12-3-19 'Toxic chemical cocktail' passed to baby porpoises
Baby porpoises in waters off the UK are being exposed to a cocktail of chemicals in their mother's milk. Research found the most potent pollutants, which may be toxic to the brain, are passed from mother to calf. The chemicals are among the 200 or so polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which accumulate in the bodies of dolphins, porpoises and whales. PCBs were once used in plastics and paints. Banned decades ago, they hang around in the environment. The toxins that linger longest in a mother's body - and are considered more poisonous to the brain and nervous system - are transferred to infants in milk, a study found. "It's a tragic irony that juvenile porpoises are being exposed to a toxic cocktail of chemicals during feeding - when all they're supposed to be getting are the vital nutrients they need for the crucial developmental stage of their life," said Rosie Williams of ZSL's Institute of Zoology and Brunel University London. Meanwhile, one killer whale (orca) found dead off Scotland in 2016 contained among the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, ever recorded. PCBs could lead to the disappearance of half of the world's populations of killer whales from the most heavily contaminated areas within a period of just 30 to 50 years, scientists concluded last year. The study looked at levels of more than 200 chemical pollutants that are collectively known as PCBs in hundreds of harbour porpoises stranded off the coasts of Scotland, England and Wales. Juveniles had the highest levels of chemicals thought to be most toxic to the brain and nervous system. It's vital to learn more about PCB exposure in juvenile animals "to mitigate the impact of these dangerous chemicals on populations", said Prof Susan Jobling of Brunel University London. Populations of harbour porpoises around the UK are believed to be stable, though they face threats from pollution, accidental fishing and infection. The situation is much more dire for killer whales, which are down to a handful of individuals.
12-3-19 Gadhimai: Nepal's animal sacrifice festival goes ahead despite 'ban'
Less than five years ago, animal charities heralded the end of animal sacrifice at a religious festival dubbed "the world's bloodiest". But on Tuesday, the Gadhimai festival began with the killing of a goat, rat, chicken, pig and pigeon. According to animal activists who travelled to a remote corner of Nepal for the festival, it was followed by the deaths of thousands of buffalo. Some 200,000 animals were killed during the last festival, in 2014. The tradition dates back to a priest who was told about 250 years ago in a dream that spilled blood would encourage Gadhimai, the Hindu goddess of power, to free him from prison. For the hundreds of thousands of devotees who travel to the temple from India and Nepal, it is an opportunity to have their wishes fulfilled. "I had four sisters. Eight years ago, I made a wish for a brother and the goddess blessed us with him," Priyanka Yadav, of Janakpur, explained to BBC Nepali. However, animal rights activists have long argued it was cruel. Then, in 2015, the Humane Society International (HSI) and Animal Welfare Network Nepal (AWNN) announced "victory", saying animal sacrifices had been banned. But Ram Chandra Shah, the temple's then chairman, told the BBC no such arrangement had been made. "Devout Hindus could be requested not to offer animal sacrifice to the goddess, but they could not be forced not to do so - nor [could] the tradition be banned or stopped completely," he said at the time. Attempts were made to curb the influx of animals ahead of this year's two-day festival: Indian authorities began seizing animals unlicensed traders were trying to bring across the border. Nepal's government has also not provided any support, according to the festival's chairman, Motilal Kuswaha. But the animals continued to arrive at the temple in Bariyarpur, about 150km (93 miles) south of Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, and on Tuesday morning around 200 butchers prepared to begin their work.
12-3-19 US national parks face 'crisis' over invasive animal species
Invasive animal species represent a crisis for United States national parks, experts have said, in a call for widespread, systemic action. More than half of national parks are threatened by invasive animal species, but the threat has gone unaddressed, according to a new paper. The panel of experts said coordinated efforts and partnerships would be essential for success. The paper was published in the journal Biological Invasions. National parks span more than 85 million acres and can be found in all 50 states. They are home to the country's most beloved natural wonders and well-known historic sites. Since 1916, more than 400 parks have been established for protection. The paper is the result of a three-year effort by a panel of experts, established by the National Park Service (NPS) in 2016 to assess the threat of invasive animals. They note the NPS has had an invasive plant management programme for nearly two decades, but that invasive animals have not received the same attention. "The issue of invasive animal species has long been acknowledged, but there has yet to be a concerted, coordinated effort to address the issue," said lead author Ashley Dayer, an assistant professor in the department of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. A survey identified 1,409 populations of invasive animals made up of 331 species across the parks. Of those invasive populations, only 23% have management plans and only 11% are under control. Those populations can be found across ecosystems, from lakes, rivers and reefs to forests, grasslands and deserts. And all kinds of animals are represented, including mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. The impacts of invasive animal species vary, but they can cause a loss of park wildlife, damage natural ecosystems, hurt visitor experiences and be expensive to control. A number of individual parks have addressed their unique issues with invasive species with some success. The authors say a transformative, service-wide programme could help others follow suit.
12-3-19 The race to find wild relatives of food plants before it's too late
Seeds from 400 wild relatives of food crops such as bananas, rice and aubergines have been collected to save their valuable genetic diversity before it is lost. These could be crucial for maintaining food production as the climate changes. “This was a massive effort,” says Hannes Dempewolf at the Crop Trust in Bonn, Germany, which led the 10-year project. The next step is to use the wild plants to breed new varieties of crops with traits such as drought or disease resistance. That is important because we know that if farmers keep cultivating the same varieties in the same way, yields can plummet as pests and diseases evolve and spread. For instance, rice yields in Asia were hit by the rice grassy stunt virus in the 1970s, says Dempewolf. Resistant varieties were then created by crossing rice with a wild relative. Now the virus is becoming a problem again. It is a constant battle, a bit like walking up an escalator the wrong way. What is more, the speed at which such issues arise is accelerating because of climate change, which is already hitting food production. “You have to walk faster to stand still,” says Alisdair Fernie of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology in Germany, who wasn’t involved in the project. This is why the Crop Trust set out to save the genetic diversity present in wild plants. “Since 2013, more than 12 million seeds have been collected,” says Chris Cockel at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank in the UK. These come from about 5000 locations of the 400 crop relatives. Plants sampled include a type of wild carrot that grows in salty water, an oat relative resistant to the powdery mildew that devastates normal oats, and a kind of bean that tolerates high temperatures and drought. The seeds are now being sent to non-profit breeding organisations around the world. Some will also be stored in seed banks, including the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic.
12-3-19 Polar bear spray-painted with 'T-34' baffles Russia wildlife experts
Footage shared on social media in Russia of a polar bear with "T-34" spray-painted in black on its side has alarmed experts. Experts warned the stunt could affect the animal's ability to blend in with its surroundings and hunt for food. An investigation is under way to determine exactly where in Arctic Russia the video was filmed. The T-34 was a tank that played a vital role in the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two. The footage was posted on Facebook by Sergey Kavry, a member of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) nature organisation, and then shared by local media. Mr Kavry said the video had been shared with a WhatsApp group for the indigenous people of the Chukotka region in Russia's Far East, and that scientists monitoring wildlife in the area would not have branded the bear in such a way. "I don't know the details of which region, district, or vicinity this [footage] was taken," he said, adding: "If it's a military lettering theme... that is some kind of perverse disrespect for history." The press officer for WWF Russia, Daria Buyanova, told the BBC that seeing the images was "quite a shock" and that the inscription "looks like a bad joke". A scientist at the Institute of Biological Problems of the North, Anatoly Kochnev, said it was unlikely that the bear could have been painted without it being sedated. He said the bear could not have been mobile, or at least must have been quite still while it was being sprayed because "the characters are evenly written and are all the same size". He suggested the incident may have taken place in the remote Russian region of Novaya Zemlya, where a team of specialists had earlier sedated polar bears that had been wandering into populated areas. (Webmaster's comment: The T-34 tank kicked German ass all the way from Stalingrad into Berlin. The best designed tank of the war.)
