6-18-21 'Living fossil' fish may live for up to a century
A "living fossil" fish can live for an impressively long time - perhaps for up to a century, according to a new study. The coelacanth was thought to have a life span of around 20 years, but new estimates suggest it is a centenarian of the ocean, alongside sharks. French researchers studied marks on the scales of museum specimens - much like tree rings tell the age of trees. They believe the fish reproduces only in late middle age and can be pregnant for as long as five years. Slow-growing fish that produce few young are particularly vulnerable to extinction pressures, such as climate change and overfishing. Knowing the coelacanth's life history might help to enforce even stronger protection and conservation measures, said Dr Bruno Ernande of the University of Montpellier, France. "One very important framework for conservation measures is to be able to assess the demography of the species," he told BBC News. "With this new information we will be better able to assess it." The coelacanth was long thought to have gone extinct until famously turning up in a fishing net off South Africa in 1938. Two populations were subsequently discovered living off the eastern coast of Africa and another off the coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia. The African population is classed as critically endangered, with possibly only a few hundred individuals left. "[The] coelacanth appears to have one of, if not the slowest, life histories among marine fish, and close to those of deep-sea sharks and roughies," said Kélig Mahé of the North Sea Fisheries Research Unit in Boulogne-sur-mer, France. "Our results thus suggest that it may be even more threatened than expected due to its peculiar life history. Consequently, these new pieces of information on coelacanths' biology and life history are essential to the conservation and management of this species."
6-17-21 Thousandth dormouse brought back to the wild
The 1,000th captive-bred hazel dormouse has been released into the wild in a UK-wide reintroduction scheme for these threatened mammals. Big-eyed and famously sleepy, the dormouse is a woodland and fairy tale icon, but it is a species in decline. Once widespread, the animals have now disappeared from 17 English counties. Reintroduction, scientists say, is the only way to bring dormice back to habitats from which they have been lost. The project, a collaboration between the wildlife charity People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), Natural England and the University of Cumbria, brought 15 breeding pairs to a secret location in the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Lancashire. "When I started 15 years ago, there were five populations in northern England, and now there's only one," said Ian White, who has worked for the PTES for 15 years. "It's a decline in woodland and hedgerow management. Dormice live in the shrub layer of woodland, and in many areas that layer has been stripped out, or the forest has been left to grow up and shade out the understory." With its tangle of hazel, willow and bramble, the chosen Lancashire release site is ideal for the rodents, but getting them there has been a time-consuming team effort. The 30 dormice in this most recent (and most northerly) release were bred and reared in captivity at London Zoo. They were kept in quarantine for nine weeks and thoroughly checked for disease or parasites, before being transported more than 250 miles by car. The animals travelled in special dormouse nest boxes that were handmade by prisoners in HMP Doncaster and Humber - as part of a partnership between the PTES and the Department of Justice. "Dormice belong here," said Dr Deborah Brady, from the University of Cumbria in Ambleside. "But 50% of the population has been lost in just the last 20 years, which fits in with the loss of biodiversity we're facing more broadly.
6-16-21 Seagull eggs in the UK have been contaminated with plastic additives
Seagull eggs have been found to be contaminated with chemical additives used in plastic production. A study looked for evidence of phthalates – a group of chemicals added to plastics to keep them flexible – in newly laid herring gull eggs in Cornwall, UK. All 13 eggs that were tested were found to contain phthalates, with up to six types of phthalate per egg. These chemicals function as pro-oxidants – potentially causing oxidative stress that can damage cells. “Herring gull mothers pass on vital nutrients to their offspring via their eggs,” said study author Jon Blount at the University of Exeter, UK. “This includes lipids that nourish developing embryos, and vitamin E, which helps to protect chicks from oxidative stress that can occur during development and at hatching. “Unfortunately, our findings suggest that mothers are inadvertently passing on phthalates and products of lipid damage – and eggs with higher phthalate contamination also contained greater amounts of lipid damage and less vitamin E.” The researchers say the impact of their findings on developing chicks isn’t yet known, and further research is needed. Phthalates – which are used in most plastic products and readily leach out – can build up in living organisms by becoming concentrated in fatty tissues. While the study doesn’t show where the gulls acquired the phthalates, they have been previously found in species preyed on by herring gulls, and the birds are known to swallow plastic. “Research on the impact of plastic on animals has largely focused on entanglement and ingestion of plastic fragments,” said Blount. “Far less is known about the impacts of plastic additives on the body. “By testing eggs, our study gives us a snapshot of the mother’s health – and it appears phthalate contamination could be associated with increased oxidative stress, and mothers transfer this cost to their offspring via the egg,” he said.
6-15-21 Secrets of tiny diving mammals revealed
Biologists have uncovered the genetic secrets of the world's smallest diving mammals - water shrews. Using DNA samples to construct an evolutionary tree, scientists revealed that diving behaviour evolved five distinct times in this group of insect-eating mammals. The ability of these tiny, warm-blooded animals to dive and hunt in freezing water seems to defy evolutionary logic. The findings are published in the online journal eLife. To track this surprising evolutionary journey, the scientists collected DNA samples from 71 different species all belonging to a large group of related, insect-eating mammals, collectively called Eulipotyphla. That Greek term translates to "the truly fat and blind"; it is a group of mammals that includes hedgehogs, moles and shrews. "We sample specimens from all over the world," said lead researcher Dr Michael Berenbrink, from the University of Liverpool. Once he and his colleagues had created their Eulipotyphla family tree - building the genetic code into a detailed picture of the relationship between each species - they were able to use that information to track the evolution of diving behaviour. "We mapped the evolution of a single protein, called myoglobin, that stores oxygen in the muscle," explained Dr Berenbrink. "We can see a genetic signature [in the DNA] that shows us when this key protein increased in abundance in the animals' muscles." He explained that this is the change needed for an animal to store more oxygen in its muscles, so it can hold its breath under water and hunt. That "diving signature" occurred five distinct times in this group of animals. "It evolved three times in the shrews and twice in the moles," Dr Berenbrink added. "The genetic sequence of just one protein tells us so much about the lifestyle of these animals that we couldn't figure out from fossils."
