3-31-21 Weather radar shows 30 metric tons of grasshoppers swarmed Las Vegas one night
The most intensely lit U.S. city shows the impact of artificial light on insects on a megascale. The dazzling lights of Las Vegas are meant to attract. And on one summer night, they did just that, luring millions of grasshoppers— a whopping 30.2 metric tons’ worth. That insect cloud gives us the first numbers for the size of artificial light’s impact on insects at such a large scale, says Elske Tielens, an ecologist at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. That dramatic night, July 27, 2019, marked the peak of weeks of grasshoppers taking to the air after dark and, like moths bewitched by a porchlight, filling the brightly lit streets of the most intensely illuminated city in the United States. The spectacle made international news. Just how big was it, Tielens and her colleagues wondered. They got to work, using Nevada weather-prediction radar data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration archives to study the horde of hard-to-count insects. These weren’t the fabled locust species that switch from a solitary phase to a physically distinct gregarious one that travels in great clouds eating plants down to the nubs (SN: 11/26/18; SN: 8/12/20). Instead they were pallid-winged grasshoppers (Trimerotropis pallidipennis) that had survived in unusual numbers after a generous, moist start of the year. When the grasshoppers lifted up from the ground after dusk, the radar bounced off the loose mass of flying insects as it would any rain droplets and ice crystals. To predict the weather, “we filter out the biology,” Tielens says. For insect censusing, “we filter out all the ‘boring’ water drops and clouds.” Each grasshopper weighs only about two-thirds of a gram, she and colleagues note March 31 in Biology Letters. So once the radar let the team determine the numbers, it estimated the total weight. “It’s a little dumbfounding to try to comprehend more than 45 million grasshoppers,” she says.
3-31-21 Dazzling underwater photos capture new views and scientific detail of fish larvae
Larvae that look drab in the lab turn out to have brilliant colors and intricate body parts. The open ocean is a veritable soup of tiny critters, including newborn fishes. It’s hard to learn about them, though, because they are mere millimeters long and semitransparent. When netted from research vessels, their delicate body parts may get mashed or removed. Now, a partnership between scientists and scuba divers is giving researchers fresh perspectives on the secrets of larval fishes. Underwater photos taken at night — when larval fishes migrate to within 200 meters of the ocean surface — reveal colors, body structures and behaviors that could never be seen in preserved specimens. Examining those same fishes back in the lab lets ichthyologists match the photographed larval fishes to known species, researchers report March 30 in Ichthyology & Herpetology. Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hatched a collaboration in 2016 with blackwater divers — who enter the ocean in the dark of night — to photograph larval fishes and collect them as specimens. With lights in hand, divers Jeff Milisen and Sarah Mayte snapped up-close photos of nearly 80 larval fishes, then gingerly captured and shipped them to scientists to be studied alongside their mugshots. “Fish larvae that looked utterly drab as specimens have turned out to have brilliantly colored markings and fantastic structures,” says Ai Nonaka, a larval fish expert at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Specialists like Nonaka sort out larval fish identities by looking at body shapes and minuscule features through microscopes and by analyzing DNA of larval tissue. Unlike their swimming parents, fish larvae drift on currents, and their strange body parts — adaptations for a drifting lifestyle — make larvae look nothing like adults.
3-31-21 Vampire bats might avoid bitter substances to dodge indigestion
Vampire bats can’t taste sweet foods, but they can taste some bitter substances – and doing so may even be beneficial. During their evolution, vampire bats lost their receptors for detecting sweet tastes. That is probably because they didn’t need them, says Maik Behrens at the Leibniz-Institute for Food Systems Biology at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. Unlike fruit bats, for example, they don’t eat sweet-tasting foods. The bats also lost most of their receptors for bitter tastes, but not all of them. Behrens and his colleague Florian Ziegler, also at the Leibniz-Institute for Food Systems Biology, wanted to know why vampire bats still retain some ability to detect bitter-tasting foods. To investigate, they conducted experiments to see exactly which kinds of bitter-tasting chemicals vampire bats could detect. The common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) has three bitter taste receptors; Behrens and Ziegler inserted DNA sequences for producing each one into human kidney cell cultures – which are often used for studying taste – and grew them in the lab. Then they added small amounts of bitter chemicals to the cultures and measured the cells’ responses to work out which chemicals activated the receptors, as well as to establish their sensitivity to each substance. Some of the compounds that the bat receptors picked up, like artemisinin and quinine, are found in plants, says Behrens. Since vampire bats don’t eat plants, it is possible that these receptors are just inherited from a bat ancestor that did eat the occasional plant, perhaps as part of a diet comprised largely of insects. However, Behrens and Ziegler also found that one of the taste receptors detected metal ions, such as those in magnesium sulphate, known commonly as Epsom salt. This chemical can occur in mineral water, like the volcanic springs in Cauca valley, Colombia, where common vampire bats live.
3-29-21 Nearly 500 bee species are thriving in a small patch of US desert
There are about 20,000 known species of bee on the planet, and nowhere else is this diversity more concentrated than in southern Arizona along the US-Mexico border. Hundreds of bee species can be found in a patch of desert there about the size of Heathrow airport, meaning it has the world’s densest aggregation of bee species yet measured. Unlike plants and many other organisms that see the highest diversity in the tropics, bees seem be most diverse in warm, dry regions around the globe. So when Robert Minckley at the University of Rochester in New York had the opportunity to study bee populations in the Chihuahuan desert at the US-Mexico border, one of his main goals was simply to count how many species were there. Minckley and his colleagues targeted a site straddling the border, composed of a former cattle ranch in the Mexican state of Sonora and the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. From 2001 through to 2008, the researchers collected bees by leaving out traps in the desert scrub, then later identified the species. Out of tens of thousands of individual bees, Minckley and his team counted 473 species from a 16-square-kilometre area. “That’s a tremendous number of bees,” says Minckley. The researchers estimate that 14 per cent of all North American bee species found north of the US-Mexico border call this region home, the vast majority of which live solitary lives and nest in the ground. Some other locations in the US have logged more bee species, says Minckley, but these are in national parks, which are far larger, more environmentally variable regions thanks to bigger changes in elevation and habitat across their massive landscapes. The researchers’ site at the border is a more homogeneous environment, fluctuating by only 120 meters in elevation, and is mostly home to creosote bush, mesquite and cactus plants. The next highest concentration of bee species in the US is found in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which has a much greater diversity of vegetation zones, including pinyon-juniper woodland and coniferous forests.
3-29-21 How kelp forests off California are responding to an urchin takeover
95 percent of northern coast forests have been lost, but sea otters are helping farther south. Joshua Smith has been diving in kelp forests in Monterey Bay along the central coast of California since 2012. Back then, he says, things looked very different. Being underwater was like being in a redwood forest, where the kelp was like “towering tall cathedrals,” says Smith, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Their tops were so lush that it was hard to maneuver a boat across them. No longer. The once expansive kelp forests are now a mosaic of thinner thickets interspersed with barrens colonized by sea urchins. And those sea urchins have so little to eat, they aren’t even worth the effort of hungry sea otters — which usually keep urchins in check and help keep kelp forests healthy, Smith and his colleagues report March 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A similar scene is playing out farther north. A thick kelp forest once stretched 350 kilometers along the northern California coast. More than 95 percent of it has vanished since 2014, satellite imagery shows. Once covering about 210 hectares on average, those forests have been reduced to a mere 10 hectares scattered among a few small patches, Meredith McPherson, a marine biologist also at UC Santa Cruz, and her colleagues report March 5 in Communications Biology. Like the barrens farther south, the remaining forests are now covered by purple sea urchins. Together, the two studies reveal the devastation of these once resilient ecosystems. But a deeper dive into the cascading effects of this loss may also provide clues to how at least some of these forests can bounce back. California’s kelp forests, which provide a rich habitat for marine organisms, got hit by a double whammy of ecological disasters in the past decade, says UC Santa Cruz ecologist Mark Carr. He is a coauthor on the Communications Biology paper who has mentored both McPherson and Smith.
3-29-21 Galápagos tortoises: 185 babies seized from smugglers
Customs officials in Ecuador discovered 185 baby tortoises packed inside a suitcase that was being sent from the Galápagos Islands to the mainland on Sunday. The reptiles had been wrapped in plastic and were found during a routine inspection at the main airport on the island of Baltra. Ten of them had died, officials said. One of the biggest threats to Galápagos tortoises is illegal trading for animal collectors and exotic pet markets. The tortoises seized at the airport on Baltra are thought to be less than three months old. Officials combatting wildlife trafficking say hatchling-sized juveniles can fetch sums of more than $5,000 (£3,600) per animal. It is believed the smugglers wrapped the tortoises in plastic to immobilise them but the X-ray machine's operator at the airport nevertheless grew suspicious. The suitcase had been posted at the airport by a transport firm and was said to contain "souvenirs", a statement from the airport said. No arrests have been made so far but employees of the transport firm who had checked in the suitcase were held for questioning, according to the statement. Ecuador's environment minister, Marcelo Mata, described the incident as a crime against the country's wild fauna and natural heritage. Many plants and animals found on the Galápagos are unique to the islands, which lie in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000km (600 miles) off the coast of Ecuador. Among the most famous are the Galápagos giant tortoises, which are thought to have arrived on the volcanic islands between three and four million years ago. The sentence for smuggling animals from the Galápagos is one to three years in prison.
3-26-21 Octopus sleep includes a frenzied, colorful, ‘active’ stage
Cephalopod snoozing is mostly quiet with brief bursts of REM-like activity. Octopuses cycle through two stages of slumber, a new study reports. First comes quiet sleep, and then a shift to a twitchy, active sleep in which vibrant colors flash across the animals’ skin. These details, gleaned from four snoozing cephalopods in a lab in a Brazil, may provide clues to a big scientific mystery: Why do animals sleep? Sleep is so important that every animal seems to have a version of it, says Philippe Mourrain, a neurobiologist at Stanford University who recently described the sleep stages of fish (SN: 7/10/19). Scientists have also catalogued sleep in reptiles, birds, amphibians, bees, mammals and jellyfish, to name a few. “So far, we have not found a single species that does not sleep,” says Mourrain, who was not involved in the new study. Cephalopod neuroscientist and diver Sylvia Medeiros caught four wild octopuses, Octopus insularis, and brought them temporarily into a lab at the Brain Institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Natal, Brazil. After tucking the animals away in a quiet area, she began to carefully record their behavior during the day, when octopuses are more likely to rest. Two distinct states emerged, she and her colleagues report March 25 in iScience. In the first, called quiet sleep, the octopuses are pale and motionless with the pupils of their eyes narrowed to slits. Active sleep comes next. Eyes dart around, suckers contract, muscles twitch, skin textures change and, most dramatically, bright colors race across octopuses’ bodies. This wild sleep is rhythmic, happening every half an hour or so, and brief; it’s over after about 40 seconds. Active sleep is also rare; the octopuses spent less than 1 percent of their days in active sleep, the researchers found.
3-26-21 A plant gene may have helped whiteflies become a major pest
The gene lets the insects neutralize toxins that plants use for defense. At some point between 35 million and 80 million years ago, a whitefly landed on a leaf and started sucking its sweet sap. That fateful meal provided more than sugar. Somehow, a gene from the plant wound its way into the whitefly’s genome, a new study suggests, and may have helped its ancestors become one of the most notorious agricultural pests today. The gene helps plants neutralize and safely store certain toxic molecules they use to deter herbivores. In whiteflies (Bemisia tabaci), it allows the insects to feed on flora, undeterred by one of the plant world’s best chemical weapons, researchers report March 25 in Cell. This plant-to-insect gene swap is the second ever documented, and the clearest example of an insect effectively commandeering the genetic toolkit of their “prey” to use it against them. “Ten or 20 years ago no one thought that this kind of gene transfer was possible,” says Roy Kirsch, a chemical ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, who wasn’t involved in the study. “There are so many barriers a gene must overcome to move from a plant to an insect, but this study clearly shows that it happened, and that the gene provides a benefit to whiteflies.” Gene swapping is common among bacteria (SN: 10/31/11), and occasionally happens between gut microbes and their animal hosts. Known as horizontal gene transfer, this process allows organisms to bypass the plodding nature of parent-to-offspring inheritance and instantly acquire genes shaped by generations of natural selection. But a genetic jump from plants to insects, lineages separated by at least a billion years of evolution, has been documented only once before, also in whiteflies.
