4-30-20 Vampire bats practise social distancing when they feel ill
It turns out that humans aren’t the only species that practices social distancing in response to infectious diseases. Two new studies have revealed that vampire bats become socially and physically isolated from other colony members when they feel ill. “Vampire bats are extremely social,” says Sebastian Stockmaier at the University of Texas at Austin. These bats form strong ties not only with their kin, he says, but also with other members of their colony, building relationships through grooming and food-sharing. Stockmaier and his colleagues were interested in how these relationships might be affected by disease, so they simulated this process in captive colonies of common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) in Panama. They injected some bats with a component of bacterial cell walls called lipopolysaccharide (LPS) that induces an immune response, making the bats feel and act ill. The researchers then recorded the calls that the bats make for initiating social contact and facilitating physical interactions, comparing their frequency between those who had been injected with LPS and those who hadn’t . In a separate study, the same researchers tracked grooming and food-sharing between LPS-injected bats and their colony mates. They found that the bats that felt ill made 30 per cent fewer contact calls than their healthy-feeling counterparts. The bats that felt ill were also more physically isolated from colony members, though there were exceptions. In general, LPS-injected bats both gave and received less grooming from unrelated bats, but mothers that felt ill still groomed their offspring, who returned the favour even if they felt ill too. These priorities make sense to Krista Patriquin at the University of Toronto Mississauga in Canada, who wasn’t involved in this research.
4-29-20 Tiger survival threatened by mass road-building in precious habitats
More than half the world’s dwindling wild tiger population are threatened by roads built dangerously close to their habitats, and giant infrastructure projects planned across Asia could put tigers at even greater risk. Tigers habitats have shrunk by 40 per cent since 2006, leaving fewer than 4000 of the animals in the wild. Those living near roads are particularly vulnerable because they are at risk of being hit by vehicles, have more difficulties finding food, and are easier for poachers to find. Using a global dataset, Neil Carter at the University of Michigan and his colleagues calculated that the tiger’s current range, which mostly spans south and south-east Asia, contains 134,000 kilometres of roads. Based on average tiger density, they estimated that 57 per cent of tigers live within 5 kilometres of these roads, which is considered dangerously close. This proximity to roads could be decreasing the world’s tiger population by more than 20 per cent, the researchers’ modelling suggests. Nearly 24,000 kilometres of new roads are planned for construction within the tiger’s range by 2050, which will make it even harder for the animals to avoid these hazards. For example, Nepal is planning a large road network that will connect all of its villages. This project, along with China’s Belt and Road Initiative – which is the world’s largest ever infrastructure project – will create new routes through the forests of south and south-east Asia. These projects could be disastrous if care is not taken to minimise their impacts on local tiger populations, says Carter. “Once roads are built they have lasting effects that cannot be undone,” he says. New roads could be made more tiger-friendly by building them away from key tiger populations, banning overnight traffic, installing road signs to alert drivers to the presence of tigers, and building tiger-friendly crossings that allow a passageway for wildlife to safely cross between forests flanking the road, says Carter. These have been built on roads and highways in Malaysia.
4-29-20 Coronavirus: Fears for future of endangered chimps in Nigeria
An award-winning conservationist says she fears for the future of some of the world's most endangered chimps. Devastated by hunting and deforestation, they now face a threat from coronavirus, says Rachel Ashegbofe Ikemeh, project director of The South-West/Niger Delta Forest Project. The pandemic is bringing to the fore issues such as wildlife trade and consumption, she says. And it's time for conservationists to speak up and advocate change. "There should be changes, there should be regulations, and there should be policies that would bring an end to wildlife trade, and especially the bushmeat markets," she told BBC News. With forests lost to farming and logging, chimpanzee habitat has been fast disappearing across Africa. And poaching is also a grave threat, with chimps hunted for their body parts or taken alive and sold as pets. The forests of southwestern Nigeria harbour populations of the most endangered of all chimp groups, the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee sub-species (Pan troglodytes ellioti). About 100 chimpanzees live in two forested areas, making up an "extremely precious and extremely endangered" distinct population, says Rachel Ashegbofe Ikemeh, who has won a "Green Oscar" from the Whitley Fund for her work. She will use the money to work with the government to establish conservation areas and to advocate for tougher laws to protect wildlife. Many wildlife preservation laws in the region were created decades ago and are now in need of reform. A reserve in the Ise Forest has recently been approved by Nigeria's Ekiti state government, following years of campaigning. Despite this "good news", she fears for the chimps' future if coronavirus strikes. "The fears for the chimps are great because chimpanzees share about 98% of human genetics," she says. "They are very vulnerable to contracting or being infected by any disease that humans have."
4-29-20 Analysis of 85 animals reveals which are best at holding their alcohol
Humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, bats and other mammals with a diet that contains lots of fruit and nectar may be the best in the animal kingdom at metabolising their alcohol. Fruits and nectars are rich sources of energy that many animals rely on. However, they produce ethanol by natural fermentation, which can lead to alcohol concentrations as high as 3.1 per cent in nectars and 8.1 per cent in fruits, says Mareike Janiak at the University of Calgary in Canada. This means it was beneficial for fruit and nectar-eating animals to evolve the ability to break down alcohol quickly and avoid becoming drunk, Janiak says. “Being able to eat a lot of fruit or nectar without being subject to the effects of ethanol would certainly open up an important food resource,” Janiak says. To see how many animals have managed to do this, Janiak and her colleagues studied a gene called ADH7 in 85 different mammal species. ADH7 codes for an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 7, which helps remove the intoxicating chemicals that alcohol is converted to in our bodies. They found that mammals that regularly consume fruit or nectar are more likely to have a version of ADH7 that makes them extremely efficient at processing alcohol. This includes bonobos, aye-ayes, as well as chimpanzees, gorillas and humans – primates that shared a common ancestor “at least 10 million years ago, long before we began fermenting beverages on purpose”, says Janiak. Fruit and nectar bats are also efficient at processing alcohol, Janiak says. “Being inebriated would be bad news for a flying mammal, so being able to better metabolise ethanol could be an important adaptation for them.” In contrast, mammals whose diets generally lack fruit or nectar, such as cows, horses and elephants, are poor alcohol metabolisers, because these animals lost their functioning version of ADH7.
4-29-20 Here’s why a hero shrew has the sturdiest spine of any mammal
Dense vertebrae add strength to the little mammal’s unyielding spine. At first glance, hero shrews don’t appear to live up to their name. But these fuzzy, molelike animals are the Clark Kents of the shrew world, with superpowers hidden beneath their humble exteriors. Their backbones are like nothing else in the animal kingdom: the vertebrae interlock, making the spine extremely strong and rigid when compressed. Now a 3-D analysis of the bone structure reveals that the vertebrae are exceptionally dense, with neatly reinforcing struts that lend toughness too. That structure may provide insight into how these unique backbones may benefit the animals in nature, researchers report April 28 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Two hero shrew species (Scutisorex) can be found in the palm forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their strength astonished American and European explorers in the 1910s, when Congo’s local Mangbetu people reportedly demonstrated that an adult man could step on the animal — only the heft of a deck of cards — without causing any harm. “That story may or may not be apocryphal,” says Stephanie Smith, a vertebrate functional morphologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. That particular demonstration “certainly has not been reproduced.” The shrew’s backbone is flat on top and underneath, featuring broad side flanges with lots of fingerlike projections. To probe its strength, Smith and museum colleague Kenneth Angielczyk used a 3-D X-ray technique to scan the internal structure of vertebrae from 20 skeletal museum specimens. The skeletons were from both hero shrews and the goliath shrew (Crocidura goliath), which is similar in size to the hero shrew, but with a more standard backbone. The researchers hoped that studying the density and orientation of holes and struts in the spongey interior of the bones would reveal the magnitude and direction of forces the animals might have experienced during their lives.
4-28-20 Frozen bull semen may have unleashed bluetongue virus on farm animals
Bull semen frozen for several years before being used to inseminate a cow may have sparked an ongoing bluetongue outbreak among farm animals in Europe, according to a genetic analysis of the virus strain. “It’s the most likely explanation,” says Massimo Palmarini of the University of Glasgow, UK. Bluetongue is a viral disease spread by biting midges. It can cause a variety of symptoms, from fevers to the bluish tongues that give the disease its name. All ruminants – such as cattle, goats and deer – and camelids – llamas and alpacas – can get the disease, but it is most serious in sheep, killing many animals. It is not a threat to human health. In 2006, an outbreak began in the Netherlands. It spread to 16 countries and cost billions of euros before a vaccination effort brought it to an end in 2010. “By 2011, no cases were detected,” says Palmarini. But in 2015, the disease re-emerged in France and this latest outbreak is still ongoing. To try to work out the source of the infection, Palmarini and colleagues analysed the genetic sequences of 150 samples of the virus from both outbreaks. Viruses accumulate minor mutations as they replicate, so if the bluetongue virus had somehow circulated undetected in wild or farm animals in Europe between 2010 and 2015, it should have acquired lots of mutations. Instead, the researchers found that the 2015 strain was almost identical to strains circulating in France and Germany in 2007 and 2008 – as if it had been somehow frozen in time. That is probably exactly what happened. The virus is known to be present in the semen of infected males and can be passed to females during mating, so the team think a farmer froze semen from an infected bull around 2007 and stored it until 2015. It may have been another species, but artificial insemination is most common in cattle.
4-25-20 Colombia: Saving rare species in jungles once protected by war
Deforestation has skyrocketed in Colombia since the peace deal of 2016. BBC Security correspondent Frank Gardner joins a team of scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew on a mission into virgin tropical rainforest. They hope to discover and save rare plant species before they are destroyed and vanish forever.
