12-31-19 GM golden rice gets landmark safety approval in the Philippines
The Philippines has become the first country with a serious vitamin A deficiency problem to approve golden rice – which is genetically modified to prevent such health problems – as safe for humans and animals to eat. According to a government report, it is as safe as conventional rice varieties. “This is a victory for science, agriculture and all Filipinos,” member of congress Sharon Garin said in a statement. In the Philippines, many children under five years old are severely vitamin A deficient, according to the World Health Organization – even though most of them are given vitamin A supplements. Vitamin A deficiency affects the immune system and makes children vulnerable to diseases, as well as leading to blindness. Golden rice has been altered produce the orange pigment beta-carotene, which the body can turn into vitamin A. Because rice is a major part of the diet in the Philippines, if children eat golden rice instead of normal rice, it should substantially reduce vitamin A deficiency. It could reduce deaths among children by up to a third, says Adrian Dubock of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, a non-profit group of experts who help with the development of golden rice. “This decision is huge,” says Dubock. The Philippine Rice Research Institute and the International Rice Research Institute will now carry out taste tests as they seek approval for farmers to grow specific strains commercially. Greenpeace, which has long campaigned against golden rice, has asked the agriculture department to overturn its decision. According to the Philippine Star, Greenpeace has said the approval is unwarranted due to incomplete data and a lack of transparency. These claims are rejected by Dubock. Golden rice has already been approved as safe to eat in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. Bangladesh, which also has a vitamin A deficiency problem, is expected to make a decision soon.
12-31-19 Russian foxes bred for tameness may not be the domestication story we thought
A new study challenges the friendly foxes’ history and the validity of ‘domestication syndrome’. For the last 60 years, scientists in Siberia have bred silver foxes to be increasingly tame, with the goal of revealing the evolutionary and genetic underpinnings of domestication. This research also famously showed a link between tameness and such physical changes as curled tails and spotted coats, known as “domestication syndrome.” But that story is flawed, some researchers now claim. The foxes weren’t totally wild to begin with, and some of the traits attributed to domestication existed long before the experiment began, Elinor Karlsson, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, and her colleagues argue. What’s more, the researchers cast doubt on whether domestication syndrome even exists, in a paper published online December 3 in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. The impressively long silver fox experiment, ongoing at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk since 1960, didn’t seek to breed foxes that looked so different from their wild counterparts. But several generations after geneticist Dmitry Belyaev took 130 silver foxes (Vulpes vulpes) from Soviet fur farms and began selecting for friendliness toward humans, the physical changes emerged. Floppy ears, piebald coats and other traits were known in other domesticated mammals, so the changes have since been thought of as a syndrome of traits inherently linked to the process of domestication of wild animals. It’s no secret that the foxes weren’t truly “wild,” Karlsson says. The Soviet foxes originally came from fur farms on Prince Edward Island in Canada, with selective breeding dating back to at least the 1880s. One of Karlsson’s colleagues, on vacation on the island, stumbled across fur farm photographs from the 1920s during a visit to a local museum. Those foxes appeared tame with spotted coats — one of the same domestication traits claimed as a by-product of the Russian experiment that supposedly took generations to emerge.
12-31-19 Stick-toting puffins offer the first evidence of tool use in seabirds
Two birds observed four years and a sea apart turned sticks into feather scratchers. Annette Fayet was scanning a colony of Atlantic puffins off the coast of Wales when something caught her eye. A puffin, gently bobbing on the sea, held a stick in its orange-black bill. Then, the seabird used it to scratch its back. “I was surprised and excited,” says Fayet, an ecologist at the University of Oxford who studies puffin migration. Puffins (Fratercula arctica) had never been seen using tools. In fact, no seabird had. Fayet recorded the unusual behavior in her notebook, but it would take four more years before she got photographic evidence. In 2018 on Grimsey Island in Iceland, one of her motion-sensitive camera captured a puffin snatching a stick from the ground and using it to scratch its chest feathers. Those observations, described December 30 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represent the only known example of a bird in the wild using a tool to scratch itself. Scientists have long known that some birds use tools, mostly to extract food. Stick-wielding crows wow biologists with their ingenuity (SN: 9/14/16), some parrots grind down seashells with pebbles and Egyptian vultures can crack ostrich eggs with rocks. But seabirds, which tend to have smaller brains, were written off as prospective tool users, Fayet says. The puffin discovery suggests that tool use in birds may be more widespread and varied than previously thought, she and her colleagues say. “I’m not surprised that seabirds can use tools,” says Corina Logan, a behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who wasn’t involved in the study. She says so many creatures’ cognitive abilities remain undiscovered because detecting them takes so much time and energy.
12-31-19 Fluid dynamics may help drones capture a dolphin’s breath in midair
Droplets of expelled mucus could reveal levels of the stress hormone cortisol. If you’ve ever had trouble catching your breath, try catching a dolphin’s. The plume produced when dolphins come up for air could reveal information about their health. But capturing samples of the spray from agile, skittish wild dolphins is challenging. To make the task easier, a team of engineers has characterized the flow of a dolphin’s chuff, a forceful exhale that sends water, air and mucus hurtling skyward. High-speed video of captive Atlantic bottlenose dolphins reveals that each chuff lasts around a quarter of a second, beginning with a brief spurt of water flung off the top of the blowhole, says engineer Alvin Ngo of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Then comes a second wave: the exhale. That powerful outflow produces a turbulent jet moving at a maximum speed of nearly 100 kilometers per hour, Ngo and colleagues reported November 24 in Seattle at the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting. The expelled mucus contains health indicators, particularly the stress hormone cortisol. So understanding these chuffs could help scientists design drones that would swoop in to catch the spray and reveal, for example, whether a pod is stressed by human activity. Researchers previously have used drones to sample spouts from whales (SN: 10/20/15), but dolphins produce less spray, complicating efforts.
12-29-19 Four great waves of animals have spread out from the tropics
The tropics are the most biodiverse regions on Earth. Now there is evidence that they are also the main source of evolutionary innovation and diversity. Complex animals have dominated Earth for 541 million years, a time span called the Phanerozoic eon. Huge numbers of species have evolved and gone extinct during this time, in a complex story that includes fish, giant reptiles and whales. However, in the 1980s palaeontologist John Sepkoski analysed the overall pattern of evolution in the sea, where the fossil record is best. He concluded that marine evolutionary history could be broken down into three supergroups, which he called “great evolutionary faunas”. The first group was dominated by trilobites, which resembled woodlice, and bristle worms; the second by shellfish-like creatures called brachiopods; and the third by molluscs, which have persisted to the present day. Other animals like land mammals probably followed similar patterns, but their fossil record isn’t complete enough for us to know. Now, by analysing nearly 18,300 marine genera from the Phanerozoic fossil record, Alexis Rojas-Briceno of Umeå University in Sweden and his colleagues have found that the evolution of complex marine life is best described using four great groups of fauna, not three (bioRxiv, doi.org/dg98). The first supergroup existed between 541 and 494 million years ago, spanning the Cambrian explosion in which many animal groups first emerged. As in the original analysis, trilobites dominated. The second supergroup, dubbed the Palaeozoic, lasted from 494 to 252 million years ago. Creatures with hard outer shells were now widespread, including brachiopods. This phase ended when the end-Permian extinction wiped out almost all complex life on Earth.
12-28-19 Extinction: A million species at risk, so what is saved?
A decade-long project to save one of the world's most endangered birds has finally found success, with the birth of two chicks. But with an estimated one million species at risk across the world, and nothing like the money and resources to save them all, how do conservationists choose the few they can save? "You have to wear one of these I'm afraid," Tanya Grigg says sympathetically, handing me a distinctly unflattering blue hair net. "Any stray hairs could wrap around the birds' legs and injure them; they're so delicate." Tanya has a soft voice and gentle manner that I can imagine putting the most skittish of birds at ease. She shows me into a large aviary. There are just two, nervous-looking birds inside - both with miniature, shovel-shaped bills and spindly waders' legs. They hop a little closer to each other and peer at us, apparently suspicious of the intrusion. Then Tanya unfolds a small chair, sits down and scatters some food in their direction. They are immediately, completely engrossed in eating. These are the only UK-bred spoon-billed sandpipers; two precious specimens of possibly the most threatened bird species on the planet. Their parents were hatched from eggs gathered - and extremely carefully transported - from nesting grounds of Russia's Far East. At that point, with just a few hundred birds left in the world, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) concluded that they were running out of time to save the species. Almost a decade since that rescue mission, the two here are the first to be born in this UK spoon-billed sandpiper ark. Were these two little birds worth it? And how can anyone determine what is "worth it" when it comes to preventing extinction? This year - 2019 - was the year that the extinction crisis we are living through was given a number. And it was a very big number. One million species are under threat according to a global report by the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. And that is the fault of us humans.