3-26-21 A gene defect may make rabbits do handstands instead of hop
To move quickly, some rabbits throw up their back legs and walk on their front paws. One defective gene might turn some bunnies’ hops into handstands, a new study suggests. To move quickly, a breed of domesticated rabbit called sauteur d’Alfort sends its back legs sky high and walks on its front paws. That strange gait may be the result of a gene tied to limb movement, researchers report March 25 in PLOS Genetics. Sauteur d’Alfort rabbits aren’t the only animal to adopt an odd scamper if there’s a mutation to this gene, known as RORB. Mice with a mutation to the gene also do handstands if they start to run, says Stephanie Koch, a neuroscientist at University College London who was not involved with the rabbit work. And even while walking, the mice hike their back legs up to waddle forward, almost like a duck. “I spent four years looking at these mice doing little handstands, and now I get to see a rabbit do the same handstand,” says Koch, who led a 2017 study published in Neuron that explored the mechanism behind the “duck gait” in mice. “It’s amazing.” Understanding why the rabbits move in such a strange way could help researchers learn more about how the spinal cord works. The study is “contributing to our basic knowledge about a very important function in humans and all animals — how we are able to move,” says Leif Andersson, a molecular geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden. In the rabbit study, Andersson and colleagues bred hop-less sauteur d’Alfort male rabbits with New Zealand white female rabbits that can hop. The team then scanned the genetic blueprints of the offspring that couldn’t hop and looked for mutations that didn’t appear in offspring that could. A mutation in the RORB gene popped up as a likely candidate for the rabbits’ acrobatic handstands. That change creates faulty versions of the genetic instructions that cells use to make proteins, the researchers found. As a result, there appears to be less of the RORB protein in specialized nerve cells in rabbits that have the mutation compared with rabbits that don’t.
3-26-21 A toxin behind mysterious eagle die-offs may have finally been found
A 20-year search of water weeds and cyanobacteria has turned up a bird-killing toxin. Mysterious deaths of bald eagles, mallards and other lake life in the southeastern United States have puzzled scientists for more than 20 years. After a long slog exploring the quirks of cyanobacteria gluing themselves to an invasive water weed, a research team has found a toxin that could be the culprit. And it’s an odd one, the team reports March 26 in Science. Nicknamed AETX, the toxin has an unusual chemical structure requiring building blocks rich in the element bromine, says Susan Wilde, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Georgia in Athens. Yet those bromide building blocks are not routinely abundant in southern lake water. That’s where the life story of a particular water weed comes in. The mystery of the unknown toxin began at an Arkansas lake during the winter of 1994–95 with the nation’s largest unexplained die-off of bald eagles. The eagles, coots and some other birds lost their motor coordination, struggled to fly or even walk, and had seizures. Checking the ill animals’ brains revealed swathes of unnatural microscopic holes, or vacuoles. By 1998, six states had confirmed bird die-offs with the same disease, now called VM, short for vacuolar myelinopathy. Wilde noticed that lakes with die-offs grew dense expanses of the green bottlebrush-shaped invasive water plant called Hydrilla verticillata. In 2001, she and several generations of students and international collaborators began a long journey of exploring whether the plants and their ride-along cyanobacteria might sometimes destroy brains. “It’s not a safe topic for a dissertation,” she warned prospective grad students. There wasn’t much money or any certainty of success. But “it’s so cool,” she remembers them saying.
3-25-21 Some rabbits walk on their front feet with their back legs in the air
Some rabbits can’t hop, and a single gene is the reason why. Mutations in this gene cause defects in the rabbits’ spinal cords, which mean they can’t coordinate their limbs well enough to perform a hop. The gene is probably crucial to other forms of locomotion in other species, says Leif Andersson at Uppsala University in Sweden. “I would expect that, if it were impaired in a human, you would also get a defect in locomotion.” Andersson and his colleagues studied a strain of domestic rabbits called sauteur d’Alfort, also known as Alfort jumping rabbits. Unlike most rabbits and other hopping animals like kangaroos, the sauteur d’Alfort bunnies can’t perform two-footed hops, known as “saltatory locomotion”. “When they walk slowly, you can’t distinguish them from a normal rabbit,” says Miguel Carneiro at the University of Porto in Portugal. But when they try to go faster by jumping, they flex their hind legs too much and at the wrong time. After their first few months of life, the rabbits learn to compensate for this by walking solely on their front legs, arching their backs to stick their hind legs into the air. The team selectively bred sauteur d’Alfort rabbits and identified a region of their genome that differed from that of other rabbits. This region contained 21 protein-coding genes. The researchers then sequenced those genes and compared them with their counterparts in other types of rabbit. They soon homed in on a mutation in a gene called RORB. “This was the only mutation that stood out as really striking,” says Andersson. RORB is crucial for the formation of spinal cord neurons that link the left and right sides of the body, which are essential for coordinating limb movements. The team found that these body-crossing neurons didn’t form properly in newborn sauteur d’Alfort rabbits.
3-25-21 Mysterious death of bald eagles in US explained by bromide poisoning
We may have an explanation for the mysterious death of hundreds of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) across the south-eastern US. They may have ingested bromide-laced prey plucked from lakes, although the source of the bromide is unclear. In 1994, dozens of bald eagles died in Arkansas. Since then, nearly 200 others – all living near artificial lakes from Texas to the Carolinas – have been diagnosed with vacuolar myelinopathy, which creates holes in the brain and spinal cord. Eagles with the condition have crashed into cliffs or starved as they lost control of their wings and other bodily movements, says Timo Niedermeyer at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. US researchers have long suspected a connection with water-thyme (Hydrilla verticillata), a fast-growing underwater weed, and the slimy blue-green algae – technically cyanobacteria – that covers it. They noticed that fish and water birds became weak and uncoordinated after consuming the weed and that eagles were eating this contaminated prey as it was easy to catch. Susan Wilde at the University of Georgia sequenced the cyanobacteria’s DNA and named the new species Aetokthonos hydrillicola, meaning “eagle killer living on water-thyme”. Despite their suspicions, though, Wilde’s team couldn’t find the poison in the cyanobacteria. So she sent samples to Niedermeyer, whose team grew the cyanobacteria in their specialised laboratory. But when the researchers fed their lab-grown cyanobacteria to chickens, the birds stayed healthy. “This was a huge setback,” he says. Undeterred, Niedermeyer studied cyanobacteria samples from Wilde’s team again, using a more advanced technique – atmospheric pressure matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionisation mass spectrometry – and, this time, he found an unexpected ingredient: bromine.
3-25-21 Plant gene has naturally crossed into insects – and helps them feed
One species of whitefly, an aphid-like insect, has incorporated a portion of plant DNA into its genome that protects it from leaf toxins. It seems to be the first known example of so-called horizontal gene transfer between a plant and insect in which the transferred genetic material performs a useful function. While sequencing the genome of the silverleaf whitefly (Bemisia tabaci), Ted Turlings at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland and his colleagues discovered a gene known as BtPMaT1, which is found in plants but never previously seen in insects. This gene may have an important function in plants. The plants generate toxins to defend themselves from attack by animals. The team suspects that the BtPMaT1 gene may help plants store these toxins in a harmless form so the plants don’t poison themselves. Similarly, the gene may help the whitefly avoid being poisoned when it eats the plant. Turlings says the gene transfer event occurred between 35 million and 80 million years ago, when the sweet potato whitefly and other whitefly species that lack the gene split from a common ancestor. The gene transfer event may have involved viruses that cause disease in plants and are transmitted via the whiteflies. Some DNA from a plant may have been taken up by a virus, transmitted to the whiteflies and then subsequently assimilated into the insects’ genomes. “[Some] viruses basically incorporate their own genome into the cells of their hosts,” says Turlings. The research suggests that the extent to which horizontal gene transfer occurs in nature is probably underestimated, says Caitlin Byrt at the Australian National University in Canberra. “What this shows is that where there’s a really strong pressure for survival on an organism, it can actually borrow genetic information that helps it do that from other organisms,” says Byrt.
3-25-21 Both species of African elephants are now officially endangered
Poachers killing Africa’s elephants for ivory have brought them to the brink of extinction, with the continent’s two species today officially classified as endangered for the first time. “It’s an important moment, it’s a serious moment,” says Kathleen Gobush at US-based non-profit Defenders of Wildlife, who is a member of the African Elephant Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN now lists African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) as critically endangered – the final step before being extinct in the wild – and the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) as endangered. Both were previously considered vulnerable, one level down from endangered. The Red List assessment by the IUCN is the first since Africa’s elephants were deemed to be two distinct species, following mounting genetic evidence gathered in the past decade. Forest elephant numbers have dropped by at least 86 per cent between 1984 and 2015, and their savannah cousins by 60 per cent between 1965 and 2015, according to data from 495 sites. There are thought to be around 415,000 African elephants left in total. That may sound a lot, but risk of extinction is measured by the speed of declines. The main reason Africa’s elephants are on the verge of vanishing is the ongoing illegal wildlife trade, particularly to fuel demand in South-East Asia. While poaching peaked in 2011, it hasn’t stopped. “Poaching is a threat to the animals across their range and in some areas more than others. It’s still a concern. It’s still unsustainable in many areas,” says Gobush. Demand from South-East Asia for elephant tusks isn’t the only pressure on the animals. Growing human populations are also driving habitat loss and degradation. Botswana and Gabon are two bright spots where political will, conservation funding and less dense human populations mean elephant numbers are either stable or growing.
3-25-21 Extinction: Elephants driven to the brink by poaching
The ivory trade, loss of vital habitat and a deeper understanding of elephant biology have all combined to reveal a previously underestimated threat to Africa's elephants. African forest elephants are now critically endangered, an update from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reveals. Savanna elephants are also endangered. And "declines over decades" have driven the species into the two highest categories of extinction threat. African elephants were previously assessed as one species on the IUCN's Red List. Genetic evidence showed them to be two distinct species more than a decade ago. But accurate assessments - of populations, trends in their numbers and the threats they face - take many years. The IUCN estimates 415,000 elephants remain in Africa. But the number of forest elephants fell by more than 86% during the past three decades. In addition, the number of savanna elephants fell by at least 60% over the past 50 years. Dr Ben Okita, who co-chairs the IUCN elephant specialist group, called the latest assessment an "alarm bell". Despite peaking in 2011, poaching for ivory remained a "significant driver" of the decline, he told BBC News. "It is one of the major causes," he said. "But there's another silent killer that requires a very high level of attention - that's land degradation and fragmentation. "It is a big challenge for species that require very large areas and that move long distances. "Wild animals do not know international borders. "So to turn things around, we have to have co-operation across those borders and to plan for better land use. Where animals share that land, Dr Okita explained, it is important to use it in a way that is compatible for them. "I know the will is there with African governments and with the communities that live alongside these animals," Dr Okita explained. "So we just need to make it happen. "I am optimistic, very optimistic, that we can turn things around."