4-24-20 Microwaved bamboo could be used to build super-strong skyscrapers
Scientists have created an exceptionally strong, lightweight material out of microwaved bamboo that could be used to construct the next generation of skyscrapers, cars and aeroplanes. At the moment, steel, concrete and bricks are the most commonly used construction materials, but they are non-renewable and their production contributes substantially to global greenhouse gas emissions. Bamboo, in contrast, is a fast-growing, renewable material that is already used in houses and scaffolding in many Asian countries. However, it is not strong enough in its natural form to construct tall buildings. To make bamboo stronger, Liangbing Hu at the University of Maryland in the US and his colleagues treated it with chemicals to partially remove a substance called lignin, then microwaved it to remove water. This caused the bamboo to shrink by about a third of its size and its cellulose fibres to pack together in dense layers. The tightly-packed cellulose layers were able to form strong chemical bonds called hydrogen bonds that enhanced the strength of the bamboo while still maintaining its lightness, says Hu. The tensile strength of the microwaved bamboo – or the amount of stretch it could withstand without breaking – was 6 times that of steel when compared by weight. It could also withstand slightly more compression than concrete and bricks and did not degrade when left outdoors. These properties make the material suitable for constructing skyscrapers that would be lightweight but stay stable by being strongly bolted to the ground, says Hu. It could also potentially be used to make lighter electric cars that could make up the weight with bigger batteries for travelling further, or lighter aeroplanes that require less fuel to propel them, he says. Hu’s team and other research groups have also used wood to make super-strong, renewable building materials, but bamboo has the advantage of growing faster, meaning it can be produced on a larger scale, he says. Hu and his colleagues are now planning several engineering projects to test the potential of their microwaved bamboo in real-life building contexts.
4-24-20 Earthy funk lures tiny creatures to eat and spread bacterial spores
Master chemist soil bacteria can waft a scent appetizing to springtails. The master chemists known as Streptomyces bacteria have turned a compound rich with the tangy odor of moist soil into a hitchhiking scam. This group of bacteria, the inspiration for streptomycin and other antibiotics, can release a strong, earthy whiff of what’s called geosmin. It’s not just an everyday scent for them. Some bacterial genes that regulate spore-making also can trigger geosmin production, an international research team reports April 6 in Nature Microbiology. When bacteria start making spores, geosmin wafts into the soil and attracts hungry little arthropods called springtails. They feast on the bacteria, inadvertently picking up spores that hitchhike to new territory, says Klas Flärdh, a microbiologist at Lund University in Sweden. Geosmin floats off many environmental microbes, including virtually all Streptomyces. People as well as many other animals can detect low concentrations of it. For instance, the common Drosophila lab fruit fly dedicates a circuit in its sensory wiring just to detecting geosmin, which the flies find repellant. That kind of disgust might help animals avoid microbially contaminated food. Various springtails, however, flock to the smell. Springtails abound in soil (SN: 1/19/14). The “spring” part of their name comes from a prong latched against the body that snaps loose to smack the ground in a crisis, bouncing the springtail up and away from danger. Scuttling specks of springtails showed up in unusual numbers when coauthor Paul Becher set out bits of Streptomyces bacteria forming spores under shrubbery at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp. A springtail can smell the bacterial geosmin, Becher, Flärdh and colleagues say after testing the antenna sensitivity of a pale, all-female kind popular in labs, Folsomia candida.
4-24-20 The ‘insect apocalypse’ is more complicated than it sounds
Freshwater arthropods trended upward, while terrestrial ones declined, decades of data suggest. Taking a big view of the so-called Insect Apocalypse finds some possible winners among the losers, plus a lot of things we don’t know yet. Overheated end-times terms have popped up during the last few years conveying fear that the bounty of Earth’s butterflies, beetles, bees and many other insects has started slipping away. The worry is not just about species likely to go extinct. Even species that will probably survive might be shrinking in population so much that their skimpy numbers no can longer fill their current roles in ecosystems. Now a new look at insect abundance, slanted toward North America and Europe, hints that freshwater residents are overall increasing. Data mostly gathered since the 1960s suggests that beetles, mayflies, dragonflies and other creatures that spend a good part of their lives in water have increased about 11 percent per decade, says a study in Science April 24. In contrast, land-dwelling insects shrank in abundance by about 9 percent per decade, the study says. “Insects will not disappear,” says coauthor Roel van Klink, an entomologist at the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig. He and colleagues found, however, “a lot of reason for concern” overall, he says. Van Klink first started thinking about the project in 2017, when careful, long-term monitoring of the biomass of insects flying in 63 protected nature preserves in Germany had dropped more than 75 percent over 27 years. “I doubt that’s a general phenomenon,” van Klink remembers thinking. After two months without hearing about anybody else starting a worldwide search for data, he says he realized, “I’ve got do it.” Van Klink and colleagues found 166 surveys of abundance (numbers of individuals and/or the absolute mass of insects and occasionally spiders mixed in) that ran for at least 10 years at 1,676 sites around the world. The oldest data went back to 1928, but data are most abundant from the 1980s. Researchers compared how steeply or gently the populations were falling and rising. Many of the sites already were affected heavily by humans when surveys began. For instance, he speculates that the rise in freshwater arthropod abundance may reflect some recovery as environmental laws improved water quality in the United States.
4-23-20 Reports of an insect apocalypse are overblown but still concerning
Reports of the death of insects may have been greatly exaggerated. Research out today finds that while an alarming 9 per cent of land-dwelling insects are being lost each decade, the state of the world’s insects is much more nuanced than warnings of an “insect apocalypse”. The issue came to the fore in 2017, when a study found a 75 per cent decline in flying insects across parts of Germany due to environmental pressures such as intensive farming. But fears of an insect meltdown – and the impact on the food we all rely on – really took off last year with a study by Francisco Sánchez-Bayo at the University of Sydney and his colleagues that hit front pages suggesting 2.5 per cent of insect biomass is being lost each year. Without action, the team cautioned: “Insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades.” A backlash ensued, with at least seven criticisms published in journals. A simple one was the authors had conducted keyword searches of literature for the “insect” and “decline”, but not for “increase”, which would bias their literature review. So what is the true state of the world’s insects? Entomologists say a new analysis published in the journal Science today gives a much more realistic, but no less concerning, picture. Roel van Klink at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig and his colleagues compiled data on the long-term abundance of thousands of insect species from 166 studies in 41 countries, covering declines and increases. Gergana Daskalova at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who was not involved in the study, says it is the most comprehensive to date. The analysis concluded that the number and biomass of insects is declining at 0.92 per cent a year. While much lower than the number in last year’s paper, van Klink notes that out over the course of a human generation, or 30 years, it is a decline of a quarter. “I find that quite severe and quite alarming,” he says. “The most important thing for people to realise is it’s not going bad for insects everywhere, that it’s variable.”
4-23-20 Nature crisis: 'Insect apocalypse' more complicated than thought
The global health of insect populations is far more complicated than previously thought, new data suggests. Previous research indicated an alarming decline in numbers in all parts of world, with losses of up to 25% per decade. This new study, the largest carried out to date, says the picture is more complex and varied. Land-dwelling insects are definitely declining the authors say, while bugs living in freshwater are increasing. Reports of the rapid and widespread decline of insects globally have caused great worry to scientists. The creatures are among the most abundant and diverse species on the planet and play key roles, from aerating the soil to pollination and recycling of nutrients. Case studies, such as one from nature reserves in western Germany, indicated a dramatic fall, with around a 75% decrease over 27 years. Many other, similar reports have followed. But many of these were specific to a region or a species. This new study, the largest on insect change to date, aims to give a more complete understanding of what's really happening to bugs worldwide. Drawing on data from 166 long-term surveys across 1,676 sites, it paints a highly nuanced and variable picture of the state of insect health. The compilation indicates that insects like butterflies, ants and grasshoppers are going down by 0.92% per year, which amounts to 9% per decade, lower than many published rates. This is not as bad as previous reports but the authors stress that it is still substantial. "That is extremely serious, over 30 years it means a quarter less insects," said lead author Dr Roel Van Klink, from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research. "And because it's a mean, there are places where it is much worse than that." Many people have an instinctive perception that insects are decreasing - often informed by the so-called "windscreen phenomenon", where you find fewer dead bugs splattered on cars. The researchers say it's real.
4-23-20 Coronavirus: Australia urges G20 action on wildlife wet markets
The Australian government is calling for the G20 countries to take action on wildlife wet markets, calling them a "biosecurity and human health risk". Australia is not yet calling for a ban - but says its own advisers believe they may need to be "phased out". "Wet markets" are marketplaces that sell fresh food such as meat and fish. But some also sell wildlife - and it's thought the coronavirus may have emerged at a wet market in Wuhan that sold live, "exotic" animals. The Huanan market in Wuhan reportedly offered a range of animals including foxes, wolf cubs, civets, turtles, and snakes. The Australian government called for an investigation into wildlife wet markets after a meeting of G20 agriculture ministers. Speaking to the ABC on Thursday, agriculture minister David Littleproud said he was not targeting all food markets. "A wet market, like the Sydney fish market, is perfectly safe," he said. "But when you add wildlife, live wildlife, exotic wildlife - that opens up human risk and biosecurity risk to the extent we have seen. "And in fact, China themselves reported this to the World Organisation for Animal Health, that that was the cause of Covid-19." Mr Littleproud said he wanted to "get the science" first, but said: "Even our chief veterinary officer is telling us that he believes they [wildlife wet markets] may need to be phased out." The exact origin of the new coronavirus is not known, but the evidence suggests it came from an animal. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, Covid-19 is a "close relative" of other viruses found in horseshoe bats. So the virus could have passed from bat to human, or via an "intermediate host" - one theory is bat, to pangolin, to human. The Sars coronavirus is thought to have emerged in bats before passing to civets and then humans. The Mers coronavirus passed from camels to humans, after probably emerging in bats.