12-2-19 Ancient puppy found in permafrost still has its fur and whiskers
This 18,000-year-old puppy, preserved in the Siberian permafrost, still has its nose, fur, teeth and whiskers – but DNA tests to determine whether it is a dog or a wolf have come up blank, suggesting it may represent a common ancestor of both. The puppy’s remains were identified by researchers at a site near Yakutsk in eastern Siberia, last year. Since then, a team at the Centre for Palaeogenetics, a joint venture between Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History, has been analysing a piece of the animal’s rib bone. So far, the researchers have determined that the animal is male. Team members estimate that he was 2 months old and lived around 18,000 years ago. The puppy is now named Dogor, a Yakutian word for “friend”. But the researchers can’t tell if the puppy was a dog or a wolf. If the animal is a dog, it may be the oldest ever found. But a researcher on the team thinks it may represent a common ancestor of both dogs and wolves. “It’s normally relatively easy to tell the difference between the two,” team member David Stanton told CNN. “We have a lot of data from it already, and with that amount of data, you’d expect to tell if it was one or the other. The fact that we can’t might suggest that it’s from a population that was ancestral to both – to dogs and wolves.” Research from the same team suggests that dogs and wolves may have diverged from a common ancestor around 40,000 years ago, although some dog breeds may have bred with wolves after that point. However, this doesn’t tell us anything about when dogs became domesticated, and why. There is some evidence that the ancestors of domestic dogs may have carried genetic variants that made them “hypersociable”, and so more willing to interact with humans.
12-2-19 A tree in Brazil’s arid northeast rains nectar from its flowers
Hymenaea cangaceira is one of two known plants to make a “sweet rain” that attracts pollinators. It’s night, and plant biologist Arthur Domingos de Melo is looking up at the open, ivory flowers of a tropical, hardwood tree. Though it’s the dry season in the arid, thorny Caatinga region of northeast Brazil, a slow drizzle begins to fall. But not from the sky. Domingos de Melo is under the tree’s canopy, and the “rain” is sweet. Behold Hymenaea cangaceira, a species whose flowers make so much nectar that it overflows and falls in unusually copious and fragrant showers, even though the price of water in this part of the world is steep. Domingos de Melo and colleagues at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, had been studying bat pollination of local plants for two decades in the region when, in 2015, one type of bat-pollinated tree struck them as odd. Its nectar, rather than the just the flower petals, was imbued with its own perfume — a phenomenon poorly understood in bat-pollinated plants — and the plant made loads of it. From 2015 to 2018, the team studied a population of H. cangaceira in Brazil’s Catimbau National Park. Each day after sunset during the trees’ reproductive season, between December and March, hundreds of flowers bloom on each tree and drip with nectar before wilting with the dawn. An individual flower produced up to 1.5 milliliters of nectar per night, the team found. That meant that one full-sized tree making some 624,000 flowers in a season could produce a stupefying 920 liters or so of nectar in that time — more than enough to fill 15 beer kegs — the team estimates in a study published online October 15 in Ecology.
12-1-19 How advancements in DNA technology can help save the tigers
The technology is still in its infancy, but scientists are optimistic it can help in the fight to protect the endangered animal. iger DNA expert Uma Ramakrishnan gets special permission to wander India's protected forests on foot, following the same trails the big cats tread. While she enjoys coming across tigers and their cubs and watching them with binoculars, those sightings aren't the treasure she's after. What she loves most is to find tiger droppings — "almost like gold to me," says the molecular ecologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. Territorial tigers oblige by leaving scat regularly, as a warning to other tigers that this space is occupied. These nuggets contain genetic material that scientists like Ramakrishnan use to understand tiger populations: How many are there, and what kinds? Where did they come from, and how far do they travel? It's crucial information for conservation efforts. Tigers are endangered, with fewer than 4,000 wild ones roaming the lands of at least 10 nations, from Eastern Russia to the island of Sumatra. That's down from an estimate of 100,000 in 1900. Human activity such as urban development, logging, farming, and mining has fragmented and destroyed tigers' forest habitats, and poaching is an ongoing problem in parts of Southeast Asia. "If you're going to have conservation management, you have to know what you're dealing with," says Stephen O'Brien, a geneticist at St. Petersburg State University in Russia and Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. For example, genetic studies show that tigers are split into several subspecies, so conservationists may want to develop strategies to protect each group. Over the past two decades, scientists have built up a picture of tiger evolution and ecology based on their DNA, as described this year in the Annual Review of Animal Biosciences. Early on, scientists could only look at a handful of spots in the tiger genome. Today, with the advent of inexpensive DNA sequencing and genomics that covers every bit of the instructions to make a tiger, experts are gaining a much broader picture of tiger biodiversity. DNA analysis — which will help not just to save tigers, but also to preserve the range of genetic variety that they carry — "is one of the best tools we have," says Byron Weckworth, conservation genetics director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization in Missoula, Montana. That said, he adds, the application of genomic information to conservation is still in its infancy.
12-1-19 Cosmic Crisp: New apple launched that 'lasts for a year'
A new breed of apple that took two decades to develop and allegedly lasts for up to a year in the fridge goes on sale in the US on Sunday. The apple - Cosmic Crisp - is a cross-breed of the Honeycrisp and Enterprise and was first cultivated by Washington State University in 1997. The launch of the "firm, crisp, and juicy apple" cost $10m (£7.9m). Farmers in the state of Washington are exclusively allowed to grow the fruit for the next decade. "It's an ultra-crisp apple, it's relatively firm, it has a good balance of sweet and tart and it's very juicy," said Kate Evans, who co-led the apple's breeding programme at Washington State University. She said the flesh is slow to brown and the fruit "maintains excellent eating quality in refrigerated storage - easily for 10 to 12 months". More than 12 million Cosmic Crisp trees have been planted and a strict licensing system does not permit farmers to grow the apples in other parts of the country. The variety was originally known as WA38 and the name Cosmic Crisp was inspired by the scattering of tiny white spots on its dark red skin, resembling the night sky. Washington is the biggest provider of apples in the US, but its most popular varieties - the Golden Delicious and Red Delicious - have faced fierce competition from the Pink Lady and Royal Gala. Apples are the second biggest selling fruit in the US after bananas.
11-28-19 Siberia: 18,000-year-old frozen 'dog' stumps scientists
Researchers are trying to determine whether an 18,000-year-old puppy found in Siberia is a dog or a wolf. The canine - which was two months old when it died - has been remarkably preserved in the permafrost of the Russian region, with its fur, nose and teeth all intact. DNA sequencing has been unable to determine the species. Scientists say that could mean the specimen represents an evolutionary link between wolves and modern dogs. Radiocarbon dating was able to determine the age of the puppy when it died and how long it has been frozen. Genome analyses showed that it was male. Researcher Dave Stanton at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Sweden told CNN the DNA sequencing issue meant the animal could come from a population that is a common ancestor of both dogs and wolves. "We have a lot of data from it already, and with that amount of data, you'd expect to tell if it was one or the other," he said. Another researcher from the centre, Love Dalen, tweeted a question about whether the specimen is a wolf cub or "possibly the oldest dog ever found". Scientists will continue with DNA sequencing and think the findings could reveal a lot about the evolution of dogs. The puppy has been named "Dogor", which means "friend" in the Yakut language and is also the start of the question "dog or wolf?" Modern dogs are believed to be descendants of wolves, but there is debate over when dogs were domesticated. A study published in 2017 suggested domestication could have occurred 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.
11-27-19 If the cows could talk
Three cows that Hurricane Dorian swept out to sea from the Outer Banks have been discovered living on a nearby island. After being hit with a 9-foot wall of water on Cedar Island, the bovine trio apparently swam several miles across North Carolina’s Core Sound to Cape Lookout National Seashore park. B.G Horvat, a spokesman for the park, said the valiant cattle “appear to have a bond.” “If the cows could talk,” Horvat said, “imagine the story they can tell you of enduring that rush of water.”
11-27-19 Russian cows get VR headsets 'to reduce anxiety'
A Russian farm has given its dairy cows virtual reality headsets in a bid to reduce their anxiety. The herd donned VR systems adapted for the "structural features of cow heads" and were shown a "unique summer field simulation program". Moscow's Ministry of Agriculture and Food cited research which they say has shown a link between a cow's emotional experience and its milk yield. Initial tests reportedly boosted "the overall emotional mood of the herd". According to a statement from the ministry, the experiments took place at the RusMoloko farm in Moscow's Ramensky district. "Examples of dairy farms from different countries show that in a calm atmosphere, the quantity, and sometimes the quality, of milk increases markedly," it read. Researchers will examine the effects of the programme in a long-term study. The developers reportedly hope to expand the project if positive results continue.
