic defenses, including sickle-cell anemia, a disorder that defends blood cells against the parasite but regularly results in death at about age 23. Five centuries ago, mosquito-borne diseases carried from the Old World to the New helped wipe out 95 percent of the Americas’ indigenous population. And because Africans had greater immunity to the illnesses than white indentured servants, millions of Africans were enslaved to serve as the New World’s labor class. Winegard sometimes gives the mosquito too much credit, said Brooke Jarvis in The New Yorker. His case for the mosquito’s role in the drafting of the Magna Carta, for example, relies on “a cascade of contingencies” stretching back centuries. But we who live in rich, temperate corners of the world are foolish if we presume that the mosquito has had its day in the human story. Climate change is expanding the reach of the genus and the diseases it carries. Though we think we are in control of our future, “the entire time that humanity has been in existence, the mosquito has been proof that we are not.”
8-9-19 Cyanide bombs: US says it's OK to kill wild animals with deadly poison
The US government has approved the continued use of "cyanide bombs" to kill pests such as coyotes, foxes and dogs that live in the wild in America. It comes despite thousands of objections to the M-44 devices, which have killed more than just wild animals since they were first introduced. They work by drawing animals with bait then spraying poison into their mouths. But in 2017, a child was temporarily blinded and three pet dogs killed in two incidents in Idaho and Wyoming. The family of the child successfully sued the US government for $150,000 (£124,000) in 2018. One of the M-44 cyanide bombs had been placed near their backyard in Idaho. Animals which aren't considered a threat to farmers and their livestock - such as skunks, raccoons and bears - have also been killed by the traps. The bombs aren't available for anyone to buy, but they are used to kill large numbers of wild animals by Wildlife Services (part of the US Department of Agriculture) on behalf of farmers and ranch owners. In 2018, the US Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to assess the use of the M-44 devices after a lawsuit was brought by four conservation and animal welfare groups in America. They've been in use since the 1960s. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says 200,000 people wrote letters of objection to the M-44 devices during the 18-month assessment period. And the Centre for Biological Diversity says that 99.9% of responses to the EPA's proposal were in support of a ban. But the EPA has decided they are still safe for use, after support from rancher groups and "stakeholders" including farmers groups. It said that the cyanide bombs stopped predators from killing livestock and that a ban would result in farmers losing money. Wildlife and environment agencies in America have reacted with disappointment to the decision to reauthorise the use of the M-44 devices. "Cyanide traps can't be used safely by anyone, anywhere," says Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Centre for Biological Diversity. "While the EPA added some restrictions, these deadly devices have caused too much harm to remain in use. We need a permanent nationwide ban to protect people, pets and imperiled wildlife from this poison."
8-9-19 World’s largest frog builds its own ponds using heavy rocks
The world’s largest frog builds nests in streams, which seems to entail shifting rocks that weigh up to two kilograms. This heavy lifting may explain why goliath frogs have evolved such large bodies.The world’s largest frog builds nests in streams, which seems to entail shifting rocks that weigh up to two kilograms. This heavy lifting may explain why goliath frogs have evolved such large bodies. Goliath frogs (Conraua goliath) can be 34 centimetres long and weigh over 3.2 kilograms. They are only found in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, where they live near streams. Despite their fame as the world’s largest frogs, almost nothing is known about them, says Mark-Oliver Rödel at the Berlin Museum for Natural History in Germany. “The entire African continent, and in particular central Africa, is extremely understudied,” he says, and goliath frogs are hard to study because they are “skittish”. Goliath frogs are endangered, partly because they are hunted for their meat, so Rödel’s team considered whether to start a captive breeding programme. Realising they needed to know more about how the frogs reproduce, they talked to Cameroonian frog hunters, who told them that the adults build and guard ponds in rivers. “It sounded very fascinating and completely unexpected,” says Rödel, so the team began exploring the Mpoula River in western Cameroon for nest sites. They found that goliath frog nests are small pools in streams. Some are natural, but others are built by the frogs by clearing rocks from the stream bed. Some stones were visibly moved from day to day, as they had been turned upside-down. The nests were always cleared of debris like leaves. A typical nest had several hundred eggs, which developed into tadpoles and eventually small frogs. Adult frogs guarded the nests throughout the night. It is not clear why the frogs clear the nests of debris, much of which could be food. Rödel suspects it gives the adults a clear view of predators like shrimp and fish, which are a threat to the tadpoles.