4-23-20 Insects’ extreme farming methods offer us lessons to learn and oddities to avoid
Six-legged farmers grew their own food millions of years before humans did. To picture this farm, imagine some dark blobs dangling high up in a tree. Each blob can reach “about soccer ball size,” says evolutionary biologist Guillaume Chomicki of Durham University in England. From this bulbous base, a Squamellaria plant eventually sprouts leafy shoots and hangs, slumping sideways or upside down, from its host tree’s branches. In Fiji, one of the local names for the plant translates as “testicle of the trees.” Some Squamellaria species grow in clusters and teem with fiercely protective ants. As a young seedling blob plumps up, jelly bean–shaped bubbles form inside, reachable only through ant-sized doorways. As soon as a young plant cracks open its first door to daylight, “ant workers start to enter and defecate inside the seedling to fertilize it,” Chomicki says. The idea that ants tend these plants as farmers gave Chomicki one of those surprise-left-turn moments in science. In a string of papers published since 2016, he and colleagues share evidence for the idea that the Philidris nagasau ants may be the first known animals other than humans to farm plants. (The other known insect farmers cultivate fungi.) Chomicki’s latest paper, in the Feb. 4 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reports that ants planting seeds of their blobby crop make trade-offs, going for full sun and maximizing the rewarding, sweet flowers rather than planting in the shade, where plants would have higher nitrogen. Until Chomicki’s work, biologists accepted only three groups of fungus-farming insects as achieving the essentials of full agriculture and so rivaling human efforts. Select types of beetles, termites and ants each tamed different fungi, tending their much-needed food crop from sowing to harvest. Humans didn’t farm any food before roughly 12,000 years ago as far as we know. Insects started much earlier. Even leaf-cutter ants, relative newcomers to farming, have been growing their specialized crops for about 15 million years.
4-22-20 Coronavirus: Pet cats test positive in New York
Two pet cats have tested positive for coronavirus in New York state, the first pets in the US to contract the infection, say officials. The felines, which are based in two different parts of New York state, both had mild respiratory symptoms, but are expected to recover. Scientists think it unlikely that a pet could transmit coronavirus to a person. Previously, seven lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for the virus. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made the announcement about the two household cats on Wednesday. One of the pets was tested when it showed signs of respiratory illness after its owner tested positive. The other cat's owners had not been tested for coronavirus. There have been limited, isolated cases of pets catching coronavirus, but the two New York cats are the first to test positive in the US. None of the pets that have caught the virus have become seriously ill. Scientists are investigating why. The CDC has recommended that pet owners should not let pets interact with other people or animals outside their household.
4-22-20 Jane Goodall: We must protect chimps from being exposed to covid-19
Jane Goodall has achieved an incredible amount in her life. As a researcher, she has changed our understanding of chimpanzees – highly intelligent animals with unique cultures and tight family bonds. As a conservationist, she has galvanised generations of activists. A new documentary, Jane Goodall: The Hope, features footage spanning more than seven decades, including her early chimpanzee work at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. The film picks up where the 2017 documentary Jane ended, focusing more on Goodall’s shift to environmental activism. “We are part of the natural world,” she says in the film. “As we destroy the natural world we destroy our own future.” Before the covid-19 pandemic shut borders, Goodall was travelling 300 days of the year, giving talks to packed theatres and meeting thousands of school children through her youth programme, Roots & Shoots, which runs in more than 60 countries. “The kind of life I’m living now is completely crazy and there are times when I think I cannot go on like this,” she says. We see Goodall in her home in Bournemouth in the UK, toasting bread on an iron in a hotel room, and working on her laptop while sitting on the ground in an airport. She seems propelled by an urgent sense that time is running out. “I think this pandemic is waking people up,” Goodall told me during a press call. The impact of environmental destruction has been brought into focus by the covid-19 outbreak, she says, as a result of practices that bring different species into closer proximity with each other, creating opportunities for viruses to jump from animals to humans. Great apes are known to be susceptible to human respiratory illnesses. In her sanctuaries for orphaned chimps, staff are wearing protective gear as a precaution against covid-19. “We’ve stopped actually following the chimps in our studies,” she says on the call. “We just have one person a day in protective masks and gloves… not going near the chimps, just from a distance monitoring them to see if there is any sign of disease, and hopefully not coming across dead bodies.
4-22-20 Dingoes are both pest and icon. Now there's a new reason to love them
Dingoes have been persecuted in Australia for centuries for killing livestock, but protecting them could benefit the environment and aid recovery from the devastating fires. BY JANUARY, when the world turned its attention to Australia’s bush-fire crisis, Murray Ings had been battling blazes near his home in the hills of northern New South Wales for months. A third-generation forestry worker and volunteer firefighter, Ings worked shifts of up to 16 hours, sometimes through the night, in apocalyptic conditions. It got so hot, the sand in the soil melted to glass, causing the ground to shine. “That’s a furnace,” says Ings. But what he remembers most vividly is the “haunting, piercing” screams of dying animals. “It’s the worst sound you can ever hear,” he says. With the fires now extinguished, parts of the native forest on Ings’s property resemble a wasteland. “In areas, we’ve lost the whole lot: all the trees, all the animals,” he says. That’s just on his 500 hectares. Across south-east Australia, some 19 million hectares burned. The federal government has set out a multi-million-dollar restoration programme. It is a huge task that could take decades – even if major fires don’t erupt again. However, amid efforts to restore Australia’s native fauna, one animal is expected to continue dying. Dingoes, a type of semi-wild, primitive dog, are widely considered pests, the threat they pose to livestock trumping their status as a native species. Yet there is mounting evidence that these apex predators play a key role in maintaining ecological balance. They might even be as central to restoring the bush as wolves have been in rewilding Yellowstone national park in the US. But for that to happen, Australians will need to put an end to centuries of bad blood with their native canid.
4-22-20 Cranes make comeback in Britain's wetlands
The graceful crane - the tallest bird in the UK - is making a comeback into Britain’s wetlands thanks to re-introduction and habitat restoration. It was absent as a breeding bird for 400 years because of wetland drainage and widespread hunting. Now, an estimated 200 of them are dispersed in Wales, Scotland, the Fens, Suffolk and Gloucestershire. Their recovery has been glacially slow – in 2019 there’s thought to be just one more breeding pair than 2018. But the RSPB says population modelling suggests that number will swell much faster soon, as fecundity of the surviving birds improves with age and second generation chicks reach breeding age. Adult cranes stand at around 1.2m (4ft) and are fabled for their complex “display“ behaviour, where they perform bows, pirouettes and bobs. The crane is thought to have been a common breeding bird in Britain during the Middle Ages. English place names with the prefix ”cran”, such as Cranfield in Bedfordshire, refer to areas frequented by the birds. Its 400-year absence from Britain ended when a small number returned to the Norfolk Broads in 1979. Chrissie Kelley, from the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust in Norfolk, said: “We are thrilled to see wild cranes doing so well. “Seeing these birds in flight is breath-taking and we have regular sightings of them over our reserve.” They have spread to other areas, benefiting from improved habitat such as at the RSPB’s Lakenheath and Nene Washes reserves as well as Natural England’s Humberhead Peatlands. They re-colonised Scotland in 2012 and Wales in 2016. Damon Bridge, from UK Crane Working Group, said: “The increase of cranes over the last few years shows just how resilient nature can be when given the chance. “They are not yet out of the woods, but their continued population climb year-after-year is a very positive sign.”
4-21-20 Allergy impact from invasive weed 'underestimated'
Scientists say the impact on human health across Europe of the invasive ragweed plant may be "seriously underestimated". Allergies caused by common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) affect around 13.5 million people in Europe, according their study. This results in €7.4bn (£6.5bn) worth of health costs per year. But the authors say the plant could be controlled by a beetle, which is itself non-native in Europe. The North American ragweed leaf beetle (Ophraella communa) arrived accidentally in Europe in 2013. The beetle attacks ragweed foliage; field studies in Italy have proved that the leaf beetle can reduce ragweed pollen by 82%. The ragweed also hails from North America and is now established in 30 countries across Europe, from Iberia and the Balkans to Scandinavia and the British Isles in the north. The pollen from this invasive plant causes a range of symptoms from sneezing to itchy eyes. It also aggravates conditions such as asthma and eczema. Urs Schaffner, from the CABI in Delémont, Switzerland, and colleagues quantified the economic benefits of controlling ragweed using the leaf beetle. Dr Schaffner said: "Our study provides evidence that the impacts of common ragweed on human health and the economy are so far highly underestimated, but that biological control by Ophraella communa might mitigate these impacts in parts of Europe." Using data from the European pollen monitoring programme, Dr Schaffner and colleagues mapped total seasonal ragweed pollen in Europe from 2004 to 2012 - prior to the introduction of the beetle. To arrive at a number of patients suffering from ragweed pollen allergy, the researchers compared their European-wide assessment with detailed healthcare data from southeastern France. They were then able to determine the overall economic costs of healthcare to treat the symptoms and other effects - such as lost work time - of ragweed pollen.
4-21-20 Coronavirus: WHO developing guidance on wet markets
The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for stricter safety and hygiene standards when wet markets reopen. And it says governments must rigorously enforce bans on the sale and trade of wildlife for food. The start of the pandemic was linked to a market in Wuhan, where wildlife was on sale. Wet markets are common in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, selling fresh fruit and vegetables, poultry, fresh meat, live animals and sometimes wildlife. The WHO is working with UN bodies to develop guidance on the safe operation of wet markets, which it says are an important source of affordable food and a livelihood for millions of people all over the world. But in many places, they have been poorly regulated and poorly maintained, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, said in a briefing on Friday. "WHO's position is that when these markets are allowed to reopen it should only be on the condition that they conform to stringent food safety and hygiene standards," he said. "Governments must rigorously enforce bans on the sale and trade of wildlife for food." And he added: "Because an estimated 70% of all new viruses come from animals, we also work together closely [with the World Organization for Animal Health and the Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO, of the United Nations] to understand and prevent pathogens crossing from animals to humans." The pandemic has led to some wildlife conservation organisations calling for blanket bans on the wildlife trade on public health grounds, including bans on the commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption and closing down live wildlife markets. Dr Mark Jones, head of policy at Born Free, urged the WHO to work alongside governments to ban wildlife markets and bring an end to the commercial wildlife trade, including measures to protect wildlife habitats. He said this was necessary "to halt and reverse the devastating declines in the natural world that have brought a million species to the brink of extinction and threaten the future of wildlife and humanity alike".