6-15-21 As ‘phantom rivers’ roar, birds and bats change their hunting habits
A massive experiment in the Idaho wilderness shows how natural noises can impact ecosystems. For two summers in a rugged corner of Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains, the roar of rushing whitewater filled the air. But where the loud sounds prevailed, only gentle streams flowed by. These phantom rivers were part of an experiment led by ecologist Dylan Gomes of Boise State University. He and colleagues were testing a hypothesis that the sounds of nature influence where animals lived and how they forage. “There’s a lot of research suggesting that [human] noise negatively affects [animals], from communication to foraging to reproduction, and even survival,” Gomes says. For example, the sounds of highway traffic can drive migrating birds away from their regular rest stops (SN: 2/9/15). But the natural soundscape is “one component of the niche that we’ve been ignoring,” says Gail Patricelli, an ecologist at the University of California, Davis who was not involved in the study. The phantom rivers experiment suggests we shouldn’t, she says. Gomes and his team hauled about 3.5 metric tons of speakers, solar panels and other equipment into the countryside. Though they carried most of this gear on their backs, the researchers had to call on a mule train when an access road flooded during the first summer. At 60 study sites near streams, the researchers broadcast whitewater noise at different volumes and frequencies, or pitches, creating the auditory illusion of rushing rivers. As the phantom rivers played, the researchers surveyed two prevalent, sound-dependent animal groups — birds and bats. Bats echolocate and listen for their prey, and birds communicate through song, Gomes explains. “They’re such sound specialists that it makes sense to focus on them.”
6-14-21 Fox-breeding experiment suggests domestication can boost brain size
Our understanding of how domestication changes the neurobiology of a species may be wrong, results from a 60-year experiment to breed tame foxes suggest. The findings could also have implications for human evolution, claim researchers. Usually, domesticated animals have smaller brains than their wild counterparts, but foxes raised in a Russian fox farm experiment in Novosibirsk haven’t followed that trend. On the contrary, fox lines purposefully bred for either a good or a bad relationship with humans had larger brains than those that weren’t, says Erin Hecht at Harvard University, who is part of a team studying specimens from the experiment. The unexpected findings “suggest revision of existing thinking about domestication”, perhaps towards an idea that brains respond to behaviour-related pressure, at least initially, by developing more grey matter, says Hecht. Starting in 1959, project scientists began selectively breeding silver foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in a fur farm. With each generation, they chose the tamest animals to reproduce together, while also choosing the most aggressive animals to reproduce together. The researchers left a third group of foxes to mate without selection for behavioural aspects, as a control. The idea, researchers said at the time, was to create a model of the animal domestication process. The project has led to dozens of published papers but has also seen criticism for developing captive animals that are fearful of humans. Now, an international team of researchers has examined the brains of 30 males from recent generations of those foxes. The group took the preserved left hemispheres of the brains of 18-month-old foxes and examined them under high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Surprisingly, the third group – the control foxes – actually had the smallest brains, says Hecht. Equally surprising, the “tame” fox brains were, on average, nearly identical in size and structure to the “aggressive” fox brains. In particular, the team noted that both tame and aggressive foxes had similar kinds of changes in the same parts of the brain that are apparently associated with tameness in dogs compared with wolves, including the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala.
6-14-21 Female seahorses cheat on their mate when they can no longer smell him
Monogamous female seahorses cheat on their male partners when they can’t smell them any more. “Seahorses can express incredible loyalty and affection once a pair has bonded during the reproductive season,” says Dong Zhang at the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences in Shanghai. The curvy-tailed couples usually stay together for months or years. They live within a few metres of each other and meet up at daylight for “morning greetings” that reinforce their bond – swimming in parallel, brightening their hues and “dancing”, says Zhang. They reproduce through male pregnancy after the female deposits her eggs into the male’s abdominal brood pouch. The couple takes a mating break during the 12 to 20 days the male is pregnant, but then they mate again within 48 hours after he gives birth. Zhang and his team wondered what kept the female faithful during the waiting time and how she distinguished her mate from other males. They tested 200 pairs of virgin, lab-raised lined seahorses (Hippocampus erectus) in various situations. They allowed them to couple up, placing a female and her pregnant mate in a tank with a second male that had just given birth, which may have made him more attractive because he had proven to be fertile, says Zhang. Then they placed the pregnant mate either in a mesh cage, an opaque open-ended pipe or a transparent plastic bag. These barriers respectively blocked morning greetings, vision or odours. After the mate gave birth, the researchers let all three seahorses swim freely. If a female hadn’t been able to see or greet her mate during pregnancy, she still chose him over the other male, except for a few rare cases in which a female didn’t choose either male, says Zhang. However, 75 per cent of the females that hadn’t been able to smell their enclosed mates chose the other male. It is possible that while the mate was in the transparent bag, the female forgot his scent and got used to the other male’s odours, says Zhang.
6-14-21 ‘Really, really rare’ seahorse spotted off UK coast
A long-snouted seahorse has been photographed off the coast of Plymouth, south west UK. Also known as a spiny seahorse, the protected marine animal can be found in shallow waters among seagrass meadows, though a licence is needed to look for them. Diver Mark Parry from the Ocean Conservation Trust recounts his sighting.