3-25-21 DNA suggests Australia isn’t losing its iconic dingo to interbreeding
Most of the wild canines in Australia are dingoes, and interbreeding between dogs and dingoes is rare – laying to rest concerns that dingoes are virtually extinct in the wild. Kylie Cairns at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and her colleagues have found that populations of dingoes (Canis familiaris dingo) in northern, western and central Australia are largely free from domestic dog (Canis familiaris) DNA. The team collated genetic samples from previously published data sets, as well as adding 611 new samples of DNA from their own survey, then analysed these samples using 23 genetic markers that distinguish dingoes from domestic dogs. Of DNA collected from 5039 animals, the team found that only 31 samples belonged to feral dogs, and 27 belonged to first-generation dingo-dog hybrids. “Whilst there has been hybridisation in the past, and there is certainly dog ancestry in the population, particularly in New South Wales, Victoria and southern Queensland, it doesn’t seem to be diluting out the dingo-like identity,” says Cairns. Despite having a common ancestor, dingoes and dogs are distinctly different. “That’s because they have been isolated as a population for at least the past 5000 years in Australia, but possibly up to 10,000 years,” says Cairns. Interbreeding between the two seems relatively infrequent, but the drivers for it shouldn’t be overlooked, says Cairns. “Canines are quite unique in that when the different species hybridise, the offspring are generally fertile,” says Cairns. This is true for wolf-coyote hybrids in north America, as well as dingo-dog hybrids. Cairns suggests her research also points to the need to reconsider what the term “wild dog” means in Australia. “When we use the term wild dog, a lot of people understand that to mean roaming or feral pet dogs,” says Cairns. “That is not what we’re seeing.” Most of the animals were either pure dingo or canines with mostly dingo ancestry.
3-25-21 Octopuses may be able to dream and change colour when sleeping
Octopuses change colour when they sleep, and it might be because they are dreaming. Sidarta Ribeiro at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Natal, Brazil, and his colleagues have found that octopuses go through two distinct stages of sleep – active and passive. The researchers recorded four common octopuses (Octopus vulgaris) in the laboratory over several day and night periods, amassing more than 180 hours of footage. During the day, the animals slept for more than half the time, says Ribeiro. “In quiet sleep they stay in the same position for long periods of time – very quiet, very pale the pupils closed – and breathe regularly in a very quiet matter,” he says. This passive sleep was punctuated every 30 to 40 minutes by a brief period of active sleep, lasting 1 to 2 minutes. In this phase, the octopuses showed changes in body colour and texture, including the protrusion of fine bumps on their skin known as papillae. The animals’ eyes and arms also moved, their suckers contracting. “It’s clearly a very active state,” says Ribeiro. The team tested whether the octopuses were truly asleep in this state by presenting them with a video of some crabs. “When we stimulated the animal with visual or vibratory stimuli, they did not react,” says Ribeiro – in marked contrast with their responses when awake. A similar pattern of sleep occurs in birds and reptiles, and the researchers suggest that the active sleep state in octopuses might be analogous to REM sleep in mammals – the phase in which we dream the most. “If the octopus is having something like a dream, it’s probably a very short behavioural sequence, it’s not a narrative,” says Ribeiro. “Whether they are having some sort of inner life with a narrative about themselves… we don’t know.”
3-24-21 Bees have higher brain cell density than birds – but ants don’t
Many bees have a brain cell density greater than that of small birds – but most ant brains contain a far lower density of neurons. The difference may be down to the insects’ lifestyles: because bees fly, they may need more brain cells than ants do in order to process visual information. Scientists have already compared the size and weight of various insects’ brains, which contain independent specialised regions to process visual information, sounds, smells and even memories. But brain size, whether in insects or vertebrate animals like birds and mammals, doesn’t always give a realistic idea of brain power. This is because some animals – especially flying ones like birds that would be weighed down by a large and heavy brain – have many neurons compacted into a smaller space, making the cell density higher. Rebekah Keating Godfrey at the University of Arizona and her colleagues studied insect brains using a recently developed technique for counting brain cells. They removed the brains of 450 insects belonging to 32 different species, including bees, wasps, ants and a species of fly. Each brain was ground up and soaked in a solution that frees the nucleus of each brain cell. Then the researchers added a dye that makes those nuclei fluoresce, allowing them to count the number of nuclei in a small sample under a special “epifluorescence” microscope using ultraviolet light. From that number, they could estimate the number of neurons in the animal’s entire brain. The researchers found that some of the bees – in particular, the metallic green sweat bee (in the genus Augochlorella) – had very high numbers of neurons for their brain sizes: about 2 million per milligram. This is higher even than those seen in the neuron-rich cerebellums of many birds: the goldcrest (Regulus regulus), for example, has 490,000 cells per milligram./p>
3-24-21 Dim lighting may raise the risk of a West Nile virus exposure
Sentinel chickens got the most West Nile virus exposures in low-light areas. Don’t dim the lights. A survey using more than 6,000 chickens across Florida shows that low levels of light pollution may increase the risk for West Nile virus exposure, researchers report March 24 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Meredith Kernbach, a disease ecologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa, had previously shown that low light at night increased the time that sparrows infected with West Nile were capable of passing on the disease (SN: 1/19/18). She and her colleagues wanted to know if light pollution might also increase the disease’s natural spread in the suburbs. Cue the sentinel chickens (SN: 4/9/19). The team coupled four years of data from these chickens, kept in coops across the state to monitor the spread of diseases, with a world atlas of artificial night sky brightness. Chickens tested positive for antibodies to West Nile virus more often when there was a little bit of light than in bright light or no light at all, the data showed. “Where there’s no light pollution, there’s very low exposure risk,” Kernbach says. “And then as you move into these areas of dim light pollution, the exposure risk goes way up.” In bright areas, risk drops again. Those dimly lit areas correspond to suburbs and some rural areas, Kernbach says. Obviously, chickens getting mosquito bites aren’t humans getting West Nile virus. But the findings could help explain why West Nile virus, the most common mosquito-borne disease in the continental United States, is so closely associated with human environments. The researchers showed sky brightness was a better predictor of West Nile exposure than human density or paved surfaces — two other environmental factors thought to predict spread. But this study has only begun to shed light on why this happens, Kernbach notes. “We have a reason to look at this now and …understand what is it about light pollution that’s driving this.”
3-23-21 Why do sea turtles, penguins and sharks sometimes just swim in circles or spirals?
Certain loops are easier to explain, but others are just baffling. Marine science has its own crop circle mysteries. Sea turtles, sharks, penguins and even whales sometimes just go circular, swimming around and around in a loop or spiral. The puzzles are not whodunits so much as whydoits. “I doubted my eyes when I first saw the data,” says marine biologist Tomoko Narazaki of the University of Tokyo. A green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) she and colleagues tagged near an African island with good places for laying eggs made a total of 26 circles. The turtle turning and turning underwater swam “like a machine,” Narazaki says. When Narazaki got home and enthused to her institute colleagues, she found that they had recorded circling or spiraling bouts now and then in other marine animals. Going back more than a decade, 3-D data-logging devices fastened on 10 sea species as diverse as king penguins and a Cuvier’s beaked whale had picked up enough detail to reconstruct the animals’ circles and squiggles, Narazaki and colleagues report March 18 in iScience. It’s easy to imagine what’s going on with some of the swimmers: Tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) looping around during the deep phase of their plunges to depths near the Hawaiian Islands are probably circling in search of prey. Other researchers have found humpback whales whooshing around creating circular death traps of bubbles that keep prey in a dense, gulpable mass (SN: 11/9/19). But some acrobatics get more mysterious. The green sea turtle that amazed Narazaki was circling steadily — no lunges or exploratory side-loopings —so the researchers doubt the animal was looking for food. Narazaki saw this behavior while tracking a turtle that researchers had moved off-course on its way to lay eggs. The turtle didn’t swim bouts of repeated circles until near the inviting island. That circling may have had something to do with getting a good read on an important location, perhaps checking the geomagnetic field, the researchers propose. They note that submarines also circle as they take geomagnetic data.
3-19-21 Llamas and alpacas carry genes from mysterious ‘ghost’ relatives
Domestic llamas and alpacas carry DNA from an extinct “ghost” population of their wild camelid relatives. Furthermore, their domestication may have involved interbreeding between two different species. Domestic llamas (Lama glama) and alpacas (Vicugna pacos) were crucial for South American peoples like the Incas. But their origins are mysterious, says Paloma Fernández Diaz-Maroto at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. There are two wild South American camelids: guanacos (Lama guanicoe), which live in many habitats, and vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna), which only live high up in the mountains. Domestication was under way by 7000 years ago, but it isn’t clear which domestic species is descended from which wild species. The question has also been confounded by more recent history. “At the time of the European conquest of the Americas, there was a massive slaughter of camelids,” says Pablo Orozco-terWengel at Cardiff University in the UK. “A lot of the animals themselves died, and a lot of the people who knew how to breed them died.” As a result, people allowed a lot of interbreeding. “Today we know about 36 per cent of the DNA of alpacas is not of alpaca origin,” says Orozco-terWengel. To find out what happened, Diaz-Maroto, Orozco-terWengel and their colleagues obtained mitochondrial DNA from the remains of 61 ancient camelids from northern Chile, dated from 3500 to 2400 years ago. Mitochondrial DNA is only inherited from the mother, so it can reveal the female family line. They compared the ancient DNA with that from 66 modern South American camelids belonging to all four living lineages. Llama and alpaca mitochondrial DNA was most similar to that of guanacos, while vicuñas were different to all the others. This suggests that llamas and alpacas were domesticated from ancient female guanacos. But the analysis also shows llamas and alpacas carry some ancient guanaco DNA that doesn’t match that seen in any present-day guanaco populations. That suggests it comes from a “ghost” guanaco population that has gone extinct in the past few thousand years.
3-19-21 Two bonobos adopted infants outside their group, marking a first for great apes
The adoptive mothers fed, carried and cuddled orphan infants. Attentive parenting appears across the animal world, but adoption is rarer, especially when youngsters taken in aren’t kin. Now researchers have witnessed bonobos adopting infants from outside of their own communities. Two females, each from a different bonobo group, in the Luo Scientific Reserve in Congo took charge of orphans — grooming them, carrying them and providing food for at least a year. Two instances of adopted outsiders are known in other nonhuman primates, but this is the first time it’s been observed in great apes, researchers report March 18 in Scientific Reports. During a week when the researchers couldn’t observe the bonobos, two groups each gained an infant. One mum named Marie was already caring for two infants when she adopted Flora, identified from her facial features and color patterns as formerly part of another group. Marie carried and breastfed Flora and her youngest biological daughter and groomed all three. “She seemed to be very tired but was a great mother,” says Nahoko Tokuyama, a primatologist at Kyoto University in Japan. Sometimes Marie favored her offspring, Tokuyama says, grooming them more frequently than she did Flora. Tokuyama and her colleagues also noticed that a female bonobo named Chio, estimated to be in her mid-50s, had adopted an orphan the team dubbed Ruby. Though Chio wasn’t producing milk, she suckled Ruby. A genetic analysis showed that neither infant was maternally related to any female in their new group. Seeing caretaking beyond the group “blew me away,” says Cat Hobaiter, an ethologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who wasn’t part of the study. Chimpanzees, for example, may adopt siblings and unrelated orphans from within their clique. But chimps, who along with bonobos are humans’ closest surviving evolutionary relatives, can be hostile toward outsider infants and even kill them.
3-19-21 Horses may recognise themselves in a mirror, hinting at self-awareness
Horses seem to recognise themselves in mirrors, and they may even use the information in their reflection to recognise if their face is dirty and needs wiping clean. Eleven horses out of a group of 14 tried to rub coloured marks off their own cheeks after they discovered them in a mirror. This makes horses the only animals besides primates found to be generally capable of self-recognition in a mirror, says Paolo Baragli at the University of Pisa in Italy. Self-recognition has previously been detected in a few other species, such as elephants, bottlenose dolphins, magpies and a small fish called a cleaner wrasse. But because there were only a few animals in each of those groups that showed self-recognition, scientists couldn’t say whether the species as a whole had the capacity, says Baragli. For horses, it does seem to be a general feature, he says. Baragli and his colleagues put a large standing mirror in an indoor arena and let 14 horses loose, one at a time, in the open space. Initially, all the horses treated their reflection as though it were another horse. Some tried to play with the “other horse”, and some were afraid or even aggressive towards it, says Baragli. But after this initial reaction period, which varied considerably in its length depending on the individual animal, most horses changed their behaviour and began investigating – as though they wanted to “test” to see if the horse in the mirror was actually a reflection of themselves, says Baragli. Eleven of the horses checked behind the mirror and watched their reflections as they moved their heads around. Some even stuck out their tongues at the reflection. The researchers then used medical ultrasound gel to mark the 11 horses’ cheeks – which horses can’t see except in a reflection – with an “X”. At first, they used transparent gel, but they later added colour to the gel to make it stand out against the horse’s skin.