4-21-20 Plant disease: UK restricts olive tree imports to halt infection
Severe restrictions will be placed on imports of some very popular trees and plants in an effort to halt a deadly infection. Xylella fastidiosa has wreaked havoc on olive plantations in parts of Italy and has also been found in France and Spain. To prevent the disease spreading to the UK, imports of olive trees and lavender bushes will now be curtailed. There will also be restrictions on almond, rosemary and oleander shrubs. Xyllela is a bacterium that has caused significant damage to olive trees in Italy over the past seven years. Spread by spittlebugs and other sap-sucking insects, the resulting disease has no treatment and it is said to have cut Italy's olive harvest to its lowest level in 25 years. A recently published study suggested that the infection could cause billions of euros in damages if it spreads further into olive-producing regions of Spain and Greece. But Xylella is not just a disease of olive trees. According to experts, some 560 species in 72 plant families can be affected by the infection. For the UK, Xylella poses a threat to iconic species including oak, elm and plane trees. To prevent the spread of the disease, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is now placing heavy restrictions on some species. Imports of Coffea (coffee plants) and Polygala myrtifolia will be banned completely, while much tougher requirements will be placed on other high-risk hosts including Olive, Almond, Oleander, Lavender and Rosemary. In a statement, Defra said that the introduction of the tougher measures in the middle of a health pandemic had been supported by their expert advisers. "The changes have been identified as priorities for improving the UK's plant biosecurity, in response to known threats, thereby protecting UK business, society and the environment in the short term, as well as in the future.
4-20-20 Toxin-producing bacteria can make this newt deadly
Microbes growing on skin produce tetrodotoxin, a paralytic chemical also found in pufferfish. Some newts living in the western United States are poisonous, perhaps thanks to bacteria living on their skin. Rough-skinned newts use tetrodotoxin — a paralytic neurotoxin also found in pufferfish and the blue-ringed octopus — as a defense against predators. But rather than making the toxin on their own, the amphibians (Taricha granulosa) may rely on microbes to produce it for them, researchers report April 7 in eLife. It is the first time that researchers have found tetrodotoxin-producing bacteria on a land animal. Tetrodotoxin, or TTX, prevents nerve cells from sending signals that tell muscles to move (SN: 6/26/14). When ingested in low doses, the toxin can cause tingling or numbness. High amounts can trigger paralysis and death. Some newts harbor enough TTX to kill several people. Marine animals including pufferfish get TTX from bacteria living in their tissues or by eating toxic prey. It was unclear how rough-skinned newts acquire the lethal chemical. Previous work in 2004 had hinted that the newts didn’t have the toxin-producing bacteria on their skin. Newts also didn’t appear to get TTX through their diet, which led scientists to think that the animals might make the toxin themselves. But TTX is a complicated molecule to make, says Patric Vaelli, a molecular biologist at Harvard University. It seemed unlikely that newts would be able to do it when no other known animal can. Vaelli, who led the study while at Michigan State University in East Lansing, and his colleagues revisited the bacterial-origin hypothesis by growing bacteria found on the newts’ skin in the lab and screening for TTX. The team found toxin-producing microbes from four groups, including Pseudomonas, members of which also produce TTX in pufferfish, the blue-ringed octopus and sea snails. Poisonous newts had higher amounts of Pseudomonas on their skin compared with a population of nontoxic rough-skinned newts from Idaho.
4-16-20 Male lemurs may use their fruity-smelling wrists to attract mates
Male ring-tailed lemurs produce a sweet, fruity aroma from glands on their wrists, which seems to attract females during breeding season. The chemicals responsible for the smell may be the first sex pheromones identified in primates. By rubbing their wrists, male ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) can release chemicals that advertise their social rank or mark out their territories. But it was not known whether they could also produce chemicals to attract females. Kazushige Touhara at the University of Tokyo, Japan, and his colleagues noticed that the female lemurs in their facility tended to sniff the males for about 2 seconds longer during the breeding season than outside it. To investigate what exactly the females were smelling, they collected secretions from the male lemurs’ wrists and analysed them in the lab. “Usually sex pheromones utilised in wild animals tend to smell bad,” says Touhara. “We are surprised that the identified odours in this study smell relatively good to humans,” he says. Touhara describes the smell as “fruity and floral”. Analysis of the secretions revealed three chemicals, called aldehydes, which seem to be responsible for the smell. To test whether the scents attracted potential mates, the researchers presented two female lemurs with cotton pads dipped either in secretions from two male lemurs, or diluted solutions of each of the three chemicals that make them up. They did this during the breeding season. The females spent slightly longer sniffing these cotton pads than they did smelling secretions taken from the male lemurs outside the breeding season. Giving testosterone to one male lemur outside the breeding season induced the production of the same sweet aroma, suggesting testosterone may play a role. Touhara says these chemicals are the first sex pheromone candidates identified in primates, although further studies are needed to confirm whether the chemicals actually lead to increased mating.
4-16-20 Coronavirus: Fears of spike in poaching as pandemic poverty strikes
Conservation groups say nature must be a cornerstone of economic recovery plans for the sake of people, health and economies. The call comes amid fears of a "spike in poaching" as rural communities lose vital income. In Cambodia, 1% of the entire population of one critically endangered bird was wiped out in a single event. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said three of only a few hundred remaining giant ibis were poisoned. And more than 100 painted stork chicks were killed at Cambodia's Prek Toal Ramsar Site, the largest water bird colony in Southeast Asia. Conservationists are noticing increases in hunting of protected species since the spread of coronavirus began to disrupt traditional economic and social systems in rural areas, said the WCS. "Suddenly rural people have little to turn to but natural resources and we're already seeing a spike in poaching," said Colin Poole, WCS regional director in Phnom Penh. Conservation organisations need to be doing their utmost to support local people, he said. "They're the last line of defence for these forests, these birds, these wetlands, and they're the people that need support right now so they have alternatives and they don't need to turn to natural resource extraction to survive." In India, there have been reports of an upsurge in tiger poaching, while there are fears in Africa that the rhinoceros and other endangered species could be at risk. Matt Brown, director of the Africa region for the Nature Conservancy, spoke of a sudden decline in tourism revenue at some of Africa's key wildlife reserves and national parks as a result of the pandemic. "The concern is how do these areas maintain the effectiveness of their wildlife patrolling and security when about 50% of their planned revenue for the year has now dropped to zero," he said. And the closing of export businesses and manufacturing plants had put a lot of people out of work, which on top of the tourism drop was "a double whammy". "There could be an increased direct poaching pressure on wildlife as a result of the downturn in the global economy," he said.
4-16-20 Dancing peacock spiders turned an arachnophobe into an arachnologist
Not yet a college graduate, Joseph Schubert has described 12 of 86 known peacock spider species. Joseph Schubert spends hours at a time lying in the dirt of the Australian outback watching for tiny flickers in the sparse, ground-hugging foliage. The 22-year-old arachnologist is searching for flea-sized peacock spiders, and he admits, he’s a little obsessed. But it wasn’t always so. Schubert grew up fearing spiders, with parents who were “absolutely terrified” of the eight-legged crawlers. “I was taught that every single spider in the house was going to kill me, and we should squish it and get rid of it,” he says. Then Schubert stumbled across some photographs of Australia’s endemic peacock spiders, a group named for the adult males’ vivid coloring and flamboyant dance moves aimed at wooing a mate (SN: 9/9/16; SN: 12/8/15). And he was hooked. “They raise their third pair of legs and dance around and show off like they are the most amazing animals on the planet, which in my eyes they are.” He decided to pursue a career in arachnology. And despite not quite having completed his undergraduate degree in biology, he’s begun working part time at Museums Victoria in Melbourne, and has already made a mark. Of the 86 known peacock spider species — each just 2.5 to 6 millimeters in length — 12 have been described by Schubert, including seven named in the March 27 Zootaxa. Those seven were found at a range of sites across Australia, including the barren dunes and shrublands of Victoria state’s Little Desert and the red rocks and arid outback gorges of Kalbarri National Park, north of Perth. “It’s a fantastic feeling to be able to document these species and empower them with names” that offer scientific recognition as well as a chance for legislated protections if needed, Schubert says. “I am very lucky to work in this field. I get to pull out my microscope and observe things that nobody has ever documented before.”
4-15-20 Can you really grow enough fruit and veg to be self-sufficient?
There's been a surge in people wanting to grow fruit and vegetables, but the path to self-sufficiency isn't as easy as some may have you think, writes James Wong. “Empty shelves? Grow your own fruit and veg!” promised a headline on my feed. According to another, “Thousands of families are planning to become more self-sufficient” as “millions take up the Good Life”. No garden, no problem! “Try sprouting seeds, aka microgreens, like alfalfa, broccoli, amaranth and wheatgrass on wet kitchen roll.” Urged on by a slew of such suggestions, unprecedented demand for fruit and veg seeds (up as much as 1800 per cent year-on-year) has caused many online sellers to freeze all new orders and set up long waiting lists. As someone who has been obsessed with growing your own for decades, it is so exciting to see this surge in interest. But how realistic are the promises that such efforts will help you along your way to self-sufficiency? Let’s do the maths. If your goal really is to feed yourself, it would be hard to find a better crop than potatoes. In terms of calories per unit of land, they are easily the most productive crop that can be grown, at least in the UK. Churning out yields of approximately 4 kilos per square metre on UK farms, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, they produce more than three times the calories of wheat, for instance. Spuds also happen to be one of the crops with the most balanced nutrition, meaning humans can survive for at least a year eating very little else, according to the International Potato Center in Peru. So how much land would you need to feed yourself, given the single most calorifically efficient crop it is possible to grow? Well, based on the UK National Health Service’s recommended average adult intake of 2250 calories a day (2000 for women, 2500 for men), your plot would need to generate 821,250 calories a year. That’s around a tonne of spuds, requiring 266 square metres of land.
