3-31-20 Sharks are easier to catch in cooler waters, and we have no idea why
Fishing vessels are more likely to catch apex predators, including sharks, and tuna in cool ocean regions, even though the warm equatorial areas are where marine life is most biodiverse. The finding means biologists need to rethink why the tropics are an ecological hotspot. More species live near the equator than in temperate or polar regions. For a century, we have suspected that predation helps explain this. The idea is that competition through predation drives evolution among prey species, which in turn encourages evolution among predators. If more predation occurred in the tropical seas for some reason, they could be why they have become more diverse over time than the cooler seas nearer the poles. If this idea is correct, then predators should be most active near the equator, and so this is where fishing vessels should catch the most of them. But they don’t, according to research led by Marius Roesti at the University of Bern, Switzerland. Roesti and his colleagues collated data from different fishing commissions around the world. Every commercial fishing vessel must report the number of fish that it catches in the open ocean, and what species those fish belong to. Using data gathered between 1960 and 2014, the researchers looked at the number of hooks set in a given place in the ocean at a given time and the number of predatory fish that were caught. In total, the data consisted of more than 900 million caught fish. Even after making allowances for the fact that fishing vessels are spread unevenly across the oceans, Roesti and his colleagues found that predatory fish were most likely to be caught in the mid-latitudes of the ocean, roughly between 30 and 60 degrees north and south of the equator, rather than the warmer tropics. The finding suggests it is here that the predators are most active and interact most with prey species.
3-31-20 Parasitic worm populations are skyrocketing in some fish species used in sushi
Researchers aren’t sure if the Anisakis worm increase signals environmental recovery or decline. “Waiter, there’s a worm in my sushi.” Diners may be more likely to utter those words today than in decades past, as the abundance of parasitic Anisakis worms infecting fishes around the globe is now 283 times what it was in the 1970s, researchers report March 19 in Global Change Biology. Worms of the genus Anisakis, also called whale worms, can cause vomiting and diarrhea in people who ingest them. Fortunately, freezing fillets kills the parasites, and farmed fish are rarely infected with them. Sushi chefs and other fish suppliers can spot and remove the worms, which can reach up to 2 centimeters in length. But the rise in worm numbers might spell bad news for some marine animals. Researchers analyzed hundreds of global scientific studies published since 1967 to assess the number of worms — both Anisakis and a related genus called Pseudoterranova — per individual fish. Overall, the data included more than 55,000 specimens of 215 fish species. In 1978, the first year for which the researchers had sufficient data for both worm groups, scientists reported finding less than one whale worm on average per 100 fish. By 2015, they were finding more than one Anisakis worm on average per individual fish. The trend held true across fish species and geographic regions, and regardless of the methods used to quantify worms, which ranged from simple dissection to dissolving fish tissues with acid. However, there was no global increase in reports of Pseudoterranova, also known as seal worms. That increase in Anisakis could be a problem for the wrigglers’ diverse hosts: The worms’ eggs can be taken up by krill, which are eaten by cephalopods like squid, which are ingested by fishes. All of these are gobbled up by whales and dolphins.
3-30-20 Peacock spiders show more of their colours
OK, a lot of people don't like arachnids. But c'mon, these little guys are simply stunning. Seven new peacock spiders have been described in the journal Zootaxa. And just like their cousins in the Maratus genus, they all live in Australia and they all feature those amazing iridescent colours that the males will flaunt during courtship. The man behind the descriptions is Museums Victoria's Joseph Schubert, a 22-year-old peacock spider specialist. He's now written up 12 of the 85 known species in this group. He often gets sent specimens to identify, but also conducts fieldwork. The names of the new species are Maratus azureus, Maratus constellatus, Maratus laurenae, Maratus noggerup, Maratus suae, Maratus volpei, and Maratus inaquosus. Most are from Western Australia. "My favourite species would have to be Maratus constellatus," he said. "I ventured all the way to Kalbarri to find this species which is about a seven-hour drive north of Perth. The patterns on the abdomen to me just look so much like Starry Night by van Gogh, hence the name constellatus which means starry in Latin. "A few of the spiders in this paper were named after the people who had discovered them. A lot of the species are actually discovered by citizen scientists who'd documented the locality data and taken photos of the spiders and sent images to me. Considering how many peacock spider species have been discovered in the past few years, I certainly think that there are more out there to be found." Peacock spiders are generally very small, about the size of a grain of rice. It's the males that sport the ostentatious colouring; females have a more mottled look made up of browns, blacks and beiges. Males will wave their abdomens and legs during a courtship dance. Some even have flaps that can be extended like a fan - hence the association with peacock birds. There has been a flurry of new species discoveries in recent years, and given their popularity it's likely many more previously unrecognised species will be identified in the future as people go looking for them.
3-27-20 There’s no evidence the coronavirus jumped from pangolins to people
But the animals do host viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2. Pangolins can harbor coronaviruses related to the new coronavirus, a study finds. Scientists studied viruses in pangolins (Manis javanica) captured in anti-smuggling activities in southern China. The identified coronaviruses, however, are different enough from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to hint that pangolins were not directly responsible for transmitting the virus to people, which had been suggested. One of the pangolin viruses does have a structure that closely resembles the new coronavirus’ spike protein, which allows the pathogen to get into cells, infectious disease researcher Tommy Tsan-Yuk Lam of the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong and colleagues report March 26 in Nature. The closest relative of SARS-CoV-2 is still from a bat, the only other known mammal found to be infected with similar coronaviruses. The new coronavirus’ similarity to both a bat virus and a pangolin virus suggests that viruses from the two animals may have exchanged genes at some point before infecting people (SN: 3/26/20). The pangolin viruses, however, lack a feature seen in SARS-CoV-2 that may have helped the virus make the leap to humans — a hint that the virus may have acquired an adaptation in another, not yet identified, animal before spreading around the globe. Pangolins, while perhaps not directly involved in SARS-CoV-2 jumping to humans, should be handled carefully to prevent the viruses they carry from infecting people, the team writes. The animals are the most illegally trafficked mammal, used both as food and in traditional Chinese medicine.