3-18-21 Sea turtles, sharks and king penguins swim in mysterious circles
Several marine animals, including green sea turtles, tiger sharks and Antarctic fur seals, have been observed swimming in circles, but the reason for the behaviour is a mystery. Tomoko Narazaki at the University of Tokyo in Japan unexpectedly discovered this circling behaviour while studying the navigation of green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) off the coast of Mohéli, one of the islands of Comoros in the Indian Ocean, and the Japanese island of Chichijima in the Pacific Ocean. She had been tracking the homing capabilities of green turtles when they were moved away from their breeding ground, and noticed that the tracking data showed multiple circling events when the turtles returned to the coastal waters off their nesting beaches. One turtle swam in large circles 76 times, with each loop taking 16 to 20 seconds. Initially, Narazaki thought that the tracking tag might have been broken. The tags used on these turtles had a much higher spatial resolution compared with most GPS trackers; they are able to trace animals’ 3D movements down to the metre and they update every second by recording depth, acceleration and magnetic information. Narazaki reported her findings to colleagues who use the same 3D tracking tags on other marine animals. In their own data on other species, they found similar circling behaviour in tiger sharks, king penguins, Antarctic fur seals, a whale shark and a Cuvier’s beaked whale. For example, 272 circling events were observed in four tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) tagged off the coast of Hawaii. In each circling event, the tiger sharks circled between 2 and 30 times, swimming at a relatively constant depth. On average, each circle was 9.4 metres in diameter and the behaviour lasted 5.6 minutes. These underwater loops could be related to foraging, similar to how humpback whales turn to capture prey while bubble-net feeding, says Narazaki. But the fur seals, king penguins and Cuvier’s beaked whale swam in circles near the ocean surface, while they normally feed at depth.
3-18-21 Parasites may make dogs smell good to disease-spreading sandflies
Parasites that cause the disease visceral leishmaniasis, also known as kala-azar, may make dogs smell more attractive to female sandflies, which feed on a dog’s blood and can pick up the parasite and transfer it to humans through a bite. “The idea is that it’s a parasite manipulation,” says Gordon Hamilton at Lancaster University in the UK. “The parasite needs to be able to ensure that it is transmitted to the next host. It has to be able to promote itself in some way.” Leishmania infantum is one of a family of parasites that cause an infection that is fatal if left untreated. While the parasite is widespread in Europe and North Africa, many infections occur in Brazil, which accounts for 95 per cent of all cases in the Americas, according to the World Health Organization. That may be because sandflies there efficiently spread the parasite, says Hamilton. To study how it spreads, Hamilton and Monica Staniek, also at Lancaster University, gathered samples from dogs in Governador Valadares, Brazil, by walking through neighbourhoods and asking dog owners if they could use blood and hair samples from their pets. The team extracted odour-causing chemicals from the hair of 15 infected and 15 uninfected dogs, and then presented them to male and female sandflies. They placed odour samples from an infected and uninfected dog into separated chambers of a Y-shaped tube and monitored which chamber the flies chose to enter. Female sandflies feed on blood, while the males don’t. Both sexes were generally attracted to the dog hairs, but 65.7 per cent of the female sandflies were attracted to the infected samples while the males were equally attracted to samples from infected and uninfected dogs. “They showed convincingly that infected dogs do attract the sandflies,” says Shaden Kamhawi at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. “But they have yet to identify why, and what is the odour, and what are the receptors in the sandflies that are responding to the odours.”
3-17-21 Regent honeyeater: Endangered bird 'has forgotten its song'
A rare songbird has become so threatened that it has started to lose its song, say scientists. The regent honeyeater, once abundant in south-eastern Australia, is now listed as critically endangered; just 300 individuals remain in the world. "They don't get the chance to hang around with other honeyeaters and learn what they're supposed to sound like," explained Dr Ross Crates. His findings are published in the UK Royal Society journal Proceedings B. Dr Crates, a member of the Difficult Bird Research Group at the Australian National University in Canberra, is now trying to preserve the birds' song by teaching captive honeyeaters the songs of their wild relatives. The researchers had not set out to study the song of the regent honeyeater, but simply to find the birds. "They're so rare and the area they could occupy is so big - probably 10 times the size of the UK - that we were looking for a needle in a haystack," said Dr Crates. During this painstaking search, he started to notice birds that were "singing weird songs". He recalled: "They didn't sound anything like a regent honeyeater - they sounded like different species." Songbirds learn their songs the same way that humans learn how to speak. "As young birds, when they leave the nest and go out into the big wide world, they need to associate with other, older males so they can listen to them sing and repeat that song over time," said Dr Crates. The regent honeyeater, which has lost about 90% of its habitat, now has such a small, sparsely distributed population that young males are simply unable to find other males and hear their songs. "So they end up learning the songs of other species," Dr Crates explained. The natural song of the regent honeyeater has essentially "disappeared" in 12% of the population, the research revealed. Dr Sue Anne Zollinger, an expert in animal communication from Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, said the research demonstrated how songbirds need the chance to listen to and learn from others, "the same way that human children need a rich linguistic experience when young in order to speak fluently as adults". "This study shows how damaging population declines and habitat fragmentation might be to this critical process in the life of songbirds," she commented.
3-17-21 Male toadfish protect the eggs in their care with antibacterial fluid
Male plainfin midshipman toadfish produce an antibacterial fluid that keeps the eggs in their care healthy. Plainfin midshipman (Porichthys notatus) live in the deep sea of the eastern Pacific and come to shore to mate. Males dig nests in the intertidal zone and “hum” to attract females, which then lay their eggs in the nest of a chosen male. Typically, these eggs are bright yellow, but they often become infected with bacteria due to the microbe-rich nature of the breeding area. Infected eggs turn grey. Males of the species come in two types. Guarder males dig the nests, attract females and then look after the eggs. Sneaker males, meanwhile, creep into the egg-filled nests of guarder males and fan their sperm towards the eggs to steal fertilising opportunities. Both male types have so-called accessory organs, an outgrowth of the testes, which are known to aid with sperm competition by producing nutrients to make the sperm swim faster. “They look like the head of a mop with these finger-like projections full of fluids,” says Sigal Balshine at McMaster University in Canada. But there is something unusual about these accessory organs. Guarder male accessory organs grow during mating season while the sneakers’ shrink. This is the opposite of what would be expected if the organs were important only for sperm competition, because sneaker males would benefit most if their sperm were particularly competitive. This led Balshine to suspect that these organs have other functions. She and her team investigated whether they might play a role in parental care by preventing bacterial growth in the eggs. To test this, plainfin midshipman eggs from 18 healthy and 19 infected broods were collected and bacteria from both were cultured. The researchers then extracted fluids from the accessory organs of 24 guarders and 12 sneakers and applied the fluids to the different cultured bacteria.
3-16-21 Hibernating marmots don’t seem to age - could humans do the same?
A KEY sign of ageing slows right down when marmots are hibernating. “They may not age during this process,” says Gabriela Pinho at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). This suggests we might be able to induce similar changes to put humans in suspended animation for long-distance space travel. Pinho has been studying wild yellow-bellied marmots – a kind of ground squirrel – in Colorado. These animals hibernate for up to eight months a year, dropping their body temperature as low as 5°C. Starting in 2004, Pinho and her colleagues followed 73 female marmots from birth to death, taking regular blood samples. These were analysed by Steve Horvath, also at UCLA, who has shown that the age of many species can be estimated from epigenetic changes in blood cells – essentially, a build-up of chemical labels added to certain DNA sequences. These changes usually accumulate steadily over an animal’s lifetime. But in the marmots, there is a striking cyclical pattern, says Pinho, with most changes occurring in summer when the animals are active. The finding suggests that the ageing process slows during hibernation, and Pinho thinks this is likely to be true for all animals that hibernate. “When I first saw this, I was like, ‘Wow, what we suspected is actually happening’,” she says. The results could help us induce hibernation in people, both for medical reasons and for space travel. Several studies have shown that hibernation protects rodents and human cells against radiation damage, says Pinho, so it could help human space exploration. What had been less clear is whether it also slows ageing. This matters if we want to travel beyond Mars, says John Bradford at SpaceWorks in Atlanta, Georgia, whose team has studied the possibility of putting people into stasis for NASA. “This delayed ageing with hibernation would be critical,” he says. “Identifying any mechanisms in animals that could be delaying ageing in low metabolic conditions is obviously needed in order to understand how this may translate to humans.”
3-16-21 Altered bioelectric genes give zebrafish wings like flying fish
Flying fish may have taken to the air when evolution tweaked electrical signals that control the size of their fins. This discovery suggests the existence of a previously unknown mechanism by which animals can change the relative size of specific body parts. “How organs and tissues know when to stop growing at a certain size and stay there is a major mystery,” says Jake Daane at Northeastern University in Massachusetts. This scaling, known as allometry, is also a key driver of evolutionary change. The stunning variation in the fins of bony fish are a classic example, from the billowing veils of the tropical betta fish to the stumpy appendages of a mackerel. Most dramatic of all are the wings of flying fish, which allow some species to leap from the sea and glide for 400 metres, the length of eight Olympic swimming pools. This helps fish evade underwater predators, a tactic so successful that it has evolved independently several times. In comparisons of the genomes of nine species of flying fish and some non-flying relatives, Daane and his colleagues spotted genetic changes consistently associated with gliding, and uncovered sections of the genome being conserved by natural selection. The team also studied mutations affecting fin size in zebrafish, which have short fins suited to streams and ponds. This is unlike flying fish, which have expanded their paired fins – equivalents of our arms and legs – into wings to take flight. The zebrafish work revealed two interesting gene variants: one affecting how potassium ions flow into cells, which made all the fins larger; the other affecting how cells absorb compounds called amino acids, which made all the fins smaller. Neither affected the overall body size of the fish.
3-15-21 Bee larvae drum with their butts, which may confuse predatory wasps
The grub-like larvae use calluses to tap their cocoons in a curious chorus inside a plant stem. A light crackling sound floats above a field in northern Switzerland in late summer. Its source is invisible, tucked inside a dead, dried plant stem: a dozen larval mason bees striking the inner walls of their herbaceous nest. While adult bees and wasps make plenty of buzzy noises, their young have generally been considered silent. But the babies of at least one bee species make themselves heard, playing percussion instruments growing out of their faces and rear ends, researchers report February 25 in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research. The larvae’s chorus of tapping and rasping may be a clever strategy to befuddle predatory wasps. Unlike honeybees, the mason bee (Hoplitis tridentata) lives a solitary life. Females chew into dead plant stems and lay their eggs inside, often in a single row of chambers lined up along its length. After hatching, the larvae feed on a provision of pollen left by the mom, spin a cocoon and overwinter as a pupa inside the stem. Andreas Müller, an entomologist at the nature conservation research agency Natur Umwelt Wissen GmbH in Zurich, has been studying bees in the Osmiini tribe, which includes mason bees and their close relatives, for about 20 years. Noticing that H. tridentata populations have been declining in northern Switzerland, he and colleague Martin Obrist tried to help the bees. “We offered the bees bundles of dry plant stems as nesting sites, and when we checked the bundles we heard the larval sounds for the first time,” says Müller. “This is a new phenomenon not only in the osmiine bees, but in bees in general.” He and Obrist, a biologist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research in Birmensdorf, gathered stem nests from the field and subjected them to various types of physical disturbance, trying to determine what kinds of pestering triggers the bee larvae to drum. In some nests, the duo cut windows into the stems to observe larvae through the translucent cocoon walls, unveiling the secret of how the insects were creating the noises.
3-15-21 Texas beekeeper viral videos saving bee nests
Texas beekeeper Erika Thompson rescued a nest of bees that had been stuck under the floorboards of a garden shed for over two years, in a video that has since gone viral. Since posting the video online on Friday, it has been viewed over 1.5 million times on Twitter. She said the reaction to the video was incredible as, for her, it was "just a normal Tuesday".
