Friday, 3 April 2020

The new coronavirus emerged from the global wildlife trade – and may be devastating enough to end it

APRIL 1, 2020

by George Wittemyer, The Conversation

COVID-19 is one of countless emerging infectious diseases that are zoonotic, meaning they originate in animals. About 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, accounting for billions of illnesses and millions of deaths annually across the globe.

When these diseases spill over to humans, the cause frequently is human behaviors, including habitat destruction and the multibillion-dollar international wildlife trade—the latter being the suspected source of the novel coronavirus.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced governments to impose severe restrictions, such as social distancing, that will have massive economic costs. But there has been less discussion about identifying and changing behaviors that contribute to the emergence of zoonotic diseases. As a conservation biologist, I believe this outbreak demonstrates the urgent need to end the global wildlife trade.

Markets for disease

As many Americans now know, the COVID-19 coronavirus is one of a family of coronaviruses commonly found in bats. It is suspected to have passed through a mammal, perhaps pangolins – the most-trafficked animal on the planet—before jumping to humans.

The virus's spillover to humans is believed to have occurred in a so-called wet market in China. At these markets, live, wild-caught animals, farm-raised wild species and livestock frequently intermingle in conditions that are unsanitary and highly stressful for the animals. These circumstances are ripe for infection and spillover.

Researchers team up with U.S. Coast Guard to release three baby sea turtles

APRIL 2, 2020

by Gisele Galoustian, Florida Atlantic University

As the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic escalates, marine biologists at Florida Atlantic University acknowledge that "wild" life must go on. Three 6-month-old green sea turtles, the last batch of the 2019 hatchlings at the FAU Marine Laboratory at the Gumbo Limbo Environmental Complex, were ready to be released. However, with closed beaches and scuba boats not permitted to travel, researchers from the FAU Marine Laboratory had to get creative.

FAU worked with members of the United States Coast Guard to provide the three female baby sea turtles with a special "seat" on board a 33-foot special law enforcement (SPC-LE) boat for their journey home. On March 27, they were released about 17 to 18 miles off shore in the Atlantic Ocean's Gulf Stream Current.

The threatened green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) named for the green color of the fat under its shell, normally travels to offshore waters as a hatchling and stays offshore for several years before going to the coastal reefs, estuaries, and around islands where it finds feeding areas with nutrient-rich algae and seagrass beds. Green sea turtles are different than loggerhead turtles because they are stronger swimmers and are more likely to burrow into sargassum, which is floating brown algae out on the high seas.

Wildlife consumption ban in China is insufficient - via Herp Digest

Authors and Affiliations
Hongxin Wang1,*, Junlin Shao1, Xi Luo2, Ziang Chuai1, Shengyue Xu1, Mingxia Geng3, Zhouyi Gao1
  • 1School of Government, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China.
  • 2School of Global Affairs, Kings College London, Strand London WC2R 2LS, UK.
  • 3College of Chinese Language and Literature, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China.
  • * Corresponding author. Email:
Science  27 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6485, pp. 1435

On 24 February, China's top legislature comprehensively prohibited the consumption of terrestrial wildlife to protect public health (1). The ban was enacted in response to the outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which is considered to be linked to wildlife consumption (2). However, a total ban on the consumption of terrestrial wildlife alone is not enough to effectively protect public health from wildlife-associated diseases.
China's wildlife farming industry includes 6.3 million direct practitioners and a total output value of $18 billion (3). Curtailing this activity in a short period of time will be difficult. Conflicts may occur between the private interests of farmers and public health. It is also unclear how to dispose of the farmed animals. Killing them would be inhumane and could pose new risks to human health. Releasing them into unknown habitats in the wild could threaten ecosystem stability. Furthermore, given that banning the wildlife farming industry would threaten economic growth in many regions, implementation will be challenging.

Meanwhile, myriad traditional Chinese medicines are made from wildlife products, such as pangolin scales (4), snake bile (5), and bat feces (6), yet medicinal use of wildlife is not covered by the ban. Disease transmission risks exist during the process of hunting, storing, and transporting such wildlife for medicinal purposes, activities that will continue (6). Even if the ban could be effectively implemented, the traditional medicine industry would continue to threaten wildlife.