4-15-20 The extraordinary deep-sea lifeforms that feast on sunken carcasses
An alligator carcass dropped in the deep ocean reveals the bizarre ecosystems of the seabed - including zombie worms that fed on prehistoric reptiles. THE alligator lay motionless on a flat expanse of mud and stared into the camera with a toothy grin. Two metres long, its skin covered in dark green scales, it wasn’t in the usual location for a dead reptile. A day earlier, the carcass had been loaded into a wire cage and lowered over the side of the ship I was aboard. For an hour, it had travelled down to the sea floor, 2 kilometres below. There it was met by a deep-diving submersible with live-feed cameras. Controlled by pilots on the ship, a robotic arm had reached into the cage, picked up the reptile and placed it on the seabed. This was to be the alligator’s final resting place, at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The next day, I joined the scientists and crew of the ship around the monitor screens to watch a grisly scene unfolding. Despite its tough hide, the alligator was already being eaten by a horde of scavenging giant isopods – think pink woodlice the size of rugby balls. This was February 2019 and the first time an alligator had been left by scientists in the deep sea, so we didn’t know what to expect. But no one aboard the ship had anticipated just how quickly it would be found and eaten. This reptile’s demise would show how entire ecosystems spring up on the carcasses that fall from the surface in this strangest of deep-sea habitats. It would also shed light on a mystery dating back to the era of the dinosaurs. More than a century ago, naturalists dispelled the myth that the deep oceans are a lifeless void. Even today, exploration of the largest habitat on the planet is redefining the possibilities of life on Earth with discoveries of bizarre new species and even whole new ecosystems in this vast realm that covers 71 per cent of the planet’s surface. There is a snailfish that lives 8 kilometres down in the Mariana trench, which in 2014 broke the record for the deepest living fish known, and a hydrothermal vent system in the Gulf of California with towering white carbonate chimneys surrounded by beds of red-tipped tubeworms. “Even after 10 years working in this field, I’m still amazed there are organisms down here, under these extreme conditions,” says MacKenzie Gerringer, a deep-sea biologist at the State University of New York at Geneseo.
4-14-20 Bats can learn to copy sounds and it may teach us about human speech
Bats can learn to mimic specific sounds, which puts them into an elite group of animals capable of this. Studying how bats can copy noises could help us learn more about humans’ unique capacity for speech and language. The ability to imitate specific sounds – called vocal production learning – is rare in the animal kingdom. Humans are capable of it, as are some bird species, as well as seals, dolphins, whales and elephants. “It’s relatively difficult,” says Ella Lattenkamp at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. “You have to memorise the sound, produce it and then you have to hear again what you just produced and compare it with the template in your head,” she says. Lattenkamp and her colleagues trained six adult pale spear-nosed bats to imitate their own calls by bribing them with food if they repeated the sound. The bats were placed in mini recording studios equipped with loud speakers, microphones and remote-controlled feeding devices that delivered them rewards. The researchers recorded the bats’ calls, then manipulated the recordings to lower the frequency of the sounds. The bats then were repeatedly exposed to different sounds and rewarded with mashed banana whenever they imitated a sound correctly. Within 30 days, all six bats had learned to lower the frequency of their calls to imitate the recorded sounds. Vocal production learning is important for speech and so studying it in other mammals, like bats, could provide clues as to how it developed in humans. Most studies of vocal production learning have focused on songbirds, says Lattenkamp. A previous study has found that bat pups can imitate sounds made by their parents, but until now it wasn’t clear whether bats retain the ability to learn and mimic new sounds in adulthood.
4-14-20 Coronavirus: The wildlife species enjoying lockdown
As the UK enters it fourth week of lockdown, conservationists say they have seen some hidden benefits of the restrictions in the natural world. With fewer people in urban environments and much less traffic on the roads, scientists say there could be gains particularly for our native mammals.
4-14-20 Pets in Middle East abandoned over coronavirus fears
Some pet owners in the Middle East are abandoning their pets over fears they could spread coronavirus. But it hasn't been proven that pets have a significant role in spreading the disease. The World Health Organization has advised all pet owners instead to focus on good hygiene.
4-14-20 Cold War nuclear test residue offers a clue to whale sharks’ ages
These massive fish can live at least 50 years, but probably much longer. Radioactive residue from Cold War nuclear tests has given scientists a cipher to decode the ages of whale sharks, written on the animals’ vertebrae. Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) accumulate alternating stripes of opaque and translucent tissue on their vertebrae as they age, similar to the way tree trunks grow rings. But until now, scientists haven’t known whether whale shark vertebrae gain a new growth band each year or every six months — making it difficult to gauge just how fast these sharks grow or how long they live. New measurements of carbon-14 in the vertebrae of two whale sharks that lived during the 20th century suggest that growth bands form annually, researchers report in the April 2020 Frontiers in Marine Science. Soviet and American nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s and 1960s produced that carbon-14, which built up in Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. By matching the amount of carbon-14 in different vertebral growth bands with the known carbon-14 levels in surface seawater in different years, the researchers estimated when each band formed — and found that subsequent bands generally grew a year apart. The total number of growth bands in each dated vertebra indicated that one whale shark, a 10-meter male found in Taiwan, was about 35 years old when it died. The other shark, a female of about the same size collected in Pakistan, was around 50 years old. “It is really, really likely that there are older whale sharks out there, simply because we know there are much larger whale sharks,” says Steven Campana, a fisheries scientist at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík. Whale sharks are known to grow up to about 18 meters long.
4-13-20 Deadly olive tree disease across Europe 'could cost billions'
Researchers say the economic costs of a deadly pathogen affecting olive trees in Europe could run to over €20 billion. They've modelled the future worst impacts of the Xylella fastidiosa pathogen which has killed swathes of trees in Italy. Spread by insects, the bacterium now poses a potential threat to olive plantations in Spain and Greece. The disease could increase the costs of olive oil for consumers. Xylella is considered to be one of the most dangerous pathogens for plants anywhere in the world. At present there is no cure for the infection. It can infect cherry, almond and plum trees as well as olives. It has become closely associated with olives after a strain was discovered in trees in Puglia in Italy in 2013. The organism is transmitted by sap-sucking insects such as spittlebugs. The infection limits the tree's ability to move water and nutrients and over time it withers and dies. In Italy, the consequences of the spread of the disease have been devastating, with an estimated 60% decline in crop yields since the first discovery in 2013. "The damage to the olives also causes a depreciation of the value of the land, and to the touristic attractiveness of this region," said Dr Maria Saponari, from the CNR Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection in Italy. "It's had a severe impact on the local economy and jobs connected with agriculture." As well as in Italy, the Xylella bacterium has now been found in Spain, France and Portugal. Tackling it at present involves removing infected trees and trying to clamp down on the movement of plant material and the insects that spread the disease. But if these measures fail, what will be the financial impact of the infection? In this new study, researchers modelled different scenarios including what would happen if all growing ceased due to tree death.
4-13-20 Seabirds may find food at sea by flying in a massive, kilometers-wide arc
Radar shows that groups of birds can form a giant, coordinated line over the ocean’s surface. Food is scattered thinly in the open ocean, and seabirds often need to search far and wide to find sustenance. Now, researchers think they’ve found a new cooperative strategy among the birds, one that may help them survive on the high seas. Multiple groups of flying seabirds can arrange themselves into massive line formations that “rake” over the ocean’s surface, possibly to more efficiently search for food. Far from land, the ocean can be unforgiving, but seabirds have a remarkable suite of adaptations for finding food in this blue desert. For example, seabirds can work together when foraging on a chance school of fish, boosting catch rates by synchronizing their diving. But the shape and scale of the cooperative “rake” formations — with multiple bird groups stretching kilometers across the sky — have never before been scientifically observed in seabirds, researchers report March 23 in the Journal of Avian Biology.“To our knowledge, no such flight pattern … had ever been observed and described,” says Camille Assali, an animal ecologist at the Marine Biodiversity Exploitation and Conservation research unit in Sète, France. To track the birds’ movements, Assali and colleagues looked at a year’s worth of radar images from a tuna fishing boat hundreds of kilometers off of Africa’s coastline, near the Gulf of Guinea. Fishing boats use radar to find seabirds, which can hint at the whereabouts of roiling fish activity. Analyzing the radar images for movement patterns in groups of seabirds, the scientists found that multiple groups would fly in a parallel sweep as often as 19 times a day. The birds also seemed to be adjusting their speed and position relative to one another so that they formed an evenly spaced line over the top of the ocean. Some of these formations, with groups spaced half a kilometer apart and reaching four kilometers across, would last nearly 20 minutes before collapsing or merging together.
4-9-20 Coronavirus: Lockdown 'could boost wild flowers'
A plant charity is predicting a boost for wild flowers because some councils have stopped mowing verges and parks during the Covid-19 crisis. Plantlife has been urging councils for years to cut grass less often. It also wants them to delay cutting until flowers have had chance to seed. The charity says it has seen a shift in attitudes in recent years, but some councillors still say their citizens prefer neatly-manicured lawns and verges. Now Plantlife’s preliminary research suggests that municipal mowing has been among the first activities to be cut under the crisis. That’s partly because staff are sick or self-isolating, and partly to save money as budgets are squeezed. Plantlife’s Trevor Dines told BBC News that an upsurge in public support for wild flower verges had already persuaded some authorities to restrict cutting. He said that a search of local authority websites and social media suggested that more councils are now being jolted into a policy change so they can re-deploy ground staff to services such as emptying bins. He said: “We have seen an upsurge in members of the public complaining that their councils are cutting the daisies. These sort of comments used to be outweighed by people complaining about untidy grass verges, but it seems as though the balance has shifted. “Obviously we’re extremely worried about the Covid crisis and want it to end as quickly as possible. But if councils do change their methods because of the crisis, they might find it wins public support, which would be good for the future.” Plantlife wants councils to delay cutting until the end of August or the start of September until after plants have seeded. Meanwhile, the reduction of traffic during the Covid-19 crisis will produce another benefit for wild flowers. Typically, roadside verges are drenched with nitrogen emissions from vehicle exhausts. This fertilises the hardier species in the plant world, which can harness the nitrogen to grow and out-compete more delicate wild flowers. Mr Dines said: “There has been a phenomenal change in the quality of air – we can see so much more clearly into the distance. The lack of pollutants is going to help wildflowers on verges.”
