Wednesday 31 August 2016

Pneumatic octopus is first soft, solo robot

By Jonathan Webb Science reporter, BBC News
25 August 2016

US engineers have built the first ever self-contained, completely soft robot - in the shape of a small octopus.

Made from silicone gels of varying stiffness, the "octobot" is powered by a chemical reaction that pushes gas through chambers in its rubbery legs.

Because of this design, the robot does not need batteries or wires - and contains no rigid components at all.

Instead, a sequence of limb movements is pre-programmed into a sort of circuit board built from tiny pipes.

These movements aren't good enough, yet, to send the octobot out for a stroll; instead it sits in one place and pumps alternating legs up and down in a very slow, eight-legged can-can.
But because that dance is powered purely by the robot's internal pneumatic system, the Harvard researchers - writing in the journal Nature - say their system marks a key step forward for soft robotics.

"Many of the previous embodiments required tethers to external controllers or power sources," said PhD student Ryan Truby from Harvard University.

"What we've tried to do is actually to replace these hardware components entirely and have a completely soft robotic system."

The hope is that one day, soft robots will wiggle their way into awkward surgical locations or squeeze under obstacles on search-and-rescue missions.

Real-world tasks like these, particularly if they involve human interaction, are challenging or even impossible for conventional, rigid robots - which are much more comfortable in the structured, repetitive environment of the factory floor.

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A mammoth undertaking: Can de-extinction be ecologically responsible?

Date: August 25, 2016
Source: University of California - Santa Barbara

Can the woolly mammoth be brought back from the dead? Scientists say it's only a matter of time.

In fact this year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature issued its first official set of guidelines on resurrecting extinct species. What's more, university research labs and non-governmental agencies have projects in motion to bring back extinct species. But is all of this a good idea?

A new paper by UC Santa Barbara researchers explores de-extinction -- the process of resurrecting an extinct species -- as a potential win for conservation and suggests how to make it so.

In an analysis in the journal Functional Ecology, UCSB ecologist Douglas McCauley and colleagues recommend several ways in which the science of de-extinction would have to evolve in order to make it maximally benefit ecological communities and ecosystems.

"The idea of de-extinction raises a fundamental and philosophical question: Are we doing it to create a zoo or recreate nature?" said co-author Benjamin Halpern, director of UCSB's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. "Both are reasonable answers, but restoring species to a natural state will be a much, much harder endeavor. We offer guidelines for how to make ecological de-extinction more successful and how to avoid creating 'eco-zombies.' "

Bringing back species useful for conservation requires big-picture thinking. For example, the grassland ecosystem in which the mammoth once lived looks totally different today. For a variety of reasons -- human population expansion among them -- some areas where these creatures once roamed cannot be restored to their former ecology.

Some Turtles See Red Better Than You Do – via Herp Digest

By Joanne Klein 8/19/16, New York Times

You may see red, but you can’t see it like some birds and turtles or the ancient “eagle-lizards” from which they came. According to a study published this month in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a “red gene” that originated from dinosaurs isn’t just responsible for the red patterns on some birds and some turtles. It also gives them special color vision, allowing them to see differences in shades of red that aren’t detectable to humans.

Most humans can see scarlet and crimson, but the animals with the gene can pick out the shades in between, so two birds that look the same to us appear different to birds with the gene. Known as CYP2J19, the gene comes from the same group that produces enzymes in humans allowing us to break down drugs and toxins in the body, said Nicholas Mundy, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Cambridge who led the study.

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In birds, he’s found that the red gene converts carotenoids, pigments primarily found in plants, from yellow to a red oil that coats the retina like a lens, augmenting color vision.

Researchers traced the gene’s evolutionary history back some 250,000 years to the archosaur, a dinosaur-ish creature with the skin of an armadillo, head of a bird, snout of a pig, body of a crocodile and belly of a turtle. Dr. Mundy thinks “it’s quite likely that the dinosaurs would have been bright red” with specialized red-oil pigments on their eyes.

The scientists think birds and turtles are the only land animals that still have the red gene. Snakes and scaly lizards split from the archosaur before turtles and lack the red oil on their retinas. Dr. Mundy thinks crocodiles, which spent a lot of time as nocturnal animals, lost the gene because seeing red food wasn’t as important.

Sick animals limit disease transmission by isolating themselves from their peers

Date: August 22, 2016
Source: University of Zurich

When animals get sick, they may change their behaviour, becoming less active, for example. The study's lead author, Patricia Lopes from the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich, says that previous research in wild animals has generally ignored how this change in behaviour may affect social contacts in a group and how, in turn, these changes can impact the transmission of a disease.