In addition to enacting a ban, the Chinese government should manage public health risks caused by wildlife-associated diseases by working together with wildlife protection and animal health agencies and making decisions about wildlife policies based on scientific evidence. Subsidies and financial support should be arranged to facilitate the transformation of the wildlife farming industry required by the ban, as well as made available to help transition away from the production of traditional Chinese medicine. As changes are made, the government should keep information timely and transparent so as to encourage public participation in the reform of the wildlife protection system.

This is an article distributed under the terms of the Science Journals Default License.
References and Notes

  1. “The Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress on comprehensively prohibiting the illegal trade of wildlife, eliminating the bad habits of wildlife consumption, and protecting the health and safety of the people,” (2020); [in Chinese].Google Scholar
  2. J. Li et al., Lancet Infect. Dis., 10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30063-3 (2020).Google Scholar
  3. “Report on sustainable development strategy of China's wildlife farming industry” (Consulting Research Project of Chinese Academy of Engineering, 2017) [in Chinese].Google Scholar
  4. R. W. Byard, Forensic Sci. Med. Pathol. 12, 125 (2016).Google Scholar
  5. J. Still, Complement Ther. Med. 11, 118 (2003).CrossRefPubMedWeb of ScienceGoogle Scholar

What can be learned from the microbes on a turtle's shell? - via Herp Digest

Date: March 26, 2020
Source: Microbiology Society

Research published in the journal Microbiology has found that a unique type of algae, usually only seen on the shells of turtles, affects the surrounding microbial communities.

It is hoped that these findings can be applied to support the conservation of turtles. Previous research has shown that a diverse microbiome can protect animals against infections.

The research aimed to understand how the microbiome -- a complex community of micro-organisms -- varies around the body of Krefft's river turtles. Samples were assessed from inside the mouth, the top of the head and parts of the shells of six turtles collected from Ross River in Queensland, Australia.

The research team, based at the University of New England and James Cook University, then used a technique called high-throughput sequencing to identify which micro-organisms were present on the turtles, using DNA sequencing to determine which bacteria are present, and their abundance.

Previous research has shown that animals in captivity often have less diverse microbiomes, which could affect their long-term health. Dr Donald McKnight, who led the research, said: "Successful conservation efforts inherently require a thorough understanding of an organism's ecology, and we are increasingly realising that microbiomes are a really important part of host ecology. So, filling that gap in our knowledge is important, particularly for animals like turtles.

"Turtles are one of the most imperilled groups of animals. Nearly two-thirds of all turtle species are either threatened or endangered, and efforts to conserve them often involve breeding turtles in captivity or collecting eggs from wild turtles and raising them in captivity until they are large enough to be released. Studies on other animals have, however, shown that captivity can alter the microbiome.”

The results showed that the microbiome of the turtles' shells varied, depending on whether algae was present. "It is really interesting that even something like the presence of algae can affect the microbiome" said Dr McKnight. "The algae on turtle's shells is fascinating. It's actually a unique genus that grows almost exclusively on turtles.”

The algae seen on turtles' shells has many important roles, including providing camouflage and acting as a home for small crustaceans and dispersing seeds. "Our study adds to those roles by showing that algae also affects the microbiome. The mechanism through which it affects the microbiome isn't clear yet, but there are several possibilities. For example, it might compete with some bacteria in order to access the turtles' shells. It may also provide a habitat for bacteria that don't grow well on just the shell itself. Another possibility is that it could retain moisture while turtles bask, and that could affect which species of bacteria grow well. Our study is just an early step in understanding turtle microbiomes, but hopefully future work will build on it and test some of these possibilities." said Dr McKnight.

It is important to understand what the microbiome looks like on all parts of the turtle, according to Dr McKnight. He said, "Studies on other animals, including humans, have often found that different parts of the body have different microbiomes. So, it makes sense that this would be true for turtles as well, but it is still really important to test these things rather making assumptions

"We don't really know how this affects the success of efforts to conserve turtles by raising them in captivity and releasing them, but it could be an important part of the puzzle. Our study contributes to this by documenting the microbiomes of wild turtles, so that we have a baseline to compare to. More studies are needed to look at whether captivity affects microbiomes in turtles and how those shifts affect conservation.”