11-27-19 Great auk extinction: Humans wiped out giant seabird
"The great auk will always hold a place in my heart," Dr Jessica Thomas says. The Swansea-based scientist spent years piecing together an ancient DNA puzzle that suggests hunting by humans caused this giant seabird's demise. Dr Thomas studied bone and tissue samples from 41 museum specimens during a PhD at both Bangor and Copenhagen University. The findings paint a picture of how vulnerable even the most common species are to human exploitation. About 80cm (2ft 7in) tall, the stubby-winged and bulbous-billed great auks used to be found all across the north Atlantic - from North America through Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia and the UK. "Being flightless, they were always targeted by local people for food and for their feathers," says Dr Thomas. "But around 1500, when European seamen discovered the rich fishing grounds off Newfoundland, hunting intensified." By about 1850, the great auk was extinct; the last two known specimens were hunted down by fishermen on Eldey Island, off the coast of Iceland. "We looked for signatures of population decline [before 1500]," Dr Thomas said. One of these signatures might be a lack of genetic diversity, suggesting individuals were inbreeding and the species, as a whole, was becoming vulnerable to disease or environmental change. "But their genetic diversity was very high - all but two sequences we found were very different," Dr Thomas said. In fact, the genetic timeline Dr Thomas and her colleagues were able to create - published in the journal eLife - showed that, at the time the intensive great auk hunting began, the species was doing "really well". "They weren't at risk of extinction at all," said Dr Thomas. "It emphasises how vulnerable even the widespread and abundant species are to this intensive, localised pressure."
11-26-19 Nightingales practice new songs in winter to impress mates in spring
Turns out you can teach an old bird new songs. Adult thrush nightingales have been observed learning new songs in their wintering grounds, just as they did as young birds. The new melodies may help them impress mates when the spring breeding time comes. Thrush nightingales breed in Northern Europe and undertake a lengthy migration to sub-Saharan Africa, where they spend winters. In Europe, their songs are used to defend territory and attract mates – but it’s unclear why they continue to sing in the wintering grounds. “The birds are practicing songs in Africa even in their later years,” says Abel Souriau at Charles University in Czech Republic. He and his colleagues recorded natural birdsong from thrush nightingale breeding grounds in Poland and Russia, and compared them to the songs heard in wintering grounds in Tanzania. They broke down each song into the syllables that make up the melodies, looking for common patterns in nightingale song. These include pairs of notes that typically start a song, repeated notes and complex trills, and the rhythmic castanet-like notes that typically end a song. These elements were in all songs recorded in Poland and Russia. But 89 per cent of the songs recorded in Tanzania lacked a typical song structure, were missing the silent pauses between phrases, and had high variation in the sub-notes that make up the song. In other words, they weren’t recognisable as nightingale song. This suggests the birds are listening to their neighbours – and future rivals – and having a kind of jam session as they remix song elements into new patterns. A similar finding was made a few years ago in a study that focused particularly on another songbird called the great reed warbler. “What we love in nightingales is that they sing with so much complexity and regularity like classical music. But this is totally random vocalisation – there’s no beginning, no end. It’s more like improvising,” says Souriau.
11-25-19 A blue whale's heart beats just twice a minute when it dives for food
We have checked the pulse of a wild-living blue whale for the first time, and discovered something remarkable. When blue whales dive for food they can reduce their heart rates to as low as 2 beats per minute. This is well below the rates the large animals were calculated to have. Previous predictions were that the whales would have a resting heart rate of 15 beats per minute. The finding is particularly extraordinary given that whales have an energetically demanding feeding method, says Jeremy Goldbogen at Stanford University, California. During lunge feeding, a blue whale engulfs a volume of prey-filled water that can be larger than its own body. From a large inflatable boat in Monterey Bay, California, Goldbogen and his team used a 6-metre pole to attach heart rate monitors to a single blue whale. The monitors were held in place with suction cups. The researchers were then able to monitor the whale’s heart rate for almost 9 hours. They detected heart rates of just 2 to 8 beats per minute hundreds of times. The whale dived for as long as 16.5 minutes at a time, reaching a maximum depth of 184 metres, and stayed at the surface for intervals ranging from 1 to 4 minutes. The whale’s heart rate was at its lowest when it was diving for food and shot up after it resurfaced, reaching a peak of 37 beats per minute. The reduction in heart rate during dives enables whales to temporarily redistribute oxygenated blood from the heart to other muscles needed for lunging, says Goldbogen. Whales then recover upon resurfacing by dramatically increasing their breathing and heart rate, he says. These results demonstrate “the quite extraordinary level of flexibility and control that these diving mammals have over their heart rate and blood flow”, says Sascha Hooker at the University of St Andrews, UK.
11-22-19 Milk: A dramatic decline
A “staple” of American households is drying up, said David Yaffe-Bellany in The New York Times. Dean Foods, the country’s largest milk processor, filed for bankruptcy last week, following an 18 percent drop in U.S. milk consumption over the past decade and a decline of 47 percent since 1970. Gone are the days when children “dutifully” drank a glass with every meal, with parents believing milk was key to growth spurts and strong bones. Today, weight-conscious Americans eat less cereal, get calcium elsewhere, and whiten coffee with “trendy alternatives” such as oat, almond, and soy milk. Consumers also fear bovine growth hormones and cholesterol in milk, and the environmental cost of industrial farming. With sales falling by $1.1 billion in 2018 from the previous year, milk may never again be a cash cow. There’s a valuable lesson about market forces in milk’s demise, said The Washington Post in an editorial. The U.S. government has fought desperately to prop up dairy production. Between 1995 and 2019, an estimated $6 billion went to protect producers “from volatile prices,” and the main dairy safety-net program cost nearly $254 million last year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and local governments boosted the iconic “Got Milk?” ad campaign, making milk mustaches famous nationwide. As milk fell out of favor, it’s understandable that the government tried to intervene, since even people who don’t enjoy milk value “stable and prosperous” rural communities. Despite those efforts, however, dairy herds have declined by 20 percent since 2013, and taxpayers have seen little return on their investment. When the government decides to intervene in markets to help a fading industry, it is only delaying the inevitable.
11-22-19 Australia bushfires: Which animals typically fare best and worst?
Koalas yelping for help, beehives caught in the path of danger, food chains interrupted: Australia's bushfire crisis is having a destructive effect on the nation's wildlife, writes Gary Nunn in Sydney. The deadly spring blazes have burnt through almost two million hectares in New South Wales and Queensland alone. Many animals are resilient but others, unfortunately, don't survive, often because their potential escape habitats have already been destroyed by human activity. Koalas are typically slow-moving and their normal danger-avoidance strategy - curling into a ball atop a tree - has left them trapped in extreme fires. For anyone within earshot, there's one clear indicator that an animal is in trouble. "Koalas don't make noise much of the time," says Prof Chris Dickman, an ecology expert at Sydney University. "Males only make booming noises during mating season. Other than that they're quiet animals. So hearing their yelps is a pretty bad sign things are going catastrophically wrong for these animals." In fact most forest animals, with a few notable exceptions, aren't vocal, making these sounds - as seen in the upsetting video above which has been shared widely - all the more alarming. "These screams aren't part of the vocal repertoire of the forest," Prof Dickman adds. "They only happen during times of great stress or pain - such as when a possum is savaged by a dog." In the aftermath of a blaze, frogs and skinks (lizards) are among animals left vulnerable, says wildlife ecologist Prof Euan Ritchie from Deakin University. "The fire can kill their food or shelter, or both. These animals might survive the immediate effects of a fire if they can escape in time, but if it burns their habitat, they're more exposed to the introduced predators," he says. Disconnected patches of habitat left as a result of bushfires and human clearing also pose a threat to already endangered species. These include the western ground parrot, the Leadbeater's possum, the Mallee emu-wren (a bird which can't fly very far), and Gilbert's potoroo - Australia's most endangered marsupial. Beekeepers have also told of losing hives in fire-hit forests.