12-28-19 The man who spent 30 years caring for crocodiles in Ethiopia
Tomas Tama has spent 30 years working at Arbaminch ranch in southern Ethiopia to protect crocodiles against illegal hunters. Even after he was bitten by one of the animals, he wasn't deterred him from his mission.
12-27-19 Conservationists are ignoring climate change, risking mass extinctions
Efforts to save many endangered animals from extinction are doomed to fail as conservationists are not taking climate change into account. CLIMATE change is the greatest threat humanity faces – and we aren’t the only ones at risk. Global warming will harm millions of other species, including iconic endangered animals such as polar bears and tigers. Despite this, conservationists often don’t take climate change into account, meaning plans to preserve these species are doomed to fail. “It’s astonishing,” says Miguel Araujo at the National Museum of Natural History of Spain. “I don’t really understand the lack of action.” The outlook for wildlife would be grim even if the world wasn’t warming. According to a major report last year, 1 million species could soon be wiped out – a sixth mass extinction. The main cause at present is the loss of habitat, but over this century the changing climate is expected to push ever more species over the brink. A warming world poses numerous challenges to wildlife. For many plants and animals, their current habitats will simply get too hot. Lots are already moving to stay in their comfort zone. In the oceans, some organisms have shifted their ranges by hundreds of kilometres. But on land there are few spaces left for animals to relocate to, and those that do exist are highly fragmented, which makes it very hard for wildlife to adapt, says Araujo. In polar regions, the loss of sea ice is posing problems for the polar bear and other animals. At least one species has already been driven to extinction by climate change. Bramble Cay, a tiny, low-lying Australian island on the northern edge of the Great Barrier Reef, used to be home to a unique rodent called the Bramble Cay melomys. In 2016, a review found that the animals died out as rising sea levels led to the island being inundated during storms.
12-27-19 Climate change: Migrant species do well in warm and wet UK in 2019
It's been a good year for migrant butterflies, moths and dragonflies in the UK, according to a review of 2019 by the National Trust. The charity says warm and wet weather saw the biggest influx of painted lady butterflies in a decade. But the impacts of drought and wildfires in some parts mean it's not been a good year for natterjack toads and water voles. The fires saw the habitats of mountain hares impacted as well. The changeable nature of the weather in 2019 meant there were mixed outcomes for species around the country. The warm spells in the earlier part of the year saw lots of moths, butterflies and dragonflies from Europe arrive en masse. Chief among them was the painted lady butterfly. This orange and black spotted species is commonly seen in the UK but the last mass arrival was in 2008. Some 420,000 of the creatures were recorded in this year's big butterfly count. This butterfly has quite the range, capable of travelling 7,500 miles from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle. Another exotic visitor was the long tailed blue butterfly with 50 seen across the south coast of England. It was the third time in six years that the numbers of this delicate creature appeared to be increasing but successive generations haven't yet made it through a British winter. There were also large numbers of migrant dragonflies, while a rare moth, the Clifden nonpareil was recorded in Devon. It became extinct in the UK in the 1960s but has been trying to re-establish itself over the past few years. "Sightings of migrant insects and birds are becoming more common. This is a result of our changing climate," said Ben McCarthy, head of nature conservation and restoration ecology at the National Trust. "Although this can seem exciting, the obvious flipside is how these changes will start to affect some of our native species already under pressure from intensive land use, habitat fragmentation and climate change."
12-25-19 Why I spend my weekends ringing birds
There is nothing quite like holding wild birds. Their beauty, colours and behaviour never fail to astonish: The blue tit, so common in the UK, turns out to be the most aggressive, pecky little bird imaginable; the goldcrest - the weight of a 20p coin (or a nickel for transatlantic readers) - so tiny; the sparrowhawk, quite a rarity to trap, with its murderous look and talons. The chance of getting this close to wildlife was one of the factors that attracted me to the surprising and challenging world of bird ringing. Long before dawn this winter morning, small groups of people all around Britain will wake up to spend several hours in the cold, in marshes, on beaches and sea cliffs. Their goal? To trap birds of as many species as possible in high nets, to measure them, age them, place a lightweight ring with a unique serial number on their right leg and release them, as part of a huge citizen science project which has lasted more than a century now. Joining this project as a trainee, which I did a little more than a year ago, was a startling and rather humbling experience. It remains so. I've been a birder (not a twitcher, please) for many years, and thought I knew a fair bit about birds, at least in the British context. I could identify many dozens of different species by sight and by their song, even if there are always plenty of people in the bird hides who know more than me. Actually I knew very little. The migration of birds to and from northern Europe from Africa, yes. The details of that migration, when, how they prepare for these extraordinary journeys, their numbers, how high they fly, no. What was also a surprise to me was that hundreds of thousands of birds actually migrate to Britain in the winter - not just the geese that descend on Norfolk and other wetlands in such large numbers from even colder places such as Scandinavia, Iceland and Russia, but more everyday birds like robins and blackbirds.
12-24-19 Measuring the cost of an invasive tree killer
For the first time, a study has attempted to assess the devastation caused by the emerald ash borer in US forests that shape river systems. Researchers discovered a range of ways that the ecologically vital habitat is being systematically changed at a landscape level. Since it was discovered in the US in 2002, the invasive insects have wiped out tens of millions of ash trees. The findings will appear in the journal Forest Ecology and Management. Since it was first recorded in Michigan, the tiny wood-boring beetle has spread across the north-eastern reach of the US, killing tens of millions of ash trees. The cost to the nation's economy has been estimated to exceed $10bn. However, a team from Michigan State University saw that little attention had been paid to how the invasion was changing the face of riparian (water/river system) forests. "In North America, green and black ash [trees] are two very important species, ecologically speaking," explained co-author Patrick Engelken from the university's department of entomology. "The wetland habitats are often inundated during spring wet months. The tree species that grow there have to be really tolerant of having lots of water on their roots," he added. "And they are functionally linked to these waterways where the nutrient supply within these stream systems is directly mediated by these surrounding forests" Mr Engelken also said that other factors were also regulated by these forests, such as nutrition distribution, leaf litter depositions, temperature moderation and shading. When the team examined the impact of 15 years of the invasive emerald ash borer across forests in three watersheds, although there was widespread mortality, the legacy on the ground varied widely. "The trees in south east Michigan had begun to really decay and break down and accumulate," Mr Engelken told BBC News. "We were climbing over piles of dead ash trees in open canopy areas that used to be dense overstorey (the uppermost canopy level of a forest, formed by the tallest trees). "And about 120 miles to the west, we would see the standing dead trees. These were going to have really large scale impacts on the environment; the riparian forest floor and in the streams as well.
12-22-19 Potatoes engineered to harm a major pest but leave other insects safe
An ideal pesticide would kill only pests, leaving all other creatures unharmed. Now biologists have engineered potatoes to be lethal to a major pest called the Colorado potato beetle but harmless to other species, no pesticide required. Ralph Bock of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Germany has genetically modified potatoes to produce RNA molecules that, when eaten, shut down an important gene in the beetle. The approach is based on a technique known as gene silencing or RNA interference. “Currently there’s a lot of excitement about it,” says Bock. “I’m quite optimistic that it will provide an additional weapon to deal with pest insects.” The genes in DNA act by making proteins, but to do this, their instructions are first copied into single-strand RNA molecules. But if double-stranded RNA molecules are present in a cell, it is usually a sign of viral infection, and triggers the cell to destroy any RNA sequences matching this particular string of genetic code. This defense system is easily tricked. To silence the activity of a particular gene in an organism’s cells so that it stops making proteins, all you need to do is introduce some double-stranded RNA that contains that gene’s code. he difficult bit is getting RNAs into cells. In most animals, including us, any RNAs in the gut or bloodstream are quickly destroyed. In the 2000s, researchers discovered that some insects absorb double-stranded RNAs from their guts. Simply feeding them such RNAs is enough to trigger gene silencing in much of their bodies. Trials by several groups since have shown that spraying RNAs onto crops can protect them from pests while leaving some closely related insects unharmed. But producing the vast quantities of RNAs needed to do this would be extremely expensive, says Bock. One solution is to genetically modify plants to produce pest-targeting RNAs themselves, rather than spraying these onto them. A maize variety called SmartStax Pro that produces RNAs that target the western corn rootworm pest has been approved in several countries, but is yet to go on sale.
12-22-19 Are US hunters becoming an endangered species?
