10-30-21 California condors: Virgin births discovered in critically endangered birds
US wildlife researchers have discovered that two California condors, a critically endangered bird, gave birth without any male genetic DNA. The discovery that condors are capable of virgin births - formally called parthenogenesis or asexual reproduction - surprised scientists. Virgin births have been recorded in other bird species, as well as lizards, snakes, sharks, rays and other fish. Only about 500 California condors remain in the US south-west and Mexico. In the 1980s, fewer than two dozen birds remained in the wild, but conservation efforts have boosted their numbers in recent years. The peer-reviewed findings from San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance were published this week in the American Genetic Association's Journal of Heredity. The researchers describe how routine genetic screenings of captive birds led to the discovery that two male chicks hatched in 2001 and 2009 were related to their mothers and had not inherited DNA from any father bird. All 467 male condors in the breeding pool were tested. What makes the case even more rare is that it is the first time that any bird species has had a virgin birth when males were present for breeding. Parthenogenesis is an extremely rare event, but has been recorded in other species before. It happens when a cell in a female behaves like a sperm and fuses with an egg. It normally occurs in animal populations that have few or no breeding males. "This is truly an amazing discovery," Oliver Ryder, the study's co-author and director of conservation genetics at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, said in a statement. "We were not exactly looking for evidence of parthenogenesis, it just hit us in the face. We only confirmed it because of the normal genetic studies we do to prove parentage." Unfortunately, both of the chicks have since died - one at age two in 2003 and the other in 2017 when it was seven. Both mother condors previously had chicks that were bred in the traditional way. One had 11 chicks, while the other, who had been paired with a male for 20 years, had 23 chicks. She reproduced twice more after the virgin birth.
10-29-21 Dogs can pick out individual words when we speak to them
Infants are able to identify individual words in continuous speech, even if they can't understand them – and now it seems dogs can as well. Dogs are able to pick out individual words from continuous speech like human infants can. Even without knowing what they mean, infants can recognise new words by noticing syllable patterns in speech, so Marianna Boros at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, and her colleagues wanted to find out if dogs can do the same. The researchers used electroencephalography and functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor the brain activity of 19 dogs. They then played the dogs a stream of three-syllable words from a made-up language, to ensure that the animals were hearing the words for the first time, as well as sounds that weren’t words. By comparing the dogs’ brain activity as they listened to the different recordings, the team found that they were paying attention to how often certain syllables occurred together, suggesting that they extract individual words from the speech. This ability to recognise separate syllables has been seen in infants as young as eight months old, when they segment speech while learning their first language. But language doesn’t just involve being able to recognise individual words: it has more complex rules, says Boros. “We don’t know if dogs will be able to follow those ones too.” “This is really just taking another brick down from that wall that says humans are so special,” says Holly Root-Gutteridge at the University of Lincoln, UK. “The fact that dogs can do this tells us a little bit about language evolution. It kind of fits into this building body of evidence that we have that other animals are communicating in more complex ways than we’d given them credit for.”
10-29-21 An elusive equation describing bird eggs of all shapes has been found at last
The case of the pear-shaped eggs was toughest to crack. For years, scientists have tried to crack a mathematical mystery: Is there an equation that can perfectly describe each and every bird egg? Variable shell shapes complicated things. But it turns out the answer is simple. A formula using just four easily measured dimensions can calculate the shape of any avian egg, be it round as a ping-pong ball, a smooshed sphere, oblong or a curvaceous pear, researchers report in an upcoming issue of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. It was that last shape that had eluded the eggs-perts. They found themselves yoked to an equation that couldn’t accurately describe pyriform, or conical, eggs. Previously, researchers developed an equation that accounted for spherical brown hawk owl eggs (SN: 6/22/17), elliptical emu eggs (SN: 10/31/18), ovoid osprey eggs and other similarly shaped eggs. But that formula didn’t apply to the pear-shaped eggs from birds like great snipes and King penguins. The new formula needs four inputs: the egg’s length, its maximum breadth, its diameter at the spot where its pointed end terminates and the location of its maximum diameter in relationship to the midpoint of its length. Adding one additional function and incorporating that last diameter variable to existing egg math led to the universal equation. The finding could have real-life implications, says Darren Griffin, a geneticist at the University of Kent in England, who did the work along with Kent biologist Michael Romanov and Valeriy Narushin, an agricultural engineer formerly at Kent. For example, being able to calculate an egg’s shape could help designers create better padded or form-fitting egg containers, minimizing grocery store waste or that disappointing moment of arriving home with a carton of eggs, opening the lid and finding your eggs cracked. “We’re all supposed to check in the box” before leaving the store, but it’s easy to forget, says Griffin.
10-29-21 Tardigrades could survive interstellar travel in extreme hibernation
The microscopic organisms have previously survived exposure to the vacuum of space and are able to hibernate using just 0.01 per cent of their normal energy. The first interstellar travellers from Earth may be a species that is no stranger to space exploration: tardigrades. These creatures grow only 0.5 millimetres long but are some of the most resilient animals known to science, even surviving in the vacuum of space. Until now, only five craft have left our solar system and none of them has carried biological life. It currently takes decades for craft to travel the 18 billion kilometres to interstellar space, but a NASA-funded research project is developing solar sail propulsion, boosted by Earth-based lasers, that could eliminate the need for conventional rocket propellant and cover the same distance in just days. While previous long-distance craft have only included messages, like the Voyager Golden Records, making it easier to leave the solar system opens the door to experimenting with live organisms. Stephen Lantin at the University of Florida and his colleagues analysed how much food would be needed to keep various species alive, how much they weigh and their resilience to the levels of radiation and high acceleration that would be encountered on their journeys. Tardigrades come out as a good option for low-maintenance pioneering insterstellar travellers. “It would be nice to send humans, but there are some biological constraints that would make it more favourable for us to send other organisms at least in the first few flights,” he says. “It takes a lot of energy to send anything out into interstellar space, at least at the speeds that we’re proposing, and in order to do that you need a really small payload.” Unfortunately, such a flight would be a one-way mission, he says.
10-28-21 Birds in Patagonia have a surprising taste for truffles
Truffles, the fruiting bodies of certain fungi, rely on mammals to eat them and spread their spores – and in Patagonia, it turns out birds help with dispersal too. Birds have been found to have a taste for truffles – fungi fruiting bodies that were assumed to be eaten only by mammals. The discovery, in the Patagonian region of South America, suggests that birds in this area have an important ecological role in the dispersal of truffle spores. Matthew Smith at the University of Florida and his colleagues collected 169 bird faecal samples mainly belonging to two bird species, the chucao tapaculo (Scelorchilus rubecula) and the black-throated huet-huet (Pteroptochos tarnii). The researchers collected the samples along a 700-kilometre-long transect through Patagonia between 2018 and 2019. They then used DNA analysis to identify truffle spores in the samples, as well as fluorescence microscopy to see whether the spores were intact. They found the spores of ectomycorrhizal fungi, a type of fungi that grow symbiotically with plants and includes truffles, in 95 per cent of chucao tapaculo faecal samples and 82 per cent of black-throated huet-huet faecal samples. More specifically, they found truffle spores in 42 per cent of chucao tapaculo and 30 per cent of black-throated huet-huet samples. In addition, the team found that many of the spores in the faecal samples were intact, which means they were still viable. Truffles grow underground and their spores are all internal, which means they rely on animals to eat the fruiting bodies in order to disperse their spores. The findings suggest that birds play a large role in spreading truffles to new areas throughout the forests of Patagonia. They also imply that fungi are a big part of these birds’ diets.
10-28-21 UK urban areas are home to 250,000 unowned cats
It’s not easy to estimate the number of lost, abandoned or feral cats on UK streets, but with the help of citizen scientists we now have a figure. The population of unowned cats in UK urban areas has been estimated at 247,429 on the basis of data collected by citizen scientists. This figure includes lost or abandoned cats, as well as unsocialised feral cats. Residents in five English towns and cities reported sightings of unowned cats between 2016 and 2018. Teams of volunteers then visited hotspot and cold spot areas to validate the number of reported unowned cats through paper collars, social media and door-knocking. “Citizen science provided really valuable information about where unowned cats might be,” says Jenni McDonald at Cats Protection, a UK charity. “Especially as more traditional ecological approaches wouldn’t have access to people’s gardens or behind homes and businesses.” McDonald and Elizabeth Skillings, also at Cats Protection, modelled data from 3101 surveys, 877 resident reports and 601 expert reports across 162 sites to estimate the number of unowned cats in Beeston, Bradford, Bulwell, Dunstable and Houghton Regis, and Everton. They also used this model to examine the potential factors that may predict where unowned cats might be, and found that unowned cats are more likely to be located in more densely populated areas and places with higher levels of socioeconomic deprivation. By scaling up the model, the pair estimated the densities of unowned cats across the UK using national statistics on human population density and deprivation. “There have been no evidence-based figures at all to date… now we do have a point to compare cat populations going forward. Beforehand we had no idea of the true scale in these urban areas,” says McDonald.
