8-29-20 Learning from the collective wisdom of animals
Lessons from animal group behavior could help humans better engineer our own future. In Frank Schätzing's 2004 sci-fi novel The Swarm, marine life develops a collective mind of its own. Whales band together to attack ships, while herds of jellyfish overwhelm the shores. It's as if ocean creatures decided to jointly fight humanity, to try to reclaim their degraded environment. Scientists say this scenario isn't made up out of whole cloth. Animals do move in groups governed by the collective. Think of a flock of birds, a parade of ants, a school of fish — all swarms like those envisioned by Schätzing, if not quite as murderous. "Animals regulate these vast collective structures without any leadership, without any individual animal knowing the whole state of the system," says Nicholas Ouellette, a civil engineer at Stanford University. "And yet it works fantastically well." Researchers are now learning about how these swarms operate. In the English countryside, birds have two distinct sets of rules for flocking, depending on the purpose of their flight. In Mexican forests, groups of ants have evolved computing-like search strategies to find their way around a disturbed environment. And in a lab in Germany, fish develop personalities that determine how they influence the rest of the school they are swimming with. These aren't just interesting observations about nature. Lessons from animal group behavior could help humans better engineer our own future, collectively. Such knowledge could help scientists build drones that coordinate their flight like flocking birds, for instance, or design packets of information to flow efficiently like foraging ants. Ouellette studies how birds and insects fly. A few years ago he began working with Alex Thornton, a biologist at the University of Exeter, England, who studies jackdaws (Corvus monedula). These highly social birds can travel in large flocks. Thornton and colleagues track thousands of jackdaws in Cornwall, using high-speed cameras to capture footage of the birds' flight paths. The scientists reported last year that jackdaws that pair with each other for life behave differently than unpaired birds when flying within a flock. Paired birds interact with fewer neighbors when looking for cues to which direction they should fly. Instead they rely more on their partner for information, which leads them to flap their wings more slowly and thus save energy. On winter evenings, the jackdaws commute from their foraging grounds back to their nests in what's known as a transiting flock. To disrupt that behavior, Thornton and colleagues placed a stuffed fox in the middle of a field and broadcast recordings of other jackdaws making sounds that might signal the presence of a predator. The jackdaws started flying around the fox in a completely different pattern than in the transiting flights. "The way the birds interacted with each other, and particularly the way they decided which birds to interact with, changed completely in the two kinds of flocks," says Ouellette. He and his colleagues reported the findings in November in Nature Communications. There are two ways birds within a flock can decide how many other birds to pay attention to for cues on where to move. If they pay attention just to the birds within a fixed distance of them, scientists call that a metric interaction. If a bird pays attention to a certain number of birds nearby, no matter how far away they are, it's a topological interaction. Flocks operating by metric rules behave differently than flocks operating by topological rules. Transiting flocks operate by topological rules. But the stuffed fox freaked the birds out, switching them to metric rules. Why? "We don't know," says Ouellette. Perhaps the birds may be trying to keep a certain distance from the fox. That would put them in metric mode, which they then use to govern their distances from other birds as well.
8-28-20 Glue bird traps: Macron suspends use amid EU row
French President Emmanuel Macron has ordered hunters in southern France to stop the controversial practice of trapping birds on glue-covered twigs. The suspension follows a warning to France from the European Commission that it could face legal action at EU level if the practice continued. France is unusual in Europe for still tolerating the glue method, used to catch thrushes and blackbirds. The hunting method is limited to five regions around Marseille and Nice. President Macron's decision came when he and Minister for Ecological Transition Barbara Pompili met the head of the French hunting lobby, Willy Schraen, at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Wednesday. It is a suspension of the practice for this year, pending a legal opinion from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on the issue. Conservationists say the glue method is non-selective and cruel, harming not only songbirds but also other birds such as robins and tits. In July the European Commission - which enforces EU law - gave France three months to address its concerns, warning that failure to comply with the EU's 2009 Birds Directive could mean a case at the ECJ. The Commission warning said France "has authorised several methods for the capture of birds, such as glue for thrushes, nets and traps for skylark and pigeons, which are not selective and are forbidden by the Directive. "Member States may derogate from certain provisions of the Directive but only under strict conditions that are not fulfilled in this case, especially because most of the species captured are not in a good conservation status." The Commission says at least 32% of the EU's bird species are currently not in a good conservation status and in France, among the 64 species that can be hunted, only 20 are in good conservation status. Yves Verilhac, representing BirdLife International in France, said: "Some 64 species can be hunted in France, unlike the Netherlands which only allows two. The EU average is 30 species, making France the most forgiving country for hunters."
8-27-20 West Mathewson: South African conservationist killed by white lions
A well-known South African conservationist has died after he was mauled by two white lions as he was taking them for a walk. The wife of West Mathewson, who followed in a car, tried to distract the lions but it was too late. He ran a popular safari lodge, Lion Tree Top Lodge, in Limpopo province. The lionesses have since been moved to another game lodge and are expected to be released into the wild at a later stage. A lioness became aggressive towards the other and then turned her attention to the conservationist affectionately known as "Uncle West", reports the BBC's Nomsa Maseko from Johannesburg. His relatives have said that Wednesday's attack could have been the result of very rough play. The lionesses were tranquillised following the attack and have been taken to an endangered species centre. Mr Mathewson is said to have rescued the lions from "canned hunting" - when animals are hunted in an enclosed area, or they are bred to be hunted - and they were kept in an enclosure at his lodge. The lionesses reportedly killed a man working on a neighbouring property after they broke out of the enclosure in 2017. (Webmaster's comment: Large pedators will always be wild animals. You cannot tame them. You forget that at your peril!)
8-26-20 Kew Gardens' podcast will give you a fresh appreciation for plants
From murder to magic mushrooms, Kew Gardens' new podcast, Unearthed, challenges us all to learn to love plants as much animals – and discover how they could save life on Earth. MY FIRST trip to London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was spectacular. I set out on an unusually mild February day to visit this year’s annual orchid festival, which was celebrating the 4000-plus specimens that grow in Indonesia. Aside from the delightful orchids, Kew and its out of London home, Wakehurst in West Sussex, together have more than 27,000 taxa of living plants, around 8.3 million specimens in its herbarium and fungarium, and more than 40,000 species in its seed bank. Unsurprisingly, this sheer diversity ranks Kew’s collection top in the world. I left with a sense of amazement and fresh appreciation for plants. In its new podcast, Unearthed: Mysteries from an unseen world, Kew builds on this awe, using real stories to show why the plants and fungi it houses are far more than beautiful distractions. Hosted by botanist and New Scientist columnist James Wong, each episode delves into the events that have been shaped by botanical or mycological discoveries and the species at the heart of them. It does something more, too. The four episodes I listened to (there are six in the first series) make a powerful argument that the future of plants and fungi is made more uncertain by a kind of “plant blindness”, which derives from a human tendency to feel more connected to animals than to plants. Wong works to overcome this problem, ranging far and wide, examining everything from the workings of fungi to miracle plant cures to the illegal trade in endangered plants. He tells some compelling tales. In one episode, there is a “true crime” feel as it sets out to explore the high-profile death of Lakhvinder Cheema after eating a curry in 2009, where the cause of death – a poisonous plant called aconite, or wolfsbane – was confirmed by Kew scientists.
8-25-20 Female hyenas kill off cubs in their own clans
Dominant females may keep low-ranking group members in check by crushing cubs’ skulls. Female hyenas may be out for cubs’ blood — even within their own clans. New research suggests that infanticide may be part of a strategy females use to maintain their social standing. “It’s not that these events are weird one-off things … this is actually a pretty significant source of mortality,” says Eli Strauss, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Strauss and his colleagues scoured three decades of data on spotted hyena populations in Kenya to study deaths of cubs less than a year old (SN: 4/23/02). Of 99 observed deaths, 21 could be attributed to infanticide, always by female killers. Starvation and lions also took many young cubs’ lives. The infanticide observations made the team wonder why hyenas kill within their own group. It “seems sort of counterintuitive if animals benefit from living socially,” Strauss says. Though hyenas spend much of their time alone, group living allows them to defend their turf against rival hyena clans and to gang up against threatening lions, he says. Hyena mothers give birth in an isolated den. But typically within a few weeks, they move their cubs to a communal den. Such dens shelter little ones from large predators that can’t enter the sanctuary’s small access holes, says Ally Brown, an environmental biology student at Michigan State University in East Lansing. But the communal den presents other risks — all the cases of infanticide occurred in its vicinity, documented by researchers who either found the dead cubs or observed the clans from cars that serve as mobile blinds (SN: 4/23/02). Female hyenas kill cubs in the same way that they attack small prey. A hyena “would just go up to a cub and grab it by the skull and crush it,” says Brown, who presented the work in a poster at the Ecological Society of America’s 2020 meeting held virtually the week of August 3. And close kin weren’t necessarily immune — one female targeted her sister’s two cubs, coaxing them out of the den before killing both.