Fewer and fewer Americans are taking up hunting every year, prompting some advocates to express concern for the future of the pastime, as well as the wildlife and nature conservation that hunters' fees support, writes Jonathan Berr. Hunting has become a curiosity rather than a necessity for many people, says Mike Busch. When he tells people that for more than a decade he's only eaten meat from animals he's hunted, the New Jersey resident is peppered with questions from people who think that his chosen diet is "cool" and from those who wonder what he has against supermarkets. "It was a whole different world when I grew up hunting," Busch tells the BBC. The 52-year-old activist has hunted for more than four decades. "There was a whole lot of camaraderie among hunters. A lot more people ate what they killed." There is a demographic time bomb facing the US hunting industry as older hunters quit the sport at a faster rate than younger ones can replace them. It's a problem that is decades in the making and presents challenges for US wildlife conservation, which is funded by licence sales and taxes on hunting gear. According to a recent analysis of US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) data by OutdoorLife, a magazine geared toward hunters, participation in the sport peaked in 1982 at 17 million. There are roughly 15 million American hunters this year, according to the USFWS. Michigan Technical University Professor Richelle L Winkler says that men born between 1955 and 1964 participate in hunting at higher rates compared with succeeding generations. Neither younger men - nor the growing numbers of women taking up hunting - are doing so at a fast enough pace to offset the declines in the older demographic. "I don't see this as something that can be reversed," Winkler says. Growing urbanisation is also an issue. According to the Pew Research Center, urban areas where hunting tends to be less popular have grown at a rate of 13% since 2000, while half of US rural counties, where the sport is favoured, have fewer residents than they did in 2000. As a result, fewer people are growing up as hunters and aren't passing down the tradition to their children.
12-21-19 Greece's secret to perfect honey
Few countries love honey and revere beekeepers more than Greece, and perhaps no country has a deeper history in this craft. According to mythology, Greece's first keeper of bees was the demigod Aristaeus, who was said to have learned beekeeping as a child from the Nymphs who raised him and to later pass his knowledge to humans. He "invented the riddled hive… and made a settled place for the labors of the wandering bees," wrote the poet Nonnus in his epic fifth century poem, Dionysiaca. Nonnus also credited Aristaeus with developing the first bee-suit, and to have been reared on nectar and ambrosia, the honey-based foods of the Gods. Mythology aside, beekeeping may have come to Greece as early as 1500 BCE, when laws promulgated by the Hittites outlined the punishment for theft of a hive (five shekels of silver, about the same as for stealing a sheep). In Athens, archaeologists have excavated cylindrical hives, made from pottery dating to 400 BCE, which often were reused as coffins for children. Today, the average Greek consumes approximately 3.6 pounds of honey a year, the largest amount per capita in the European Union and more than double U.S. consumption. According to a 2013 study, Greece has the greatest density of bee colonies in Europe, with 11.4 colonies per square kilometer. (The U.S., by comparison, averages only one colony in twice that amount of land.) The country also produces some of the finest honey in the world. At the 2019 London Honey Awards, judges bestowed prizes on 17 Greek honey producers, crowning them with three of five possible platinum awards. While bee colonies in the U.S. have been famously dying at a catastrophic rate for at least 10 years, dragging down American honey production, Greece's honey industry has remained stable, producing honey that is widely praised. Indeed, Greek scientists have found that bee colonies on Mount Olympus, mythical home of the twelve Greek Gods, produce several varieties of honey that are among the most potent in the world, containing antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-cancer properties.
12-21-19 Weird jaguar catfish is covered in spines and lives in wooden logs
What is covered in spines, lives in a log and has a jaguar’s spots? A newly described catfish, that’s what. The murky waterways of the Amazon rainforest often produce species previously unknown to science. But some are weirder than others. The newest oddball was probably already circulating in the freshwater aquarium trade for years, but it hadn’t been formally classified. Marcelo Rocha at the Amazonas State University in Brazil and his colleagues first gathered the fish on an expedition nearly a decade ago, and now the preserved specimens have finally received an official scientific description, verifying the catfish as a new species The team found the fish in the Juruá and Nanay rivers, in Brazil and Peru respectively, squeezed within the crevices of submerged logs. It is a type of driftwood catfish, a family of South American catfishes that spend their days wedged into tight spaces in wood and rocks, only emerging at night to feed. The new species is thumb-shaped, with the stumpy face of a salamander and skin patterned with jaguar-like rosettes. Prickles adorn its head. Its dorsal and two front fins have saw-like serrations. The team named the fish Spinipterus moijiri. “Moijiri” is the name for the fish in Paumari, an indigenous language in Brazil. The moijiri is a remarkable discovery because until now there was only one other catfish quite like it, says Bárbara Calegari, a driftwood catfish specialist at the PUCRS Museum of Science and Technology in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Calegari says that the moijiri’s size is a surprise. It is about 10 centimetres long – roughly four times larger than the other known Spinipterus. Several other, unrelated driftwood catfishes have jaguar-like spots, which suggests the pattern evolved independently, says Calegari.
12-20-19 Monkeys hiding on a plateau in the Amazon turn out to be new species
A group of fluffy grey monkeys living in the Amazon rainforest belong to a new species. They were first spotted by biologists a century ago, but have only now been recognised by scientists as a distinct group. Plecturocebus parecis lives on the Parecis plateau in Rondo^nia in Brazil. The surrounding rainforest is being cut down, but so far the monkeys have survived, because the plateau’s steep sides make it hard to access. They were first noticed by scientists in 1914, but were thought to be ashy black titis (P. cinerascens), a dark grey species first described in 1823. “The biologist writing up his report in 1914 said ‘it seemed like’ the ashy,” says Adrian Barnett at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil, who was part of the team that confirmed the new species. “He was clearly in doubt.” But no specimens had been collected, so the matter rested for decades. Mariluce Messias at the Federal University of Rondo^nia in Porto Velho came across the Parecis titi monkeys in 2011. She has spent the past few years studying the primates of Rondo^nia in the face of rampant deforestation. Barnett describes her as “heroic”. Unlike the ashy black titis, which are dark grey all over, the Parecis titis have chestnut brown backs and large white patches on their chests. They are known to the local indigenous people, the Parecis, as the “oto^ho^”. Further evidence that they are a separate species came when the team compared DNA from the Parecis titis with that of 10 other species, including ashy black titis, and found that it was distinct. “That clinched it,” says Barnett. The team argues that the Parecis titi should be classed as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. “The range is small and the population restricted,” says Barnett.
12-20-19 Ocean acidification could degrade sharks’ tough skin
Exposure to pH levels projected for 2300 damaged the denticles that make up sharkskin. The tough, toothy skin of sharks may be no match for the acidified oceans of the future. After nine weeks of exposure to seawater doctored to mimic projected acidic levels in 2300, corrosion had frayed the edges of many denticles — the toothlike protrusions that make up sharkskin — on three puffadder shysharks, researchers report December 19 in Scientific Reports. Damaged denticles could make sharks more vulnerable to infection or injury and increase the drag on shark’s sleek skin. Oceans gradually acidify as the seawater absorbs increasing amounts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it into carbonic acid (SN: 6/2/19). Climate change scientists estimate that, if humans continue to burn fossil fuels and emit CO2 at current levels, the average pH of oceans will dip from 8.1 today to 7.3 by 2300. Ocean acidification can cause a host of problems for marine life: It can weaken the calcium carbonate shells of clams and other bivalves (SN: 8/26/19), make corals more brittle (SN: 2/23/16) and even cause some creatures to behave erratically (SN: 2/2/17). But little had been known about how sharks might be affected, until now. “Shark denticles are made from dentin, which we know from human dentistry is susceptible to degradation from carbonic acid,” says Lutz Auerswald, a fisheries biologist at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. “That could make [sharks] especially vulnerable.” He and his colleagues caught puffader shysharks (Haploblepharus edwardsii) just off the coast of South Africa. In those waters, sharks periodically experience drastic dips in pH, as low as 6.6, because of strong upwelling of colder, more acidic water.
