12-28-20 Atlantic discovery: 12 new species 'hiding in the deep'
Almost five years of studying the deep Atlantic in unprecedented detail has revealed 12 species new to science. The sea mosses, molluscs and corals had eluded discovery because the sea floor is so unexplored, scientists say. Researchers warn that the newly discovered animals could already be under threat from climate change. Carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean is making it more acidic, causing coral skeletons in particular to corrode. The scientists involved stressed it was "not too late to protect these special species" and the important habitats they occupied. New species: "At least" 12 new deep-sea species. The team also found approximately 35 new records of species in areas where they were previously unknown. Climate change: Ocean warming, acidification, and decreasing food availability will combine to significantly shift and reduce the availability of suitable habitats for deep-sea species by 2100. Hydrothermal vents: Scientists discovered a field of these sea-floor hot springs in the Azores. Hydrothermal fields are important areas of relatively high biological productivity that host complex communities in the midst of the vast deep ocean. As Prof George Wolff, an ocean chemist from the University of Liverpool who was involved in the project pointed out: "We can still say we have better maps of the surface of the Moon and Mars than of the sea floor." "So whenever you go to the deep ocean, you find something new - not just individual species but entire ecosystems." Prof Murray Roberts from the University of Edinburgh led the Atlas project, as it is called. He told BBC News that nearly five years of exploration and investigation had revealed some "special places" in the ocean and worked out "how they tick". "We found whole communities formed by sponges or deep ocean corals that form the cities of the deep sea," he explained. "They support life. So really important fish use these places as spawning grounds. "If those cities are damaged by destructive human uses, those fish have nowhere to spawn and the function of those whole ecosystems is lost for future generations. "It's like understanding that the rainforest is an important place for biodiversity on the land; the same is true of the deep sea - there are important places that need to be protected and, crucially , they are all connected."
12-24-20 Portugal outrage after Spanish hunters massacre 500 wild animals
Portuguese officials have expressed outrage at the massacre of more than 500 deer and wild boar in a hunting zone in the centre of the country. Environment Minister João Fernandes said the killing by 16 Spanish hunters was "vile" and an "environmental crime" that should be prosecuted. Pictures of the slaughter were shared on social media. Hunting individual animals is allowed but in this incident most of the zone's deer population are said to have died. The killing is thought to have taken place on a farm in the Torrebela tourist hunting zone, near Azambuja, about 40km (24 miles) from the Portuguese capital Lisbon on 17 and 18 December. The 1,100ha (2,700-acre) farm is described as being walled in, meaning that the 540 animals had no means of escape from their killers. The Environment Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that "the reports and news about the indiscriminate slaughter of animals... have nothing to do with hunting, understood as a practice that can contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystems".
12-23-20 Octopuses filmed punching fish in the Red Sea
Octopuses throw punches at fish and it could be out of spite, scientists say. Marine biologists filmed these interactions in the Red Sea but it has also been captured elsewhere. It's not entirely clear why they lash out but scientists say it may be a way of keeping the fish in line. Fish and octopuses are known to hunt prey together and their interactions will continue to be analysed.
12-22-20 Rumors of a ‘murder hornet’ apocalypse may have been exaggerated
Murder hornets sightings in the Pacific northwest inspired a mix of concern and delight. As if 2020 needed an extra disaster, the year also brought us “murder hornets.” When two Asian giant hornets (Vespa mandarinia) were spotted in Washington and nearby British Columbia in May, news headlines heralded their “arrival” with a strange mix of horror and glee. Never mind that the invaders had been spotted in the state the year before; somehow it felt that they belonged in 2020. Science News has tried to calm the buzz with facts. For one, the invasion is not as apocalyptic as some headlines have suggested, life sciences writer Susan Milius reported (SN: 7/4/20 & 7/18/20, p. 14). Not only is this not the first big hornet to invade the United States, the predatory insects hunt for honeybees, not people. And the hornets are not exactly taking over. Scientists have mounted an extensive effort to eradicate them — officials in Washington found and destroyed their first nest in October — and a map released this year suggests that swaths of challenging habitat might make it hard for the hornets to sweep across America (SN: 11/7/20, p. 12). That hasn’t stopped people all over the country from thinking they’ve found one. “Suddenly, overlooked local wasp and hornet species … hanging around in corners of people’s backyards for millennia become the subjects of panic-driven calls,” says Gale Ridge, an entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. Ridge has been taking those calls. Concerned readers have reached out to Science News, too. We shared with Ridge the half dozen photographs of suspected murder hornets we received. She spotted European hornets, bald-faced hornets (technically yellow jackets) and robber flies. No murder hornets.
12-21-20 Nearly all land animal species could lose part of habitat by 2050
Land is constantly being cleared to meet the world’s increasing food demands. With current diets, nearly 90 per cent of land animals could lose some of their habitat by 2050. However, reducing food waste, changing the way we eat and increasing yields could prevent almost all of the projected loss. Habitat making way for agriculture is a huge threat to species far and wide. Existing projections estimate that we will need between 2 and 10 million square kilometres of new farmland to meet food demand in the next 30 years – all at the expense of natural areas. David Williams at the University of Leeds, UK, and his colleagues have developed a model based on current trajectories which shows how expanding agriculture will affect the natural habitats of nearly 20,000 terrestrial mammals, amphibians and birds. They identified that over 17,000 species will lose some of their habitat by 2050, with over 1250 species losing 25 per cent and at least 350 species projected to lose more than half. Worst affected were sub-Saharan Africa and the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil, but losses affected every continent. “We need to produce a huge amount of food over the coming decades,” says Williams. As the population grows and people get richer, they eat more environmentally costly food – particularly meat and dairy. “Fundamentally, you need to put a lot of calories into a cow to get a calorie of cow to eat,” he says. This will require a huge amount of land to be cleared for growing livestock feed as well as for food crops. The researchers also tested a series of alternate futures and found that almost all habitat loss could be avoided if we change our eating habits. Reducing food waste and transitioning to a more plant-based diet, particularly in more economically developed countries, can prevent this habitat loss. We could also direct agriculture away from countries where biodiversity is likely to be badly affected, protecting those species which are less tolerant of food production, says co-author Michael Clark at the University of Oxford.