6-13-21 Swiss voting in pesticide ban referendum
Swiss citizens are voting in a referendum which could see their country become only the second in the world to ban synthetic pesticides. One initiative proposes to end subsidies to farmers who use such pesticides, while another one would ban them altogether within 10 years. Supporters point to worrying levels of pesticides in water, and damage to plants, animals and insects. But Swiss farmers warn the proposals will put many of them out of business. Pesticides are chemical or biological agents used to control pests. Voting is also taking place on Sunday on other initiatives: anti-terrorism legislation, a new tax on fossil fuels and emergency Covid-19 funding. Switzerland's system of direct democracy means all major decisions in the Alpine nation are taken at the ballot box. Campaigners simply have to gather 100,000 signatures to ensure a nationwide vote. If approved, the pesticide initiatives would go much further than the handful of towns and regions around the world that have already banned all synthetic pesticides. It would also be of greater global significance than the ban imposed by Bhutan in 2013, as Switzerland is the home of the world's biggest pesticide manufacturer, Syngenta. "I'm going to vote 'Yes' - we have to think about the future. Pesticides damage our health," Geneva resident Marie Lenbaus said. Both proposals are widely backed by young urban voters. But Swiss farmers say they are already complying with some of the strictest rules in Europe. They have seen their jobs and income decline over the last 20 years, and now they are furious, the BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Bern reports. "You find a lot of people, especially in the cities, they have not even a clue what farming means," said Martin Haab, president of Zurich Farmers Association. "So, if they have two tomatoes in their garden in front of the window, they think they understand farming and they know how to do organic farming," he said.
6-12-21 Mouse sperm thrived despite six years of exposure to space radiation
The findings suggest that long-term space travelers may still give birth to healthy children. Sperm appears to be unfazed by long stints in outer space. In the longest biological experiment on the International Space Station yet, freeze-dried mouse sperm remained viable after nearly six years in space. Exposure to space radiation didn’t seem to harm the sperm’s DNA or the cells’ ability to produce healthy “space pups,” researchers report online June 11 in Science Advances. That may be good news for future spacefarers. Scientists have worried that chronic exposure to space radiation might not only put astronauts at risk for cancer and other diseases, but also create mutations in their DNA that could be passed down to future generations (SN: 9/25/20). The new results hint that deep-space travelers could safely bear children. Studying how space radiation affects reproduction is tricky. Instruments on Earth can’t perfectly mimic space radiation, and the ISS lacks freezers for long-term cell storage. So biologist Teruhiko Wakayama of the University of Yamanashi in Kofu, Japan and colleagues freeze-dried sperm, allowing it to be stored at room temperature. The team then sent sperm from 12 mice to the space station, while keeping other sperm from the same mice on the ground. After returning the sperm cells to Earth, rehydrating them and injecting them into fresh mouse eggs, the team transferred those embryos to female mice. About 240 healthy space pups were born from sperm kept on the ISS for nearly three years; about 170 others were born from sperm kept on the space station for nearly six years. Genetic analyses revealed no differences between these space pups and mice born from sperm stored on the ground. Space pups that mated as adults had healthy children and grandchildren.
6-11-21 Backlash against 'frightening' tests on whales
An international group of scientists has called on Norway to halt plans for acoustic experiments on minke whales. They say the process of capturing the animals and subjecting them to noise will be "stressful and frightening". The project, the largest of its kind ever attempted, is due to begin any day now. The Norwegian authorities say the aim is to get a better understanding of the levels of noise pollution that whales can hear. The experiments will take place in the remote Lofoten Islands. The goal is to use huge nets to drive 12 young minke whales into a holding pen - and local observers have confirmed that everything seems ready. According to the Norwegian Food Safety Authority, the official body that's authorised the project, each whale will be held for up to six hours. They will undergo blood tests and have electrodes fitted under their skin to measure their hearing. "If necessary," the statement says, "the whales will be sedated". But the authority says that based on the evidence of what happens when minke whales are caught in nets, it expects the animals to "lie completely still" until they are released. It says, "there is no question of exposing them to loud noise but of finding the lowest noise that they can actually hear". Before being freed, the whales will have satellite tags fitted to their dorsal fins so their behaviour after the experiments can be monitored. It is officially acknowledged that the whales will experience pain, particularly while they are held between two rafts while their hearing is tested. The Norwegian Food Safety Authority judges that the severity of the experiment will be "moderate" and it defines what that means: "Animals are likely to experience short-term moderate pain, suffering or distress, or long-lasting mild pain, suffering or distress," it said. It also said that "moderately severe" experiments of this kind "are likely to cause moderate impairment of the well-being or general condition of the animals". But it concludes that by learning more about how noise pollution disturbs marine animals, the research will benefit minke whales and other species - so it should go ahead.
6-11-21 The deep sea hosts twice as many shapes of fish as shallow waters
With eels that have heads shaped like tweezers and anglerfish that look like swimming light bulbs, the deep sea is host to a strange menagerie of fish body forms. The alien conditions at the bottom of the ocean may be the cause, making the dark depths a hotspot of body-shape evolution. Previous research has shown that fish metabolism, muscle enzymes and swimming strength decreased with depth, says Christopher Martinez at the University of California, Davis. But there has been no comprehensive comparison of the shapes that fish bodies take at different ocean depths. Martinez and his colleagues were part of an effort to unveil environmental patterns in fish evolution, in which researchers measured the physical proportions of about 6000 fish species in the collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. Using this vast new database, Martinez’s team compared the body shapes of more than 3000 fish species that come from habitats ranging from surface waters to the abyss. The team found that fish in the deep sea are nearly twice as diverse as shallow water fish when it comes to body shape. There are many more species in the shallows, but so much of that diversity is concentrated in fish with spindle-like shapes, such as tuna, or those with more compressed shapes, such as butterfly fish. Martinez suggests this is because the turbulent, light-rich environment closer to the surface is full of active prey and predators, which creates an evolutionary pressure to develop a strong, manoeuvrable body. This funnels shallow water fish into a handful of streamlined shapes. In the slow, quiet deep, athleticism isn’t as important for survival, he says. Released from the constraints of natural selection, surreal proportions emerge.