10-28-21 Giant panda's black and white coat works as excellent camouflage
By analysing images of giant pandas as a big cat would see them, biologists have discovered that a black and white coat is great for hiding in a forest, both in winter and in summer. Why are giant pandas black and white? It is a question that has long stumped biologists and casual observers alike. But we may at last have a clear answer. Tim Caro at the University of Bristol, UK, and his colleagues have previously looked at camouflage in other animals to suggest that the giant panda’s distinctive patterning helps it hide from predators – such as big cats. Now the team has strengthened the idea by modelling how pandas appear to these predators. The group analysed 15 photos of giant pandas taken in forests in south-central China and used a computer model to analyse the images as they would appear to predatory cats and dogs. “We don’t know what a tiger or a leopard’s eye is really like, but we do know how a [domestic] cat or dog’s eye works and so we can extrapolate from that,” says Caro. His team found that cats and dogs would both struggle to spot a panda in a forest – particularly if the panda were some distance away. The photos were taken from between 5 and 150 metres from the panda, and included both snowy and sunny environments. From a predator’s perspective, not only did the panda’s colours match its background, but beyond a distance of 55 metres, the panda began to lose its general outline. “We’ve seen this effect in things like moths but never a mammal,” says Caro. He says pandas are black and white because their environments are snowy in the winter and hot in the summer. “It’s a sort of compromise pattern,” says Caro. “Some animals change the colour of their coat seasonally – say brown in summer and white in winter – but this animal doesn’t do that.”
10-28-21 Hundreds of sea turtles wash up dead in Mexico
At least 300 sea turtles have washed up dead on Mexico's Pacific coast. Preliminary exams suggests that the olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) drowned, an official with Mexico's environment ministry said. The official said they had probably become tangled in illegal fishing nets in the high seas or in abandoned nets known as "ghost nets". Olive ridley turtles are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN says that their population is decreasing and that they are listed as vulnerable because they only nest in a small number of places. The turtles were found washed up on Morro Ayuta beach in Oaxaca, on Mexico's western coast. The beach is one of the sites where olive ridley turtles come to lay their eggs. All of the dead animals were females, turtle expert Ernesto Albavera Padilla told local media. It is not the first time a large number of olive ridley turtles has been found dead in Oaxaca. In 2018, fishermen found 300 of them entangled in fishing nets. Mexico banned the capture of sea turtles in 1990 and there are stiff penalties for anyone killing them. Officials said Mexico's navy would join environmental authorities in their investigation of the deaths.
10-28-21 Assassin bugs tap spiders to distract them before a lethal strike
The strange behavior seems to lull the arachnids into fatal complacency. The strange Assassin bugs live up to their name. The insects expertly stalk and feed upon other small invertebrates, jabbing them with a venomous proboscis. Some species even hunt spiders and use a strange trick to gain the upper hand. Using their antennae, assassin bugs tap spiders, which appears to discombobulate the arachnids long enough to let the bugs make a toxic strike, researchers report September 29 in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. The findings provide insight into some of the sophisticated hunting tactics that predators evolve when targeting dangerous prey (SN: 8/4/21). Thread-legged bugs are a subfamily of particularly gangly assassin bugs, and some species spend their lives in a place most insects avoid: spider webs. The bugs silently creep along the spider’s silk, taking care to make their vibrations seem benign before violently dispatching the web’s architect, seizing the spiders with their front legs and injecting them with venom. While watching two species of Stenolemus assassin bugs hunt spiders, ecologists Anne Wignall and Fernando Soley took note of the bugs’ habit of lightly knocking their antennae on spiders once the bugs were within striking distance. “It struck us early on that tapping prey was a really strange thing to do,” says Wignall, of Massey University in Albany, New Zealand. Spiders could easily defend themselves in a lethal fashion. “Watching [the bugs] spend so much time and effort on stealth, only to essentially tap [the spiders] on the shoulder was absolutely fascinating.” To figure out why the bugs tap, Wignall and Soley, of the Organization for Tropical Studies in San José, Costa Rica, tested the behavior of 30 web-building cellar spiders (Pholcus phalangioides) in the laboratory. The researchers replicated the bugs’ antennae tapping by gently brushing the spiders’ leg with a dog hair. After the tapping, the team measured the spiders’ responses to a vibrating tuning fork placed on the web, mimicking a struggling insect.
10-27-21 Is it normal behaviour for rooks to bury bread rather than eat it?
Almost every day, an Australian raven drops a hard crust of bread in our birdbath. It comes back after 20 minutes or so to retrieve and eat it, once soft. I am sure the rook described in the question – a fellow corvid – is doing a similar thing. No doubt the moisture in the earth softens the bread too. Many years ago, at work, we had a mobile service with coffee and toast for sale. My ground-floor office looked out onto a grassy area, and the kitchen was opposite. Every day, around 10.30 am, rooks would start to assemble on the roof above the kitchen. Then, as the coffee service finished, the servers would toss the unsold toast out of the window. The rooks would swoop, grab a slice of toast, tear it into pieces and bury it. I never did see them return for the spoils, though. Rooks and other corvids, such as crows and ravens, are extremely clever, with intellectual abilities on a par with those of chimpanzees. What makes them different from other species of bird is that they can imagine the future and plan for it. They have self-control, too, and can think what they will benefit from later, compared with right now. This is one reason why they might bury bits of bread. It is common corvid behaviour to cache food, and one species, the California scrub jay, can act deceptively if another bird is watching it bury food and pretend to move its cache to a new place. What’s more, it is only those birds that have been thieves in the past that do so, suggesting that it takes a thief to know one, and that the behaviour isn’t hard wired or simply a product of learning through trial and error. Corvids have a suite of other cognitive abilities. They are good at problem-solving and memory puzzles and they can even use tools. Rooks at a motorway service station in the UK have been observed using bin liners as a tool, cooperating in pairs to pull the liner up from rubbish bins in tandem in order to gain access to food – a process that takes at least 20 pulls. This is why I call corvids “minds with wings”.
10-27-21 What we have learned from making honeybees repeatedly crash into walls
We would like to be a busy-busy bee, being just as busy as a bee can be. Feedback often has reason to reflect on these words of wisdom from philosopher of life Arthur Askey as we see our rugby shirt-clad apian friends contentedly buzzing about their life-affirming business. This is why we find the title of a paper recently posted to the bioRxiv preprint server by Julien Serres at Aix-Marseille University in France and his colleagues, “An innovative optical context to make honeybees crash repeatedly”, particularly rude. Still, far be it from us rosbifs to ever ask what has got into the French, even if it does involve training bees to fly along tunnels using sugary treats and then replacing various elements of the tunnel walls with mirrors to fool them into thinking it is twice as big, or even infinitely big, and seeing what happens. The stated justification is to test a hypothesis that honeybees control altitude using visual information gleaned from the ground. What would Gill Perkins make of all this, we wonder (see page 27). How angry the bees were by the end of this process the researchers don’t say. But given they discovered that a bee’s visual field extends to 165 degrees, they should be wary of an angry buzzing coming their way. Geoscientist Marcia Bjornerud writes from Lawrence University in Wisconsin full of the joys of an email from scientific social networking site ResearchGate. It asks her to confirm whether James Hutton (1726-1797), the founder of modern geology, is her co-author. “Clicking Yes on a publication suggestion will send an email notification from ResearchGate to the relevant author notifying them about your suggestion,” the message asserts, confidently. We are somewhat unsettled by the implication that spam emails continue in the afterlife, an empty inbox being one of the things we are most looking forward to. Mind you, we didn’t have to rootle too far down our relevant pile to find the case of a reader (5 December 2020) who received word from a similar site that he had been mentioned in a paper by the evolutionary biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829).
10-26-21 Sharks may bite humans because they mistake us for seals and sea lions
Instances of sharks biting humans are rare, and researchers think they may happen when the marine predators confuse us for other species. Humans and seals look remarkably similar in the water from a great white shark’s perspective, suggesting that shark bites on humans may be a case of mistaken identity. Although shark bites on humans are extremely rare, they cause a significant and disproportionate amount of public concern. “By better understanding why sharks are biting people we can come up with better mitigation technologies that are less invasive for sharks and other marine life, whilst being effective for humans,” says Laura Ryan at Macquarie University in Australia. Ryan and her colleagues made separate video recordings of a seal and a sea lion swimming in their tanks at Taronga Zoo’s aquarium in Sydney, Australia, and also recorded people swimming and paddling on a surfboard in a tank. They used a static camera fixed to the bottom of each tank, looking up, and a camera mounted to an underwater scooter that mimicked the movement of a great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), one of the three main shark species responsible for shark bites on humans. To assess the visual similarity of the surfers and animals from the perspective of juvenile great white sharks, which are responsible for the majority of shark bites, the team analysed the video recordings using a model of the sharks’ visual system, taking into account their colour blindness and inability to see detail. The team found that the sharks would see little difference between the motion of humans swimming, humans paddling on surfboards and seals and sea lions swimming. The team also found that seals and sea lions with their fins out looked similar in shape to human swimmers and surfers.
10-26-21 Female seahorses forget their pregnant male partners if separated
Some seahorses pair for life, with the males carrying the pregnancies – but if the pair are separated for even a few days, the female seems to forget the male. Male seahorses are sometimes labelled nature’s best fathers, given that they form close, monogamous partnerships with a female and carry the pregnancy from shortly after fertilisation all the way to birth. But female seahorses may see things differently. They forget the long-term bond they share with their male partner if the two are separated even for a few days. Lined seahorses (Hippocampus erectus) are sexually monogamous, typically mating for life. Like other seahorses, they are unusual in that the males get pregnant, even forming a placenta to support hundreds of babies. In the lab, these seahorses usually live about two years, during which time the males can get pregnant 15 to 20 times, says Dong Zhang at the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences. “We did this study to provide a case that may help answer the question of whether the broken pair bond of a sexually monogamous species can be repaired,” says Zhang. The researchers took captive lined seahorses that had bred successfully in the laboratory and separated the females from the males eight days after mating, while the male was pregnant. They then introduced the female to a new male and waited to see whether she would successfully breed with this new partner. For the females that did so, they again waited eight days and then separated the pair. Finally, once the two males had given birth, Zhang and his colleagues reintroduced both to the tank with the female – along with a third, unfamiliar male – to see which partner the female would prefer to mate with when given a choice. They found that the females showed no preference for either of their former partners: instead, females were as likely to partner with the first male, the second male or the third unfamiliar male.
