5-30-20 More ‘murder hornets’ are turning up. Here’s what you need to know
What’s getting overlooked in the furor over the world’s largest hornet’s move to North America. Two new specimens of Asian giant hornet have turned up in the Pacific Northwest, suggesting that the invasive species made it through the winter despite efforts last year to stamp out the menace to North America’s honeybees. A big, yellow-and-black insect found dead in a roadway near Custer, Wash., has been identified as the Asian giant hornet, or Vespa mandarinia, Sven Spichiger, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, announced May 29. It was “probably a queen,” he said, from a brood in a 2019 nest and now ready to found a colony of her own. Canadian scientists have also confirmed their first giant hornet of 2020, a specimen spotted May 15 in Langley, British Columbia. Dubbed the “murder hornet” to the annoyance of entomologists, the predator earns its nickname from its proclivity to nab a honeybee, bite off the bee’s head carried home to nourish young hornets. Raiding parties of several dozen Asian giant hornets can kill whole hives containing thousands of bees in a few hours. Those are just some of the details that make V. mandarinia the newsiest stinging invader in years. It’s a fierce little predator, though not as apocalyptic as “murder hornet” headlines have suggested. Amid the uproar over the “new” hornets, a few facts have been overlooked. For one, North America has previously had at least one close call — not publicized at the time — with the world’s largest hornet. Unlike the current sensational invasion, however, that early episode had a happy ending, at least for the people and native insects of North America. Not so much for the hornets. What’s more, these aren’t the only big, bad hornets that have arrived at the borders of the continent.
5-29-20 World's deepest octopus captured on camera
The deepest ever sighting of an octopus has been made by cameras on the Indian Ocean floor. The animal was spotted 7,000m down in the Java Trench - almost 2km deeper than the previous reliable recording. Researchers, who report the discovery in the journal Marine Biology, say it's a species of "Dumbo" octopus. The name is a nod to the prominent ear-like fins just above these animals' eyes that make them look like the 1940s Disney cartoon character. The scientist behind the identification is Dr Alan Jamieson. He's pioneered the exploration of the deep using what are called "landers". These are instrumented frames dropped overboard from research ships. They settle on the seabed and record what passes by. Dr Jamieson's equipment filmed two octopuses - one on a drop to 5,760m and a second to 6,957m. The individual animals were 43cm and 35cm in length. They've been placed in the Grimpoteuthis family - the group commonly known as Dumbo. Octopus fragments and eggs have been found at very great depths, but until this discovery, the previous deepest reliable sighting was at 5,145m down. That was a black and white photo of an animal taken 50 years ago off Barbados. The significance of the Indian Ocean observations is that we now know that octopuses can find potentially suitable habitat across at least 99% of the global seafloor. But those animals that do live at depth will clearly need some special adaptations, says Dr Jamieson. "They'd have to do something clever inside their cells. If you imagine a cell is like a balloon - it's going to want to collapse under pressure. So, it will need some smart biochemistry to make sure it retains that sphere," the scientist explained. "All the adaptations you need to live at pressure are at the cellular level." Dr Jamieson recorded the new octopus while working as chief scientist on the Five Deeps Expedition. This was the project that saw Texan financier Victor Vescovo take a submersible to the deepest sectors of the five major oceans on Earth
5-28-20 Chimps have local culture differences when it comes to eating termites
How many ways are there to get a termite to run up a stick? A surprising variety, it turns out. A new analysis of how chimpanzees perform this “termite fishing” has revealed that different groups of animals have distinct dining cultures, similar to how chopstick use in humans differs across the world. The idea that non-human animals can even have culture in the sense that humans have it – behaviours and social norms that vary by group – has been controversial, but this new study firms up the idea of chimp ethnography, the study of chimp culture, as a viable subject. Carel van Schaik of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, who was not involved in the research, says the work confirmed beyond any doubt that the variation that has been found among chimpanzees is cultural. “This paper is an absolute milestone in ‘culture in nature’ research,” he says. Christophe Boesch at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and his colleagues chose to study termite fishing because it is a widespread behaviour, allowing the team to make lots of observations in different communities. The researchers set up camera traps in 39 different wild chimp communities to record them eating termites, which they found occurring in 10 of the groups. It may be that the other communities did not have enough termite mounds in the area to display the behaviour, or simply that the cameras did not happen to capture any termite fishing. The team carefully noted each element of the termite fishing behaviour from hundreds of video clips to create an ethogram, a behaviour profile for each chimpanzee in the study. It turns out there are 38 different technical elements all used in different combinations in each of the chimpanzee communities. Individuals in the same community used more similar techniques compared to chimpanzees from other groups – in other words, there were local cultural differences. “As in human social conventions, you do it as you see others do,” says Boesch.
5-26-20 Thailand: Elephants on 'great migration' to survive coronavirus starvation
With the collapse of the tourism industry due to coronavirus, many of Thailand's captive elephants are now at risk of starvation. BBC Thai follows one group of elephant keepers journeying into the mountains to find food.
5-25-20 New species of scaly, deep-sea worms named after Elvis have been found
The animals’ iridescent scales are reminiscent of sequins on the iconic jumpsuits of ‘The King’. A new look at the critters known as “Elvis worms” has the scale worm family all shook up. These deep-sea dwellers flaunt glittery, iridescent scales reminiscent of the sequins on Elvis’ iconic jumpsuits (SN: 1/23/20). “For a while, we thought there was just one kind of Elvis worm,” says Greg Rouse, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. But analysis of the creatures’ genetic makeup shows that Elvis worms comprise four species of scale worm, Rouse and colleagues report May 12 in ZooKeys. Rouse’s team compared the genetic material of different Elvis worms with each other, and with DNA from other scale worm species. This analysis places Elvis worms in the Peinaleopolynoe genus of scale worms, which includes two other known species — one found off the coast of Spain, the other off California. The four newly identified Elvis worm species are scattered across the Pacific, from P. elvisi and P. goffrediae in Monterey Canyon off California to P. orphanae in the Gulf of California by Mexico and P. mineoi near Costa Rica. These deep-sea Elvis impersonators share some common traits, such as nine pairs of scales. But each species has its own distinct flare. P. elvisi’s gold and pink iridescent color scheme earned it the honor of keeping the worms’ namesake in its official title. P. orphanae, on the other hand, mostly sports rainbow-sparkled scales of a bluish hue. The researchers don’t know why Elvis worms have evolved such eye-catching scales, since the animals live in the dark, deep sea. It could just be a side effect of developing thicker scales over time, which happen to refract more light, Rouse says. Thicker scales could come in handy in a fight, since Elvis worms are apparently biters, a behavior discovered while watching a worm skirmish. “Suddenly, they started doing this amazing jitterbugging — wiggling, and then fighting and biting each other” on their scales, Rouse says. “No one’s ever seen any behavior like this in scale worms.”
5-25-20 Lydia Millet's 6 favorite books about appreciating living creatures
The author recommends works about magnificent elephants, rethinking zoos, and the magic of trees. Lydia Millet's new novel, A Children's Bible, is a modern Noah's Ark fable in which adolescents take the lead when climate disaster strikes. Below, the award-winning author recommends nonfiction that deepens appreciation for other living creatures.
- Where the Animals Go by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti (2016).
- The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson (2013).
- A Different Nature by David Hancocks (2001).
- Giants of the Monsoon Forest by Jacob Shell (2019).
- When Elephants Weep by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy (1995).
- The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (2015).