6-9-21 The mere sight of illness may kick-start a canary’s immune system
Simply seeing another bird get sick is enough to trigger an immune response in healthy birds. For canaries, just seeing their feathered friends get sick may be enough to preemptively rev up their immune systems. Healthy birds housed within view of fellow fowl infected with a common pathogen mounted an immune response, despite not being infected themselves, researchers report online June 9 in Biology Letters. “It’s fascinating that some sort of visual cue could alter immune function,” says Ashley Love, a disease ecologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Precisely how much these alterations actually protect the birds remains unclear, she says. Immune systems are like sentinels, patrolling the body for invaders and calling in the cavalry once a pathogen is detected. Traditionally, pathogens have to actually get into bodies to spur that sort of response. But some research has previously hinted that perceived threats can whip up immune cells. For example, one experiment in humans found that a mere photo of a sick person increases the activity of inflammation-stimulating chemicals called cytokines. But no one had ever looked to see whether being within eyeshot of an actually sick individual could compel the immune system to preemptive action, Love says. “A lot of wildlife diseases have these obvious physical symptoms,” she says. If wild animals can prepare, immunologically, at the first sign they might become infected, they may be better equipped to fight off the invader once it comes. To test this idea, Love and her colleagues infected 10 caged canaries (Serinus canaria domestica) with Mycoplasma gallisepticum, or MG, a common bacterial pathogen that causes conjunctivitis and extreme lethargy. Sick birds look “pretty fluffed out,” Love says.
6-9-21 Australia whales: ‘Unbelievable’ super-group caught on film
When a drone pilot captured footage of an enormous group of whales off the New South Wales coast last year, it sent scientists into a frenzy. A pod of that size - known as a super-group - and the "bubble-net" feeding behaviour they were displaying had never been documented off Australia before. A research paper has now confirmed both extraordinary events.
6-9-21 Sweet dreams! Wandering elephants take a snooze
A herd of 15 elephants that has travelled 500km has been spotted having a nap in a forest. In recent months the group of Asian Elephants has travelled through many villages, towns and cities in south west China, captivating the county. It remains unknown why the animals decided to leave home. Authorities are tracking their movements.
6-8-21 Cattle that spend more time around humans have smaller brains
The average brain size of cattle has shrunk as we have domesticated them, and their brains seem to get smaller the more time they spend around humans. In general, domesticated animals tend to have smaller brains than their wild counterparts. This phenomenon hadn’t previously been identified in cattle, as their wild ancestor has been extinct for several hundred years. To estimate the brain size of wild cattle, Ana Balcarcel and her colleagues at the University of Zurich in Switzerland measured 13 skulls from the extinct aurochs (Bos primigenius), the probable ancestor of modern cattle. They then compared these to known measurements of 317 skulls from 71 breeds of domestic cattle (Bos taurus). Based on the size differences in the skulls, the team estimates that the brains of domestic cattle are about 26 per cent smaller on average than those of wild cattle. “Really, the surprising result was that when we compared not just the wild versus domestic, but all the different breeds within the domestic populations, we found differences there,” says Balcarcel. “Those differences correlate strongly with the amount of time these animals spend with humans. The intensity of the human contact really has an effect on how much the brain reduces.” The team found that cattle that are around humans more often, such as dairy cows, have the smallest brains, while bullfighting cattle that only have limited contact with humans had larger brains, closest to the size of their wild ancestors. Breeding cattle to be more docile seems to be driving these changes in brain size, says Balcarcel. Dominic Wright at Linköping University in Sweden says this may be an overly simple explanation. “There does seem to be a shift in relative brain size from the wild to the domestic,” he says. “The problem is, we don’t know if modern cattle definitely came from these aurochs, which [this team] happens to be using in their study, but it seems like there’s a good possibility that they are representative of their wild progenitors.”
6-8-21 Whale that travelled halfway around the world sets migration record
Between May and July of 2013, a single grey whale (Eschrichtius robustus) was spotted off the coast of Namibia. This was odd, as while there have been rare sightings of this species in the Atlantic Ocean, they are usually confined to the northern hemisphere. t turns out the animal had travelled at least 20,000 kilometres – halfway around the planet – setting a record for a migration of any mammal, barring humans. Rus Hoelzel at Durham University in the UK and his colleagues used tissue samples collected from the whale’s skin and analysed its DNA to trace its origins. By comparing it with other grey whale populations, they found that this individual, a male, was probably born to the endangered western North Pacific population, found along the coast of eastern Asia. This means it travelled at least 20,000 kilometres to get to the southern Atlantic. Earth’s circumference is slightly over 40,000 kilometres. “This is the record really for an in-water migration, if you’re assuming that this individual started its life in the north-west Pacific and it found its way to Namibia,” says Hoelzel. “That’s as far as any vertebrate has ever gone in water, as far as we know.” Land dwelling mammals fall far short of this feat – the record is a grey wolf that roamed more than 7000 kilometres in a year. While it is impossible to know for sure how this whale got to the southern Atlantic, the team has proposed three possible routes – it could have headed north through the Arctic, south around South America, or along Asia and around Africa. “At the population level, what’s interesting is that we are seeing a lot of changes in the environment that have to do, in this particular case, with the opening up of the Arctic Ocean due to climate,” says Daniel Palacios at Oregon State University. “It goes beyond this one animal to potentially many animals doing the same thing.”
6-8-21 A single honeybee has cloned itself hundreds of millions of times
The workers of a South African subspecies of honeybee can clone themselves, with one individual having done so many millions of times over the past 30 years. Some of the clones can even develop into queens that can take over the hive. Asexual reproduction – parthenogenesis – isn’t uncommon in the insect world, but having offspring that are genetically identical to the parent is. That’s because, during the reproductive process, genetic material gets mixed up in a process called recombination. As a result, even if there is only one parent its offspring end up with a slightly different genetic makeup. However, the female workers of the Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis), native to southern South Africa, have developed the unusual ability to clone themselves while effectively avoiding recombination during reproduction, says Benjamin Oldroyd at the University of Sydney. Doing so carries important benefits. Normally, asexual reproduction can be lethal in honeybees because about a third of the genes become inbred, and the larvae don’t survive, Oldroyd says. But because Cape honeybee worker bees perfectly clone themselves, each clone remains as genetically healthy as her mother. “It’s quite remarkable,” he says. One line of clones has been re-cloning since 1990, with the same individual copied hundreds of millions of times, says Oldroyd. The clones can prove problematic for the health of the colony, however. Generally speaking, the queen bee is the only individual that reproduces, while other bees carry out their own duties to keep the colony healthy. If the workers begin cloning themselves – which can happen if the hive is disturbed in some way – this delicate balance is destroyed. In some cases, one of the clones can even develop into a queen of a dysfunctional hive.