Dr McKnight hopes to continue to research turtle microbiomes: "We are in the early stages of looking at how various environmental and demographic factors affect turtle microbiomes. For example, we want to see if they shift seasonally, if diet affects them, and if different ages and sexes have different microbiomes."

Story Source:
Materials provided by Microbiology Society. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:
  1. Donald T. McKnight, Kyall R. Zenger, Ross A. Alford, Roger Huerlimann. Microbiome diversity and composition varies across body areas in a freshwater turtle. Microbiology, 2020; DOI: 10.1099/mic.0.000904

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Chimpanzees found to age in ways similar to humans


by Bob Yirka ,

A team of researchers from the University of New Mexico and the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in Uganda has found similarities between the way chimpanzees and humans age. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group describes their 20-year study of chimps living at Kibale National Park and what they learned about the ways they age.

Prior research has shown that as people age, they undergo changes to their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis—a biological system that plays a major role in how people respond to stress. One of those ways is bumping up levels of cortisol production. Cortisol is a hormone that plays a role in regulating metabolism and blood pressure. Prior research has also shown that excess cortisol can lead to problems such as a reduction in clear thinking, a weakened immune system and inflammation—all symptoms of aging in humans. But now, it appears that chimpanzees undergo a similar process.

The work by the team was part of a large overall effort to study physical and behavioral traits of chimpanzees in a near-natural setting. As part of that effort, team members placed plastic bags in the trees where the chimps reside in the park to collect urine samples from 59 adults. The team has been collecting urine samples from the chimps for approximately 20 years. In analyzing its composition, the researchers have found that the chimps also experience elevated levels of cortisol as they grow older—and furthermore, the higher levels of the hormone could not be attributed to reproductive activity or social status. They claim the increased levels of cortisol suggest chimps age similarly to humans.

The researchers found that cortisol levels were highest in the males when they were making moves on sexually receptive females. They also found that cortisol levels were highest in the females when they were sexually receptive—a time when females are under stress from competing males. They also suggest that rising cortisol levels in hominids are an ancient attribute, and are thus not a byproduct of aging.

About the distribution of biodiversity on our planet

Date: April 1, 2020
Source: University of Bern

Since Charles Darwin, biologists have been using the so-called "biotic interactions" hypothesis to explain, at least in part, why the tropics around the equator are so species rich. The hypothesis focuses on the importance of interactions between species for biodiversity. The geneal idea is that species interactions increase towards the species-rich equator. Such interactions may include interactions such as between parasites and host, or between a predator and its prey. The intuitively appealing hypothesis is: The stronger the interactions between species, the faster evolutionary change, thus resulting in increased species diversity. Strong species interactions should further help maintain a high level of biodiversity. Testing this long-standing hypothesis has proven extremely difficult in the past, and the results from past studies aiming to test the "biotic interactions" hypothesis are mixed.

A new publication in Nature Communications now further challenges the general validity of the "biotic interactions" hypothesis. The study suggests that a specific but fundamental interaction between species -- predation by large fish such as tunas or sharks -- is stronger in the temperate zone than near the equator. According to the "biotic interactions" hypothesis, stronger interactions should be accompanied by a higher diversity of fish species -- a pattern that is also not born out by the study. The study is headed by Dr. Marius Roesti, who began the research work at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and is now working at the Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Bern.

Elephant welfare can be assessed using two indicators

APRIL 1, 2020

Across the world, animals are kept in captivity for various reasons: in zoos for education and research, in research facilities for testing, on farms for meat and other products, and in people's homes as pets. Maintaining good animal welfare is not only important for ethical reasons; poor welfare can impact human wellbeing and the economy. But how do we assess how animals are feeling?

One way to assess animal wellbeing is to look at stress levels. Vets typically use two biological measures of stress: stress hormone levels and white blood cell ratios. In mammals—including humans—the most important stress hormone is cortisol. When animals are faced with danger, cortisol is produced to help prepare the body for a challenge. However, if high stress and cortisol are experienced constantly, they can impact an animal's health.

