Thursday 30 June 2016

From 'guard cats' to monkeys who shop: our favourite urban animal stories

More than two years after the launch of Guardian Cities, it seems high time for a round-up of all the animal-related stories that have kept us amused along the way. Here’s our top 10 – now tell us yours

Venkman, named after one of the Ghostbusters, guards the grain at the Empirical brewery in Chicago

Thursday 9 June 201607.30 BSTLast modified on Thursday 9 June 201613.27 BST

Four feral cats, named after the original Ghostbusters, are being “employed” in a Chicago brewery to guard the grain from rats. In exchange, they are paid a daily rate in the only currency they understand: dry cat food.

As Medill Reports Chicago explains, the owners of the Empirical brewery in Chicago decided to employ these cats, rather than pest control companies, because they are both cheaper and, to quote verbatim, “adorable”.

The programme is part of a wider strategy to release 3,500 feral cats to deal with Chicago’s unaccountably virulent rat problem. Chicago is apparently the“rattiest” city in the US.

That same charity, Tree House, is also raising funds to build a “cat house”: a large apartment building in which 200 cats would live alongside a vet and other feline-specific facilities. Naturally, Tree House has produced a reality TV show to drum up cash for this initiative – mainly featuring cats behaving cattily towards each other.

Fur flies during the Real Tree House Cats of Chicago
If all this makes you think that Chicago is undergoing a kind of collective delusion brought on by those parasites that supposedly live in cat litter and embed themselves into the brain stems of their hosts, to slowly shift human behaviour over time in pro-cat ways, all we can observe is that it’s not just Chicago, or cats. Increasingly, wild animals are making their mark on urban environments in a host of new and inventive ways. Behold ...

Pigeons with backpacks
In London, pigeons have been equipped with little backpacks to measure air pollution. The ones over Victoria Park wear Fjallraven. No, not really.

Vultures with Go-Pros
Lima, Peru has a rubbish dumping problem so topographically dynamic that it actually needs to be mapped aerially. So what better animal to track garbage mounds from the skies (caw!) than a vulture?

Lima’s black vultures, or gallinazo, are also large enough to wear Go-Pro video cameras, and well-trained enough by Alfredo Correa at Lima’s Huachipa zoo to return with said cameras. 

Colorado mother fights off mountain lion that attacked five-year-old son

Boy playing outside home suffers injuries to face, head and neck
Lion killed as presumed to be ‘either injured or very ill’, authorities say

Associated Press in Denver
Saturday 18 June 201614.07 BSTLast modified on Saturday 18 June 201619.57 BST

Authorities say a mother fought off a mountain lion that attacked her five-year-old son in Colorado on Friday night.

The Pitkin County sheriff’s office told ABC7 the boy had been playing outside with his older brother about 8pm when the mountain lion attacked, near their home about 10 miles north-west of Aspen.

The mother heard screams from outside and “physically removed her son from the mountain lion”, according to a police statement.

The sheriff’s office said the boy’s mother ran outside when she heard screaming; the boy’s face, head and neck were injured. He was taken to an Aspen area hospital and county undersheriff Ron Ryan told the Aspen Times the boy was conscious and alert.

His mother sustained minor injuries to her hands and legs. An Aspen Valley hospital spokesperson told NBC News she was “released in good condition”.

Sheriff’s deputies and forest service officers found the mountain lion under some trees by the family’s home, near toys and bicycles. The forest service officer killed the lion, the sheriff’s department said.

“Since it was still there, it was either injured or very ill, so they dispatched it,” Ryan said.
Mountain lions are not often seen in Colorado, and attacks are rare. The stateparks and wildlife department says there have been “fewer than a dozen fatalities in North America in more than 100 years”.

Wednesday 29 June 2016

Chameleons’ Secret Hunting Weapon: Super-Sticky Mucus

A thick, honey-like adhesive at the tip of a chameleon’s tongue lets it bring its prey to its mouth after snagging it, scientists discover.

