Friday, 18 August 2017

Chimps Can Play Rock-Paper-Scissors at 4-Year-Old Level

By Charles Q. Choi, Live Science Contributor | August 15, 2017 07:02am ET

Chimpanzees can learn how to play the game rock-paper-scissors about as well as a 4-year-old human child, a new study finds.

This finding suggests that the last common ancestor of humans and chimps may have possessed the capability for the complex form of thinking used in the game, scientists said.

In the popular children's game rock-paper-scissors, the hand signal for "paper" always beats the sign for "rock," while "rock" trumps "scissors," and "scissors" defeats "paper." The ability to learn such circular relationships might prove key to solving complex problems or forming complex networks of social relationships, the researchers said. [8 Human-Like Behaviors of Primates]

"In the wild, with many, many animals, you can see dominance ordered by rank — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and so on. This is fairly typical in chimps," said study senior author Tetsuro Matsuzawa, a primatologist and comparative cognitive scientist at Kyoto University's Primate Research Institute in Japan. "However, in human societies, you can have more complex societies, where you can have a circular relationship, with 1 dominant to 2, and 2 to 3, but 3 can be dominant to one. So, there is a question — how did this kind of circular relationship evolve in humans?"

Freeze-dried dung gives clue to Asian elephant stress

By Siva Parameswaran
BBC Tamil Service

17 August 2017 

"Collecting fresh faecal samples is not as easy as it may sound," says researcher Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel.

But her efforts have helped scientists in India devise a unique, non-invasive way to monitor the physiological health of wild elephants.

The key has been freeze-drying dung in the field to preserve the elephant's hormones.

As a result, scientists found stress levels in females were more conspicuous than in male elephants.

Over five years, Sanjeeta and her colleagues collected more than 300 samples from 261 elephants in the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats area.

She explained her technique: "I used to hide and observe till the elephant defecated and moved away."

She told the BBC: "These samples mean a lot to me."
Ethical approach

The aim of the research was to evaluate the influence of the elephants' body condition on glucocorticoid metabolites.

Animals such as elephants are subjected to various stressors in their lives, with factors including threats from predators, food shortages, drought and illness.

Predators preserve existing animal species

Date: August 16, 2017
Source: Lund University

A new study increases knowledge of how boundaries and barriers are maintained between different species in the animal world. According to theory, crosses between two species, known as hybrids, may not survive encounters with natural predators to the same degree as their parents. Now, researchers show that reality confirms this theory.

Popular sungazer lizards under threat from poaching

Poaching, habitat destruction put this unique and highly vulnerable species under pressure to survive

Date: August 16, 2017
Source: University of the Witwatersrand

The sungazer (Smaug giganteus), a dragon-like lizard species endemic to the Highveld regions of South Africa, is facing an assault on two fronts as farming and industrialization encroaches on its natural habitat -- which already consist of only a several hundred square kilometers globally -- while the illegal global pet trade is adding pressure on pushing the species into extinction.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Cenozoic carnivore from Turkey may have evolved without placental competitors

August 16, 2017

A new marsupial-like carnivorous animal that lived more than 40 million years ago in what is now Turkey may have evolved in the absence of competition from placental mammals, according to a study published August 16, 2017 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Murat Maga from University of Washington, US and Robin Beck from University of Salford, UK.

At the beginning of the Cenozoic Era, eutherians (placental mammals and their relatives) coexisted and competed with metatherians (marsupials and their relatives) in both the northern and southern hemispheres. During the Cenozoic, metatherians diversified widely in South America, Antarctica and Australia, but eutherians radiated massively and are thought to have come to outcompete metatherians and dominate the northern hemisphere.

The authors of the present study describe a nearly-complete skull and skeleton of Anatoliadelphys maasae, a cat-sized metatherian from the Uzunçar??dere Formation in Turkey. Analysis of the skeleton indicates that the animal was agile, and able to climb and grasp, perhaps similarly to a modern-day spotted quoll. Its strong jaws and large, broad premolars suggest that it was carnivorous and capable of crushing hard objects—such as bone and hard-shelled invertebrates—which would make it the first known carnivorous metatherian in the northern hemisphere from the Cenozoic Era.

Comparing the jaws of porcupine fish reveals three new species

August 17, 2017

Researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and colleagues compared fossil porcupine fish jaws and tooth plates collected on expeditions to Panama, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil with those from museum specimens and modern porcupine fish, revealing three new species.

Startled porcupine fish suck in air or water to inflate their bodies, becoming a prickly balloon-like shape to defend themselves from predators and some contain a neurotoxin a thousand times more potent than cyanide in their ovaries and livers. They are also good at offense, crushing the shells of clams and other marine mollusks with beak-like jaws so tough that they are preserved as fossils to be discovered millions of years later.

Two of the newly discovered species, named Chilomycterus tyleri, in honor of the Smithsonian's James C. Tyler, senior scientist emeritus at the National Museum of Natural History—an expert on this group of fish—and C. expectatus, named for the arrangement of its dental plates, were discovered in Panama's Gatun formation.

Ancient species of giant sloth discovered in Mexico

August 17, 2017

A Mexican National Institute of Anthropology image of scientists say is the skull of a newly discovered species and genus of giant sloth that dates between 10647 and 10305 A.C.