In addition to cortisol, scientists can also look at the ratio of two types of white blood cells, heterophils (or neutrophils) and lymphocytes. These cells play an important role in the immune system of mammals, and after animals have experienced a stressful event, their ratio is typically high.

Researchers at the University of Turku, Finland, wanted to find out if these two biological measures of stress were correlated and whether animals with high levels of cortisol also had a high heterophil to lymphocyte ratio. They measured cortisol and heterophil to lymphocyte ratios in 120 Asian elephants from a semi-captive population of working timber elephants in Myanmar. The researchers also weighed each elephant, as body weight is a good indicator of general health.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

More than 100,000 badgers slaughtered in discredited cull policy

Badger Trust condemns ‘largest destruction of a protected species in living memory’ as government admits failings and focuses on vaccination

Published onSat 28 Mar 2020 16.05 GMT

More than 35,000 badgers were killed during last year’s cull, according to long overdue figures slipped out by the government on Friday at the height of the coronavirus crisis.

The total has dismayed animal rights campaigners, who claim that for the first time since the cull was introduced in 2013, more badgers were shot last year than cattle were slaughtered because they have bovine-TB.

Dominic Dyer, the chief executive of the Badger Trust, said: “The government licensed the killing of 35,034 badgers in 2019 in 40 culling zones stretching from Cornwall to Cumbria in the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory.”

More than 70% of the badgers (24,645) were killed as a result of controlled shooting.

“This is a method of killing which is condemned by the British Veterinary Association as inhumane as it can result in badgers taking more than five minutes to die from multiple bullet wounds, blood loss and organ failure,” Dyer said.

Only 149 (0.6%) of the total 35,034 badgers killed were monitored to establish that they were dispatched humanely.

The total number of badgers killed since the cull policy started now stands at 102,349. It has been estimated that the cull has cost the taxpayer more than £60m.

The figures were supposed to have been published months ago but were delayed as the efficacy of the government’s policy came in for criticism.

“Badgers are now being slaughtered at such a rate across England that they could face local extinction in areas of the country which they have inhabited since the Ice Age,” Dyer said.

Endangered sea turtles hatch on Brazil's deserted beaches

Coronavirus keeps crowds that usually greet hatching of hawksbill turtles away

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
Published onSun 29 Mar 2020 16.49 BST

Nearly 100 critically endangered sea turtles have hatched on a deserted beach in Brazil, their first steps going almost unnoticed because of coronavirus restrictions that prohibit people from gathering on the region’s sands.

The 97 hawksbill sea turtles, or tartarugas-de-pente as they are known in Brazil, hatched last Sunday in Paulista, a town in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco.

Photographs taken by government workers, the only people to witness the event, showed the tiny creatures making their way down the beach and into the Atlantic waves.

Locals have been forbidden from gathering on Pernambuco’s spectacular shoreline since last weekend, when the state governor, Paulo Câmara, ordered a partial shutdown and urged residents to stay indoors to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Speaking to the Guardian last week, Câmara said such measures – which the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has actively undermined – were vital if Brazil were to avoid a crisis similar to the one that has taken hold in Europe. “Only isolation will stop the curve growing at the speed it is growing in other places,” he said.

Giant leap for toadkind after Yorkshire fell runs are cancelled

Activists say hundreds have been trampled by previous cross-country races near pond

Published onMon 30 Mar 2020 06.00 BST

The cancellation of a series of cross-country running races in West Yorkshire because of coronavirus has apparently saved hundreds of migrating toads from being squashed underfoot.

A toad protection group said hundreds of the amphibians have been trampled by fell runners in previous years.

The popular races take place close to a pond where the toads mate, the group said.

The races, known as “bunny runs”, are hosted by the Wharfedale Harriers and had been due to take place in April during the evening.

Sue Patchett, leader of the Riddlesden Toad Patrol, said many toads have been trampled underfoot in previous years. She had been recruiting new marshals to help rescue vulnerable toads during this year’s run.

Patchett has done toad patrolling in Riddlesden for 15 years. “I used to do it by myself but five years ago I formed a group and there’s now approximately 10 to 15 of us,” she said.