10-26-21 Sri Lanka's civil war left a lasting fear in the country's birds
More than a decade after Sri Lanka's civil war ended, wild birds are still wary of humans in areas of the country that saw armed conflict. Sri Lanka’s civil war lasted 26 years, coming to an end in 2009. But the country’s birds haven’t forgotten. “There were many incidents reported, while growing up in Sri Lanka, of landmines causing injury or death to animals in war zones,” says Jonathan Gnanapragasam at Deakin University in Burwood, Australia. He and his colleagues have found that in former war zones, wild birds are still wary of humans, while birds in areas that didn’t see armed conflict during the war let humans get closer before flying away. The civil war caused mass displacement of people, widespread poverty and the breakdown of normal levels of governance, and many thousands of people were killed or injured. This filtered down to Sri Lanka’s wildlife, as investment in nature conservation fell and civilians and combatants on both sides of the war engaged in hunting and poaching. Gnanapragasam and his colleagues were studying fear responses in Sri Lankan birds for population management purposes when they wondered if there was any influence from the civil war in their data. The researchers recorded the “flight initiation distance” (FID) – how close a bird would let humans approach before flying away – for 157 species of birds in Sri Lanka. In all, they measured 1400 FIDs across varied habitats, in areas that saw armed conflict during the war and those that didn’t. The team found that birds in regions that experienced armed conflict had FIDs that were about 25 percent longer than those of birds in areas that didn’t see armed conflict, meaning that the war zone birds were more fearful of approaching humans and apt to flee.
10-26-21 Flamingos dye their sun-faded feathers to stay pretty in pink
The DIY routine may help attract mates. Once the chicks are born, this preening stops. Greater flamingos apparently aren’t fans of a sun-faded look for their neck feathers. Scientists have known that the leggy birds touch up their color by smearing their necks with a serum they produce in glands in their cheeks. But greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) aren’t simply enhancing color that’s already there; they’re also fighting the sun’s bleaching effect on it, researchers report in the October Ecology and Evolution. Feathers with a thicker coating of this serum held their color better than those with less, analysis shows. Flamingos’ feathers help the birds fly, keep their bodies dry and attract mates. The feathers get their red color from carotenoids, molecules responsible for many natural pigments, found in the birds’ steady diet of brine shrimp and algae. When flamingos preen, they care for their feathers a bit like how we care for our hair, cleaning out accumulated dirt and parasites. And like some of us, they add color. To apply their DIY feather dye, flamingos rub their cheeks — which contain the uropygial gland that generates a color-carrying serum — on their feathers, then sway their necks to make sure it sticks. All that effort, paired with some slick dance moves, is aimed at attracting potential mates. But the sun’s ultraviolet radiation can break down carotenoids. That got Maria Cecilia Chiale, a biologist at Universidad Nacional de La Plata in Argentina, wondering if flamingos lose their color without constant reapplication of the serum. If so, that might help explain their instinct to constantly “touch up” their plumage. Chiale and her collaborators collected dozens of neck feathers from flamingos in France that had died in a cold snap (SN: 10/16/14). The team scanned the feathers and used Adobe Photoshop to analyze their color, and then placed half of them on a roof, exposed to sunlight. The other half were kept in darkness. Forty days later, new scans to analyze the feathers’ color intensity showed that the exposed feathers were sun-faded and paler than those kept in the dark.
10-25-21 Haunting lemur songs have a rhythm similar to human music
Human music often has a natural rhythm to it, and the roots of that rhythm might stretch back to the ancestors we shared with indris, a type of lemur. Eerie wails pierce the morning calm of lowland rainforest in eastern Madagascar and are soon joined by more. The haunting cries are the song of the indri – a critically endangered, metre-tall lemur. Now research suggests the primate’s calls have a great deal in common with human music. Indris (Indri indri) sing to communicate with other family groups, or to locate and reunite with family members, says Chiara De Gregorio at the University of Turin in Italy. But the degree of rhythm in this soulful keening and the calls of other primates isn’t well understood. So De Gregorio and her colleagues started dissecting the indri’s song. The researchers recorded songs from 20 different indri groups over 12 years in Madagascar’s rainforests and analysed the timing of the notes. They found that the indri used two distinct rhythm categories: 1:1, where the notes are evenly spaced like a metronome, and 1:2, where the gap between one note is twice as long as the previous one. Such rhythm categories – or “categorical rhythms” – are universal in human music. “This is the first evidence of the presence of a typical trait of human music in another mammal,” says De Gregorio. She adds that just two bird species – thrush nightingales (Luscinia luscinia) and zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) – are known to show this trait when they sing, but each displays just one categorical rhythm. “Instead, indris share with human music two different rhythms, which makes their songs quite complex and articulated,” she says. Finding these universal musical characteristics in indris may indicate that “intrinsic musical properties are more deeply rooted in the primate lineage than previously thought”, says De Gregorio.
10-25-21 Jumping spiders’ remarkable senses capture a world beyond our perception
Scientists are catching glimpses of the surreal sensory landscape these spiders navigate. Imagine that the world is shades of gray and a little blurry, almost as if your lousy peripheral vision has taken over. This fuzzy field of view extends so far that you can make out dim shapes and motion behind you as well; no need to turn your head. The one bright spot is an X-shaped splash of color that moves with your gaze. At the center of this splash, everything is crisp and clear — a small window of sharp, colorful detail in a gauzy grayscape. Add some blades of grass the size of redwood trees, and you’ve got an inkling of what the world looks like through the eight eyes of a jumping spider. It might be a bit like watching a poorly focused black-and-white movie on a 3-D IMAX screen that wraps around the room, while you hold a spotlight shining high-definition color wherever you point it. In other words, it’s really, really strange, at least compared with our two-eyed human perspective. Jumping spiders, which are the family Salticidae, are best known for their hilariously flamboyant mating dances, their large front eyes that make for adorable close-ups and their itty-bitty size — some of the more than 6,000 known species of jumping spiders are smaller than a sesame seed. But scientists are discovering that there’s much more to these diminutive arachnids. Researchers are getting a sense of what it’s like to be another animal by doing innovative experiments to go deeper into these spiders’ lives, probing their ability to see, feel and taste. “Part of why I study insects and spiders is this act of imagination that is required to really try to get into the completely alien world and mind and perceptual reality of these animals,” says visual ecologist Nathan Morehouse of the University of Cincinnati.
10-22-21 How these sea-loving mangroves ended up far from the coast
Warming more than 100,000 years ago raised sea levels and displaced the plants far inland Nearly 200 kilometers from the sea, red mangroves thrive in the rainforests along the San Pedro Mártir River on the Yucatán Peninsula. But how did these tangled trees that typically grow in salty water along coasts end up trapped so far inland and in freshwater? Carlos Burelo has been mulling a version of that question ever since he visited the river on a fishing trip with his father 35 years ago. As a kid, he saw how the mangroves with their twisted aboveground roots were different from other trees, an observation that stuck with him into adulthood as a biologist at the Universidad Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco in Villahermosa, Mexico. Now, genetic analyses, surveys of vegetation and sediments and simulations of shifts in sea levels show that the red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) are part of a “relict ecosystem” that has existed for more than 100,000 years. When warming during the last interglacial period, which peaked about 130,000 years ago, raised sea levels approximately 9 meters above present-day levels, the lowlands of what’s now the Yucatán Peninsula flooded. As a result, the mangrove forest was displaced and started to grow inland by today’s standards, Burelo and colleagues report in the Oct. 12 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. When sea levels dropped as the world cooled again, the trees were left far from the coast. “The remarkable resilience of these trees, in particular, is striking — that although they’re normally adapted to seawater, they’ve survived all this time inland is incredible,” says Holly Jones, a conservation biologist at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb who wasn’t involved in the new study. To estimate where the mangroves may have been displaced from, the team collected leaves from the trees and from other mangrove forests along the coasts of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico and compared the plants’ DNA. That work pinpointed the origins of the inland mangroves about 170 kilometers away along the Gulf of Mexico.
10-22-21 Mozambique: Tuskless elephant evolution linked to ivory hunting
A new study suggests that severe ivory poaching in parts of Mozambique has led to the evolution of tuskless elephants. The study published in Science magazine found that in Gorongosa National Park a previously rare genetic condition had became more common as ivory poaching used to finance a civil war pushed the species to the brink of extinction. Before the war, about 18.5% of females were naturally tuskless. But that figure has risen to 33% among elephants born since the early 1990s. Some 90% of Mozambique's elephant population was slaughtered by fighters on both sides of the civil war that lasted from 1977 to 1992. Poachers sold the ivory to finance the vicious conflict between government forces and anti-communist insurgents. As in eye colour and blood type in humans, genes are responsible for whether elephants inherit tusks from their parents. Elephants without tusks were left alone by hunters, leading to an increased likelihood they would breed and pass on the tuskless trait to their offspring. Researchers have long suspected that the trait, only seen in females, was linked to the sex of the elephant. After the genomes of tusked and tuskless elephants were sequenced, analysis revealed that the trend was linked to a mutation on the X chromosome that was fatal to males, which did not develop properly in the womb, and dominant in females. The study's co-author, Professor Robert Pringle of Princeton University, pointed out that the discovery could have a number of long-term effects for the species. He noted that because the tuskless trait was fatal to male offspring, it was possible that fewer elephants would be born overall. This could slow the recovery of the species, which now stands at just over 700 in the park. "Tusklessness might be advantageous during a war," Professor Pringle said. "But that comes at a cost." Another potential knock-on is changes to the broader landscape, as the study has revealed that tusked and tuskless animals eat different plants. But Professor Pringle emphasised that the trait was reversible over time as populations recovered from the brink of elimination.