5-24-20 Millions of periodical cicadas to emerge in parts of US
After spending 17 years underground, millions of cicadas will be emerging in parts of the United States. Periodical cicadas are expected to come out in early summer across southwest Virginia, parts of North Carolina, and in West Virginia. The last time the cicadas emerged in many of those regions was in 2003 and 2004, though some areas saw an emergence in 2013. As many as 1.5 million of the insects can emerge per acre of land. While they are some of the longest-lived insects in the world, periodical cicadas spend almost their entire lives underground as what entomologists call "nymphs". They live in the soil and feed on tree roots for periods of either 13 or 17 years depending on the species, according to Virginia Tech university. The species make up 15 separate "broods", with Brood IX (nine) emerging this year as part of their 17-year cycle. When the nymphs are ready, they build mud tubes - called a cicada hut - in the soil and crawl out to find a place to moult into their winged adult form and to mate. They are not harmful to humans and can be a food source for animals and birds. They only live for two to four weeks as adults but during that time can cause significant damage to young trees - including apple, dogwood, peach, hickory, cherry, and pear - as well as to vines and saplings where females lay their eggs. The male cicadas are also very loud, "singing" by vibrating membranes on their abdomen to court females. The sound is described by Virginia Tech as like a "field of out-of-tune car radios". Why the insects emerge on those specific intervals remains unclear, though some researchers think it could help them avoid predators. There is also a species of cicada that emerges every year, called dogday or annual cicadas.
5-22-20 Canada v US: Loon stabs eagle through heart
As with global affairs, nature has its pecking order. And in a contest between the bald eagle, America's national bird, and a common loon, which is featured on Canada's dollar coin, few would bet on the latter to come out the victor. But sometimes the underdog comes out on top, as was revealed when an eagle was found dead in the water near a dead loon chick in a Maine lake. A necropsy revealed he was killed by a stab to the heart from a loon's beak. Baby loons are common prey for eagles, which are fearsome hunters. Bald eagles are protected in the US, and typically their remains are sent to the directly to the National Eagle Repository in Colorado. It is a crime in the US to kill an eagle, possess one or disturb its remains, except for special exemptions, such as in the use of Native American ceremonies. But after seeing a dead baby loon chick so near the carcass, scientists began to wonder if the eagle could have been killed by an enraged mother loon in an avian equivalent of David and Goliath. So they sent the eagle not to the eagle repository, but to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin where it could be examined by a loon specialist. There, a pathologist found that the eagle died by a quick stab to the heart from what appeared to be a loon beak, and the chick had eagle talon marks, indicating it had been captured by an eagle. A nearby neighbour also told wildlife investigators she heard a "hullabaloo" the night before. Wildlife biologist Danielle D'Auria, who works for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, shared the news on the department's blog, noting it is the first confirmed case of a loon slaying an eagle. "Who would think a loon would stand a chance against such a powerful predator?" she wrote. (Webmaster's comment: Being a predator is not all it's cracked up to be! Note that the loon knew where to stab!)
5-22-20 Which animals are benefitting from coronavirus lockdowns?
Overall, the pandemic poses many threats to wildlife worldwide, as conservation programmes struggle for funding and poachers make the most of reduced patrols. But there are some instances in which coronavirus restrictions may be benefitting certain species. Some of the heart-warming stories about nature thriving during lockdown, like the claim that dolphins had returned to the canals of Venice, aren’t true. But others do stand up. There is evidence wild bees will benefit from the decline in air pollution, which can disrupt their ability to smell flowers at a distance. And, anecdotally, some wild animals are venturing into cities, including wild cats. “Some people have seen caracals in their garden or crossing their gardens,” says Marine Drouilly of the Panthera charity, who is based in South Africa. The International Bio-Logging Society is organising a global study of data from camera traps and other tracking devices to see if wild animals really are shifting their ranges, but the results may not be available for two years. We do know, however, that the oceans are quieter and that is likely to be a good thing for wildlife. In Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska, the first cruise ship of the tourist season was due on 30 April but it never arrived. Cruises have been cancelled because of the threat of covid-19. “There’s been no large vessel traffic, and we’re not expecting any until at least late July,” says Christine Gabriele of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Gustavus, Alaska. The only boats on the move are small local ones. Gabriele is engaged in a multi-decade study of humpback whales in the area. A key element is monitoring how they call amid the underwater noise caused by heavy boat traffic, using a permanent hydrophone anchored to the bottom of the ocean at the mouth of Glacier Bay.
5-22-20 Pollen-deprived bumblebees may speed up plant blooming by biting leaves
In a pollen shortage, bees can make tomatoes bloom early by nipping foliage. Here’s a bumblebee tip that might get a slowpoke plant to bloom early. Just bite its leaves. At least three species of bumblebees use their mouthparts to snip little confetti bits out of plant foliage, researchers report in the May 22 Science. This foliage biting gets more common when there’s a pollen shortage, says Consuelo De Moraes, a chemical ecologist and entomologist at ETH Zurich. Experiments show that mustard and tomato plants nibbled by Bombus terrestris bees bloomed earlier than unbitten plants by days, or even weeks, say De Moraes and her colleagues. So for the bumblebees, accelerating bloom times could be a lifesaver. When trying to found colonies in early spring, the bees rely on flower pollen as a protein source for raising their young. Foteini Paschalidou, an ecologist now at France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research in Versailles-Grignon, was the first team member to call attention to the behavior. She was working on a different project with caged B. terrestris bees indoors. At first, De Moraes worried. “Is it something wrong with them?” The bees’ supplier and some farmers who used them to pollinate crops assured the researchers that nipping happens elsewhere, although the team hasn’t found any accounts in the scientific literature. To test a link between leaf biting and pollen shortages, the researchers did a caged-bee test. After three days without pollen, bumblebees trapped with nonblooming plants were more likely to poke holes in foliage than a bee group buzzing among plentiful flowers. When researchers swapped the bees’ situations, the insects now trapped without blooms started nibbling leaves. Tests done on the roof of the lab building with bees free to seek flowers in rooftop planters and elsewhere also found a link between pollen shortage and increased leaf biting, the researchers report.
5-22-20 How bumble bees trick plants into flowering early
Scientists have observed for the first time bumble bees tricking plants into flowering early. The practice is used by the bees when pollen is scarce.
5-21-20 Bees force plants to flower early by cutting holes in their leaves
Hungry bumblebees can coax plants into flowering and making pollen up to a month earlier than usual by punching holes in their leaves. Bees normally come out of hibernation in early spring to feast on the pollen of newly blooming flowers. However, they sometimes emerge too early and find that plants are still flowerless and devoid of pollen, which means the bees starve. Fortunately, bumblebees have a trick up their sleeves for when this happens. Consuelo De Moraes at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and her colleagues discovered that worker bumblebees can make plants flower earlier than normal by using their mouthparts to pierce small holes in leaves. In a series of laboratory and outdoor experiments, the researchers found that bumblebees were more likely to pierce holes in the leaves of tomato plants and black mustard plants when deprived of food. The leaf damage caused the tomato plants to flower 30 days earlier than usual and the black mustard plants to flower 16 days earlier. It is still a mystery how the leaf damage promotes early blooming. Previous studies have found that plants sometimes speed up their flowering in response to stressors like intense light and drought, but the effects of insect damage haven’t been studied much. De Moraes and her colleagues were unable to induce early flowering by punching holes in the plant leaves themselves. This suggests that bees may provide additional cues that encourage flowering, like injecting chemicals from their saliva into the leaves when they pierce them. “We hope to explore this in future work,” she says. The ability of bumblebees to manipulate flowering times may help them to adapt to climate change, says Mark Mescher at ETH Zurich, who was also part of the study.