3-14-21 Turkey's ancient practice of pigeon raising sees new life in quarantine
During the pandemic, many have reconnected with new hobbies, from sourdough to houseplants. In Turkey, and elsewhere, the ancient practice of raising pigeons is also seeing a revival. n most Turkish towns, it's not unusual to see older men climbing up to their pigeon coops after the evening commute. Most roosts are nestled into the eaves of an apartment building, or tucked in the back behind a family home. These bird enthusiasts like to open the coop doors at the end of the day and let their charges stretch their wings, flying together in a wide arc over the rooftops as the sun sets behind them. "You need to see them as a piece of yourself," said Yalçin Karci, who raises a brood of 150 pigeons in a quiet Istanbul suburb alongside his 7-year-old son, Kaman. "Especially during quarantine, we weren't able to go anywhere ... It's therapeutic." During the pandemic, many have reconnected with new hobbies, from sourdough to houseplants. In Turkey, and elsewhere, the ancient practice of raising pigeons is also seeing a revival. Karci's birds are a happy lot, cooing to each other from their nests in a collection of cabinet-style coops on a large, grassy lot in the Tarabya neighborhood. The air feels cleaner here, just north of the city's bustling financial district, where there's no traffic. Over the past year, Turkish children spent months under a curfew that allowed them outside for only a few hours a day. The pigeon lot was a place of refuge for Karci's young family, whose apartment overlooks the birds. After feeding the birds a mixture of grain in steel troughs, Karci shows off two tiny chicks, covered in sparse white, downy fluff and nestled in a bed of dry pine needles. "They're three days old!" he said with pride. Their mother, a regal-looking bird with black-and-white plumage, looks on. Pigeons are thought to be one of the world's earliest domesticated animals, raised for food and fertilizer as early as 10,000 B.C.E. They appear in Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Pigeons helped early shipbuilders navigate the Mediterranean Sea, and carried messages in wartime across the Central Asian steppes. Pigeons always fly back to the place they consider home, Karci said. So, people would bring the birds on long voyages and use them to quickly send messages back. In the ruins of cave cities built by the Hittite and Byzantine occupants of Turkey's Cappadocia region (in present-day central Turkey), it's possible to come across the familiar honeycomb patterns of an ancient dovecote. Karci has taken care of pigeons since his childhood in the Aegean town of Aydin. He raises a specific breed of pigeon that, today, is somewhat rare: the Selanik Dönek Güvercin. It translates, roughly, to the rolling pigeons of Salonica, the former name of the city of Thessaloniki, Greece. These pigeons were brought to Turkey after World War I by Greek Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of residents of the two countries were subject to a population exchange dictated by the Treaty of Lausanne; Christians in Turkey were sent to Greece, while Muslims in Greece moved to Turkey.
3-13-21 Cone snail venom may trick mate-seeking worms into becoming meals
The chemicals entice male worms to release sperm and females to swirl around in a mating ritual. Normally, it takes the ghostly light of the full moon to coax certain worms from hiding on the seafloor to mate. Out in the open, sex-inducing chemicals kick off a swirling dance that culminates in a moonlit shower of eggs and sperm. But just a whiff of cone snail venom might also get the worms in the mood. Conus imperialis venom contains two molecules that mimic bristle worm pheromones and can stimulate mating behaviors, researchers report March 12 in Science Advances. The find raises the possibility that the cone snails are “weaponizing the worms’ own pheromone as a sort of lure,” says Joshua Torres, a medicinal chemist at the University of Copenhagen. “It’s really wild.” Cone snails pack their potent venom into self-made harpoons, which they then fling into fish, mollusks or worms. The venom of each of the more than 700 cone snail species is a treasure trove of chemicals that hijack specific physiological pathways in their prey. For example, one cone snail species produces its own fish insulin that saps prey’s blood sugar, making a lethargic target. (SN: 1/19/15). The venom’s specificity of action has attracted drug researchers looking for inspiration. A morphinelike painkiller called Prialt, for example, stemmed from cone snails. Torres and his colleagues were keen to scour the venom of C. imperialis, a cosmopolitan species that hunts worms, for possible drugs. Chemical analysis revealed two compounds — Conazolium A and genuanine — that piqued the researchers’ interest. To Torres’ surprise, these small molecules didn’t seem to target neuromuscular pathways and impair their function, like many venom constituents. But the molecules were remarkably similar to some bristle worms’ mating pheromones. Chemically, the snail’s mimics are actually more stable than the worm’s natural pheromones, which degrade relatively quickly after release, Torres says. The match seemed too perfect to be coincidental.
3-13-21 This frog farm is trying to put poachers out of business
Working in the dark with a headlamp, Ivan Ramos inspects a small frog that has black and yellow stripes. Carefully, he stretches its tiny legs to check its bones. Then, he places it in a container lined with cotton and foam, about the size of a hockey puck. Ramos snaps the container shut before the frog can jump out and puts it in a cooler where dozens of frogs already await export. Today, we are sending 68 animals to Europe," Ramos explained as he prepared to pack the next amphibian. "They will go to Denmark via Germany." Ramos works for Tesoros de Colombia (Treasures of Colombia), a company just outside of Bogotá, the capital, that sells frogs to collectors in Europe and the United States. Their goal is to put poachers out of business. In hundreds of glass terrariums, the frog farm breeds tiny amphibians — about 2 inches long and native to Colombia's forests — to export as pets. "We are helping the authorities fight animal trafficking," said Ivan Lozano, the owner. "We are giving buyers an alternative to get absolutely legal, healthy captive-bred animals." Colombia is one of the world's wealthiest countries when it comes to amphibians with more than 800 species. But this natural treasure is also being plundered on a regular basis by animal traffickers, which could endanger the survival of some species. Every year, police confiscate hundreds of frogs at Colombia's airports from traffickers who have been known to carry them in their hand luggage and even in small tubes used for film rolls. A 2020 study said that 80,000 members of one species — the Lehmann's poison frog — were snatched from their natural habitat over three decades to be sold as pets. Lozano figured the desire for these colorful animals is insatiable. That's why he decided to try to supply legal frogs bred in captivity. "These exotic species are really, really charismatic," he said at his farm, surrounded by cloud forests. "And it's really hard to educate a whole planet of people and tell them: 'Please don't collect them and keep them in your house.'" Lozanos' company has permits from Colombia's government to breed seven kinds of frogs. One is the Oophaga histrionica, or harlequin poison frog, with dozens of color combinations including red and black, blue and black, and black with orange dots.
3-12-21 Electric catfish cannot be shocked and scientists don’t know why
The electric catfish can emit up to 300 volts to stun its unsuspecting prey. However, the fish is not only immune to its own jolts – as far as we know it seems immune to being shocked at all. Georg Welzel and Stefan Schuster at University of Bayreuth in Germany explored the degree to which electric catfish (Malapterurus beniensis) are insulated from electric shocks, both their own and from outside sources. In one test in which a goldfish and one of the two electric catfish used in these trials shared a tank, Welzel and Shuster coaxed the catfish into discharging its electricity by gently brushing its tail. In another, they used a commercial electrofishing device to give the entire test tank a jolt. In both trials, the goldfish spasmed and contorted its body briefly before recovering, but the catfish was unaffected. “It was absolutely amazing to see how unexpressed and relaxed electric catfish swam through their tank when being confronted with electric shocks that usually narcotise other fish,” says Welzel. The first two tests indicated that the catfish’s muscles are unaffected by electric shocks, but give no clues as to whether the nervous system has the same insulation. To test for nervous system interference, the team added electrodes that maintained a current in the water. Then they startled the fish into emitting its own shock. If the animal’s nervous system was impaired by the ambient electric field, the fish likely wouldn’t react by shocking, says Welzel. The team used high-speed cameras to watch for even a slight delay between the stimulus and the fish’s reaction, if there were one. Donning earplugs, they emitted a loud blast of sound to rouse the fish. Again, the catfish was unfazed, displaying what seems to be a nearly complete immunity to the effects of electricity.
3-12-21 Some Amazon jaguars have adapted to live in treetops to avoid flooding
One of the largest predators in the Amazon is learning to live the high life due to seasonal flooding of forests. Jaguars (Panthera onca) have adapted to spend much of their time in trees for several months every year in the Amazon river basin. “This behaviour is unique because we know that jaguars can swim and jaguars can climb trees. What was surprising to us is that jaguars can remain and survive on top of trees for that amount of time,” says Emiliano Ramalho at the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Institute in Brazil. Ramalho works in the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve in Brazil, an 11,240 square-kilometre area between the Amazon river and its tributary, the Japurá river, in the north-east of the country. The whole forest becomes seasonally flooded for three to four months every year, and some locals in the region had told Ramalho that jaguars in the area lived in trees for that period. Scientists had never reported jaguars doing this. The researchers used trail cameras to watch for this behaviour, as well as briefly capturing jaguars and equipping them with GPS tracking collars to follow them through the region during high water season to see whether they left the completely flooded area when the water level increased by as much as 10 metres. The data showed that the big cats stayed in the trees for the entire flooded season. In this area of the Amazon, jaguars have feeding habits that might help them live in this distinct manner. While other jaguars mostly prey on medium to large land-based animals, these jaguars ambush caimans during the dry season and smaller tree species like howler monkeys and sloths throughout the year. These cats’ small size may help them live in trees, says Ramalho. In the Mamirauá, jaguars weigh only about 50 kilograms, about half that of jaguars in places further south such as the Pantanal of Brazil, where they can weigh more than 100 kilograms.
3-12-21 Brown stink bug among 'future threats' to gardens
Gardeners are being urged to be on alert for the stink bug insect and other pests set to arrive in the UK. The brown marmorated stink bug has been spotted at three places in England so far, but experts are warning that it may become more widespread. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) said gardeners should be on their guard for the insect. It could appear alongside more familiar animals such as slugs, snails and the box tree caterpillar. Andy Salisbury, principal entomologist at the RHS, said the pests and diseases that gardeners commonly face on their plots have fluctuated over the last 25 years. "With gardens taking on a more important role in supporting wellbeing and the environment, it's important that research into management and mitigation of them continues and our rankings help inform this focus," he said. "It's also imperative that we continue to anticipate future threats such as the disease Xylella, which is already present in Europe, and the marmorated stink bug, to protect our gardens for the future." The brown stink bug is one of a number of Asian insect species that have recently established and become a pest in the US, others being the harlequin ladybird, the emerald ash borer and the Asian longhorn. Of these, only the harlequin ladybird is firmly established the UK, where it is now the most common ladybird species. Insect curator at London's Natural History Museum, Max Barclay, predicts that the brown stink bug could establish in parts of the South East of England and may spread further with climate change. "The brown marmorated stink bug is very similar to many harmless native species, so we hope people won't go out and start squashing everything similar!" he said. "We are only trying to determine how widespread it is at this stage, and we are happy to identify specimens sent to the museum's Facebook group or via email. " The three sightings so far have been in Essex, Surrey, and in the Museum's Wildlife Garden.
3-11-21 More than 4000 cheetahs have been trafficked in the past decade
From African savannahs to homes in the Middle East and as far as Oceania, more than 4000 cheetahs were trafficked in the past decade. “It’s an extremely cruel trade that people don’t often think about,” says Patricia Tricorache, an independent wildlife expert who has worked in cheetah conservation for two decades. She compiled data on the movement of these animals sourced through government documents, field informants, cheetah owners, rescue facilities and media articles. “There is a trade in skins and bones and other things, but based on the data I collected, the most concerning part is the live cheetah trade from the Horn of Africa, because that’s where populations are extremely low or unknown,” says Tricorache. Wild cheetah populations have declined by 90 per cent over the past century, and there are now an estimated 7100 wild cheetahs in the world. Although trafficking has been recognised as a reason why, a lack of data made it easier to ignore, especially among the Gulf states where the cheetahs often end up, says Tricorache. “The Gulf states are wealthy and the countries that supply the cheetahs are poor, so it’s a big business,” says Tricorache. “In a few hours, they can transport 20 cheetah cubs by boat to Yemen, and in a day or so, they are already in Saudi Arabia being sold.” Her work shows that most of the trade took place over social media websites like Facebook, and the majority of cheetahs she found were cubs. The findings are peer-reviewed, but Tricorache recognises that there may be shortcomings, especially in missed cases. “Let’s say I’m off by one thousand or two thousand, more or less. It’s still alarming,” she says. “More than the numbers, it’s the need to do more.” Some countries have enacted regulation to address cheetah trafficking. The United Arab Emirates, for example, banned the sale and ownership of wild animals in 2016. But Tricorache’s findings suggest that the trade continued unimpeded and only the advertising language changed.