“Every spring when darkness falls, hundreds of toads embark on their migration down from gardens on the hillside in Riddlesden and they head downwards towards the canal.

Cooperative male dolphins match the tempo of each other's calls

MARCH 31, 2020

When it comes to working together, male dolphins coordinate their behaviour just like us. New findings, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B by an international team of researchers from the Universities of Western Australia and Bristol, provide insight into the importance of physical and vocal coordination in alliance forming animals.

In humans, synchronised actions can lead to increased feelings of bonding, foster cooperation and diminish the perceived threat of rivals. Outside of humans, very few animals coordinate both vocal signals and physical movement when working together.

The study used long-term acoustic data collected from the famous population of dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia, to show that allied male dolphins also match the tempo of their partner's calls when working together, and would sometimes even produce their calls in sync.

It was previously thought that only humans used both physical and verbal synchronised actions to strengthen bonds and enhance cooperative effort.

Lead author Bronte Moore, who carried out the study while working at UWA's School of Biological Sciences said: "Allied male bottlenose dolphins are also well known for this kind of behaviour and can form alliances that can last for decades.

"To advertise their alliance relationships and maintain their social bonds, they rely on synchronous movements. We wanted to know whether they would also synchronise their vocal behaviour."

The study showed that male bottlenose dolphins not only synchronise their movements, but also coordinate their vocal behaviour when cooperating together in alliances.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Cat infected with COVID-19 from owner in Belgium

This is the first case of human-to-cat transmission of the novel coronavirus.

A domestic cat in Belgium has been infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus that's spreading across the globe, the government's FPS Public Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment announced March 27, according to news reports. 

This is the first human-to-cat transmission of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). About a week after its owner got sick with COVID-19, after returning from a trip to Northern Italy, the cat developed coronavirus symptoms: diarrhea, vomiting and respiratory issues, Steven Van Gucht, virologist and federal spokesperson for the coronavirus epidemic in Belgium, told Live Science.

The owner sent samples of vomit and feces to Dr. Daniel Desmecht's lab at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Liège. Genetic tests showed high levels of SARS-CoV-2 in those samples, he said. "The cat recovered after 9 days," Van Gucht said.

Whales are dying, but numbers are unknown. Coronavirus has stalled scientific fieldwork

MARCH 28, 2020
7:53 AM

As gray whales began their northern migration along the Pacific coast, earlier this month — after a year of unusually heavy die-offs — scientists were poised to watch, ready to collect information that could help them learn what was killing them.

The coronavirus outbreak, however, has largely upended that field work — and that of incalculable other ecological studies nationwide.

A large network of marine biologists and volunteers in California normally spend this time of year keeping an eye on gray whales, documenting their numbers and counting strandings as the leviathans swim from Mexico to the Arctic.

Scott Mercer, who started Point Arena’s Mendonoma Whale and Seal Study seven years ago, said the watch was called off Wednesday, as he and his wife were told by a local sheriff to disperse and go home.

“I guess two people are now considered a public gathering,” he said, with a wry chuckle.

In Los Angeles, Alisa Schulman-Janiger said she had to shut her survey down March 20, meaning this will be the first time in 37 years that data on the northern migration will not be complete.

“We had to,” said Schulman-Janiger, director of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society. “We couldn’t hazard anybody’s health.”

Up and down the West Coast and beyond, field research on a variety of endangered, threatened and migrating species has ground to a halt. Plovers? Abalone? They are on their own now, as scientists are forced to stay at home.

Wildlife experts find hope amongst the ashes on Kangaroo Island

MARCH 30 2020 - 3:01PM

Belinda Willis

The rare Kangaroo Island dunnart has been captured on wildlife cameras by the non-governmental organisation Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife.

Signs that rare bird and marsupial colonies are surviving the aftermath of horrific bushfires are emerging with the help of sensor cameras, water pumps and specialist ecologists.

The rare Kangaroo Island dunnart has been captured on wildlife cameras by the non-governmental organisation Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife.