12-20-20 Are wildlife trade bans backfiring?
Trafficking in wild animal and plant products is driving species to extinction, but some researchers think restrictions only spur demand and make things worse. Customs officials in Singapore made a grisly discovery last April at a port on the island's southern coast. Inside shipping containers supposedly transporting frozen beef from Nigeria to Vietnam, they found bloodstained sacks stuffed with 14 tons of scales stripped illegally from pangolins — scaly anteaters endemic to Africa and Asia. The seizure, worth about $38.7 million, is thought to be the largest bust of pangolin products globally in recent years. People hunt pangolins for their meat, considered a delicacy in Asia, and for their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat ills such as arthritis. Eight species are now vulnerable or endangered and, in 2016, more than 180 nations banned most cross-border commercial trade in them. They did so under a major international agreement called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, commonly referred to as CITES. Trade bans on endangered species are the most severe restriction under CITES, which also limits trade in species that are at risk of overexploitation but not yet endangered, requiring permits for their export. Conservation organizations hailed the pangolin ban as a big win in the war against the multibillion-dollar wildlife trade. But some scientists and wildlife trade experts worry that CITES bans — in this case and others — may be backfiring, by encouraging rather than suppressing trade in a species. "As products become rarer, prices and demand increase. You just hit species all the way into extinction," says Brett Scheffers, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Florida. Poorly policed trade controls can allow illegal trade to flourish, adds Michael 't Sas-Rolfes, a sustainability economist specializing in the wildlife trade at the University of Oxford. In 1977, for example, an international trade ban on the black rhino led to a tenfold increase in the price of rhino horn over a two-year period, spurring poaching and driving populations to extinction in some areas. And trade restrictions that began in 2013 on species of rosewood helped to make the precious timber the most trafficked group of endangered species in the world. It's too soon to know if the same kind of thing is happening with pangolins, but there are troubling signs, says Dan Challender, a conservation scientist specializing in pangolins and wildlife trade policy who works with 't Sas-Rolfes at Oxford: Seizures of pangolin parts in high volumes appear to be on the uptick. There's no disagreement among researchers that the wildlife trade is a major contributor to the loss of biodiversity worldwide. Where they disagree is over what the countries that are signed up to CITES should do about it. Many conservation groups say that CITES is one of the best tools they have — enabling signatory nations to ban international trade for species that are already endangered and set limits on trade for species at risk due to trade. But trade experts like Sabri Zain, director of policy for TRAFFIC, a nonprofit group working to make the wildlife trade more sustainable, say that CITES rests too heavily on bans when instead it is meant to help ensure that the wildlife trade meets people's needs while also safeguarding nature. "When you talk to people about CITES, the first thing that comes to their mind is trade bans. But the real heart of CITES is sustainability," Zain says.
12-19-20 Bonobos, much like humans, show commitment to completing a joint task
Experiments revealed that the apes resumed grooming one another even after being interrupted. Bonobos display responsibility toward grooming partners akin to that of people working together on a task, a new study suggests. Until now, investigations have shown only that humans can work jointly toward a common goal presumed to require back-and-forth exchanges and an appreciation of being obligated to a partner (SN: 10/5/09). Primate biologist Raphaela Heesen of Durham University in England and colleagues studied 15 of the endangered great apes at a French zoological park. The researchers interrupted 85 instances of social grooming, in which one ape cleaned another’s fur, and 26 instances of self-grooming or solitary play. Interruptions consisted either of a keeper calling one bonobo in a grooming pair to come over for a food reward or a keeper rapidly opening and closing a sliding door to an indoor enclosure, which typically signaled mealtime and thus attracted both bonobos. Social grooming resumed, on average, 80 percent of the time after food rewards and 83 percent of the time after sliding-door disruptions, the researchers report December 18 in Science Advances. In contrast, self-grooming or playing alone was resumed only around 50 percent of the time, on average. Bonobos generally resumed social grooming with the same partner within one minute of an interruption, usually near the original grooming spot. Groomers frequently took up where they had left off on a partner’s body. And bonobos more often vocalized, gestured or otherwise communicated when restarting social grooming if they had been the one responsible for initiating the session or interrupting it for a food reward. That was especially true of higher-ranking bonobos in the community, suggesting some awareness of having broken a joint commitment and wanting to signal friendly intent when rejoining lower-ranking grooming partners, the scientists say.
12-18-20 Ivory from a 16th century shipwreck reveals new details about African elephants
Dozens of tusks from a sunken Portuguese trading ship have now been analyzed. In 2008, miners off the coast of Namibia stumbled upon buried treasure: a sunken Portuguese ship known as the Bom Jesus, which went missing on its way to India in 1533. The trading ship bore a trove of gold and silver coins and other valuable materials. But to a team of archaeologists and biologists, the Bom Jesus’ most precious cargo was a haul of more than 100 elephant tusks — the largest archaeological cargo of African ivory ever discovered. Genetic and chemical analyses have now traced those tusks back to several distinct herds of forest elephants that once roamed West Africa. “It is by far the most detailed and comprehensive attempt to source [archaeological] elephant ivory,” says Paul Lane, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge not involved in the work. The new results, reported in the Feb. 8 Current Biology, give insight into historical African elephant populations and ivory trade networks. For having been lost at sea for nearly 500 years, the Bom Jesus’ ivory is incredibly well-preserved, says Alida de Flamingh, a molecular biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “When the ship sank, the copper and lead ingots [stored above the tusks] kind of pushed the ivory down into the seabed,” protecting the tusks from scattering and erosion. A frigid ocean current also runs through this region of the Atlantic. “That really cold current probably helped preserve the DNA that was in the tusks,” de Flamingh says. She and her colleagues extracted DNA from 44 tusks. The genetic material revealed that all of that ivory came from African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) rather than their African savanna kin (L. africana). By comparing the ivory DNA with that of past and present African elephant populations with known origins, the team determined that the shipwrecked tusks belonged to elephants from at least 17 genetically distinct herds across West Africa — only four of which still exist. The other elephant lineages may have died out as a result of hunting or habitat destruction (SN: 11/7/16).