8-25-20 Common dolphins may finally be returning to the Adriatic sea
COMMON dolphins (Delphinus delphis) were once relatively easy to find throughout the Adriatic Sea, but large groups were last seen in the 1940s. There were no reports of individuals in the area after the 1970s until the late 2000s. There have been some sightings since 2009, so Tilen Genov at the Slovenian Marine Mammal Society has reviewed them to get a sense of the current population. He believes there have been four common dolphins in the region recently, three adults and one calf. Why they have returned is unclear. Some threats to the species, such as culling campaigns, have ceased, says Genov. But others, like fishing that may limit their prey, have increased. Is the population of common dolphins growing in the Adriatic? “I wouldn’t call it a comeback,” says Genov. “They are still super rare.”
8-23-20 Genetically modified mosquitoes have been OK’d for a first U.S. test flight
As dengue cases rise in the Florida Keys, a much-debated public health tool gets a nod for 2021. After a decade of fits and starts, officials in the Florida Keys have voted to allow the first test in the United States of free-flying, genetically modified mosquitoes as a way to fight the pests and the diseases they spread. The decision came after about two hours of contentious testimony in a virtual public hearing on August 18. Many speakers railed against uncertainties in releasing genetically engineered organisms. In the end, though, worries about mosquito-borne diseases proved more compelling. On the day of the vote, dengue fever cases in Monroe County, where the Keys are located, totaled 47 so far in 2020, the first surge in almost a decade. The same mosquitoes known for yellow fever (Aedes aegypti) also spread dengue as well as Zika and Chikungunya (SN: 6/2/15). The species is especially hard to control among about 45 kinds of mosquitoes that whine around the Keys. Even the powerhouse Florida Keys Mosquito Control District with six aircraft for spraying — Miami has zero — kills only an estimated 30 to 50 percent of the local yellow fever mosquito population with its best pesticide treatments, says district board chairman Phil Goodman. “We can’t rely on chemistry to spray our way out of this,” Goodman, a chemist himself, said as the commissioners conferred after the public’s comments. Then 4–1, the commissioners voted to go forward with a test of genetically modified males as pest control devices. Sometime after January 1, 2021, Florida workers will set out boxes of eggs of specially bred male yellow fever mosquitoes (a recent version called OX5034) in a stretch of Monroe County still to be chosen. The eggs, shipped from the biotech company Oxitec based in Abingdon, England, will grow into normal-looking males. Like other male mosquitoes, they drink flower nectar, not blood.
8-22-20 The board game Endangered shows just how hard conservation can be
The survival of (small, wooden) tigers and otters is in your hands. Saving endangered species isn’t easy. Doing so requires the cooperation of many people — from scientists and conservation organizations to governments and local residents — as well as a bit of luck. That’s as true in real life as it is in Endangered, a new board game from Grand Gamers Guild. Endangered is a cooperative game for one to five players. Each person takes on a role — zoologist, philanthropist, lobbyist, environmental lawyer or TV wildlife show host — and players work together to convince at least four ambassadors to save a species. (In a one-player game, two roles are played simultaneously.) If you get too few “yes” votes, or let habitat destruction spread too much, or if your animal population dies out, everyone loses. The game starts with a set of animals in their habitat, either tigers or sea otters, depending on which of the game’s two story lines you play. Each player’s turn consists of a series of phases. In the first, a player takes actions, such as moving animals to let them mate or obtaining money. In the offspring phase, animal reproduction is controlled by the role of a die. The die also controls where habitation destruction — either deforestation or pollution — spreads. A card draw then brings on other events, from clear-cutting of forests to a shark attack to an animal rescue. After each player takes a turn, the year ends. And after a set number of years, the ambassadors are consulted. Each ambassador has a different preset list of conditions that must be met to vote “yes.” The game is modular, and each story line has its own challenges and adorable, animal-shaped wooden meeples. (A third story line, giant pandas, is available in an expansion pack, and a Kickstarter that began this month is raising funds for additional animal packs.) Each story line has three levels of difficulty, which, combined with the multiple role-playing options, provide plenty of variety throughout multiple plays of the game.
8-21-20 Florida mosquitoes: 750 million genetically modified insects to be released
Local officials in Florida have approved the release of 750 million mosquitoes that have been genetically modified to reduce local populations. The aim is to reduce the number of mosquitoes that carry diseases like dengue or the Zika virus. The green-lighting of a pilot project after years of debate drew a swift outcry from environmental groups, who warned of unintended consequences. One group condemned the plan as a public "Jurassic Park experiment". Activists warn of possible damage to ecosystems, and the potential creation of hybrid, insecticide-resistant mosquitoes. But the company involved says there will be no adverse risk to humans or the environment, and points to a slate of government-backed studies. The plan to release the mosquitoes in 2021 in the Florida Keys, a string of islands, comes months after the modified mosquitoes were approved by federal regulators. In May, the US Environmental Agency granted permission to the British-based, US-operated company Oxitec to produce the genetically engineered, male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are known as OX5034. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are known to spread deadly diseases to humans such dengue, Zika, chikungunya and yellow fever. Only female mosquitoes bite humans because they need blood to produce eggs. So the plan is to release the male, modified mosquitoes who will then hopefully breed with wild female mosquitoes. However the males carry a protein that will kill off any female offspring before they reach mature biting age. Males, which only feed on nectar, will survive and pass on the genes. Over time, the aim is to reduce the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the area and thereby reduce the spread of disease to humans. On Tuesday, officials in the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) gave final approval to release 750 million of the modified mosquitoes over a two-year period.
8-20-20 Walking catfish may use their whole body to smell when on land
Walking catfish are sometimes literally fish out of water, but they can function quite well as a landlubber – and are now the first fish confirmed to be able to “smell” on land. Native to Southeast Asia, walking catfish (Clarias batrachus) are not content to glide through a single body of water their whole lives. They can leave the water, breathing air and “walking” on their fins over land to nearby pools. Similar amphibious fishes were assumed to use their vision to navigate on land, says Noah Bressman at Chapman University in California. But walking catfish commonly come ashore at night, and have tiny, underdeveloped eyes. Curious if the catfish were sensing chemicals in the air, Bressman and his colleagues caught 150 walking catfish and placed each in an enclosure on land to expose them to a battery of odiferous substances. The fish flopped away from noxious hydrogen sulfide, but chased down the scent of pond water and alanine – a compound that induces a strong taste response in submerged catfish. The findings suggest that walking catfish are the first fish known to use “chemoreception” out of water, and Bressman says they may use this sense to orient themselves on their overland travels. Fish weren’t thought capable of accomplishing this because their olfactory and taste systems have evolved for use in water. Fish have a difficult time sucking air into their nostrils, for example. “Underwater, taste and smell go hand in hand,” says Bressman. Unlike humans, who taste with direct contact but can sense smells from long distances, fish “can both taste and smell compounds that are originating from a long distance because of the liquid environment,” he says. Bressman thinks the walking catfish may be using a form of aerial tasting thanks to the taste buds that blanket their entire body, even on their sensitive whiskers.
8-20-20 Secret to tardigrades' toughness revealed by supercomputer simulation
The most resilient animal known to science – the tardigrade – is yielding its secrets, with the first work at the atomic level investigating the way the animal survives extreme stress. Tardigrades are microscopic, eight-legged animals sometimes referred to as water bears. They live in moss all over the world, which also inspired the whimsical and frankly mammalocentric name moss piglet. No mammal could survive what a tardigrade can tolerate. Under environmental stress such as dehydration or extremes of temperature they shrink into a “tun” state in which their metabolism all but stops. In this state they can survive without water for decades, tolerate high doses of gamma and X-ray radiation and survive temperatures from -272°C to 150°C. They have also breezed through 10 days in the vacuum of space. In most other organisms, these sorts of stresses destroy the DNA in cells, but tardigrades have a damage-suppressor protein (Dsup) that somehow shields the DNA. Now, Marina Mínguez-Toral and colleagues at the Centre for Plant Biotechnology and Genomics in Madrid, Spain, have performed a simulation of the interaction between Dsup and DNA that suggests an explanation. The team modelled a system of two Dsup molecules and DNA, comprising more than 750,000 atoms, which required “days and days” on a supercomputer. “The equations of motion must be solved for each of these atoms 50 million times to get a simulation lasting 100 nanoseconds,” says Mínguez-Toral. The researchers’ modelling of all the atoms in the protein and all their electrostatic interactions shows that the protein is “intrinsically disordered” and highly flexible, and seems to be able to adjust its structure to precisely fit DNA’s shape. “Our study reveals that the electrical effects underlying the positive-negative charge attractions determine the dynamics of the structural changes of Dsup in its interaction with DNA,” says Mínguez-Toral. “We believe this electric shielding is paramount in protecting DNA from radiation.”