5-21-20 Nature: Bumblebees' 'clever trick' fools plants into flowering
Scientists have discovered a new behaviour among bumblebees that tricks plants into flowering early. Researchers found that when deprived of pollen, bumblebees will nibble on the leaves of flowerless plants. The damage done seems to fool the plant into flowering, sometimes up to 30 days earlier than normal. Writing in the journal Science, the scientists say they have struggled to replicate the bees' trick in the laboratory. With their fuzzy appearance and distinctive drone, bumblebees are hard to miss in gardens all over the world. Their dense, hairy bodies make them excellent pollinators for crops like tomatoes and blueberries. They are among the first bees to emerge each year and work a long season. Some colonies remain active through the winter in southern and urban areas of the UK. But despite their key role, bumblebees, like many other pollinators have seen their numbers tumble in recent decades. One recent study pointed to climate change, reporting that an increasing number of hot days in Europe and North America was boosting local extinction rates. But researchers have now made a discovery about bumblebees that could have relevance to their long-term survival. Scientists in Switzerland found that when the bees were deprived of pollen, they started to nibble on the leaves of plants that hadn't yet flowered. The bees used their proboscises and mandibles (mouthparts) to cut distinctively-shaped holes in the leaves. But the creatures didn't eat the material or use it in their nests. The damaged plants responded by blooming earlier than normal - in some cases up to 30 days ahead of schedule. "I think everything that we've found is consistent with the idea that the bees are damaging the plants and that that's an adaptation that brings flowers online earlier and that benefits the bees," said Dr Mark Mescher, one of the authors from ETH Zurich, told BBC News.
5-21-20 How the coronavirus pandemic is affecting wildlife and conservation
While the lockdowns in many countries have allowed animals to roam more freely, they have also cut off crucial sources of funding for conservation work and given poachers free rein to operate. With an increase in illegal killings and zoos at risk of running out of money to care for their animals, conservationists are hoping the pandemic can focus global attention on the need to protect biodiversity. Many of us in lockdown have become more aware of nature. Conservationist Richard Corlett works at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in Yunnan, China, but he has spent the past few months in London. Normally he would hear constant noise from buses, aeroplanes and ferries. “They’re all gone,” he says. “Birdsong is all I hear in the morning. This is the experience of tens of millions worldwide.” But the lockdown has crippled two crucial industries: ecotourism and legal trophy hunting. “That’s the two main things that bring money to wildlife conservation,” says Marine Drouilly, who works for the Panthera charity in Cape Town, South Africa. The temporary loss of these industries means there is less money to pay rangers to guard threatened species from poachers, or to fund researchers (Biological Conservation, doi.org/ggv5b3). It also means such species are less valuable when alive, which could lead to local exploitation of threatened plants, animals or ecosystems. As a result, problems are accumulating for conservationists. “There’s no lockdown for rhino poachers or bushmeat traders,” says Drouilly. She says the threatened rhinos in Kruger National Park are in serious danger of poaching. Furthermore, there is concern that people who have lost their incomes may resort to bushmeat hunting to support their families. In the Comoro Islands north-west of Madagascar, turtles are poached as part of a tradition that assigns social status to the men that eat them. In early May, local organisation Oulanga Na Nyamba reported finding the bodies of 28 endangered green turtles on a beach. This followed the cancellation of beach patrols for a month due to coronavirus restrictions. Two poachers were later caught with more than 60 kilograms of turtle meat.
5-20-29 The strange physics of why blue jays look blue even though they aren't
Watching birds is great entertainment, and there's fascinating physics behind how some get their colours, says Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. HERE in New Hampshire, I live next to a wooded area, and covid-19 means that I have been spending a lot of time at home. This has translated into me becoming a bit of a birder. All day long, I text friends with my sightings – a hawk walking on the ground hunting smaller birds, a female northern cardinal, a bird that I thought was a woodpecker but was actually a warbler. I enjoy all of the birds I see, but my favourite visitors are the blue jays. They have such a beautiful pattern of bright blue, black and white, and they are fast movers too. Being the physicist that I am, I haven’t just enjoyed the birds but have also been reading up on the science behind their colours. And here is the thing I learned: the blue jay’s beautiful blue shades aren’t real, they aren’t blue like my jeans are blue. Not only is this shocking revelation true, but the blue jay isn’t special either. It is common for “blue” bird feathers to appear to be blue, without actually having any blue colour in them. Reading this felt like saying that my hair isn’t actually dark brown, it just looks that way. In fact, my hair looks the way it does thanks to melanin pigments, chemicals that absorb some parts of the light spectrum and reflect others. Some of these, eumelanins, absorb light that doesn’t look brown or black and reflect back the parts that do. This photochemical reaction is why most of my hair looks dark brown, and the loss of eumelanins is why increasingly my hair strands look white. Melanins, including red-yellow ones, are the same pigments that cause humans to have a diverse set of skin colours. Melanin is also a source of pigments for bird feathers. The brown sparrows I see eating bugs on my lawn have feathers full of melanin. Those sparrows, just like us, look they way they do because of these pigments. The blue jay, on the other hand, has a feather that has a special microstructure, and that microstructure mimics the photochemical reaction through a process called diffraction. This phenomenon is what occurs when light runs into a barrier, bends and has a tendency to spread out.
5-20-20 The epic journeys of green sea turtles revealed by 50 years of data
Using more than 50 years of satellite tracking data, a team found that green sea turtles will skip areas they don't know when looking for a foraging site even if they are suitable. NESTLED among bright yellow tube sponges and corals, this green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) will soon make its way across the ocean on an epic journey. Adult green turtles migrate from their breeding grounds and nesting beaches where they lay their eggs to specialised foraging sites that they use for food and refuge. The voyage can stretch for hundreds to thousands of kilometres and is a trip that the turtle will undertake every two to three years throughout its life. Using more than 50 years of satellite tracking data to follow the paths of sea turtles, Nicole Esteban at Swansea University, UK, and her colleagues have discovered that these animals will skip areas they aren’t familiar with as they travel between foraging sites, even if those areas are seemingly suitable (Journal of Animal Ecology, doi.org/dvqt). The researchers say this may be because the turtles view such places as risky relocation spots, since they don’t know how well they will work as foraging habitats in the long term. One green turtle that the team tracked was an “incredible illustration” of how faithful these animals are to their foraging sites, says Esteban, travelling 5000 kilometres to the exact spot off the coast of Kenya where it was tagged 12 years previously. This is one of the first studies that demonstrates the turtles’ strict fidelity to foraging sites, she says.
5-20-20 Why do scientists give some species such unusual names?
The strange ways we name new species and the politics involved is explained in Stephen Heard's book Charles Darwin's Barnacle and David Bowie's Spider. UNLIKE plastic dinosaurs, new species don’t arrive with names on their bellies. Assigning them a name, however, isn’t as easy as it might seem. In Stephen Heard’s splendid new book, which is beautifully illustrated by Emily Damstra, he explains not only how species are named, but why some have odder names than others. Reasons people choose names can vary from seeking to honour a respected colleague, thank a patron, celebrate a loved one or, in some cases, mourn their death. Metellina merianae, a spider, is one of nine different species named after German wildlife artist and adventurer Maria Sibylla Merian. Further twists occur when the name has an association: David Bowie’s spider is thin and long-legged with a red-furred head (cue the song Ziggy Stardust). Scientific naming has fashions too. The recent Game of Thrones-themed wasps Laelius lannisteri, Laelius targaryeni and Laelius starki were preceded by Harry Potter-based Eriovixia gryffindori, a spider with a Sorting Hat-shaped abdomen. But the book is more than an exposition of terminological cleverness. Heard provides some interesting social commentary on in-groups and out-groups in biology. He also covers the slow infiltration of female names beyond wives, sweethearts and children, as well as the need for mindfulness when naming after people or sacred sites, and the pros and cons of selling the right to choose a species name.