Mexican scientists said Wednesday they have discovered the fossilized remains of a previously unknown species of giant sloth that lived 10,000 years ago and died at the bottom of a sinkhole.

The Pleistocene-era remains were found in 2010, but were so deep inside the water-filled sinkhole that researchers were only gradually able to piece together what they were, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) said in announcing the find.

Scientists have so far hauled up the skull, jawbone, and a mixed bag of vertebrae, ribs claws and other bones, but the rest of the skeleton remains some 50 meters (165 feet) under water, the INAH said.

Researchers are planning to bring up the rest by next year to continue studying the find—including to estimate how big the animal was.

"They'll be putting the pieces together like a puzzle," INAH spokesman Arturo Mendez told AFP.

The skeleton is nearly complete, leading scientists to believe the sloth "fell into the sinkhole when it was dry or had only a little water at the bottom," the researchers said.

They have named the new species Xibalbaonyx oviceps, and nicknamed it "Pote."

An initial analysis suggests the sloth lived between 10,647 and 10,305 years ago, they said—an era when giant creatures of all kinds roamed the Earth.

SeaWorld's matriarch 42-year-old killer whale is euthanized, the second orca death to hit the marine parks in a month

Kasatka, a 42-year-old orca was euthanized at SeaWorld Tuesday 
She had battled a lung disease for years and her health took a turn for the worse
The killer whale was one of the last to be captured in the wild for SeaWorld
Criticism and pressure have mounted on SeaWorld's care of orcas which has led them to promising to end the whales' performances by 2019
The entertainment company also ended its breeding program in 2016 under pressure from animal rights groups and activists 
Pressure reached a pinnacle when the 2013 documentary titled 'Blackfish' was released criticizing SeaWorlds' care of orcas 

PUBLISHED: 02:00, 17 August 2017 | UPDATED: 04:19, 17 August 2017

One of the last killer whales caught in captivity for SeaWorld was euthanized in San Diego, making her the second orca death at the marine parks in a month.

The whale named Kasatka was put down Tuesday evening after battling a lung disease for years.

SeaWorld says Kasatka was 'surrounded by members of her pod, as well as the veterinarians and caretakers who loved her,' when she died. 

RSPB hails natterjack toad 'baby boom' at Lodge reserve

7 August 2017
From the sectionBeds, Herts & Bucks

Natterjacks are distinguished from common toads by the yellow stripe along their back

One of the UK's rarest toads is thriving at a nature reserve despite unfavourable spring breeding conditions, conservationists claim.

About 500 natterjack toadlets have been counted at the RSPB's The Lodge reserve near Sandy, Bedfordshire, - fives times more toads than were counted in 2016.

Another 2,000 tadpoles have also been identified and were an indication of a "baby boom", the charity said.

The protected toads are only found at 60 sites in the UK.

In 2016 just 100 toadlets emerged from the pools at the reserve, and fewer than 100 were counted the year before, warden Lizzie Bruce said.

Read more

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Yoda bat gets happy: New species officially recognized

Date: August 10, 2017
Source: University of York

An unusual breed of fruit bat -- previously nicknamed 'Yoda' due to its resemblance to the Star Wars Jedi Master -- has now officially been registered as a new species and renamed the happy (Hamamas) tube-nosed fruit bat.

Why Mark Twain Was Wrong About Lizards - via Herp Digest

8/14/17 by Sarah Marley Guest Post, Blog, British Ecology Journal

In the many discussions regarding Mark Twain, relatively few probably relate to his opinion on lizards. However, this is the focus of our guest post by Professor Shai Meiri from Tel Aviv University, which aptly marks World Lizard Day (14th August)!

One of humanities greatest wits – and one of the first modern tourists – Mark Twain, visited the Holy Land some 150 years ago and was greatly unimpressed. He found a sparsely populated region, little exposed to modern ideas and technology, which seemed to have lost its glorious past, gaining nothing in exchange – except for lizards. Twain did not care much for lizards: “Gray lizards, those heirs of ruin, of sepulchres and desolation, glided in and out among the rocks or lay still and sunned themselves. Where prosperity has reigned, and fallen; where glory has flamed, and gone out; where beauty has dwelt, and passed away; where gladness was, and sorrow is; where the pomp of life has been, and silence and death brood in its high places, there this reptile makes his home, and mocks at human vanity. His coat is the color of ashes: and ashes are the symbol of hopes that have perished, of aspirations that came to nought, of loves that are buried. If he could speak, he would say, Build temples: I will lord it in their ruins; build palaces: I will inhabit them; erect empires: I will inherit them”. What a dreadful way to talk about the stunning creature that was (most probably) a hardun (Stellagama stellio).

Even in a recent newspaper article praising the glorious past of the Negev Desert in Israel, one could find a dichotomy, such as Twain’s , between glory on the one hand, and lizards on the other: “If we visited the central Negev 1,700 years ago, far from a barren wasteland peopled mainly by nomads and lizards, we would see a countryside dotted with farms and monasteries”.