10-22-21 Tuskless elephants became common as an evolutionary response to poacher
Gorongosa National Park’s elephants bear the physical consequences of poaching’s legacy When ivory poachers target elephants, the hunters can affect more than just animal numbers. In Mozambique, past hunting pressure led to an increase of naturally tuskless elephants in one park, a study finds. During the Mozambican Civil War, which lasted from 1977 to 1992, armies hunted elephants and other wildlife for food and ivory (SN: 5/5/19). This caused the number of large herbivores to drop more than 90 percent in the country’s Gorongosa National Park. Now, video footage and photographic records show that as elephant numbers plummeted, the proportion of tuskless female African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) rose from about 18 percent to 51 percent. Decades of poaching appear to have made tusklessness more advantageous from an evolution standpoint in Gorongosa, encouraging the proliferation of tuskless females with mutations in two tooth genes, researchers report in the Oct. 22 Science. The rapid culling of tusked individuals changed the makeup of traits in the elephant population in only two decades, leaving behind more tuskless individuals, say evolutionary biologist Shane Campbell-Staton of Princeton University and colleagues. The tuskless trait is heritable, and the evolutionary change in the population may stick around for several generations at least, even as poaching eases. The team also analyzed the genetic instruction books of 18 tusked and tuskless females, zeroing in on two genes rife with mutations in tuskless females. In humans, the disruption of one of those genes can cause tooth brittleness and the absence of a pair of upper incisors that are the “anatomical equivalent of tusks,” Campbell-Staton says. Abnormalities in the other gene’s protein product can cause malformations of the tooth root and tooth loss.
10-21-21 Female African elephants evolved to lose tusks due to ivory poaching
Female elephants in Mozambique rapidly evolved to become tuskless as a result of intense ivory poaching during the country’s civil war, even though one of the mutations involved kills male offspring. During the war, from 1977 to 1992, both sides hunted elephants for ivory, and the elephant population of Gorongosa National Park plummeted. Now an analysis of historical video footage and contemporary sightings by Shane Campbell-Staton at Princeton University and his colleagues has shown that the proportion of tuskless females rose from 19 to 51 per cent during the conflict, and a statistical analysis indicated this was extremely unlikely to have occurred in the absence of a selective pressure. The proportion of tuskless elephants has been declining since the war ended. This loss of tusks due to ivory hunting or poaching has happened in many other places too. For instance, in Sri Lanka less than 5 per cent of male Asian elephants still have tusks. Oddly, though, all male African elephants have retained their tusks despite the pressure of hunting. This appears to be the result of a genetic quirk. The team hasn’t yet found the precise genetic changes that cause tusklessness in females, but it appears two mutations are involved. One is probably in a gene on the X chromosome called AMELX, which plays a part in tooth formation. It appears this mutation also affects other, crucial genes nearby. Females have two copies of the X chromosome, so if one copy isn’t mutated, the genes it carries will still function normally and the elephant will still be healthy. But males have only one X chromosome, so this mutation is lethal to any males that inherit it. Much the same genetic condition can occur in people, says Campbell-Staton. Women with it lack upper lateral incisors – the equivalent of tusks – and male fetuses that inherit the mutation are usually lost in the third trimester.
10-21-21 Wolf cubs raised by humans become attached to us like puppies
Wolves that are raised by people may have similar levels of attachment to humans as dogs. Christina Hansen Wheat and her colleagues assessed attachment behaviour in 12 Alaskan huskies from two different litters and 10 European grey wolves from three litters while Wheat was working at Stockholm University in Sweden. For the first two months of their lives, each litter – whether dog or wolf – was separately hand-raised and extensively exposed to humans, with the 24-hour presence of human caregivers. Caregiver presence was gradually reduced to the point where the puppies spent every other night without a caregiver present after the age of four months. The team found that both dogs and wolves showed similar attachment behaviours towards familiar people, such as greeting, following them around and expressing physical contact. Both sets of animals were also able to discriminate between a stranger and a familiar person at 23 weeks old. Similar tests have most commonly been used to explore and understand the relationship and behaviours that human children express towards their parents. “The kind of emotional and cognitive background that allows these behaviours to be shown is common among mammals. The fact that we see it in wolves is actually not surprising because it’s something that they can show towards their mothers,” says Giulia Cimarelli at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna in Austria, who wasn’t involved in the study. “[But] the fact that they can show it towards humans raises questions.” Domesticated animals have been thought to display more social attachment to humans than their wild ancestors. One suggestion has been that dogs evolved the ability to form attachments to people during the process of domestication.
10-20-21 Here’s the physics of why ducklings swim in a row behind their mother
By paddling in just the right spots, ducklings save energy by surfing their mom’s waves. There’s physics to having your ducklings in a row. By paddling in an orderly line behind their mother, baby ducks can take a ride on the waves in her wake. That boost saves the ducklings energy, researchers report in the Dec. 10 issue of the Journal of Fluid Mechanics. Earlier measurements of duckling metabolism showed that the youngsters saved energy when swimming behind a leader, but the physics behind that savings wasn’t known. Using computer simulations of waterfowl waves, naval architect Zhiming Yuan of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and colleagues calculated that a duckling cruising in just the right spot behind its mother gets an assist. When a duckling swims on its own, it kicks up waves in its wake, using up some energy that would otherwise send it surging ahead. That wave drag resists the duckling’s motion. But ducklings in the sweet spot experience 158 percent less wave drag than when swimming alone, the researchers calculated, meaning the duckling gets a push instead. Like good siblings, the ducklings share with one another. Each duckling in the line passes along waves to those behind, so the whole brood gets a free ride. But to reap the benefits, the youngsters need to keep up with their mom. If they fall out of position, swimming gets harder. That’s fair punishment for ducklings that dawdle.
10-19-21 Domestic cats are driving parasitic infections in wild animals
Wild animals that live close to cities have a higher likelihood of carrying the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, and house cats may play a major role in spreading this disease to wildlife. oxoplasmosis is caused by the pathogen Toxoplasma gondii and can infect any warm-blooded animal, including humans. Between 30 and 50 per cent of all humans have been infected with T. gondii, with most cases being asymptomatic. But for humans and animals with weakened immune systems, the infection can lead to chronic illness or even death. “Toxoplasma gondii is an important pathogen to both humans and wildlife because infections are life-long, associated with multiple chronic illnesses and relatively common in both wildlife and human populations,” says Amy Wilson at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Wild and domestic cats are the primary hosts of T. gondii, which matures and reproduces inside these animals. One of the most common ways toxoplasmosis spreads is through contact with cat faeces. Wilson and her colleagues analysed 45,079 cases of toxoplasmosis in 238 species of wild mammals, with data taken from 202 published studies. The researchers compared rates of infection to factors such as human population density, annual rainfall and temperature to identify the predictors of toxoplasmosis prevalence. They found a high prevalence of the disease among wild mammals that live close to cities. There was also a strong correlation between warmer temperatures and high infection rates. As higher human population density is associated with a higher number of domestic cats, these results support suggestions that freely roaming domestic cats are a key driver of these infections, says Wilson. Urban expansion is encroaching on natural habitats and in some cases reducing the number of wild mammals near cities, allowing domestic cats to more easily wander into these areas without facing predators, say the study’s authors.
10-20-21 Do frogs notice when it is raining?
In summer, my favourite party trick for visitors in the garden is to switch on the hose so it sprinkles over my pond. Within minutes, many frogs come out and enjoy the shower. The answer depends on what we mean by “notice”. There is good evidence that rain has a strong effect on the behaviour of frogs. It stimulates males to call and females to navigate to ponds, so they must “notice” changes in rainfall just as they “notice” changes in other aspects of their environment, such as shifts in temperature or the presence of predators or mates. Because frogs can’t talk, we will never really know the answer, but we can speculate. While frogs do express a wide range of fascinating behaviours, the ability to reflect isn’t required to explain them. Their brains are also relatively simple compared with those of animals such as birds and mammals, whose decision-making seems to be more complex. We can tell whether other animals “notice” something if they respond to it by changing their behaviour. Here in the dry tropics of Queensland, rainfall tends to coincide with increasing temperatures and day length. I can’t say that the many dozens of frogs we have in our yard definitely notice when it is raining, but they do appear to respond to increased humidity and, even if it isn’t raining, they will start to croak and become more active. Interestingly, green tree frogs vocalise if we are watering in their vicinity even though they aren’t getting wet, and also in response to rumbling noises that even vaguely resemble the sound of thunder. This suggests that they are responding to rain-associated noises. When it does rain, we see frogs leaping through vegetation and across the grass and roads, particularly at night. Unfortunately, many get squashed by vehicles. Our semi-rural property has a dam that is home to eight species of frog. They certainly know when it has been raining. Last week, we had a short, sharp storm. Afterwards, the number of frogs calling increased. I am sorry now that I didn’t count them so I could provide definitive “before and after” statistics, but we often comment on the frogs starting up calling again after a rain shower (as long as the air temperature is more than 4°C – below this, they stop calling altogether).