8-8-19 How these tiny insect larvae leap without legs
High-speed film reveals the details of a young gall midge's loop-and-latch maneuver. No legs? Not a problem. Some pudgy insect larvae can still jump up to 36 times their body length. Now high-speed video reveals how. First, a legless, bright orange Asphondylia gall midge larva fastens its body into a fat, lopsided O by meshing together front and rear patches of microscopic fuzz. The rear part of the larva swells, and starts to straighten like a long, overinflating balloon. The fuzzy surfaces then pop apart. Then like a suddenly released spring, the larva flips up and away in an arc of somersaults, researchers report August 8 in the Journal of Experimental Biology. In nature, something has to go wrong for this to happen, says evolutionary ecologist Michael Wise of Roanoke College in Salem, Va. These midges normally grow from egg to adult safely inside an abnormal growth, or gall, that they trick silverrod plants into forming. But as Wise was trying to coax out some still-immature larvae, he realized that the supposedly helpless young — extracted prematurely when they were no bigger than rice grains — could not only vault out of a lab dish but also could travel a fair distance across the lab floor. To get a better look at the insects’ jumps, he contacted evolutionary biomechanist Sheila Patek at Duke University. “He sees small fast things and thinks of his buddy Sheila,” Patek says. Her lab specializes in resolving never-before-seen subtleties of animal motion, typically using high-speed video. “The truth is, we film for people all the time, and it’s almost never small and fast by our standards,” she says. “But this actually was.” The larval jumps filmed were too great for a tiny larva’s muscles, Wise, Patek and colleagues concluded. Blobby little larvae were flipping themselves around with power equal to, or greater than, the oomph of high-power vertebrate flight muscles.
8-8-19 Sharks use a special kind of protein to glow green in deep water
Some sharks have special glow-in-the-dark skin that works in a different way to other biofluorescent marine animals. Jason Crawford at Yale University and his colleagues have found that both chain catsharks (Scyliorhinus rotifer) and swell sharks (Cephaloscyllium ventriosum) have light patches on their skin that glow a bright green colour that is particularly noticeable in deep water. When they analysed skin samples from the sharks, they found that this glow comes from a previously-unknown type of small fluorescent molecule. Called brominated tryptophan-kynurenines, these let the skin absorb high-energy blue wavelengths of light and re-emit them at lower green wavelengths – a process known as biofluorescence. Other marine creatures like eels, seahorses and turtles also exhibit biofluorescence, but they typically use larger fluorescent molecules – like green fluorescent proteins – to convert blue light into other colours. Previous research has shown that chain catsharks and swell sharks are able to see the green colour emitted by the small fluorescent molecules, but the team suggest that other marine animals may not be able to. If this turns out to be the case, it could mean the sharks use their fluorescence to find each other in the dark ocean depths while still being camouflaged to other sea creatures, says team-member David Gruber at the City University of New York.
8-7-19 Four things bats can teach us about survival
Bats live extraordinarily long lives for their size. From being generous to keeping clean, here's a few tips we could learn from them.
8-7-19 Mercury levels in fish are rising despite reduced emissions
Fishing and warming seas cause changes that affect the toxic metal’s buildup in fatty tissues. Climate change and overfishing may be hampering efforts to reduce toxic mercury accumulations in the fish and shellfish that end up on our plates. Mercury emissions are decreasing around the globe. But new research suggests that warmer ocean waters and fishing’s effects on ecosystems can alter how much mercury builds up in seafood. Fishing practices increased methylmercury levels in the tissue of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) caught in the Gulf of Maine by as much as 23 percent over a roughly 30-year period, researchers estimate. That’s despite decreases in atmospheric mercury levels over the same time period, from the 1970s to the 2000s. The finding is based on simulations of mercury emissions as well as ecosystem changes related to fishing. It reveals how the diet of cod, driven by the rebound of once-overfished herring, plays an important role in determining how much mercury accumulates in the fish, the team reports online August 7 in Nature. The scientists also created simulations of the effects of warming seawater on mercury bioaccumulation, incorporating changing emissions and temperatures as well as mercury accumulations measured in Gulf of Maine Atlantic bluefin tuna since 1969. Those simulations suggest that seawater temperature increases could be responsible for as much as a 56 percent increase in methylmercury concentrations found in Gulf of Maine Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), the team found. “This is really the first investigation to look at migratory marine fish and the potential impacts of temperature and overfishing” at the same time, says study coauthor Elsie Sunderland, an environmental chemist at Harvard University. Scientists have long assumed that when it comes to mercury piling up in seafood, the only factor that matters is how much is being sent into the sky, she says.