3-26-20 No, the coronavirus wasn’t made in a lab. A genetic analysis shows it’s from nature
Scientists took conspiracy theories about SARS-CoV-2’s origins seriously, and debunked them. The coronavirus pandemic circling the globe is caused by a natural virus, not one made in a lab, a new study says. The virus’s genetic makeup reveals that SARS-CoV-2 isn’t a mishmash of known viruses, as might be expected if it were human-made. And it has unusual features that have only recently been identified in scaly anteaters called pangolins, evidence that the virus came from nature, Kristian Andersen and his colleagues report March 17 in Nature Medicine. When Andersen, an infectious disease researcher at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., first heard about the coronavirus causing an outbreak in China, he wondered where the virus came from. Initially, researchers thought the virus was being spread by repeated infections jumping from animals in a seafood market in Wuhan, China, into humans and then being passed person to person. Analysis from other researchers has since suggested that the virus probably jumped only once from an animal into a person and has been spread human to human since about mid-November (SN: 3/4/20). But shortly after the virus’s genetic makeup was revealed in early January, rumors began bubbling up that maybe the virus was engineered in a lab and either intentionally or accidentally released. An unfortunate coincidence fueled conspiracy theorists, says Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University in New Orleans. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is “in very close proximity to” the seafood market, and has conducted research on viruses, including coronaviruses, found in bats that have potential to cause disease in people. “That led people to think that, oh, it escaped and went down the sewers, or somebody walked out of their lab and went over to the market or something,” Garry says.
3-26-20 Coronavirus: Pangolins found to carry viruses related to Covid-19
Smuggled pangolins have been found to carry viruses closely related to the one sweeping the world. Scientists say the sale of the animals in wildlife markets should be strictly prohibited to minimise the risk of future outbreaks. Pangolins are the most-commonly illegally trafficked mammal, used both as food and in traditional medicine. In research published in the journal Nature, researchers say handling these animals requires "caution". And they say further surveillance of wild pangolins is needed to understand their role in the risk of future transmission to humans. Despite confirmation that pangolins carry viruses closely related to Covid-19 (also known as SARS-CoV-2), exactly how the virus jumped from wild animals to humans remains a mystery. The horseshoe bat and now the pangolin have both been implicated, but the precise sequence of events is unknown. Commenting on the study, Dr Dan Challender of the University of Oxford, said pangolins are known to host various strains of coronaviruses. He added: "Identifying the source of SARS-CoV-2 is important to understand the emergence of the current pandemic, and in preventing similar events in the future." The ant-devouring scaly mammal, said to be the most widely trafficked mammal in the world, is threatened with extinction. The animal's scales are in high demand in Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine, while pangolin meat is considered a delicacy. Elisa Panjang of Cardiff University, a pangolin conservation officer at the Danau Field Centre in Malaysia, said it would be devastating if the report led to persecution of pangolins. "This is the time for the international community to pressure their governments to end illegal wildlife trade," she said. China has moved to ban the consumption of meat from wild animals in the wake of the outbreak. Similar moves are being considered in Vietnam.
3-25-20 Coronavirus: Calls to protect great apes from threat of infection
Conservation experts are calling for urgent action to protect our closest living relatives, the great apes, from the threat of coronavirus. New measures are needed to reduce the risk of wild gorillas, chimps and orangutans encountering the virus, scientists warn in a letter in Nature. Habitat loss and poaching are big threats to the survival of great apes, but viruses are also a concern. Scientists say the current outbreak warrants the utmost caution. Infectious disease is now listed among the top three threats to some great ape groups. "We do not know what the effect of the virus on them is and that means we have to take the precautionary principle and reduce the risk that they will get the virus," said Prof Serge Wich of Liverpool John Moores University, UK, who is a co-signatory of the letter. "That means halting tourism, which is happening in several countries already, reducing research, being very cautious with reintroduction programmes, but also potentially halting infrastructure and extractive projects in great ape habitats which bring people in closer contact with great apes and thus potentially spread this virus to them." While many viruses, bacteria and parasites circulate in great apes without causing harm, some are known to cause disease. Past research has shown that chimps can contract the common cold virus, while the Ebola virus is thought to have killed thousands of chimpanzees and gorillas in Africa. Prof Wich said a detailed assessment was needed of all projects in great ape habitats to evaluate what the risks are. "For species with low numbers such as the Tapanuli orangutan, a virus spread could potentially bring them even closer to extinction," he said. There are four types of great apes alive today: gorillas (Africa), bonobos (Africa), orangutans (SE Asia), and chimpanzees (Africa). Humans are closely related to great apes, sharing a common ancestor several million years ago.