Lizards are certainly ubiquitous in deserts, in themselves stunning places with unique, fascinating and often fragile ecosystems. They are among the easiest animals to observe in these open, sunny terrains. Being relatively large and abundant, and with a tendency to sun themselves in exposed places it is not surprising the BBC’s “Life in cold blood” called these often remarkably warm-blooded animals “dragons of the dry”. In fact, most lizard species reside in tropical regions, and they generally abhor cold places, making lizards in general (and nocturnal geckos in particular) scarce in cold places, such as much of northern Europe and North America. But because most animals are most diverse in the tropics, whereas lizards are the only major group to have diversity hotspots in deserts worldwide (and especially, in Australia), they are regarded as the quintessential desert animals. Yet lizards have more than one trick up their scaly sleeve. This is a hugely successful and diverse group of some 6500 recognized species (with around 120 new species described yearly). They range in size from the mighty 100 kg “dragon” – the famous Komodo monitor, to the miniscule 0.1 gram or less Sphaerodactylus geckos of the Caribbean.

While most walk on all fours, some run on two, some slide in a snakelike fashion (many lizards seem to really want to be snakes, losing their limbs in the course of evolution, indeed snakes, another hugely successful reptilian group of some 3600 described species, evolved from lizards), while others climb, burrow, swim and even glide. Lizards predominantly eat small animals but many species eat plants. Most are active by day yet there also many nightwalkers; and while most lay eggs, about 18% of species give birth to live young. It is plain to see that lizards are hugely varied and successful, and some are among our best known “model organisms” for the study of evolution (particularly the Caribbean anoles) – and yet , Twain’s attitude still prevails. A large proportion of the described species have only recently been discovered and are poorly known. Last year I estimated that since the turn of the century around 1300 lizard species have been described (Meiri 2016). This number has now reached 1531. Some of these newly described lizards are truly spectacular, for example the aptly named Sarada superba ( ; and Cnemaspis psychedelica.

Lizards do not typically harm humans in any direct or indirect way (the Komodo dragon being nearly the only exception), and there seems little reason for animosity towards them. Nonetheless commonly held beliefs and superstitions deriving from misconceptions and ‘alternative facts’, generally dominate people perception of these charismatic critters. Humans, on the other hand, frequently harm lizards either directly or indirectly. We use them for food, let our pet dogs and cats prey on them, collect them in the wild for the pet trade, destroy their habitats and sometime even kill them for no apparent reason. This is something I would love to see change in future.

One of the earliest references to lizards in human history is full of admiration, referring to them as “exceedingly wise“. The bible provides a beautiful reference to them: “A gecko can be caught by hand but resides in the palaces of kings”*.

Indeed, lizards often share our homes, using them for shelter while hunting true pest insects. This beautiful mutualistic relationship between humans and lizards is to be celebrated and a much more apt way to perceive these wonderful creatures.

More information:
Meiri, S. 2016. Small, rare and trendy: traits and biogeography of lizards described in the 21st century. Journal of Zoology 299: 251-261. doi:10.1111/jzo.12356.

*My translation from the original Hebrew “שממית בידיים תיתפס, והיא בהיכלי מלך”, there are many translations and somewhat of a debate what is meant by the Hebrew “Smamit” (“שממית”), with some calling it a spider, others a lizard, some a gecko. I choose to refer to a gecko, the modern Hebrew version of the word, as spiders and lizards appear elsewhere in the bible with their current Hebrew names, “Smamit” is close to the Greek word for gecko “Σαμιαμίδι” – “Samyamidi”, and the behavior described in the bible is just so, well, gecko-like.

Learning from lizards: St. Louis native studies evolution in real time - via Herp Digest

by Jane Henderson, St. Louis Post Dispatch, 8/11/17
For additional photos and video go to

Thank a cranky reptile for helping set a St. Louis boy on the road to Harvard.

Jonathan B. Losos went from carrying plastic dinosaurs to school to begging his parents for a pet caiman, those cousins of alligators that in the early 1970s could be bought in a neighborhood pet store.

“I had to wear ski gloves so I wouldn’t get bit,” he says

Undeterred, Losos kept two caimans in a horse trough in the backyard of his family’s Ladue home. During the winter, the scaly chompers were moved to the basement, outfitted with a plastic swimming pool and sun lamp.

In his new book, Losos writes that he got the idea from an episode of “Leave It to Beaver,” when Wally and the Beave hid a baby alligator in the bathroom.

At least the pre-adolescent Losos asked his parents. And because they were friends with Charles Hoessle, then deputy director of the St. Louis Zoo, they queried the professional herpetologist about what he thought. He thought it a superb idea.

“My mother was stuck, and soon our basement was full of all manner of reptile,” Losos writes. “I was on my way to my own career in the field.”

In fact his mother, Carolyn Losos, felt sorry for the single caiman and got a second one so it had company. But she drew the line at snakes.

Now a professor, researcher and curator of herpetology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, Losos, 55, tells a few stories about himself in “Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution.” He’ll talk more about his book Thursday at St. Louis County Library.

An expert in evolutionary biology, he writes accessibly about the field today.
In short, Darwin notwithstanding, scientists can observe evolution as it happens. And it can happen quickly. It doesn’t take millennia as the great Victorian believed.

“You can see evolution with bacteria in a matter of days,” Losos says.

With guppies, a couple of years are enough to see them evolve: Research has shown that male guppies not threatened by predators soon develop more color, such as blue and iridescent spots.