8-19-20 Dust can spread influenza among guinea pigs, raising coronavirus questions
Three out of 12 guinea pigs immune to flu spread the virus via airborne particles. Spewing virus-laden droplets may not be the only way animals can spread some viruses through the air. Viruses like influenza might also hitch a ride on dust and other microscopic particles, a study in guinea pigs suggests. People can transmit respiratory viruses, like the ones that cause flu and COVID-19, just by talking, coughing and sneezing (SN: 4/2/20). Virus-contaminated surfaces, called fomites, can also cause infection when people touch the surface and then their nose or mouth. Now new research suggests that dust particles kicked up from those contaminated surfaces, called aerosolized fomites, may also spread such respiratory viruses. “Our work suggests that there is a mode of [virus] transmission that is underappreciated” for influenza, says William Ristenpart, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Davis. “It’s not on [scientists’] radar.” Though the study, published August 18 in Nature Communications, did not include the new coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, the finding could have implications for that virus too, Ristenpart says. Researchers are still figuring out all the ways the coronavirus spreads, including debating how much smaller respiratory droplets that remain in the air, called aerosols, might contribute to transmission (SN: 7/7/20). Hantavirus, which causes a deadly respiratory disease, can also be transmitted through kicked up dust that is contaminated with rodent droppings. But that virus doesn’t pass from person-to-person. In the new study, Ristenpart and his colleagues infected guinea pigs with influenza virus. Two days later, the team found infectious influenza viruses in cages as well as on guinea pig fur, ears and paws. Infected guinea pigs don’t cough or sneeze like people do, so the virus may have spread when the rodents groomed, rubbed their noses or moved around the cage.
8-19-20 Culling dingoes with poison may be making them bigger
Animals in areas with toxic baits are up to 9 percent larger than they were before exposure. Australia’s dingoes are getting bigger, and it may be because of humans. New research suggests the change is happening only in places where the wild canine’s populations are controlled with poison. The findings could illustrate for the first time that, when targeted with pesticides, changes to the physical traits of “pest” species can occur in bigger animals, not just insects and rodents. Scientists had noticed an increase in the size of some dingoes, but that there hasn’t been much understanding of what was causing it, says Michael Letnic, an ecologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. He wondered if it was the consequence of decades of the dingoes’ status as a livestock pest. Dingoes (Canis lupus dingo) have long had an uneasy relationship with farmers and ranchers in rural Australia. The predators can attack livestock, usually sheep. Shooting and fencing have been used to control dingo populations and protect livestock. But in the 1960s and 1970s, a new tool was also employed in western and southern Australia: a poison called sodium monofluoroacetate, or 1080. Odorless and tasteless, the powder could be mixed into bits of meat and scattered across the landscape as deadly bait for dingoes to snatch up. A dose’s effectiveness is dependent on a dingo’s mass, which led Letnic to test the idea that 1080 use might be related to dingoes’ size change. He and Mathew Crowther, an ecologist at the University of Sydney, delved into museum collections of dingo skulls, collected from across three areas that have been exposed to 1080 for about 50 to 60 years, and one region where baiting is banned. The skulls date from 1930 to the present day, so by measuring their length (a proxy for a dingo’s body size), the researchers could compare the sizes of the animals before and after poisoning began.
8-18-20 Swans' reputation for aggression examined
A study into the reputation for "aggressiveness" of swans has found they are more likely to be hostile to their own kind than to other birds. The University of Exeter and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) research was carried out at sites in Gloucestershire and Dumfries and Galloway. Three species of swan - mute, whooper and Bewick's - were all most frequently aggressive to other swans. The WWT said this made "ecological sense" in the fight for food sources. The research was undertaken to better understand how swan behaviour affects other waterbirds over winter. Dr Kevin Wood, from the WWT, said: "We know that swans have a reputation for aggressiveness but some of us suspected that in reality a lot of the aggression was directed towards other swans rather than smaller birds such as ducks or geese. "To test that idea, we recruited some great students who used the webcams at Slimbridge and Caerlaverock to collect behavioural data on aggressive interactions between the various waterbirds at those sites over the past two winters. "Our suspicions were right." He said almost all of the waterbird species in the study were most aggressive towards their own kind which was likely to be because they were the "greatest competition for food and other resources". "It's valuable to finally have the data to show that, and it's another rung on the ladder of better-informed judgment on swans," he added. The study was carried out by monitoring live-stream webcams on reserves at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire and WWT Caerlaverock Wetland Centre near Dumfries over the past two years. It is one of the first studies to rely completely on remotely collected data and could be one of the solutions to continuing research with restrictions in place during the Covid-19 pandemic.
8-18-20 Elephant shrew rediscovered in Africa after 50 years
A little-known mammal related to an elephant but as small as a mouse has been rediscovered in Africa after 50 years of obscurity. The last scientific record of the "lost species" of elephant shrew was in the 1970s, despite local sightings. The creature was found alive and well in Djibouti, a country in the Horn of Africa, during a scientific expedition. Elephant shrews, or sengis, are neither elephants nor shrews, but related to aardvarks, elephants and manatees. They have distinctive trunk-like noses, which they use to feast on insects. There are 20 species of sengis in the world, and the Somali sengi (Elephantulus revoilii) is one of the most mysterious, known to science only from 39 individuals collected decades ago and stored in museums. The species was previously known only from Somalia, hence its name. Steven Heritage, a research scientist at the Duke University Lemur Center in Durham, US, and a member of the expedition to the Horn of Africa in 2019, said he was thrilled to put the species "back on the radar". He told the BBC: "We were really excited and elated when we opened the first trap that had an elephant shrew in it, a Somali sengi. "We did not know which species occurred in Djibouti and when we saw the diagnostic feature of a little tufted tail, we looked at each other and we knew that it was something special." The scientists had heard reports of sightings in Djibouti, and Houssein Rayaleh, a Djiboutian research ecologist and conservationist who joined the trip, believed he had seen the animal before. He said while people living in Djibouti never considered the sengis to be "lost", the new research brings the Somali sengi back into the scientific community, which is valued. "For Djibouti this is an important story that highlights the great biodiversity of the country and the region and shows that there are opportunities for new science and research here," he said.
8-18-20 Borneo’s ‘carnivorous’ squirrel actually mainly eats one kind of seed
The Bornean tufted ground squirrel became known as the “vampire squirrel” because of tales of it slashing the jugular veins of small deer. But the first study of the animal’s feeding habits has found it is a highly specialised seed eater feeding on very hard seeds produced by just a few trees. “Virtually nothing else in the forest is capable of eating them,” says Andrew Marshall at the University of Michigan. “It’s pretty rare to have a specialised seed feeder on one plant or subset of plants. The squirrels are far more specialised than any of the 80 other species we looked at.” Marshall is part of a team that has for decades been studying the relationships between species in the forests of Gunung Palung National Park on the island of Borneo. He and his colleagues have now put together all the data on the tufted ground squirrels (Rheithrosciurus macrotis) to produce the first scientific study of their feeding habits. “We don’t know all that much about them,” says Marshall. What we do know is that they are unusual in several ways. The squirrels have saw-like incisors, unlike any other mammals, and the most voluminous tail relative to body size of any mammal, making them seem much larger than they are. “It’s quite menacing, if a squirrel can ever be said to be menacing,” says Marshall. They are also most closely related to a group of squirrels found in South America, so how their ancestors reached Borneo is unclear. “They are a kind of enigma,” says Marshall. The squirrels came to the internet’s attention in 2014, after a news story in the journal Science called them “vampire squirrels”. This moniker was based on stories told by the local Dayak people, who say the squirrels jump on the backs of deer and kill them by slashing their jugular veins. They then disembowel the deer and eat the stomach contents, heart and liver.
8-18-20 New Guinea has more known plant species than any island in the world
The first verified count of the island’s flora could help preserve its biodiversity. To find the island with the most known plant species in the world, head to New Guinea. Not only is New Guinea home to feathered marvels like birds of paradise and cassowaries, the island is also brimming with foliage. Now the first verified count of the flora growing there reveals that New Guinea hosts more than 13,600 vascular plant species — plants like trees and shrubs that have specialized tissue to transport nutrients. That new inventory shows that New Guinea, which includes Papua New Guinea and Indonesian New Guinea, has the highest known plant diversity of any island on Earth, researchers report August 5 in Nature. The survey documented 19 percent more plant species than have been recorded in Madagascar and 22 percent more than Borneo — regions that also rank among the most biodiverse on Earth. The new accounting could help experts preserve the region’s stunning biodiversity (SN: 9/26/19), the researchers say. From herbs that produce some of the world’s largest bananas to orchids with appendages that look like spiders, New Guinea is filled with astounding examples of botanical specimens. “This region is really just amazing,” says Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, a botanist at the University of Zurich. “Knowing what [plant life] exists is the first step to value what people are surrounded by.” Cámara-Leret and 98 other researchers inspected and identified nearly 705,000 plant specimens from New Guinea, the world’s largest tropical island. Overall, the team identified 13,634 species, more than two-thirds of which are endemic, found only on the island. Most of the identified plants were trees, which made up 29 percent of species, closely followed by herbs and plants known as epiphytes that grow on other plants.