3-24-20 Mammal study explains 'why females live longer'
A new study that looks at lifespan in wild mammals shows that females live substantially longer than males. The research finds that, on average, females live 18.6% longer than males from the same species. This is much larger than the well-studied difference between men and women, which is around 8%. The scientists say the differences in these other mammals are due to a combination of sex-specific traits and local environmental factors. In every human population, women live longer than men, so much so that nine out of 10 people who live to be 110 years old are female. This pattern, researchers say, has been consistent since the first accurate birth records became available in the 18th Century. While the same assumption has been held about animal species, large-scale data on mammals in the wild has been lacking, Now, an international team of researchers has examined age-specific mortality estimates for a widely diverse group of 101 species. In 60% of the analysed populations, the scientists found that females outlived the males - on average, they had a lifespan that's 18.6% longer than males. "The magnitude of lifespan and ageing across species is probably an interaction between environmental conditions and sex-specific genetic variations," said lead author Dr Jean-Francois Lemaître, from the University of Lyon, France. He gives the example of bighorn sheep for which the researchers had access to good data on different populations. Where natural resources were consistently available there was little difference in lifespan. However, in one location where winters were particularly severe, the males lived much shorter lives. "Male bighorn sheep use lots of resources towards sexual competition, towards the growth of a large body mass, and they might be more sensitive to environmental conditions," said Dr Lemaître. "So clearly the magnitude of the difference in lifespan is due to the interaction of these sex-specific genetics, the fact that males devote more resources towards specific functions compared with females, and to the local environmental conditions." Even if females lived longer than males, the team found that it did not mean that the risks of dying are increasing more in males than females as they get older. The expected male mortality is always higher, but the rate of mortality is about the same in both genders as they age.
3-20-20 Natural history TV 'boosts species awareness'
Programmes, such as Sir David Attenborough's Planet Earth II series, boost people's awareness and interest in species, a study has suggested. Despite lacking an overt conservation message, the programmes stimulated people to find out more about the species featured in the broadcasts. The team from University College Cork based their findings on analysing data from Twitter and Wikipedia. The findings have been published in Conservation Letters journal. The researchers said their results appeared to show that "natural history films can provide vicarious connection to nature and can generate durable shifts in audience awareness". Co-author Dario Fernandez-Bellon said that he and co-author Dr Adam Kane decided to carry out the study after the Planet Earth II series attracted some criticism for not carrying a more overt conservation message. The scientists decided to investigate the initial criticism more closely, using "big data" collated from Twitter and Wikipedia, to see if there was an issue that needed to be highlighted. "We found that there was, in fact, very little of the script dedicated to conservation," observed Dr Fernandez-Bellon, "and that barely had any impact on Twitter, let alone Wikipedia." But the researchers found that there was a clear link when it came to the species featured in the programmes. "What we found was that people's reactions and interest in species was mainly led by how long they were on screen, and independent of whether they were mammals, birds or reptiles," he told BBC News. In other words, the creatures did not have to be so-called "charismatic species" in order to attract attention.
3-19-20 Penguins call out as they hunt under water but we’re not sure why
Whales, dolphins, seals and even sea turtles can vocalise under water – and scientists have discovered that penguins can, too. It is the first time seabirds have been found to produce sound under water. “The use of acoustic signals at sea could potentially enhance seabirds’ foraging success, but this remains largely unexplored,” says Andréa Thiebault at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa. Thiebault and her colleagues taped cameras with audio recorders to the backs of six king penguins, 10 gentoo penguins and two macaroni penguins at Marion Island, South Africa. The recording equipment was housed in aluminium tubes to withstand pressures at depths of up to 300m, where these animals hunt. The team recorded 203 vocalisations from all three species during 4 hours and 43 minutes of underwater footage. The sounds were very short chirps – 0.06 seconds on average – and very different from the penguins’ intensively studied land vocalisations, which are around 3 seconds long, much louder and include a variety of different sounds. “It is challenging and so exciting to study such little-known behaviour,” says team member Thierry Aubin at the National Centre for Scientific Research in France. Prior to the study, the team had been studying how Cape gannets and African penguins interact with their own species on the surface of the sea during foraging trips. “With African penguins, we found their calling increased in frequency when they went out feeding on their own. This told us that they call to aggregate or attract other penguins… as their foraging success is greater when they forage in groups,” says Pierre Pistorius at Nelson Mandela University. While they’re still figuring out what the penguins are saying under water, most of the vocalisations took place just before capturing prey. Pistorius says the calls could mean anything from “Hooray, food!” to “Help me catch it”. They might even be used to disorientate prey.
3-19-20 World’s highest mammal discovered at the top of a Mars-like volcano
At the summit of Llullaillaco, a volcano in the Andes that rises 6739 metres above sea level, lives a mouse. It is the highest dwelling mammal in the world – and how it survives in an environment so hostile that it has been compared to Mars has left scientists baffled. Life isn’t easy at the top of Llullaillaco. Average temperatures are -15°C and the air pressure is so low that there is less than half as much oxygen in each lungful of air as at sea level. Humans can’t survive for long at the peak. In 1999, archaeologists uncovered the frozen and perfectly preserved mummies of three Inca children who had been drugged and left to die on the summit 500 years ago, as part of a ritual sacrifice. But the yellow-rumped leaf-eared mouse (Phyllotis xanthopygus) apparently thrives here. Mountaineers have reported seeing mice near the top of Llullaillaco, so last month an international team of biologists journeyed to the Andes to investigate. The team, led by Jay Storz at the University of Nebraska and Guillermo D’Elía at the Austral University of Chile, spent weeks studying mice at a range of elevations before Storz and a colleague journeyed to the peak of Llullaillaco, where they spotted and trapped a mouse. “I felt like I was staggering around up there,” says Storz, describing how difficult it was to move at such high altitude. “But the mouse didn’t seem too impaired.” What makes the fact that mice are so active on the volcano’s peak even more astonishing is that they are so small. “They lose heat so much more easily because they have a higher surface area to volume ratio,” says Graham Scott at McMaster University in Canada. “They’re having to generate lots of body heat to keep warm, but they’re doing it even though there is very little oxygen available.”