10-19-21 Danish children trap 19,000 ants to study impact of climate change
Important information about how ant populations are evolving in the face of global warming, forest farming and urbanisation has come from a citizen science project involving hundreds of Danish children. The project involved youngsters and their families collectively trapping 19,000 ants near their homes or holiday sites across Denmark. Comparing the new catches with specimens dating back to 1900, an international research team has detected major population shifts in these “hugely important, but vastly underappreciated” insects, says team member Julie Sheard at the University of Copenhagen. Most population studies have focused on “charismatic” insects like butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers and bees, she says. “But ants pollinate plants, spread seeds and aerate the soil, so they’re also extremely important.” Sheard and her colleagues provided 1500 families and schools with the Ant Hunt project ant-baiting kits. The kits explained to the children – aged from 3 to 18 years old – how to set the traps and leave them for 2 hours, and to then send them back to the research centre. In the laboratory, the scientists analysed the specimens and gave the children details about the species they found and sent them a diploma. Last year, DNA analyses revealed that the children had discovered an invasive species – the immigrant pavement ant (Tetramorium immigrans) – for the first time in Denmark. In their latest study, the team compared ant-baiting kit catches with historical specimens housed in Danish museums. Taking into consideration the year in which historical specimens were captured and the locality of capture, the researchers used modelling to estimate how the geographical range and population size of 29 ant species has changed across the years. They found that while half of the species have had stable populations since 1900, the other half have either declined, increased or fluctuated, Sheard says. Among those that have fluctuated, three are currently in decline – including two species that build mounds in sunny patches of forests. This is probably because tree-farming has made forests denser and less hospitable to insects, she says.
10-19-21 An agile gecko found in India named after the legendary Jackie Chan
12 newly described gecko species get scientific names inspired by their features. Martial arts legend Jackie Chan may not be aware of this yet but some of his biggest fans are a group of adoring herpetologists from India. These scientists have named a newly identified gecko species, the Jackie’s day gecko (Cnemaspis jackieii), after Chan. This lizard is one of 12 new gecko species found in India that researchers describe September 23 in Zoological Research. All 12 species are endemic to the Western Ghats, a biodiversity-rich mountain range threatened by deforestation and changing land use (SN: 3/18/19). Working at mid-elevation in the Western Ghats, the team noticed an extremely agile gecko. “Whenever we attempted to catch it, it would spring from one rock to the other, and crawl into the smallest of crevices to escape us,” says Saunak Pal of the Bombay Natural History Society in Mumbai. Immediately, it reminded the researchers of the nimble-footed Chan, spurring them to name it after the martial artist. “Naming a species in this manner helps people connect with it especially when it is a less popular class of animals like reptiles,” says coauthor Zeeshan Mirza of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. Mirza has identified nearly 60 new faunal species to date, including the now world-famous snake Salazar’s pit viper (Trimeresurus salazar), named after Salazar Slytherin, a character in the Harry Potter series. Unique skin patterns inspired names for some of the other newly described gecko species. The golden-crowned day gecko (C. regalis), or royal day gecko, earned its regal name from the golden-yellow head of the male of this species. Another with body coloration that bears an uncanny resemblance to a galaxy of stars led the team to name it the galaxy day gecko (C. galaxia). The clouded forest gecko (C. nimbus) has a prominent cloudlike pattern on the upper side and flank of the male of the species.
10-18-21 This koala was first to be vaccinated against chlamydia in new trial
A vaccine designed to protect koalas against chlamydia is being tested in a large clinical trial in Queensland, Australia. Australia’s koalas are in the grip of a chlamydia epidemic, with up to 100 per cent of some populations testing positive for the sexually transmitted infection. Its rapid spread is thought to be a major driver of plummeting koala numbers. Peter Timms at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland and his colleagues have spent more than a decade developing a vaccine to protect koalas against the disease, which can lead to painful urinary tract infections, loss of bladder control, infertility, blindness and death. The vaccine exposes koalas to small fragments of the Chlamydia pecorum bacterium that can infect them. This trains the immune system to recognise and attack the pathogen if they become infected. Eight small studies have shown that the vaccine protects koalas from getting sick if they catch chlamydia and can also reduce symptom severity in those that are already infected. In the current trial, which is the biggest yet, the vaccine will be given as a single injection to 200 koalas at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital in Beerwah, Queensland. The trial began on 15 October, with a koala called Shano receiving the first jab. To evaluate the vaccine’s efficacy, Timms and his colleagues will assess how many of the 200 vaccinated koalas are hospitalised with chlamydia symptoms over the next 12 months compared with 200 unvaccinated koalas. If the vaccine is approved for widespread use, “it could help to turn around populations of koalas that might disappear”, says Timms. His team has already found that the vaccine, combined with other veterinary care, was effective at reversing declining koala numbers in an area of south-east Queensland.
10-15-21 Climate change could slow recovery of southern right whales
More frequent and severe El Niño weather events caused by climate change may hamper the recovery of southern right whale populations living off the coast of Argentina. Since whaling was widely banned in the 1930s, the number of southern right whales has risen, but it is unclear how climate change will impact their recovery in the future. El Niño is a weather event caused by winds that push warm surface water from around Indonesia and Australia across the Pacific Ocean to South America. Climate change means that El Niño events are likely to occur more often and with higher intensity, says Macarena Agrelo at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil. This leads to the melting of ice shelves in West Antarctica, which can reduce the abundance of krill, a major food source for southern right whales. Agrelo and her colleagues analysed data from the Southern Right Whale Program, which has tracked 1380 female whales within a larger population living around the Valdes peninsula off the south-east coast of Argentina since the 1970s, to predict how more frequent and severe El Niño events will affect whale survival. “I was modelling the female whale numbers over time when I noticed that, although they were generally high, there were years that the population dipped,” says Agrelo. “Then looking at the patterns, I realised they were El Niño years.” The researchers speculate that reduced krill abundance during El Niño years leads to the death of female whales that have recently given birth. “After giving birth and the lactation period, female whales are thin and need a year to recover. If an El Niño event reduces the krill available, the females may die from lack of food,” says Agrelo. The team predicted whale population growth under different scenarios of climate change. Under the same frequency and intensity of El Niño events as the past 50 years, the population has around a 90 per cent chance of reaching 85 per cent of its estimated pre-whaling size, of 35,000 whales, over the next 100 years.
10-15-21 Mark Hankinson: Top huntsman guilty of encouraging illegal fox hunting
A senior fox hunter has been found guilty of encouraging and assisting people to evade the ban on fox hunting. Recordings of Mark Hankinson, a director of the Master of Foxhounds Association, speaking to around 100 senior hunters in two private webinars in August 2020 were leaked online. The prosecution argued he was giving advice on how to avoid the law. The defence said he was advising what to do if saboteurs disrupt legal hunts. At Westminster court Deputy Chief Magistrate Tan Ikram said "I am sure that the defendant through his words was giving advice on how to illegally hunt with dogs." "In my judgement he was clearly encouraging the mirage of trail laying to act as cover for illegal hunting," he added. Mr Hankinson was fined £1,000 along with a contribution of £2,500 towards legal costs. The videos of Mr Hankinson came to light when they were leaked to anti-hunting groups and then posted online. Fox hunting was made illegal in the Hunting Act 2004. Many organisations instead turned to trail hunting which involves laying a scent for hounds to chase instead of a live animal. The trial at Westminster Magistrates Court took place over three days in September. Clips of the video recordings were played in court. The case rested on the context of the advice Mr Hankinson gave in the webinars. In the recordings he told participants "if you've got saboteurs out with you in any shape or form we need to have clear, visible, plausible trail laying being done throughout the day." "It's a lot easier to create a smokescreen if you've got more than one trail layer operating." Mr Hankinson told the court that when he said "smokescreen" he was giving advice on laying dummy trails to confuse potential saboteurs and allow legitimate hunting to continue. During the trail Mr Hankinson's barrister Richard Lissack QC asked him what message he sought to send. Mr Hankinson replied that the law "must be adhered to, there's no question of it." Mr Lissack QC argued in his closing submission that Mr Hankinson had carried out his role "strictly, properly and unapologetically." Prosecuting barrister Gregory Gordon said in his closing submission that Mr Hankinson was offering advice on how to hunt illegally "behind a smoke screen of trail hunting". "His words were clear, his advice was capable of encouraging hunts to commit illegal hunting, and his intention was to encourage illegal hunting," Mr Gordon said.
10-14-21 Venomous viper species from the Tibetan plateau discovered in museum
If you picture the habitats frequented by venomous snakes, it is tempting to conjure up a searing desert or humid rainforest. But some venomous snakes thrive in frigid, mountainous regions inhospitable to most reptiles – and two new venomous snake species that live on the Tibetan plateau have just been described. The two new species are Asian pit vipers (Gloydius), a group of venomous snakes related to rattlesnakes and lanceheads. With about two dozen species found mostly in China and Russia, they are exceptionally adaptable, living in chilly forests, high mountains and deserts. Gloydius snakes are among the most northerly living pit vipers, says Anita Malhotra at Bangor University in the UK. But, she says, “the taxonomy of this group has long been rather confused, with few people agreeing on which species are valid”. Malhotra and collaborators in China, Nepal and India analysed the DNA from 46 museum specimens covering the 20 known Asian pit viper species. The team compared genes and physical features to determine the vipers’ evolutionary relationships. Doing so suggested the 20 species were actually 22. Some of the snakes were grey-brown with dark rings on their back, and were genetically distinct enough to justify placing them in a new species that the team named Gloydius lipipengi, the Nujiang pit viper. Other snakes with a bluish hue and zigzags on their backs were genetically distinct enough to be placed in a second new species that the team named Gloydius swild, the glacier pit viper. Both species were identified from museum specimens originally found in the eastern reaches of the Tibetan plateau. The discovery of these hidden Gloydius species shows there is “a clear need to better survey the Himalayas, where many surprises in biodiversity are still waiting”, says Eric Smith at the University of Texas at Arlington, adding that the high-altitude region may be a centre of diversification for the vipers.