3-11-21 Extinction denialism is a worrying new anti-science movement
There are a growing number of people who deny the threats that many species face. It is a worrying trend, writes Graham Lawton. A COUPLE of weeks ago, I got sucked down an internet rabbit hole – or should I say tiger trap? It arrived in the form of a tantalising video of a man claiming to have rediscovered a charismatic animal that officially went extinct in 1936. Speaking from a small town in northern Tasmania, Neil Waters, president of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia, claimed he had camera-trap footage of what he said were three thylacines, aka Tasmanian tigers. The pictures were being assessed by an expert at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, he said, and there would be further announcements in due course. As the video trended on Twitter, I wondered: could it be true? My heart said yes; my head overruled. I know a thing or two about thylacines. In 2017, I interviewed conservation biologist Bill Laurance at James Cook University in Queensland about his plan to look for them around the remote Cape York peninsula, a known thylacine haunt – until about 4000 years ago. It seemed an odd gamble for such a distinguished biologist. The ranks of thylacine hunters are largely filled with eccentrics, wishful thinkers and publicity seekers. Yet he thought there was a slender chance and, given that he was doing field work in the area anyway, what was the harm? A few weeks later, he confirmed that he had seen neither hide nor hair of a thylacine. Absence of evidence and all that, but in his opinion, the thylacine remained an ex-marsupial. And if they aren’t in Cape York, they aren’t anywhere. They certainly aren’t in Tasmania, even though that is the last place they were seen alive. The island’s many land mammals regularly turn up dead by the side of the road, killed by passing vehicles. Thylacines are never among them.
3-11-21 Covid fallout 'undermining nature conservation efforts'
Covid-19 is taking a "severe toll" on conservation efforts, with multiple environmental protections being rolled back, according to research. Conservation efforts have been reduced in more than half of Africa's protected areas and a quarter of those in Asia, said the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). And 22 countries are rolling back protection of natural areas. Protected areas encompass some of the world's most precious ecosystems. They include pristine forests, wilderness areas and natural habitat that supports endangered species. IUCN Director General Dr Bruno Oberle said the new research revealed "how severe a toll the Covid-19 pandemic has taken on conservation efforts and on communities dedicated to protecting nature". He added: "Let us not forget that only by investing in healthy nature can we provide a solid basis for our recovery from the pandemic, and avoid future public health crises." The research is published in a special edition of an IUCN journal dedicated to areas of the globe protected for nature. In one paper, researchers looked at government policies on economic recovery put in place between January and October last year that had an impact on the funding and protection of areas for nature. They identified some positive examples, with 17 countries, such as New Zealand, Pakistan and eight countries within the EU, maintaining or increasing their support for protected and conserved areas. In contrast, 22 countries had rolled back protections in favour of unsustainable development including road construction or oil and gas extraction in areas designated for conservation. Rachel Golden Kroner of Conservation International is a co-chair of the IUCN taskforce looking into the impact of Covid-19 on protected areas, and lead researcher on the study. She told the BBC: "We found that more funding and more of the economic stimulus has gone towards activities that undermine nature rather than that support it, globally. So we're not yet on the whole moving in the right direction."
3-11-21 Covid-19 stimulus plans are undermining conservation efforts
Covid-19 stimulus plans around the world are undermining protected areas for wildlife and habitats more often than not, according to researchers who say the measures are increasing the risk of a future pandemic. An analysis led by Rachel Kroner at Conservation International found 64 cases of environmental rollbacks, such as opening protected areas to oil and gas wells, in 22 countries between January and October last year. Brazil, India and the US emerged as hotspots for the covid-19-era rollbacks. Kroner and her colleagues found 31 proposals in India to open up national parks and other sanctuaries, including one for coal mining in the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve. Last month, a report by analysts Vivid Economics found that much of the $14.9 trillion of stimulus announced by G20 countries will harm nature. The new study builds on that by looking beyond the G20 to countries home to some of the world’s richest biodiversity. Kroner’s research suggests many leaders’ claims to “build back better” ring hollow when it comes to protecting nature. The findings matter partly because conservation projects have already been hard hit during the pandemic, as ecotourism revenues have nosedived. But there is self-interest too. “Protecting these intact natural ecosystems helps to contain or reduce the risk of zoonotic disease spillover. So by rolling back protections that would increase natural forest degradation and loss, that increases the risk of future pandemic emergence,” says Kroner. She says while some of the rollbacks are directly tied to covid-19 stimulus plans, some of them are simply regressive steps that coincided with the pandemic. Eight countries and the EU did provide funding that would help protected areas between January and October, but Kroner says overall the picture is a net negative. She thinks the number of environmental rollbacks is likely to be an underestimate, as that information isn’t always available to researchers.
3-10-21 Covid-19 hit biodiversity across the globe. Here’s how to fix things
From big-game poaching to increased deforestation, the pandemic hit nature hard. Solving the crisis means empowering people to protect the ecosystems they live in. TO MANY people in the world’s more crowded quarters, nature seemed to breathe a sigh of relief during the first covid-19 lockdowns. As human activity subsided, herds of buffalo wandered along empty highways in New Delhi, and a kangaroo was seen bounding through downtown Adelaide, Australia. Mountain goats roamed through the seaside town of Llandudno, UK, munching on hedges and flowers. “Nature is healing” became a popular online refrain. “We got to see a window of what the world could be like if we allowed a bit more rewilding around us,” says Henrique Pereira, a biodiversity researcher at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. But a rather different picture of the pandemic’s impacts has since emerged. In some of the poorest and most biodiverse parts of the planet, lockdowns and the wider economic disruption have increased poverty and food insecurity, while devastating ecotourism and other drivers of conservation initiatives. “There’s been complete disruption of the projects that we have been running in various parts of the world,” says Julia Fa, a researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. “Covid has directly affected communities that we have worked with.” But this gloomy outlook gives a glimmer of hope for the future. As momentum gathers behind an unprecedented international effort to roll back decades of wanton destruction of nature, it is a timely reminder of how the most effective solutions to the biodiversity crisis are human ones. Protecting Earth’s precious ecosystems means empowering the people who are closest to them. The pandemic has had a profound effect on efforts to halt behaviour that is harmful to biodiversity, says James Watson, a conservation researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia. “We’re seeing instances around the world where a spike has occurred because of the inability to effectively do conservation governance,” he says.
3-9-21 A year after Australia’s wildfires, extinction threatens hundreds of species
More than 500 species may now be endangered — or extinct — due to the natural disaster. When Isabel Hyman heads out in coming weeks to the wilds of northern New South Wales, she’s worried about what she won’t find. Fifteen years ago, the malacologist — or mollusk scientist — with the Australian Museum made an incredible discovery among the limestone outcrops there: a tiny, 3-millimeter-long snail, with a ribbed, dark golden-brown shell, that was new to science. Subsequently named after her husband, Hugh Palethorpe, Palethorpe’s pinwheel snail (Rophodon palethorpei) “is only known from a single location, at the Kunderang Brook limestone outcrops in Werrikimbe National Park,” she says. Now it may become known for a different, more devastating distinction: It is one of hundreds of species that experts fear have been pushed close to, or right over, the precipice of extinction by the wildfires that blazed across more than 10 million hectares of southeastern Australia in the summer of 2019–2020. “This location was completely burnt,” says Hyman, who is based in Sydney. “We expect the mortality at this site could be very high and … there is a possibility this species is extinct.” A year after the last of the fires were doused, their toll on species is becoming increasingly clear. Flames devoured more than 20 percent of Australia’s entire forest cover, according to a February 2020 analysis in Nature Climate Change. Even if plants and animals survived the flames, their habitats may have been so changed that their survival is at risk (SN: 2/11/20). As a result of the scale of the disaster, experts say that more than 500 species of plants and animals may now be endangered — or even completely gone. Australia’s iconic koala became the poster child of the crisis as images of rescuers carrying these singed marsupials out of the flames went global: As many as 60,000 of the nation’s estimated population of 330,000 koalas perished in the fires, ecologists concluded in December in a report for World Wildlife Fund Australia. While there’s no doubt that such charismatic megafauna suffered enormously, the greatest toll is likely to have been in other groups of species, such as invertebrates and plants, which often escape the public’s attention.
3-9-21 Fairy lantern flower has a gaping 'mouth' and saps energy from fungi
A crop of delicate white periscopes, each just a few centimetres tall, peek above the leaf litter in a Malaysian rainforest. They may resemble mushrooms, but they are actually the flowers of a parasitic plant species that is totally new to science. Fairy lanterns (Thismia) are mysterious plants that only briefly emerge from underground as tiny, intricate flowers. Lacking the chlorophyll that helps plants photosynthesise to generate energy, they instead steal nutrients from fungi. Many species have disappeared from human eyes shortly after being discovered, sometimes never being seen again and other times reappearing decades later. In 2017, Mat Yunoh Siti-Munirah, a botanist at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia in Kepong, saw images of ghostly flowers shared on social media by a nature guide at Malaysia’s Royal Belum State Park. Suspecting the photos depicted an undescribed Thismia species, Siti-Munirah and her colleagues visited the park two years later to search for the fairy lanterns. “Most species of Thismia can only be found during a certain time of the year,” says Siti-Munirah. “Being in the right time and in the right place is very important.” But luck was on their side. Beneath a tree, the team found several of the fairy lanterns, which turned out to be a new Thismia species called Thismia belumensis. Fairy lanterns typically have radially symmetrical flowers, often with odd, antenna-like projections. But in T. belumensis, a ring of tissue in a flower’s centre expands upwards into a “hood” that opens sideways, looking a little like a snake’s agape mouth Maxim Nuraliev, a botanist at Lomonosov Moscow State University in Russia, says the discovery is “extremely interesting”. “The species has a floral shape very rare in Thismia, known only in a single other species,” he says, one that probably hasn’t been collected since 1927.
3-9-21 A sea slug’s detached head can crawl around and grow a whole new body
Yes, planarians too regrow bodies but don’t have as many fancy organs such as a heart. Losing your body from the neck down can be just another one of life’s annoying, but temporary, setbacks — at least for two kinds of rippling, green-tinged sea slugs. Heads of young Elysia cf. marginata sea slugs can pull themselves free from their bodies and just keep crawling around while growing a new body, report ecologists at Nara Women’s University in Japan. Within a few hours, some separated heads start nibbling on algae again, Sayaka Mitoh and Yoichi Yusa report March 8 in Current Biology. And within about 20 days, a third of the young sea slugs they watched had grown their bodies back, heart and all. That’s the first time anyone has reported such dramatic “whole-body” regeneration in any sea slug “as far as we know,” Yusa says. Other creatures can regenerate, too. In one sense, planarians, the little cross-eyed flatworms that biology students mince up to study regeneration, “are better,” Yusa says. They can regenerate the whole body from multiple cut pieces. Yet their body plan is simpler, and they don’t have hearts. A group of tubelike sea squirts called ascidians might be considered the most complex of whole-body regenerators. Yet ascidians also lack a heart. And vertebrate regenerators, like salamanders regrowing a tail left in the jaws of a predator, don’t regrow a whole body from a severed head. Mitoh first noticed the sea slugs’ extreme regeneration by chance in some Elysia slugs in the lab. “We were really surprised to see the head crawling,” Yusa says. Just which Elysia species can turn into crawling heads isn’t clear yet. Marine biologist Sónia Cruz at the University of Aveiro in Portugal works with two other Elysia species but hasn’t seen anything like it. She does caution, though, that she hasn’t done systematic tests.