4-8-20 Little green invaders: how parakeets conquered the world
Move over Martians, Earth has already been invaded by little green aliens, but how did parakeets become one of the most successful invasive species ever? IT’S MINUS 13°C in Fargo, North Dakota, and I’m talking to a woman about tropical parakeets. Page Klug, a biologist at the National Wildlife Research Center’s (NWRC) field station there, has recently taken a keen interest in the squawky invaders. Not, she stresses, because they have got as far as North Dakota – not yet, anyway. But because she is a leading researcher on agricultural pests of the avian variety and her expertise is in demand. To Londoners like me, this will come as no surprise. When I moved to that city three decades ago, ring-necked parakeets were a rarity, an occasional raucous flash of green in a park. These days it is a rare walk through the urban jungle that doesn’t feature an encounter, and the city is now as famous for its parakeets as for its pigeons. “The population has really taken off,” says Tim Blackburn, a biologist at University College London. “Pretty much anywhere you go in London you can’t miss them, and they’re obviously spreading very rapidly.” What is happening in my backyard turns out to be happening all over the world. A decade ago, it was mostly a European problem. Now, more than 35 countries, from the US to Israel and most recently Azerbaijan, are experiencing an explosion in their populations of alien parakeets. This makes these birds among the world’s most successful invasive species and, like other invaders, they are increasingly making a nuisance of themselves. How did these showy creatures from the tropics spread so far and wide? What does their success tell us about the world we are creating? And can anything be done about them? Even before it started its world tour, the range of the ring-necked parakeet (Psittacus krameri, also known as the rose-ringed parakeet) was extensive. When first recorded in 1769, the species inhabited a band right across sub-Saharan Africa, from Gambia to the Horn of Africa. In the early 20th century, a separate subspecies, Psittacus krameri borealis, was described living on the Indian subcontinent. It is this population from which the European parakeets are descended, according to genetic evidence.
4-8-20 Coronavirus: Exploiting nature 'drives outbreaks of new diseases'
New evidence has emerged of a link between human exploitation of nature and pandemics. Close contact with wild animals through hunting, trade or habitat loss puts the world at increased risk of outbreaks of new diseases, say scientists. Coronavirus is thought to have originated in bats, with other wild animals, possibly pangolins, playing a role in transmission to humans. There are strong indications of a wildlife source and a link to trade. In the latest study, researchers trawled scientific papers for reports of diseases that have crossed from animals to humans, then combined this data with information on extinction risk compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Wild animals at risk of extinction due to human exploitation were found to carry over twice as many viruses that can cause human disease as threatened species listed for other reasons. The same was true for threatened species at risk due to loss of habitat. "As natural habitat is diminished, wildlife come into closer contact with people," Dr Christine Johnson of the University of California, Davis, US, told BBC News, "Wildlife also shift their distributions to accommodate anthropogenic activities and modification of the natural landscape. This has hastened disease emergence from wildlife, which put us at risk of pandemics because we are all globally connected through travel and trade." Wild animals on the edge of extinction are few in number and generally pose a low risk of passing on infectious diseases, said Dr Johnson, except where human exploitation and habitat loss puts them in close contact with humans. "Exploitation of wildlife, which has caused once abundant wildlife to decline in numbers, through hunting and trading in wildlife, have endangered species survival and also put humans at risk of emerging infectious disease," she said. Scientists have long drawn attention to human diseases that have originated in animals, including Sars, Mers and Ebola. In the wake of coronavirus, there is growing awareness that human health is linked both with animal health and the health of the planet as a whole.
4-8-20 Coronavirus: 'Pets no risk to owners' vets stress
Veterinary scientists have recommended cat owners keep their pets indoors to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus among animals. But the British Veterinary Association stressed "owners should not worry" about risk of infection from pets. "There isn't a single case of a pet dog or cat infecting a human with Covid-19," Dr Angel Almendros, from City University in Hong Kong, told BBC News. Research has shown cats may be able to catch the virus from other cats. Dr Alemndros added that it would be sensible to keep cats indoors - where it is safe and possible to do so - during the outbreak. The British Veterinary Association (BVA) president Daniella Dos Santos told BBC News she agreed with that advice. But the association has since clarified that its recommendation to concerned pet-owners is to take the precaution of keeping cats indoors "only if someone in their own household showed symptoms". Every pet-owner though should "practise good hand hygiene," she said. "An animal's fur could carry the virus for a time if a pet were to have come into contact with someone who was sick." In a recent paper on the subject, Dr Angel Almendros referred to the case of a 17-year-old pet dog in Hong Kong that tested positive for the Covid-19 virus - apparently infected by its owner. "But even where we have these positive results, the animals are not becoming sick," he said. "As in the previous Sars-Cov outbreak in Hong Kong, in 2003, where a number of pets were infected but never became sick, there is no evidence that dogs or cats could become sick or infect people." It appears cats may be susceptible to infection from respiratory droplets - virus particles suspended in air that people cough, sneeze or breathe out. Following a case in Belgium where a cat tested positive about a week after its owner showed symptoms, scientists in China carried out lab tests that provided evidence of infected cats transmitting the virus to other cats. "It is interesting to note in the experimental evidence that cats can become infected, alongside the apparent infection of a tiger [at Bronx Zoo in New York]," Prof Bryan Charleston, director of the UK's Pirbright Institute, which specialises in the study of infectious disease, said, adding that the "evidence on the transmissibility" from humans to other animals was building.
4-8-20 Coronavirus: Why more rats are being spotted during quarantine
The closure of restaurants and the retreat by humans indoors is having an effect on the eating habits and behaviour of rats, say experts. Late last month, the French Quarter in New Orleans had new swarms of visitors wandering its famous streets. Not long after the coronavirus closed bars and restaurants in the Louisiana city, rats were coming out of hiding. That more rodents were being spotted comes as no surprise to renowned urban rodentologist Robert Corrigan. "When you have a colony of rats on a block that has been depending on tourists littering and lots of trash put out at night - it could be DC, it could be New York - anyplace where rats have been depending the easy handouts, and that disappears, then they don't know what to do," he says. As Claudia Riegel, with the New Orleans pest control board, told journalists: "These rats are hungry." Humans around the world are changing their behaviours due to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. In some places, quarantine means rubbish that rats depend on is no longer available, and so they also adapt. Dr Corrigan, who has an office in Lower Manhattan, says he's had messages from friends in the city who have seen rats in new areas and at odd hours for the usually nocturnal animals. Others haven't seen any change in their local rat habits. Those colonies might feed on household waste, of which there is still plenty, and not restaurant rubbish. In the UK, the National Pest Technicians Association warned this month that "the closure of schools, pubs, restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions and other public places to enforce social distancing will have unintended consequences". If there is food available, pest populations could thrive in empty buildings and become emboldened by the absence of people - or pests will go out in search of food, it said.
4-8-20 Flower power: How plants bounce back after crushing blows
Some flowers can recover with remarkable speed after a major accident, such as being walked upon by humans. Scientists found that species including orchid and sweet pea could re-orient themselves in 10-48 hours after an injury. These plants are able to bend, twist and reposition their stems to ensure that they reproduce. But others such as buttercups fail to bounce back after damage. The remarkable abilities of some flowers to recover quickly from serious injury, have been previously overlooked by science, say the authors of this new work. Researchers looked at 23 native and cultivated flower species in the UK, Europe, Australia and North and South America. They examined species which had suffered accidents and they also carried out experiments where the flowers were tethered at either 45 or 90 degrees off their normal orientation. For many flowers, their ability to reproduce depends on the careful alignment of their sexual organs or stigma and their nectar tubes in order for a visiting pollinator to help them make seeds. The scientists found that when these species were damaged, they could accurately reposition their sexual organs. "The common spotted orchid does it largely by just bending the main stem," said Prof Scott Armbruster from the University of Portsmouth who led the research. "It's pretty quick, within a day or two, it's reoriented its main stem so that now all the flowers are in the right position," he told BBC News. "The slightly more interesting ones were where each individual flower re-orients on its own, by the sub stem, that's what's called the pedicel connecting the flower to the main stem, and that is bending or twisting. And that's what you see with aconitum." These rapid recovering species were usually bilaterally symmetrical flowers, which is where the left and right hand sides mirror each other. Examples of these types of flowers include snapdragon, orchid and sweet pea.
4-8-20 Rare herb devastated by Australian bush fires saved by seed bank
During the recent unprecedented bush fires in Australia, a single blaze in Cudlee Creek, a small town near Adelaide in South Australia, burned more than 25,000 hectares of land and destroyed numerous homes and vehicles. One of the largely unnoticed victims of the Cudlee Creek fire was clover glycine (Glycine latrobeana), a rare herb in the pea family that is endemic to South Australia and was listed as vulnerable even before the bush fires. While the amount of the herb lost in Cudlee Creek and elsewhere in the region is still being assessed, an international effort has already swung into action to help restore it, highlighting the importance of the world’s network of seed banks. Twelve years ago, around 1200 clover glycine seeds were sent to the UK to be dried and cooled to -20°C for storage at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank in West Sussex. Now 250 of them have been withdrawn and sent to the South Australian Seed Conservation Centre to help restore what was lost. “It really does just show seed banks work. They’ve provided that insurance policy. Some people think of them as static places, and this shows when a species is in crisis, you can provide seeds to provide restoration,” says Elinor Breman at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Clover glycine is found in shady gullies filled with woodlands made up of manna gum (Eucalyptus viminalis), a type of eucalyptus tree favoured by koalas. Much of this habitat has already been lost because vegetation has been cleared for farming. Breman says that although the plant has no intrinsic or medicinal value, it is beautiful and should be restored as it is already threatened and has a very small range, meaning it faces a greater risk from being lost in incidents such as the bush fires.