10-13-21 The Lord God Bird and a growing class of cryptids
On holding out hope on the precipice of mass extinction. What do Sasquatch, the Jersey Devil, and the ivory-billed woodpecker all have in common? None of them officially exist. Of course, what sets the ivory-billed woodpecker apart from, say, the Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster is the fact that we know it at least used to exist. But with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's announcement late last month that it plans to rule the woodpecker extinct, we're watching in real time as an animal passes from credible to dubious existence. Where, then, does that leave those who still believe the truth is out there? Last confirmed alive in 1944, intermittant reports of sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker (known also as "the Lord God Bird," because "when it swooped into view, people were known to shout, 'Lord God, what a bird!'") have surfaced for years. The most famous recent claim is a 2004 sighting by Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison. Then, a Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology expedition made more than a dozen sightings and captured inconclusive, but promising, footage of a possible specimen the following year. Like a blurry photo of a Big Foot, these sightings are subject to plenty of doubts and debate. "We're not questioning what those people thought they saw, but we can't know what they actually saw without some kind of proof," one skeptic delicately told "Living on Earth" in 2005, pointing out that the pileated woodpecker, a common sight in the American southeast, looks similar enough that it could be easily mistaken for its more elusive cousin. Gallagher, though, is a firm "believer," so the official extinction label is "a bitter pill to swallow," he wrote for Audubon this week. "Despite all the challenges and the strong opinions of doubters," he added, "a handful of us are still working hard to amass proof, searching tirelessly on our own dime, not supported by institutions, government funding, or various conservation organizations" — a statement that could easily be transposed to the mouth of a UFOlogist or cryptozoologist. I make the comparison not to cheapen Gallagher's plea for "a little extra time" before ruling the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. The opposite, in fact: The Lord God Bird was merely the highest-profile of 23 total species of plants and animals Fish and Wildlife is poised to label extinct. Some 467 species were declared extinct in the decade ending in 2019, with 1 million more estimated to be at immediate risk, Vox notes. Man-made climate change places us on the precipice of a mass extinction event in our and our children's lifetime. The question of holding out hope is going to become more and more pressing in the coming years; we're all going to have to make decisions like Gallagher's. Ever more animals like the ivory-billed woodpecker will become cryptids, a word defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "an animal whose existence or survival to the present day is disputed or unsubstantiated." Though it's more often used to describe creatures whose existence has never been proven, like Mothman, it's also used to refer to what The New York Times calls "enigmatic creatures" that people have "an emotional investment in identifying," like the technically extinct, but still obsessively searched-for, Tasmanian tiger.
10-14-21 Walrus counting from space: How many tusked beasts do you see?
A new project aims to get a better idea of the number of walruses on Earth by counting them from space. Volunteers are being sought to search through thousands of satellite images to see how many of the tusked animals they can spot. Scientists need improved population data as they try to asses how this polar keystone species will be affected by climate change. Walruses are heavily dependent on sea-ice, which has been in sharp retreat. The marine mammals will haul out on to the floes, to use them as a platform on which to rest and raise their young, and as a base from which to launch foraging trips. A walrus will drop to the seabed to hunt in the muds for clams and other invertebrates, such as snails, soft shell crabs and shrimp. All this is being made more difficult as the extent of the seasonal sea-ice declines. "We're seeing about a 13% loss in summer sea-ice per decade," said Rod Downie, chief polar adviser at environmental campaign group WWF. "One of the implications of not having the sea-ice to haul out on is that we're increasingly seeing walruses spend longer on land. And that comes with a number of impacts, which include overcrowding with the potential for calves to be crushed in stampedes. This happens. But also for local food sources to be depleted," he told BBC News. WWF is running the "Walrus From Space" project jointly with the British Antarctic Survey, which has expertise in satellite surveys of polar wildlife. BAS has long counted penguins from orbit, and is also now tracking seals, albatross, and even whales under the water. "It's only recently that satellites have had high enough resolution to allow us to count walruses accurately," said BAS remote-sensing specialist Peter Fretwell. "We'll be using Maxar's WorldView satellite which has a resolution where each pixel is only about 30cm on the ground. That's about the size of an A4 sheet of paper and we can easily count individual animals at that resolution."
10-14-21 Barnacles are famed for not budging. But one species roams its sea turtle hosts
Being mobile may help the barnacles access better feeding spots on their turtle taxis. Barnacles aren’t exactly renowned for their athleticism, staying glued in place for much of their lives. But turtle-riding barnacles are fidgety travelers. As adults, the turtle barnacles (Chelonibia testudinaria) can move about 1.4 millimeters a week across turtle shells, researchers report October 6 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Previous observations of barnacles stuck on green sea turtles suggested that the creatures were somehow mobile, propelled by either outside forces or their own actions. But this is the first experimental confirmation that they embark on self-directed treks. Barnacles start life as free-swimming larvae, eventually settling and adhering to rocks, ship hulls or even the skin of marine mammals (SN: 9/27/16). Some species have been known to rotate on their base or even scooch a smidge when nudged by a too-close neighbor. But once settled in, they live and grow, eating particles of food drifting by what was long considered their permanent address. Now it turns out some may need forwarding addresses. Benny K.K. Chan, a marine ecologist at Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan, decided to test C. testudinaria’s mobility experimentally when one of his students successfully transferred turtle barnacles from crabs to an acrylic plate. The team followed 15 transferred barnacles with time-series photography over a year. Chan’s team also collaborated with researchers in Spain to track the movement of barnacles on the shells of five captive loggerhead sea turtles over a few months and with citizen scientist divers who gathered photos of wild green sea turtles in Taiwan. The team logged the positions of the green turtles’ barnacles over 16 weeks.
10-13-21 Australia's unusual western swamp turtle is an oddity under threat
The western swamp turtle, an Australian species that occasionally wears a coat of algae, is one of many evolutionarily unique animals facing a disproportionately high threat from human activity, including climate change. In a study that analysed more than 30,000 species of birds, mammals and reptiles, Gopal Murali at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and his colleagues mapped the global hotspots that were home to the most evolutionarily unique and geographically isolated species, including the western swamp turtle (Pseudemydura umbrina). These regions were mainly islands found in the tropics and mountainous regions. They included several Caribbean islands and Sri Lanka. Additionally, the team found that the wildlife protection in these areas is largely inadequate. In 70 per cent of the regions, less than 10 per cent of land is protected from development. “Across all these priority regions, there is much higher human pressure than surrounding regions, driven by urban expansion, increased agricultural practices and human population density,” says Rikki Gumbs at the Zoological Society of London. “These regions also face increased rates of climate change going forward. A lot of these species are losing their remaining habitat now.” In the case of western swamp turtles, which live in a handful of freshwater swamps in Western Australia, the combination of human activity and climate change is already causing their natural habitats to become more arid. The animals, which are classified as critically endangered, sit on an evolutionary branch that diverged from other turtles some 90 million years ago. “Their loss would represent millions of years of unique characteristics,” says Gumbs. As a result, conservationists in Australia are beginning to relocate the turtles, introducing them to new swamps – the first assisted migrations of animals due to climate change, says Gumbs. “Our findings highlight the urgent need for conservation plans to safeguard the regions that hold the world’s unique and isolated species,” says Murali.
10-13-21 Wolf pups 'adopted' by Idaho high schoolers killed by federal agents
Conservation groups have expressed outrage after the US Department of Agriculture revealed it killed eight young wolves in an Idaho forest. The pups were part of the Timberline pack, a group of wild wolves tracked and studied since 2003 by students at the local high school in Boise. Federal officials have defended their actions as a "necessary" measure in reducing the predators' population. But local wildlife groups say wolves are "under attack" in the region. Earlier this year, lobbied by the livestock ranching community, Republican-dominated legislatures in Idaho and Montana passed measures that made it easier to hunt and kill wolves. Idaho's version of the law allows hunters to kill an unlimited number of wolves each year, up from a 15-wolf annual limit, and triples the budget for population control efforts. Under the terms of the legislation, wolves can be baited into snares, aerially gunned down via aircraft and even mowed over by hunters in ATVs or other motorised vehicles. Environmental groups have warned the aggressive tactics will whittle down Idaho's wolf population by 90%, from roughly 1,500 to 150, which is the minimum limit enshrined by a 2002 conservation law. The Timberline wolf pack - unofficially "adopted" by students at Boise's Timberline High School over the past 18 years - appears to have been among the targets. Their den, on public lands in Boise National Forest, was found empty this spring. An official from the Agriculture Department confirmed federal agents had killed the animals in order to force the adult wolves to relocate. Grey wolves were once nearly wiped out across the contiguous US. The Endangered Species Act of 1974 created federal protections that saved the species from extinction and led to sustained population recovery efforts. But the animals were delisted by the Trump administration last October and management of the species has since fallen to the states. Supporter of the Idaho wolf-culling law have said wolves pose a threat to wildlife, particularly cows, sheep and other livestock.