3-18-20 Wasps may benefit us as much as bees. Could we learn to love them?
We love to hate wasps, but they pollinate flowers, kill off pests and their venom might even help us treat cancer. EVERYBODY loves bees. They are celebrated for their glorious honey, cooperative work ethic and commercially valuable pollination services. In a 2019 survey, 55 per cent of respondents chose bees as the species they most wanted to save, above the likes of elephants and tigers. How differently we see wasps. These most unwelcome picnic guests have been reviled for millennia. Ancient Greek essayist Plutarch described wasps as degenerate bees. The very word “waspish” summons up ideas of irritability, implying they are quick to anger, spiteful and vindictive. And that’s just the regular wasp or yellow jacket. Our attitudes to the largest wasp species, hornets, are even more negative. The tabloids hawk horror stories about how the invasive Asian hornet, Vespa velutina, threatens honey production and native pollinators in the UK. Meanwhile, persecution of the huge but docile European hornet, Vespa crabro, continues, fuelled by fear and ignorance, even though its numbers are declining. Few people seem to care. But are we judging this diverse group of insects unfairly? Certainly, our perceptions are ill-informed. There are whole institutes dedicated to studying bees, while wasp research is in the doldrums. Limited funds attract few projects, the results of which are often misconstrued in the press, bolstering an already negative stereotype. In fact, what we have learned about wasps tells a different story. Far from being bothersome and vindictive, they make valuable contributions to ecosystems, the economy and even our health. Take ecosystem services – a buzz phrase of our time that means the quantifiable benefits nature provides for us. Honeybees may be the prime pollinators of many cultivated fruit crops, but wasps and other insects pollinate most wild flowers. Indeed, some plants rely exclusively on wasps. Among them are almost 100 species of orchids, including helleborines. These widespread but scarce plants of woodland edges have a cunning trick to entice pollinators. Their flowers produce the sort of volatile chemicals that other plants emit when under attack from caterpillars, which lure predatory wasps hoping to find prey. The wasps then sip the nectar in the orchid flowers, which contains soporific agents – possibly alcohol from fungal contaminants – that slow them down, increasing the likelihood they will pick up pollen. Without their tipsy wasp pollinators, these elegant plants would become extinct.
3-17-20 An AI that mimics how mammals smell recognizes scents better than other AI
This kind of algorithm could be used in testing air quality or diagnosing medical conditions. When it comes to identifying scents, a “neuromorphic” artificial intelligence beats other AI by more than a nose. The new AI learns to recognize smells more efficiently and reliably than other algorithms. And unlike other AI, this system can keep learning new aromas without forgetting others, researchers report online March 16 in Nature Machine Intelligence. The key to the program’s success is its neuromorphic structure, which resembles the neural circuitry in mammalian brains more than other AI designs. This kind of algorithm, which excels at detecting faint signals amidst background noise and continually learning on the job, could someday be used for air quality monitoring, toxic waste detection or medical diagnoses. The new AI is an artificial neural network, composed of many computing elements that mimic nerve cells to process scent information (SN: 5/2/19). The AI “sniffs” by taking in electrical voltage readouts from chemical sensors in a wind tunnel that were exposed to plumes of different scents, such as methane or ammonia. When the AI whiffs a new smell, that triggers a cascade of electrical activity among its nerve cells, or neurons, which the system remembers and can recognize in the future. Like the olfactory system in the mammal brain, some of the AI’s neurons are designed to react to chemical sensor inputs by emitting differently timed pulses. Other neurons learn to recognize patterns in those blips that make up the odor’s electrical signature. This brain-inspired setup primes the neuromorphic AI for learning new smells more than a traditional artificial neural network, which starts as a uniform web of identical, blank slate neurons. If a neuromorphic neural network is like a sports team whose players have assigned positions and know the rules of the game, an ordinary neural network is initially like a bunch of random newbies.
3-13-20 Dogs’ heat-seeking noses
Scientists may have solved one of the great mysteries of the animal kingdom, reports ScienceMag.org: why dogs have cold, wet noses. Most mammals have smooth, dry skin around the edges of their nostrils, an area known as the rhinarium. But dogs rhinaria are moist, colder than the ambient temperature, and packed with nerves. Vampire bats have cool patches near their noses that act as heat detectors, so researchers in Sweden and Hungary wondered if canine rhinaria might work in a similar way, helping them track warm-blooded prey. To test this theory, scientists trained three pet dogs to identify which of two identical 4-inch wide objects had been warmed to about 22 degrees Fahrenheit above room temperature. All of the dogs were able to identify the hotter object at a distance of 5 feet. Scientists then scanned the brains of 13 dogs as they were exposed to a warm object and one kept at room temperature. Sure enough, the part of the brain linked to the dogs’ noses became more active when the pooches were shown the warm object. “It’s a fascinating discovery,” says Marc Bekoff, an expert on canine sniffing at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who wasn’t involved in the study. It “provides yet another window into the sensory worlds of dogs’ highly evolved cold noses.”