6-8-21 Bdelloid rotifer survives 24,000 years frozen in Siberia
A microscopic multi-celled organism has returned to life after being frozen for 24,000 years in Siberia, according to new research. Scientists dug up the animal known as a bdelloid rotifer from the Alayeza River in the Russian Arctic. Once thawed, it was able to reproduce asexually, after spending millennia in a state of frozen animation known as crytobiosis. Previous research said they could survive frozen for up to 10 years. But the new study, published in Current Biology on Monday, suggested they could last for thousands of years, if not indefinitely. "The takeaway is that a multicellular organism can be frozen and stored as such for thousands of years and then return back to life - a dream of many fiction writers," Stas Malavin, of Russia's Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems in Soil Science, told the Press Association. He said more research was needed to see how it achieved the feat. The scientists in the study froze and thawed dozens of the animals in a laboratory to examine the process. Radiocarbon dating aged the bdelloid rotifer specimen at between 23,960 and 24,485 years old. Bdelloid rotifers are a class of rotifer found in freshwater environments around the world. The name rotifer comes from the Latin meaning "wheel bearer". The creatures are known for their ability to withstand extremes. They are one of the Earth's most radioactive-resistant animals, according to the New York Times, which reports they can also withstand low oxygen, starvation, high acidity and years of dehydration. There are reports of other multi-celled organisms coming back to life after thousands of years, including a nematode worm, as well as some plants and mosses.
6-7-21 Tiny animal revived after 24,000 years entombed in Siberian permafrost
A tiny animal called a rotifer has been revived after spending 24,000 years frozen in permafrost. It is the longest a rotifer has been observed to survive in such extreme cold. While simple organisms like bacteria can often survive millennia in permafrost, “this is an animal with a nervous system and brain and everything”, says Stas Malavin at the Pushchino Scientific Center for Biological Research RAS in Russia. It isn’t quite a record – nematode worms have purportedly been revived from permafrost after 30,000 years – but no rotifer has been known to endure for so long. Malavin and his team drilled into permafrost near the Alazeya river in north-east Siberia, Russia, in 2015. They found a single rotifer, a worm-like creature less than a quarter of a millimetre long. When the researchers warmed it up and gave it food, it became active. It also reproduced, because it is a bdelloid rotifer that can clone itself without the need for a sexual partner. “We are quite confident that this is a new species for science,” says Malavin. He and his team sequenced the rotifer’s genome and found it was most similar to a species called Adineta vaga, which is thought to include multiple subspecies that haven’t been properly identified. The researchers used accelerator mass spectrometry to date organic remains that were found with the rotifer. They were between 23,960 and 24,485 years old, suggesting the rotifer was frozen into the permafrost at the same time. Modern rotifers seem to have a similar ability to survive being frozen. Malavin’s team froze individuals from different modern species, as well as some of the offspring of the ancient rotifer, at -15°C for a week. Both groups were equally freeze-tolerant, with similar survival rates.
6-7-21 Water voles released in Yorkshire in boost to endangered species
Water voles are being released at a site in Yorkshire, UK, as part of the second phase of a nature scheme to help the endangered mammals. Some 100 water voles will be released in Timble Ings Woods in the Washburn valley, part of the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), from 8 June, following a release of the same number last September. Yorkshire Water, which is running the scheme, said surveys suggest the 100 voles brought into the site last year have become established in the woodland, with feeding signs, latrines and burrows all spotted. Evidence of water voles has been found up to 500 metres from the original release site, suggesting they are settling into their new home, the water company said. The aquatic mammals, immortalised as Ratty in the classic children’s book The Wind in the Willows, live along slow-flowing rivers, ditches, dykes and lakes with plenty of vegetation, making extensive burrows in the banks. They have suffered steep declines in recent years as a result of being preyed on by invasive American mink, as well as loss and degradation of their habitat and water pollution, and have been identified as a key species for conservation in the Nidderdale area. “We’re pleased to see evidence the water voles we released in September have settled into their habitat, with piles of nibbled grass and stems, as well as droppings spotted recently,” said Lee Pitcher, head of partnerships at Yorkshire Water. “Now they are established, we’re now moving onto the next stage – a second release in the area to further boost the population.” “We also have plans in place to extend the habitat available for the water voles later this year, with new ponds set to be created, which will allow the population to continue to expand and take advantage of the perfect habitat Timble Ings Woods provides these creatures,” said Pitcher.
6-7-21 These ferns may be the first plants known to share work like ants
The plants may form a type of communal lifestyle never seen outside of the animal kingdom. High in the forest canopy, a mass of strange ferns grips a tree trunk, looking like a giant tangle of floppy, viridescent antlers. Below these fork-leaved fronds and closer into the core of the lush knot are brown, disc-shaped plants. These, too, are ferns of the very same species. The ferns — and possibly similar plants — may form a type of complex, interdependent society previously considered limited to animals like ants and termites, researchers report online May 14 in Ecology. Kevin Burns, a biologist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, first became familiar with the ferns while conducting fieldwork on Lord Howe Island, an isolated island between Australia and New Zealand. He happened to take note of the local epiphytes — plants that grow upon other plants — and one species particularly caught his attention: the staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum), also native to parts of mainland Australia and Indonesia. “I realized, God, you know, they never occur alone,” says Burns, noting that some of the larger clusters of ferns were massive clumps made of hundreds of individuals. It was soon clear to Burns that “each one of those individuals was doing a different thing.” He likens the fern colonies to an upside-down umbrella made of plants. Ferns with long, green, waxy “strap” fronds appeared to deflect water to the center of the aggregation, where disc-shaped, brown, spongey “nest” fronds could soak it up. The shrubby apparatus reminded Burns of a termite mound, with a communal store of resources and the segregation of different jobs in the colony. Scientists call these types of cooperative groups, where overlapping generations live together and form castes to divide labor and reproductive roles, “eusocial.” The term has been used to describe certain insect and crustacean societies, along with two mole rat species as the only mammalian examples (SN: 10/18/04). Burns wondered if the ferns could also be eusocial.