11-21-19 Scientists come up with new rule for comparing age of dogs and humans
You may need to rethink your dog’s age. Conventional wisdom says that one human year is the equivalent of seven dog years, but a new analysis suggests we have been getting this all wrong. The seven dog years to every human year rule comes simply from crudely dividing human lifespan, around 80 years, by dog lifespan, typically 12 years. Trey Ideker at the University of California, San Diego, and his colleagues found that the rule is a little off. The team performed a genetic analysis of dogs and humans to identify how they age over time. The researchers discovered that compared with humans, dogs age faster at first, blazing into the equivalent of human middle age after only a few years. But this ageing quickly tapers off, with the next 10 years only accruing two human decades’ worth of changes. The team put this together into a single formula plotted in the graph below: human_age = 16 ln(dog_age) + 31. It is a significant revision to our understanding of how to map dogs against their human owners in terms of age, says Ideker. The team studied 104 Labradors, ranging from very young puppies to 16-year-old dogs. The researchers then compared the dogs’ methylomes – a set of chemical changes to genes that fluctuates throughout life – to those of humans over a lifetime. By matching these methylomes, the researchers could convert between the physiological age of dogs and humans. In both, these age-related changes happened largely with developmental genes found in all vertebrates that are important from their time in the uterus through childhood. “You have these major changes [to the methylomes] that go on during development when you’re growing and then, as you age, you’re kind of looking at the afterburn,” says Ideker. “That afterburn is what’s associated with ageing.” The research could inform when to start looking for common, age-associated diseases in dogs, he says.
11-21-19 Ants trapped for years in old Soviet nuclear bunker became cannibals
We have a solution to the mystery of how thousands of red wood ants (Formica polyctena) survived without food in an abandoned nuclear weapons bunker in Poland. The answer is simple. When they were hungry, they ate each other. Ants are remarkable creatures – some of them care for their wounded comrades, while others have learned the basics of farming. But even so, Polish biologists were astonished when, in 2013, they found a large ant colony in an old Soviet nuclear bunker in western Poland. The ants had apparently fallen accidentally through a ventilation shaft in the ceiling and, unable to escape, had instead built a large nest. Because the researchers could find no significant food source they initially could not understand why the ants had not starved to death, and assumed that the colony had grown because new ants kept falling into the bunker from the forest floor above. But now they have examined a sample of dead ants from the bunker floor and come up with a more gruesome alternative. They found that 93 per cent of the ant cadavers had bite marks and holes in their abdomens. It now seems clear that whichever ants died first, most likely from starvation, became food for the others. The team could find no queens or larvae in the bunker, but in all other respects the trapped workers were able to team up as an effective colony. Cannibalism is known among wood ants, usually after battles with rival colonies, but this extreme persistence amazed one of the researchers, István Maák at the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw. “I was fascinated by this bunker colony,” Maák says. “There was nothing for these workers, but they were organising themselves… doing everything normally, keeping their nest tidy, transporting the corpses into waste piles, forming some sort of nest with soil fallen from above. They were not sitting in a corner and crying about it.” Either way, brushing it under the carpet isn’t doing us any good, says psychologist Mireille Hayden, co-founder of Gentle Dusk, which seeks to lift the taboo around discussing death. “It tends to isolate people facing death or bereavement because nobody knows how to talk to you,” she says. “It also makes it difficult for your relatives when the time comes because in most cases the family have never discussed what the dying person wants.”
11-20-19 Pigeons with broken wings get patched up with dog and sheep bones
Birds with broken wings can fly again after their fractured bones are held in place using lightweight pins whittled down from dog or sheep bone. Both wild and pet birds can fracture the delicate bones in their wings and legs. Vets can use metal pins to fix the injuries, but the extra weight can unbalance the bird and make taking off, flying and landing difficult. Because of this, the birds must undergo a second surgery once the bone has healed to remove the metal pin. Seifollah Dehghani Nazhvani at the Shiraz University in Iran and his colleagues tested an alternative: 3-centimetre-long pins made from sheep or dog bones. They gave 40 domestic pigeons that had a fractured bone in the wing one of four treatments. One group was given no treatment for the fracture and left to heal naturally. A second group received a standard stainless-steel pin to help hold the broken bones together in the correct, healthy position. The other two groups received pins made from either sheep bone or dog bone. The metal pins weighed 1 gram on average, whereas the bone pins were only around half as heavy. The team took radiographic images of the bones healing and monitored the birds’ behaviour every two weeks over the next 32 weeks. By the end of this period, the pigeons that received pins made from bone could fly as well as before the fracture. In contrast, the birds with metal pins were unbalanced when they flew – probably because of the heavier weight – and those that received no pins couldn’t fly at all.None of the bone implants were rejected by the pigeons’ bodies, and the radiographic images showed that the bone pins were being naturally absorbed by the body. “There is no need for the implants to be removed because they will ultimately be absorbed by the body,” said Nazhvani in a statement. “Therefore, the implants can be used for wild birds, such as eagles, owls, and seagulls.”
11-20-19 Semen seems to help female fruit flies remember things better
Female fruit flies get a boost in their long-term memory after mating thanks to a molecule found in male fly semen. This molecule – called the sex peptide – binds to the sperm of male flies and is passed on to females, where it travels from the reproductive tract to the brain. It was already known that this molecule, which is unique to fruit flies, alters behaviour. After mating, it changes what females prefer to eat and makes them reject future mating partners, for example. It does this by acting on nerve cells, or neurons, located throughout the body. Thomas Preat and his colleagues at PSL University, France, found that this molecule also enhances long-term memory by targeting the neurons in the brain responsible for it. “This was very peculiar,” says Preat. “Normally the sex peptide acts on neurons which are connected to the uterus.” To test fruit fly memory, the team conditioned females to pair certain smells with electric shocks. Although flies that had mated could remember to avoid smells associated with shocks, flies that hadn’t mated forgot after four days, showing they couldn’t retain this training in the long term. The researchers found that females who mated with males modified to lack the sex peptide didn’t have better long-term memories, but flies that hadn’t mated that were injected with the peptide saw a memory boost, suggesting the molecule was responsible. In nature, flies that are yet to mate might lack such a memory in order to make them braver and more likely to search out mating partners. In contrast, long-term memory would benefit flies that have mated so they remember safe spots to lay eggs. Stuart Wigby at the University of Oxford says he is surprised that the sex peptide can migrate all the way to the brain and affect learning. “It’s kind of amazing,” he says.
11-19-19 Caribou migrate farther than any other known land animal
Land migrations may get shorter as infrastructure and climate change alter the environment. Some animals really go the distance to find food, a mate or a place to raise their young. And now, thanks to scientists’ tracking efforts, we know just how far some land species will travel. Using decades of scientific observations, researchers determined round-trip migration distances for a number of animals. Caribou have the longest migrations, with two different herds in Alaska and Canada traveling up to 1,350 kilometers per year, the team reports October 25 in Scientific Reports. That’s a little less than the distance from Los Angeles to Portland, Ore. Gray wolves (Canis lupus) aren’t usually migratory, but a Canadian group thought to follow caribou is the only other tracked species that migrated over 1,000 kilometers in a year, the scientists found. In the contiguous United States, mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) have the longest annual land migrations, traveling up to 772 kilometers in Wyoming and Idaho. Other animals performing annual long-haul migrations — each around 600 to 700 kilometers round trip — include the blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) in the Serengeti of Africa, and the Mongolian gazelle (Procapra gutturosa) and Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) in Asia. Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) in Wyoming and Montana migrate about 300 kilometers, while pronghorns in Canada travel some 435 kilometers per year. The researchers calculated the migration distances by measuring a straight line between the two migratory end points, and then doubling that for a round-trip figure. While the distances are impressive, they are still far short of the thousands of kilometers traveled each year by migrating insects (SN: 4/5/18) or birds (SN: 2/7/17), which can be less encumbered by infrastructure.