3-12-20 Top 10 garden pests and diseases revealed
The box tree caterpillar has come top of the list of gardeners' concerns for the third year in a row. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) said it was the number one pest inquiry last year, as it continues to spread across the UK. The alder leaf beetle, which feeds on the leaves of trees, entered the top 10 for only the second time. The beetle has recently become re-established in some parts of England. Honey fungus was the top concern in terms of diseases, while other types of fungi took advantage of the warm wet weather to attack fruit trees. The RHS has analysed thousands of gardener enquiries for its latest tally of top 10 diseases and pests. The charity is conducting research into controls for the box tree caterpillar, focusing on the use of nematodes. Meanwhile, a research project is under way to identify different slug species and what tempts them into gardens. Matthew Cromey, principal scientist at the RHS, said the research will help increase biosecurity and provide best practice. "Pests and diseases are among the main challenges we face as climate change affects our gardens and horticulture more widely," he said. "We want to develop a nation of gardeners equipped and motivated to deal with the challenges of our changing world."
3-11-20 This is the first deep-sea fish known to be a mouthbreeder
Scientists found over 500 eggs attached to the inside of a parazen’s mouth. Most fish are broadcast spawners, casting their eggs and sperm in clouds and leaving their young to develop alone. But a tiny minority — about 2 percent — are “mouthbreeders,” keeping their fertilized eggs (and sometimes hatchlings) protected in their mouths. Now, a study reveals the first fish known from the deep sea to mouthbrood, researchers report February 27 in Scientific Reports. In 2015, ichthyologist Randy Singer, now at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology in Ann Arbor, was identifying fish spotted by a remotely operated underwater vehicle for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Okeanos Explorer ship. A red-glinting fish flashed by the vehicle’s camera some 500 meters deep, near Puerto Rico. Later, Singer identified the fish as a parazen (Parazen pacificus), a poorly known species found in the deep West Atlantic and West Pacific. Upon learning about parazens’ disjointed range, Singer suspected these fish were actually multiple species, not just a single species. He started examining and comparing museum specimens from both oceans. When examining one specimen from a fish market in Taiwan, Singer peeled back its gill cover to count structures on its gills, and got a surprise. “There was just this big, gnarly clump of something in its mouth,” Singer says. Initially thinking the female parazen had gobbled up another fish’s eggs, he looked closer and saw that the membrane-enveloped masses were attached to the inside of the mouth by “alienlike tendrils.” Clearly, Singer says, the eggs were being held in the mouth deliberately. He and his colleagues used CT scanning to count an estimated 530 developing embryos. Deep-sea fishes normally spawn externally, and their young migrate to more productive shallow waters before returning as adults to the food-scarce deep. But mouthbrooding is a comparatively costly investment. Some shallow water mouthbreeders eat with a mouth full of eggs, which is more difficult and costs more energy, and others abstain from eating entirely as the young develop, draining energy reserves. That parazen would invest so much in protecting their young in such scarcity begs for further investigation, Singer says.
3-10-20 Brazilian toads that eat scorpions can survive the venom of 10 stings
A South American toad species gobbles up venomous scorpions – and it is unfazed by a dose of venom equivalent to 10 scorpion stings. Carlos Jared and his colleagues at the Butantan Institute in São Paulo, Brazil, studied yellow cururu toads (Rhinella icterica) – named after the male’s colouration and melodious call – as they feasted on yellow scorpions (Tityus serrulatus). Both animals are common in Brazil, but until now only anecdotal observations suggested these toads prey on scorpions. This is the first study of the behaviour. “I was surprised at the toads’ great ability to eat scorpions as if they were any other inoffensive prey,” says Jared. “In humans, a single sting from the yellow scorpion causes terrible pain and can even kill, especially children and the elderly.” Brazil now has more than 140,000 scorpion sting cases annually, the main offender being the yellow scorpion. Shrinking habitats have forced them into cities where they lack predators. Females can self-reproduce without a male, helping them proliferate. Meanwhile, the toads are often persecuted with salt and bleach for being “repugnant pests”. Jared hopes they will now receive praise as natural scorpion-exterminators. After placing them in large plastic boxes with a layer of soil at the bottom, the researchers gave 10 toads two chances to catch and eat a yellow scorpion within a 5-minute period. Seven toads ate both scorpions, two ate just one and one toad didn’t catch any. Videos showed that, before swallowing, a toad would swiftly load a scorpion into its mouth with its tongue, front legs and jaws. Analysis of the footage suggests that the toads were stung inside the mouth, yet they remained unharmed. To see if the scorpion’s venom affects the toads, the researchers injected them with five times the dose that would kill a mouse – or the equivalent of 10 scorpion stings. All survived and seemed unshaken.
3-10-20 The million-dollar trade in trafficked rosewood trees
The Rosewood tree is one of the most trafficked species on earth. When it's cut it bleeds a blood red sap. Having exhausted stocks elsewhere, Chinese traders have turned to West Africa. BBC Africa Eye are in Senegal where it is illegal to fell or export a Rosewood tree. And yet, we can reveal they are been logged and smuggled at an alarming rate. From the forests of Casamance, through the port of neighbouring Gambia and all the way onto China. For a year BBC Africa Eye with Umaru Fofana has been investigating the million-dollar trade in trafficked rosewood.