6-5-21 ‘Hangry’ male fruit flies attack each other if they go without food
If you’ve ever been hangry – so hungry you become angry – you have a little something in common with fruit flies. When these insects don’t get enough to eat, they aggressively lash out at others and some even make a kind of fencing manouevre with their legs to fight with other fruit flies. “Male fruit flies display aggression that they direct towards other fruit flies. They don’t show these behaviours towards females,” says Jennifer Perry at the University of East Anglia in the UK. Perry and her colleagues separated virgin male fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) into five groups of between 58 and 74 insects. One group consisted of newly emerged adults that had not fed since their larval stage, while another was made up of flies that were allowed to feed throughout the experiment. The remaining groups were fed and then deprived for periods of 24, 48, or 72 hours. At six to seven days old, pairs of flies from each group were placed together with food and monitored over 5 hours. The team observed the pairs 16 or 32 times over 5 hours to record their behaviour. Flies deprived of food had became increasingly aggressive, which peaked at 24 hours without food. The aggressive flies would lunge at and chase each other or fence with their legs. “I think we can all relate to feeling hangry after periods of food deprivation, and what our study shows is that these feelings extend across even very distantly related animals,” says Perry. “They share lots of genes for their physiology and behaviour with vertebrates, including humans. They’re a good model [for aggression] in that way.” Even animals as seemingly simple as a fruit flies have complex social lives and respond to changes in their environment that affect the costs and benefits of social behaviour like aggression, she says.
6-3-21 Puppies are born with the genetic ability to understand humans
Domestic dogs are born to socialise with people because we bred them that way. Two-month-old puppies can already recognise when people are pointing at objects and will gaze at our faces when they’re spoken to – both signs that dogs have an innate capacity to interact with us through body language. Although individual relationships with people might influence that behaviour, at least 40 per cent of this ability comes from genetics alone, says Emily Bray at the University of Arizona. “Over the course of domestication, from wolf to dog, there’s been a clear selection for these social skills,” she says. “It’s something that’s ingrained in them and that emerges at a really young age even before they’ve had much experience with humans.” Bray and her colleagues tested these types of skills in 375 8-week-old Golden retriever and Labrador puppies that were destined to become service dogs. It was the earliest age they could carry out such experiments because the puppies were only just old enough to be motivated by food rewards, Bray says. The researchers found that pointing at food hidden under a cup helped the puppies to find it nearly 70 per cent of the time. The success rate was that high from the start, meaning they weren’t learning to follow pointing, but already knew to do so, Bray says. In a control test, the puppies couldn’t find food hidden under one of two cups at a rate better than random chance, indicating that they weren’t simply smelling it. Much of the variation in different puppies’ ability to follow finger-pointing is explained by genetics, Bray says. Using statistical analyses based on the puppies’ parents and other relatives, the researchers found that genetic factors were responsible for 43 per cent of these variations.
6-3-21 Right whales born in 1981 grew a metre longer than they do today
Surveillance of right whales in the North Atlantic show that individuals born today will grow to be 1 metre shorter, on average, than whales born in the early 1980s. Joshua Stewart at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in San Diego, California, and his colleagues have used surveillance data collected from aircraft and drones to investigate how North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) have changed over time. The whales have been monitored consistently for decades, and researchers can identify individuals and know when each was born. Stewart’s team collected 202 length measurements of 129 of the whales born between 1981 and 2019: 133 measurements were taken from aircraft between 2000 and 2002, and 69 measurements were obtained using remotely operated drones between 2016 and 2019. The researchers then paired these length measurements with each whale’s birth year and whether or not the whale and its mother had a history of being entangled with fishing gear. Whales born in 1981 were typically longer as fully grown adults than whales born more recently. The measurements suggest that, on average, for every year after 1981 a given whale was born, its body length was 2.5 centimetres shorter. This corresponds to a 7.3 per cent decline in maximum body length – and means a whale born this year would be expected to reach an adult size a metre shorter than that of a right whale born in 1981. “The whales that are born more recently are growing to sizes that are shorter than we would expect,” says Stewart. Given that North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered whales in the world, there is detailed individual-level information available on each whale and their entanglement history with fishing gear. “We’re interested in this species in particular because they’re a critically endangered species – there are fewer than 400 left,” says Stewart.
6-3-21 Newly recognized tricks help elephants suck up huge amounts of water
Water moves through a pachyderm’s trunk at the rate of flow of 24 shower heads. Whether or not it’s possible to teach an old elephant new tricks, a 34-year-old pachyderm at Zoo Atlanta has recently taught researchers a thing or two about how elephants suck up food and water with their trunks. For one thing, an elephant doesn’t use its trunk as a simple straw. It can also dilate its nostrils to boost its trunk’s carrying capacity while snorting up water, researchers report online June 2 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. And that means it takes fewer snorts than expected to stock up on water that they use to drink and hose themselves down. The surprise finding came courtesy of detailed measurements during feeding time, says Andrew Schulz, a mechanical engineer at the Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Other than aquatic creatures, not many animals other than elephants use a type of suction feeding that doesn’t depend on lung power alone. Elephants are the only living land animals to evolve a long, boneless appendage like a trunk, says Schulz. A septum stretching the length of the trunk separates it into two nostrils. But detailed knowledge of what happens inside that muscular structure during feeding has been sorely lacking. So Schulz and his colleagues worked with zookeepers at Zoo Atlanta to take a peek. Using ultrasound to monitor what was happening inside the trunk during feeding, the researchers put one of the zoo’s African elephants through her paces during the summer of 2018. In some trials, the elephant snorted up volumes of water, which in some cases had bran mixed in. To the researchers’ surprise, says Schulz, the ultrasound revealed that each nostril’s available volume ballooned by as much as 64 percent, up from the trunk’s original capacity of about five liters (although the elephant used only a small fraction of this extra space). Flow rate of water through the trunk averaged about 3.7 liters per second, or the equivalent of the amount of water pouring out of 24 shower heads at once.