Sick mice are not avoided, but remove themselves from the group
To tackle this problem, Patricia Lopes and her colleagues used a novel combination of experimental manipulations of free-living mice, radio frequency tracking of animals, social network analysis and disease modelling. To simulate an infection, mice were injected with lipopolysaccharides (a component of the bacterial cell wall), which results in an immune response and generalized disease symptoms. In a paper published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, the team reveals that sick mice become disconnected from their social groups.

It is known that mice have the ability to detect other sick mice. Therefore, it was surprising to find that the animals in the same social group did not avoid the sick mouse. In fact, they went on interacting with the sick mouse and other mice more or less in the same way as before the experimental infection. "It was the sick mouse that removed itself from the group," emphasizes Lopes. She suggests that such a change in the behaviour of the sick mouse may protect relatives in the same group from catching the disease, which could be beneficial from an evolutionary perspective.

Speed and extent of disease spread are greatly reduced
In a further step, the researchers used mathematical models to predict how an infectious disease would spread considering the changes in behaviour of the sick animals. "When we account for the behavioural changes and how they affect social contacts, we find that the speed and the extent of disease spread are greatly reduced," says Lopes.

Queensland shuts down 'inhumane' goat cull using poisoned dingoes

Environment minister orders all dingoes to be removed from Pelorus Island, where they had been introduced to kill goats

Australian Associated Press
Thursday 18 August 201604.02 BST

An “inhumane” program that used surgically sterilised dingoes as a form of pest control for goats on a far north Queensland island has been shut down by the state government.

The Hinchinbrook shire council had decided to release dogs implanted with time-delayed poison pellets on Pelorus Island, north of Townsville, to kill baby goats as a form of pest control.

The plan was slammed by the RSPCA and community groups as “outright” animal cruelty.

The Queensland environment minister, Steven Miles, on Thursday issued conservation orders to shut down the program and remove all dingoes from the island within 14 days.

Miles said that in the 1990s a similar plan saw dingoes released on Townshend Island but it later caused problems for native birds.

“Pelorus Island currently has no significant predators to the birds on the island,” he said.
Bird species on the island included a threatened species of ground-dwelling shorebird, the beach stone curlew.

The minister also said while some Liberal National party members had contacted him concerned about the “horrendous” plan, the Hinchinbrook MP, Andrew Cripps, declared his support.

Freak Lightning Strike Kills Hundreds of Reindeer in Norway


A freak lightning storm has killed 323 reindeer in a remote mountainous area of Norway, officials said on Monday.

Dead animals were found lying on top of each other, many with their antlers entangled, after the thunderstorm on the Hardanger plateau in southern Norway on Friday.

"We've never had anything like this with lightning," Kjartan Knutsen of Norway's nature surveillance agency said, adding there were sometimes isolated cases of sheep or reindeer struck down.

Reindeer tend to group together when in danger. It was unclear whether the herd had been killed by a single lightning bolt or several.

Hardanger was extremely wet on Friday, helping conduct lightning.

"The high moisture in both the ground and the air was probably an explanation for why so many animals died," Olav Strand, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institue for Nature Research, wrote in a statement.

Experts flew in by helicopter to take samples of the dead reindeer, amid a rising stench of decay, as part of a project to monitor elk and deer for diseases. Five of the 323 animals were found alive but badly injured and were shot by wildlife officials.

It was unclear what would happen to the bodies. One option is to leave them to decay.

"It's part of the natural ecology, this is far from where people live," Knutsen said. Hardanger has about 12,000 reindeer and hunters are allowed to shoot 2,000 a year for their meat.

Tuesday 30 August 2016

A key theory of evolution has just been turned on its head

The Alice in Wonderland world of scientists investigating how species evolve sees the apparent downfall of the 'Red King'

Ian Johnston Science Correspondent 

In Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen explains how a race works to Alice: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Scientists have used this as a metaphor for evolution: a fox must be able to run fast enough to catch a rabbit, the rabbit must be able to run fast enough to escape.

However the so-called Red Queen Hypothesis did not seem to work when two species started working together as the one that evolved its ‘mutualist’ traits faster would end up providing more help than it received in return and getting a raw deal.

So for more than a decade scientists have subscribed to the Red King Effect, which held that mutualists developed more slowly – like a king in chess.

But new research, published in the journal Nature Communications, appears to have turned this theory on its head after scientists discovered mutualists can actually evolve faster than those not tied to a partner.