 By Carrie Arnold


Chameleons have a sticky problem.
To catch their insect dinner, their tongues unfurl forward faster than a jet plane. It’s a precise attack, and it’s remarkably successful. But snagging prey with their tongue is only the first step. In order to eat, they have to bring the prey back to their mouth.

There lies the problem, says physicist Pascal Damman of the University of Mons in Belgium. Chameleons don’t wrap their tongues around their prey, which means that the food they catch must somehow stick to their tongue.

In a new paper in Nature Physics, Damman and colleagues show that chameleons produce a viscous, sticky mucus on the tip of their tongue that’s 400 times thicker than human saliva. Tiny amounts of this syrupy goo with the thickness of honey is what lets these animals catch prey that can weigh up to one-third their body weight.

“It’s a very simple mechanism, and it shows things don’t have to be very complex to be very effective,” he said.

Predictive model to analyse the reproductive status of wolf packs

June 20, 2016

Researchers at the Universitat de València's Cavanilles Institute of Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology evaluated the usefulness of bioacoustic tools as a means of establishing the reproductive status of wolf populations.

Population monitoring is crucial for wildlife management and conservation. Wildlife researchers have increasingly applied tools that mimic the sounds of animals in order to establish ecological parameters such as distribution and abundance. The wolves respond to the simulated calls with what are known as chorus howls, which can then be analysed.

What the scientists are working on is the development of tools that can analyse the acoustic structure of chorus howls to ascertain the presence of wolf pups, as an indicator of the reproductive health of the pack. The complexity of the wolf chorus is such that this is a difficult task even for experienced observers, creating the need for accurate predictive tools.

Vicente Palacios of the Cavanilles Institute explains that to develop the tools, they first analysed 110 Iberian chorus howls of packs whose make-up was known, including packs with and without pups. The analysis revealed that the acoustic energy distribution of packs with pups was concentrated at higher frequencies than packs without. Based on this and other energy distribution features identified in the study, the team built mathematical models that were able to accurately predict the presence (or absence) of pups in 94 percent of the cases analysed.

As José V. López-Bao of the University of Oviedo says, the quantitative analysis of chorus howls is an objective method for establishing reproductive status that gives accurate results, is easy to implement and is independent of the observer's subjective experience. "These advantages become significant when monitoring large wolf packs, or cases where many observers are involved," he adds.

Blind Mexican catfish species spotted in the US for the first time

JUNE 18, 2016

by Chuck Bednar

For the first time, a rare type of eyeless catfish native to Mexico has been spotted in the US, as a team of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin identified the creature swimming in a limestone cave at the Amistad National Recreation Area near the city of Del Rio.

Known as the Mexican blindcat (Prietella phreatophila), these endangered fish are typically less than three inches long and live in areas supported by the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer underlying the Rio Grande basin in Texas and Coahuila, UT-Austin ichthyology curator Dean Hendrickson and his colleagues explained Friday in a statement.

In May, Hendrickson’s team found two of the catfish in the limestone cave, and their discovery supports the belief that the Texas and Mexico portions of the aquifer are connected by water-filled caves located under the Rio Grande. While there have been rumored sighting of the species in Texas for decades, this is the first time that such observations can be confirmed.

The two catfish, which have since been relocated to the San Antonio Zoo, “look just like the ones from Mexico,” the ichthyologist said. It is the third species of blind catfish to be identified in the US, joining the toothless blindcat (Trogloglanis pattersoni) and the widemouth blindcat (Satan eurystomus). All three species have only been spotted in Texas.

Tuesday 28 June 2016

Researchers discover three new species of fish off Hawaii

June 16, 2016 by Caleb Jones

Researchers in Hawaii have discovered three probable new species of fish while on an expedition in the protected waters of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
In a statement released Wednesday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said divers collected two previously unknown species of fish and filmed a third.

NOAA's Randall Kosaki, the expedition's chief scientist, said the team collected the first specimens of male Hawaiian pigfish about 300 feet below the surface.