11-19-19 New hope for one of world's most endangered reptiles
Baby crocodiles found living in a remote region of Nepal give hope for the future of one of the rarest and strangest reptiles on earth. With its distinctive long thin snout, the gharial is unique but critically endangered, with fewer than a thousand adults remaining in the wild. The discovery of 100 hatchlings is a boost for the potential recovery of the species, according to scientists. The crocodile is clinging to survival in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Revealing details of the find, researcher Rikki Gumbs of ZSL (Zoological Society of London) said it was amazing to find the baby crocodiles basking on a sand bank in Bardia National Park. "Given the species is limited to around five populations across its entire range, this is such a positive discovery, and a critical step for the long-term recovery of the species in Nepal," he said. "After trekking through the jungle for hours to sit on a ridge and finally catch a glimpse of the hatchlings below us - it was an incredible moment to capture," said Ashish Bashyal, who leads the conservation project in Nepal. "At around 30cm in size, they look exactly like miniature versions of adult gharials - so incredibly cute," he said. The 100 baby crocs, together with three adult females and one adult male, were discovered in June, but details are only now being revealed to aid conservation efforts. The crocodile has not been sighted in the area in 30 years. There is encouraging news in that the hatchlings have recently been spotted again after the monsoon rain. "They've made it through the first big hurdle," Rikki Gumbs told BBC News. "Especially with the threats that are impacting the species, it's very important that these hatchlings can make it to adulthood." Once present across much of the Indian subcontinent, the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) is virtually extinct across much of its former range, with fewer than 100 adult crocodiles remaining in Nepal and several fragmented populations in India. Only one other breeding population is known in Nepal, at Chitwan National Park.
11-18-19 Humpback whales in the South Atlantic have recovered from near-extinction
A new count shows the population off Brazil went from about 450 in the 1950s to 25,000 now. Once hunted almost to extinction, the population of humpback whales that swims the seas between South America and Antarctica has bounced back. An estimated 25,000 Megaptera novaeangliae now live in the western South Atlantic. That’s about 93 percent of the population’s prehunt levels, which also were updated by a new counting method, researchers report October 16 in Royal Society Open Science. “It is good news,” says María Vázquez, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City who was not involved in the assessment. She’s been studying a threatened population of humpbacks off the west coast of Mexico and has observed its progress, too. “We see it year after year, there are more animals, younger, more offspring,” she says. This rebound may be part of a global trend for humpbacks. Of 14 known populations — seven in the Southern Hemisphere and seven in the Northern Hemisphere — 10 have shown signs of recovery, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The other four are not recovering and are considered endangered. Whale hunting, which began around 1830, caused the western South Atlantic humpback population to plummet to a low of 440 by 1958. With commercial whaling first curbed and then eventually banned in 1986, the population began to recover. Assessments by the International Whaling Commission between 2006 and 2015 suggested that the population had recovered to about 30 percent of its abundance prior to exploitation. But counting moving animals is complicated, even more so when the animals are migrating thousands of kilometers underwater and are seen only when they surface to breathe.
11-15-19 Leaf blowers fatal to declining insects, Germans warned
The German government has warned against the use of leaf blowers over concerns for insects and the environment. Germany's Ministry for the Environment said leaf blowers were too loud, polluted the air and posed a fatal threat to insects. The ministry issued the guidance in response to a request by a Green MP. Leaf blowers should not be used unless they are "indispensable", the ministry said. However, the ministry said it was not planning to ban the devices. The guidance comes after studies suggested insect numbers were plummeting in Germany and across the world, prompting calls for better protection. A study in 2017 suggested that flying insects had declined by more than 75% over almost 30 years at 60 protected areas in Germany. Scientists said they were not sure what had caused the dramatic decline in Germany. But experts say that, in general, insect decline is being caused by intensive agriculture, pesticides and climate change. In February, a scientific review of insect numbers suggested that 40% of species are undergoing "dramatic rates of decline" around the world. An action plan to protect insects, estimated to cost €100m ($113m; £85m), was announced by the German government in September this year. Under its plan, the German government has sought to strengthen environmental regulations and restrict the use of pesticides. The controversial weed killer glyphosate, for example, will be banned in Germany by 2023. The German environment ministry's guidance about leaf blowers is the latest move to protect insects. Leaf blowers can be "fatal to insects in the foliage", the ministry said. "There is a risk that small animals are absorbed or blown and thereby damaged," the ministry said in a statement. Noise emissions, pollution and harm to soil biology must also be considered when using leaf blowers, Silvia Bender, a species protection expert for the ministry, told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.
11-15-19 A laser-sighted toxic goo gun is killing feral cats in Australia
A device that kills feral cats by spraying them with a lethal gel that they lick off while cleaning themselves is being trialled as a way to save endangered Australian wildlife. Since their introduction to Australia in the 18th century, cats have severely harmed the local ecosystem by preying on native birds and small mammals. They have contributed to the extinction of more than 20 Australian animals – including the paradise parrot, broad-faced potoroo, rusty numbat and desert bandicoot – and continue to threaten many more. In 2015, the Australian government set a target of culling 2 million of the estimated 6 million cats living in the wild by 2020. But this has been challenging because the cats prefer hunting live prey to eating poison baits and are too numerous to be controlled by shooting. To address these problems, John Read at the University of Adelaide and his colleagues have invented an automated device for culling cats that takes advantage of their compulsive self-grooming rituals. The solar-powered device, called a “Felixer grooming trap”, has laser sensors that detect when a cat walks past based on its size, shape and gait. When activated, the sensors trigger the release of a toxic gel that squirts onto the cat’s fur. The cat later licks the gel off while routinely cleaning its coat. The gel contains a commonly used poison called sodium fluoroacetate or “1080” that halts the production of energy in cells. The poison is thought to euthanise cats painlessly because it causes unconsciousness before shutting down brain activity, says Read. “In most cases, they get wobbly and sleepy, then lie down and die,” he says. An initial trial with two cats in a pen found they passed out within 6 hours of being squirted and died within 10 hours. Another benefit of sodium fluoroacetate is that Australian animals have evolved some resistance to its toxic effects because it naturally occurs in several native plants, says Read.
11-14-19 Pigeons are having their toes amputated by waste human hair in Paris
Pigeons with mutilated feet are a common sight in cities – and human hair appears to be the grizzly culprit. It turns out that the greater the number of hairdressers on a city block, the more pigeons have missing toes. This is not the first explanation for the birds’ missing toes. One widespread belief is that pigeons get foot infections from standing in their own excrement. Some think that the environment makes them prone to infectious diseases, and others believe that chemical and metal spikes used to deter them are causing the injuries. But pigeon experts have also noticed that birds often have string or human hair wrapped around their toes and feet. This can eventually tighten, cutting off circulation and leading to tissue death and the toe falling off. This observation prompted Frédéric Jiguet at the National Museum of Natural History in France and his colleagues to study the relationship between the foot health of pigeons and possible sources of these hairs or strings. To do this, they studied the number of foot mutilations in pigeons found at 46 sites across Paris, and how these related to different features in the environment. Pigeons were more likely to have mutilated toes in city blocks where air and noise pollution was high, and where a greater number of people lived, they found. In addition, the greater the number of hairdressers on a city block, the higher the chance pigeons were to have lost toes – seemingly because waste hair is escaping into the environment. “Hair cut at the hairdressers are removed by garbage collection services with household wastes, and during this process, we could expect residual cut hair to end on the sideways and pavements,” the authors wrote. If the birds can’t untangle themselves, the hairs begin garroting the toes – causing what is known as “stringfoot”.
11-14-19 Fish can judge distances accurately just like land animals can
Triggerfish have an impressive ability to estimate how far they have swum, and scientists think that understanding this may shed light on the how all animals with a backbone evolved the ability to navigate spaces. There is growing evidence to suggest that ray-finned fish, known as teleosts and which comprise 96 per cent of all freshwater and marine fish species on the planet, have a region of the brain that works like our hippocampus does. This part of the brain is critical to the way we navigate, and – if analogous in fish – could mean that spatial memory first evolved 400 million years ago when these fish, mammals and birds shared a common ancestor. If this is true, teleosts would navigate as these other vertebrates do. But despite many years studying how invertebrates such as bees and ants estimate distances, scientists know very little about how ray-finned fish do. To understand more, Cecilia Karlsson at the University of Oxford and her colleagues trained Picasso triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus) to swim a specific distance and then return home for food. They trained five fish to swim 80 centimetres down a pipe with striped walls from a set starting spot to where there was an infrared motion detector. When the fish reached the motion detector, they triggered lights above the aquarium to switch on, at which point food was dropped into the aquarium back at the home area. Once the fish had learned that swimming 80 centimetres to the motion detector turned on the aquarium lights and also led to the appearance of food, the researchers tried a different experiment. They moved the motion detector further away – 1.3 metres down the tube. The fish still swam 80 centimetres down the tube before turning back to claim their food reward, even though they hadn’t swum far enough to turn on the lights.