3-10-20 Urban pollinators make beeline for native violet blooms
Bumblebees in towns and cities prefer violet coloured native flowers to other available blooms, a study has shown. The researchers behind the work say the needs of urban pollinators are often overlooked for other factors, such as aesthetics. Almost 30% of bumblebee species in Europe are estimated to be threatened or near threatened with extinction. The findings have been published in the Urban Forestry & Urban Greening journal. "This trend is related to habitat loss as a result of agriculture intensification, urban development and climate change," the team of scientists wrote. The decline of bumblebees and other pollinators has been causing concern as the insects play a key role in the pollination of crops we rely upon for food and resources. The researchers noted that urban areas were becoming increasingly important habitats for pollinators because the world was urbanising rapidly and there were sharp changes in land management. "Cities promote the occurrence of bee species by the richness of flower plants," they observed. However, they added: "The selection of plants in urban spaces is more and more dictated by aesthetic and marketing reasons, which is not necessarily related to plants' attractiveness for pollinators." The study outlined that exotic flower species were often unattractive to native pollinators as many of the species available in garden centres were "sterile hybrids" that had lost the ability to produce pollen and nectar. "In the face of the progressive decline in bumblebee numbers and species richness, [bumblebee] protection has become a necessity," they warned. "Bumblebees more often opt for violet-coloured (native) flowers". They recommended the enrichment of "habitats in food plants that meet the requirement of individual bumblebees species" as the best way to "secure their basic life needs". eneficial for architects, urban planners, landscape managers and residents themselves.
3-10-20 Sea turtles may confuse the smell of ocean plastic with food
The reptiles respond to both scents by sniffing more, a key foraging behavior. To a sea turtle, plastic debris might smell like dinner. As the plastic detritus of modern human life washes into oceans, marine creatures of all kinds interact with and sometimes eat it (SN: 11/13/19). Recent research suggests that this is no accident. Plastic that’s been stewing in the ocean emits a chemical that, to some seabirds and fish, smells a lot like food (SN: 11/9/16). That chemical gas, dimethyl sulfide, is also produced by phytoplankton, a key food source for many marine animals. Now, scientists have determined that loggerhead sea turtles may also confuse the smell of plastic with food, according to a study published March 9 in Current Biology. Over two weeks in January 2019, 15 captive loggerheads in tanks were exposed at the water surface to a slew of scents, including the largely neutral scent of water as a control, of food such as shrimp and of new and ocean-soaked plastic. The turtles (Caretta caretta) largely ignored smells of water and clean plastic. But when the scientists puffed air containing scents of either food or ocean-stewed plastic, the reptiles increased their sniffing above water — a typical foraging behavior. In fact, those responses to food and ocean-soaked plastic were indistinguishable to the researchers, suggesting that the plastic can induce foraging behavior in sea turtles, the team says. That might explain why sea turtles get entangled in or eat plastic, which can be harmful. Along with previous research, this study expands the breadth of marine life that may confuse plastic with food.
3-9-20 Why plastic is a deadly attraction for sea turtles
Scientists have new evidence to explain why plastic is dangerous to sea turtles: the animals mistake the scent of plastic for food. Thus, a plastic bag floating in the sea not only looks like a jellyfish snack, but it gives off a similar odour. This "olfactory trap" might help explain why sea turtles are prone to eating and getting entangled in plastic, say US researchers. Plastic debris is rapidly accumulating in the oceans. The likes of plastics bags, netting and bottles pose a threat to hundreds of marine species, including endangered turtles, birds and whales. Odours given off by floating or submerged plastics were an "olfactory trap" for sea turtles, said Dr Joseph Pfaller of the University of Florida, Gainesville. "Plastics that have spent time in the ocean develop smells that turtles are attracted to and this is an evolutionary adaptation for finding food, but it has now become a problem for turtles because they're attracted to the smells from the plastics," he said. Once plastic has been released into the ocean, microbes, algae, plants and tiny animals start to colonise it and make it their home. This creates food-like odours, which have been shown to be a magnet for fish and possibly sea birds. The new research suggests sea turtles are attracted to plastic for the same reason. Marine predators like sea turtles, whales and sea birds forage over a vast area to find food and it makes sense that they would use chemicals in the air or water to do so, said Dr Pfaller. "It's not just a visual thing - they're being attracted from probably long distances away to these garbage patches out in the open ocean." The danger of items like straws and plastic bags to sea turtles is well known. A video of a plastic straw stuck up a turtle's nose went viral on social media in 2015. Dr Pfaller said all types of plastic were a threat.
3-7-20 The case for controlling the cat population
Feral cats are an invasive species. An unfamiliar smudge suddenly appears against the forest fragment I'm birding. Voice shrill, hands waving high, I charge across the field toward it. The inky smudge vanishes into the woods. It's a cat. It has been over a year since the last cats were lurking around my yard, so the appearance of this new cat has me on edge. The previous stable tenants, next door, left a litter of kittens behind when their lease was over. I went to great lengths to trap the litter, prevent them from being eaten by the local fox, and then to rehome the three that survived. Sure, we could have left them to starve, to be attacked by wild animals, and let nature sort it all out, but cats are not a part of nature, they are a domesticated species, and when they impose upon the natural landscape they are pests; therefore, it was my responsibility to act in their best interest and in the interest of the environment. Each year over 100 different species of bird pass through my yard, which is along a main artery of the Potomac River, and sandwiched between a mountain and extensive farmland. Many species stay to breed, nest, and raise young, so when I saw that inky smudge stalking the property, I did what any true bird-lover would do: I took down my feeders and stopped attracting birds to my yard. It was an aggravating time because I wanted to be visited by my resident winged beauties, but I also felt a sense of duty to protect them from the cat, so in addition to taking my feeders down, I began cat-watching. Aside from the injury to wildlife and birds, which inevitably took place over the course of the year that little smudge stalked my yard, my main worry was that a feral cat colony might form nearby. The number of birds that outdoor cats kill per year has been estimated to be between 1.3 and 4 billion. That's a wide range, but even on the lower end, 1.3 billion is a problem. These numbers only represent birds (not reptiles or small mammals), which make up 20 percent of feral cats' prey.