12-19-19 As our oceans become more acidic they may corrode the skins of sharks
Climate change will make the oceans more acidic and could damage sharks’ skin. Increased acidity corrodes the sharks’ denticles – microscopic tooth-like scales that cover their skin – which may impair their swimming. As CO2 levels in the atmosphere rise further, the oceans will become more acidic, causing a bigger problem for sharks in the future, says Lutz Auerswald at the South African government’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. He and his colleagues decided to test the effects of differing aquatic CO2 levels on 80 puffadder shysharks (Haploblepharus edwardsii), a type of small cat shark that lives in shallow water, caught from a local harbour. This species is already well-adapted to acidic waters, which are usually risky environments for aquatic animals because more CO2 can enter the blood, preventing oxygen from reaching the tissues. The puffadder shyshark gets around this problem by making its blood more alkaline, which can stop the sharks from getting associated health complications. The team put the sharks into tanks with a pH of 8 – the current global level of oceans and seas – or a more acidic pH of 7.3 because they contain more CO2. After nine weeks in the more acidic conditions, the sharks could still employ the same tactics to keep their blood more alkaline but this came at the expense of their denticles. This pH level, which is close to neutral, was enough to dissolve some of the mineral that makes up the scales. This is what makes the findings so surprising, says Auerswald – fizzy drinks, for example, typically have a pH of 3 or 4. Although oceans aren’t predicted to drop to pH 7.3 until the year 2300, living near the western and southern coasts of South Africa makes the puffadder shyshark more susceptible to acidic waters than most. Climate change is likely to increase upwelling, a natural event that brings acidic water closer to the ocean surface where the sharks are found.
12-18-19 Octopuses were thought to be solitary until a social species turned up
The discovery of a species of octopus that lives in groups and mates face-to-face is changing our thinking about what cephalopods are capable of. IN THE late 1960s, Aradio Rodaniche was diving off the coast of Nicaragua when he made the discovery that has tantalised cephalopod biologists ever since. Not only was the octopus he found startlingly beautiful – another biologist later said it was the most beautiful he had ever seen – but it was living in a den with others of its kind. That was unheard of. Octopuses are undoubtedly remarkable creatures: they can solve puzzles, use tools and even mimic other species. They have three hearts and multiple brains, with an intelligence rivalling that of famously smart animals such as crows and apes, and their visual communication abilities are mysterious and beguiling. But the octopus had always been considered a solitary beast. The discovery of an apparently social species was so implausible that few believed it and Rodaniche’s story passed into legend. He published a short account of the species in 1991, but hardly anyone had seen the animal and no one could confirm the report. It didn’t help that the octopus has never been officially described (see “Nameless wonder”). Gradually, the situation is changing. Work is emerging that confirms what Rodaniche originally suspected. The animal, referred to only as the larger Pacific striped octopus (LPSO), does seem to be a social species, and a couple of other types of octopus have now been discovered that also show social behaviour. Beyond the breathless prospect of octopus communities with hive minds even smarter than any of their members, these breakthroughs indicate it is time for us to reassess these fascinating creatures.
12-18-19 The torrid secret lives of truffles make Game of Thrones look tame
Powerful family clans. Mysterious sex lives. Constant warfare. There is more to these fascinating fungi than their distinctive flavour. DEEP in the forests of the north, a vicious battle is raging. For generations, rival families have fought to protect their territory at all costs. Death and destruction are widespread, sex is used ruthlessly for personal gain and rumours abound about the fighters’ true lineage. It is a little like something out of HBO’s Game of Thrones, only even more gruesome. While the winners in the fictional continent of Westeros get to sit on the Iron Throne, in the forests of France and Italy, the victors are plucked, peeled and delicately grated over home-made tagliatelle. Being a truffle, it turns out, isn’t easy. Truffles are best known for their distinctive flavour and extravagant price, but there is more to them than their gastronomic appeal. Recent investigations have shown that their underground existences are far more complex than we ever imagined. “Truffle reproduction is very bizarre,” says Marc-André Selosse at the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris. For one thing, we still don’t know exactly how they pull it off. Truffles live in powerful family clans that exclude their rivals, where the mothers seem to hold all the power and the fathers are nowhere to be found. Working out why they live as they do won’t just shed light on the subterranean life of this valuable fungus, it could finally solve a problem that has long eluded truffle-growers: how to reliably produce a crop. Like all fungi, truffles send spores out into the world that grow to form a new generation of organisms. The knobbly lump we eat is the fruiting body – the part that produces the spores. “They are like a black, crusty potato, with black diamonds in the crust,” says Elisa Taschen at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research in Montpellier, describing the black truffles that she works on. Inside, the white flesh is marbled with black dots, which are the spores.
12-18-19 Deep and crisp and living: How snow sustains amazing hidden life
Snow may look pristine but even the freshly fallen variety is teeming with microscopic life. This vast and mysterious ecosystem could have a big impact on Earth. SHAWN BROWN’S field trip got off to a bad start when he discovered that his experiment had disappeared. He had travelled thousands of kilometres from the University of Memphis to Finland to study blood-red snow algae when a heatwave had turned his plans to mush. The sun had melted the dark red living patches, and now only white snow remained. With funders to satisfy, Brown and his team struck on a Plan B: look for algae in the pristine white snow. They didn’t expect to find much, but to their surprise they discovered a rich hidden ecosystem of algae, fungi and bacteria. “I was just blown away by the biodiversity,” says Brown. Until recently, microbes in snow were assumed to be rare and largely inactive. It is only in the past couple of years that scientists, including Brown, have used state-of-the-art DNA sequencing technology to reveal the secret life hidden there. As we learn more, it is becoming apparent that this is no mere curiosity: snow microbes play a role in cycling nutrients and carbon. They may be tiny but, given that snow covers a third of land on Earth, they could have an overlooked impact on the planet’s health and climate. It may seem improbable that life could survive among ice crystals, given its dependence on liquid water, but microbes have evolved ingenious ways of eking out a living in snow. They grow in watery veins that run through the snow pack, melted either by impurities or by proteins that the microbes make. In extremely cold environments, some microbes slow their metabolisms to such a crawl that they can take hundreds of years to divide. Others might just tick over in snow then become active during a thaw. “We’re just guessing at this point,” says Brown. “We don’t really know how they are making a living.”
12-18-19 The curious life and surprising death of the last dodo on Earth
A unique dodo specimen kept under lock and key in Oxford may have what it takes to resurrect the iconic species... but can we solve its grisly murder? IN 1598, a squadron of Dutch ships landed on an uninhabited island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The crew put ashore and discovered an abundance of wildlife, including “a great quantity of foules twise as bigge as swans”. They killed and ate some, but the meat was no good, so they killed and ate some parrots and pigeons instead. The walghvogel, meaning “tasteless bird”, was off the hook – for now. Within a century, however, it was no more. Its chicks and eggs had been predated remorselessly by invasive rats, cats, dogs and pigs, and its habitat on the once-pristine paradise of Mauritius was destroyed. The last recorded sighting of the bird, now known as the dodo, was in 1662. At the time, nobody much noticed or cared. My first sighting of a dodo came earlier this year in Oxford, UK, and I very much noticed and cared. Like many people, I had assumed that dodo specimens were two a penny. They aren’t, and the one at Oxford University Museum of Natural History is a one-off: it is the only one to preserve soft tissues, and hence could one day be used to “de-extinct” the dodo and undo what those hungry Dutch sailors set in motion more than 400 years ago. That is for the future, though. For now, what makes the Oxford dodo especially fascinating is its past. It turns out it isn’t the bird we thought it was. The specimen isn’t on public display. It is kept in a specially made box stored in a secret location. I was shown it in the museum’s historic Huxley Room where, in 1860, Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce famously exchanged barbs during a debate on evolution just after On the Origin of Species was published. Talk about bucket lists. Once a complete specimen, all that remains is a skull with skin attached to the right side, the mummified skin from the left side, part of an eye, a skeletal foot, some leg bones, one feather and various scraps of flesh. But given what the bird has been through, even that is remarkable.
12-13-19 Wolf-watching in Yellowstone
“Grab your binoculars,” because “wolves are making a comeback,” said Kitson Jazynka in National Geographic Traveler. Forty years of conservation efforts have aided the stately animals’ resurgence, and winter is a great time to spot their gray coats against the snow in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, as well as Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness. During a Yellowstone safari with Natural Habitat Adventures, “I felt as if I were stepping back centuries in time to when wildlife roamed freely,” said Ali Wunderman in Travel + Leisure. Moose, bison, elk, and otters all made appearances, as did a red fox, who curiously approached my campfire. Wolves remain elusive, but when I heard an eerie howl and then saw a group of seven, a shiver ran down my spine. “Seeing an apex predator in the wild goes beyond a mere travel memory or a snapshot. These moments reconnect us with the world as it’s meant to be.”
12-13-19 Finally being heard
Finally being heard, with new research finding that plants emit high-pitched sounds, too high for humans to hear, when they lack water or have their stems cut. “These findings can alter the way we think about the plant kingdom, which has been considered to be almost silent until now,” wrote the study’s authors.