12-18-20 Ivory: Elephant decline revealed by shipwreck cargo
Researchers have examined ancient DNA preserved in elephant tusks that were among the cargo of a 487-year-old shipwreck. Their forensic examination of the 100 tusks pinpointed the devastation caused to the elephant population by centuries of ivory trade. On this single ship, researchers found genetic evidence of 17 distinct herds of the threatened animals. Today, scientists can find only four of those herds surviving in Africa. The tusks were so well preserved - in cold water off the Namibian coast - that scientists were even able to find out what type of diet the elephants had, which revealed where they had lived and been hunted. The wreck itself is a Portuguese trading vessel, known as the Bom Jesus, which went missing on its way to India in 1533. It was found by chance in 2008 in a coastal diamond mine, making it the oldest known shipwreck in southern Africa. The ivory in the cargo hold was just part of a vast haul of precious cargo, including copper ingots and gold and silver coins. Archaeologists have also found personal effects and navigation equipment amid the remains of the ship. "There are dinner plates, cutlery and trinket boxes, as well as all the copper ingots, coins and ivory in the cargo," explained Ashley Coutu, an archaeologist from the University of Oxford, who specialises in genetic and chemical analysis of artefacts. "It is an incredible find, incredibly well preserved," she told BBC News. That preservation meant that the international team of researchers - including experts from from Namibia, the US and the UK - could unpick exactly how many herds of elephants the tusks came from. The team examined something called mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are the power stations of every cell, converting food into fuel. And crucially for this study, the genetic blueprint that makes mitochondria is passed down from mother to offspring. This makes it a particularly revealing piece of code for elephants.
12-17-20 A mink in Utah is the first known case of the coronavirus in a wild animal
There is no evidence of widespread transmission among wild animals. A wild American mink in Utah has tested positive for the coronavirus — the first wild animal found to be infected with the virus, researchers say. The wild mink was infected with a variant of the coronavirus that was “indistinguishable” from viruses taken from nearby farmed minks, researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture wrote in a Dec. 13 report. That suggests that the wild mink acquired the infection from farmed animals. It’s not clear if the animal was alive or dead at the time of testing. Researchers found the mink during a survey for coronavirus-infected wildlife in areas surrounding mink farms that had outbreaks from August 24 to October 30. With only one wild animal testing positive so far, there is no evidence that the coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, is spreading among wild animals in the United States or elsewhere.If the virus were to become widespread among wild or farmed minks, it may continue to evolve in those animals. In such a scenario, the virus could accumulate mutations that might not occur in humans, potentially allowing the virus to jump to other types of animals and make them sick or transmit a new, possibly more virulent strain back to people. There have been multiple coronavirus outbreaks on mink farms in the United States and Europe since the COVID-19 pandemic began. While infected people originally passed the virus to farmed animals, small genetic changes in viruses infecting people and minks in Europe show that the coronavirus has also spread from mink back to humans, researchers reported in November in Science. Millions of animals in Denmark were culled in early November after authorities raised concerns that mutations in mink versions of the coronavirus might make COVID-19 vaccines less effective. That could happen if the parts of the virus that are typically the target of protective, vaccine-induced antibodies evolve in minks to escape recognition and then those viruses are passed to people. But there is no evidence suggesting that existing viral variants from minks can weaken vaccines.
12-17-20 Ivory: Elephant decline revealed by shipwreck cargo
Researchers have examined ancient DNA preserved in elephant tusks that were among the cargo of a 487-year-old shipwreck. Their forensic examination of the 100 tusks pinpointed the devastation caused to the elephant population by centuries of ivory trade. On this single ship, researchers found genetic evidence of 17 distinct herds of the threatened animals. Today, scientists can find only four of those herds surviving in Africa. The tusks were so well preserved - in cold water off the Namibian coast - that scientists were even able to find out what type of diet the elephants had, which revealed where they had lived and been hunted. The findings are published in the journal Current Biology. The wreck itself is a Portuguese trading vessel, known as the Bom Jesus, which went missing on its way to India in 1533. It was found by chance in 2008 in a coastal diamond mine, making it the oldest known shipwreck in southern Africa. The ivory in the cargo hold was just part of a vast haul of precious cargo, including copper ingots and gold and silver coins. Archaeologists have also found personal effects and navigation equipment amid the remains of the ship. "There are dinner plates, cutlery and trinket boxes, as well as all the copper ingots, coins and ivory in the cargo," explained Ashley Coutu, an archaeologist from the University of Oxford, who specialises in genetic and chemical analysis of artefacts. "It is an incredible find, incredibly well preserved," she told BBC News. That preservation meant that the international team of researchers - including experts from from Namibia, the US and the UK - could unpick exactly how many herds of elephants the tusks came from. The team examined something called mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are the power stations of every cell, converting food into fuel. And crucially for this study, the genetic blueprint that makes mitochondria is passed down from mother to offspring. This makes it a particularly revealing piece of code for elephants.
12-17-20 Newly discovered orchid species labelled the ugliest in the world
Orchids are usually seen as beautifully coloured flowers, but a newly discovered species from Madagascar is far from pretty. The plant, Gastrodia agnicellus, was discovered earlier this year in the deep shade underneath leaves on the forest floor in Madagascar. This small, brown orchid spends most of its life underground and has no leaves, only surfacing to produce fruit and disperse its seeds. “I’m sure it’s mother thinks it’s very lovely,” says Johan Hermans at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London, who discovered the species. Hermans says the name “agnicellus” comes from the Latin word for “little lamb” as it has a woolly, tuberous root. “With a bit of an imagination, you can almost see a lamb’s tongue in the flower.” Like most orchids, this species is a perennial plant, meaning it could live for many years, and has a symbiotic relationship with a fungus. While other orchids only depend on their fungus symbiote for food at the start of their lives, Gastrodia agnicellus doesn’t have any cells for photosynthesis so relies on its fungus for its entire life. Hermans expected the orchid to smell awful, as most plants that have this decaying look often smell like rotting flesh as a way to entice insect pollinators to help them reproduce. “It actually had quite a fresh, citrusy smell,” he says. He also says that they still don’t know how this orchid is actually pollinated. “Orchids are particularly clever at adapting,” says Hermans, so it must have found a unique way to survive. This new species was discovered in a tiny region of Madagascar, and it is thought that the extent of its range is very small and is declining, probably due to increased agriculture and fires in the area. As such, Gastrodia agnicellus has been classed as a threatened species.