3-8-21 Some sea slugs behead themselves and then regrow their bodies
The severed heads of at least two species of sea slugs can move, eat and possibly even eliminate waste during the one to three weeks it takes for their bodies – including the heart – to regrow after being detached at the neck. The headless bodies can also live for up to a few months, with the heart still beating until the flesh begins to decompose, says Sayaka Mitoh at Nara Women’s University in Japan. However, the bodies never regrow heads. “The head has the brain and teeth, or radula, which may be irreplaceable,” she says. Mitoh and her supervisor, Yoichi Yusa, were raising one species of sacoglossan sea slugs (Elysia cf. marginata) to study the slugs’ photosynthetic abilities when they discovered a living, severed head in their laboratory. Intrigued, the researchers examined their slugs and found they all had a groove around their necks that they thought might be a “pre-determined breakage plane”. They gently tied a thin string around the necks of six lab-grown slugs at this groove and noted that all six severed their own heads, generally within a day. “The head becomes green with chloroplasts after it feeds on algae,” both when the body is severed and intact, says Mitoh. The slugs’ digestive glands are thought to be “distributed all over the body surface, including the head”, she says, which might explain how the heads survived. Meanwhile, the team observed 160 lab-raised and wild-trapped sacoglossans (Elysia atroviridis) daily until their natural death, on average for just under two years. Five of the 15 lab-raised slugs and three of the 145 wild slugs severed their own heads, while 39 wild slugs amputated smaller body parts like the tail or the feet-like appendages. Some animals autotomise – shed body parts – to escape predators, so the scientists tried pinching and poking another group of slugs to mimic a predator attack, but none of the animals responded by amputating anything.
3-8-21 Delve into the history of the fight for Earth’s endangered creatures
The book Beloved Beasts chronicles past conservation efforts and explores how to keep moving forward. On October 29, 1929, a date best remembered for the infamous Black Tuesday stock market crash, socialite and amateur bird watcher Rosalie Edge attended a meeting of the National Association of Audubon Societies. She was there to ask whether it was true, as a pamphlet had claimed, that the organization supported bounties on bald eagles in Alaska and turning wildlife refuges into shooting grounds. The men who led the organization were outraged that she brought up the issue. But the pamphlet revealed a truth about conservation at the time: The movement was not as much about saving species as it was about saving only certain species that people liked. And sometimes people only liked those species because they liked to kill them. The idea of conservation has evolved a lot over the last two centuries, as Michelle Nijhuis documents in her new book, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction. It was only in the mid-1700s that Carl Linnaeus began formalizing the idea of species. The recognition that a species could actually go extinct followed soon after. The push to prevent extinctions from happening came in the 1800s, with the realization that species such as the dodo had disappeared forever. Now we know that humans are driving such losses at a rate not seen for millions of years. Edge is just one of the many people who Nijhuis highlights in her excellent history. She includes famous names, such as Aldo Leopold, who in the early 20th century shaped the field of wildlife biology and whose writings have influenced generations, and Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring inspired huge changes to U.S. environmental laws and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. But it’s Nijhuis’ tales of lesser-known people, such as Edge and Michael Soulé, who is considered the father of conservation biology, that prove most fascinating. Their stories show how a single person can spark big changes, creating organizations and efforts that last for decades and grow to span the globe
3-5-21 From the Wild Sea review: Inside the fight to save the ocean's mammals
Day and night, a large network of volunteers throughout Europe work to save marine animals from life-threatening storms or contaminants. The threats are ever increasing as we continue to damage fragile marine ecosystems, climate change fuels storms and sea levels rise. This is the emergency scenario tackled by Robin Petré’s debut documentary From the Wild Sea, shot around the Netherlands and the British Isles during the coronavirus pandemic and premiered in the Generation section of this year’s online Berlinale film festival. The Danish film-maker zooms in on the complex relationship between humans and nature, taking viewers on a fascinating, disturbing journey. The film opens with a static shot of a caged seal, about to be freed by volunteers. It had been transported from a rescue centre where seals are taken when they are poisoned or harmed by oil or other industrial waste in the ocean – or when they hit rocks dodging storms. It is a powerful image pointing to the film’s central themes: what it means to be powerless in the face of human activities, and the real role of rescue and rehabilitation efforts in helping the animals at risk. The film follows two members of the volunteer network. The first is Dan Jarvis, welfare development and field support officer at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, and someone who has devoted his existence to the preservation of marine mammals. He is constantly on call and ready to rush out to the next rescue. One anecdote he shares is particularly shocking. In 2007, a hooded seal was found in Morocco, a long way from its normal territory in the Arctic circle. It was rescued and sent to Portugal to start rehabilitation, and then passed to the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, UK, to be released back into the wild (with a satellite tag) around the Orkney Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland.
3-5-21 Covid-19: San Diego zoo apes given experimental vaccine
Several great apes at San Diego Zoo have been given an experimental Covid-19 vaccine designed for animals after an outbreak among gorillas there. Four orangutans and five bonobos each had two doses of a jab made by Zoetis, a veterinary pharmaceutical firm. Eight gorillas at the zoo became the first great apes in the world to test positive for Covid-19 in January. They are now recovering. Conservationists are concerned about the threat of Covid-19 to great apes. They are particularly worried about the danger to gorillas, which have populations that are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. "This isn't the norm," Nadine Lamberski, chief conservation officer at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, told National Geographic. "In my career, I haven't had access to an experimental vaccine this early in the process and haven't had such an overwhelming desire to want to use one," Karen, the first orangutan in the world to have open-heart surgery in 1994, was among those to get a jab. Ms Lamberski said the apes had not suffered any adverse reactions and would soon be tested for antibodies to determine if the shots were a success. Cases of the virus have also been found in animals at other zoos, including lions and tigers in the Bronx Zoo in New York, and lions at Barcelona Zoo in Spain. Covid-19 infections have been confirmed in various animals worldwide, from dogs and cats to ferrets and mink. However, cases are generally quite rare. Zoetis started developing a Covid-19 vaccine for cats and dogs in February last year after a dog tested positive for the virus in Hong Kong. The vaccine was deemed safe and effective in cats and dogs by October last year. Until February this year, the jab had not been tested on any other animals. But Ms Lamberski told National Geographic that vaccinating the zoo's great apes was worth the risk. "We commonly use vaccines designed with dogs and cats for lions and tigers," Ms Lamberski said.
3-5-21 Catnip repels insects. Scientists may have finally found out how
The plant triggers a receptor that, in other animals, senses pain and itch. A whiff of catnip can make mosquitoes buzz off, and now researchers know why. The active component of catnip (Nepeta cataria) repels insects by triggering a chemical receptor that spurs sensations such as pain or itch, researchers report March 4 in Current Biology. The sensor, dubbed TRPA1, is common in animals — from flatworms to people — and responds to environmental irritants such as cold, heat, wasabi and tear gas. When irritants come into contact with TRPA1, the reaction can make people cough or an insect flee. Catnip’s repellent effect on insects — and its euphoric effect on felines — has been documented for millennia. Studies have shown that catnip may be as effective as the widely used synthetic repellent diethyl-m-toluamide, or DEET (SN: 9/5/01). But it was unknown how the plant repelled insects. So researchers exposed mosquitoes and fruit flies to catnip and monitored the insects’ behavior. Fruit flies were less likely to lay eggs on the side of a petri dish that was treated with catnip or its active component, nepetalactone. Mosquitoes were also less likely to take blood from a human hand coated with catnip. Insects that had been genetically modified to lack TRPA1, however, had no aversion to the plant. That behavior — coupled with experiments in lab-grown cells that show catnip activates TRPA1 — suggests that insect TRPA1 senses catnip as an irritant. Puzzling out how the plant deters insects could help researchers design potent repellents that may be easier to obtain in developing countries hit hard by mosquito-borne diseases. “Oil extracted from the plant or the plant itself could be a great starting point,” says study coauthor Marco Gallio, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
3-5-21 World's oldest known wild bird has another chick at age of 70
Wisdom the albatross, the world's oldest known wild bird, has had a chick at the age of at least 70. The Laysan albatross hatched the chick on 1 February in a wildlife refuge in the North Pacific Ocean, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has said. Laysan albatrosses usually only live for 12-40 years. But Wisdom was first identified by researchers in 1956. The father is Wisdom's partner, Akeakamai, who she has been with since 2012, US wildlife officials said. Albatrosses usually mate for life, but it is believed Wisdom had other partners in the past that she outlived. Although Wisdom hatched her chick in February, the birth - which took place in the Midway Atoll national wildlife refuge, in a US minor outlying island in the North Pacific - has only been reported this week. "Wisdom laid her egg sometime during the last few days of November," the USFWS wrote in its statement announcing the new arrival. "Soon after, Wisdom returned to sea to forage and her mate Akeakamai took over incubation duties. Albatross parents share incubation duties and once the chick hatches, share feeding duties." The USFWS believes she has had at least 30 to 36 chicks in her lifetime. Albatrosses only hatch one egg every few years. The Midway Atoll wildlife refuge is home to the largest colony of albatross in the world.
3-5-21 Covid and bird flu: The other lockdown putting livelihoods at risk
Dealing with the effects of Covid lockdown has been tough enough, but for poultry farmers in Wales there is a second viral challenge on their doorstep - bird flu. Following a bird flu outbreak in November 2020, a nationwide lockdown has been in place since December, forcing all captive birds to stay indoors. Any farms testing positive for the virus face a complete cull of their flock. Poultry farmer Victoria Shervington-Jones, from Wentlooge near Newport, said the restrictions have been "a double-whammy". "We're locked down and now the birds are locked down to go with it," she said. The spread is being managed by keeping captive birds in bio-secure units which stop wild birds mixing with them and spreading the virus. Wales' chief vet Dr Christianne Glossop said Covid meant the bird flu message "hasn't really hit the headlines". "It's so important for anyone with birds to follow our requirements to bring them indoors... to keep them separate from any contact, direct or indirect, with wild birds," she added. The UK government said the risk of avian flu to humans was very low and that eating eggs and poultry products posed a very low risk to people.
3-5-21 Female green tree frogs have noise-canceling lungs that help them hear mates
Inflated, the lungs resonate with extra vibrations, sending select sounds to the eardrum. To find her mate amidst a cacophony of frog croaks, groans, squeaks and trills, a female green tree frog just needs to take a deep breath. During mating season, ponds resound with the sounds of hundreds of males from many different species crying out to potential mates. Homing in on eligible males against all this crooning presents a significant challenge for females, akin to straining to understand a friend at a raucous party. But by simply inflating her lungs, an American green tree frog (Hyla cinerea) can make her eardrums less sensitive to the sounds of other species, researchers report March 4 in Current Biology. “We think the lungs are working a bit like some noise-canceling headphones,” says Norman Lee, a neuroethologist at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., allowing females to filter out environmental noise at the eardrum itself. An eardrum is just taut tissue that vibrates when sound waves hit it, ultimately translating the bleating and buzzing of the natural world into signals that get processed in the brain. To mammals like us, eardrums and lungs seem completely unrelated. But there’s a direct connection, via an open space, between the body parts in frogs that runs through the throat and into the frogs’ head. That lets frog eardrums pick up sound from outside the ear and also register vibrations from the lungs. Earlier research hinted that this lung-to-ear connection might boost a frog’s ability to pinpoint the call of a potential mate by providing an extra input of sound, but that hypothesis didn’t pan out when Lee, who conducted the research at the University of Minnesota, and his colleagues tested it. Instead, they found something even more unusual when they aimed a laser vibrometer, which measures vibrations from a distance, at frogs bombarded with sound waves in the lab.