11-14-19 Lost US parrot species went extinct not once but twice
The only parrot once common in the US may have gone extinct more recently than thought. According to an analysis of records, the western subspecies of the Carolina parakeet may have clung on until the 1940s, three decades later than previous estimates. This bright green bird with a red and yellow head was once found in much of the US, with its range stretching from the east coast to Nebraska in the Midwest, and as far south as Florida. “The stacks of grain put up in the field are resorted to by flocks of these birds, which frequently cover them so entirely, that they present to the eye the same effect as if a brilliantly coloured carpet had been thrown over them,” John Audubon wrote in the 1827 book The Birds of America. But Audubon also noted that its numbers were declining rapidly. The species (Conuropsis carolinensis) went extinct in the wild in 1915 according to a 2010 study, and the last captive bird died in 1918. Kevin Burgio at the University of Connecticut has been analysing records of Carolina parakeets to try to work out what happened. In 2017, he showed that the usual range of the parakeets was smaller than thought, and that the ranges of the two subspecies barely overlapped. Now he has fed his data into a model used to estimate extinction dates. For the western subspecies, the most likely date is 1913, similar to other estimates. But the eastern subspecies, which was mainly found in Florida, clung on until around 1944, the model suggests. The study may reveal when the parakeets went extinct, but it does not reveal why, says Paul Reillo of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation. “The parakeets’ extinctions are a fascinating mystery,” he says. There’s no doubt many were killed for food, for fun or to stop them eating crops, but some biologists think habitat destruction or a disease dealt the final blow. Another idea is that honeybees – an introduced alien in North America – took over the hollows in trees in which the parakeets used to nest.
11-13-19 Flipping a molecular switch can turn warrior ants into foragers
Toggling one protein soon after hatching can reprogram a worker ant’s career path. When it comes to career paths, worker ants split into castes: Some tackle defense, others forage for the colony. But these roles aren’t predestined. An ant’s career trajectory is influenced by factors in its environment early on in life. Now, a study reveals one way those environmental factors play out. A protein called CoREST acts like a molecular switch in Florida carpenter ants (Camponotus floridanus), researchers report November 12 in Molecular Cell. By toggling it, big workers fated to be soldiers can be reprogrammed to do the job of their smaller, forager sisters. Brawny warriors, called majors, and foraging, nursery-tending workers, called minors, share nearly identical sets of DNA. So researchers have looked for epigenetic influences, chemical tags on DNA and associated proteins that can manipulate how genes are read, to explain the different behaviors. “And that’s what we found,” says Shelley Berger, a molecular biologist at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. “It’s the first epigenetic mechanism that’s been found in ants to regulate behavior in the brain.” The new study highlights that even highly specialized social insects retain substantial flexibility and responsiveness to their environment, says Beryl Jones, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University not involved in the research. “This is likely another important facet of the great success of social insects,” she says. Berger’s team had previously shown that injection of a chemical, trichostatin A, that helps unwind tightly packaged DNA could reprogram the majors to behave like minors (SN: 12/31/15). But it wasn’t clear what genes trichostatin A was influencing, or how far along in their development the ants could still switch jobs.
11-12-19 Power lines may mess with honeybees’ behavior and ability to learn
The insects might suffer neurological effects from exposure to electromagnetic fields. Power lines could be messing with honeybees by emitting electromagnetic fields that can alter the insects’ behavior and ability to learn. In the lab, honeybees (Apis mellifera) were more aggressive toward other bees after being exposed to electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, at strengths similar to what they might experience at ground level under electricity transmission lines, researchers report October 10 in PLOS One. Those exposed bees also were slower to learn to respond to a new threat than unexposed bees were. “The reductions in learning are pretty concerning,” says Sebastian Shepherd. The entomologist worked on the new study at the University of Southampton in England before moving to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. “These were bees that were very happy and healthy” before being exposed to EMFs in the study. The finding may be one clue to help explain the recent and mysterious decline in managed U.S. honeybee colonies. The insects provide an estimated $15 billion in annual agricultural value by pollinating U.S. crops. But beekeepers reported that colonies last year experienced their worst winter die-off in more than a decade (SN: 6/20/19). And in preceding years, some colonies’ worker bees simply vanished (SN: 1/17/18). Researchers believe the problem isn’t due to a single cause, but instead multiple stressors including getting jostled during a cross-country move to new farm fields or flying through fields laced with pesticides. Power lines, it turns out, might also be stressing bees out. Altogether, stressors could be weakening bees so they’re less capable of surviving disease or extreme weather, Shepherd says.
11-12-19 Silver-backed chevrotains have been ‘rediscovered’ by science after 29 years
With help from Vietnamese villagers, researchers captured photos of the deerlike ungulate. Amidst the dry, thorny underbrush of a coastal Vietnamese forest, a silver-backed chevrotain stepped into view of a camera trap — and back into the scientific record after almost three decades. The deerlike ungulate, no bigger than a toy poodle, had only ever been studied from dead specimens, four obtained in 1907 and one in 1990. Scientists feared the animal might have gone extinct due to hunting and habitat loss. But local residents knew better, and in late 2017 directed researchers to forest areas where the the silver-backed chevrotain (Tragulus versicolor) might be living. Cameras triggered by motion or heat then snapped the first photographic evidence that the elusive animal still exists, according to a study published online November 11 in Nature Ecology and Evolution. “We were really excited” by the find, says An Nguyen, a biologist at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. The region’s forests are home to many mammals found nowhere else, but an increase in animal traps and encroaching human development in recent decades have put that diversity under threat. “Indiscriminate snaring has taken a tremendous toll on mammal communities across Vietnam,” says Andrew Tilker, also a biologist at the Leibniz Institute. Snaring has left “a lot more forest than animals to inhabit it in Vietnam,” he says. But a species lost to science is not necessarily extinct. So Nguyen and colleagues visited towns and villages near the southeast city of Nha Trang in the fall of 2017 to ask people about the animal. “‘Had they seen chevrotain with silver backs? How many? Where?’” Nguyen says in recalling the researchers’ questions to locals. People referred to both the silver-backed chevrotain and its more common cousin, the lesser chevrotain, by the same name, “cheo cheo.” But many reported seeing the distinctive silver-haired chevrotain.
11-11-19 We thought this tiny deer-like animal was extinct for almost 30 years
A species of small deer-like animal feared to have gone extinct has been spotted in Vietnam for the first time in almost 30 years. The rediscovery of the silver-backed chevrotain (Tragulus versicolor) – or Vietnam mouse-deer – near the city of Nha Trang is reassuring, given previous suspicions that it might have died out as a result of poaching and habitat loss. “There was a question mark hanging over its current status,” says Andrew Tilker at Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), a US charity. “Erasing that question mark was a huge deal for us.” Mouse-deer aren’t actually deer (or mice, as it happens) but ungulates, a group that includes deer along with other herbivorous, hoofed animals. Out of the 10 types of mouse-deer that exist today, the silver-backed species is by far the most elusive. Until now there had been no record of it in Vietnam since 1990, possibly due to snaring in the lowland forests thought to be the chevrotain’s home. It is also tricky to physically distinguish these mouse-deer from their cousins – they bear a striking resemblance to the lesser chevrotain that populates much of Vietnam. To probe the silver-backed chevrotain’s whereabouts, Tilker and his colleagues set up camera traps near the country’s southern coast, in blocks of forest where locals had reported seeing the animals before. The traps are equipped with motion and heat sensors so they snap pictures of anything that passes by, and they captured something interesting: a rabbit-sized deer with tiny fangs tiptoeing on its hoofs – traits characteristic of all chevrotains. But this one was special. The team identified it as the chevrotain they’d been searching for thanks to its signature reddish-brown front and silvery-grey back.