8-18-20 How two new fungus species got named after the COVID-19 pandemic
Fungal hairs on a beetle and fake leopard spots on a palm will now forever nod to quarantines. Never mind that they’re not viruses. Catching the trend of cocktails called quarantinis and registered racehorse names like Wearamask, two fungal species now have pandemic-inspired monikers. In a nod to the new normal of science, both names grew out of the frustrations of trying to keep research alive in an upside-down world (SN: 5/23/01). In the first case, tiny, fungal leopard spots on saw palmetto leaves turned out to be new to science. Despite looks, they belong to the same family (Xylariaceae) as the black stubs that rise from the ground called dead man’s fingers. The leopard spots are not just a new species but represent a whole new genus, mycologist Pedro Crous and colleagues announced in the July 2020 Persoonia. As the pandemic raced across Europe, Crous — working mostly from home instead of in his lab at Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute in Utrecht, the Netherlands — named the genus “Diabolocovidia,“ or “devilish COVID.” Finding the new species wasn’t that hard, says forest pathologist Jason Smith. He’d had some spotty leaves lying around his lab at the University of Florida in Gainesville when another coauthor visited in search of novelties. “This speaks to something a little broader,” Smith says. Even everyday places hold new fungal species because, unlike birds and mammals, most fungi are unnamed. In the second case, Purdue University biologist Danny Haelewaters was supposed to be on six-nation field trip from Panama to eastern Russia. Instead, he was grounded in West Lafayette, Ind., socially distant from his coauthor André De Kesel, a mycologist at Belgium’s Miese Botanic Garden. Many unknowns don’t get the love they deserve because they’re parasites, Haelewaters laments. Yet “parasites are so incredibly diverse” and influence a host species so much they can essentially “run ecosystems,” he says.
8-17-20 Are pets at risk of getting covid-19 and can they spread it to people?
Reports of pets being infected with the coronavirus have been growing, but how worried should owners be? And could pets be spreading the virus between people? The first confirmed case of a pet infected with SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes covid-19 – was a Pomeranian dog in Hong Kong that reportedly caught it from its owner in February. Since then, there have been at least 26 more confirmed cases in pet cats and dogs globally. “However, we really don’t know how many pets have been infected because testing of animals is not being done extensively,” says Suresh Kuchipudi at Pennsylvania State University. A small study led by Qiang Zhang at Huazhong Agricultural University and Huajun Zhang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that 11 of 102 cats tested at animal shelters and pet hospitals in Wuhan, China, had antibodies showing they had been infected with SARS-CoV-2. Meanwhile, an ongoing study led by Sarah Hamer at Texas A&M University has tested the pets of 50 US owners diagnosed with covid-19 and identified 3 cats and 1 dog infected with SARS-CoV-2. “These are animals that are at high risk – they’re in contact with positive people – so the fact that we’ve only found four infected pets since we started in June suggests it’s not very common,” she says. Fortunately, most pets with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections have displayed only mild symptoms. For example, of the four infected pets identified by Hamer’s team, two had no detectable symptoms, one developed a sneeze and the other appeared sleepier than normal. This is a positive sign, although it is possible that the virus could cause more severe illness in older pets or those with underlying health conditions like diabetes, says Jürgen Richt at Kansas State University.
8-17-20 Scientists unlock Alpine trees' molecular defence
Researchers have found a way to tackle a disease that threatens thousands of hectares of Alpine forests each year. Needle bladder rust causes Norway spruce needles to yellow and fall out, causing a significant reduction in growth. Scientists in Austria have unlocked a natural defence mechanism that the species can use to fend off the potentially fatal pathogen. The findings have been published in the BMC Genomics journal. Disease is one of the major threats facing trees around the globe, especially in a warming world where many organisms are finding themselves living in an environment in which they are under increasing levels of stress. It is widely predicted that invasive pathogens, and the insects that can spread them, are expected to thrive in a world experiencing climate change. In evolutionary terms, harmful pathogens developed alongside plants' attempts to protect themselves, creating a multi-millennia cold war between biological kingdoms. It is a natural defence mechanism that a team of scientists utilised to create a system to protect the Norway spruce from needle bladder rust. "Our research seeks to curb this disease unravelling the molecular defence mechanism of Norway spruce against needle bladder rust infection," explained co-author Carlos Trujillo Moya, a researcher from the Austrian Research Centre for Forests. Dr Trujillo Moya and colleagues have continued to monitor Norway spruce trees in the mountains of Austria, allowing the team to select trees that seem to display a resistance to the disease. From these trees, the team were able to generate clones and then study the genes, as well as studying the production of defence chemical compounds. Dr Trujillo Moya told BBC News that trees that displayed a resistance to the needle bladder rust defended themselves via a "hypersensitive response".
8-13-20 Treats are better than electric shocks for training badly behaved dogs
If you want to train a badly behaved dog, a tasty treat is more likely to succeed than an electric shock, animal behaviour researchers have found. “We advocate the use of reward-based training in modifying dog behaviour, as our work indicates it is more effective than training which involves aversive stimuli, and it carries fewer risks to dog welfare,” says Jonathan Cooper at the University of Lincoln, UK. Cooper and his colleagues compared the two training methods using 63 dogs split into three groups. All the animals required training for failing to come when called and for repeatedly chasing livestock. The team asked professional handlers nominated by the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association (ECMA), a trade group based in Brussels, Belgium, to train one group. They used e-collars that can deliver a shock along with additional methods, including pulling on the dog’s leash or offering food and praise. They also trained a second group using the same training methods, but without the use of e-collars, as a control. In the third group, professional members of the UK-based Association of Pet Dog Trainers used their reward-based training method, which incorporates praise, play and food as rewards. All of the dogs were trained in the presence of penned livestock and wore 10-metre leashes and e-collars during the study, but the collars were deactivated in the latter two groups. Analysing videos of up to 150 minutes of training over a five-day period for each dog, Cooper and his colleagues found that those in the reward group responded to commands faster and with fewer reminders, he says. For example, the reward group came to the trainer on average 1.13 seconds after the “come” command, compared with 1.35 seconds for the e-collar group and 1.24 seconds for the control group. And 82 per cent of those dogs responded after a single “come” command, on average, compared with only 71 per cent in the e-collar group and 72 per cent in the control group. In other words, the e-collar dogs more often needed to hear the command more than once.
8-13-20 A single molecule may entice normally solitary locusts to form massive swarms
The compound emitted by the insects could lead to new pest control measures. Locusts are usually harmless loners. But together, they become plagues. When conditions are right, solitary locusts begin congregating and transmogrifying into their “gregarious” form, becoming a bigger, more aggressive eating machine. These groups can grow into ever-larger conglomerations, potentially hundreds of millions strong, that cross continents and destroy crops. A swarm of desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria) the size of Rome consumes as much food in a day as all the people in Kenya. This year, East Africa is experiencing its worst locust plague in decades. Now, scientists have pinpointed a compound emitted by congregating locusts that might explain how individuals of one widespread species overcome their innate aversion to socializing. The finding, described August 12 in Nature, could inform new ways of controlling or preventing locust swarms, potentially by attracting the insects with their own scents. “It’s a significant and exciting study,” says Baldwyn Torto, a chemical ecologist at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya who wasn’t involved in the study. “We don’t have great ways of baiting locusts. This [compound] has potential.” Scientists weren’t sure what coaxes solitary migratory locusts (Locusta migratoria) to congregate, but suspected what are known as aggregation pheromones. These airborne chemicals released by the insects could act as an olfactory beacon, summoning other normally solitary locusts to a swarm and initiating the transformation to more gregarious behavior (SN: 3/28/01). Le Kang, an entomologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and colleagues began their search for aggregation pheromones by identifying compounds emitted only by gregarious locusts. The team puffed six of these gregarious-only scents into arenas along with control scents to test whether any acted as attractants for solitary locusts. One compound, 4-vinylanisole, or 4VA, did the trick. It proved alluring to locusts of all sexes and ages, including both solitary and gregarious forms.
8-12-20 A chemical that encourages locusts to swarm could also help stop them
A chemical released by locusts turns out to encourage them to swarm. The discovery could help us control the insects, which can destroy swathes of crops. Locusts normally live solitary lives, but sometimes they undergo a physical change that causes them to become gregarious and gather in huge swarms that can wreak havoc. Most control methods rely on spraying the swarms with insecticides, but this also harms other organisms, so it would be better to use something specific to locusts. Le Kang at the Institute of Zoology in Beijing, China, and his colleagues have now identified an airborne chemical called a pheromone that encourages one species of locust to swarm. This could lead to new control methods. The researchers looked at migratory locusts (Locusta migratoria), the most widespread species: they are found in Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. They looked at 35 volatile chemicals released either from the locusts’ bodies or their faeces. Six were emitted in greater quantities by gregarious locusts than solitary locusts, so the researchers focused on these. In laboratory tests, gregarious locusts preferred to approach one of the chemicals, 4-vinylanisole, more than they did a control substance. The other chemicals either didn’t attract them or repelled them. This suggested that 4-vinylanisole could encourage swarming. In another experiment, the team overcrowded solitary locusts by placing groups of 30 in small cages. The locusts began emitting 4-vinylanisole within 24 hours. The locusts sensed 4-vinylanisole at particular spots on their antennae, allowing the team to identify the specific olfactory receptor involved. The pheromone also attracted locusts in the wild. The locusts were drawn to sticky traps baited with the chemical and tended to ignore traps with other chemicals. The authors suggest that 4-vinylanisole traps could be used to attract locusts to a narrow area, which could then be sprayed with insecticide in a more targeted way. Alternatively, it might be possible to devise a chemical that blocks the 4-vinylanisole receptors, stopping locusts swarming in the first place.