Fish exposed to polluted rivers have evolved so they can live there. And wild elephants may even be changing to favor smaller tusks — a possible result of hunters’ poaching the magnificent beasts for ivory.

Most of these cases and more are described in “Improbable Destinies,” an interesting title because some of the examples seem quite probable. Others, however, are curious and perhaps unknowable — for instance, would humans have evolved if an asteroid hadn’t wiped out dinosaurs millions of years ago?

Evolutionary biology is like a detective story, with researchers looking at historic clues, Losos writes.

But today’s scientists also use lab experiments, DNA sequencing and fieldwork to learn about evolution: “Indeed, with the flood of genetic data now available for so many different species, our understanding of evolutionary relationships is advancing by leaps and bounds, producing a much firmer grasp on the evolutionary tree of life.”

It was only 1980 when a study of guppies was published that helped show scientists that evolutionary biology could be an experimental science in natural settings.

Guppies in Trinidad have inspired several scientists, and Losos writes about the studies in detail. Most of his book is about a variety of researchers, but the chapter about lizards, particularly brown anoles, is much his own and is a great example of speedy evolution and what biologists call “convergence.” That means that similar species in different places (without interbreeding) evolve some of the same traits.

For the lay reader, one of the most amusing parts of his story is how Losos catches lizards to measure their legs and look at other attributes — such as the large, sticky toe pads that allow some to run up slick, vertical slopes like green or brown Spider-Men.

The scientist uses a fishing rod with a loop at the end made out of dental floss (preferably waxed). He approaches the anoles in the wild slowly, then with a quick flick snares the subject around the neck with the dental floss noose. It tightens but doesn’t hurt the lizards, which have strong necks, he says.

What Losos found was that on various Caribbean islands, separate communities of lizards evolved in similar ways without any contact. Some that lived closer to the ground had longer legs to run quickly over wide surfaces. Others, which lived up higher on narrow twigs, had shorter legs to grasp small branches more easily.

Losos and colleagues X-rayed lizard legs to get precise measurements, then returned them to the exact place where they were caught. Much work was done on the islands, but some lizard Olympics were also held in labs to study how quickly the mini-athletes moved on various surfaces.

When talking to scientists about the work, he writes, sometimes pesky botanists ask whether the leg changes actually showed genetic change, or could lizards born on islands with slim vegetation simply have grown shorter legs? (The question refers to “phenotypic plasticity,” such as plant growth that responds strongly to different conditions.)

Losos and his colleagues studied the research. He writes about how human weightlifters have thicker arm bones, “a plastic trait” affected by behavior. Those musclebound subjects don’t, however, have children who inherit thicker arm bones. And some of the lizards’ bones were longer, a trait that studies on exercise usually didn’t explain.

Still, Losos did more work in the lab with lizard leg growth and found that, indeed, a small amount of the growth could be attributed to phenotypic plasticity. But he concluded that evolved genetic change was “likely responsible” for most of it, and he believes that in the next few years researchers will identify the relevant genes involved.

In 1997, Losos’ studies were reported in The New York Times, which wrote that “a remarkable experiment with lizards in the Bahamas has now shown that evolution moves in predictable ways and can occur so rapidly that changes emerge in as little as a decade or so.”

Dr. Douglas J. Futuyma, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, was quoted saying the study was “distinctive and exciting and one that will be cited for many years to come.”

Losos says work in the Bahamas isn’t quite as paradisiacal as it sounds. For one thing, hurricanes occasionally wiped out his lizard subjects (some communities amazingly recovered, though, when their eggs survived hours underwater). When not traveling, during the school year, he lives in the Boston area near Harvard University. His wife, Melissa, and two cats remain in their Ladue home, where he spends summers.

One of his favorite places to visit is actually Australia, which has great biodiversity and his favorite animal, the duckbill platypus. At age 7, Losos was angry when his parents, Joseph and Carolyn Losos, went to Australia without him (they did bring him back a stuffed toy platypus).

In fact, here it might be pertinent to note that although Losos seemed to be born interested in reptiles, his environment nurtured his hobby: He grew up in a family that traveled extensively, and his science teachers at Ladue’s high school gave him a great education, he says.

Joseph Losos, a graduate of Harvard University, is a retired investment adviser and a commissioner for the St. Louis Zoo; he has also written book reviews for the Post-Dispatch. Carolyn Losos, a longtime activist in many St. Louis organizations, such as Focus St. Louis, is on the executive committee of the Missouri Botanical Garden and is chairwoman of Arts & Faith St. Louis.

As much as environment plays a role in development, biologists can’t always explain, though, whether it is the deciding factor in evolution.

That platypus, for example is a one-off animal — an “evolutionary singleton” despite living in streams and environmental conditions that can be found in other countries. (It does, though, have attributes that other animals have, so Losos writes that it is both “a paragon and a repudiation of convergence, evolutionarily unique, but a composite of convergent traits.”)

“Who would have predicted the duckbill platypus?” Losos says, alluding to the book’s title, “Improbable Destinies.”