4-8-20 A year long expedition spotlights night life in the Arctic winter
In a ship deliberately embedded in an ice floe, scientists are studying the base of the food web. Allison Fong dangles over the edge of a “river” running through a massive chunk of sea ice floating between the North Pole and Russia’s Komsomolets Island. The river cracked open in the ice just a few days ago, exposing the Arctic Ocean below. Already starting to freeze over, the river’s surface is a dark scar in the white landscape. The crack could open further, destabilizing or even cleaving the 3-kilometer-wide floe. To avoid falling into the hypothermia-inducing waters (which hover at –1.8° Celsius), Fong distributes her weight on her hands and knees and is tethered to a stronger piece of ice a few meters away. She looks at ease as she pulls a chunk of recently frozen ice from the crack and squeezes it slightly. It seems solid, but it compresses like a cube of Jell-O, which means the chunk hasn’t completely frozen and still contains small chambers of liquid water. Those chambers are home to microscopic organisms that will remain trapped in the ice throughout winter — enduring pitch-black days and frigid temperatures from October until March, when the sun finally returns. And yet those organisms manage to thrive. Fong, a biologist with the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, wants to know how. Even phytoplankton, a type of algae that relies on sunlight to fuel photosynthesis, are far from dormant in the dark. Scientists suspect that these microscopic creatures rely on stored deposits of fats or feed on small particles in the winter waters. Finding out for sure is important given that these algae form the foundation of the Arctic food web. Their massive springtime blooms provide a buffet for other critters, particularly zooplankton, tiny sea animals that are munched on by larger squid and fish, which are dinner for the seals that are eaten by whales and polar bears.
4-7-20 Algae use flagella to trot, gallop and move with gaits all their own
Microalgae may be just single cells, but they can coordinate eight or 16 limbs. A microscopic speck of green algae can trot like a horse. Or gallop. Biophysicist Kirsty Wan compares the gaits of creatures large and small. Moving diagonally opposite limbs, or flagella in this case, in unison — that’s a trot, Wan says. Her lab, at the University of Exeter in England, is working on the conundrum of how single-celled creatures, with no nervous system or brain, coordinate “limbs” to create various gaits. Some of those movements get far trickier than trots and gallops. Her work echoes that of 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who used a then-novel imaging technique to reveal hoof positions obscured in the blur of a horse galloping. Wan now creates Muybridge moments for microalgae. Using a range of microscopy analytics on what she calls “my private collection of weird algae,” Wan and colleagues have documented microalgae that coordinate from four to 16 flagella. In some four-limbed cells, flagella can move in neighborly pairs, pulling back in a sort of double-vision breaststroke. To these microscopic critters, water feels thicker than the splashy stuff that giant humans easily swish aside. So the algal breaststroke has little glide. It’s more like a slog through molasses. Wan looked hard for microalgae with eight flagella and found three species. One, Pyramimonus octopus, has a gait unlike any Muybridge ever saw. Wan calls it rotary breaststroke. Flagella across from each other in the array of eight will curl in for the stroke as their neighbors are uncurling a few beats behind. P. octopus is a twitchy microbe that goes through “shocks,” Wan says. An alga swims along, then “like a knee-jerk reaction,” it changes direction, though she can’t see what spooks it. In comparison, when she watches a two-flagella Chlamydomonas species, “sometimes it twirls; sometimes it spins,” but there’s nothing so dramatic as the abrupt pullback.
4-6-20 Soil gets its smell from bacteria trying to attract invertebrates
Soil gets its characteristic earthy smell from certain chemicals produced primarily by soil-dwelling bacteria called Streptomyces. But until now, we didn’t know why these bacteria produce these odours and what role they play in the soil ecosystem. To find out more, Paul Becher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp and his colleagues set up field traps in woodland containing colonies of Streptomyces. They thought that the smell may act as a signal to other organisms that they are poisonous, because some bacteria like Streptomyces can be toxic. Instead, the smell – which comes from gases released by Streptomyces, including geosmin and 2-methylisoborneol (2-MIB) – seems to attract invertebrates that help the bacteria disperse their spores. Becher and his team found that springtails – tiny cousins of insects – that feed on Streptomyces were drawn to the traps containing the bacterial colonies, but weren’t drawn to control traps that didn’t contain Streptomyces. By comparison, insects and arachnids weren’t attracted to the traps containing Streptomyces. To see whether the springtails were being lured by the chemicals, the researchers attached electrodes to the springtails’ antennae in the lab, then exposed the animals to geosmin and 2-MIB. A spike of electrical activity was detected in the springtails’ brain, but they didn’t show any electrical responses to other test compounds, which suggests they were responding to the chemicals. When the researchers studied Streptomyces in the lab, they found that they make more geosmin and 2-MIB when they form spores than they otherwise do. When the springtails approach and eat the bacteria, the spores either stick to the springtails’ bodies or are contained in their faecal pellets and dispersed through the soil.
4-6-20 Coronavirus: Putting the spotlight on the global wildlife trade
Conservation experts say the coronavirus pandemic, which likely originated at a market selling wild animals in China, is a watershed moment for curbing the global wildlife trade, which can drive extinction and spread disease. When Adam Peyman walked into a restaurant in Vietnam to order a meal he was shocked to find wild animals, including threatened species, on the menu, alongside traditional rice, noodles and seafood. Sting ray, porcupine, softshell turtle, wild pig and wild goat were all on offer. "It was a bit of a surprise to see these foods," says the wildlife manager for the animal welfare organisation, Humane Society International. "But, these kinds of wild foods are considered something of a luxury." Feasting on exotic game has become a sign of status and wealth in some Asian countries. The desire for wildlife as food or medicine drives a trade in wild animals, some procured illegally, creating a breeding ground for disease and the chance for viruses to leap to humans. "The consumption of wild animals, especially wild mammals, which can carry diseases that can cross the species barrier, does pose a real threat to human health," says Mr Peyman. "It's hard to tell whether these animals are taken from the wild legally or not, some of them could have been smuggled in and then sold on these wet markets, as they're called." Wet markets have become a familiar sight in many countries in Southeast Asia, particularly mainland China. Selling live fish, chickens and wildlife, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables, they get their name from the melting ice used to preserve goods, as well as to wash the floors clean of blood from butchered animals. Wet markets can be "timebombs" for epidemics, says Prof Andrew Cunningham, deputy director of science at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). "This sort of way that we treat... animals as if they're just our commodities for us to plunder - it comes back to bite us and it's no surprise."
4-6-20 Coronavirus: Tiger at Bronx Zoo tests positive for Covid-19
A four-year-old female Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo has tested positive for the coronavirus. The tiger, named Nadia, is believed to be the first known case of an animal infected with Covid-19 in the US. The Bronx Zoo, in New York City, says the test result was confirmed by the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Iowa. Nadia, along with six other big cats, is thought to have been infected by an asymptomatic zoo keeper. The cats started showing symptoms, including a dry cough, late last month after exposure to the employee, who has not been identified. "This is the first time that any of us know of anywhere in the world that a person infected the animal and the animal got sick," Paul Calle, the chief veterinarian at the zoo, told Reuters news agency on Sunday. There have been isolated instances of pets testing positive for the coronavirus elsewhere in the world, but experts have stressed there is no evidence they can become sick or spread the disease. Mr Calle said he intends to share the findings with other zoos and institutions researching the transmission of Covid-19. "We tested the cat [Nadia] out of an abundance of caution and will ensure any knowledge we gain about Covid-19 will contribute to the world's continuing understanding of this novel coronavirus," the zoo said in a statement. Nadia, her sister Azul, as well as two Amur tigers and three African lions who showed symptoms, are all expected to make a full recovery, the zoo said. The big cats did have some decrease in appetite but "are otherwise doing well under veterinary care and are bright, alert, and interactive with their keepers", it said. The zoo said it is not known how the virus will develop in animals like tigers and lions since various species can react differently to new infections, but all the animals will be closely monitored.
4-6-20 Whale sharks can live for a least 50 years – and probably longer
It has long been suspected that whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea, are long-lived, and now this has been confirmed using a carbon dating technique. It turns out these animals live for at least 50 years, and probably far longer. Knowing how long animals live is important for conservation, says Steven Campana of the University of Iceland in Reykjavík. “It makes a big difference whether they are fast-growing and short-lived, or slow-growing and long-lived.” But working out how long sharks and rays live is difficult. They do not have the bony structures called otoliths in their ears that are used to work out the age of most fish. Instead, sharks are aged based on growth rings in their cartilaginous vertebrae – but these growth rings form at different rates in different species, and may stop forming after sexual maturity. Two decades ago, Campana’s team showed that growth-ring-based age estimates for some long-lived animals could be checked by looking at levels of the carbon-14 isotope in the rings. The nuclear bomb tests carried out from the 1950s onwards created distinctive peaks in carbon-14. This technique has shown that the age estimates for many sharks were wildly off. For instance, it was thought great white sharks lived only 12 to 15 years but recent studies have revealed individuals as old as 73. Now the carbon-14 technique has been applied to the preserved remains of two adult whale sharks, one washed up dead in Pakistan and the other caught in Taiwan before a ban was introduced in 2007. It shows that one of these whales was at least 50 years old. Other individuals may live even longer. In 2016, a study using the same method reported that Greenland sharks are the longest living vertebrates, possibly living as long as 500 years. Campana is sceptical about such extreme lifespans, but says it is clear they can live more than a century.
4-6-20 Whale sharks: Atomic tests solve age puzzle of world's largest fish
Data from atomic bomb tests conducted during the Cold War have helped scientists accurately age the world's biggest fish. Whale sharks are large, slow moving and docile creatures that mainly inhabit tropical waters. They are long-lived but scientists have struggled to work out the exact ages of these endangered creatures. But using the world's radioactive legacy they now have a workable method that can help the species survival. Whale sharks are both the biggest fish and the biggest sharks in existence. Growing up to 18m in length, and weighing on average of about 20 tonnes, their distinctive white spotted colouration makes them easily recognisable. These filter feeders live on plankton and travel long distances to find food. They are very popular with tourists in many locations, often allowing divers to swim alongside them. However, the species is now classified as endangered because of over-fishing in places like Thailand and the Philippines. Much about the species remains a mystery, especially how to age them correctly. Researchers say this is fundamental to understanding their growth rates - information that's considered crucial to saving the species in the long term. To date, scientists have tried to count distinct lines in the vertebrae of dead whale sharks. These act like rings in a tree trunk, increasing as the animal gets older. But scientists have been unsure about how often these rings can form and the reasons behind them. Now researchers say they have come up with a much more accurate way of determining the whale sharks' true age. From the late 1940s, several nations including the US, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China conducted atomic bomb tests in different locations. One side effect of all these explosions was the doubling of an atom type, or isotope, called Carbon-14 in the atmosphere. Over time, every living thing on the planet has absorbed this extra Carbon-14 which still persists. But as scientists know the rate at which this isotope decays, it is a very useful marker in determining age. The older the creature, the less Carbon-14 you'd expect to find.