The scientists also observed significant coral mortality in the region that was the result of a mass bleaching event in 2014.

Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology researcher John Burns said a 2015 trip found about 90 percent of the coral around Lisianski Island had died. This year, the team found that dead coral was covered in a green algae bloom.

Scientists find oldest Homo erectus footprints ever discovered

JUNE 17, 2016

by Chuck Bednar

Newly discovered fossilized footprints left behind by Homo erectus, the extinct ancestor of modern humans, are believed to be approximately 800,000 years old and are potentially the oldest such remains ever discovered by researchers, according to published reports.

Discovered in the deserts of south eastern Eritrea by a team of local and Italian paleontologists, the prints were left behind in the sands of what had been an ancient lake at the time, The Local and the ANSA news agency reported this week. The footprints have been described as virtually indistinguishable from those of a modern man.

“Their age is yet to be confirmed with certainty,” Alfredo Coppa, an archaeologist from Rome’s Sapienza University and the leader of the expedition, told The Local. He added that footprints such as these are “extremely rare” and that they would “reveal a lot about the evolution of man, because they provide vital information about our ancestors gait and locomotion.”

Coppa and his colleagues found the fossils in a 26 square meter stone slab, and reported that the shape indicates that the prints had been filled with water after formation but before they dried out and became buried beneath the sands of what is now an extremely arid desert region.

Findings provide insight into human ancestors, surrounding ecosystem
Working with researchers from the National Museum of Eritrea, the Sapienza University team discovered the footprints at the Aalad-Amo site in eastern Eritrea. As the paleontologists pointed out to ANSA, the toes and the sole of the foot indicate that Homo erectus was an efficient runner and walker.

Conversations with Koko: an audience with world's favourite 'talking' gorilla

Alex Hannaford 15 JUNE 2016 • 8:02AM

This piece first ran in September, 2011, and has been republished to coincide with the BBC One documentary Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks to People

My location is a closely guarded secret: a ranch somewhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains, several miles outside the small California town of Woodside. And for good reason, for its resident is something of a celebrity.

She lives here with a male friend and both value their privacy, so much so that I’m asked to keep absolutely silent as I walk the single-track dirt path that winds through a grove of towering redwoods up to a little Portakabin.

Inside, I’m asked to put on a thin medical mask to cover my nose and mouth and a pair of latex gloves. Then my guide, Lorraine, tells me to follow another dirt trail to a different outbuilding. This one has a small wooden porch attached and it’s here that I sit on a plastic chair and look up at an open door, separated from the outside world by a wire fence that stretches the length and width of the frame.

And there she is: Koko. A 300lb lowland gorilla, sitting staring back at me and pointing to an impressive set of teeth.

I’d been told beforehand not to make eye contact initially as it can be perceived as threatening, and so I glare at the ground. But I can’t help stealing brief glances at this beautiful creature.

Monday 27 June 2016

Rays Don't Stray: Giant Mantas Stick Close to Home

By Mindy Weisberger, Senior Writer | June 20, 2016 02:01pm ET

Until recently, manta rays — which sail through tropical and temperate ocean waters, looking much like enormous kites — were thought to migrate great distances across ocean basins, as do many of the largest marine animals.

But a new study finds that these big fish have a much smaller range than scientists had thought.

Researchers investigated data gathered from tracking devices on the manta rays, as well as chemical and DNA analysis  of the rays' muscle tissues. The scientists were surprised to find that these giants of the deep are not long-distance seasonal commuters at all. Rather, they spend their lives in much more localized areas, the researchers found. The discovery radically changes scientists' understanding of mantas' habits and carries dramatic implications for their conservation.