8-12-20 Male Brazilian frog stays loyal to two females during breeding season
A species of frog native to the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest is the first amphibian found to mate exclusively with the same two females throughout its breeding season. Fábio de Sá at São Paulo State University in Brazil and his colleagues noticed that Thorapa taophora tadpoles from the same breeding site – or seep – always had the same father and one of two mothers, suggesting a mating system with fidelity similar to that seen in mammals, birds and fish. “It was very surprising,” says de Sá, because this type of mating behaviour hadn’t been seen before in amphibians. “Fidelity was previously known for amphibians, but usually associated with monogamy,” he says. Instead, T. taophora shows what is known as a single-male polygyny with fidelity, where the male frog stays loyal to the same two females. “It was exciting to reveal this mating system in a frog,” says de Sá. It isn’t yet clear how widespread this mating strategy is among frogs and other amphibians. In the Brazilian frog species, the mating strategy appears to be most beneficial when resources are limited. “A female mating with an already paired male at a superior-quality breeding site will likely have equal or higher reproductive success than a female mating with an unpaired male at a poorer-quality site,” says de Sá. For the males, it is likely that the primary benefit is to maximise their fitness by mating with more than one female. De Sá thinks that the limit of two females per male may arise because of female choosiness, with female frogs trying to select males with the best traits and breeding location but then tending to stay put once they have found a suitable male. Once mating occurred, the researchers observed that the male frogs didn’t always treat their two mates equally. There was a hierarchy among the females in each mating group, with one of the two females being dominant over the other.
8-12-20 Grey reef sharks hang out with the same friends year after year
Grey reef sharks hang out with the same “friends” in the same spot for years, a four-year study at the remote Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Ocean has revealed. “We don’t think of sharks as social animals, but they do have social groups,” says Yannis Papastamatiou at Florida International University in Miami. Grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) are most active at night. During the day, they return to a particular spot on the reef, forming groups of 20 or so. They do catch prey during the day, but feed less than at night. To study the shark’s social behaviour, Papastamatiou and his colleagues tagged around 40 individuals with acoustic transmitters that each emit a unique high-frequency sound. The batteries on the transmitters last for four years. A network of 65 receivers recorded the identity of any tagged shark that came within 300 metres or so of any one receiver. The recordings reveal that the social groups of grey reef sharks are remarkably stable, with the same individuals associating together year after year and movements between groups being rare. “They purposely associate with the same individuals,” says Papastamatiou. That suggests they can recognise other sharks individually, though how they do this isn’t clear. It is also unclear whether the same individuals hunt together when they leave the home area at night. While grey reef sharks were thought to hunt mostly on reefs, the researchers found that those at Palmyra catch most of their prey in open waters at night, too far from the reef to be detected by the receiver network. Papastamatiou describes the individuals that any one sharks hangs out with as associates. “They are not friends in the sense of having any emotional bond with each other,” he says./p> 8-10-20
Species may swim thousands of kilometers to escape ocean heat waves
Species may swim thousands of kilometers to escape ocean heat waves. When an intense heat wave strikes a patch of ocean, overheated marine animals may have to swim thousands of kilometers to find cooler waters, researchers report August 5 in Nature. Such displacement, whether among fish, whales or turtles, can hinder both conservation efforts and fishery operations. “To properly manage those species, we need to understand where they are,” says Michael Jacox, a physical oceanographer with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration based in Monterey, Calif. Marine heat waves — defined as at least five consecutive days of unusually hot water for a given patch of ocean — have become increasingly common over the past century (SN: 4/10/18). Climate change has amped up the intensity of some of the most famous marine heat waves of recent years, such as the Pacific Ocean Blob from 2015 to 2016 and scorching waters in the Tasman Sea in 2017 (SN: 12/14/17; SN: 12/11/18). “We know that these marine heat waves are having lots of effects on the ecosystem,” Jacox says. For example, researchers have documented how the sweltering waters can bleach corals and wreak havoc on kelp forests. But the impacts on mobile species such as fish are only beginning to be studied (SN: 1/15/20). “We have seen species appearing far north of where we expect them,” Jacox says. For example, in 2015, the Blob drove hammerhead sharks — which normally stay close to the tropics, near Baja California in Mexico — to shift their range at least hundreds of kilometers north, where they were observed off the coast of Southern California. To see how far a mobile ocean dweller would need to flee to escape the heat, Jacox and colleagues compared ocean temperatures around the globe. First, they examined surface ocean temperatures from 1982 to 2019 compiled by NOAA from satellites, buoys and shipboard measurements. Then, for the same period, they identified marine heat waves occurring around the world, where water temperatures for a region lingered in the highest 10 percent ever recorded for that place and that time of year. Finally, they calculated how far a swimmer in an area with a heat wave has had to go to reach cooler waters, a distance the team dubs “thermal displacement.”
8-9-20 Why the French are 'European champions' at abandoning pets
After weeks of lockdown, the French are keener than ever to get away from the stifling cities this weekend. But the dense traffic will also serve as an ugly reminder of another annual summer trend here. The French have the unfortunate distinction of being the European "champions" for abandoning pets that have become too cumbersome for their summer trips. Animal shelters up and down the country are proof of this unique and sad tradition. Betty Loizeau has run a shelter just north of Toulouse for more than 20 years. There are rabbits, a pig and even a goat here and each has their own individual story of abandonment. "Owners rarely have the courage to turn up with their unwanted companions," she says. "Instead they call up to say where they can be found, or drop them off in boxes outside the shelter under the cover of darkness." Curled up at the very back of a cage sits a silent, hesitant, white-haired cat. Pom Pom's male owner gave her up after 15 years because he got a new girlfriend who didn't like cats. Another feline, Misha, has a badly twisted leg after jumping from a balcony. Her owner didn't want to pay the vet's fees and that's how she ended up in a shelter. There are plenty of dogs here, too. Pepito is a five-year-old miniature pinscher whose owners tied him up next to a lamp-post before calling the refuge. "The excuses they typically give are that they're going on holiday, having a baby, moving house, or they have a new partner with allergies, " Ms Loizeau explains. She says the owners come from all social classes, but cases of badly treated animals are higher on the poor housing estates and amongst the Roma Traveller community. For shelters like this one, it is the busiest time of the year. Given that just over half of all French households have at least one pet, it would be fair to assume they are a nation of pet lovers. Yet, every summer, emotional animal rights campaigns are launched nationwide to try and persuade people to look after their animals.
8-8-20 Lockdown: Label showing plants safe for bees and butterflies
A label scheme has been launched to protect bees and butterflies from plants containing insecticides. The National Botanic Garden of Wales said a "massive growth in gardening" during lockdown had seen people unwittingly buying plants with residues poisonous to pollinators. Its new labels will guarantee eligible plants have no synthetic insecticides and are grown in peat-free compost. Twenty-three growers and nurseries have already signed up. The Saving Pollinators logo scheme, set up with the Growing the Future Project, will also harness the botanic garden's DNA barcoding research, which has investigated which plants honeybees, solitary bees, bumblebees and hoverflies visit. Dr Natasha de Vere, of the garden, said: "Lockdown has seen a massive growth in gardening with many more people spending extra time and money buying plants to make their gardens more wildlife-friendly, without realising the plants could contain residues of synthetic insecticides that are extremely damaging to pollinators and to our environment." Those behind the project said it would be the first time gardeners could buy plants guaranteed to be good for bees and other pollinators. It also aims to benefit other wildlife such as hedgehogs, sparrows and frogs. Dr de Vere said pollinator decline would have an impact on the availability of many foods such as fruits, nuts, coffee and chocolates. Reports in the United States have suggested a lack of pollinators has reduced crop production. "The good thing about looking after pollinators is that it's essentially looking after ourselves," she added. The National Botanic Garden of Wales, located in Llanarthney, Carmarthenshire, said it hoped the label concept could be rolled out to other parts of the UK in the future, calling on the horticulture and garden retail industry to "take note".