12-13-19 A biochemist’s extraction of data from honey honors her beekeeper father
The tests could be used to figure out what bees are pollinating and which pathogens they carry. One scientist’s sweet tribute to her father may one day give beekeepers clues about their colonies’ health, as well as help warn others when crop diseases or pollen allergies are about to strike. Those are all possible applications that biochemistry researcher Rocío Cornero of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., sees for her work on examining proteins in honey. Cornero described her unpublished work December 9 at the annual joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization. Amateur beekeepers often don’t understand what is stressing bees in their hives, whether lack of water, starvation or infection with pathogens, says Cornero, whose father kept bees before his death earlier this year. “What we see in the honey can tell us a story about the health of that colony,” she says. Bees are like miniature scientists that fly and sample a wide variety of environmental conditions, says cell biologist Lance Liotta, Cornero’s mentor at George Mason. As bees digest pollen, soil and water, bits of proteins from other organisms, including fungi, bacteria and viruses also end up in the insects’ stomachs. Honey, in turn, is basically bee vomit, Liotta says, and contains a record of virtually everything the bee came in contact with, as well as proteins from the bees themselves. “The information archive in honey is unbelievable,” Liotta says. But until now, scientists have had a hard time studying proteins in honey. “It’s so gooey and sticky and hard to work with,” he says. Sugars in honey gum up lab equipment usually used to isolate proteins.
12-13-19 Why some whales are giants and others are just big
The animals’ sizes depend on feeding style and prey availability, researchers say. Sophisticated sensors suction-cupped onto the backs of whales are helping biologists answer two long-standing questions: Why are whales so big? And why aren’t they bigger? Being big in general boosts whales’ ability to reach more food for less effort, helping them exploit the riches of the deep sea that are beyond the reach of many other creatures. By estimating the energy used — and gained — when foraging for 13 species of whales and porpoises, scientists have shown that how big the creatures get is influenced by feeding strategy and prey availability. The sizes of toothed whales like orcas, which use echolocation to hunt for individual prey, appear to be constrained by how much food they can grab during a dive, researchers report. That’s not the case, however, for blue whales and other filter feeders, which tend to be much larger than their toothed cousins. Filter feeders alive today aren’t constrained by food availability, which may mean they might be limited by their biology. Or the animals could be on their way to evolving to be even bigger, according to a study in the Dec. 13 Science. “This is a fascinating study,” says Samantha Price, an evolutionary biologist at Clemson University in South Carolina who wasn’t involved in the research. Biologists have been thinking about the evolution of bigness for a long time, she says, “but this paper, through incredible effort, actually got some data about these hard-to-study behaviors.” In the last 5 million years, whales have become larger than ever before, and the blue whale grew into the largest known creature in the history of life, says Jeremy Goldbogen, a comparative physiologist at Stanford University. Changes in glacial cycles, wind and ocean currents, he says, have intensified upwellings of nutrients in special pockets of the ocean, creating sparse, but absurdly dense patches of tiny crustaceans and fish and other animals — whale food.
12-13-19 Texas has its own rodeo ant queens
Finding a new species hardly ever happens like this. Alex Wild has discovered new rodeo ants in, of course, Texas. The shiny little reddish Solenopsis ants grip tight and ride the backs of big queen ants of a different species. It’s not, however, just random piggyback fun. The little riders hang on with mouthparts that have evolved a snug fit around the waist of a particular species’ much larger queen, says Wild, a naturalist who curates the insect collections for the University of Texas at Austin. The smaller hangers-on are queens themselves, but in Texas he has yet to find their workers. So royal-on-royal rodeos might let a tinier parasitic queen skip the costs of creating her own entourage and just live off food scammed from the big queen’s colony. Scams are a basic risk of social living and its alluring concentrations of resources. “We humans build cities,” Wild says. “All sorts of things come to hang around.” Same for ant nests; queen riding unlocks those riches for grifters of diverse species. Like human dwellings, certain ant nests even attract their own miniature roaches, which do some queen riding themselves. With chubby, wingless bodies, Attaphila fungicola roaches “look like little Pokémon figures,” Wild says. When a young fungus-growing ant queen flies out of her mother’s nest for that once-in-a-lifetime bout of aerial sex, a wingless roach can latch on for a ride and, with some parasite luck, hitchhike to new food bonanzas. Wild coined the nickname “rodeo ant,” but even before his discovery, biologists knew of a few species that hugged the backs of other species’ queens and probably sneaked food. A parasitic ant now called Tetramorium inquilinum, first found in the Swiss Alps, grows long claws and a concave rear underside that fits easily against the curving back of a big queen.
12-13-19 Humans 'sole culprits' in US parrot extinction
A genetic study of the US's only native parrot appears to confirm its extinction was down to humans alone. Scientists sequenced the genome of a stuffed Carolina parakeet held in a private collection. The colourful bird's DNA showed none of the signs of inbreeding characteristic of animals that have been in decline for many years. Instead, its genetic sequence suggests populations were buoyant until the expansion of European settlers. The parrots then disappeared abruptly, with the last captive specimen dying in Cincinnati Zoo on 21 February 1918. The bird was once found from New England in the east to Colorado in the west. The bird had green plumage with a yellow head, and measured about 13ins (33cm) long. They lived in old-growth forests along rivers and in swamps. "Many endangered species have been sequenced and what seems to be a pattern is that when populations are small and declining for a long period of time, this leaves some signals in their genomes that can be recognised," co-author Carles Lalueza-Fox, from the University of Barcelona, explained. "Even if you have a single specimen, as here, we have a genome from the father and a genome from the mother; two copies of each chromosome. If the population has been small for thousands of years, these two copies will be very similar to each other and over long stretches sometimes they will be identical." When a population is large, Dr Lalueza-Fox explained, the two chromosome copies will be more different genetically. Indeed, this is exactly what the team saw in the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis). "The inference is that this bird was not subjected to a very long demographic decline for thousands of years, it was something very quick," the University of Barcelona geneticist explained.
12-12-19 'Rediscovered' toad was known to Colombian locals for decades
A critically endangered harlequin toad, known as the starry night toad, has been documented by biologists for the first time since 1991 in the mountains of Colombia. But unlike other such stories of “rediscovered” species, this one was never really lost – the local Arhuaco people knew exactly where the toad, which they call “gouna”, was all along. “We have shared our home with the gouna for thousands of years,” says Ruperto Chaparro Villafaña, who represents the Arhuaco community of Sogrome near where the toad lives in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. For them, the toad is both an important indicator of the health of the ecosystem, whose presence guides their agricultural activities, and a link to the spiritual world, representing their mission to preserve life on Earth. Harlequin toads are among the most threatened groups of amphibians in the world. Of the 96 species, 80 are listed as endangered. Two of these are known to be extinct and 37 are considered potentially extinct – including, until now, the gouna. Most live at high altitudes where populations have been ravaged by the deadly chytrid fungus that is wiping out amphibians across the continent. Getting access to the area to see if the toad was still present took years of work building trust and friendship between the researchers and the Sogrome community, says Jefferson Villalba, co-founder of Fundación Atelopus, a Colombian conservation group. He and his colleagues met with the community and its spiritual leaders, called mamos, multiple times over five years. They were eventually allowed to travel to see the toad in April this year, without taking pictures. Having passed that test of trust, they were permitted to return and document the toad alongside members of the community. They found a healthy population of around 30 individuals.
12-12-19 Insect biomass in Britain falling but may still be double 1960s level
Are we witnessing an insect apocalypse? It is complicated. The longest running study of insect populations in the world shows that the total mass of moths in Great Britain is double what it was in the 1960s, but has been declining by around 10 per cent a decade since the 1980s. This probably reflects what has happened to other kinds of insects, too. “Is this a good news story? No it’s not, because we still have this long-term decline,” says Callum Macgregor at the University of York in the UK, who on 11 December gave a talk on the findings at a meeting of the British Ecological Society in Belfast. His team analysed data from 34 sites in Wales, Scotland and England where insects have been trapped nightly starting as early as 1967, as part of the Rothamsted Insect Survey. The results show there are big variations in moth biomass from year to year and from species to species, but overall biomass rose sharply from the 1960s to the 1980s and then began declining gradually. Because the moth biomass trends in later years match those seen in studies of other types of insects, Macgregor thinks the overall biomass of all insects in Great Britain is probably twice as high today as it was in the 1960s. In the past two years, there has been much talk about a global “insect apocalypse” or “insectageddon”. This idea stems from a 2017 study that found a steep decline in insect biomass in Germany since 1989. However, many ecologists have cautioned that there are too few studies around the world going back far enough in time to justify such a sweeping conclusion. It is likely that many insect populations in many parts of the world, especially in the tropics, are declining because of habitat loss and climate change, but we just don’t know.