Now you see them, now you don't
With a "wingspan" that can extend more than 23 feet (7 meters), mantas are the largest rays and one of the ocean's biggest fishes. But tracking even very large animals in the open ocean can be extremely difficult, and mantas have always been especially so, according to lead study author Josh Stewart, a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

Spot the bee: scientists release hundreds of numbered bees in London and offer £100 prizes for pictures

Sarah Knapton, science editor 
20 JUNE 2016 • 4:56PM

“2 bee, or not 2 bee?” That is the question Londoners could be asking when trying to spot one of hundreds of specially numbered bees which are being released into the capital.

Biologists at Queen Mary University of London have super-glued ‘licence plates’ to 500 bees and will be sending them off from campus rooftops on Tuesday June 21 as part of a project to uncover the secret lives of the insects. Hundreds more will follow in the coming weeks.
To encourage a city-wide bee hunt, the university is awarding prizes of £100 vouchers for the best pictures of the special insects. 

The London Pollinator Project is trying to locate the bees’ preferred patches in the capital  and discover which are their favourite flowers.  

Britain’s bees are under threat – but we can all play a part in helping them by creating bee-friendly gardens and other spaces.Dave Timms, Friends of the Earth

Armed with the knowledge, the researchers can improve planting schemes to help populations thrive.

Project leader Professor Lars Chittka, from the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, said: "The fact that the bees have individual 'license plates' will allow anyone interested to develop their own science project, and ask scientific questions about the behaviour of bees.
“For example, citizen scientists might be intrigued to see the same bee return to their balcony and might record when during the day, how many times and which flowers they prefer.

Rediscovering a wasp after 101 years

June 20, 2016 by Sean Nealon

A species of wasp that is a natural enemy of a wood-boring beetle that kills black locust trees has been rediscovered, more than 100 years after the last wasp of this species was found.

The discovery is significant because the wood-boring beetle, known as the locust borer, is considered a serious pest that has discouraged planting of black locusts, which played an important role in American history. The trees, whose wood is strong, hard and extremely durable, helped build the Jamestown settlement and were featured prominently at George Washington's Mount Vernon.

The only previous known specimens of the wasp (Oobius depressus) date back to 1914 and were found in Morristown, Illinois. The problem with those specimens is that they were missing their heads and antennae, making them difficult to identify even by specialists of that wasp family, Encyrtidae.

That led Serguei V. Triapitsyn, director of the UC Riverside Entomology Research Museum, and Toby R. Petrice, an entolomogist with the U.S.D.A. Forest Service Northern Research Station in Lansing, Mich., to search for new specimens.

This was not an easy task because eggs of locust borer, particularly ones parasitized by this wasp, are extremely difficult to find. Adults of the locust borer itself, on the other hand, are common in the Midwest in early fall because they feed on the pollen of goldenrod.

Because females visit black locust trees to lay eggs, the scientists placed an insect trap designed to collect beetles and other arboreal insects in the canopy of a black locust tree at Rose Lake State Wildlife Area in Bath Charter Township, Mich., from August to October 2015.

Petrice installed and maintained the trap and collected samples in ethanol, which were then sent in early 2016 to the UC Riverside Entomology Research Museum for sorting in Triapitsyn's lab by Vladimir V. Berezovskiy, a volunteer who is a retired museum preparator.

Sunday 26 June 2016

Finding Dory, Killing Dory: Your 'Dory' Might Have Been Poisoned With Cyanide

Jun 18, 2016 06:56 AM EDT

The long-awaited sequel to the hit film "Finding Nemo" was finally released on box office last week. With the animated film now focusing on the adorably forgetful blue tang fish, "Finding Dory" is set to make tropical fish popular again.

And this is where scientists and environmentalists begin to worry.

While such films increase awareness about the diversity of marine life, many people are also triggered to buy these wild fish to have as pets.

Similar to what happened after the success of the "Finding Nemo" film, the release of the new Pixar movie is seen to boost the demand for species of Dory and Nemo--clownfish and blue tang--for aquariums. The problem is these fish are usually caught from open seas using cyanide, according to recent research.

Craig Downs of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia said the popularity of "Finding Nemo" has resulted to more than a million clownfish caught from reefs, as per

Downs said one of the most common ways to capture these fish is through cyanide poisoning.