5-19-20 Here’s a clue to how this tube worm’s slime can glow blue for days
Scientists start to untangle the chemistry behind the mysterious light. Predators that tread on a colony of parchment tube worms may find themselves slimed. When threatened, these ocean creatures exude a sticky mucus that can glow blue for days (SN: 7/28/14). This sort of light produced by animals, bacteria or algae typically is gone in a flash (SN: 6/12/16). But with the mucus oozed by Chaetopterus tube worms, “we have easily 16 hours and sometimes 72 hours of light,” says Evelien De Meulenaere, a biochemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. New results suggest that the slime’s own light may help it shine on by triggering chemical reactions that sustain the glow. Making and sustaining such bioluminescence requires energy. But the slime’s power source is a mystery since it glows outside the body, where it can’t draw energy from the worms. So to unlock its secrets, scientists are dissecting the goo’s complicated chemistry. De Meulenaere and her colleagues noticed a spike in the mucus’s light when they exposed the slime to blue light. “That’s the weirdest thing,” she says. “The mucus produces blue light itself. So is it powering itself?” To find out, the researchers separated molecules from the mucus based on size and other properties to identify proteins, sugars and metals. This process of untangling the slime’s recipe revealed that iron may contribute to the enduring glow. The mucus contains ferritin, a protein that stores iron and releases electrically charged iron atoms, or ions. Those ions can trigger the mucus to emit bursts of blue light, the team found. The ferritin itself seems to respond to blue light, with the help of another blue light–absorbing molecule, by releasing the ions more quickly, De Meulenaere and her team found. That suggests that light from the slime may help trigger more light production to sustain the glow. The team planned to present the results in early April at Experimental Biology 2020, but the meeting was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
5-18-20 Seven new coronaviruses have been found lurking in bats in Africa
Seven new coronaviruses have been discovered in bats in Gabon, but their potential to spill over into people and cause a covid-19-like pandemic is unclear. We have known that coronaviruses can jump from bats to people and cause serious illness since the 2002-03 SARS coronavirus outbreak was traced back to bats in China. Covid-19 is another coronavirus that is thought to have originated in bats in China and crossed to people, possibly via other animals. The majority of bat coronaviruses identified so far have been found in bats in Asia, but a growing number are being detected in bats in Africa. Gael Maganga at the International Centre of Medical Research of Franceville in Gabon and his colleagues recently tested more than 1000 bats living in caves dotted around the country and found that 18 were carrying coronaviruses. Genetic sequencing showed that seven of these coronaviruses, which were all found in insect-eating bats from the Hipposideridae family, were new to science. Five of the novel viruses were closely related to a known coronavirus called human coronavirus 229E that has been circulating in people since at least the 1960s, but usually only causes mild cold symptoms. This suggests the novel strains may also be able to infect people and cause mild colds or possibly worse, but more work is needed to investigate this, says Maganga. The other two viruses weren’t related to any known human coronaviruses, making it difficult to tell how dangerous they might be if they were to mutate into forms that could infect people, says Maganga. “They could lead to the emergence of viruses potentially pathogenic to humans and able to cause an epidemic or even a pandemic,” he says. Now that so many new bat coronaviruses are being detected around the world, we need to work out which ones carry the most risk to people so that we can monitor and contain them before they potentially cause another pandemic, says Marc Valitutto at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in the US, who recently discovered six novel coronaviruses in bats in Myanmar. For example, studying the genetic sequences of novel bat coronaviruses will reveal if they contain any codes for receptors that are known to allow access into human cells, says Valitutto.
5-17-20 Meet the baby orangutans learning to climb trees
While much of the world is in lockdown, youngsters in one very unusual classroom are still having lessons. At a forest school in Borneo, baby orangutans learn tree-climbing skills from their human surrogate parents. The orphans spend 12 hours a day in the forest, preparing for a new life in the wild. The orangutans were filmed and photographed before coronavirus struck, for the TV series Primates, on BBC One. With human contact routinely kept to a minimum, life goes on much as before for the animals, says Dr Signe Preuschoft, leader of ape programmes for the charity Four Paws, which runs the rehabilitation centre in East Kalimantan. As a precaution, the staff now have temperature checks, wear facemasks and change into uniforms on site. The pandemic has disrupted many conservation programmes around the world but Dr Preuschoft says it also offers an opportunity to bring positive change. "There are great opportunities here to protect wildlife better from illegal wildlife trade and from (consumption of) bushmeat," she says. "It's very much about education." The young orphaned apes climb high into the treetops with their caregivers to help them acquire the skills they would have learned from their mothers in the wild. They would otherwise spend more time on the ground than is natural for a species that feeds, lives and sleeps in the canopies of trees. Baby orangutans have a huge advantage when it comes to climbing, as they can hold on "like an octopus", says Dr Preuschoft. "I think the orangutans were really completely thrilled when they realised that they could actually be in a canopy together with one of their moms," she adds. As soon as the rescued orangutans have moved out of quarantine, they spend long hours in the forest in as natural an environment as possible. They are taught essential forest survival skills in a large forested area between the cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda. (Webmaster's comment: All mammal children have to be taught survival skills by their parents. Survival skills are not build in.)
5-15-20 'Surge' in illegal bird of prey killings since lockdown
The wildlife charity the RSPB says it has been "overrun" by reports of birds of prey being illegally killed since the lockdown started six weeks ago. DSpecies of raptors (birds of prey) that had been targeted include hen harriers, peregrine falcons, red kites, goshawks, buzzards and a barn owl. The wildlife charity described the crimes as "orchestrated". It said the "vast majority" had connections with shooting estates, or land managed for shooting. Some raptors are known to feed on pheasant and grouse chicks. The head of the RSPB's investigations unit, Mark Thomas, told the BBC it was like "the Wild West" out in the countryside. He said people who wanted to kill birds of prey had been "emboldened" by the absence of walkers and hikers. He said the surge correlated exactly with the date the lockdown was imposed. At this time of year he said that the RSPB would normally be getting three or four reports of the killing of protected bird species each week. They now have three or four reports of a killing each day, and they are coming from across the country. The wildlife charity alleges that the incidents are overwhelmingly connected with land managed for sport shoots. Raptors prey on bird species that have been specifically reared for be killed for sport, like grouse or pheasant. Mr Thomas said, "I am genuinely disturbed. in more than 20 years of investigating, I've never seen anything like it. We are having to put ongoing investigations on hold in order to triage all these reports... This isn't youngsters with air rifles but orchestrated wildlife crime." According to the RSPB, on 29 March a buzzard was found shot at Shipton, near York. Its wing was fractured in two places and an X-ray revealed several pieces of shot within the bird's body. The buzzard recovered and was released. Over the Easter Weekend, a red kite was found shot dead near Leeds. It had 12 shotgun pellets lodged in its body. The following weekend, a dead red kite was found in Powys, which had been shot. There were also reports of another two shot red kites in the region. In another case, in South West England, ten buzzards were found, all thought to have been poisoned. The Investigation Unit suspects that the true number of incidents could be much higher, as there are fewer people out in the countryside who might report cases, with walkers and specialist raptor groups under lockdown. (Webmaster's comment: Many human males do not do well under stress. To releave their stress they feel they must kill something, anything!)