10-13-21 Huge numbers of fish-eating jaguars prowl Brazil’s wetlands
Most jaguars are loners that hunt landlubbing mammals, but not the big cats of the Pantanal. In a tract of central Brazilian wetlands, jaguars spend their days wading through chest-deep waters searching for fish. When not hunting, the big cats playfully grapple with each other back on land. Their life is unlike any other known jaguar population’s existence in the world. New findings reveal a degree of flexibility in diet and lifestyle previously unseen among jaguars. The discovery may provide key context on the cats’ role in food webs, helping scientists better understand the effect of environmental changes on the species, researchers report October 6 in Ecology. Jaguars (Panthera onca), which are usually territorial loners that hunt on land, live in a wide array of habitats, ranging from North American deserts to grasslands and tropical rainforests in Central and South America. The cats’ are also found in the Pantanal, an immense tropical wetland — the largest of its kind in the world — that sprawls over parts of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. Ecologists Manoel dos Santos-Filho of the Universidade do Estado de Mato Grosso in Cáceres, Brazil and Carlos Peres of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England knew of rumors of large numbers of jaguars sighted near Brazil’s Taiamã Ecological Station. That large ecological reserve is located in the remote, northern reaches of the Pantanal. After relaying these anecdotes to Taal Levi, a wildlife ecologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, the researchers started a project to better understand the jaguars’ biology and population status in the protected area. Taiamã is seasonally flooded, with no roads or trails, so the team had to access the reserve by boat, setting up motion-activated cameras along waterways to gather data on jaguar numbers. The area’s abundance of jaguars, however, was obvious immediately.
10-12-21 Penguins have rare ability to recognise each other's faces and voices
Some penguins match the vocal calls of fellow penguins to their faces or other aspects of their physical appearance, making them the first birds besides crows known to have this double-sense recognition ability. African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) – which have unique, individualised spotted markings on their chests and which are found in southern Africa – may have evolved this voice-plus-image recognition ability in order to improve communication in their rocky and windswept coastal setting, says Luigi Baciadonna at the University of Turin in Italy. “Imagine a large [penguin] colony in this really challenging environment, with a lot of wind noise, background noise,” he says. “And potentially, they’re relying on vocal communication, calling to each other as they’re coming back from a hunting trip, for example. But also, their unique pattern of black spots [could become difficult to decipher] amongst the waves and rocks. So the ability to integrate both visual and auditory identifiers can be necessary when one of the cues is not available.” Baciadonna and his colleagues worked with 10 adult penguins living in captivity in a colony of 17 individuals at Zoomarine, a park in central Italy. They placed the penguins in pairs, then each pair was placed in a separate enclosure for about a minute before one of the two penguins was herded out through a wooden door. Twenty seconds later, the scientists played a pre-recorded audio file of a penguin squawk from a speaker above the wooden door. Each penguin underwent testing six times on six different days. Sometimes the squawk they heard was from the partner penguin that had just left the enclosure; sometimes it was a squawk from a randomly chosen penguin from the same colony.
10-12-21 Toxic oak moth threatens UK trees after failure to control its spread
The oak processionary moth (OPM), an invasive species in northern Europe with caterpillars that are toxic to humans and other animals, expanded its range at an increased speed in the years following its arrival in the UK, despite government efforts to contain it. Yevhen Suprunenko at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues looked at data on larval nests of the OPM (Thaumetopoea processionea) across south-east England to model a 13-year shift in the moth’s range, which is native to southern Europe but has expanded to cover most of the continent thanks to accidental introductions. In the UK, there are very few native predatory or parasitic species that can effectively provide natural control of the pest. The researchers found that, following the first discovery of OPM caterpillars in the UK in 2006, the species’ movements expanded the radius of its range slowly until 2014, at 1.66 kilometres per year on average. But in the five subsequent years, there was an abrupt increase to a much faster rate of 6.17 kilometres per year on average. Suprunenko and his team cite limited resources for monitoring the growing population and changes in habitat quality as probable factors in this shift. “Our study shows that the expansion of the outer edge of the OPM’s range from 2015 to 2019 occurred at a nearly constant rate. This suggests that it is likely to have remained constant since 2019 and that the boundary continued to expand radially by approximately 6 kilometres per year,” says Suprunenko. While south-east England is presently the most suitable region of the UK for OPM to settle and establish, previous modelling has suggested that climate change will probably make most of the UK increasingly viable for OPM populations.
10-11-21 Sea cucumber has modified genes to help it live on hydrothermal vents
A sea cucumber that lives in extreme deep-sea environments has had its genome sequenced. This revealed that many of its genes have been altered, potentially by the intense places it calls home. Chiridota heheva is a sea cucumber, a worm-like animal in the echinoderm group that also includes starfish. First described in 2004, it is one of the only echinoderms that lives in three of the most extreme ocean locations: hydrothermal vents, cold seeps rich in carbon-based chemicals like methane, and “whale falls” – the sunken corpses of whales. These places have little dissolved oxygen and are toxic to many organisms. To find out how C. heheva survives, researchers led by Muhua Wang at Sun Yat-sen University in China read its DNA from samples collected by team member Jian He in the South China Sea in 2019. The team found that 27 genes had been strongly selected for, suggesting they evolved in response to environmental pressures. Four of them are known to be involved in surviving a lack of oxygen. Some genes had also been duplicated. There were seven genes for aerolysin-like proteins that are usually part of the immune system. Most echinoderms have either just one or none of these. These proteins create small holes in the outer membranes of bacteria, destroying them. However, Wang says cold seeps don’t normally have any infectious bacteria. “We don’t think it’s related to the immune system,” he says. The sea cucumbers could instead use the proteins to help digest bacteria. This would make sense because, unlike most animals in these environments, C. heheva doesn’t have symbiotic bacteria that provide it with nutrients. However, Wang emphasises that this idea is only a hypothesis at present.
10-11-21 A lack of fish faeces is changing the flow of carbon in the ocean
A shortage of fish faeces is contributing to shifts in the ocean’s carbon cycle of an equivalent magnitude to that of the impact of climate change on the ocean. Fish-produced faecal pellets are one of the most efficient natural mechanisms of carbon storage, locking it deep in the ocean for up to 600 years. But the rise of industrial fishing has seen the number of fish in the sea fall, so Daniele Bianchi at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues decided to investigate how this has affected the flow of faeces. The team developed a model of the global marine ecosystem that quantifies how the production of fish faeces has changed over time. The model is based on estimates of historical and present-day numbers of fish caught, as well as broader human-driven impacts on marine ecosystems, such as climate change. The researchers looked at species that industrial fishers try to catch, as well as those they don’t. Their model showed that before industrial fishing began in the early 20th century, the global biomass of species in the first category was about 5 billion tonnes, while the total for fish that aren’t targeted by industrial fishers was nearly double that. Given that the biomass of all the humans on the planet today is an order of magnitude smaller, these numbers are large, says Bianchi. Almost all of the biomass on Earth is ultimately the product of photosynthesis by plants, so one way to measure an animal’s influence on the ecosystem is to look at how much of this mass, known as global primary production, cycles through it. The team found that the species that industrial fishers try to catch cycled 2 per cent of this mass before the 1900s, but by the time the number of fish caught industrially peaked in the 1990s, this had halved, as had the rate at which carbon locked up in fish faeces sank into the sea. These figures suggest that the effect of industrial fishing on the ocean’s carbon cycle is comparable in magnitude to the impact of climate change on the ocean’s carbon, says Bianchi. “We should consider fish as an integral part of the ocean’s biogeochemical cycles.”
10-10-21 Biodiversity loss risks 'ecological meltdown' - scientists
The UK is one of the world's most nature-depleted countries - in the bottom 10% globally and last among the G7 group of nations, new data shows. It has an average of about half its biodiversity left, far below the global average of 75%, a study has found. A figure of 90% is considered the "safe limit" to prevent the world from tipping into an "ecological meltdown", according to researchers. The assessment was released ahead of a key UN biodiversity conference. Biodiversity is the variety of all living things on Earth and how they fit together in the web of life, bringing oxygen, water, food and countless other benefits. Prof Andy Purvis, research leader at the Natural History Museum in London, said biodiversity is more than something beautiful to look at. It's also what provides us with so many of our basic needs," he told BBC News. "It's the foundation of our society. We've seen recently how disruptive it can be when supply chains break down - nature is at the base of our supply chains." The new tool for assessing biodiversity, known as the Biodiversity Intactness Index, estimates the percentage of natural biodiversity that remains across the world and in individual countries. The UK's low position in the league table is linked to the industrial revolution, which transformed the landscape, the researchers said. The UK has seen relatively stable biodiversity levels over recent years, albeit at a "really low level," team researcher Dr Adriana De Palma explained in a news briefing. The assessment was released on the eve of the UN Biodiversity Conference, COP 15, hosted by China, a mega-diverse country with nearly 10% of plant species and 14% of animals on Earth. World leaders are attending week-long virtual talks seen as pivotal in raising ambition for slowing the loss of nature ahead of face-to-face talks in Kunming, China, in April next year and the climate conference in Glasgow at the end of the month.