EU plans to help fight wildlife crime


“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man” – Charles Darwin

The Illegal wildlife trade is one of the world’s most lucrative criminal activities, raking in up to £15 billion annually. The only crimes more lucrative are drug trafficking, people trafficking and counterfeiting.

Wildlife trafficking has unmeasured blood on its hands, not just by destroying wildlife but in helping to fund many extremist and militia groups. It is vital for people, as well as the threatened wildlife that this trade comes to an end, soon. Ivory, tiger products, tropical timber, rhino horn and exotic birds are some of the most valuable products on the black market. Live reptiles well as live plants, such as like cacti and orchids are also frequently seized at EU borders.

Saturday 25 June 2016

Invasive species could cause billions in damages to agriculture

June 20, 2016

Invasive insects and pathogens could be a multi-billion- dollar threat to global agriculture and developing countries may be the biggest target, according to a team of international researchers.

"Invasive pests and diseases are a major threat to agriculture, natural ecosystems and society in general," said Matthew Thomas, professor and Huck Scholar in Ecological Entomology and a researcher in the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, Penn State. "In the U.S. you only need to think about current problems such as Emerald Ash Borer or the Asian Tiger Mosquito and the potential threat of Zika virus to appreciate this. One of the challenges we face is predicting the next threat and where it will come from. This study explores some of these issues at a global scale."

The researchers, who report their findings today (June 20) in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed the impact of 1,297 known invasive insect pests and pathogens on 124countries. They also determined which counties posed the biggest threats based on their trading partners and numbers of invasive species.

The United States, China, India and Brazil, all large agricultural producers, would have the highest potential cost from invasive species, according to the researchers. China and the United States ranked one and two, respectively, as the highest potential source countries for the pests.

"China and the U.S. are large and have diverse cropping systems ranging from subtropical to temperate environments and this diversity of cropping systems supports a wide range of potential pest and disease species," said Thomas, who is also a co-funded faculty member of the Huck Institute, Penn State. "Also, China and the U.S. have very active trading relationships with many countries worldwide and these provide potential links for transport of pest and disease organisms to novel areas."

While big agricultural countries, such as the United States and China, may take the biggest monetary hit, smaller developing countries may suffer proportionately higher damage.

The sculpture controlled by bees: Wolfgang Buttress's Hive

Its 170,000 pieces of aluminium are a hive-like structure of latticework, controlled by the vibrations of honeybees in a hive at Kew that is connected to the sculpture

Friday 17 June 201612.41 BSTLast modified on Friday 17 June 201615.43 BST

“My approach to a sculpture seeks to frame nature so one can experience it more intimately,” says British artist Wolfgang Buttress, whose 17-metre high Hive installation opens at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, in London on Saturday. “I want visitors to feel enveloped, wrapped-up and involved in the experience, rather than adopting the position of an external observer.”

Its 170,000 pieces of aluminium, suspended from the ground, appear as a twisting swarm of bees from afar, but as you come closer it becomes a hive-like structure of latticework whose low humming sound and hundreds of flickering LED lights draws you in to a multi-sensory instillation. The intensity of sound and light is controlled by the vibrations of honeybees in an actual hive at Kew that is connected to the sculpture.

Honeybees communicate primarily with each other through vibrations. By biting a wooden stick connected to a conductor, visitors to the Hive can get a sense of four types of vibrational messages through the bones in their head. These include the tooting and quacking signals that virgin queen bees make when they challenge each other in a display of strength to determine who will be the queen of the hive; begging, when a bee requests food from another another; and the waggle dance which communicates the location of a good food source.

Woman attacked by bear while running marathon in New Mexico

Officials say female black bear attacked after cub ran up a tree
Runner suffers bites, scratches and injuries to head, neck and upper body

Associated Press in Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico
Sunday 19 June 201620.55 BSTLast modified on Sunday 19 June 201621.31 BST

Wildlife officials say a bear attacked a woman who was running a marathon in a national preserve in northern New Mexico.