3-4-21 Some frogs have noise-cancelling lungs to dampen other species’ calls
Female American green tree frogs use their inflated lungs to dampen the mating calls of other species so they can pick out the ones from males they may mate with. Male frogs use mating calls, ranging from high-pitched cackles to deep croaks, to advertise themselves to nearby female frogs. But grabbing their attention means competing with the cacophony of calls from other frog species living in the same pond. To find out how they navigate the noise, Norman Lee at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and his colleagues played a range of sound frequencies to 21 female Hyla cinerea frogs. They immobilised the frogs and then either inflated or deflated their lungs using a laser vibration sensor. A laser was beamed at a reflective bead placed on a frog’s eardrum. By measuring the laser that was reflected back, the team could estimate the amount of vibration at the eardrum’s surface that occurred in response to the sounds. The frogs’ eardrums vibrated less when their lungs were inflated, but only for sounds within a specific frequency range. The background noise was filtered out when it fell between 830 and 2730 hertz, leaving audible those two frequencies – the same peaks found in the male H. cinerea mating calls. “The call is a single-note call, it sounds like a cross between a dog barking and a duck quacking,” says Lee. When females hear that, it takes precedence over noise at the same frequency made by other species. This would come in handy in the wild, where frogs and toads loudly call at the same time. As this only occurs when the lungs are inflated, the team suspects that the lungs work in a similar way to noise-cancelling headphones, which use microphones to record the noise around you and then produce an exact opposite signal, known as the antiphase, to cancel it out.
3-4-21 50 years ago, U.S. commercial whaling was coming to an end
Excerpt from the March 6, 1971 issue of Science News. 1971: Whaling by the single remaining United States whaling firm, the Del Monte Fishing Co. of San Francisco, will probably end as the result of a proposal … to terminate licensing for hunting the finback, sei and sperm whales. The three were placed on the endangered species list last year. During the 20th century, humans killed an estimated 2.9 million large whales. In response to those losses, countries eventually took action. Legislation passed in the 1970s effectively put a stop to commercial whaling in the United States. A worldwide ban followed in 1986, though some countries including Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to hunt the animals. The bans have helped whale populations recover, but not enough to move these three species off the U.S. endangered species list. Sperm whales have rebounded to an estimated 450,000 individuals, sei whales number around 50,000 and finback whales have reached about 100,000. Ship collisions now pose a bigger threat to the mammals than commercial whaling (SN Online: 7/29/14).
3-3-21 UK will no longer use bee-harming pesticide
A pesticide believed to harm bees won't be used in England, after it had been approved for temporary use in January. The government had authorised the emergency use of a product containing the chemical thiamethoxam, because of a virus which affected sugar beet seeds. But that protection won't be needed now, as the colder weather means there's less risk to the crop. Environment Secretary George Eustice said emergency authorisation was only "granted with strict conditions". The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says to justify use of the pesticide, its predictions had to show that the virus would reach a certain level. "In the event, that pest threshold was not passed so this seed treatment will not be used this year," Mr Eustice added. In 2018, an almost total ban was put in by the EU and UK because of the serious damage the chemical could cause to bees. Scientific studies have linked the use of these chemicals to the falling numbers of honeybees, wild bees and other animals which pollinate plants. At the time of the ban, Michael Gove, then environment secretary, said the UK was in favour as it couldn't "afford to put our pollinator populations at risk". But according to Defra, the amount of sugar beet grown in 2020 was reduced due to the yellow virus - and similar conditions in 2021 would have caused the same problems, unless it took action. It now says some damage to the crop is still likely, but expected to be below the level at which the pesticide use is considered to be justified. Milan Wiercx van Rhijn, from the charity Bees for Development was initially "disappointed" by the government's initial decision to allow the use of the pesticide. He's "relieved" the pesticide won't be used, but remains concerned it was even an option. "Agriculture must be regenerative, and we cannot continue destroying the ecosystem on which we depend," he tells Radio 1 Newsbeat. "Future generations will be shocked that we ever considered using these toxins - we see already the catastrophic decline in insects and biodiversity." The 32-year-old explains the insects play a vital role in the food chain - with around a third of the food we eat relying on pollination mainly by bees.
3-3-21 Glow-in-the-dark sharks found off New Zealand coast
Scientists say they have found that three deepwater shark species living off New Zealand glow in the dark. The species were collected from the Chatham Rise - an area of ocean floor to the east of New Zealand - in January of last year, according to the study. One of them, the kitefin shark, is now the largest known luminous vertebrate and can reach up to 180cm (5ft 11in). Bioluminescence was also confirmed in the blackbelly lanternshark and southern lanternshark. The three species were already known to marine biologists but this is the first time that the phenomenon of bioluminescence - organisms emitting light - has been identified in them. While many marine animals - as well as some insects such as fireflies - produce their own light, this is the first time it has been found in larger sharks. The researchers suggest the sharks' glowing underbellies may help them hide from predators or other threats beneath them. They say the bioluminescence is achieved through thousands of photophores (light-producing cells) located within the sharks' skin. The three studied species inhabit a space called the mesopelagic zone, often called the twilight zone, which ranges from 200m to 1,000m depth (the maximum depth reached by sunlight).The three studied species inhabit a space called the mesopelagic zone, often called the twilight zone, which ranges from 200m to 1,000m depth (the maximum depth reached by sunlight). The species in question face an environment with no place to hide, hence the need for counterillumination as a form of camouflage, the researchers add. In the study, the scientists from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand explain the importance of bioluminescence for marine creatures. It "has often been seen as a spectacular yet uncommon event at sea, but considering the vastness of the deep sea and the occurrence of luminous organisms in this zone, it is now more and more obvious that producing light at depth must play an important role structuring the biggest ecosystem on our planet".
3-3-21 Playing dead really works to help insects avoid being eaten by birds
Playing dead might help prey animals stay alive because the tactic leaves predators vulnerable to having their attention diverted elsewhere. Nigel R. Franks at the University of Bristol, UK, and his colleagues were running a study on how the beetle-like larvae of flying antlions (Euroleon nostras) use grains of sand to build pitfall traps to catch food. They noticed that when they dropped the 12-millimetre-long larvae onto a microbalance to weigh them, the insects would freeze. Fascinated, Franks and his colleagues observed the behaviour repeatedly, noting that the insects would stay immobile on the microbalance for anywhere from a few seconds to more than an hour. The researchers suspected this was a last-ditch survival mechanism for when various kinds of predatory birds, like dunnocks (Prunella modularis), accidentally drop antlions after grabbing them out of their sandpits. They modelled the behaviour using computers in the hope of understanding how playing dead – what the scientists called post-contact immobility (PCI) – keeps a prey animal alive. Their models considered various predator-prey factors like the number of pits in a given patch of sand, the distance between them, the time it takes birds to travel between pits, aspects of the birds’ behaviour – the likelihood that a bird will drop an antlion, for instance – and the amount of time that the antlion remains in PCI. The models were also informed by marginal value theorem, which describes the optimal way an animal should feed to maximise efficiency. This weighs the costs and benefits of an animal staying in one spot to eat every last morsel of food available there, or instead taking the time to move to another food-rich spot when supplies at the initial location begin to run low.
3-3-21 DR Congo's Virunga National Park: The deadly job of protecting gorillas
Protecting the forests of Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo - home to endangered mountain gorillas - could be described as one of the toughest jobs on the planet. In the past 12 months, more than 20 of the park's staff have been murdered - and last week rebels were accused of killing the Italian ambassador to DR Congo, his security guard and driver in an attack within the park. "The level of sacrifice that's involved in keeping this work going will always be the hardest thing to deal with," says Emmanuel de Merode, who is in charge of more than 800 rangers at Virunga, Africa's oldest and largest national park. It spans 7,800 sq km (3,000 sq miles) and is home to an astonishingly diverse landscape - from active volcanoes and vast lakes to rainforest and mountains. The park was set up nearly 100 years ago to protect mountain gorillas, whose numbers have increased over the past decade, though there are still only 1,000 left in the world. Mr De Merode has lived in DR Congo for nearly 30 years, but he still remembers the day he first arrived. "I bought a motorbike in Kampala and drove through Uganda into Congo, and as you cross the border you're immediately struck by the enormity of the park and the incredibly beautiful landscapes." Born in North Africa and raised in Kenya, Mr De Merode is a Belgian prince, but he does not use his title. He is softly spoken and calm, despite the challenges he and his team face daily. Two deadly attacks in the last 12 months have been harrowing for them all: Last April, 13 rangers were murdered in what park officials described as a "ferociously violent and sustained" attack by another armed group, In January, six rangers, patrolling the park's boundary on foot, were killed in an ambush by militias. All of those who died were aged between 25 and 30."Believe me, it is truly a very painful experience to lose so many young people all at once," says ranger Gracien Muyisa Sivanza, who is responsible for the park's lakes.
3-3-21 World's first platypus refuge in Australia
Conservationists in Australia have announced exciting plans to open the world's first platypus refuge. The mammals are close to extinction following bushfires and drought.
3-2-21 Dolphins that help humans catch fish are being disturbed by ship noise
Some dolphins help humans catch fish – but perhaps not for much longer. An uptick in the levels of noise pollution from nearby ships is changing the way the dolphins communicate. It is possible this may reduce the dolphins’ ability to coordinate their behaviour to their – and the humans – advantage. Near the city of Laguna in southern Brazil, a group of Lahille’s bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus gephyreus) work together to drive schools of fish like mullet into the shallow water where fishers cast handheld nets, catching fish and breaking up the schools. While the water is murky, the dolphins are believed to take advantage of the chaos, snatching up disorientated fish missed by the nets. The relationship is at least a century old, and depends on the dolphins communicating between themselves to coordinate the group’s behaviour. But this delicate rapport might be imperilled by the increasing noise made by ships that pass nearby. Bianca Romeu at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil, and her colleagues analysed the whistles made by the dolphins with and without noisy boats passing. They also counted how many whistles the dolphins made at these times. They found that, during noisier periods, the dolphins produced fewer whistles and increased their pitch. In other words, the dolphins were communicating differently when boats were around, which could affect the way they get organised to forage with the fishers, says Romeu. “Probably the noise isn’t interrupting the activities, but it can disturb them, can change their behaviour,” says Romeu. She adds that it may make the dolphins worse at working together to drive the fish towards the fishers. Aside from meaning less food for the dolphins, this could also lower the fishers’ catches, possibly affecting their bottom line. It also threatens the future of a relationship central to the cultural identity of Laguna. The fishers know the dolphins well enough that many of the marine mammals have been given names. “These dolphins have economic and cultural importance,” says Romeu.
3-2-21 Documenting emperor penguins in Antarctica
German photographer and film-maker Stefan Christmann spent two winters alongside a 10,000-strong colony of emperor penguins in Atka Bay, Antarctica. Christmann was a camera assistant and expedition photographer for an episode of the BBC series Dynasties, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. He has also produced imagery for publications including National Geographic, with his work winning the Natural History Museum Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio Award in 2019. In his new book Penguin: A Story of Survival, he shares some of his favourite images from Antarctica. Christmann's first winter in Antarctica was in 2012, when he worked as a geophysicist for the Alfred Wegener Institute. He spent nearly 15 uninterrupted months working at the Neumayer-Station III, close to Atka Bay, where 10,000 emperor penguins gather each year. "Staying a winter in Antarctica is an all-or-nothing decision," Christmann told the BBC. "During winter time it becomes highly risky to fly people in and out of Antarctica," he added. "The huddle is the emperor penguins' secret weapon against the cold and their ultimate survival strategy. "Working as a giant incubator, the birds will stand close to each other with their heads tucked between the shoulders of the birds in front of them. "Sharing their dissipated body heat, the temperature can reach up to 37°C in the centre of the huddle. "Emperor penguins are designed for many things, but when it comes to mating it becomes quite obvious that balancing is not their strong suit. "When the male steps onto the back of the female just before copulation, he struggles to find a safe stance - resembling someone taking their very first surfing lesson." The photographer describes his expeditions in Antarctica as "extremely exciting and dull at the same time." "The base itself is very big and modern and there is nothing you would miss for essential living.