Sightings of tiny dunnarts using motion-sensing cameras are particularly heartening after fears habitat destruction would decimate the threatened nocturnal marsupials already only numbering between 300 and 500.

Fires burned about 200,000 hectares of land, almost half the island, and especially the protected areas in which dunnarts are found.

South Australia's chief ecologist at the Department for Environment and Water Dr Dan Rogers said specialist advice from some of the world's leading experts in the rare species was helping.

"Prof Chris Dickman, he knows more about dunnarts generally than anyone else in the world, he was on the phone to us talking us through the biggest risk during the fire and immediately after," Dr Rogers said.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Ancestor of all animals identified in Australian fossils

A wormlike creature that lived more than 555 million years ago is the earliest bilaterian

Date: March 23, 2020
Source: University of California - Riverside

A team led by UC Riverside geologists has discovered the first ancestor on the family tree that contains most familiar animals today, including humans.

The tiny, wormlike creature, named Ikaria wariootia, is the earliest bilaterian, or organism with a front and back, two symmetrical sides, and openings at either end connected by a gut. The paper is published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The earliest multicellular organisms, such as sponges and algal mats, had variable shapes. Collectively known as the Ediacaran Biota, this group contains the oldest fossils of complex, multicellular organisms. However, most of these are not directly related to animals around today, including lily pad-shaped creatures known as Dickinsonia that lack basic features of most animals, such as a mouth or gut.

The development of bilateral symmetry was a critical step in the evolution of animal life, giving organisms the ability to move purposefully and a common, yet successful way to organize their bodies. A multitude of animals, from worms to insects to dinosaurs to humans, are organized around this same basic bilaterian body plan.

Evolutionary biologists studying the genetics of modern animals predicted the oldest ancestor of all bilaterians would have been simple and small, with rudimentary sensory organs. Preserving and identifying the fossilized remains of such an animal was thought to be difficult, if not impossible.

For 15 years, scientists agreed that fossilized burrows found in 555 million-year-old Ediacaran Period deposits in Nilpena, South Australia, were made by bilaterians. But there was no sign of the creature that made the burrows, leaving scientists with nothing but speculation.

Pablo Escobar's hippos may help counteract a legacy of extinctions

Date: March 24, 2020
Source: University of Massachusetts Amherst

When cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar was shot dead in 1993, the four hippos he brought to his private zoo in Colombia were left behind in a pond on his ranch. Since then, their numbers have grown to an estimated 80-100, and the giant herbivores have made their way into the country's rivers. Scientists and the public alike have viewed Escobar's hippos as invasive pests that by no rights should run wild on the South American continent.

A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by an international group of researchers challenges this view. Through a worldwide analysis comparing the ecological traits of introduced herbivores like Escobar's hippos to those of the past, they reveal that such introductions restore many important traits that have been lost for thousands of years. While human impacts have caused the extinction of several large mammals over the last 100,000 years, humans have since introduced numerous species, inadvertently rewilding many parts of the world such as South America, where giant llamas once roamed, and North America, where the flat-headed peccary could once be found from New York to California.

Scientists predict the size of plastics animals can eat

New equation could help determine risk of plastics to any species -- and amount of plastic entering food chains

Date: March 27, 2020
Source: Cardiff University

A team of scientists at Cardiff University has, for the first time, developed a way of predicting the size of plastics different animals are likely to ingest.

The researchers, from the University's Water Research Institute, looked at the gut contents of more than 2,000 animals to create a simple equation to predict the size of a plastic item an animal can eat, based on the length of its body.

In the study, published today in Nature Communications, they report that the length of an animal can be used to estimate the biggest piece of plastic it can eat -- and this was about 5% (a twentieth) of the size of the animal.

The researchers say that as the plastic pollution problem escalates, it is vital to be able to quickly assess the risk of plastics to different species around the world.

This work could also help scientists measure the risk of plastic pollution to ecosystems and food supplies -- and ultimately the risk to human health.

By trawling through published data, the team found plastics ingested by marine and freshwater mammals, reptiles, fishes and invertebrates, from 9mm-long fish larvae to a 10m-long humpback whale.