11-11-19 People are using mosquito nets for fishing – and it works too well
Mosquito nets designed to help stop the transmission of malaria are finding a new use – fishing. However, the way they are used could have destructive consequences for both food security and coastal ecosystems. Although it was known that mosquito nets are repurposed this way in many countries, little was known about the amount and type of fish they caught. So Benjamin Jones at Stockholm University in Sweden and Richard Unsworth at Swansea University in the UK decided to investigate the practice at 10 sites in northern Mozambique. The pair found that the nets are extremely effective. A single sweep can bring in almost half of the daily average catch by weight of a traditional net. They also scoop up everything in their path. The researchers recorded dozens of species being caught – and many were juveniles. “Some were no bigger than my fingernail,” he says. That could be a problem, both for the people and the local seagrass ecosystem, says Jones. Removing so many juveniles means there could be fewer fish to catch in the future. And the seagrass meadows, which bind the sediment along the coast together and are an important carbon sink, rely on the fish to stay healthy. Remove too many fish and they could collapse, he says. The fishers use everything they catch, either drying the fish or fermenting them in jars, and the catch provides their main source of protein. For many, the nets are their only choice to provide food for their families. “The people using the nets are the poorest in society,” says Jones. “They are using nets that could be saving them from malaria because they have nothing else.” Daniel Mungai Ndegwa at Kisii University in Kenya frequently saw mosquito nets used for fishing while doing research on Lake Victoria, which straddles Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. “In every village I saw the nets being used for fishing or for drying fish,” he says.
11-9-19 Birds are stealing boozy palm wine when people aren't looking
Three species of African birds are slurping alcoholic palm wine from trees that have been tapped by local people. The behaviour may be socially learned and therefore evidence that the birds have their own unique cultures. The birds all live on islands in the Bijago´s archipelago, off the coast of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. There, as in other parts of Africa, one of the the most popular alcoholic drinks is palm wine, which is the partially fermented sap of oil palm trees (Elaeis guineensis). To obtain it, people climb into the trees and cut into the central part, causing sugary sap to dribble out. They then use a folded leaf as a funnel to channel it into a container such as a plastic bottle. In early 2019, researchers led by Jorge Gutiérrez, now at the University of Extremadura in Spain, noticed that birds were visiting the sap holes. They identified three species: village weavers (Ploceus cucullatus), common bulbuls (Pycnonotus barbatus) and mouse-brown sunbirds (Anthreptes gabonicus). The bulbuls were the most frequent visitors and also spent the most time: 103 seconds on average. The sap is rich in sugars and is also a source of water in the dry season. However, it is also alcoholic because it partially ferments. “There is about 4 per cent alcohol by volume, which is something like a beer,” says Gutiérrez. It is unclear if the birds actually get drunk. “We don’t really know how much they drink,” says Gutiérrez, and the team saw no evidence of the birds being inebriated. All three species eat nectar and ripe fruit, which are prone to ferment and become alcoholic. “From an evolutionary standpoint, they should be adapted to deal with alcohol,” says Gutiérrez. In contrast, chimpanzees elsewhere in Africa are known to guzzle an entire litre of palm wine in one sitting, and there is tentative evidence that this affects their behaviour.
11-8-19 Rats behind the wheel
Scientists have taught rats how to drive—an experiment that could improve our understanding of mental illness in humans. A team at the University of Richmond in Virginia created makeshift ratmobiles by fitting plastic containers onto electrified sets of wheels. The rats steered the vehicles by touching different parts of a copper wire, and were rewarded with Froot Loops when they drove forward. After months of training, the rats became relatively adept drivers and seemed to enjoy the experience: Tests of their feces showed increased levels of a hormone that combats stress. Notably, rats that were merely passengers in remote-controlled cars had lower levels of the hormone, suggesting that it was the learning and driving that they enjoyed. The research may sound like a stunt, but it’s part of a wider exploration of how complex tasks such as driving affect the brain, with the ultimate aim of devising better treatments for depression and anxiety. The rat brain “is an appropriate model for the human brain, since it has all the same areas and neurochemicals,” co-author Kelly Lambert tells NBCNews.com, “just smaller, of course.”
11-8-19 America’s annual elk migration
“Animal migrations are the most epic form of travel,” said Andrea Sachs in The Washington Post. Whatever your own grandest journey, it can’t compare with the spectacle tens of thousands of elk are creating right now in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico as they descend from mountains to lowlands. Mating season makes fall a dramatic time for onlookers, because the bulls guard their harems by bugling loudly and wrestling one another with their massive antlers. The best place to see northwestern Wyoming’s 11,000-head herd is the National Elk Refuge, which stretches between Jackson and Kelly. Try the scenic pullouts along Highway 89, or the viewing platform at the visitor center in Jackson Hole. Some elk settle farther north, in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, while more than 30,000 Rocky Mountain elk spread out in several herds across the Upper Rio Grande area of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.
11-8-19 Emperor penguins could go extinct by 2100 if we fail on climate change
Unchecked climate change could drive emperor penguins to extinction by the end of the century as sea ice vanishes. But if the world delivers on the toughest target of the Paris climate agreement, of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°C, then numbers of the iconic species will decline by less than a third. Stephanie Jenouvrier at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts found that the future of emperor penguins hinges on international climate efforts rather than their ability to adapt and move to new homes. “Penguins are this indicator species, this canary in the coal mine, they are warning us of the future effect of climate. The big message is we need to listen to the penguins, and implement policies to meet the Paris agreement’s objective, and we need to do that now,” she says. Disappearing sea ice affects emperor penguins directly because they rely on it for their nine-month breeding season, as well as a place to moult and escape from predators. But the ice is also crucial for the species because it influences the food they rely on, including krill. Sea ice changes are already affecting emperor penguins, with breeding failures for three years in a row at their second biggest colony in the Antarctic pinned on early break-up of ice used for breeding. To examine the fate of the world’s estimated 595,000 emperors as the planet warms, Jenouvrier and her colleagues modelled future colonies and populations under three different scenarios: hitting the Paris deal’s top target of 1.5°C, its minimum goal of no more than 2°C, and what would happen if emissions keep rising as they are today. They combined a global climate model, sea ice projections and different scenarios of how the penguins might disperse, something most studies don’t look at. The result was an 81 to 86 per cent fall in population by 2100 under the business-as-usual scenario, depending on how the animals disperse to new homes.
11-7-19 A deadly seal virus may be spreading faster due to melting Arctic ice
The spread of a deadly virus in seals may be connected to loss of Arctic sea ice due to global warming. The virus, called phocine distemper virus or PDV, is the seal equivalent of measles and causes a disease affecting the brain and lungs. Many harbour seals die from the disease, says Tracey Goldstein at the University of California, Davis. “In other seals we see sporadic deaths but not a large mass mortality like what we see in harbour seals,” she says. Goldstein and her team collected blood and nasal swab samples from over 2500 sea otters, sea lions and various species of seal, in the north of the Pacific Ocean between 2001 and 2016 and tested them for PDV. Using satellite images, they assessed the presence of routes through the Arctic Ocean, due to melting sea ice, over the same period. The researchers detected major peaks in virus infection in north of the Pacific Ocean otters, sea lions and seals in 2003 and 2009, which were associated with the presence of a route through melted Arctic sea ice in the preceding years. This was the first time the virus had been detected in sea otters, which, along with sea lions, can spread the infection to seals. In 2002, an outbreak in the north of the Atlantic Ocean killed 30,000 seals. A year later, the team detected PDV in the north of the Pacific Ocean for the first time. That year, over 30 per cent of sea mammals they tested in the north of the Pacific Ocean were infected with PDV, suggesting the virus crossed the Arctic. James Wellahan at the University of Florida says that if we fail to tackle climate change, the spread of PDV could lead to the loss of entire species. “When you have a planet that is undergoing massive change like this, and we’re damaging their food sources with over fishing, all of this just adds up to more pressure against the species,” says Wellehan.