5-13-20 Nature crisis: Moths have 'secret role' as crucial pollinators
Long seen as annoying creatures that can leave holes in your clothes, moths have been badly misjudged, say scientists. New research suggests they play a vital role as overnight pollinators of a wide range of flowers and plants. The study says that the moths' transport networks are larger and more complex than those of daytime pollinators like bees. The authors believe there is an urgent need to stem declines in moth numbers. Over the past decade, public anxiety about the role of our pollinators has focused squarely on bees. The fall-off in their numbers, linked to changes in land and widespread use of pesticides, has helped raise environmental awareness of the critical role these creatures play in the food chain. Moths, though, have not evoked similar sympathies. "There's this big misconception that all moths come and eat my clothes. That's not what happens at all," said Dr Richard Walton, from University College London (UCL), the lead author of the new study. "Some of them happen to be visiting flowers and can be an important part of the pollination process." To find out how vital a part the moths play, Dr Walton and colleagues monitored moth activity around ponds in agricultural areas of Norfolk. They found that 45% of the moths they tested were transporting pollen, which originated from 47 different plant species, including several that were rarely visited by bees, hoverflies and butterflies. The scientists found that while bumblebees and honeybees are critically important, they tended to target the most prolific nectar and pollen sources. Not so with moths. "From what we see from our work, moths tend to be generalists, meaning they're not specifically visiting a narrow group of flowers," said Dr Walton. "They're kind of visiting any type of flower that they can access. These tend to be the open cup-shaped flowers like bramble, they can access things from the legume family, the clover family was also very important."
5-13-20 MPs urge UK ban on chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef
Hormone-fed beef and chlorine-washed chicken should remain banned in England after Brexit, the government has been warned. Ministers say the issue will be dealt with in the upcoming Trade Bill. But opponents of these practices say that could lead to farm standards being bargained away in negotiations. Instead, they want ministers to guarantee food standards in the Agriculture Bill, which returns to the House of Commons on Wednesday. Some Conservative MPs have joined up with the opposition to demand protection for England's farmers from lower standard produce from countries like the US. Farmers there are allowed to feed beef with hormones and wash chickens with chlorine solution in order to maximise productivity. But both of these practices are currently banned in the EU. The US demands that ban should be lifted. A government spokesperson said existing protections would not be compromised in trade negotiations. The issue is part of a great upheaval in UK farm and countryside policy – the biggest since World War II. The UK government wants to shift farm grants to reward activities that enhance the environment. Its opponents are concerned at the lack of clarity over exactly how the transformation will happen, and want the changes to be delayed. Minsters are likely to suffer huge pressure in the Commons on the question of food import standards. They face almost identical amendments to the Bill from some Conservative back-benchers; the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Select Committee; and the Labour and Liberal Democrat front benches. They are all calling for a level playing field on food standards. Jyoti Fernandes, from the Landworkers' Alliance, a union of farmers and other land-based workers, said: "The Agriculture Bill is a historic moment to make or break our food system.
5-12-20 Tapirs may be key to reviving the Amazon. All they need to do is poop
A Brazilian ecologist is determined to understand the role of tapir dung in forest restoration. Beneath the viridescent understory of the Brazilian Amazon, ecologist Lucas Paolucci has been honing his skills for hunting tapir dung. In this region’s degraded rain forests, he sees the piglike mammal’s enormous piles of poop as a treasure. Chock full of seeds, the dung from trunk-nosed lowland tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) may be key in regenerating forests that have been hit by intensive logging and slash-and-burn agriculture, says Paolucci, of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute in Brazil. “Tapirs in Brazil are known as the gardeners of the forests,” he says. Feasting on the fruit of more than 300 plant species, the animals travel through the forest underbrush with their bellies full of seeds. That includes seeds from large, carbon-storing trees like mess apple trees (Bellucia grossularioides) that can’t pass through smaller animals. So the lowland tapir, South America’s largest mammal, is one of the key agents dispersing seeds throughout the Amazon. Rooting through poop piles in Mato Grosso, a state in west-central Brazil, wasn’t how Paolucci began his career; he studied ants in Brazil’s coastal Atlantic Forest. Later, he began to wonder how forest fires in the Amazon might affect the rain forest’s insect communities. And then, he became intrigued by the monstrous dung piles — each pile “bigger than my head,” he says. In 2016, Paolucci joined other researchers studying the role of these magnanimous defecators in restoring disturbed forests. The team conducted an experiment in eastern Mato Grosso, where two forest plots had been control burned to varying degrees from 2004 to 2010. One plot was burned every year, and the other every three years. A third plot was left untouched as a control group.
5-10-20 The silence of the owls
Every owl fancier has a story of the first time they heard an owl — or, rather, didn't hear one. It's unforgettable to see an enormous bird, whose wingspan can reach more than six feet, slipping through the air without even a whisper. Justin Jaworski's first close encounter came at a flying exhibition at the Raptor Foundation near Cambridge, England. "They trained the owls to fly very close to the audience," he says. "My first experience was of ducking to avoid a collision. I heard only a very slight swoosh after it passed." Laboratory measurements have shown that the slight swoosh made by a barn owl is below the threshold of human hearing until the owl is about three feet away — a feat of stealth that biologists and engineers are far from completely understanding. But researchers from both disciplines are working to solve the riddle of silent flight — some with the aim of designing quieter fans, turbine blades, and airplane wings. Such owl-inspired innovations can reduce noise by as much as 10 decibels, similar to the difference in noise between a passing truck and a passing car, Jaworski and Nigel Peake write in an overview in the 2020 Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics. Jaworski, an engineer at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, is hardly the first scientist to be captivated by the puzzle of silent owl flight. In 1934, Robert Rule Graham — a British pilot and bird connoisseur — called attention to three structures on owl wings that might account for the owls' silence. More than 80 years later, his "three traits paradigm," as Christopher Clark calls it, is still cited in many papers on owl wings. "He clearly knew birds very well, and he was an aeronautical engineer," says Clark, an ornithologist at the University of California, Riverside. "Science was different in the 1930s. In our age of specialization, you don't get that combination." First, Graham pointed out an unusual structure called the "comb," which literally looks like a comb projecting forward from the wing's leading edge. Second, he noted that most of the owl wing is covered with a soft layer of velvety feathers. Finally, he observed that the feathers on the trailing edge of the wing form a ragged fringe. Most researchers still agree that the comb, the velvet, and the fringe combine in some way to reduce noise, but the owl may have more tricks up its sleeve. "When all is said and done, I think we'll have a number of mechanisms, including Graham's," says Clark. To explain how an owl suppresses noise, it would help to identify where the noise comes from in the first place. For an airplane coming in for a landing, a large part of the noise comes not from the engines but from the flow of air around the plane, especially the sound produced at the trailing edge of the wings. The turbulent air rushing past the exposed edges of the wings translates to the dull roar you hear as the plane flies overhead.