3-5-20 Global rescue plan for nature 'overlooks genetic diversity'
A global plan to halt the loss of nature is "weak" in one key area, say scientists. The new 10-year strategy to stop extinction must aim to protect the gene pools of all life on earth, according to conservation experts. The action agenda must explicitly refer to the genetic diversity of all species not just those regarded as of value to humans, they say. New targets will be agreed at October's Convention on Biological Diversity. The first draft of the biodiversity plan, published in January, does not go far enough to protect the genetics of wild animals and plants, say 20 international researchers in a letter to the journal, Science. They say the goal suggested for genetic diversity is "weak" and does not explicitly state that minimising the loss of the gene pool is crucial for all species, not just a few. Prof Michael Bruford of Cardiff University, UK, said the previous target only considered domestic animals and plants, their wild relatives, and certain other species considered of importance for cultural or economic reasons. "This as you can imagine is very much an anthropocentric view of biodiversity," he said. "The purview of the genetic target has to take into account all genetics of life on earth - all life has DNA or RNA and so why would we only be considering that for species that are of value to man? "If we don't have good, sensible and explicit targets then nobody's going to even work towards conserving that diversity." The year 2020 is considered a "super year for nature", when plans to tackle biodiversity loss over the next decade will be agreed at the conference of the parties in Kunming, China. Last year, an intergovernmental panel of scientists warned that human activity is killing species in greater numbers than ever before, with an estimated one million species facing extinction within decades.
3-5-20 Illicit wildlife products 'slipping through the net'
A study has called into question the effectiveness of measures to clamp down on the illegal wildlife trade. Critically endangered eels have been sold recently in Hong Kong stores, despite bans on their international trade, according to DNA evidence. The discovery raises concerns about the scale at which illegal wildlife products are entering the supply chain, say scientists in Hong Kong. There are growing calls for global action to end wildlife trafficking. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, China has moved to ban the wildlife trade and consumption, while governments across Southeast Asia have vowed to strengthen co-operation to curb illegal wildlife trade. Dr Mark Jones of the Born Free Foundation is among international experts calling for a new global agreement on wildlife crime. Exploitation in all its forms has been identified as a key driver of wildlife and biodiversity decline, he said, which could see the extinction of a million species over the coming decades, unless we transform the way we interact with the natural world. "While there has typically been a focus on trade in and trafficking of wildlife between Africa and Asia, this is a problem affecting all corners of the world, and the dire plight of the European eel, the illegal trade in which is threatening the future existence of this species, is a very good example," he said. The European eel was once common in rivers but is now in rapid decline. The creature's epic migration extends from its Caribbean breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea to the rivers of Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia. But its status as a delicacy has attracted the attention of organised crime gangs. International trade in the eel is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), except where a permit is issued. Yet, according to the new study, the eel was available in Hong Kong stores in 2017 and 2018, despite the fact that no imports were declared.
3-4-20 What if all the wasps disappeared?
Wasps are not exactly the most-loved creatures, but they are hugely important to the eco-system - and us all.
3-4-20 China has shut all of its wild animal markets – it was long overdue
In an attempt to stem the spread of coronavirus, China has shut its wildlife markets for good. It is a welcome move, says Adam Vaughan. TEAMS in China are racing to solve the mystery of which wild animal at a Wuhan food market was the source of the coronavirus that leapt into people. Snakes, pangolins or bats? We just don’t know yet. What is clear is how seriously China is now clamping down on the trade in wildlife. Last week, the country’s highest authorities enacted a permanent ban. “It is forbidden to hunt, trade and transport terrestrial wild animals that grow and reproduce naturally in the wild for the purpose of food,” says the new law. My instinct was to applaud the news. For decades, campaigners have been calling for an end to wildlife markets in China, where animals, including those that are sick or disease-laden, are kept caged, often in poor conditions and near to people. Animal welfare is reason enough to ban them. The markets were also home to the huge under-the-counter trade in illegal fare, such as shark fins. However, there are risks that prohibiting the markets could drive the trade underground, making the situation worse. After the outbreak of the SARS coronavirus, which also came from animals, in 2002, legal markets were suspended, but people still bought wildlife on the black market and the virus still spread, said David Heymann at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine at a briefing last week. Related research backs his warning. A 2018 study led by Yin Li at the China Animal Health and Epidemiology Center found that bans by Chinese authorities on live bird markets amid the 2013 bird flu outbreak led to the spread of that virus to uninfected areas. The problem was that different provinces implemented bans at different times, meaning poultry prices would be dented in one area, motivating traders to move infected animals elsewhere. “This type of behaviour is regularly seen in many outbreaks and is also a significant problem in the containment of African swine fever,” says Chris Walzer at the Wildlife Conservation Society, a US-based charity.