8-6-20 Atlantic tuna to be tagged off Western Isles
Atlantic bluefin tuna are to be caught, satellite tagged and then released in an effort to better understand the reappearance of the fish off Scotland. The fish were once a common sight around the British Isles, before disappearing in the 1990s. In the past six years, tuna have frequently been seen from late summer to winter. Community company Harris Development Ltd has permission for three boats to take anglers out to catch the fish. The project could eventually lead to tuna fishing tourism in the Western Isles. (Webmaster's comment: No sooner than wildlife reappear than we start trying to figure out how to kill them for profit!) Kenneth MacLeod, chairman of Harris Development Ltd, said the fish pass by the islands between August and November. He said: "We do know they follow shoals of mackerel and herring. "We believe they are leaving the Mediterranean, come up the Atlantic as far as Greenland and Iceland, and we are then seeing them on their way back south." Mr MacLeod said he hoped the tagging project would provide a "clearer picture" of the tunas' movements. The Western Isles, where the first recorded rod-line catch of an Atlantic bluefin tuna was made in 2013, is a focus of the research. The fish caught seven years ago by Angus Campbell, an Isle of Harris-based boat operator, weighed 515lb (233kg). Bluefin tuna are one of the largest and fastest fish on the planet. They started declining in numbers off the British Isles from the 1940s. Previously, bluefin tuna tagged off the remote Scottish archipelago of St Kilda were tracked to the Azores and the Bay of Biscay.
8-6-20 Beaver families win legal 'right to remain'
Fifteen families of beavers have been given the permanent "right to remain" on the River Otter in East Devon. The decision was made by the government following a five-year study by the Devon Wildlife Trust into beavers' impact on the local environment. The Trust called it "the most ground-breaking government decision for England's wildlife for a generation". It's the first time an extinct native mammal has been given government backing to be reintroduced in England. Environment minister Rebecca Pow said that in the future they could be considered a "public good" and farmers and landowners would pay to have them on their land. Beavers have the power to change entire landscapes. They feel safer in deep water, so have become master makers of dams and pools. They build complex homes - known as lodges or burrows - with underwater entrances.The River Otter beaver trial showed that the animals' skill replenished and enhanced the ecology of the river catchment in East Devon. They increased the "fish biomass", and improved the water quality. This meant more food for otters - beavers are herbivores - and clearer and cleaner water in which kingfishers could flourish. Their dams worked as natural flood-defences, helping to reduce the risk of homes flooding downstream. The evidence gathered by researchers during the trial helped the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make what it called its "pioneering" decision to give the beavers the right to live, roam, and reproduce on the river. Beavers were hunted to extinction 400 years ago for their meat, furry water-resistant pelts, and a substance they secrete called castoreum, used in food, medicine and perfume. In 2013 video evidence emerged of a beaver with young on the River Otter, near Ottery St Mary. It was the conclusive proof of the first wild breeding beaver population in England. It was a mystery how they came to be there. Some suspect that the creatures were illegally released by wildlife activists who, on social media, are called "beaver bombers". The beavers faced being removed. However, the Devon Wildlife Trust, working with the University of Exeter, Clinton Devon Estates, and the Derek Gow Consultancy, won a five-year licence to study it. Now there are at least 50 adults and kits on the river - and they are there to stay. Peter Burgess, director of conservation at DWT, said: "This is the most ground-breaking government decision for England's wildlife for a generation. Beavers are nature's engineers and have the unrivalled ability to breathe new life into our rivers.
8-6-20 'Paradise island' hosts untold botanical treasures
New Guinea has the highest plant diversity of any island in the world, botanists have discovered. The first full inventory of plants on the world's largest tropical island reveals a treasure trove of flora. More than 13,000 species can be found on New Guinea, ranging from tiny orchids to giant tree ferns, two-thirds of which do not exist elsewhere. The findings, published in Nature, will be used to protect "one of the last unknowns for science". Identifying and naming plants is the first step towards conserving and protecting the plants of New Guinea, said Dr Tim Utteridge of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. "If we lose them, there's no way we can restore them from anywhere else, because they're just not found outside the island," he said. "We have a real responsibility to conserve this unique plant life." New Guinea is home to some of the best-preserved ecosystems on the planet, including coastal mangroves, huge expanses of tropical rainforest and alpine grasslands. New Guinea "is a paradise island teeming with life" and globally recognised as a centre of biological diversity, said Dr Rodrigo Cámara-Leret of the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Yet, knowledge of New Guinea's flora, "has remained scattered for years, limiting research in this mega-diverse area", he said. Botanists have been identifying and naming plants collected there since the 17th century, with samples stored in herbaria around the world. Only now have botanists been able to put all this information together in a full inventory of plant life, as has been done for other biodiversity hotspots, including the Amazon. Botanists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, joined forces with experts in 19 countries to carry out the work. Previous estimates for the number of plants on the island have ranged from 9,000 to 25,000 species. The researchers verified the identity of more than 23,000 plant names from upwards of 704,000 specimens.
8-6-20 Fruit flies have special neurons that sense the wind to aid navigation
Specific neurons in fruit flies fire according to wind direction, helping them form a neural map of their surroundings. Algorithms inspired by this may be able to help robots to better navigate their environment. DTatsuo Okubo at Harvard Medical School, US, and his colleagues wanted to determine how wind direction was characterised by a fruit fly’s brain. While it is well known that wind direction affects the behaviour of insects, no one had yet developed a map of the neurons involved in this phenomenon for any animal. The researchers were initially only looking for neurons which corresponded to antennae. “We then found these beautiful ring-shaped neurons that were next to neurons that affect the head direction,” says Okubo. The team recorded the firing rate of these ring neurons in a live fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), as they changed the wind direction of its surroundings. The experiments were done in the dark to remove the impact of any visual stimuli. They found that different wind-sensitive neurons had different preferences for wind direction, firing more if the wind blew from their preferred direction. This led to a fluctuating firing pattern in the overall population of neurons which corresponded to wind direction. Moreover, when these neurons were silenced, the fly’s head direction cells responded as if there was no wind at all, suggesting that wind information has a direct influence in the direction a fruit fly faces. It is unclear whether humans also have such neurons. “Humans can definitely use wind for long range navigation like pathfinding, but exactly how they sense it or how that feeds into a navigational circuit – it’s still an open question,” says Okubo. He also says these findings could give the one day be used to give robots an additional method of navigation. “It could lead to a more robust navigation when visual cues are not available,” says Okubo.
8-6-20 How tuataras live so long and can withstand cool weather
Scientists have finally deciphered the rare reptiles’ genome, or genetic instruction book. Tuataras may look like your average lizard, but they’re not. The reptiles are the last survivors of an ancient group of reptiles that flourished when dinosaurs roamed the world. Native to New Zealand, tuataras possess a range of remarkable abilities, including a century-long life span, relative imperviousness to many infectious diseases and peak physical activity at shockingly low temperatures for a reptile. Now, scientists are figuring out how, thanks to the first-ever deciphering, or sequencing, of the tuatara’s genetic instruction book. The research reveals insights into not only the creature’s evolutionary relationship with other living reptiles but also tuataras’ longevity and their ability to withstand cool weather, researchers report August 5 in Nature. Technically, tuataras (Sphenodon punctatus) are rhynchocephalians, an order of reptiles that were once widespread during the Mesozoic Era, 66 million to 252 million years ago. But their diversity waned over millions of years, leaving tuataras as the last of their line (SN: 10/13/03). The reptiles have long been of scientific interest because of their unclear evolutionary relationship with other reptiles, as they share traits with lizards and turtles as well as birds. Tuataras were once found throughout New Zealand, but now survive in the wild mainly on offshore islands and are considered a vulnerable species. The reptiles have suffered from habitat loss and invasive species such as rats, and are especially imperiled by a warming climate (SN: 7/3/08). This peril — combined with the tuatara’s cherished status as a taonga, or special treasure, to the Indigenous Maori people — led researchers to prioritize compiling the reptile’s genome, or genetic instruction book.
8-5-20 Disease-carrying animals thrive on our farmed land and in our cities
We are changing the world in a way that favours animals such as bats – the source of the new coronavirus – that carry more diseases. That is the conclusion of an analysis looking at what changes are occurring in ecosystems as people move in. “Some species are doing better and they are disproportionately likely to be those that transmit diseases to people,” says Rory Gibb at University College London. His team took advantage of a global project looking at how ecosystems change in disturbed areas, such as land cleared for farming, compared with undisturbed areas nearby. Nearly 7000 studies of this kind have now been done worldwide. The researchers combined these findings with data on what diseases animals carry, and whether these diseases can infect people. They found that small, fast-lived animals such as rodents, songbirds and bats tend to become more abundant in areas where people have moved in – and that these animals carry more diseases compared with larger, longer-lived species that have declined or disappeared. It isn’t clear why they harbour more diseases. One idea is that fast-lived animals invest more in reproducing at the cost of their immune defences, making them more vulnerable to pathogens, says Gibb. The finding suggests that the way we are changing landscapes is increasing the risk of diseases jumping species. However, this risk also depends on other factors such as how likely people are to be exposed and how vulnerable they are to a particular disease, says Gibb, which the study didn’t look at. One implication is that the disease risk could be reduced if ecosystems are restored by, say, reintroducing lost predators. “The way we manage landscapes is important,” says Gibb. For instance, schistosomiasis is caused by a parasite spread by snails. Reintroducing a river prawn that preys on snails has reduced its incidence in Senegal.