8-7-19 Staring at seagulls helps protect food, say scientists
The secret to protecting your seaside chips from scavenging seagulls is to stare at them, scientists have said. The birds are more likely to steal food when they can avoid the gaze of their victims, according to a new study. Researchers at the University of Exeter put a bag of chips on the ground and timed how long herring gulls took to approach when they were being watched. They compared this to how long it took for the gulls to strike when the person looked away.The gulls took 21 seconds longer on average when they were being looked at. The scientists tried to test 74 gulls, but most would not participate. (SMART BIRDS!) Of the 27 that approached the chips, 19 completed both the "looking at" and "looking away" tests. "Gulls are often seen as aggressive and willing to take food from humans, so it was interesting to find that most wouldn't even come near during our tests," said lead author Madeleine Goumas, from of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter's Penryn Campus. "Of those that did approach, most took longer when they were being watched. "Some wouldn't even touch the food at all, although others didn't seem to notice that a human was staring at them." She said the more daring seagulls may have had a good experience of being fed by humans, but the study did not examine the reasons for the different responses. "It seems that a couple of very bold gulls might ruin the reputation of the rest," she added.
8-7-19 Staring down seagulls can stop them stealing your chips
The threat of having your ice cream or chips pilfered by a seagull will be familiar to anyone who goes on seaside holidays in the UK, but a study suggests there is a way to keep avian scavengers at bay: keep your eyes on them. Madeleine Goumas at the University of Exeter and her colleagues ran an experiment with 19 seagulls in seaside towns in Cornwall. An experimenter placed a bag of chips on the ground and crouched behind it, 1.5 metres away. When a seagull approached the chips, she started a stopwatch, and either stared at the gull or looked in another direction. When they were being watched, only 26 per cent of the gulls touched the chips. Those that did touch the food took around 20 seconds longer to do so when they were being watched. This shows that seagulls are sensitive to the human gaze and change their behaviour when they are being watched. “Even though gulls seem like they do this a lot in some areas, it seems to be a few individuals that are responsible for the majority of food snatching,” says Goumas. While gulls could have an ability known as theory of mind – the capacity to infer the mental states of others – a simpler explanation is that they learn to associate being watched with being chased away. It’s also possible that they have an innate fear of the human gaze. Another unanswered question is whether natural selection is driving seagulls to be more audacious in urban environments. “We are going to continue studying them to find out more about them and how boldness and other personality traits might be advantageous or disadvantageous,” says Goumas. Despite their ubiquity in seaside towns, herring gulls are on the UK’s red list for birds of conservation concern. Their population fell by 60 per cent from 1969 to 2015, and they are increasingly breeding in urban areas and relying on human food.
8-7-19 Tardigrades: 'Water bears' stuck on the moon after crash
The moon might now be home to thousands of planet Earth's most indestructible animals. Tardigrades - often called water bears - are creatures under a millimetre long that can survive being heated to 150C and frozen to almost absolute zero. They were travelling on an Israeli spacecraft that crash-landed on the moon in April. And the co-founder of the organisation that put them there thinks they're almost definitely still alive. The water bears had been dehydrated to place them in suspended animation and then encased in artificial amber. "We believe the chances of survival for the tardigrades... are extremely high," Arch Mission Foundation boss Nova Spivack said. The Arch Mission Foundation keeps a "backup" of planet Earth - with human knowledge and the planet's biology stored and sent out to various solar locations in case of a life-ending event. The "lunar library" - something resembling a DVD that contains a 30-million-page archive of human history viewable under microscopes, as well as human DNA - was being carried on the Beresheet robot lander. And alongside them were dehyrdrated tardigrades - some in amber and some stuck on tape. For most creatures there would be no coming back from being dehydrated - life without water is almost impossible. But water bears - which have another very cute nickname, moss piglets - are not most animals. They can be brought back to life decades after being dehydrated. Scientists have found that tardigrades have what seems almost like a super power. When dried out they retract their heads and their eight legs, shrivel into a tiny ball, and enter a deep state of suspended animation that closely resembles death. They shed almost all of the water in their body and their metabolism slows to 0.01% of the normal rate. And if reintroduced to water decades later, they're able to reanimate. All of that, plus the fact they became the first animal to survive in space back in 2007, made them a perfect candidate for Arch Mission's lunar library. "Tardigrades are ideal to include because they are microscopic, multicellular, and one of the most durable forms of life on planet Earth," Nova said. Even though the little moss piglets are likely to have survived the moon crash, it might not be great that they're there. "What it means is the so-called 'pristine environment' of the moon has been broken," says Open University professor of planetary and space sciences Monica Grady. (Webmaster's comment: Deliberate contamination of the Moon. STUPID!)