12-16-20 Kangaroos can 'communicate' with humans, study finds
Kangaroos are able to intentionally communicate with people and "ask for help", a study has found. The research challenges the notion that only domesticated animals display this behaviour, co-authors from the UK and Australia tell the BBC.
12-16-20 The curious case of the “glacier mice” that seem to dance on ice
Fuzzy moss balls that colonise glaciers and move in perfect unison have puzzled scientists for decades. Now, thanks to some painstaking surveillance, they are finally giving up their secrets. FEW have glimpsed them in the wild and you won’t see any in captivity. Yet the elusive glacier mouse – small, green and fuzzy – suddenly found itself an A-list celebrity earlier this year when reports of its antics became the antidote to a blizzard of bad news. You may recall the tales of ice-dancing mice that travel in troupes and move with a synchrony worthy of the corps de ballet. If so, you will know that the mice in question aren’t actually mice at all. Purists might call them unattached moss polsters, supraglacial globular moss cushions or just plain moss balls. But when the Icelandic glaciologist JÓn EythÓrsson first brought them to the world’s attention in 1951, he dubbed them jökla-mýs (glacier mice) and it stuck. “They genuinely look cute, like a small furry creature – at least from a distance,” says Scott Hotaling, a glacier biologist at Washington State University. Hotaling is one of the scientists who served up the latest instalment in the long-running saga of the glacier mice, which remain a riddle wrapped in a mystery. Those lucky enough to have encountered a colony in one of their remote icy haunts confess that they find them puzzling in many ways, not least their curious movements. Yet thanks to some painstaking sub-zero surveillance, these mossy blobs are slowly giving up their secrets. Only in recent years have we begun to get the measure of glacier mice. That’s partly because they are rare, found only on select glaciers in Alaska, Iceland, Chile and on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, and partly because glacier biologists are rarer still. But where there’s one mouse, there are usually many, and as glaciers became a hot topic, the scientists who explored them couldn’t help but notice when furry green balls dotted an otherwise white landscape. “Your first impression when you see them is how out of place they look – something so soft in an environment that is so harsh,” says Hotaling.
12-16-20 Dr Dolittle machines: How AI is helping us talk to the animals
Pattern-seeking artificial intelligence promises a new way to decode animal languages from dog to whale. Our relationship with our furry and flippered friends may never be the same RENOWNED LSD proponent John Lilly’s attempts to speak with dolphins were certainly inventive. In experiments over decades, he variously plied the animals with his favourite drug, flooded a house to allow a human to live side by side with one and even tried to commune with them telepathically. His failure has shared the fate of most efforts to do a Dr Dolittle and talk to the animals. The orthodox position is that human language – the sort that allows us to exchange pleasantries about the weather or discuss abstract concepts such as the price of fish – is our sole preserve. If you have ever dreamed of listening to a whale’s tales of the deep ocean or asking your dog why it howls at the vacuum cleaner, dream on. Or, perhaps, wake up to a coming reality. Some researchers think that soon we could finally break through the human-animal language barrier, a belief fuelled not by psychedelic optimism, but by the data-crunching smarts of artificial intelligence. Our relationship with the animal world may never be the same again. AI is good at language. Today, our email services can complete sentences for us, our browsers automatically translate web pages and voice assistants decode our commands. Earlier this year, research company OpenAI released a system called GPT-3 that can write compelling prose from scratch. Decoding animal communication is just a logical next step, says Michael Bronstein at Imperial College London. “I think it’s the right time, with the right data and with the right expertise, to possibly solve this problem.” The latest AIs learn linguistic patterns from huge amounts of human-supplied language data, without any clue how our languages actually work. Essentially, they create a vast, multidimensional “cloud” of words clustered according to how we use them, and this lets them decode new snippets of text. In 2018, researchers at Facebook realised that if you twist the clouds for two languages in just the right way, you can get words with the same meaning to line up, allowing you to translate. This was a crucial breakthrough, says Bronstein: it suggested we might be able to decipher languages with no pre-existing translations.
12-16-20 East Africa fears second wave - of locust swarms
New swarms of desert locusts are threatening the livelihoods of millions of people in the Horn of Africa and Yemen despite a year of control efforts, the United Nations has warned. The UN says there have been good breeding conditions in eastern Ethiopia and Somalia, with Kenya also at risk. And breeding underway on both sides of the Red Sea poses a new threat to Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. This year had already seen the worst East Africa invasion in 70 years. "For Kenya, the threat is imminent, it could happen any time now," Keith Cressman, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's senior locust forecasting officer told the BBC. "It could be as bad as what we've seen in the past year because the area of breeding ground in these countries is as big as 350,000 sq km (135,000 sq miles)." Between January and August this year East Africa saw billions of the insects destroying crops across the region. "We lost so much of our pastures and vegetation because of the locusts and as a result we are still losing a good number of our livestock," said Gonjoba Guyo, a pastoralist in North Horr sub-country in northern Kenya. "I have lost 14 goats, four cows and two camels because of the locust outbreak and now there is lots of fear that we may face similar or worse consequences." FAO officials said countries in the region were now much better prepared than for the last invasion. They say surveillance is high, and preparedness - such as spraying pesticides on the ground or from aeroplanes - is much better, with over one million acres of land treated for infestations in 10 countries. But there are fears that communities might be overwhelmed if the swarms are really big. So, how could the locusts breed again on such a threatening scale? Experts say central Somalia and eastern Ethiopia received higher than average rainfall in the rainy season from September and November. That meant the ground saw significant generation and expansion of vegetation. "That became a really good breeding ground for the locusts," said Mr Cressman. "And these areas are really huge breeding areas."