12-12-19 Rodeo ants that ride on backs of bigger ants discovered in Texas
What should we call a Texan ant that rides on the backs of other ants? Rodeo ants, says Alex Wild at the University of Texas at Austin, who has discovered two new species of such insects. While little is known about them – so far, Wild’s team has found just one individual from each of the two species – a few other ant species elsewhere in the world are also known to perch on the backs of other ants. In those cases, the “riders” have evolved an unusual way of life. Most ants live in huge colonies with one egg-laying queen and millions of sterile workers that bring food home to the nest and tend to the eggs. The riders don’t have any workers: they are females that cling to the back of a queen from a bigger species. The riders lay their own eggs and fool the larger queen’s workers into looking after them. The two newly discovered Texan species most likely live in the same way, says Wild. “She’s probably dropping her own eggs into the brood pile, where the host workers are treating them as their own. She’s a parasite on the food and labour of the host colony.” They seem to have adapted their appearance and behaviour to their freeloading lifestyle. Each has a similar density of hairs on their back to their host ant, as if to blend in. Although one was killed on collection, Wild was able to observe the second in the lab for some time, and when he repeatedly detached it from the larger ant, it kept climbing back on. “They really like being on the queen.” The rodeo ants may also avoid being detected by covering themselves with chemicals secreted by the host queen, as some other ants that enter the nests of others do, says Nigel Franks at the University of Bristol, UK, who wasn’t involved in the work. “It’s a brilliant strategy.”
12-11-19 Predators may make prey get smart and grow more brain cells
Sometimes stress can be good for a fish. When there are more predators around, killifish in Trinidad grow more brain cells than those that face no predators, and they do so even into adulthood. “I was surprised to find this because in previous studies, we found that predators inhibit the production of brain cells,” says Kent Dunlap at Trinity College in Connecticut. It seems that killifish swim their own way. Dunlap and his colleagues examined the brains of a type of wild caught killifish (Rivulus hartii) from three streams on the Caribbean island. In each stream, they gathered about eight adult fish from a location with a high number of predators and about eight from a location with little to no predation. They only used males because previous research on these fish showed that predation affects male but not female brains. The researchers measured the size of the males’ brains as well as the density of newly grown cells. They found that fish from both spots in each stream had brains similar in size relative to their bodies, but those that had to fight off more predators had nearly double the amount of new brain cells. Dunlap says this may mean that instead of fairly static brains that respond to predators in a timid way, the new brain cells could allow for more responsive behaviour. To sort out whether this effect is genetic or purely a response to their environment, Dunlap and his team raised fish from each location and then dissected their brains. In the lab, even with an absence of predators, they saw that the increased brain cell growth persisted in fish descended from those that lived in high-predation areas. “Over evolutionary time, predation has caused the populations to differ genetically, so there’s this intrinsic difference now that’s upheld,” says Dunlap. He adds that this pattern would likely show up in other animals that continue to grow brain cells into adulthood.
12-11-19 Young people can't remember how much more wildlife there used to be
Walking in England’s New Forest in 1892, butterfly collector S.?G.?Castle Russell encountered such numbers of the insects that they “were so thick that I could hardly see ahead”. On another occasion, he “captured a hundred purple hairstreaks” with two sweeps of his net. Patrick Barkham, who recounts these riots of nature in his 2010 book on butterflies, laments never seeing such a sight. However, new research suggests Barkham is a rarity, because a lot of people are forgetting, or just don’t appreciate, how much wildlife there was. To gauge this effect, Lizzie Jones at Royal Holloway, University of London, compared population records dating back to 1966 of 10 UK bird species against public perceptions of those birds. More than 900 people told her how abundant they thought the species – including declining ones such as house sparrows – were today and when they were aged 18. Although, of course, younger people were 18 more recently than older participants, they were generally worse at describing how many more birds there were at this age. “You’d expect younger people would be better,” says Jones, who on Friday is presenting her work at the British Ecological Society conference in Belfast, UK. The problem of forgetting past natural abundance, or of new generations not knowing about it, is known as shifting baseline syndrome, an idea coined in 1995 by Daniel Pauly at the University of British Columbia in Canada, but which is only slowly being backed up with evidence. Photos of fishermen in Florida, who, over generations, pose equally proudly with ever-shrinking catches, famously illustrate the concept. Jones says her work is the most conclusive empirical evidence of shifting baseline syndrome so far. The biggest problem, she says, is that current generations are likely to view what they see around them as completely normal.
12-10-19 A newly found Atacama Desert soil community survives on sips of fog
Lichens and other fungi and algae unite to form this ‘grit-crust’ on parched soil. Perhaps the hardiest assemblage of lichens and other fungi and algae yet found has been hiding in plain sight in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert. This newly discovered “grit-crust,” as ecologists have named it, coats tiny stones and draws moisture from daily pulses of coastal fog that roll across the world’s driest nonpolar desert. These communities are optimized to photosynthesize using less than half of the water that other known desert biological soil crusts use, researchers report December 16 in Geobiology. The “super cool” find suggests that soil communities can eke out a living in the planet’s harshest settings, says Jayne Belnap, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist based in Moab, Utah, who was not involved in the study. Biological soil crusts, or biocrusts, are conglomerations of algae, cyanobacteria, lichens, fungi or mosses that cover an estimated 12 percent of the land on Earth. They are commonly found in deserts, where they blanket the soil and prevent erosion. They also shape ecosystems by drawing atmospheric carbon and nitrogen into the ground and producing oxygen via photosynthesis. Only a few millimeters of rain dampen the Atacama on average each year. But some areas experience daily cycles of fog and dew. In one such “fog oasis,” about 2.5 kilometers from the Pacific Coast in Pan de Azúcar National Park north of Santiago, researchers spotted odd markings. “We got there with our cars and saw these blackish and whitish patterns in the landscape,” says botanist Patrick Jung of Hochschule Kaiserslautern – University of Applied Sciences in Germany.
12-9-19 Grandmother killer whales boost survival of calves
Grandmother killer whales boost the survival rates of their grandchildren, a new study has said. The survival rates were even higher if the grandmother had already gone through the menopause. The findings shed valuable light on the mystery of the menopause, or why females of some species live long after they lose the ability to reproduce. Only five known animals experience it: killer whales, short-finned pilot whales, belugas, narwhals and humans. With humans, there is some evidence that human grandmothers aid in the survival of their children and grandchildren, a hypothesis called the "grandmother effect". These findings suggest the same effect occurs in orcas. "If a grandmother dies, in the years following her death, her grand-offspring are much more likely to die," said lead author Dan Franks from the University of York. He said the effect was even greater when a post-reproductive grandmother died. "It can explain the benefits of females living a long time after reproduction," he said. "From an evolutionary standpoint, they can still pass on their genes and genetic legacy by helping their grand-offspring." In other words, by not continuing to reproduce, the grandmother whales might actually be doing more to ensure their genes get passed on than if they were reproducing. The researchers analysed 36 years of photographic census data on two populations of killer whales off the North Pacific coast of Canada and the United States. Each population was made up of multiple pods with various family groups. The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. When explaining why grandmothers might have such an impact on calf survival rates, Mr Franks said past research has shown the important leadership role that grandmother killer whales play. They tend to be at the front of the group when searching for food, relying on their vast ecological knowledge. He said by being unable to reproduce, "they may be in a better position to lead the group".
12-8-19 This orangutan's 'personhood' victory brings hope to U.S. animal rights movement
Sandra was awarded personhood rights in Argentina, but now that she lives in Florida, activists are hoping the movement will catch on in the U.S. 33-year-old orangutan awarded "nonhuman" personhood rights in a landmark 2015 court decision in Argentina has settled into a new home in Florida. "She walked into her room. She was just engaged and interested. Very calm," said Patti Ragan, founding director of Sandra the orangutan's new home, the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida. "She looked at every single toy left in there for her, foraged around for food in the hay, and got some blankets, went up and made a nest, and slept well." Sandra landed at the center in November because she's a hybrid of two orangutan subspecies, and Indonesia, one of the native environments for orangutans — where most preferred sanctuaries are located — has banned orangutans like her from its sanctuaries. As part of implementing Sandra's new rights, the Argentinian judge wanted her to live at an accredited facility — and the Florida center was the only one in the Americas that met those standards. Her arrival has raised the hopes of U.S. activists who are trying to match the successes of lawyers who turn to the courts to fight for animal rights around the world. "The animal law movement focused on using the legal system itself really grew out of the United States," said Matthew Liebman, director of litigation for the northern California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund. "But the most remarkable progress we've seen has been outside of the United States with things like the Sandra case in South America." Steven Wise, who heads the nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project and teaches animal rights jurisprudence at the law school at Tel Aviv University, is bringing many of the cases arguing for personhood for animals in the U.S. He hopes Sandra's case may sway U.S. judges, even if it cannot officially serve as a precedent in U.S. courts.