8-6-19 A fungus makes a chemical that neutralizes the stench of skunk spray
The compound pericosine turns reeks produced by the animals benign. A puppy pal that gets sprayed by a skunk is no friend to human noses. The nasty odor can linger for weeks or more. But at least one kind of Tolypocladium fungi makes a chemical that can snuff out the stink. Called pericosine, it reacts with skunk spray’s sulfur-containing compounds, forming residues that aren’t offensive to the nose and can be more easily washed away, researchers report in the July 26 Journal of Natural Products. Researchers think that the fungus uses pericosine to neutralize noxious chemicals encountered in the wild. “We’ve never seen … a form of chemical defense like this,” says Robert Cichewicz, a natural products and drug discovery researcher at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. The scientists were clued into the compound when they grew the fungus together with a different fungal species. The Tolypocladium fungus produced pericosine that reacted with chemicals, including possibly harmful ones, made by the second fungus. What if pericosine could tackle other compounds? To find out, the team ordered skunk spray essence: the “nasal equivalent of staring at the sun” as Cichewicz puts it. Mixing the spray with pericosine made the smell go away. The reeking molecules produced by skunks’ anal glands are hard to wash away. Typical products used to deskunk people and animals are not that effective, like soap, or harsh, like bleach. But tests of pericosine with tissues meant to stand in for eyes and skin suggest that the compound may be gentler, not causing irritation.
8-3-19 Bees' very hairy tongues help them mop up different types of nectar
Bumblebees can sup on thick nectar just as easily as they slurp up thin nectar – and now we know why. It’s all down to the tiny hairs on their tongues. Evolution has created some strange and surprising tools to help animals drink liquid. A close look at a bee’s tongue reveals a long rod-like stalk that is covered in thin hair-like protrusions. This makes it look a little like a tiny mop. When bees are feeding, they quickly dip their tongue in and out of a flower to collect the sweet nectar. Pascal Damman at the University of Mons, Belgium, and his colleagues analysed videos of bees (Bombus terrestris audax) feeding from nectar with different viscosities, and made an unexpected discovery. They found that regardless of the thickness of the fluid, the bees lapped it up at the same rate, collecting the same volume of liquid each time. That’s a surprise because in theory, thicker liquids should be more likely than thin liquids to stick to an object dipped into the solution. So Damman and his colleagues decided to try to mimic the action of bees’ tongues by 3D printing rods that were either smooth or covered in tiny structures to mimic the bees’ hair-like protrusions. They then dipped them into fluids of different viscosities. It turned out that the distance between the microstructures on the rods explained the puzzle. If they are spaced close enough to one another then liquid is automatically pulled between them by what is called capillary action. This capillary action is fast enough to fill all of the gaps with nectar each time the bee dips its tongue in, and holds the liquid without dripping. Like a mop and bucket, the bee squeezes the nectar out of its tongue hair when the tongue returns to the mouth. Patrick Spicer of the University of New South Wales, Australia, who wasn’t involved in the study, says we often look at fluids in terms of their large-scale behaviour because humans are large animals. From this perspective, liquids that flow slowly appear thick.