The woman suffered several bites and scratches and had injuries to her head, neck and upper body that were not life-threatening.

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (DGF) said the woman was racing on Saturday afternoon when a female black bear confronted her in the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Officers said the victim surprised the bear after the bear’s cub ran up a nearby tree.
Other joggers helped the woman until emergency crews arrived. She was airlifted to an Albuquerque hospital.

The New Mexico DGF and the National Park Service warned people to stay away from the area.

Officials were trying to find the bear, to euthanize it and test it for rabies. Although rabies in bears is rare, the DGF said in a statement, “it is nearly 100% fatal in humans if not properly treated”.

Friday 24 June 2016

Giant crab horde gathers in Australia

17 June 2016

A horde of giant spider crabs has amassed in waters near the Australian city of Melbourne.
Hundreds of thousands of the crabs migrate to Australia's southern shores each year as ocean waters cool.

Australian aquatic scientist Sheree Marris filmed an enormous gathering of the crustaceans in Port Phillip Bay.

Ms Marris said she hoped to raise awareness of the diversity of sea life in Australia's southern waters.

"Who would have thought something like this, that is so spectacular, could be happening in Australia on the southern shore," she said.

The exact reason for the behaviour is not known, but scientists speculate it is most likely to do with the process of moulting.

When crabs shed their hard outer shell in order to grow, they are vulnerable to predators such as cormorants and stingrays.

Bunching together in large numbers provides a level of protection against being eaten.
"People think Port Phillip Bay's a marine wasteland … but this is really unique and it's really spectacular," Ms Marris said.

"Not only is [Melbourne] the most liveable city above the water, it is also the most liveable below the water."

Mammals almost wiped out with the dinosaurs

Date: June 20, 2016
Source: University of Bath

Over 90 per cent of mammal species were wiped out by the same asteroid that killed the dinosaurs in the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago, significantly more than previously thought.

A study by researchers at the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath and published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, reviewed all mammal species known from the end of the Cretaceous period in North America. Their results showed that over 93 per cent became extinct across the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary, but that they also recovered far more quickly than previously thought.

The scientists analysed the published fossil record from western North America from two million years before the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, until 300,000 years after the asteroid hit. They compared species diversity before and after this extinction event to estimate the severity of the event and how quickly the mammals recovered. The extinction rates were much higher than previous estimates based on more limited data sets.

Dr Nick Longrich from the Milner Centre for Evolution, in the University of Bath's Department for Biology & Biochemistry, explained: "The species that are most vulnerable to extinction are the rare ones, and because they are rare, their fossils are less likely to be found. The species that tend to survive are more common, so we tend to find them.

"The fossil record is biased in favour of the species that survived. As bad as things looked before, including more data shows the extinction was more severe than previously believed."
The researchers say this explains why the severity of the extinction event was previously underestimated. With more fossils included, the data includes more rare species that died out.

Following the asteroid hit, most of the plants and animals would have died, so the survivors probably fed on insects eating dead plants and animals. With so little food, only small species survived. The biggest animals to survive on land would have been no larger than a cat. The fact that that most mammals were small helps explain why they were able to survive.

Yet the researchers found that mammals also recovered more rapidly than previously thought, not only gaining back the lost diversity in species quickly but soon doubling the number of species found before the extinction. The recovery took just 300,000 years, a short time in evolutionary terms.

Someone has just found a sea monster off Antarctica using Google Earth

Sunday 19 Jun 2016 5:17 pm

"Kraken" spotted on Google Earth

It is said to have terrorised ships off Norway and Greenland for centuries but now it seems the mystery of the Kraken has been solved – thanks to Google Earth.

If you’re not familiar with the tale of the perhaps-not-mythical sea monster, references date back to the late 13th Century and mostly revolve around a huge tentacled monster devouring ships and men.