12-7-19 Biodiversity: The best plants for attracting insects to gardens
You can do your bit for insects by growing lots of foliage in your garden, a study has found. Ground-dwelling insects, such as beetles, generally benefit from dense vegetation, including evergreens. Spiders, however, prefer a bit of bare earth - such as a bald patch in a lawn or a sparse flower bed. Alarm bells are ringing about a global decline in insects. Recent studies suggest populations are plummeting, due to nature loss and pesticides. Against this backdrop, new research, published in Biodiversity and Conservation, investigated how plants can best support all forms of insect life. "The main message is the more foliage there is, the more invertebrates you will have in your garden," said Andrew Salisbury, Royal Horticultural Society principal entomologist. "Gardeners can make a lot of difference just by growing stuff in their gardens, taking it a little bit easy on being too tidy and avoiding the use of pesticides wherever possible." While dense planting is good for insects in general, one particular group of invertebrates, the spiders that live on the ground rather than spinning webs, do better when there are a few bare patches. "It might be that with less foliage, particularly at the ground level - they are able to move more freely and hunt more freely," the entomologist said. The researchers looked at how invertebrates thrive in different planting combinations, including native, near-native and exotic species. They concluded that growing a wide variety of plants was important, with a bias towards native and near-native species. And evergreen plants such as holly, Christmas box and pittosporum might have a special role to play for invertebrates, providing shelter during the winter months for the likes of ladybirds, springtails and ground beetles. Tips to support invertebrates in gardens:
- Let planting fill out, but keep some areas sparser to help specific groups, notably spiders
- Use plenty of native and near-native plants to support the greatest number of ground-active invertebrates
- Try to include some evergreens in your garden to give shelter to invertebrates
- The greater the variety of plants in a garden, the richer the diversity of invertebrates it will support
12-6-19 ‘A Polar Affair’ delves into a centurylong cover-up of penguin sex
A new book surveys penguin biology and Antarctic exploration history. On March 29, 1912, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott wrote the final diary entry of his ill-fated quest to reach the South Pole. That same day, more than 350 kilometers away, naval surgeon and zoologist George Murray Levick was hunkered down within a snowbank at Cape Adare, observing Adélie penguins. Levick had accompanied Scott to Antarctica, but was not one of the five expedition members on the final trek to the pole. The return journey claimed the lives of all five. Levick survived the expedition, however, and in 1914, published a manuscript summarizing his observations — the first scientific descriptions of Antarctic penguins. But he left something out. During his months observing Adélie penguins, which included an entire breeding cycle, Levick witnessed the birds engaging in same-sex mating rituals. He also saw the birds engage in a variety of other sexual behaviors that in humans we might call promiscuity, infidelity, even prostitution. Levick recorded these scandalous details in a second manuscript, “The sexual habits of the Adélie penguin,” in 1915. But the manuscript was stamped “Not for Publication” and remained unpublished for nearly a century. In 2012, the manuscript resurfaced in a scientific journal. Penguin biologist and author Lloyd Spencer Davis, who had thought he was the first to record same-sex behavior in Antarctic penguins in 1996, was dismayed and intrigued. So Davis embarked on a personal quest to understand how and why Levick’s observations had been buried in the first place — seemingly by his own wishes. The result of that quest is Davis’ book A Polar Affair, an entertaining, chatty and sometimes salacious romp through polar exploration history, penguin biology and Victorian mores. (Webmaster's comment: Religious beliefs censored the truth.)
12-6-19 Death by dog lick
A man has died in Germany after contracting a rare infection from being licked by his dog. The previously healthy 63-year-old dog owner went to a hospital in Bremen suffering flu-like symptoms, leg pain, breathing difficulties, and purpura fulminans, a blood-clotting disorder. His symptoms quickly broadened to include brain damage, kidney failure, and cardiac arrest, and after 16 days of treatment, he died from multiple organ failure. Doctors determined that the infection was caused by Capnocytophaga canimorsus, a bacteria that occurs naturally in the mouths of cats and dogs. “[It] usually doesn’t cause any sort of significant disease,” Stephen Cole, from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, tells CNN.com. “However, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong patient…it can lead to severe infections.” Cases are extremely rare and typically affect people with immune, spleen, or alcohol abuse issues. They also usually involve the patient being bitten; in this case, the man contracted the bacteria from a lick alone.
12-6-19 A single-celled protist reacts to threats in surprisingly complex ways
A new try of a dismissed 1906 experiment suggests a protist can, in fact, ‘decide’ what to do. Being single-celled doesn’t necessarily doom a creature to a simple life. A fresh look at a long-dismissed, century-old experiment suggests that so-called primitive organisms can behave in surprisingly complex ways. Stentor roeseli, a tiny trumpet-shaped protist, can dodge, duck or flee in response to an irritating stimulus, changing its behavior when one strategy fails, researchers report online December 5 in Current Biology. The study suggests that single cells, rather than being preprogrammed to react in a certain way, are capable of “changing their minds” based on experience. “This fascinating experiment reminds us that primitive organisms can do complicated things,” says Sindy Tang, a cellular engineer at Stanford University who wasn’t involved in the study. S. roeseli rose to prominence in 1906, when the American zoologist Herbert Spencer Jennings described some of the most complex behaviors ever reported for a single-celled organism. The millimeter-long freshwater protist spends much of its life fastened to drifting algae, using hairlike cilia on its body to sweep food into its mouth. Jennings messed with S. roeseli, disturbing them with a pipette-delivered stream of a chemical irritant. Instead of simple reflexive behaviors, he documented a complex hierarchy of avoidance tactics. First, the protist would bend to dodge the onslaught. If that failed, it would repel the irritant by using its cilia to “spit” water out of its mouth. When Jennings persisted, it would contract its whole body to shrink away. Its final act was to escape by detaching from its substrate and floating away. At the time, biologists considered single cells to be capable only of rudimentary behaviors, such as moving toward or away from some stimulus. Consequently, Jennings’ work garnered much attention. But attempts to replicate it failed, and eventually his observations were dismissed.
12-5-19 Why you should worry about your pet’s ecological footprint
No Planet B | From domestic cats’ ecocide of small animals to the greenhouse gases they emit, owning a pet is an environmental vice we must confront, writes Graham Lawton. ONE of my cats has died, and I am bereft. It wasn’t the one we expected to lose first, the saggy old ginger tom, but the much younger one who we thought had many years left in him. Turns out he had a weak heart. Mine is now broken. I tell you this not to wallow in grief but to raise an issue that rarely gets an airing when we talk about making personal sacrifices to help the environment. I loved my cat and I miss him, but I take comfort from the fact that my loss is the planet’s gain. I have long suspected that my cats are a major contributor to my household’s environmental footprint. Unlike the humans who live there, they eat meat every day. They also slaughter wildlife. Though the one we lost was a gentle soul, he was also a ruthless killer. I have cleaned up my fair share of decapitated mice and shredded spiders, and once watched, helpless and aghast, as he killed a wren in the back garden. A few cans of cat food and the odd mauled bird hardly constitute ecocide, but summed across the world, domestic cats are a serious environmental menace. If you doubt this – and I know I have already raised some hackles – I recommend a devastatingly brilliant article called “The ecological cost of pets” by biologist Peter Marra of Georgetown University and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington DC. Marra is a well-known critic of cats. In 2016, he co-authored a book called Cat Wars, which argued that domestic moggies have a devastating impact on wildlife. His new article, published in the journal Current Biology, demolished my lingering hope that the ecological impact of my cats is negligible. In the UK, for example, pet cats kill more than 275 million small animals a year. In the US, the toll is probably in the billions. This is just pet cats; feral cats kill even more (both my cats were strays before we took them in).