4-4-20 10 years to save 'world’s most threatened sea turtle'
The largest turtle in the ocean, the leatherback gets its name from its tough, rubbery skin. Migrating long distances a year, the turtle can cross the Pacific Ocean. But with threats like getting tangled in fishing gear, the future for one distinct population looks "dire," say conservation groups. At the current rate of decline, the critically endangered Eastern Pacific leatherback turtle will vanish within 60 years. We have just 10 years left to put measures in place to save it, says a group of conservation scientists and organisations including Fauna & Flora International (FFI). "We have it within our power to protect these animals and enable them to thrive, but all those who have a hand in shaping their future need to work together to do so," said Alison Gunn, programme manager for the Americas and the Caribbean at FFI. Leatherback turtles are found across the world. While considered a single species, populations found in different oceans are reproductively distinct. The Pacific leatherbacks are most at risk of extinction, with both Eastern Pacific and Western Pacific leatherbacks continuing to decline. Key nesting habitats in the Eastern Pacific are in Mexico and Costa Rica, with some isolated nesting in Panama and Nicaragua. Over the last three generations, there has been a greater than 90% decline in the female nesting population. "If this particular population goes they're completely irreplaceable, because they're unique to this particular part of the oceans," said Alison Gunn. "There's a lot of conservation action happening right now. We need to increase the collaboration that's already happening in order to ensure that this population is not lost." If conservation efforts are targeted and scaled up at high-priority sites, and projects are quickly implemented and maintained, the Eastern Pacific leatherback population can eventually stabilise and increase, according to a population model.
4-3-20 Conifer is top tree in urban sound absorption test
Scientists say trees have a role to play in combating noise pollution in urban environments and have identified the best species for the job. The larch was found to be the most effective tree when it comes to absorbing noise with its bark. The conifer was the most effective out of 13 tree species in a laboratory-based sound absorption test. The researchers say the findings can help urban planners use trees for noise control. The results have been published in the Applied Acoustics journal. The study assessed 76 samples from 13 tree species that displayed a variety of different bark characteristics. Co-author Jian Kang, from University College London (UCL), said: "Beside emphasising the effects of vision and shade, urban greening should be considered as well to achieve noise reduction during propagation." He told BBC News: "Using plants as a potential 'silencer' of urban noise could combine environmental protection and landscape business." The samples were selected by using a range of criteria, including bark thickness, tree age and trunk diameter. Disks of the trunks were collected from recently felled trees. "The main goal was to have a sufficient variety of species, including broadleaved and coniferous," Prof Kang observed. In the laboratory tests, the team tested species that were often found in urban areas, such as cherry, pine, beech, willow, poplar and alder trees. The team found that the sample of larch was the most effective species, while conifers acted more effectively when it came to absorbing sound than broadleaved trees. "The influence factors on noise reduction by tree bark are bark thickness, tree age, and bark roughness," explained Prof Kang. "Tree age and bark roughness seemed [to be] the parameters with the most predictive powers." He said that the small changes in the sound absorption characteristics of the bark could influence the effectiveness of dense tree belts.
4-3-20 Mice’s facial expressions can reveal a wide range of emotions
A machine learning approach reveals subtle ear, nose and whisker movements. Although it’s tricky for us humans to see, mouse feelings are written all over their furry little faces. With machine learning tools, researchers reliably spotted mice’s expressions of joy, fear, pain and other basic emotions. The results, published in the April 3 Science, provide a field guide for scientists seeking to understand how emotions such as joy, regret and empathy work in animals other than humans (SN: 11/10/16; SN: 6/9/14; SN: 12/8/11). Using machine learning to reveal mice’s expressions is “an extraordinarily exciting direction,” says Kay Tye, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. The findings “lay the foundation for what I expect will be a game changer for neuroscience research on emotional states.” Neuroscientist Nadine Gogolla of the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried, Germany, and colleagues gave mice experiences designed to elicit distinct emotions. Sugar water evoked pleasure, a shock to the tail triggered pain, bitter quinine water created disgust, an injection of lithium chloride evoked a nauseated malaise, and a place where shocks previously had been delivered sparked fear. For each setup, high-speed video cameras captured subtle movements in the mice’s ears, noses, whiskers and other parts of the face. Observers can generally see that something is happening on the mouse’s face, Gogolla says. But translating those subtle clues into emotions is really hard, “especially for an untrained human being,” she says. Machine learning techniques handle the job beautifully, the researchers found. The methods were able to spot subtle face movements that came with good or bad experiences. For instance, on the face of a mouse drinking sweet water — and presumably happy about it — the ears move forward and fold at the back toward the body, and the nose moves down toward the mouth. A mouse tasting bitter quinine sends its ears straight back, and the nose curls slightly backward, too.
4-2-20 Orangutans and other great apes under threat from covid-19 pandemic
Endangered great apes are at greater risk because of the threat of the new coronavirus, according to researchers who say there is a “difficult battle” ahead to protect the animals from possible infection. Gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos are known to be susceptible to human respiratory illnesses, sometimes becoming much more ill from them than people do. For example, a virus called metapneumovirus typically causes an infection with cold-like symptoms in humans, but has led to more severe outcomes in chimpanzees, including the deaths of young chimps. “Just as we don’t really know how far this [coronavirus] will go in terms of its impact on human populations, it’s the same for the apes,” says Thomas Gillespie at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “The most susceptible are those that have overlap with us, and the most habituated apes are the most at risk in that regard.” Although there haven’t yet been any confirmed cases of the covid-19 virus in any other great apes, chimpanzees have similar cell biology to humans, which might make them susceptible to the virus. In the Ivory Coast in 2016, a human coronavirus called OC43 was transmitted from humans to wild chimpanzees. Researchers are calling for governments to take precautionary measures to protect great apes, especially populations that come into regular contact with people. Gillespie and 25 other researchers from around the world co-signed an open letter published in Nature on 24 March. They called for great ape tourism to be suspended and field research curtailed to reduce the risk of covid-19 transmission from humans. With the exception of in Tanzania, almost all such activities have since been suspended. The threat of covid-19 to these animals cannot be underestimated, says Gillespie, because the coronavirus is so infectious, it can persist outside the body – and the effect of the virus on apes is still unknown. “I think it’s going to be a very difficult battle to keep it out of ape populations,” he says.
4-1-20 A cat appears to have caught the coronavirus, but it’s complicated
There is no evidence that cats can transmit the virus to people. A cat in Belgium seems to have become infected with the coronavirus and may have had COVID-19, the disease that the virus causes. While the case — the first reported in cats — suggests that the animals can catch the virus, there is no evidence that felines play a role in spreading the coronavirus, and it’s still unclear how susceptible they are to the disease. “This is an isolated case, so it is not the rule,” microbiologist Emmanuel André of KU Leuven said March 27 at a news conference held by Belgium’s public health institute. The cat probably picked up the virus, called SARS-CoV-2, from its owner, who fell ill with COVID-19 after traveling to northern Italy. About a week later, the cat started to show signs of illness: respiratory issues, nausea and diarrhea. In lab tests, feces and vomit samples showed high levels of SARS-CoV-2’s genetic material. But that positive result comes with caveats. The samples were collected and sent to the lab by the owner, and a veterinarian has yet to examine the cat. The cat recovered after nine days, and once it’s released from quarantine, researchers will run a blood test for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, which would provide more concrete proof of an infection. Those results are expected in about a week. Even if the cat tests positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, it might be hard to definitively prove that the virus made the cat sick — lots of other pathogens cause respiratory and stomach issues in cats. “What makes us actually believe that this cat was infected is that there was quite a lot of virus detected in the feces and vomit in multiple tests over several days,” says Jane Sykes, a veterinarian at the University of California, Davis. It’s not that surprising that cats could pick up SARS-CoV-2. The virus zeroes in on a protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme II, or ACE2, to hack into cells. Cats and humans have versions of this protein that are nearly identical in spots where the virus binds. The virus that causes SARS targets cells using the same break-in method (SN: 2/3/20), and it has been shown to infect cats and ferrets in a lab setting, though cats did not develop signs of disease.
4-1-20 Male bottlenose dolphins synchronise their calls to attract females
Synchronised swimming is a signature trait of bottlenose dolphins. Now, it turns out that male dolphins coordinate not only their movements but their vocalisations, too. This may mean they are working together to attract females. Stephanie King at the University of Bristol, UK, and her colleagues studied seven groups of male bottlenose dolphins living in Shark Bay in Western Australia between 2016 and 2018. They recorded calls from 59 individual dolphins that males make to draw females towards them and away from rivals. These clicking noises are called “pops”, and the males make about six to 12 per second. Due to strong competition between groups, these male dolphins usually work together to attract females. Males from Shark Bay form particularly large alliances of up to 14 individuals that can last for decades, with members playing different roles within the group. “[There is] this nested level of alliances within alliances and that is unique to Shark Bay,” says King. The researchers towed underwater microphones through the bay to listen in on the dolphins. They found that the animals synchronised their pops, matching each other’s tempo and starting and ending their series of pops at the same time. Due to the complexity of their multi-level alliances, Shark Bay dolphins are an ideal population to look at coordination, says King. She thinks this acoustic coordination could apply to other populations of dolphins too, such as those in Florida that are allied in pairs. Though it isn’t yet clear whether harmonising their pops results in more reproductive success, it may be important to male dolphins for maintaining social bonds and reducing stress, possibly by the release of oxytocin, says King. The oxytocin interpretation is still speculative, says Susanne Shultz at the University of Manchester, UK. It’s surprising how regular some of the dolphins’ synchrony is, she says, and documenting these vocalisations is “likely to open up a raft of possibilities” for patterns associated with hunting and play.