Some stories mention it as having tentacles, while others that it is more like a massive whale.

Either way, it doesn’t sound like something you’d want to come across when on voyage of any kind.

Sightings of the Kraken have died down recently, which suggest that either it too has gone to a watery grave, or, on new evidence, may have migrated to a new life near Antarctica.

Taken near Deception Island in the South Shetlands it shows a ‘fin’ or rock or something breaking the surface of the water with a larger body underneath.

All in all it is fairly alarming.

Thursday 23 June 2016

How early mammals evolved night vision to avoid predators

Date: June 20, 2016
Source: Cell Press

Early mammals evolved in a burst during the Jurassic period, adapting a nocturnal lifestyle when dinosaurs were the dominant daytime predator. How these early mammals evolved night vision to find food and survive has been a mystery, but a new study publishing June 20 in Developmental Cell suggests that rods in the mammalian eye, extremely sensitive to light, developed from color-detecting cone cells during this time to give mammals an edge in low-light conditions.

Cone cells are specialized for certain wavelengths of light to help animals detect color, while rods can detect even a single photon and are specialized for low-light vision. "The majority of mammals have rod-dominant retinas, but if you look at fish, frogs, or birds, the vast majority are cone-dominated--so the evolutionary question has always been, 'What happened?'" says Anand Swaroop, a retina biologist at the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. "We've been working for a long time to understand the fundamental mechanisms behind rod and cone development."

Previous work done by Swaroop and his colleagues showed that a transcription factor called NRL pushes cells in the retina toward maturing into rods by suppressing genes involved in cone development. "We began to wonder if, somehow, the short-wavelength cones were converted into rods during evolution," says Swaroop.

To investigate the origin of rods in mammals, Swaroop and his team examined rod and cone cells taken from mice at different stages of development. Details of an organism's embryonic development often reveal traits carried by its evolutionary ancestors; consider, for instance, how human embryos initially develop gill-like slits and a tail.

New lizard found in Dominican Republic

Suggests similar evolution occurs on separate Caribbean islands
Date: June 17, 2016
Source: University of Toronto

A University of Toronto-led team has reported the discovery of a new lizard in the middle of the most- visited island in the Caribbean, strengthening a long-held theory that communities of lizards can evolve almost identically on separate islands.

The chameleon-like lizard -- a Greater Antillean anole dubbed Anolis landestoyi for the naturalist who first spotted and photographed it -- is one of the first new anole species found in the Dominican Republic in decades.

"As soon as I saw the pictures, I thought, 'I need to buy a plane ticket,'" says Luke Mahler of U of T's Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and lead author of an article on the discovery published today online in The American Naturalist.

"Our immediate thought was that this looks like something that's supposed to be in Cuba, not in Hispaniola -- the island that Haiti and the Dominican Republic share," says Mahler. "We haven't really seen any completely new species here since the early 1980s."

What's more, the new species could help piece together a long-standing puzzle of similar looking species that exist on different Caribbean islands.

"I got a grainy photo from local naturalist Miguel Landestoy, who saw a nesting pair of birds that were mobbing a branch," says Mahler. "He saw they were flying around what he thought was a new species of heavily camouflaged anole clinging to that branch." It wasn't possible to say much from the photo though, and Mahler didn't think much of it. "You get all these people who say they found a new species but it's almost always just an atypical individual of a very common species," says Mahler. "So you get pretty hardened against thinking claims like these are legit."

A few years after the initial photo, Landestoy caught one of the lizards and emailed clear images of the find to Mahler and several other researchers he'd been working with. "As soon as I opened the email, I thought 'what on earth is that!?,'" says Mahler.

Well-studied ecologically, Greater Antillean anoles are a textbook example of a phenomenon known as replicated adaptive radiation, where related species evolving on different islands diversify into similar sets of species that occupy the same ecological niches.

Examples of this could be long-tailed grass dwellers, bright green canopy lizards, and stocky brown species that perch low on tree trunks, each living in similar environments on more than one island.

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