12-5-19 Ryrkaypiy: Far-north Russian village overrun by polar bears
More than 50 polar bears have descended on a village in Russia's far north. All public activities in Ryrkaypiy, in Chukotka region, have been cancelled, and schools are being guarded to protect residents from the bears. Conservationists say climate change could be to blame, with weak coastal ice forcing the bears to search for food in the village rather than at sea. Other experts have said polar bear visits are now so frequent, Ryrkaypiy should be permanently evacuated. Tatyana Minenko, head of Ryrkaypiy's bear patrol programme, told Ria Novosti that they had counted 56 polar bears in the village. The animals were "both adult and young... there were females with cubs of different ages", she said - adding that almost all of them appeared to be thin. The polar bears normally live on Cape Schmidt, just 2.2 km (1.4 miles) from Ryrkaypiy. WWF conservationist Mikhail Stishov said the area had been experiencing unusually warm weather. "If the ice were strong enough the bears, or at least some of them, would have already gone to sea, where they could hunt for seals or sea hares," he said. While waiting for the ice to freeze they are drawn to villages for food, Mr Stishov added. Last week, a polar bear specialist from the US-based Institute of the North said the bears now visit Ryrkaypiy so often that the village should be evacuated, and its roughly 700 residents resettled. Anatoly Kochnev told Tass news agency that polar bear visits are increasingly frequent - and that just five years ago, only about five bears got close to the village."I as a scientist believe [Ryrkaypiy village] should not remain there," he said. "We try to control the situation, but nobody would want to think what may happen there in three to five years." The region's animal protection official Yegor Vereshchagin told Tass that if residents wished to leave, "they could organise a referendum".
12-5-19 Recordings reveal that plants make ultrasonic squeals when stressed
Although it has been revealed in recent years that plants are capable of seeing, hearing and smelling, they are still usually thought of as silent. But now, for the first time, they have been recorded making airborne sounds when stressed, which researchers say could open up a new field of precision agriculture where farmers listen for water-starved crops. Itzhak Khait and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University in Israel found that tomato and tobacco plants made sounds at frequencies humans cannot hear when stressed by a lack of water or when their stem is cut. Microphones placed 10 centimetres from the plants picked up sounds in the ultrasonic range of 20 to 100 kilohertz, which the team says insects and some mammals would be capable of hearing and responding to from as far as 5 metres away. A moth may decide against laying eggs on a plant that sounds water-stressed, the researchers suggest. Plants could even hear that other plants are short of water and react accordingly, they speculate. “These findings can alter the way we think about the plant kingdom, which has been considered to be almost silent until now,” they write in their study, which has not yet been published in a journal. Previously, devices have been attached to plants to record the vibrations caused by air bubbles forming and exploding – a process known as cavitation – inside xylem tubes, which are used for water transport. But this new study is the first time that sounds from plants have been measured at a distance. On average, drought-stressed tomato plants made 35 sounds an hour, while tobacco plants made 11. When plant stems were cut, tomato plants made an average of 25 sounds in the following hour, and tobacco plants 15. Unstressed plants produced fewer than one sound per hour, on average.
12-4-19 Heroism and slapstick humour: Wolf behaviour can be amazingly human
In his 21 years at Yellowstone national park Rick McIntyre has seen more wolf activity than anyone else. He shares some amazing insights. I worked at Denali National Park in Alaska for 15 summers after college and originally was most interested in grizzly bears. I saw them nearly every day. But I found that wolves had much more interesting behaviour, such as how they live in extended family groups and work together to hunt, raise their pups and defend their territory from rival packs. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. I would set up a spotting scope, find the local pack and invite visitors to have a look. It was a very emotional experience to watch a wolf pack travelling, hunting and playing in Yellowstone after being absent for 69 years. People would cry and hug me in thanks for showing them. I have been reading books by primatologist Frans de Waal and found his writing about the social behaviour and intellectual abilities of primates relevant to wolves. For example, I would say that wolves have a theory of mind, as do primates. Wolf 8 was one of the smallest wolves introduced to Yellowstone and didn’t seem to have much potential. But after an alpha male was killed on the day his mate gave birth, 8 befriended the pups. The mother wolf wanted help, so she let 8 into her pack, despite his inexperience. He became a great alpha male and raised the pups as his own. He also defeated another alpha male despite his larger size and unexpectedly let the wolf go rather than kill him. One of the pups 8 raised was wolf 21. He was invincible in battle but, as he had seen 8 do, he always let the other wolf go. 21 was attentive to his pups and spent a lot of time playing with them. He even appeared to have a sense of humour and would do things like fall over for no reason, like a comedian doing a pratfall.
12-4-19 Dogs have a better ear for language than we thought
Dogs pay much closer attention to what humans say than we realised, even to words that are probably meaningless to them. Holly Root-Gutteridge at the University of Sussex, UK, and her colleagues played audio recordings of people saying six words to 70 pet dogs of various breeds. The dogs had never heard these voices before and the words only differed by their vowels, such as “had”, “hid” and “who’d”. Each recording was altered so the voices were at the same pitch, ensuring that the only cue the dogs had was the difference between vowels, rather than how people said the words. After hearing the recordings just once, 48 of the dogs reacted when either the same speaker said a new word or the same word was said by a different speaker. The remainder either didn’t visibly respond or got distracted. The team based its assessment of the dogs’ reactions on how long they paid attention when the voice or word changed – if the dogs moved their ears or shifted eye contact, for example, it showed that they noticed the change. In contrast, when the dogs heard the same word repeated several times, their attention waned. Until now, it was thought that only humans could detect vowels in words and realise that these sounds stay the same across different speakers. But the dogs could do both spontaneously without any previous training. “I was surprised by how well some of the dogs responded to unfamiliar voices,” says Root-Gutteridge. “It might mean that they comprehend more than we give them credit for.” This ability may be the result of domestication, says Root-Guttridge, as dogs that pay closer attention to human sounds are more likely to have been chosen for breeding. The work highlights the strength of social interactions between humans and dogs, says Britta Osthaus at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK. “It would be interesting to see whether a well-trained dog would react differently to the command of ‘sat’ instead of ‘sit’,” she says.
12-4-19 Devil worm genes hold clues for how some animals survive extreme heat
The critters have extra copies of a gene that ramps up to deal with higher temperatures. You might expect a “devil worm” to have fiery eyes and a forked tail — or horns, at the very least. But under the microscope, Halicephalobus mephisto looks nothing like its nickname. Measuring a scant half of a millimeter, it’s a little squiggle of a critter. “There’s nothing particularly menacing about them,” says John Bracht, a molecular biologist at American University in Washington, D.C., and proud owner of the only live devil worms in a U.S. lab. Instead, the worm, a kind of nematode, earned that title because it somehow manages to live in hellish conditions, he says. First described in 2011, H. mephisto is one of the deepest-living land animals found to date. The only live one ever caught in the wild was filtered out of water from an aquifer 1.3 kilometers underground in a South African gold mine (SN: 6/1/11). At that depth, devil worms must cope with low oxygen, high methane levels and temperatures around 37° Celsius. The captured worm laid eight eggs. Now, thanks to that one worm’s descendants, scientists have some genetic clues to how the nematodes tolerate these conditions. The nematodes have duplications of two genes involved in heat shock and cell survival decisions, Bracht and his team report November 21 in Nature Communications. Picking up those extra copies over time likely helped the devil worms cope with extreme conditions and move deeper underground, Bracht says. The researchers found that H. mephisto has about 112 copies of the gene that makes Hsp70 proteins, which refold damaged proteins that have unraveled due to heat stress. That’s a big leap from the devil worm’s closest relative that has had its genetic instruction book, or genome, analyzed already — a nematode that has 35 copies of the Hsp70 gene. Heat stress tests in the lab exposing the devil worms to temperatures from 38° to 40° Celsius show that these genes ramp up to make more Hsp70 proteins when the heat is on. That suggests that these proteins somehow help the devil worms take the heat.
12-3-19 Female brown bears hang out near humans to keep cubs safe from males
FEMALE brown bears with cubs seem to hang around near people’s homes. It may be a way to avoid males, who would force the females to abandon their young earlier. Joanie Van de Walle at Sherbrooke University in Canada and her colleagues studied brown bears living in a rolling landscape of managed forests, bogs and lakes in Sweden. The area was dotted with houses and cabins. Female brown bears keep their cubs for 1.5 or 2.5 years. A female who keeps offspring for 2.5 years can bestow more care, perhaps raising survival chances, but may come into conflict with males who want to mate with her. Males may kill a cub outright, or drive it off. “Males would have an interest in shortening the period of maternal care,” says Van de Walle. “We thought females might come up with counter-tactics.” To check this, her team used GPS collars and helicopters to track 23 male bears and 16 female bears with cubs. They found that females that only kept cubs for 1.5 years had similar habitats to males, but females that spent more time close to human homes kept cubs for 2.5 years (Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, doi.org/dgbj). In Sweden, hunters aren’t allowed to kill family groups, so females with cubs have little to fear. In contrast, males and lone females are fair game, so have good reason to avoid places where people live. “It’s a really interesting observation to see these differences in females,” says Dieter Lukas at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who has studied infanticide by male animals. However, he isn’t convinced that the risk of infanticide is what pushes females to venture close to homes. He points out that cubs that go solo aged 1.5 years normally survive.
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.