12-16-20 Baboons that live together in tight-knit groups have similar ‘accents’
Male baboons living in the same group sound more like one another than males in other groups, suggesting that social interaction may be key to vocal similarities in non-human primates. Communication in primates is fairly sophisticated. They produce a range of sounds and can adapt them to warn others of oncoming threats. Some species copy the calls of those closest to them, just as humans involuntarily raise the pitch or frequency of their voices to match others in conversation. Julia Fischer at the German Primate Center in Göttingen and her team tested how social interaction could lead to vocal similarities in Guinea baboons (Papio papio) living in Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal. The baboons live in gangs made up of several parties. Each party consists of a male and several female mates. “They live in this tolerant, hippy society where males groom one another and there’s very little competition,” says Fischer. During bonding interactions, males grunt as a sign of friendship, she says. Fischer and her team recorded several grunts from 27 males from two gangs and analysed the frequency, call length and tone of each sound to determine similarities. They found that grunts sounded more similar within gangs than between gangs. There were also a higher number of similarities within the individual parties. “This is probably a result of being exposed to the sound of your group,” says Fischer. She says it is possible that the baboons are replicating the sounds they hear, similar to the way that humans pick up accents. Fischer suggests that having the same “accent” may be important for social bonding in Guinea baboons, as it could create a greater level of trust between gang members. Research into non-human primate communication can help us understand the evolution of language. Fischer says this work indicates there are multiple ways that language learning comes about. “You can have different forms of vocal learning, like the ones seen in the baboons, but it might be very different from the way we learn words.”
12-16-20 Kangaroos can learn to ask for help from humans just like dogs do
Kangaroos in zoos and sanctuaries use body language to ask humans for help, much like horses and dogs do, which suggests that even wild animals can learn to engage in interspecies communication just by being around humans. This overturns previous theories that animals’ ability to communicate with humans resulted from domestication, says Alan McElligott at City University of Hong Kong. Fifty million kangaroos – an animal family that has never been domesticated – roam freely in groups across Australia. They are so common that they are “the equivalent of deer in Europe”, says McElligott. However, thousands of these marsupials live in zoos, parks and sanctuaries for educational or protective purposes. McElligott and his colleagues studied 16 kangaroos of three different subspecies living in captivity in Australia. Using methods similar to those used in previous studies on horses, dogs and goats, the scientists first trained the kangaroos to find a tasty treat – bits of carrots, corn or sweet potatoes – in a small box. Then they closed the box in a way that made it impossible for kangaroos to open and observed how the animals responded. Like their domestic counterparts in earlier experiments, the kangaroos consistently turned to a nearby human for help. “They’d look straight up at my face, like a dog or a goat would do, and back at the box, and some even came up and scratched my knee like a dog pawing [for attention],” says McElligott. This happened across the range of subspecies, from the typically “friendly” western grey kangaroos (Macropus fuliginosus fuliginosus) to the generally more “skittish” eastern grey kangaroos (Macropus giganteus) and red kangaroos (Macropus rufus). “I was really shocked,” says McElligott, referring to the less docile eastern species. “I didn’t even think we would get through the training protocol with them.”
12-16-20 These Arctic squirrels recycle bits of their own bodies to survive winter
The secrets of the animals’ metabolism during hibernation could someday help human medicine. Arctic ground squirrels can survive harsh winters with below-freezing temps by holing up for some eight months without eating. These hibernators “live at the most extreme edge of existence, just barely hovering over death, and we don’t fully understand how this works,” says Sarah Rice, a biochemist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. By snooping on what’s going on inside these squirrels, researchers now have a better idea. Nutrients recycled from muscle breakdown help the animals get by during hibernation, Rice and her colleagues report December 7 in Nature Metabolism. From autumn to spring, Arctic ground squirrels (Urocitellus parryii) hibernate in bouts of deep torpor. In a state akin to suspended animation, the squirrels breathe just once a minute, and their hearts beat five times per minute. Every two or three weeks, the squirrels revive somewhat for about 12 to 24 hours; their body temperatures rise, and the animals shiver and sleep, but don’t eat, drink or defecate. To monitor the animals’ body chemistry, “I worked in dark, cold chambers — utterly quiet —surrounded by hibernating squirrels,” Rice says. Periodically, she carefully withdrew blood from a tube inserted in their blood vessels. During the squirrels’ torpor, Rice and her team observed a chemical signal showing that skeletal muscle was slowly breaking down. That process would release compounds containing nitrogen, an element important for making the proteins found in muscle. But hibernators, including these squirrels, are known to hang on to muscle mass as they hibernate (SN: 2/17/11). So the scientists wondered whether the squirrels build up new stores of protein during hibernation, and if so, how.
12-16-20 Small, quiet crickets turn leaves into megaphones to blare their mating call
A carefully crafted leaf can double the volume of a male’s song, helping it compete for females. The rules of the tree cricket world, sexually speaking, are simple. Perched from a leaf’s edge, males call out into the night by rhythmically rubbing their wings. Females survey the soundscape, gravitating towards the loudest and largest males. Small, quiet types get drowned out. Unless they cheat the system. Some male crickets make their own megaphones by cutting wing-sized holes into the center of leaves. With their bodies stuck halfway through this vegetative speaker, male Oecanthus henryi crickets can more than double the volume of their calls, allowing naturally quiet males to attract as many females as loud males, researchers report December 16 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It’s a rare example of insect tool use that “really challenges you to think about what it takes to produce complex behavior,” says Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul who wasn’t involved in the study. Biologists first spotted crickets creating leaf-speakers, called baffles, and singing from them, or baffling, in 1975. Since then, the baffling behavior has been reported in two other species, but wasn’t clear exactly how it benefits individual crickets. Rittik Deb, an evolutionary ecologist now at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India, was stunned when he first witnessed an O. henryi male baffling in 2008. “It was mind-bogglingly beautiful,” he says, “I had to understand why it was happening.” Deb, then at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, and his colleagues first looked for any commonalities among crickets who use baffles. Only 25 out of 463, or 5 percent, of crickets observed and individually marked at field sites outside Bangalore were seen baffling. On average, baffling males were smaller, and called more quietly when not baffling. In the field, Deb found that baffling approximately doubles the volume of a quiet male’s call, raising them to the level of the most attractive males.