Animals keep viruses in the sea in balance

Date: March 27, 2020
Source: Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research

A variety of sea animals can take up virus particles while filtering seawater for oxygen and food. Sponges are particularly efficient. That was written by marine ecologist Jennifer Welsh from NIOZ this week, in a publication in Nature Scientific Reports. This Monday, Welsh will defend her thesis at the Free University of Amsterdam, through an online connection.

"When a virus infects a cell," says Jennifer Welsh of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), "it uses its host to make new viruses. After those are released, they can, in turn, infect many more, new cells." However, Welsh discovered that the many virus particles in the sea -- over 150 million in a glass of sea water -- can also end up for, a large part, as the lunch of a diverse group of sea animals.

Filtering viruses
The Japanese oyster, for example, filters seawater to extract oxygen or food such as algae and bacteria. While doing this, it ingests virus particles. Welsh: "In our experiments, during which we did not offer the oysters any food and hence they only filtered the water for oxygen uptake, Japanese oysters removed 12 per cent of the virus particles from the water."

Friday, 27 March 2020

Missing link in coronavirus jump from bats to humans could be pangolins, not snakes

Date:  March 26, 2020
Source: American Chemical Society  

As scientists scramble to learn more about the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, two recent studies of the virus' genome reached controversial conclusions: namely, that snakes are intermediate hosts of the new virus, and that a key coronavirus protein shares "uncanny similarities" with an HIV-1 protein. Now, a study in ACS' Journal of Proteome Research refutes both ideas and suggests that scaly, anteater-like animals called pangolins are the missing link for SARS-CoV-2 transmission between bats and humans.

Understanding where SARS-CoV-2 -- the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic -- came from and how it spreads is important for its control and treatment. Most experts agree that bats are a natural reservoir of SARS-CoV-2, but an intermediate host was needed for it to jump from bats to humans.

A recent study that analyzed the new virus' genome suggested snakes as this host, despite the fact that coronaviruses are only known to infect mammals and birds. Meanwhile, an unrelated study compared the sequence of the spike protein -- a key protein responsible for getting the virus into mammalian cells -- of the new coronavirus to that of HIV-1, noting unexpected similarities. Although the authors withdrew this preprint manuscript after scientific criticism, it spawned rumors and conspiracy theories that the new coronavirus could have been engineered in a lab. Yang Zhang and colleagues wanted to conduct a more careful and complete analysis of SARS-CoV-2 DNA and protein sequences to resolve these issues.

Compared to the previous studies, the researchers used larger data sets and newer, more accurate bioinformatics methods and databases to analyze the SARS-CoV-2 genome. They found that, in contrast to the claim that four regions of the spike protein were uniquely shared between SARS-CoV-2 and HIV-1, the four sequence segments could be found in other viruses, including bat coronavirus.

Researchers document seasonal migration in deep-sea

First time scientists have documented this phenomena

Date: March 26, 2020
Source: Nova Southeastern University

We've all seen the documentaries that feature scenes of mass migrations on land. Those videos are pretty impressive showing all sorts of animals -- birds, mammals and other creatures -- on the move. What wasn't known was to what extent this was taking place in the deepest parts of our oceans.

That was until now.

Scientists have, for the first time, documented seasonal migrations of fish across the seafloor in deep-sea fish, revealing an important insight that will further scientific understanding of the nature of our planet.

"We are extremely excited about our findings, which demonstrate a previously unobserved level of dynamism in fishes living on the deep sea floor, potentially mirroring the great migrations which are so well characterised in animal systems on land," said Rosanna Milligan, Assistant Professor at Nova Southeastern University, who started the work at the University of Glasgow.

The study -- published today in the Journal of Animal Ecology and led by Nova Southeastern University (NSU) and the University of Glasgow -- analysed more than seven years of deep-sea photographic data from West Africa, linking seasonal patterns in surface-ocean productivity with observed behavioural patterns of fishes at 1,500 metres.

The deep sea -- greater than 200-meters water depth -- covers most of the world's surface. Recent advances in technology and computational power have hugely improved our ability to access and study deep sea ecosystems, but there are still many basic questions that we simply don't have answers to.