8-5-20 City growth favours animals 'more likely to carry disease'
Turning wild spaces into farmland and cities has created more opportunities for animal diseases to cross into humans, scientists have warned. Our transformation of the natural landscape drives out many wild animals, but favours species more likely to carry diseases, a study suggests. The work adds to growing evidence that exploitation of nature fuels pandemics. Scientists estimate that three out of every four new emerging infectious diseases come from animals. The study shows that, worldwide, we have shaped the landscape in a way that has favoured species that are more likely to carry infectious diseases. And when we convert natural habitats to farms, pastures and urban spaces, we inadvertently increase the probability of pathogens crossing from animals to humans. "Our findings show that the animals that remain in more human-dominated environments are those that are more likely to carry infectious diseases that can make people sick," said Rory Gibb of University College London (UCL). The transformation of forests, grasslands and deserts into cities, suburbs and farmland has pushed many wild animals towards extinction. Short-lived animals that can survive in most environments, such as rats and pigeons, have thrived at the expense of long-lived animals such as rhinos, which have specialised habitat requirements. Some rodents, for instance, that carry a range of viruses, thrive in urban spaces, where other species have been lost. The new evidence comes from analysis of a dataset of 184 studies incorporating almost 7,000 animal species, 376 of which are known to carry pathogens shared with humans. There are many factors involved in what scientists call spillover - when a pathogen crosses from an animal into humans, causing disease outbreaks, which may go on to become pandemics. We know, for instance, that close contact with wild animals through hunting, trade or habitat loss puts the world at increased risk of outbreaks of new diseases. Coronavirus is thought to have originated in bats, with other wild animals, playing a role in transmission to humans. There are strong indications of a wildlife source and a link to trade. Wild animals at risk of extinction due to human exploitation have been found to carry over twice as many viruses that can cause human disease as threatened species listed for other reasons. The same is true for threatened species at risk due to loss of habitat.
8-5-20 Climate change: Satellites find new colonies of Emperor penguins
Satellite observations have found a raft of new Emperor penguin breeding sites in the Antarctic. The locations were identified from the way the birds' poo, or guano, had stained large patches of sea-ice. The discovery lifts the global Emperor population by 5-10%, to perhaps as many as 278,500 breeding pairs. It's a welcome development given that this iconic species is likely to come under severe pressure this century as the White Continent warms. The Emperors' whole life cycle is centred around the availability of sea-ice, and if this is diminished in the decades ahead - as the climate models project - then the animals' numbers will be hit hard. One forecast suggested the global population could crash by a half or more under certain conditions come 2100. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) used the EU's Sentinel-2 spacecraft to scour the edge of the continent for previously unrecognised Emperor activity. The satellites' infrared imagery threw up eight such breeding sites and confirmed the existence of three others that had been mooted in the era before high-resolution space pictures. The new identifications take the number of known active breeding sites from 50 to 61. Two of the new locations are in the Antarctic Peninsula region, three are in the West of the continent and six in the East. They are all in gaps between existing colonies. Emperor groups, it seems, like to keep at least 100km between themselves. The new sites maintain this distancing discipline. It's impossible to count individual penguins from orbit but the BAS researchers can estimate numbers in colonies from the size of the birds' huddles. "It's good news because there are now more penguins than we thought," said BAS remote-sensing specialist Dr Peter Fretwell. "But this story comes with a strong caveat because the newly discovered sites are not in what we call the refugia - areas with stable sea-ice, such as in the Weddell Sea and the Ross Sea. They are all in more northerly, vulnerable locations that will likely lose their sea-ice," he told BBC News.
8-5-20 Penguin poop spotted from space ups the tally of emperor penguin colonies
Eight new spots include the first reported offshore breeding sites for the largest penguins. Patches of penguin poop spotted in new high-resolution satellite images of Antarctica reveal a handful of small, previously overlooked emperor penguin colonies. Eight new colonies, plus three newly confirmed, brings the total to 61 — about 20 percent more colonies than thought, researchers report August 5 in Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation. That’s the good news, says Peter Fretwell, a geographer at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England. The bad news, he says, is that the new colonies tend to be in regions highly vulnerable to climate change, including a few out on the sea ice. One newly discovered group lives about 180 kilometers from shore, on sea ice ringing a shoaled iceberg. The study is the first to describe such offshore breeding sites for the penguins. Penguin guano shows up as a reddish-brown stain against white snow and ice (SN: 3/2/18). Before 2016, Fretwell and BAS penguin biologist Phil Trathan hunted for the telltale stains in images from NASA’s Landsat satellites, which have a resolution of 30 meters by 30 meters. The launch of the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellites, with a much finer resolution of 10 meters by 10 meters, “makes us able to see things in much greater detail, and pick out much smaller things,” such as tinier patches of guano representing smaller colonies, Fretwell says. The new colony tally therefore ups the estimated emperor penguin population by only about 10 percent at most, or 55,000 birds. Unlike other penguins, emperors (Aptenodytes forsteri) live their entire lives at sea, foraging and breeding on the sea ice. That increases their vulnerability to future warming: Even moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenarios are projected to melt much of the fringing ice around Antarctica (SN: 4/30/20). Previous work has suggested this ice loss could decrease emperor penguin populations by about 31 percent over the next 60 years, an assessment that is shifting the birds’ conservation status from near threatened to vulnerable.
8-5-20 Is noise pollution killing whales and dolphins?
Humans create a lot of noise in the ocean - from sonar and seismic exploration, to pile-driving when building wind farms. But how might this affect sea life? Thousands of whales and dolphins die every year after becoming stranded on beaches. Dr Maria Morell, from University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, studies their ears to try and work out if hearing damage led to their death. She's developed a new way of finding out if a cetacean's hearing was affected just hours before they beached, to support the theory that the two might be connected - and pinpoint human activities that may be having an impact.
8-4-20 Wild bees add about $1.5 billion to yields for just six U.S. crops
Threats to native pollinators could shrink profits even at farms stocking honeybees. U.S. cherries, watermelons and some other summertime favorites may depend on wild bees more than previously thought. Many farms in the United States use managed honeybees to pollinate crops and increase yields, sometimes trucking beehives from farm to farm. Now an analysis of seven crops across North America shows that wild bees can play a role in crop pollination too, even on conventional farms abuzz with managed honeybees. Wild volunteers add at least $1.5 billion in total to yields for six of the crops, a new study estimates. “To me, the big surprise was that we found so many wild bees even in intense production areas where much of the produce in the USA is grown,” says coauthor Rachael Winfree, a pollination ecologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. That means threats to wild bees could shave profits even when farms stock honeybees, the researchers report July 29 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Both honeybees (Apis mellifera), which aren’t native to the United States, and wild pollinators such as bumblebees (Bombus spp.) face dangers including pesticides and pathogens (SN: 1/22/20). To see what, if anything, wild native bee species contribute, researchers spot-checked bee visits to flowers at 131 commercial farm fields across the United States and part of Canada. In a novel twist, the researchers also calculated to what extent the number of bee visits limited yields. These intensive farms with plenty of fertilizer, water and other resources often showed signs of reaching a pollinator limit, meaning fields didn’t have enough honeybees to get the maximum yield, and volunteer wild bees were adding to the total. Then the team estimated what percentage of the yield native bees were adding — versus just doing what honeybees would have done anyway.
8-4-20 Water beetles can live on after being eaten and excreted by a frog
One insect crawled through the amphibian’s insides in just six minutes. For most insects, the sticky, slingshot ride straight into a frog’s mouth spells the end. But not for one stubborn water beetle. Instead of succumbing to the frog’s digestive juices, an eaten Regimbartia attenuata traverses the amphibian’s throat, swims through the stomach, slides along the intestines and climbs out the frog’s butt, alive and well. “This is legitimately the first article in a while that made me say, ‘Huh! How weird!’” says Crystal Maier, an entomologist at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. “There are still a lot of truly bizarre habits of insects that still wait to be discovered,” she says. Surviving digestion-by-predator is rare, but not unheard of in the animal kingdom. Some snails survive the trip through fish and birds by sealing their shells and waiting it out. But research published August 3 in Current Biology is the first to document prey actively escaping through the backside of a predator. Feeding beetles to predators to see what happens is a regular activity for Shinji Sugiura, an ecologist at Kobe University in Japan. In 2018, he discovered that bombardier beetles can force toads to vomit the insects back up by releasing a mix of hot, noxious chemicals from their rear ends (SN: 2/6/18). On a hunch that R. attenuata might have evolved its own interesting evasive behaviors, Sugiura paired a beetle with a frog that the insect often encounters while swimming through Japanese rice paddies. In his laboratory, he watched. The frog made easy prey of the unsuspecting beetle. While the amphibians lack teeth that could kill prey with a crunch, a trip through the acidic, oxygen-poor digestive system should be sufficient to neutralize the insect. But as Sugiura monitored the frog, he saw the shiny black beetle slip out from the frog’s behind and scurry away, seemingly unharmed.