11-6-19 Who owns life? The world is about to decide, with huge ramifications
A debate between countries over who can access and exploit the planet’s genetic resources will have ramifications for all of us, says Laura Spinney. NEXT week, delegates will gather in Rome to discuss a question that could have profound implications for global biodiversity, food security and public health. Stripped of technical language, it boils down to this: who owns life? The Rome meeting convenes the governing body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. It is also known as the “seed treaty” because it mostly deals with seed collections. It will address arrangements for accessing these genetic resources, and how to share any benefits resulting from their exploitation. Central to that discussion will be “digital sequence information”. The seed treaty covers only samples of the physical material that constitutes plants. But as more species are sequenced and their molecular blueprints digitised, they can be exploited – for creating a drought-resistant crop plant, say – without accessing a physical sample. It is not just plants at stake. The outcome of the Rome meeting is likely to influence a meeting for the Convention on Biological Diversity next October. This treaty covers all life, and also neglects digital sequences. Given that an organism’s DNA, RNA or protein sequence is merely information stored in a molecule, you might think that extending these treaties to cover digital sequence information would be uncontentious. Far from it. So far, all attempts to reach a consensus have failed, and some have called the issue “the monster in the closet“. Part of the problem is that digital sequence information isn’t clearly defined: should it include only DNA and RNA sequence data, for example, or also amino acid sequences and epigenetic data?
11-6-19 Hunters of rare Swiss ibex stir Alps wildlife row
The long, curved horns of the Alpine ibex and its love of high altitude make it a symbol of the Alps and a highly prized trophy for hunters. Centuries of intensive hunting reduced Alpine ibex numbers to just a few hundred in one area of northern Italy. But in the late 20th Century the numbers recovered - especially in Switzerland - through controlled reintroductions of ibex from Italy. Controversially, trophy hunters can now shoot ibex again in one Swiss region. The Swiss ibex live mainly in the high mountains of two southern regions (cantons) - Valais and Graubünden. Valais (also called Wallis) now includes foreigners in its strict quota of ibex hunting licences. But Graubünden (Grisons) only allows locals to hunt ibex. The European Environment Agency classes the ibex's status in those regions as "unfavourable-inadequate" - meaning the numbers are not critical, but significant long-term conservation measures are needed. Swiss public broadcaster RTS reports that foreign trophy hunters are now drawn to Valais, where a licence to shoot a male ibex with one-metre-long (3.3ft) horns - the biggest prize - costs 13,000 Swiss francs (£10,170; $13,113). RTS interviewed an American big game hunter, Olivia Nalos Opre, who showed off her prize from a Valais "safari"- a pair of long ibex horns. The three-day trip cost her about SFr 20,000. The former Miss Nebraska said she had shot a big, powerful male ibex, and her friend Denise had "shot two, including one trophy more than a metre long". Every year Valais issues up to 120 one-day licences to shoot ibex - a business that brings SFr 650,000 (£509,000; $655,000) into the region's budget. Today more than 40,000 ibex are estimated to be roaming in the Alps - usually above 2,000m (6,562ft) - and Switzerland hosts the largest population: about 16,000. A spokesman for the conservation group WWF Switzerland, Jonas Schmid, criticised trophy hunting in Valais, questioning its legality. "Protection of species cannot be regarded as an argument to support trophy hunting in Switzerland," he told the BBC.
11-5-19 A quarter of all pigs have died this year due to African swine fever
A quarter of the world’s domestic pigs have died this year as a virus rampages across Eurasia, and that may be just the start. Half the pigs in China – which last year numbered 440 million, some 50 per cent of the world’s pigs – have either died of African swine fever (ASF) or been killed to stamp out the virus. ASF comes from East Africa. In 2007, it reached Georgia in the Caucasus in contaminated meat, and in infected wild boar. Now, it is all over Russia and eastern Europe and infected wild boar have turned up as far west as Belgium. It is also spreading in east Asia, killing many pigs in Vietnam and elsewhere. ASF was spotted in China in August 2018. It is now in every province. The virus may have spread there from North Korea. The only way to get rid of ASF is to kill infected herds. But while pigs on farms can be destroyed and replaced, the disease persists in wild boar and feral hogs, as well as in meat, which is increasingly sold abroad. “I predict ASF virus will remain endemic for some time in east Asia and eastern Europe, with constant introductions around the world,” says Dirk Pfeiffer of City University in Hong Kong. “Currently nobody on this planet has the solution to the problem.” Despite years of warnings from virologists, there is no vaccine. Most vaccines against viruses stimulate the body to make antibodies against viral structural proteins, such as those in the virus coating. These then stop the virus from entering cells, for example. But ASF, says Linda Dixon of The Pirbright Institute in Surrey, UK, is a large, complex virus, with two coatings and several ways of entering cells. Antibodies to various bits of it have never been enough to stop it.
11-1-19 The world’s noisiest bird
Ornithologists have identified the noisiest bird on the planet, with a call as loud as a pile driver. Native to the Amazon rain forest, the male white bellbird can reach volumes of 125 decibels—at least nine decibels louder than its noisiest rival. A typical human voice is only about 60 decibels. The bellbird’s call—a bizarre metallic-sounding squawk—forms part of a highly unusual mating ritual, researchers discovered. When a female lands nearby, the male sings the first note of his deafening song facing directly away from his potential mate—then sharply swivels his head around and yells the second note right in her face. The female knows it’s coming, because just before the turn she flutters back a few feet. Whether such raucous behavior actually helps male white bellbirds secure a mate is not clear. “We never saw copulation, we never saw what a really good male does,” study co-author Jeffrey Podos, from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, tells The New York Times. “The ones we saw might have just been losers.”
11-1-19 Vampire bat friendships endure from captivity to the wild
The animals form social bonds that persist from a lab setting to the outdoors. Are friendships formed with those we truly like? Or do we settle for whoever happens to be around? This question is hard to answer in humans, and even harder in other animals. But a new study of vampire bats suggests that bat “friendships” go beyond mere convenience. Many social bonds built between captive bats persist when the bats are released into the wild, researchers report October 31 in Current Biology. “This study convincingly shows that vampire bats can form stable bonds,” says Joan Silk, an anthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, who wasn’t involved in the study. While she cautions against assuming that other animals’ friendships are anything like our own, she says that this study adds to a growing body of research that critters can form friendshiplike bonds. As their name suggests, vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) drink nothing but the blood of other animals. If the bats are lucky, they’ll get a tablespoon each night. “It’s pretty difficult for bats to extract blood from an animal, so they often go without a meal,” says Gerald Carter, an evolutionary biologist at Ohio State University in Columbus. Three straight nights without a meal, though, and the bats can die. “But there’s a social safety net,” Carter says. “Other bats will regurgitate portions of their blood meal to feed bats who didn’t get their own meal.” Previous lab work has revealed that bats that aren’t related to one another can form long-term cooperative bonds that loosely resemble friendships (SN: 11/19/15).
11-1-19 Apple TV+’s ‘The Elephant Queen’ shies away from hard truths
The documentary captures life in an elephant herd but largely avoids threats the animals face. A stirring scene in The Elephant Queen shows a herd of African elephants encountering an elephant’s remains on the barren savanna. Slowly, the elephants extend their trunks to gently touch the skull, lingering on its grooves as though they remember, and mourn, the elephant that was. It’s one of the film’s many intimate glimpses into the lives of elephants. The family-friendly documentary debuts November 1 on the new streaming service Apple TV+. The Elephant Queen shies away from the larger forces — climate change, habitat loss and poaching — that threaten the subjects it beautifully portrays. But if you can look past that, and the sometimes-cheesy soundtrack and over-the-top narration, you’re left with an enjoyable film that generates compassion for these gentle giants. The film, narrated by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, centers on Athena, a 50-year-old matriarch, as she leads her herd across the Kenyan savanna. The local focus of the documentary is refreshing compared with the sweeping purview of series like Planet Earth. We meet the clan during good times, while the elephants play at a verdant water hole among the frogs, birds, insects and fish that also live there. The film benefits from this wider perspective. One memorable scene provides up-close detail of a totally bizarre behavior. On a slim branch overhanging the water hole, a dozen male foam-nest tree frogs clamor around a single female, whipping up a large, white foam mass into which the female lays eggs. Four days later, tadpoles drop from the foam into the water, only to get gobbled up by terrapins.