3-4-20 World's only known pink manta ray spotted in the Great Barrier Reef
This pink manta ray, nicknamed Clouseau, has resurfaced off Australia’s coast. No one knows why it has a bubble-gum pink underside or if there are others out there. THIS reef manta ray (Mobula alfredi) has stolen hearts all over the world. Seldom photographed since its discovery in 2015, the pink fish recently went viral when photographer Kristian Laine captured it swimming through the Great Barrier Reef near Lady Elliot Island, off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Laine didn’t realise at the time that he had seen the only known pink manta ray in the world, affectionately dubbed Inspector Clouseau after the protagonist of the Pink Panther franchise. He told the website ScienceAlert that he had never heard of a pink manta when he first saw it, and initially thought his camera wasn’t working properly. The more than 3-metre-long manta ray elicited a similar reaction when it was first photographed by Ryan Jeffrey, a regular diver off Lady Elliot Island. Scientists aren’t certain what gives Clouseau the pink hue on its underside. Project Manta, a research group at the University of Queensland, took a skin sample from the fish in 2016 and decided its colour wasn’t caused by diet or infection. The most likely explanation is that its pink hue is due to a genetic mutation in a protein that expresses the pigment melanin. Many fish have this mutation, but it usually results in albinism. Guy Stevens, CEO of conservation group Manta Trust, has speculated that Clouseau’s existence suggests there may be manta rays of other unusual colours out there.
3-4-20 This desert ant can run at the equivalent of 600 kilometres per hour
Desert ants zigzag around the searing sand at high speed but they always manage to find their way home. A new book explains their amazing abilities. “CATAGLYPHIS is only an ant, but truly what an ant,” writes Rüdiger Wehner in the prologue to Desert Navigator. A chapter into his new book, I also came under the spell of this long-legged “racehorse of the insect world” and the staggering navigational skills that emerge from the 500,000 neurons in its brain, which weighs less than a tenth of a milligram. As a young biologist, Wehner fell for them when he visited a Tunisian salt pan and saw one pick up a dead insect and sprint 100 metres across the featureless desert to its inconspicuous nest hole. How did the ant know where to go? Fifty years later, thanks to Wehner, now director emeritus of the Institute of Zoology at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and the researchers he inspired, we have many of the answers, laid out in this grand book. As Wehner realised early on, Cataglyphis is a “model organism” for studying animal navigation. The ants run about on flat, open surfaces, so it is easy to track them and explore their talents. The secrets revealed in five decades of research are extraordinary. One of the first surprises is that these ants can do what human navigators call “dead reckoning”: keeping a continuous tally of both direction and distance covered so that they can always compute the direction of home. As their compass, the ants use the polarisation pattern of the sky, as well as Earth’s magnetic field and the desert wind. Gauging distance is done with a “pedometer” – the ant counts its steps – and by sensing the “optic flow”, or relative motion, of the ground beneath it as it runs.
3-2-20 Sticking fish in VR lets us study their brains as they virtually swim
If you have ever used virtual reality, you may know how disorienting it is when the image you are seeing doesn’t quite match up with your movement – and zebrafish may experience this, too. Studying how these fish react to virtual environments can give us a closer look at how they perceive the world and make decisions.F “It tells us something quite exciting about zebrafish, which is that they appear to have an internal model of the world that they use to predict consequences of their own behaviour,” says Rainer Friedrich at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research (FMI) in Switzerland. He and his colleagues used a specialised VR rig to look at the neurons of adult zebrafish to study brain activity in immobilised adult fish. The set-up let the fish mimic horizontal swimming movements and interactions with other fish in a virtual environment. To do this, the researchers glued steel bars to the heads of 26 zebrafish and fixed these to a solid mount so the fish could only swim on the spot. The fish were placed in a tank with a 3D virtual environment projected onto the walls. The researchers could predict which direction the fish were trying to swim based on their tail movements, allowing the projection to be updated accordingly. They also modified the VR projection for a 10-second period, during which the direction that the fish swam in was opposite to the expected direction. For example, when the fish tried to swim left, they saw themselves moving to the right instead. About 70 per cent of the fish made more intense tail movements when this happened, but there was a 2-second delay in their response on average. Using a fluorescence imaging technique called two-photon microscopy, the researchers imaged the zebrafish’s brains to try to determine what part of them triggered this activity.
3-2-20 Bright yellow spots help some orb weaver spiders lure their next meal
Bees and moths appear strongly attracted to the markings on the arachnids. Many orb weaver spiders sport yellowish stripes or spots on their undersides, and for a good reason. That color yellow tempts bees and flies into a spider’s web, a new study suggests. Orb weaver spiders get their name because they spin and sit on circular webs (SN: 8/8/17). But these spiders and their bright colors are a paradox. Why would a predator that relies on stealth for its next meal look so conspicuous? Scientists have hypothesized that bright colors on orb weaver spiders might serve to warn predators, to blend into vegetation or to attract prey. In the new study, researchers examined if yellow colorations on a species of golden orb weaver spider (Nephila pilipes) attract their flying insect prey. Found across Asia, this spider sits on its web day and night with its underside — mottled and striped yellow on black — facing open space. The team found more than 250 wild N. pilipes females in the wild. They removed each female and either left its web vacant or replaced it with a cardboard spider. These cardboard models had paper strips of yellow, blue or black color glued onto them. After almost 1,800 hours of video recording the faux arachnids, the team found that during the daytime, the yellow-striped model that resembled a real N. pilipes attracted more than twice as many insects, including bees and flies, as any other fake spider or empty web. What’s more, the yellow color worked just as well at night attracting moths, the scientists report online February 11 in Functional Ecology. The team then scoured online zoological databases for associations between yellow markings and prey attraction in orb weaver spiders. Surveying dozens of distantly related species revealed that yellow stripes or spots were more likely to have evolved in orb weaver spiders that sit on their webs in open, bright spaces, where visual baits may be more effective.