5-8-20 Some comb jellies cannibalize their young when food is scarce
Adults chow down on their larvae to survive the winter. Some jellies go ballistic when their prey disappears — cannibalistic that is. Warty comb jellies, native to the western Atlantic Ocean, invaded Eurasian waters in the 1980s. The jellies have since flourished, cycling through population booms during summer when prey is abundant and busts in fall and winter when it’s not. Now a study finds that to persist when food is scarce, adult jellies eat their young. Understanding how a “brainless, fragile animal” conquers new environments could reveal new ways to control the invasive species, says Jamileh Javidpour, a marine ecologist at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. Javidpour and her colleagues collected adult and larval comb jellies (Mnemiopsis leidyi) from Kiel Fjord — an inlet of the Baltic Sea east of Germany — in August and September of 2008, before and after the jelly population collapsed. As the adults’ preferred food source, small crustaceans called copepods, plummeted at the end of August, young comb jellies also began to disappear. By the end of the collapse, adults made up the bulk of the population. Back in the lab, the researchers chemically labelled larvae with a rare type, or isotope, of nitrogen, and placed the young jellies with starved adults. After 36 hours, those adults had higher levels of the isotope than adults fed a normal diet, a sign that the animals consumed the larvae, the team reports May 7 in Communications Biology. Because larvae can’t survive the cold winters, the study suggests that this comb jelly species ramps up reproduction in late summer — when it might otherwise be counterproductive — in order to feast on its young and bulk up before winter (SN: 12/12/13). “We thought that it was self-infecting harm,” says coauthor Thomas Larsen, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. But it seems the jellies are “building up resources for the winter.”
5-7-20 How the Covid-19 pandemic is threatening Africa’s wildlife
A wildlife catastrophe is unfolding in Africa, according to park rangers and conservation experts. They say the closure of safari tourism, due to the coronavirus pandemic, is decimating the industry, and leading to an increase in poaching. The African tourism industry is worth almost $30 billion a year and employs almost four million people. Experts and rangers on the ground say they are seeing a surge in poaching as thousands of unemployed people dependent on the industry turn to wild animals for food. They also fear an upsurge in more organised poaching of endangered species.
5-7-20 Warming water can create a tropical ecosystem, but a fragile one
Warm water discharged into the Sea of Japan let tropical fish flourish in an artificial hot spot. A decade ago, the waters off the Otomi Peninsula in the Sea of Japan, were a tepid haven. Schools of sapphire damselfish flitted above herds of long-spined urchins. The site was a hot spot of tropical biodiversity far from the equator, thanks to warm water exhaust from a nearby nuclear power plant. But when the plant ceased operations in 2012, those tropical species vanished. After the plant shut down, Otomi’s average bottom temperature fell by 3 degrees Celsius, and the site lost most of its tropical fishes, fisheries scientist Reiji Masuda of Kyoto University reports May 6 in PLOS ONE. The die-off of tropical fishes and invertebrates was “striking,” he says. Otomi quickly reverted to a cool-water ecosystem. The life and death of the reef is providing a sneak peek into the future of temperate habitats under climate change. This research suggests that even modest warming can result in dramatic changes to cool-water reefs, with some temperate habitats converting to more tropical ones. But these emerging reefs may not match the diversity or health of other more established tropical reefs at first, leaving them as ecologically fragile as the Otomi reef proved to be. While some temperate reefs are changing rapidly with global warming, they aren’t exact transplants of more established tropical ecosystems, says David Booth, a marine ecologist at the University of Technology Sydney not involved in the new study. Booth studies increasingly tropical Australian reefs. “People always ask us, ‘Oh, that means even though the Barrier Reef’s in trouble with bleaching, in a couple of years Sydney will be the new Barrier Reef?’” Booth says. Sydney is merely acquiring a handful of tropical fish and coral, he says, “so, it ain’t the Barrier Reef by any means. Just a coral community starting, that’s all.”
5-6-20 A Japanese nuclear power plant created a habitat for tropical fish
Tropical fish and other species were able to colonise a small coastal area in the Sea of Japan thanks to discharges from a nearby nuclear power plant. The findings suggest global warming will drastically alter marine ecosystems around the temperate areas of Japan over the next few decades. Since 2004, Reiji Masuda at Kyoto University and his colleagues have been carrying out underwater surveys every winter at three coastal sites near Kyoto. One of these sites is warmed by the water used to cool the Takahama nuclear power plant, keeping winter water temperatures around 13.6°C. There, the divers saw both more fish overall and a greater diversity of species, including tropical ones such as the blue damselfish (Pomacentrus coelestis) and the cutribbon wrasse (Stethojulis interrupta). Tropical invertebrates included the long-spined sea urchin (a species of Diadema). “There were so many sea urchins as they did not have predators,” says Masuda. These tropical species weren’t seen at the other two sites, even though winter temperatures there were only slightly lower, at 12.3°C and 11.7°C. In February 2012, operations at the nuclear plant were suspended because of the Fukushima disaster. Winter water temperatures at the dive site fell by 3°C to 10.6°C, and the tropical species all disappeared. During surveys soon after the suspension, the divers saw dying fish and sea urchins. In 2017, two of the four units at the nuclear plant restarted, and tropical species are gradually returning. Masuda thinks the findings show that winter water temperatures in the region are just below the critical level tropical species require to survive. With water temperatures around the temperate parts of Japan rising fast due to global warming, that means tropical species will soon be able to colonise vast areas of the coast, drastically altering coastal ecosystems.
5-6-20 Why otters ‘juggle’ rocks is still a mystery
Fiddling with stones looks as if it should boost dexterity, but a study didn’t find a link. A lovely, intuitive idea about why otters juggle rocks — that it helps them practice survival skills — might not be correct, new tests show. The term “juggling” is itself overenthusiastic. Otters don’t keep stones flying around in some tall, aerial circle. Instead, the animals shuffle rocks back and forth quickly between their front paws. “It’s very close to the body,” says animal behaviorist Mari-Lisa Allison, who studied the behavior as a graduate student at the University of Exeter in England. Such deft fiddling looks as if it might make a great example of how animal play could serve as practice for real-life challenges. In the wild, small-clawed otters need paw dexterity to tweak shreds of seafood out of crustacean or mollusk shells. And yet, three kinds of tests found no evidence that juggling builds otters’ food-picking skills, Allison and her colleagues report May 6 in Royal Society Open Science. The question of how play evolved (SN: 2/6/18) has long fascinated biologists. According to the latest thinking, play behaviors serve no immediate practical need. Yet even the mild tussles of puppies and kittens take energy and carry some risk of injury, so it seems that some benefit must counterbalance those downsides. Asian small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea), the littlest of the 13 otter species, are “very playful,” Allison says. Smooth-coated otters (Lutrogale perspicillata) also juggle rocks but eat fish that don’t require deft plucking of food tidbits from shells. Because the otters eat in different ways, Allison originally predicted that the active paws of the shellfish eaters in three wildlife collections would surpass the simple fish grabbers in their skill at pulling bits of meat out of crevices. Regardless of their differences in feeding styles, however, both kinds of otters proved equally able to winkle some meat out of challenging objects. Rock play didn’t seem to matter in learning a life skill.