Other evolutionary singletons include chameleons, kiwis and humans, all of which are unlikely to have evolved elsewhere (including other planets). Losos thinks, in fact, that if an asteroid had not eliminated dinosaurs, there would not be today’s homo sapiens. Variations on a “dinosauroid” have been proposed, a creature that evolved with a big brain, feathers, a tail and hands.

Speculations may not make the case for today’s study of evolution. But there are other examples of practical applications. In particular, the study of how microbes can so easily evolve to evade antibiotics and pesticides.

If scientists pinpoint important ways bacteria and viruses evolve, they may find techniques to keep microbes from foiling public health efforts. As Losos says: “It turns out evolution is important in the world today.”

No Bull: W Fence Lizards Flee When They See Red - via Herp Digest

Scientific American Evolution Blog by Christopher Intagliata , August 9, 2017 

Western fence lizards are more spooked by red and gray shirts than they are by blue ones—perhaps because the males have blue bellies themselves. 

You wouldn't think studying lizards is a particularly dangerous profession. Until, that is, sheriffs approach you with their guns drawn. "We get the cops called on us sometimes.”

Bree Putman, a behavioral ecologist at U.C.L.A. and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. Her colleague at the museum, Greg Pauly, really did end up on the wrong side of a gun once, and here's why:

"A lot of times we're doing work at night in people's neighborhoods and we're using flashlights to look for geckos on the sides of people's houses. And so sometimes people will think we're criminals or burglars or something.”

The museum's solution was neon orange shirts with the museum logo. "And we call these shirts the ‘don't shoot me’ shirts." But the bright orange left Putman with a concern: that the color would spook the very animals they were trying to study.

So she devised an experiment. "I basically designed a study to show to the museum staff that these shirts were not going to be good for research, and that's what I found.”

In her trials, Putman wore tank tops of various colors—red, gray, light blue, dark blue—and then attempted to approach and capture western fence lizards in public and private parkland in L.A. And she found that when wearing dark blue, she could get twice as close to the lizards, compared to when she wore red. And she was about twice as likely to catch a lizard too, while wearing dark or light blue, compared to red or gray. The study appears in the journal PLOS ONE. [Breanna J. Putman et al., Fear no colors? Observer clothing color influences lizard escape behavior]

Putman thinks that the lizards may be more tolerant of blue hues, because they most closely resemble the blue patches males have on their bellies—a sexual signal. Other studies have shown that birds with orange and red plumage are similarly less creeped out by orange and red shirts. She's not ready to issue a dress code to hikers just yet, but: You know for a scientist or biologist working with wild animals, you want to make sure either that you're wearing the same outfit every time you're going to do animal behavior. Or you want to randomize what you wear.”

As for those museum shirts, "I actually wear the orange shirt. I don't wear a blue shirt." Because studying wildlife in urban areas, you never know when you might encounter that other species: gun-toting Homo sapiens.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Fish sauced? Goldfish turn to alcohol to survive icy winters

By Matt McGrathEnvironment correspondent

11 August 2017 

Scientists have decoded the secrets behind a goldfish's ability to survive in ice-covered lakes.

They've worked out how and why the fish turn lactic acid in their bodies into alcohol, as a means of staying alive.

Some goldfish were found to have levels well above legal drink-driving limits in many countries.

The researchers say the work may help with the study of some alcohol impacts in humans.

Scientists have known about the peculiar survival abilities of goldfish and their wild relatives, crucian carp, since the 1980s.

While humans and most vertebrates die in a few minutes without oxygen, these fish are able to survive for months in icy conditions in ponds and lakes in northern Europe.

Researchers have now uncovered the molecular mechanism behind this ability.

In most animals there is a single set of proteins that channel carbohydrates towards the mitochondria, which are the power packs of cells.

In the absence of oxygen, the consumption of carbohydrates generates lactic acid, which the goldfish can't get rid of and which kills them in minutes.

How urban seasnakes lost their stripes

Date: August 10, 2017
Source: Cell Press

Researchers studying turtle-headed seasnakes living on coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific noticed something unusual about the snakes' color patterns: seasnakes living in more pristine parts of the reef were decorated with black-and-white bands or blotches. Those in places with more human activity -- near the city or military activity -- were black. Those color differences are explained by differences in the snakes' exposure to pollution.

Climate change could put rare bat species at greater risk

Date: August 2, 2017
Source: University of Southampton

An endangered bat species with a UK population of less than 1,000 could be further threatened by the effects of global warming, according to a new study.

Anthrax: A hidden threat to wildlife in the tropics

Date: August 2, 2017
Source: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

Anthrax, a disease so far not associated with tropical rain forests, is common in the Ivory Coast's Taï National Park and is posing a serious threat to wildlife there. The bacterium could soon even cause the extinction of local chimpanzee populations.

Lizard blizzard survivors tell story of natural selection

Date:  August 3, 2017
Source:  University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

An unusually cold winter in the US in 2014 took a toll on the green anole lizard, a tree-dwelling creature common to the southeastern United States. A new study offers a rare view of natural selection in this species, showing how the lizard survivors at the southernmost part of their range in Texas came to be more like their cold-adapted counterparts further north.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Scientists hope to breed Asian ‘unicorns’ – if they can find them

Conservationists see only one hope for the saola: a risky captive breeding programme

In 1996, William Robichaud spent three weeks with Martha before she died. Robichaud studied Martha – a beautiful, enigmatic, shy saola – with a scientist’s eye but also fell under the gracile animal’s spell as she ate out of his hand and allowed herself to be stroked. Captured by local hunters, Martha spent those final days in a Laotian village, doted on by Robichaud.