6-2-21 World's smallest cephalopod gets set to fertilise her own eggs
THIS dramatic image of a female northern pygmy squid (Idiosepius paradoxus) may make it look like a formidable ocean dweller, but it is in fact a close-up of the world’s smallest cephalopod, a minuscule member of a class of molluscs that includes octopuses and cuttlefish. Measuring between just 5 and 20 millimetres across, these squid are so tiny they can fit on a human thumbnail. This female, seen off the coast of Yamaguchi prefecture in southern Japan, is laying her eggs, a process that can take anywhere between a few minutes and an hour, says photographer Tony Wu. The eggs, however, get fertilised in a rather unusual way. Instead of reproducing by copulation, male pygmy squid attach bundles of sperm called spermatophores onto the bodies of females. The sperm then makes its way to a receptacle in the female’s mouth when she is ready to inseminate her eggs, allowing her to inject a small amount of this through a hole she bites in each egg. Here, the pygmy squid can be seen delicately preparing to lay another egg on a blade of eelgrass before she starts the process of insemination.
6-2-21 Anthropomania review: Our love of animals and how we live with them
IN THE 1980s, Hal Herzog often stuck his finger into the cages of baby snakes to see how often he was bitten. It was part of a test he had devised to measure the agreeableness of garter snakes – and some were definitely more aggressive than others. Herzog, now a psychologist at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, knew he was studying animal personality, but at that time it was controversial. “I did not have the moral fortitude to announce that in scientific journals,” he says. Herzog is the first guest on a new podcast called Anthropomania, which sets out to explore the complex relationship humans have with other living things. For example, personality, the focus of the first episode, was once thought to be unique to humans. Today, it is accepted that animals of the same species living in the same conditions have different characters and behaviours, some bolder and others more fearful, for instance. Herzog says he now wouldn’t hesitate to describe his snake research as a study of personality. The podcast, hosted by science communicators Jay Ingram, Niki Wilson and Erika Siren, is inspired by anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics or behaviours to other species. When it comes to personality, people often apply human traits to animals, with one survey showing that many pet owners consider their animals to have a good sense of humour. “Going overboard on their humanness may give us an unrealistic picture of what they really are,” says Ingram. The show highlights our various motivations for engaging with animals. Aside from research, some people want to domesticate or protect animals, and some collect rare and dangerous species to flaunt their wealth and power. There are many consequences. The demand for exotic pets fuels a multibillion-dollar trafficking industry. And many parts of the world lack animal ownership laws, so animals can be neglected or even become invasive in non-native countries, as in the case of the hippos that escaped from drug lord Pablo Escobar’s private zoo. Many now live in Colombia’s waterways.
6-2-21 Parasitic ants keep evolving to lose their smell and taste genes
To most ants, smell and taste are everything. But some parasitic ant species have lost the genes that drive these senses – a sensory shake-up that may be due to the way they outsource some tasks to host species. Interpreting subtle chemical cues through smell and taste help ants hold their societies together. This “chemoreception” is involved in everything from group foraging to recognising nest mates. But not all species of ant live or interact with each other in the same way. Some ants are social parasites that raid the nests of other, closely related ant species, steal their workers and eventually become dependent upon their captives’ labour. To unveil the evolutionary impacts of this parasitic lifestyle, Erich Bornberg-Bauer at the University of Münster in Germany and his colleagues delved into the insects’ genomes – their full genetic instructions. The researchers analysed the genomes of eight ant species: three parasites, their three host species and two non-host species. The team found that the parasitic ants – Harpagoxenus sublaevis, Temnothorax ravouxi and Temnothorax americanus – had half as many taste receptor genes compared with their hosts and the non-host ants. The parasites had also lost about a quarter of their olfactory genes, which are involved in smell. Greg Pask at Middlebury College in Vermont, who wasn’t involved with the work, says he expected some loss of these receptor genes, but not to the degree revealed in the study. In general, olfactory genes are massively multiplied in ants compared with other insects, implying that they are important for ant survival, he says. Relying on host ants for a range of tasks that involve heavy use of smell and taste may allow these chemoreceptor genes to wane over evolutionary time. “If you don’t have to forage and do a lot of the major work where you need chemosensory activity, then you have no pressure to maintain those genes as functional copies,” says Pask. “It turns out if [an olfactory] gene is broken you can get along fine with that, because the host species is able to take care of [the task].”
6-2-21 This smart shift in pesticide use could let insect populations recover
The world's insects are in trouble – if we start using pesticides to protect plants rather than killing insects it could make a big difference. INSECTS are disappearing. The world has 25 per cent fewer terrestrial insects now than in 1990. This includes those we rely on to pollinate our crops and clean our rivers. If we don’t solve this problem very soon, some species will disappear. There are many causes for the insect decline, but insecticides are a major part of the problem. Those used today are longer lasting and up to 10,000 times more toxic than some that were banned in the 1970s. Adding to the problem is that these pesticides are now applied to crops prophylactically and used whether pests are present or not. Overall, the amount of pesticide applied to the land is decreasing, but this is a grossly misleading statistic. A recent paper found that, between 2005 and 2015, there was a 40 per cent reduction in the amount of pesticide applied to crops measured by weight. But because modern insecticides are so much more toxic, the global toxicity of treated land to pollinating insects has more than doubled in the same period (Science, doi.org/f5vp). Governments and regulating agencies are aware of the problem, and some parts of the world have moved to ban the use of certain insecticides outdoors in an attempt to help bees survive. But the pesticides used instead are just as toxic. One often-touted approach is to use pesticide-free pest control methods. These varied techniques are gathered under the name of integrated pest management (IPM) and have been around for decades. They offer effective crop protection and include methods such as crop rotation and the use of natural predators. But their adoption has been incredibly slow, because spraying pesticides is viewed as an easier option. As a result, IPM methods are unfortunately seldom used today. Neither changing insecticides nor shifting to IPM is a quick fix. We argue instead that we need a subtle shift in focus, away from killing pests and towards protecting crops.