8-4-20 Termite intruders evolved cowardice to squat in another species’ nest
Some termite species have figured out how to enjoy the shelter of the immense, complex nests that the insects build without contributing to their construction. They avoid the full wrath of their builder hosts by being extremely easy-going. Animals that live in the dwellings of another species without affecting them are known as inquilines. Inquiline termites (Inquilinitermes microcerus) are unique among termites in being unable to make their own nests. Instead, they inhabit the labyrinthine hallways built by another termite, Constrictotermes cyphergaster. Until now, it has been unclear how the two parties kept peaceful in such tight quarters, because termites are typically very aggressive towards outsiders. Helder Hugo at the University of Konstanz in Germany and his colleagues collected C. cyphergaster nests in the Brazilian Cerrado and brought them into the laboratory. They then placed host and tenant termites in either open or more constricted miniature arenas and used video to track and record the ways in which the two species reacted to each other. Right from the start, the inquiline termites moved around less than their hosts and interacted little with them, even in the more confined arena. “Many times,” says Hugo, “when two unrelated colonies are put together in a single confined space – such as an experimental arena – the outcome is warfare with losses from both sides.” But that didn’t happen here. Despite attacks from host termites, the tenant termites were acquiescent. Hosts would bite or spray the inquilines with acrid chemicals, but their targets never responded in kind, opting to flee. Some ignored the hosts completely. “We did not expect that they would never retaliate,” says Hugo, noting that the inquilines are capable of protecting their own colony with snapping jaws.
8-3-20 Chinese nature reserves focus so much on pandas that leopards suffer
China’s efforts to save giant pandas have paid off for the bears, but miserably failed leopards and other carnivores that share their home. Researchers say the findings are a warning against trying to preserve biodiversity by focusing on one iconic species. Pandas officially edged away from extinction in 2016 in a sign of their rebound since reserves for the species were established in the 1960s. However, over the same period in the pandas’ protected areas, leopards (Panthera pardus) have seen an 81 per cent loss and snow leopards (Panthera uncia) 38 per cent. Two other carnivores, wolves (Canis lupus) and dholes (Cuon alpinus), a wild dog, declined by 77 and 95 per cent respectively, possibly rendering them functionally extinct there. The carnivores play a critical role in their ecosystems. A Chinese and US team led by Sheng Li at Peking University calculated the declines for the four species by comparing survey records from the 1950s to 1970s with modern camera trap records from 2008 to 2018. Interviews with experts and locals suggest most losses occurred in the 1990s, driven by logging and poaching of the animals and their prey. “I was not so surprised by the declines, but they are dramatic,” says Sheng, who notes the falls are consistent with those in large land mammals globally. One possible explanation for the “broad retreat” of the four species while pandas thrived, is that the bears need much less land – as little as a 20th that of the carnivores. Large carnivores are also likelier to fall foul of conflicts with humans. “These findings warn against the heavy reliance on a single-species conservation policy for biodiversity conservation in the region,” Sheng and the team write. Plans for establishing a “Giant Panda National Park’” in China this year could offer some hope for leopards, wolves and dholes, as the scheme is meant to restore and protect ecosystems as a whole. Nonetheless, say Sheng and colleagues, any process of restoring the carnivores to their former glory would take decades.
8-3-20 Some spiders may spin poisonous webs laced with neurotoxins
Droplets on the silk strands contain proteins that subdue prey, a study suggests. Orb weaver spiders are known for their big, beautiful webs. Now, researchers suggest that these webs do more than just glue a spider’s meal in place — they may also swiftly paralyze their catch. Biochemical ecologist Mario Palma has long suspected that the webs of orb weavers — common garden spiders that build wheel-shaped webs — contain neurotoxins. “My colleagues told me, ‘You are nuts,’” says Palma, of São Paulo State University’s Institute of Biosciences in Rio Claro, Brazil. No one had found such toxins, and webs’ stickiness seemed more than sufficient for the purpose of ensnaring prey. The idea first came to him about 25 years ago, when Palma lived near a rice plantation where orb weavers were common. He says he often saw fresh prey, like bees or flies, in the spiders’ webs, and over time, noticed the hapless animals weren’t just glued — they convulsed and stuck out their tongues, as if they’d been poisoned. If he pulled the insects free, they struggled to walk or hold up their bodies, even if the web’s owner hadn’t injected venom. Palma had worked with neurotoxins for many years, and these odd behaviors immediately struck him as the effects of such toxins. Now, thanks in large part to the work of his Ph.D. student Franciele Esteves, Palma thinks he has found those prey-paralyzing toxins. The pair and their colleagues analyzed the active genes and proteins in the silk glands of banana spiders (Trichonephila clavipes) — a kind of orb weaver — and found proteins resembling known neurotoxins. The neurotoxins may make the webs paralytic traps, the team reports online June 15 in the Journal of Proteome Research. The prey-catching webs of other species probably have similar neurotoxins, Palma says.
8-2-20 Earth to birds: Take the next left
Every fall, the bar-tailed godwit takes to wing and flies nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand — a journey of 7,000-plus miles. Countless other birds head off too, bound for warmer spots before returning in the spring. How they do it without getting lost remains mysterious to this day. Scientists are convinced birds must be using some type of biologically based magnetic compass, but they have yet to figure out how such a system would work. Now the field is heating up, and the latest research is pointing away from one long-standing theory and bolstering some intriguing alternatives. Clues have been piling up for decades. Back in the 1960s, researchers discovered that European robins can somehow sense Earth's magnetic field. In the decades since, scientists learned that robins and a variety of other bird species use the field, which is created by movement of iron in Earth's core, as a navigational aid. The birds combine this guide with information deduced from the sun, the stars, and geographical landmarks to complete their voyages. But a vexing question that remains is what sort of biological receptor birds use to detect the magnetic field. "Key experiments by a group in Germany definitively showed that a magnetic sense exists. Now, more than 50 years later, we still don't really understand how it works," says neuroscientist David Keays of the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna. Today, researchers are focusing on three possible ways that a magnetic sense could work. One idea involves a form of iron with magnetic properties, called magnetite, acting as a sort of compass within cells that rotates to align with the magnetic field. Another contender, known as the radical-pair mechanism, hinges on a chemical reaction in a bird's eye that is influenced by Earth's magnetic field. A third hypothesis suggests that as a bird moves through Earth's magnetic field, small currents are generated in the creature's inner ear. In all three of these scenarios, signals are produced and passed on to the bird's brain to be processed and translated into directions. Here's a look at each of them. 1. The magnetite idea has been studied the longest. Though it is biologically possible — certain kinds of swimming bacteria use the iron mineral to orient themselves — evidence in higher animals remains elusive, with scattered reports that are not always reproducible. 2. The weight of evidence gathered by scientists tilts toward another idea known as the radical-pair hypothesis, Hore says. Mouritsen also favors this idea, which is based on a protein in birds' eyes called cryptochrome. 3. Keays is testing a long-forgotten hypothesis, first proposed in 1882, that as a bird flies through Earth's magnetic field, tiny electric currents are generated in its ear. This would happen through electromagnetic induction, akin to how a magnet that moves through a coiled wire creates an electric current in the wire.
8-1-20 To save Appalachia’s endangered mussels, scientists hatched a bold plan
To save Appalachia’s endangered mussels, scientists hatched a bold plan. The emergency surgery took place in the back of a modified pickup truck in a McDonald’s parking lot in Pikeville, Ky. This scrappy plan to rescue a species of mussel on the edge of extinction made perfect sense: Meet somewhere between Indian Creek in Virginia, where the last known wild golden riffleshells lived, and Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation in Frankfort, where they would be saved. The strategy was a malacologist’s version of a Hail Mary pass. One scientist would gingerly pry open three golden riffleshells and remove their larvae to be nurtured in his lab. The other would return the three mussels to Indian Creek, and wait for the day he could introduce their grown offspring to the same habitat. If the plan didn’t produce enough offspring to sustain a new population, the mussels would probably vanish. Five years ago, Indian Creek was the only known remaining habitat for the golden riffleshell (Epioblasma florentina aureola). And like many other mussels, this bivalve’s future looked bleak. Biologists estimated that only about 100 remained in the wild. “They were the next species on the list for disappearing from the face of the Earth,” says biologist Tim Lane, who leads mussel recovery efforts at the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources’ Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center, near Marion. “We were literally watching the last of them.” Seeing a species vanish in real time is difficult, he says, and is in some ways worsened by the mussels’ near-invisibility beneath the surface. “They’re not charismatic like, say, the northern white rhino,” he says. When mussels go extinct, almost no one knows — or mourns them. An avid amateur photographer who takes pictures of mollusks, snails, fish and various other small critters in the wild, Lane spends much of his time floating facedown in Appalachian waterways, suspended over rocky riverbeds like a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He came up with the plan and carried out phase one: delicately prying the bivalves from the Indian Creek river-bed and laying them in a cooler filled with pebbles, dirt and river water for the 90-minute trip to Kentucky.