5-5-20 Coronavirus: Calls to shut down 'dirty fur trade'
Mink have contracted coronavirus, adding to the list of animals known to be at risk of catching the virus. Mink at two fur farms in the Netherlands tested positive for Covid-19 a week ago. And last month, it was revealed that lions and tigers at a New York zoo had caught the disease from their keepers. Coronavirus could be "catastrophic" for endangered wildlife and we must act now to protect them, said Dr Peta Hitchens of the University of Melbourne. This includes thorough regulation of wildlife trade and trafficking, as well as protection of ecosystems where human encroachment and destruction "has resulted in increased interactions between us and wild animals". It's not surprising that mink have been infected, she added. The list of mammal species infected during the 2003 Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak numbers at least 16, including mink, palm civets, fruit bats, several species of horseshoe bat, red fox, wild boar, raccoon dog, and domestic cats and dogs. Officials in The Netherlands believe mink contracted the illness from farm workers and the farms have since been put into quarantine. The creation of new mink farms was banned there in 2013, while existing mink fur farms have until 2024 to close. Animal rights organisation Peta has written a letter to ministers calling for the farms to be shut down immediately: "Allowing mink farms to maintain business as usual for nearly four more years - in the face of a global crisis stemming from animal exploitation - would be inexcusable from the perspective of both the risk posed to humans and the harm inflicted on the mink themselves." Animal protection charity Humane Society International, which campaigns for a global end to the fur trade, has warned of the risk in other countries, where tens of millions of mink, fox, raccoon dogs, chinchillas and rabbits are farmed. (Webmaster's comment: Note that humans are passing the virus to these animal, not the other way around!)
5-5-20 Pug-nosed tree frogs use an auditory trick to evade predators and woo mates
The amphibians exploit what’s known as the precedence effect. Most male frogs want their mating call to stand out from the crowd, and they do that by calling when nobody else is. This makes sure that the females hear them loud and clear, and know where they are. That’s why it was baffling that pug-nosed tree frogs all call together. “Why would all frogs call at the same time? That made no sense,” says Ximena Bernal, a behavioral ecologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. She suspected it might have something to do with evading predators who eavesdrop on these mating calls. Now, she and her colleagues have found that pug-nosed tree frogs calling out in near-synchrony creates an auditory illusion that tricks predators while still successfully wooing females. The research is reported in the May American Naturalist. When male frogs call in the wild, their audience doesn’t consist of just females. Bats and bloodsucking midges, frogs’ natural predators, eavesdrop on the calls too (SN: 9/15/16). So sending out a single isolated call might be attractive to a female, but it also exposes a frog’s location to those predators. Pug-nosed tree frogs (Smilisca sila), however, have evolved a work-around. Calling out nearly simultaneously — the first, leading call is quickly followed by successive calls by other males — creates an auditory illusion that tricks predators into perceiving the sounds as coming from the same source. This illusion, called the precedence effect, is widespread, and most vertebrates, including humans, are susceptible to it. So synchronizing calls in groups helps all other frogs, except the first one, to go unnoticed from predators. But there’s one glaring issue with this way of sending signals. The first male, which gives out the leading call, is at a disadvantage because he’s the one being heard by predators. So why would any frog call first? Bernal says pug-nosed tree frogs are in a situation that ecologists call “war of attrition,” where every frog holds out calling until some neighboring frog gives in. This is in line with what scientists see in the wild, Bernal says, “where these synchronous calls are followed by long episodes of silence.”
5-4-20 'Murder hornets' land in the US for the first time
Even as the US remains under attack from the coronavirus outbreak, a new terror has arrived: "murder hornets". The 2-inch (5cm) long Asian giant hornets, Vespa mandarinia, have been found in Washington state. Multiple stings are deadly to humans and in their "slaughter phase" the hornets destroy honeybees, whose bodies they feed to their young. Scientists are now on a hunt for the hornets, hoping to eradicate the species before they wipe out US bees. The hornets are "shockingly large", said Todd Murray, a WSU scientist and invasive species specialist. "It's a health hazard, and more importantly, a significant predator of honeybees." The insects, roughly the size of a matchbox, have large yellow-orange heads, prominent black eyes, and a black and yellow striped abdomen. "They're like something out of a monster cartoon with this huge yellow-orange face," said Susan Cobey, a bee breeder with WSU entomology department in a press release. The Asian giant hornet's life cycle begins in April, when queens come out of hibernation, and begin to feed and seek out subterranean dens to build their nests. Once their habitats are built in the summer and autumn months, worker hornets are sent to find food. With their sharp, spiked mandibles, the hornets decapitate honeybees, using the bodies to feed their young. The hornets can destroy a honeybee hive in a matter of hours. Though beehives are their primary target, when threatened the hornets can attack people. Multiple stings can kill humans, even those who are not allergic. In Japan, where they are most common, murder hornets kill roughly 30 to 40 people each year. "It was like having red-hot thumbtacks being driven into my flesh," Vancouver Island beekeeper Conrad Bérubé told the New York Times. He was stung through a bee suit and sweatpants underneath. The WSU scientists will begin trapping queen murder hornets this spring, aiming to detect and eradicate the species.
5-4-20 Malaria 'completely stopped' by microbe
Scientists have discovered a microbe that completely protects mosquitoes from being infected with malaria. The team in Kenya and the UK say the finding has "enormous potential" to control the disease. Malaria is spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes, so protecting them could in turn protect people. The researchers are now investigating whether they can release infected mosquitoes into the wild, or use spores to suppress the disease. The malaria-blocking bug, Microsporidia MB, was discovered by studying mosquitoes on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya. It lives in the gut and genitals of the insects. The researchers could not find a single mosquito carrying the Microsporidia that was harbouring the malaria parasite. And lab experiments, published in Nature Communications, confirmed the microbe gave the mosquitoes protection. Microsporidias are fungi, or at least closely related to them, and most are parasites. However, this new species may be beneficial to the mosquito and was naturally found in around 5% of the insects studied. "The data we have so far suggest it is 100% blockage, it's a very severe blockage of malaria," Dr Jeremy Herren, from the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Kenya told the BBC. He added: "It will come as a quite a surprise. I think people will find that a real big breakthrough." More than 400,000 people are killed by malaria each year, most of them children under the age of five. While huge progress has been made through the use of bed nets and spraying homes with insecticide, this has stalled in recent years. It is widely agreed new tools are needed to tackle malaria. Microsporidia MB infections appear to be life-long. If anything, the experiments show they become more intense, so the malaria-blocking effect would be long-lasting. At the very least, 40% of mosquitoes in a region need to be infected with Microsporidia in order to make a significant dent in malaria.
5-4-20 Locusts destroying food supplies in the Horn of Africa
A second, much bigger wave of locusts is causing destruction on a vast scale across East Africa, months after the region was hit by another locust invasion. David Hughes from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization explains the severe implications for many countries in the region.
5-3-20 Coronavirus lockdown: Can nature help improve our mood?
At a time when so many of us are facing a heightened sense of threat as well as deep worries about our future, can nature lift our spirits? "Our current crisis has switched us out of normal existence and into survival mode," says Dr Anna Jorgensen, who researches the connection between environment and wellbeing at the University of Sheffield. "We no longer see ourselves as quite so immortal," she says. With far more people unable to work, or working from home, many have been inspired to explore nature in their neighbourhood as they refocus on their immediate surroundings. As one Instagram user summed it up: "[It] takes a lockdown to find new paths from home. Escaped the 'office' to follow the River Trent winding through the floodplain at the bottom of our road, past gnarly old tree stumps and a statuesque heron." As factory and car emissions have declined, there are fewer tiny particles in the air, so it's easier to see beyond built-up areas and to the stars in the night sky. Less city noise also highlights the sounds of birds. There is also greater interest in gardening. Google Trends shows a doubling of worldwide online searches for compost and seeds compared with a year ago. While the impact of experiencing nature on our physical health is less well documented, a wealth of studies have demonstrated the positive effects of the natural world on our mental health. Even a brief nature fix - 10 minutes of wind brushing across our cheek, or the sun on our skin - can lower stress, explains Dr Mathew White, from the University of Exeter. If we immerse ourselves in beautiful landscapes, like a rich coastline or a wild forest teeming with an array of species, we feel more intense emotions, he adds. Connecting with nature can help us feel happier and more energised, with an increased sense of meaning and purpose, as well as making tasks seem more manageable. Dr Gretchen C Daily from Stanford University, in the US, uses this evidence to help the World Bank and city governments around the world develop policies to integrate the natural environment into our urban landscapes.