12-15-20 First case of coronavirus detected in wild animal
The first known case of coronavirus in a wild animal has been reported, leading to calls for widespread monitoring of wildlife. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said a wild mink had tested positive around an infected mink farm in Utah. Coronavirus outbreaks at fur farms in the US and in Europe have killed thousands of the animals. As a consequence, millions of farmed mink have had to be culled across Europe. The USDA said it had found one positive case in "free-ranging, wild mink" in Utah as part of wildlife surveillance around infected farms. Several animals from different wildlife species were sampled and all tested negative, the agency added. It said it had notified the World Organisation for Animal Health, but there is no evidence the virus has been widespread in wild populations around infected mink farms. "To our knowledge, this is the first free-ranging, native wild animal confirmed with Sars-CoV-2," the USDA said in an alert to the International Society for Infectious Diseases. The discovery raises concerns that the infection could spread between wild mink, said Dr Dan Horton, a veterinary expert at the University of Surrey, UK. The case "reinforces the need to undertake surveillance in wildlife and remain vigilant", he added. Mink are known to escape from mink farms and become established in the wild. In the UK, a population of mink that escaped from fur farms many years ago is thought to exist, but they are sparsely distributed and rarely come into contact with people, Dr Horton added. The virus has also been found in zoo tigers, lions and snow leopards in the US, and in a small number of household cats and dogs.
12-14-20 Ranchers fight US government to corral the last wild horses of Nevada
From my home in Los Angeles, California, it is just a few hours’ drive into the deserts of Nevada to see wild horses. If you are lucky, as I was, you might see a lone mustang on the range, galloping over powdery snow, just a few hundred metres from the highway. According to the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), there are about 95,000 wild horses and burros – small donkeys – on public lands across the US, half of which are in Nevada. I planned to join a round-up in Fish Creek in which the wranglers are in helicopters.The use of these vehicles is part of the controversy over managing wild horses in the western US. Wild horses are seen by some as a nuisance and by others as animals in need of protection. Drought and wildfires have shrunk their habitat, sparking conflict with ranchers, oil firms and miners. While the BLM has tried to corral the horses, experts say its methods aren’t working. “What you have right now is a history, since 1971, of using round-ups as the sole solution,” says Greg Hendricks, who spent seven years at the BLM before joining the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC). “BLM isn’t set up to do fertility control.” Helicopters are often used in round-ups to chase herds into pens, which causes panic, injury and even death, says Hendricks. Most captured horses never return to the wild. Some are shipped to crowded pens where they are auctioned or adopted. The argument for corralling the horses is that mustangs regularly eat themselves to starvation, leaving the land barren. They graze for an average of 16 hours a day and travel wide. Yet Kate Wall at the International Fund for Animal Welfare says there is no evidence that the horses starve. What’s more, they also have a high reproduction rate, which suggests they are thriving. Herds can double in just three years, so regular thinning makes sense. But it isn’t easy or cheap – in 2020, the programme’s budget was $101 million. Doug Furtado, the BLM’s district manager in Battle Mountain, Nevada, says the aim of round-ups is to “protect the range from the deterioration associated with overpopulation”. Horses and burros really are hard on the land – I could easily see that in the deep hoof prints and chunks of grass they regularly kick up – but a recent research review found that this isn’t all bad. One benefit of burros are the small wells created when they dig and tap into desert springs for a drink, which are also used by other species.
12-11-20 Using comb-shaped teeth, Baikal seals feed on tiny crustaceans like whales do
In Siberia, the freshwater mammals expertly hunt macaroni-sized amphipods. Baikal seals are fans of bite-sized portions, and this dietary quirk may be why the seals are thriving. Found in Russia’s immense Lake Baikal, the Siberian mammals devour tiny marine crustaceans, likely using comblike teeth in a manner similar to how baleen whales feed, a new study finds. The research suggests that Baikal seals (Pusa sibirica) use a combination of special teeth, speed and skill to gobble up dozens of inch-long critters called amphipods on a single dive, scientists report November 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Typically, seals eat fish and mollusks, though some southern seals, like crabeater seals (Lobodon carcinophaga), are honed eaters of krill, another type of small crustacean. For the Baikal seals, there may be big benefits to hunting amphipods. The crustaceans “are very predictable,” says marine biologist Yuuki Watanabe at the National Institute of Polar Research in Tokyo. “They form big aggregations, and they come to the surface in the nighttime.” Exploiting such a dependable food source low in the food chain, Watanabe says, may make Baikal seals more resilient than other seals to human-driven environmental impacts such as warming temperatures (SN: 5/1/17). As many as 115,000 P. sibirica seals populate Lake Baikal, and the species is listed as “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This is far more abundant than seals in similar lake habitats — like the ringed seals of Lake Ladoga in northwestern Russia and Lake Saimaa in Finland, which together number a few thousand. Watanabe has studied Baikal seals since 2003. Back then, he had evidence from depth-measuring devices mounted on the seals that showed that they reliably shifted their diving depths through the night, suggesting the animals might be following a particular food source.
12-11-20 A highly contagious face cancer may not wipe out Tasmanian devils after all
Devil facial tumor disease has shifted from explosive spread to endemic. Tasmanian devils were supposed to be extinct by now. With a deadly, highly contagious face cancer tearing through devil populations, forecasts over the past decade or so spelled imminent doom for the iconic marsupial. Only 25,000 or so devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) remain, down from about 150,000 in the 1990s, but a new analysis offers hope. Devil facial tumor disease has become far less transmissible since the peak of the epidemic, suggesting it won’t wipe out the species, researchers report in the Dec. 11 issue of Science. Instead, the disease may stick around at lower levels, or “the tumor itself might eventually go extinct,” says Andrew Storfer, an evolutionary geneticist at Washington State University in Pullman. Storfer and his colleagues reconstructed the history of the tumor’s spread by analyzing changes in tumor genes that evolve in a regular, clocklike manner. Samples from 51 tumors dating back to 2003 helped calibrate this timeline. Though the disease was discovered in 1996 (SN: 3/11/13), the study found that it probably originated years earlier, in the ‘80s, slowly circulating at first. At its peak in the late ‘90s, each afflicted devil was infecting 3.5 other devils, on average, usually through biting. Recently, that number has fallen to one, suggesting the epidemic may peter out. The slowdown may stem from population decline — fewer devils means fewer transmission opportunities for a disease that spreads fastest within dense groups. Additionally, the tumor itself might have become less transmissible; the researchers identified some genes that could underlie this shift. Finally, the devils themselves seem to have evolved resistance to the disease (SN: 8/30/16).