8-3-19 Feral parakeets have taken over London
Though not native to the city, the colorful birds have made it their home. London is at the center of a very loud mystery. A colony of feral parakeets has taken over the British capital. Nobody knows how the small, green birds originating from South Asia and Central Africa came to be in the capital city. While some Londoners consider the foreign birds to be a threat to native birds, others have adopted the colorful parakeet as an unofficial city mascot. Parakeets are a type of small parrot that is frequently kept as a pet by people all over the world. But in London, if you want to play with a parakeet, you can skip the pet store and go straight to a park. Since moving to London from Australia, Alysia Micali feeds the parakeets in Hyde Park every week. "I love birds, and I think it's just really awesome to hang out with them and feed them," Micali said. "It's just fun to do in the city that you don't find anywhere else and they're wild, so they're not in a cage or anything." Micali warns that the birds can get a little bit aggressive if you run out of food. After living in London for nine years, writer Nick Hunt realized that the number of parakeets was rapidly multiplying. At the last official roost count in 2012, researchers counted over 32,000 feral parakeets living in London. Hunt teamed up with photographer Tim Mitchell on a book called The Parakeeting of London: An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology. Hunt and Mitchell first set out to debunk some of the urban legends about how the parrots first came to London, like the story that musician Jimi Hendrix released a breeding pair on Carnaby Street after a wild night in the 1960s. "Nobody seems to have known him to keep parakeets," Hunt said. "I think one of the reasons this myth is so potent is that they can have a kind of Jimi Hendrix quality, they're kind of bright, garishly dressed, and they have a harsh kind of grating sound that hasn't really been heard in the city before."
8-2-19 Mosquito-borne killer virus
Florida’s health department is warning of a surge in a mosquito-borne virus that can cause fatal brain swelling, reports CNN.com. State officials announced last week that the virus, Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), had been detected in several “sentinel chickens”—birds that are regularly tested for West Nile virus and EEE. That means “the risk of transmission to humans has increased,”officials said. The virus was also found last month in mosquitoes in New York state and Massachusetts. Only about seven U.S. residents a year are diagnosed with EEE virus, but some 30 percent of cases are fatal. Those who survive are often left with permanent brain damage. Symptoms—which can include headache, fever, chills, and vomiting, or seizures and coma in more extreme cases—typically develop four to 10 days after a person has been bitten by an infected mosquito. There’s no cure for the virus, so officials advise people to reduce their risk of being bitten by draining standing water around their homes, applying insect repellant, and using door and window screens.
8-2-19 Should we eliminate mosquitoes?
For more than 100 million years, the mosquito has been “our apex predator, the deadliest hunter of human beings on the planet,” said Timothy Winegard. About 100 trillion of these blood-sucking insects patrol our world, transmitting diseases that kill 700,000 people every year. By infecting human beings with yellow fever, malaria, and a host of other parasites, viruses, and bacteria, mosquitoes “may have killed nearly half of the 108 billion humans who have ever lived.” Now the “life-and-death” battle between mosquitoes and people “may be coming to a head.” Scientists armed with a gene-editing technology called Crispr have designed mosquitoes that produce infertile offspring. If released en masse into the wild, these biologically altered bugs could render mosquitoes extinct. Limited field experiments have shown this strategy actually works. There is fear, however, that eradicating mosquitoes could have unforeseen consequences, allowing some other species to become a threat, or otherwise disturbing “mother nature’s equilibrium.” Still, with both old and new pathogens like Zika spreading, it would be a mistake to underestimate the deadly threat mosquitoes pose to our species. At some point, we may have to choose between us and them. (Webmaster's comment: The Mosquitoe is the primary food source for dozens of predators such as many bats and birds. Killing off mosquitoes would decimate those predators. We should focus our efforts on killing off the diseases IN the mosquitoes leaving them as food supply for their natural prey.)