Since losing Martha, Robichaud has become the coordinator of the Saola Working Group (SWG) at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He has dedicated his life to saving this critically endangered species – and believes the best chance to achieve that now is through a captive breeding programme. 

“We need to act while there is still time,” he said adding that “seldom, if ever” are captive breeding programs begun too soon for species on the edge

“More likely, too late.”

The color of people's clothing affects lizard escape behavior

Lizards with blue patches tolerate closer approaches when people wear dark blue T-shirts

Date: August 9, 2017
Source: PLOS

Summary: The color of T-shirts people wear affects escape behavior in western fence lizards, according to a new study.

Illegal Reptiles’ importation: Nigerian Federal Government begins investigation - via Herp Digest

The Eagle Online, 7/29/17 —The Federal Government says it has commenced investigation to uncover the importers of three consignments containing 140 species of snakes and 660 other animals from Cameroon to Nigeria.

The Nigeria Customs Service on July 26 intercepted three consignments containing 140 species of snakes and 660 other animals in Calabar, Cross River State.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, told newsmen in Abuja on Friday that the Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service had been directed to commence the investigation immediately.

Ogbeh reiterated the need for officials of the NAQS to be stationed at the country’s ports to enable them to address such issues before they escalated.

The minister, who expressed the fear that if the quality of agricultural produce imported into Nigeria was not checked, a sort of biological warfare could also be launched against the country’s agricultural sector.

He said: “It is very important to know the tendencies of saying that the quarantine service should not be kept away from the ports.
“It is a threat and a danger because the other day, somebody attempted to smuggle kolanuts to Saudi Arabia.

“The Saudis have told us not to bring kolanuts into their country.

“The Quarantine Service had to go into the aircraft and stop the plane from leaving; it then brought the kolanuts down and now, it is snakes.

“Our ambition is to become a major agricultural nation, if the quality of what we take out and that of the materials coming in are not known to us, anything can happen.

“The dangers include biological warfare, which can be launched against our agriculture industry.

“These are reasons why the quarantine service must be allowed to play its roles without necessarily disrupting the ports’ routine functions.”

NAN reports the containers were brought in aboard a Cameroonian vessel, ‘MV Flesh’, through the Calabar waterway.

The containers reportedly contained snakes and other animals such as geckos, millipedes, hairy frogs and spiders.

Fungal disease poses real threat to W.Va. snake population – via Herp Digest

WV Dept. of Commerce
Juvenile eastern milk snake discovered with first case of Snake Fungal Disease in W.Va.

Metro News, by Chris Lawrence, 7/29/17

ROMNEY, W.Va. — An eastern milk snake in Kanawha County has become the second snake in West Virginia in the past 11 years to be confirmed with Snake Fungal disease. Division of Natural Resources officials worry the condition is spreading and poses a threat to snake populations.

WV Dept. of Commerce
Open wounds and crusty scabs on the skin are signs of snake fungal disease, although it’s easily confused with the normal shedding process.

“The clinical signs include crusty patches or scabs on the skin of the animal.  The snake acts very lethargic,” said Kevin Oxenrider who oversees reptiles and amphibians in West Virginia.

The discovery is the first contemporary case. Oxenrider and other researchers now can trace the disease all the way back to 2006 in West Virginia when a rattlesnake, captured as part of a study suddenly, and mysteriously died.   A clinical analysis of the snake at the time revealed no conclusions about its demise.  However, a second test on a biopsy from the same snake a decade later, armed with more knowledge, revealed it was in fact the state’s first case of snake fungal disease.

“We know it’s been present since 2006.  It went undetected from 2006 to 2016,” he explained. “Now we’ve had this animal recently turn up and test positive for the disease.”

The fungal infection appears to be prevalent throughout the northeastern United States.  Where it originated and what causes it remain unknown.  Studies on the condition are in the very early stages.

“It’s thought that it’s probably not native to North America, but it’s still very under studied,” Oxenrider explained. “It seems to be hardest on rattlesnakes in the northeast, but it can impact any species.  A large number of snakes throughout the northeast have been contracting the symptoms with open wounds, scabs, and impacts to their dermis layer of skin which is causing them to die.”

Although a lot of attitudes about snakes are very negative, Oxenrider notes it’s a serious problem and could threaten the balance of the Eco-system.

“The reason people need to care about this, although people dislike snakes, they do serve a very important purpose,” he explained. “Snakes consume a lot of invertebrates or bus. They consume birds and a lot of small mammals.  If we don’t have snakes you could have an over abundance of those species and that could be a problem.”

Snakes tend to cut down on numbers of mice, rats, chipmunks and other small rodents which are known to carry serious disease some of which can infect humans.

If you observe a snake which appears sick, Oxenrider hopes the public will be willing to leave it alone and take a picture to submit to the DNR so they can examine the evidence.