5-2-20 Forests 'can take cover to resist alien invaders'
Native woodlands can resist the spread of invasive species by blocking daylight reaching the forest floor, researchers have suggested. They found the amount of light available in the spring and the autumn was "critical" for buckthorn, an alien invasive species in North America. Invasive species dominate a local habitat and squeeze out native species and cost a vast sum to control. The findings appear in the Forest Ecology and Management journal. The team, comprising researchers from US and Australian universities, decided to focus its attention on common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), which is an invasive shrub species in North America. It out-competes native plants and degrades soils and forests, to the detriment of humans and other wildlife. "In Minnesota alone, we spend millions of dollars each year managing buckthorn invasions and lose much more in the form of reduced forest quality," said co-author Michael Schuster from the Department of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota. Dr Schuster explained that in order to create environments that resist invasion by buckthorn, and thus avoid those costs and impacts of the natural capital, it was necessary to understand which forest characteristics offered the greatest influence on the success or failure of buckthorn plants becoming established. "Canopy structure determines a lot about the conditions experienced by invading buckthorn, so we asked how changes in the composition of forest canopies might make those forests more or less vulnerable to buckthorn invasions," he told BBC News. In their experiment, the team grew buckthorn seedlings under a variety of different canopies and measured the light available to the seedlings. These included one made up from deciduous species, such as birch, another from evergreen species, such as pine, and another from a mixture of deciduous and evergreen species. At the end of the three-year experiment, Dr Schuster observed: "Using these observations in combination with a statistical model of forest light availability, we showed that forests that are able to block out 96% of incoming light in the spring or autumn can successfully resist buckthorn invasion."
5-1-209 Scratching is contagious among strangers – if you are an orangutan
Among orangutans, scratching is contagious – just as yawning is among humans. When an orangutan sees another scratch, they often start scratching themselves. However, the behaviour differs from contagious yawning in one crucial respect. Humans catch yawns more readily from close family and friends, but the orangutans were more likely to catch scratching if they did not know the other orangutan well. “I was doubting the results initially, but after checking everything it seemed to really be there,” says Daan Laméris at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. While contagious yawning has been studied extensively as a form of empathy, contagious scratching has received little attention. A 2004 study showed Japanese macaques are susceptible, and in 2013 it emerged that rhesus macaques also do it. Laméris and his colleagues studied nine adult Bornean orangutans living in captivity in the Netherlands. They recorded instances of yawning and scratching, as well as whether the apes seemed to be relaxed or aroused – for instance, if males were aggressively displaying or charging each other. They also monitored the quality of the orangutans’ relationships by noting friendly behaviours like grooming. The orangutans rarely yawned, so the team could not find evidence of contagious yawning. However, contagious scratching was evident. An orangutan would typically scratch itself within 90 seconds of seeing another scratch. They became three times more likely to scratch if another orangutan scratched first. Scratching was more likely to be contagious if the initial scratch took place in a tense context rather than a relaxed one, and if the two orangutans had a relatively poor relationship. This makes sense if you consider when orangutans and other primates tend to scratch, says Laméris. “Scratch rates increase during arousing events,” he says, such as when one animal is aggressive, or if a predator has attacked. “Scratching is often seen as an indicator of arousal within an individual, often in negative contexts.”
5-1-20 Coronavirus: Animals in zoos 'lonely' without visitors
A number of zoos around the world are reporting that their animals are becoming "lonely" without visitors. Zoos have had to close to members of the public due to Covid-19. At Phoenix Zoo, keepers have lunch dates with elephants and orangutans, and one sociable bird needs frequent visits. Primates have gone looking for missing visitors. Dublin Zoo said animals were also "wondering what's happened to everyone". Director Leo Oosterweghel said the animals look at him in surprise. "They come up and have a good look. They are used to visitors," he told the Irish Times. At Orana Wildlife Park in New Zealand, rhinos and giraffes were turning up for their scheduled "meet the public" appearances. "The kea and gorillas particularly seem to be missing people, they really enjoy seeing the public," spokesman Nathan Hawke told the Guardian. Phoenix Zoo reported a change in behaviour in their animals. Linda Hardwick, communications director told the BBC: "We have noticed that some of our more "social" animals are not a fan of the stay at home and social distancing orders. Primates especially have noticed our guests are gone and go looking for them." Without visitors, some animals lack stimulation, Paul Rose, lecturer in animal behaviour at the University of Exeter, told the BBC. "Some individuals, such as primates and parrots get a lot of enrichment from viewing and engaging with visitors. It is beneficial to the animal's wellbeing and quality of life. If this stimulation is not there, then the animals are lacking the enrichment," he said. To ensure animals are kept occupied, he said animals should be let out into their enclosures as normal. At Phoenix Zoo, keepers are trying to spend as much time as possible with the animals, Ms Hardwick said. "Our Tropical Flights Aviary is home to a very special, and social bird; Dynah the Bali myna, who is missing the attention of guests. Bird keepers are visiting her frequently to curb her loneliness," she added.
5-1-20 Why mammals like elephants and armadillos might get drunk easily
Differences in a gene for breaking down alcohol might help explain which mammals get tipsy. An elephant, a narwhal and a guinea pig walk into a bar. From there, things could get ugly. All three might get drunk easily, according to a new survey of a gene involved in metabolizing alcohol. They’re among the creatures affected by 10 independent breakdowns of the ADH7 gene during the history of mammal evolution. Inheriting that dysfunctional gene might make it harder for their bodies to break down ethanol, says molecular anthropologist Mareike Janiak of the University of Calgary in Canada. She and colleagues didn’t look at all the genes needed to metabolize ethanol, but the failure of this important one might allow ethanol to build up more easily in these animals’ bloodstreams, Janiak and colleagues report April 29 in Biology Letters. The carnivorous cetaceans, grain- or leaf-eating guinea pigs and most other animals that the study identified as potentially easy drunks probably don’t binge on sugary fruit and nectar that brews ethanol. Elephants, however, will feast on fruit, and the new study reopens a long-running debate over whether elephants truly get tipsy gorging on marula fruit, a relative of mangoes. Descriptions of elephants behaving oddly after binging on overripe fruit go back at least to 1875, Janiak says. Later, a taste test offering the animals troughs of water spiked with ethanol found that elephants willingly drank. Afterward, they swayed more when moving and seemed more aggressive, observers reported. Yet in 2006, physiologist Steve Morris of the University of Bristol in England and colleagues attacked the notion of elephant inebriation as “a myth.” Among their arguments was a calculation that even if African elephants really were feasting on fallen, fermenting marula fruit, the animals could not physically eat the huge amount necessary at one time to get a buzz (SN: 6/13/17). However, that calculation extrapolated from human physiology. The new insight that elephants’ ADH7 gene doesn’t work might mean they have a lower tolerance for the tipple.