6-2-21 Elephant trunks suck up water at speeds of 540 kilometres per hour
Extreme suction helps elephants hold water and food in their trunks, allowing them to inhale at speeds nearly 30 times the rate at which we exhale air when we sneeze. Elephants use their trunks, which weigh more than 100 kilograms, in a variety of ways: to forage through vegetation for food, to drink and even as a snorkel when wading through deep water. To better understand the trunk in action, Andrew Schulz at the Georgia Institute of Technology and his colleagues filmed a 34-year-old female African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) completing a series of tests at a zoo in Atlanta. They filled an aquarium with a certain volume of water and measured how long the elephant spent inhaling water from the tank via its trunk. They then measured the volume of water left in the aquarium after the experiment. The researchers calculated that elephants suck up water with what would be an equivalent air velocity of 150 metres per second. “That is around 30 times the speed of the human sneeze,” says Schulz – when we sneeze, we exhale air with a velocity of 4.5 metres per second. Schulz and his team also estimated the trunk’s capacity by measuring the internal volume of a trunk that came from a 38-year-old African elephant that had been put down because of medical issues. This trunk was a similar size and weight to the trunk of the elephant in the Atlanta zoo. The measurements revealed that the elephant was able to inhale a lot more water than the estimated volume of its relaxed trunk. To work out how this is possible, the researchers used ultrasound imaging to view the inside of the trunk as the elephant inhaled. They found that the elephant was able to dilate its nostrils by 30 per cent, consequently increasing the volume of nasal cavity by 64 per cent. “They use this mechanism to suction water and also store it in the trunk to spray on their body to cool down,” says Schulz.
6-2-21 Even hard-to-kill tardigrades can’t always survive being shot out of a gun
That implies hardy water bears may not withstand crash-landing on a new planet. Tardigrades aren’t completely bulletproof, after all. These microscopic critters, also known as water bears, are practically unkillable (SN: 7/14/17). They can go years without food or water, withstand freezing and scalding temperatures and endure blistering radiation and the vacuum of outer space. But a recent experiment stress tested these death-defying creatures in a new way: by firing tardigrades from a gun. Tardigrades survived smashing into targets at speeds up to about 825 meters per second, researchers report online May 11 in Astrobiology. But speedier water bears blew apart on impact. The findings hint that even intrepid little animals like tardigrades would struggle to survive crash-landing on a new planet. That puts new limits on the possibility of panspermia — organisms hitchhiking between worlds on planetary debris kicked up by meteorite impacts (SN: 8/26/20). Knowing whether life is up to the challenge of planet-hopping could help answer how life got started on Earth and gauge the risk of Earthly lifeforms on spacecraft contaminating other places in the solar system, says Samuel Halim, a planetary scientist at Birkbeck, University of London not involved in the work. The inspiration to test water bears’ ability to withstand high-speed impacts came from the tardigrade-toting Israeli spacecraft Beresheet, which crashed into the moon in 2019 (SN: 4/11/19). “I wondered, are these tardigrades alive?” says astrobiologist Alejandra Traspas Muiña of Queen Mary University of London. After freezing Hypsibius dujardini tardigrades to put them in a state of suspended animation, Traspas Muiña and planetary scientist Mark Burchell of the University of Kent in England loaded the dormant water bears into nylon bullets. The researchers fired those bullets from a five-meter-long instrument called a two-stage light gas gun, which looks more like a cannon than a firearm. The machine launched tardigrades at different speeds, ranging from about 550 to 1,000 meters per second, into bags of sand meant to mimic the lunar surface.
6-1-21 The teeth of ‘wandering meatloaf’ contain a rare mineral found only in rocks
The giant Pacific chiton’s use of santabarbaraite could inspire materials for soft robotics. The hard, magnetic teeth of a leathery red-brown mollusk nicknamed “the wandering meatloaf” possess a rare mineral previously seen only in rocks. The mineral may help the mollusk — the giant Pacific chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri) — meld its soft flesh to the hard teeth it uses for grazing on rocky coastlines, researchers report online May 31 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. C. stelleri is the world’s largest chiton, reaching up to roughly 35 centimeters long. It is equipped with several dozen rows of teeth on a slender, flexible, tonguelike appendage called a radula that it uses to scrape algae off rocks. Those teeth are covered in magnetite, the hardest, stiffest known biomineral to date: It’s as much as three times as hard as human enamel and mollusk shells. Materials scientist Derk Joester and colleagues analyzed these teeth using high-energy X-rays from the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill. They discovered that the interface between the teeth and flesh contained nanoparticles of santabarbaraite, an iron-loaded mineral never seen before in a living organism’s body. These nanoparticles help the underpinnings of the teeth vary in hardness and stiffness by at least a factor of two over distances of just several hundred micrometers — a few times the average width of a human hair. Such variations let these structures bridge the hard and soft parts of the mollusk’s body. Now that santabarbaraite has been found in one organism, the researchers suggest looking for it in insect cuticles and bacteria that sense magnetic fields. Using nanoparticles of a mineral similar to santabarbaraite, the scientists also 3-D printed strong, light materials with a range of hardness and stiffness. These composites might find use in soft robotics, including marrying soft and hard parts in bots that can squirm past obstacles that conventional robots cannot given their rigid parts, says Joester, of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.