“A lot of times we’ve been getting people submitting pictures of snakes just shedding their skin.  That can be easily confused with the clinical signs of snake fungal disease,” said Oxenrider. “That’s why we’re asking people to not just go ahead and kill it thinking it had snake fungal disease.  It’s possible that it’s just shedding.”

You can contact your local DNR district office to inquire more or submit pictures of the stressed snakes.

Humans identify emotions in the voices of all air-breathing vertebrates - via Herp Digest

Joint press release by Ruhr-Universität Bochum and Vrije Universiteit Brussel, 7/26/17

Amphibians, reptiles, mammals -- all of them communicate via acoustic signals. And humans are able to assess the emotional value of these signals. This has been shown in a new study conducted by researchers at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Ruhr-Universität Bochum, in collaboration with colleagues from Alberta, Canada, and Vienna, Austria, in the journal "Proceedings of the Royal Society B". They interpreted these findings as evidence that there might be a universal code for the vocal expression and perception of emotions in the animal kingdom. Previous studies had demonstrated that humans are capable of identifying emotions in the voices of different mammals. The new study results have been expanded to include amphibians and reptiles.

The team headed by Dr Piera Filippi, currently at the University of Aix-Marseille and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, included, amongst others, three academics from Bochum: philosophy scholar Prof Dr Albert Newen, biopsychologist Prof Dr Dr h. c. Onur Güntürkün and assistant professor Dr Sebastian Ocklenburg.
Animal voices for different classes of vertebrates

Participants in the study included 75 individuals whose native language was English, German or Mandarin. They listened to audio recordings of nine different species of land-living vertebrates in the classes mammals, amphibians and reptiles, with the latter including birds and other reptiles.
Participants were able to distinguish between high and low levels of arousal in the acoustic signals of all animal classes. To do so, they mainly relied on frequency-related parameters in the signal.

"The findings suggest that fundamental mechanisms for the acoustic expression of emotions exist across all classes of vertebrates," conclude the authors. The evolutionary roots of this signal system might be shared by all vocalizing vertebrates. This finding goes in the direction of what Charles Darwin suggested more than a century ago, namely that acoustic expressions of emotion can be traced back to our earliest land-dwelling ancestors.

Audio files online
Recordings of low and high arousal calls of different animals can be found online at:

The collaboration between Piera Filippi and the researchers from Bochum was realised thanks to a fellowship that was awarded by the Center for Mind, Brain and Cognitive Evolution in Bochum.

People Who Own Spiders And Reptiles Have A Harder Time Finding Love - via Herp Digest

Shannon Ullman, Editor, Your Tango, 7/21/17

Your pet might be why you're single.

Typically, having a pet scores you points when it comes to dating. Most guys have figured out that if they take a walk with their puppy, the girls just flock to them. And many women have found that men find their cat selfies kind of charming (right? I hope I’m right).

Apparently, there is a certain kind of pet out there that will seriously knock you down in dateable points. And if you have this pet, no one will date you.

According to a survey done by Woodstream, pets play a much larger role in dating than we may have thought. They surveyed 1,000 people about their pets, asking if they ever started dating someone or broke it off because of a pet.

Out of everyone surveyed, 70 percent were dog owners and 50 percent owned cats. The split between getting pets from shelters versus from family and friends was quite even. However, 49 percent of people said that getting a pet from a shelter was sexier

I agree! Someone with a heart big enough to save a shelter animal is pretty darn hot.

When asked which kind of pets people found to be the creepiest, 66 percent of men said spiders with 77 percent of women saying the same. The list went on to include snakes, mice, bees, ants, reptiles, chickens, goats, hamsters, and ferrets.

I had a ferret once, and guys, they are seriously WAY creepier than you would think. Anyway, it seems that spiders top the list, so, if you have this pet, no one will date you.

The survey digs into who uses their pets as a way to hit on someone too. I know you all were curious about that. It turns out that 21 percent of men admitted to this tactic while only 8 percent of women admitted to it.

And when it comes to getting a second date, it turns out that spiders really are killing your game. When looking at which pet was most likely to cost their owner a second date, spiders came in first with snakes and rats following close behind.

So, when it comes to your dating life, don’t think that pets don’t matter because they totally do! If you happen to be the owner of a spider, you might want to leave that tidbit out of your Tinder profile.

In fact, maybe you should just keep that sucker under your bed until your date has a chance to fall in love with you. Then, it will probably be a lot harder for them to hate on your creepy little friend. 

Friday, 11 August 2017

First 'winged' mammals flew over dinosaurs

By Prof Sarah Gabbott
Science writer

Fossils of the first "winged" mammals, from 160 million years ago, have been discovered in China.

They reveal that mammal ancestors evolved to glide between trees in a similar way to some mammals today.

This adds to evidence that mammals were more diverse during the age of dinosaurs than previously realised.

The work is published by an international team of scientists in this week's Nature.

The two new fossil species exhibit highly specialised characteristics, including adaptations that allowed them to climb trees, roost on branches and glide.

This means that the ability of mammals to glide evolved much earlier than previously thought. Prof Zhe-Xi Luo, from the University of Chicago, US, said: "These Jurassic mammals are truly the first to glide.

"In a way, they got the first 'wings' among all mammals," he told BBC News.

The wings are the preserved remains of a skin membrane that stretches, parachute-like, between fore and hind limbs, allowing the creatures to glide.