12-10-20 'New' whale species seen off Mexican coast
Three whales spotted off the coast off Mexico are thought to be a previously unknown species. Researchers found the mammals while tracking beaked whales near the San Benito Islands in November. Jay Barlow, a marine mammal biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, said they did not realise their discovery until later when studying photos. The scientists are now awaiting the DNA analysis of water samples that could hold skin cells for possible DNA testing to confirm whether the whales are a new species. If confirmed, it would bring the number of known beaked whale species to 24.
12-10-20 Extinction: Conservation success set against 31 lost species
The European bison has moved a step back from the brink of extinction, according to an update of the official extinction list. Europe's largest land mammal was almost wiped out by hunting and deforestation a century ago, but numbers have now risen to over 6,000 in wild herds across the continent. The recovery is regarded as a "conservation success" story. But 31 species of plants and animals have gone extinct in the latest tally. They include frogs, fish, several plants and a bat. The extinction list by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation for Nature) assesses the survival prospects of plants, animals and fungi. In the third and final update for this year, Dr Bruno Oberle, director general of the IUCN, said the recovery of the European bison and 25 other species demonstrated "the power of conservation". But the growing list of extinct species "is a stark reminder that conservation efforts must urgently expand", he added. The IUCN has now assessed almost 130,000 species of plants and animals, of which more than a quarter are threatened with extinction. In the latest update of the "RedList", there is good news and bad news for a range of mammals, birds and amphibians. Despite good news for animals such as the European bison, a total of 31 species have been declared extinct, including three frogs of Central America, 17 freshwater fish of the Philippines, the Lord Howe long-eared bat and 11 plant species. The frogs have been hit by a deadly fungal disease, while the fish have disappeared due to predation by introduced species and over-fishing. A dolphin found in the Amazon river, the tucuxi, has been classed as endangered. All the world's freshwater dolphins are now threatened. The small grey dolphin is in trouble due to accidental capture in fishing gear, pollution and the damming of rivers. The IUCN says its survival rests on eliminating the use of gillnets - curtains of fishing net that hang in the water - and reducing the number of dams in the waters where they live. In the bird kingdom, the Andean condor, secretary bird, bateleur and martial eagle are now at high risk of extinction.
12-9-20 Asian honeybees use animal faeces to defend themselves from hornets
Asian honeybees collect animal faeces and dot the entrance of their hives with it as a defence against group attacks by giant hornets. Heather Mattila at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and her colleagues have studied the behaviour in Asian honeybees (Apis cerana) in northern Vietnam. It is the first time honeybees have been documented foraging for solids that are not plant-derived. The bees are preyed upon by giant hornets (Vespa soror), which launch group attacks that can kill thousands of worker bees, sometimes resulting in the loss of an entire colony. “If it gets bad enough, the bee colony abandons their home,” says Mattila. Asian honeybees use various defence strategies against predators, including hissing sounds, visual displays and enveloping intruders in a ball of bees until they overheat. The researchers observed three apiaries and found that the honeybees collected small balls from piles of animal dung – from chickens, pigs, cows and water buffalo – placed near the colonies. The bees transported the dung in their mouthparts and applied it to spots close to the entrance to their hives. The behaviour occurred after visits or attacks by giant hornets and continued for days afterwards even if the hornets didn’t return. Visits from Vespa velutina hornets – a smaller species that kill individual bees but don’t attack en masse – didn’t elicit the behaviour. Moderate and heavy deposits of faeces at hive entrances lowered the incidence of group attacks by giant hornets and reduced the chances of the hornets chewing on the entrances to create larger openings. The team has since heard reports of the behaviour from beekeepers in other Asian countries, including those beyond where V. soror is found.
12-9-20 Contagious cancer may cause Tasmanian devils to become antisocial
A deadly cancer that develops in Tasmanian devils seems to make infected individuals less likely to interact with others, which could stop the disease from pushing these animals to extinction. The contagious cancer, known as devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), is transmitted through bites and causes tumours in the jaw. It can lead to death in less than a year. Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) are aggressive animals, often fighting for mates and food, which can exacerbate the spread of DFTD. The disease has wiped out more than 80 per cent of the population in the past 20 years. This cancer can make it difficult for Tasmanian devils to feed as the tumours tend to displace an animal’s teeth. “Animals that are diseased can isolate themselves from other individuals to conserve energy and recuperate,” says David Hamilton at University of Tasmania in Australia. To see if this affects the spread of DFTD, Hamilton and his team attached tracking collars to 22 wild Tasmanian devils and then released them into their natural habitat. The collars detect when one animal is less than 30 centimetres away from another collared animal. Prior to being collared, the Tasmanian devils were examined for symptoms of DFTD and were captured every month to monitor the prevalence of the disease and tumour growth. The team found that as their tumours grew, the infected Tasmanian devils were less likely to interact with others. “Those with very large tumours don’t come into contact and bite many other devils, so have very little opportunity to transmit the disease,” says Hamilton. Three out of 22 Tasmanian devils observed showed symptoms at the start of the study. Six months later, almost half the population was infected with DFTD. “We think that those spreading it are likely to be those in the earlier stage of infection,” Hamilton says. At that stage, devils with the tumour are still fit enough to fight and transmit the disease.
12-9-20 Little pygmy possum found on Australian island for first time since fires
Bushfires destroyed almost half the bushland on Australia’s Kangaroo Island last summer, devastating animal habitats. Ecologists feared the island’s population of little pygmy possums – the world’s smallest possum species – had been wiped out, but a new discovery has given them hope.