10-8-21 Artificial lightning zaps farm stink
Tests in the UK have shown that artificial lightning can strip pollutants from animal manure. The technology entails firing a bolt of plasma at slurry to break up toxic ammonia and climate-heating methane. The artificial lightning is plasma – a stream of matter heated so hot that electrons are ripped away from the atoms and molecules break down. The action smashes ammonia molecules to produce pure nitrogen, which is absorbed into farm slurry. That saves the farmer money because nitrogen applied to fields in slurry is an essential fertiliser. A plasma gun has been firing at cow dung on the dairy Holly Green Farm, in a picturesque part of Buckinghamshire. Independent assessors at the consultancy ADAS told BBC News that it reduces ammonia in slurry by 90%. The plasma process also reduces the emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – by 99%. If the technology proves affordable it wouldn’t just tackle climate change and improve the smell of the countryside, it would also present an opportunity to tackle air pollution in urban areas. That’s because clouds of farmyard ammonia often drift towards cities when they react with other chemicals to form tiny particles that are breathed deep into people’s lungs. Particulates have a host of sources including exhausts from vehicles and gas boilers; paints; cleaning fluids; tyres and brakes - and the World Health Organisation recently warned that their health effects are even worse than previously thought. So eliminating ammonia from the pollution recipe would be a helpful step. In an equipment-filled shipping container at the farm I tried a before-and-after-plasma sniff test of the slurry – like taking the bouquet of a bottle of wine. The ‘before plasma’ sniff knocked back my nose in typically pungent fashion. The ‘after plasma’ sniff was neutral at first, but then the bouquet took on a clean and faintly uplifting smell of the seaside. Farmer Neil Dyson is delighted with what he describes as a triple win. He told me: “It will tick lots of boxes. It will reduce our carbon footprint by cutting emissions of methane; it will help with the Clean Air Act by removing ammonia; and by locking nitrogen into the slurry it improves the quality of the slurry so it should allow us to reduce our need for artificial fertiliser”. Recently a surge in natural gas prices led to some fertiliser firms halting production.
10-7-21 Stink bug discovery raises fears of threat to crops
A stink bug that can spoil crops and infest homes has been trapped in Surrey as part of a monitoring study. The brown marmorated stink bug is native to Asia, but has spread to parts of Europe and the US, where it can destroy fruit crops. A lone stink bug was caught at RHS Garden Wisley this summer within weeks of the setting up of a pheromone trap. The adult may be a stowaway brought in on imported goods or part of an undiscovered local population. Dr Glen Powell, head of plant health at RHS Garden Wisley, said the stink bug may become commonplace in gardens and in homes within a decade. "This isn't a sudden invasion but potentially a gradual population build-up and spread, exacerbated by our warming world," he said. It's not yet clear if stink bugs are living undetected in parts of England or are rare visitors that hitch-hike in on imported goods or passenger luggage and survive for only a short time. So far, no eggs or immature bugs have been found that would suggest the bug is breeding and has set up home. The bug has been caught only twice before in pheromone traps set up to lure it in by means of a natural chemical - in all cases as lone instances. The previous finds were at Rainham Marshes in Essex and in the wildlife garden of London's Natural History Museum. According to the department for the environment, Defra, the bug has been intercepted in the UK on several occasions - in passenger luggage flown in from the US, clothing and wood imports from the US, and stone imported from China. The trap at Wisley is part of a national monitoring project led by a plant science research company, NIAB EMR, in Kent, and funded by Defra. Dr Michelle Fountain, head of pest and pathogen ecology at NIAB EMR, said: "[The] brown marmorated stink bug represents a significant threat to food production systems in the UK so it is crucial that we continue to monitor any establishment and spread of the pest."
10-7-21 Hares with failed snow camouflage still manage to avoid predators
To match their environment and avoid predators, some animals change their coat colour with the seasons – switching from brown to white in winter, for instance. But climate change has left certain species mismatched with their habitat at particular times of year. Snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus), which live in Canada and northern parts of the US, turn white in autumn when snow usually begins to fall in their environment. But the animals may become mismatched and lose their camouflage if snowfall is delayed. “With climate change increasing the variability of the snow seasons and snow cover duration, hares are more likely to become colour mismatched, as their coat colour change initiation is likely driven by changes in daylight hours, which is fixed,” says Joanie Kennah at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. Mismatched hares stand out more to potential predators, so their mortality rates might be expected to be higher. But Kennah and her colleagues have found that for some mismatched hares, the risk of mortality actually decreases. The team captured and monitored 347 snowshoe hares in south-west Yukon, Canada for three autumns and four springs between 2015 and 2018. About one in seven captured hares were mismatched. Kennah and her colleagues found that the autumn mortality risk of the mismatched hares was 86.5 per cent lower than that of the matched hares. The researchers think they know why white hares on a brown background fare so well. Snowshoe hares gain more insulation when they turn white. This means that the white mismatched hares in Yukon may have an advantage over brown hares when it comes to their energetic demands. “If you can be a [white hare] that happens to be mismatched, you actually don’t need to move [as much],” says team member Eric Vander Wal, also at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. “You can move less, hunker down, hide in a spot, and if you’re not moving, you’re less likely to bump into a predator or a predator [is less likely] to bump into you.”
10-6-21 Birds and marine mammals will be hardest hit by 'very uneven' recovery from Huntington Beach oil spill
Expect the ecological recovery from the Huntington Beach oil spill to be "very uneven," Steve Murawski, a fisheries biologist and marine ecologist at the University of South Florida, told The Guardian. Murawski, who has spent years studying the effects of the much larger 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, explained that birds and marine mammals will be among the species hardest hit by the incident in the short term. That's especially true for animals that pass through California's coastal wetlands, where oil can get buried "below the level of the sediments" and remain there "pretty much forever." Birds are particularly vulnerable, The Guardian notes, because coming into contact with even just a small amount of oil can destroy their feathers' ability to insulate them, which can lead to hypothermia and starvation. Other species could struggle too, Murawski said, singling out abalone, which have a long lifespan, grow slowly, and can't get out of the way. The news is better for small sea creatures like plankton, however, since they have a fast life cycle. So, even if they take an immediate hit, they'll be more likely to bounce back. Read more at The Guardian.
10-6-21 Waggle dances show city bees have shorter commutes than country bees
A study of the waggle dances of honeybees shows that bees in central London don’t have to fly as far to find food as those living in farmland outside the city. “We knew that big cities were good for bees, but our study is contributing to showing why,” says Elli Leadbeater at Royal Holloway, University of London. “There is more forage available.” In the summer of 2017, Leadbeater and her colleague Ash Samuelson visited 20 hives every two weeks to record waggle dances. The hives had glass panels, allowing the dances to be filmed without disturbing the bees. Ten of the hives were in farmland around London and 10 were in the centre of the city. The waggle dances of honeybees reveal the direction and approximate distance of the best nectar sources found by foraging workers. Overall, Leadbeater and Samuelson – and their colleague Roger Schürch at Virginia Tech – decoded nearly 3000 waggle dances. This showed that the median distance to sources of nectar was around 490 metres for city colonies, but 740 metres for those in farmland. The longest distance in this study was around 9 kilometres, although bees can fly up to 14 kilometres to a food resource, says Leadbeater. The findings suggest that the availability of food, rather than less pesticides or diseases, is the key reason why honeybees do better in cities than farmland, she says. Gardens and parks provide more diverse, plentiful and reliable resources than farms. Gardeners usually aim to have flowers throughout spring and summer, and water plants during dry periods, says Leadbeater. But because green spaces within urban areas are small compared with farmland, they don’t make up for the impoverishment of farmland. The findings probably apply generally even though parts of London are greener than some other cities in Europe. “The area of London that we studied is pretty much full of concrete,” says Leadbeater. She adds that the findings also probably apply to bumblebees as well as honeybees, but may not be true for solitary bees.
10-5-21 Gifted dogs can learn 12 words in a week and remember them for months
Dogs with a special ability to understand human language can learn as many as 12 new words per week – and usually still remember them after a two-month lapse. So far, researchers have identified about a dozen pet dogs across the globe that possess the rare gift of word learning. Unlike other well-trained dogs that are able to distinguish between common commands like “sit” and “stay”, these dogs associate objects with words and can have a vocabulary exceeding 100 terms. In the latest in a series of studies on these Gifted Word Learner dogs, scientists have discovered that the animals can acquire human words at speeds similar to those of 1-year-old human babies, says Shany Dror at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary. Less than a year ago, Dror and her colleagues discovered that some dogs have an apparently exceptional natural ability to acquire object names, and they concluded that having this ability was similar to humans having musical or mathematical giftedness. To study this rare ability further, they used social media and announcements at international conferences to look for more Gifted Word Learner dogs throughout the world. In the end, they found only six qualifying dogs – all Border collies – with an average age of 3.6 years and an average vocabulary of 26 words. The three males and three females live in the US, Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway and Hungary. The researchers sent each dog’s owner a box containing six new toys. Owners then had six days to teach their dogs the names of the toys with their usual methods. These generally involved playing with the dog and each toy, often for just half an hour a day. At the end of the six-day learning period, the research team used online video conferencing to test the dogs’ abilities to pick out each toy by name from a scattering of multiple old and new toys on the floor. They asked each owner to sit with their dog in one room and tell them to fetch a given toy, saying “Bring the alien!” for example, from a second room equipped with a video camera. All the dogs successfully brought back at least five of the six new toys. The team then sent a second box with 12 new toys and repeated the process. All the dogs successfully brought back at least 11 of the toys. “The dog in Hungary actually knows more Hungarian than I do!” says Dror, who is originally from Israel.