A dolphin diet

Date: August 2, 2017
Source: University of California - Santa Barbara

Summary: The health of dolphin populations worldwide depends on sustained access to robust food sources. Marine biologists have now studied the diets of dolphin species to understand the animals' foraging habits and how they share ocean resources.

Trapdoor spider may have dispersed across the ocean from Africa to Australia

The spiders on the 2 continents diverged millions of years after Gondwana separated

Date: August 2, 2017
Source: PLOS

Summary: An Australian trapdoor spider may have crossed the ocean from Africa rather than being the product of geographical separation, according to a study. The spiders on the two continents diverged millions of years after Gondwana separated, suggest the researchers.

Extinction mystery solved? Evidence suggests humans played a role in monkey's demise in Jamaica

Date: August 9, 2017
Source: Johns Hopkins Medicine

Radiocarbon dating of a fossilized leg bone from a Jamaican monkey called Xenothrix mcgregori suggests it may be the one of the most recent primate species anywhere in the world to become extinct, and it may solve a long-standing mystery about the cause of its demise. The short answer: human settlement of its island home.


By, Daniel K. Eidenbud, 7/25/17, The Jerusalem Post

A doctoral candidate made an unprecedented discovery during excavations in the Hula Valley.

A Hebrew University of Jerusalem doctoral candidate made an unprecedented discovery during excavations in the Hula Valley, proving humans hunted freshwater turtles in Israel 60,000 years ago.

The findings, published in the Journal of Archeological Science: Reports, were made by Rebecca Biton following years of excavations and analysis of the turtle remains from the Middle Paleolithic site, adjacent to the paleo-Lake Hula and swamps, located in the northern Jordan Valley.

Biton, who made international headlines three years ago after discovering the remains of an extinct frog species in the country, studies at the university’s Institute of Archeology.

She’s including the recent analysis as a chapter in her dissertation, which she is submitting next week.

According to the young researcher, the earliest evidence known of humans exploiting freshwater turtles for sustenance dated 1 million years ago in Africa, making her discovery a quantum leap in her field of study.

“I’m studying amphibians and reptiles from the Hula Valley and looking at various sites, the oldest of which is from 800,000 years ago,” Biton said on Tuesday. “I was looking at the bones of the amphibians and reptiles to understand which species were in the Hula Valley 60,000 years ago, and if the humans back then exploited them somehow.”

Biton noted that there are two known species of turtles indigenous to the area: the Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise, which lives on land; and the Western Caspian turtle (freshwater turtle), which inhabits water. 

However, while it’s well-documented that tortoises were consumed by humans in Israel, there was never evidence until Biton discovered more than 300 bones from both species during digs at the site every summer between 2008 and 2014

“In Israel, at every archeological site you will find some evidence of the exploitation of tortoises, which do not have much meat, but were consumed,” she said, adding that deer, gazelle and cows were also well-known food staples during the Middle Paleolithic Period.

“This is the first time that we found any clear evidence in Israel that freshwater turtles were also exploited for food,” Biton said.

Among the bones unearthed in the three-to-four-meter digs near the water, Biton said 60 were identified as freshwater turtle remains.

“This is important because it shows that humans not only exploited animals on land, like the tortoise; but also from the Hula Lake and swamps,” she said. “They not only hunted on land, but also in the water before learning to fish.

Biton said the remains illustrate that humans shattered the turtles’ shell and carefully removed the meat using a flint knife.

“They took the turtle and smashed the shell and cooked whatever meat they could extract,” she said.

Biton’s adviser, Dr. Rivka Rabinovich, curator and manager of HU’s paleontology collection, praised the PhD candidate, whose dissertation is titled: “An Archeo-zoological Study of Amphibians and Reptiles from Pleistocene Archeological Sites in the Hula Valley.”

“Rebecca also made an important discovery that made a lot of noise three years ago when she identified the bones of the extinct Lagonia frog in the Hula Valley,” said Rabinovich.

“She is going to be a great researcher,” added Rabinovich. “I believe in her.”

Trees planted at Thurgoona with the aim of boosting habitat for vulnerable Sloane’s froglet – via Herp Digest

The Border Mail, by Anthony Bunn, July 30, 2017, Albury, Australia, 

Sloane’s Froglet

SOME thumbnail-size frogs are tipped to benefit from hundreds of trees planted at a Thurgoona estate on Sunday.

Volunteers put in the natives along Litchfield Drive at the Beaumont Park Estate as part of National Tree Day.

Albury Council vegetation management officer Jan Mitchell said the area was chosen because it offered habitat for the vulnerable Sloane’s froglet.

The creatures enjoy shallow water so it is hoped they will be attracted by the environs created with the 450 trees planted at Thurgoona.

Among those helping were siblings Paige, Nathaniel and Tilly Walters-Robson who live at the estate.

“It was a good experience,” mum Julie Walters said.

“My oldest daughter Paige really enjoyed it, helping out.”

Paige was still wearing a superhero costume she had been playing in when she came across to plant.

The council also provided 450 trees for planting along Splitters Creek Road, west of Albury, yesterday.

Separate Landcare groups assisted with the installation of the trees at Splitters Creek and Thurgoona.

National Tree Day began in 1996.

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