12-8-20 Chinstrap penguin population halved at key Antarctic breeding area
The first comprehensive survey of a key Antarctic penguin breeding area in 50 years has revealed a drastic decline in the population of chinstrap penguins. In January and February 2020, Noah Strycker at Stony Brook University in New York and his colleagues carried out a census of penguin populations on Elephant Island, which is part of the South Shetland group of Antarctic islands. They found that the population of chinstrap penguins on the island has declined by 57 per cent since the last complete survey conducted in 1970–71. “This particular region, the Western Antarctic peninsula, has warmed up disproportionately in the past several decades,” says Strycker. “We’re starting to see changes that are probably associated with that warming trend, both environmentally and in terms of the populations of the animals that live there.” The researchers spent 12 days surveying penguin populations, both on the ground on Elephant Island and using drones. They identified 53,087 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins at 29 breeding locations, which the animals return to each year. The population of other penguin species, however, has increased: gentoo penguins on the island have doubled in number since 1970, and the team also found more king penguins than in the previous survey. Both these species are also found in sub-Antarctic regions farther north. “As things warm up and there’s less ice around, they can still survive and find the food that they need, so they are expanding southward,” says Strycker. “Unlike the other penguin species, Elephant Island is the core stronghold of the chinstrap penguin’s range,” says Strycker. While chinstrap penguins are still the predominant species on the island, the declining population may presage changes that could be seen farther south with ongoing warming.
12-8-20 Giant pandas may roll in horse poop to feel warm
Explaining the gross behavior was an epic scientific journey. It was a strange sight: In the winter of 2007, scientists in China spotted a wild giant panda romping about in horse manure, diligently smearing itself with excrement until its fur became a poo-muddled mess. It wasn’t the last time the researchers would spot this strange behavior. But figuring out why pandas do this would take the team 12 years and a scientific trek through the fields of animal behavior, chemical ecology and neurophysiology. But now, researchers think they have an answer. Pandas may roll in poop, oddly enough, to feel warm. Researchers identified a chemical present in horse droppings that confers cold resistance to laboratory mice and could inhibit a cold-sensing protein present in giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), they report December 7 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “I’m a panda expert, and this is one of the strangest panda papers I’ve ever read,” says Bill McShea, a biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but these researchers deserve a lot of credit.” Students of Fuwen Wei, an ecologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, first glimpsed the bizarre behavior deep in the Qinling mountains of central China. The region is crisscrossed by ancient trade routes well-trod by horses, so the researchers say horse manure may have been common. Rolling around in poop isn’t unheard of among animals — consider the dog. But many mammals actively avoid the fecal matter of other individuals and species, as poop can harbor pathogens and parasites, says Cécile Sarabian, a cognitive ecologist at Kyoto University in Japan who wasn’t involved in the study. “Behavior is a story of compromises,” she says. “In this case, the benefits of getting in contact with fresh horse manure may override the [potential] risks.”
12-3-20 Animal crossing for Utah wildlife is 'working'
An overpass built especially for wildlife in Utah is proving to be a success, according to officials. The bridge was constructed to help animals cross between two mountains, while avoiding potentially dangerous traffic on the highway below. Deer, bears and moose are among the "long list" of creatures that have been spotted using the connection since it opened two years ago.
12-2-20 Orca deaths found to be a result of human activity
Humans are often implicated in orca deaths. Now a team that looked at how orcas in the Pacific Ocean died has linked some deaths with human activity.O Despite commonly being called killer whales, orcas are actually dolphins. Stephen Raverty at the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture in Canada and colleagues examined 53 orcas that washed up from the eastern Pacific Ocean between 2004 and 2013 to determine what led to their deaths. The team was able to identify the cause for 22 individuals. One calf died of sepsis after swallowing a large fishhook that pierced its throat, while six of the animals were struck by ships before dying and a further three had traumatic injuries that couldn’t be traced. According to Raverty, in one case an animal was observed approaching a ship and died after being struck by the propeller. Some orcas in the study died from infections, parasites, congenital anomalies and reproductive disease. Malnutrition contributed to several of the orcas’ deaths, with many appearing very thin or emaciated and presenting with a condition called “peanut head”, where there is a loss of fat from around the back of the head. Malnutrition could be a result of human activity. Overfishing and climate change can reduce the amount of food orcas can access. Pollution can also build up in the orcas’ bodies and weaken their immune systems. “With killer whales living in every ocean from Arctic to Antarctic waters, it is hard to generalise but we can say that the greatest threat to wild orca health is simply proximity to humans,” says Erich Hoyt, co-chair of the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force.
12-1-20 Rocking flies with a vibrating lullaby helps them sleep for longer
Fruit flies that are lulled by gentle vibrations while they fall asleep snooze for longer, a finding that could explain why babies like to be rocked or why people nod off in the car. Kyunghee Koh at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and her colleagues wanted to study how fruit flies respond to different stimuli when falling asleep. In a number of experiments, they placed between 30 and 100 flies above a loudspeaker and used it to vibrate them for up to a day at a range of frequencies while observing their sleeping patterns. Initially, the flies were very active and moved around a lot more as they were vibrated. “They are probably wondering ‘what is this sound?’” says Koh. But with repetition, they soon learned the movement wasn’t threatening, lowering their levels of alertness. “That lack of alertness leads to drowsiness and sleep,” says Koh. The flies slept for longer, and when the team shone a bright light at the sleeping flies, the ones that had been vibrated were less responsive. “They are harder to wake up, so it probably means they are in a deeper state of sleep,” says Koh. The team then removed the antennae from some fruit flies to understand which organs are responsible for the deeper sleep. Antennae detect vibration and the flies that had them removed didn’t fall asleep during the experiment, probably because they were unable to detect the movement. The biological mechanisms responsible for the soporific effects of vibration are largely unknown, both in humans and flies. Koh’s team is now looking to investigate if other repeated stimuli could induce the same response, including sight and smell. We could then use these sleep induction methods to promote or even prevent sleep in humans, says Joerg Albert at University College London.