8-1-19 There’s more to pufferfish than that goofy spiked balloon
Pufferfish can have frenzied romantic lives, not to mention strange teeth. So what if fish need water to live. For certain pufferfish, flirting on the sand of a moonlit beach is irresistible (in bursts). And that’s not the only odd thing the ocean’s famous self-inflators do. Some of the 200 or so species in the puffer family take courtship to extremes. On a few moonlit nights a year at some Asian shores, Japanese grass pufferfish (Takifugu niphobles) flock to the beach to mate. “A big ball of these pufferfish, maybe 400 fish, will sort of rise up on the rising tide and beach themselves,” says Gareth Fraser, an evolutionary developmental biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Typically, that ball contains several hundred males and maybe one female, he says. The males start jumping around, releasing sperm onto the watery sand where a female discharges eggs. When a wave eventually sloshes in high enough, it washes them back to sea. Sand underwater holds allure as well. Males of a species not recognized until 2014 turned out to be the architects of mysterious underwater versions of crop circles. These white-spotted pufferfish (Torquigener albomaculosus) spend days plowing and fin flapping sand into great symmetrical rosettes as welcome mats for female visitors. Courtship among some in the pufferfish family, however, can be pretty brutal, Fraser says. “Sometimes, the male will bite with these really sharp beaks on the abdomen of the females.” It was those strange beaks, more parrot than shark, that first nibbled Fraser’s scientific curiosity. The first teeth in baby puffers seem unremarkably vertebrate. But as the young fish grow up, the rows of pointy bits gives way to two nubs that stretch sideways along the jaw, eventually creating a pair of long, sharp-edged blades. With one set of blades along the upper jaw and another on the lower, adult puffers “can chop a fish in half and then feast on it,” he says. Aquarists need to feed their pufferfishes plenty of hard-shelled mollusks to wear down the blades or trim them back with a fish version of a nail clipper. If the beaks overgrow, the fish can’t eat.
8-1-19 Turtle embryos may control their sex by moving inside their eggs
Turtle embryos may be able to move around within their eggs to seek out hot or cool spots, and doing so might influence their eventual sex. We know that in some turtles, cooler eggs produce males and warmer ones produce females. That’s a concern, because climate change could result in one-sided sex ratios as temperatures increase. But new work suggests that turtles may have some ability to adapt to combat this. “Embryos can detect temperature differentials within the egg and move to the optimum position. That behaviour is of course a hallmark of reptiles in their post-hatching life – we’ve simply shown that the ability begins much earlier in life than people expected,” says Rick Shine at Macquarie University in Australia. He and his colleagues measured the temperature gradients within the eggs of a freshwater turtle, Mauremys reevesii, in natural nests beside an outdoor pond. Previous research suggested that eggs in a natural nest wouldn’t have much of a temperature gradient, but Shine and his colleagues found that the temperature was consistently higher at one end of an egg than at the other, with a maximum difference of 4.7°C. “The temperature difference needed to shift from ‘develop as a male’ to ‘develop as a female’ is really tiny – only about one degree Celsius. And there is enough temperature difference between two ends within the same egg for an embryo to change its temperature by that amount,” says Shine. The team incubated turtle eggs in the laboratory and treated half with capsazepine, a chemical that blocks the embryo’s ability to sense temperature. Then they heated one side of the eggs, creating a gradient. The embryos with blocked temperature sensors stayed in the middle of the egg and produced either all males or females, depending on their incubation temperature. But those with their temperature sensors working as normal moved up to 6 millimetres within the egg, and about half hatched as male and half as female.
8-1-19 Wasps are shrinking in size and it may be because of climate change
Some black and yellow-striped picnic visitors might be smaller than their ancestors were a century ago. At least one common wasp species appears to be shrinking as a consequence of the ongoing global rise in temperatures caused by climate change. Warming-driven shrinkage has already been documented in vertebrates—like antelope and sparrows—and may be caused by stress from heat or changes to food availability, or even the relationship between body size and heat retention. But climate change’s impact on insect body size is poorly understood. When Carlo Polidori—an entomologist at the University of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain—and his colleagues came across the many decades of insect samples at Madrid’s National Museum of Natural Sciences, they saw an opportunity to see how insects’ bodies have changed over time. The team measured the body size, head width, and wing size of over 200 tree wasps (Dolichovespula sylvestris) in museum collections. These specimens came from various locations on the Iberian Peninsula, and some dated back to as early as 1904. They found that the wasps got smaller over time. Comparing their data with Iberian climate records, they found that this decline in size correlated with rising temperatures. The team can’t be sure of causation, but such shrinking in insects may be tied to their early development, which speeds up in hotter temperatures and can produce smaller adults. A handful of other studies have revealed climate change-driven shrinkage of other insects, like beetles, but this is the first study to show such an effect in a social, colony living species. Such social insects have sophisticated control over the temperatures of their hives, but the results suggest that even these species may be susceptible to climate change.