This study now provides evidence of cycles of movement across the seafloor in deep-sea fish, with the study authors believing these movements could be happening in other locations across the world's sea floor too.


Mammal study explains 'why females live longer'

By Matt McGrath Environment correspondent

24 March 2020

A new study that looks at lifespan in wild mammals shows that females live substantially longer than males.

The research finds that, on average, females live 18.6% longer than males from the same species.

This is much larger than the well-studied difference between men and women, which is around 8%.

The scientists say the differences in these other mammals are due to a combination of sex-specific traits and local environmental factors.

In every human population, women live longer than men, so much so that nine out of 10 people who live to be 110 years old are female.

This pattern, researchers say, has been consistent since the first accurate birth records became available in the 18th Century.

While the same assumption has been held about animal species, large-scale data on mammals in the wild has been lacking,

Now, an international team of researchers has examined age-specific mortality estimates for a widely diverse group of 101 species.

In 60% of the analysed populations, the scientists found that females outlived the males - on average, they had a lifespan that's 18.6% longer than males.

Coronavirus: Calls to protect great apes from threat of infection

By Helen Briggs BBC News

25 March 2020 

Conservation experts are calling for urgent action to protect our closest living relatives, the great apes, from the threat of coronavirus.

New measures are needed to reduce the risk of wild gorillas, chimps and orangutans encountering the virus, scientists warn in a letter in Nature.

Habitat loss and poaching are big threats to the survival of great apes, but viruses are also a concern.

Scientists say the current outbreak warrants the utmost caution.

Infectious disease is now listed among the top three threats to some great ape groups.

"We do not know what the effect of the virus on them is and that means we have to take the precautionary principle and reduce the risk that they will get the virus," said Prof Serge Wich of Liverpool John Moores University, UK, who is a co-signatory of the letter.

"That means halting tourism, which is happening in several countries already, reducing research, being very cautious with reintroduction programmes, but also potentially halting infrastructure and extractive projects in great ape habitats which bring people in closer contact with great apes and thus potentially spread this virus to them."

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Here be dragons: Analysis reveals new species in Smaug lizard group

MARCH 25, 2020

Smaug, the deadly dragon in J.R.R Tolkien's "The Hobbit," has a few living relatives. With dense, alligator-like armor, these small, real-life dragon lizards are rock-crevice recluses mostly confined to mountaintops in southern Africa.

Now, herpetologists Michael Bates, a curator at South Africa's National Museum in Bloemfontein, and Edward Stanley of the Florida Museum of Natural History have discovered a ninth species of dragon lizard in the genus Smaug, previously mistaken for a similar-looking species, S. barbertonensis.

The new species, a heavily plated dark brown lizard with pale yellow bands, has been named Smaug swazicus, or the Swazi dragon lizard, in honor of the country of Eswatini, where most of the species' range is located. Up to 13 inches from snout to tail tip, S. swazicus is an unusually big lizard for the region.

"In terms of bulk and actual recorded total length, Smaug swazicus may be the largest southern African lizard species described since the western giant plated lizard, Matobosaurus maltzahni, 82 years ago," Bates said.

Bats depend on teamwork when foraging over farmland

MARCH 26, 2020

Scientists from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) have reported in a paper published in the journal Oikos that bats forage on their own in insect-rich forests, but hunt collectively in groups over insect-poor farmland. They seem to zoom in on places where conspecifics emit echolocations during the capture of insects, an inadvertent clue that reveals high-yielding areas to others. However, "listening" to their hunting companions to find food only works when sufficient numbers of bats forage in the same area. If numbers continue to decline, density could fall below a critical level and joint hunting could become difficult or impossible. This could pose an additional threat to the survival of species such as the Common noctule.

Human activities have massively changed the Earth over centuries. While Central Europe was covered by dense primeval forests in ancient times, today, farmland, meadows and managed forests dominate the countryside. Humans have transformed natural landscapes into cultural landscapes and many wild animals disappeared, while others found new ecological niches. Bats were particularly successful in the latter process. As so-called cultural successors, many species were able to survive in modern environments, finding shelter in buildings and feeding above arable land and managed forests. But what is the secret of their success? Are they particularly efficient hunters?

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