The researchers sequenced the genomes of ants evolved to protect plants like the Acacia, which provide them with food and special chambers for nesting.

These ants were “incredibly aggressive, actively patrolling and attacking herbivores and invaders”, the researchers wrote. 


Well-wrapped feces allow lobsters to eat jellyfish stingers without injury

Results advance efforts for sustainable lobster aquaculture

Date: August 25, 2016
Source: Hiroshima University

Lobsters eat jellyfish without harm from the venomous stingers due to a series of physical adaptations. Researchers from Hiroshima University examined lobster feces to discover that lobsters surround their servings of jellyfish in protective membranes that prevent the stingers from injecting their venom. The results are vial for aquaculture efforts to sustainably farm lobsters for diners around the world.

Lobsters grow for years before becoming a red-shelled main meal. In their early life stages, the larvae of slipper and spiny lobsters are nearly transparent and about the size of an adult's thumb nail. Lobster larvae ride around the ocean on the bodies of jellyfish while eating them alive, including the venomous portions of the tentacles.

Kaori Wakabayashi, Ph.D., is the leader of a research group at Hiroshima University and has studied lobster development with the goal of creating a food for farmed lobsters. Lobsters are not farmed on the scale of shrimp (prawns), crab, or fish because their development and nutritional needs remain poorly understood.

"Farmed marine species are often fed sardines, which has contributed to a dramatic decrease in global sardine populations. In the future, artificial food will empower farmers to provide their lobsters with convenient, sustainable, and safe nutrition regardless of weather, locality, or the availability of other marine resources. Knowing what the lobsters ate also ensures greater food safety for people," said Wakabayashi.

Watch Out for Wasps: Insect Sting Causes Man's Stroke

By Sara G. Miller, Staff Writer | August 26, 2016 07:21am ET

People's reactions to getting stung by a bee or wasp can range from a feeling bit of pain to a suffering a deadly allergy reaction — and now a recent report of one man's case highlights a particularly rare complication of a sting: having a stroke.

The 44-year-old Ohio man was working at a construction site when he was stung by a wasp on his leg, according to the report. Initially, the man developed a rash and hives. But about an hour later, the man displayed several telltale signs of a stroke — difficulty speaking, paralysis on one side of his body and a facial "droop" — and was rushed to the hospital.

A stroke occurs when a part of a person's brain is starved of blood, typically because of a blood clot or a leaky blood vessel.

Dr. Michael DeGeorgia, who treated the man, told Live Science that he had never before seen a case where a stroke was caused by a wasp sting. DeGeorgia is the director of the Neurocritical Care Center at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Ohio.

Sea Anemone Proteins Could Help Fix Damaged Hearing

By Ashley P. Taylor, Live Science Contributor | August 22, 2016 11:02am ET

When it comes to creatures with keen hearing ability, sea anemones are not at the top of the list. Nonetheless, new research suggests that certain proteins that help these animals repair their feathery tentacles could also eventually be used to help repair damage to cells within a mammal's inner ear.

The finding comes from a study done in mice and could be an early step toward finding a treatment for people with hearing loss, the researchers said. 

In mammals, including humans, sound is translated from vibrations in the air into nerve signals that can be sent to the brain by highly specialized cells called hair cells. These are found within the cochlea, a fluid-filled structure of the inner ear. Damage to these hair cells, which can be caused by exposure to loud noise, can result in hearing loss, and mammals are not able to repair hair cells once they are harmed.

Culling 5,000 brumbies: 41 scientists back controversial Kosciuszko proposal

Academics say plan to slash number of wild horses is needed to protect delicate Snowy Mountains environment

Australian Associated Press
Friday 19 August 201604.38 BST

A plan to cull more than 5,000 brumbies in the Snowy Mountains has received the support of leading scientists from around Australia.

Forty-one scientists from 16 universities have written to the New South Wales premier, Mike Baird, to support the proposed cull of 90% of the brumby population in Kosciuszko national park.

They are backing a controversial NSW government plan to reduce the number of brumbies from 6,000 to 600 over 20 years, arguing it is needed to protect the delicate Alpine environment.

One of the signatories, Prof Don Driscoll from Deakin University, said the academics behind the letter represented the greatest pool of knowledge about Alpine ecosystems in the country. Horses were not compatible with nature conservation in a national park, Driscoll said.

 “Horses are stock animals recently introduced and are not characteristic of this area, but threaten ecosystem processes, ecosystems and species that are characteristic,” he said on Friday.

He said the brumbies in Kosciuszko had degraded 48% of the national park and the current management strategy was not working. The population had increased from 4,200 in 2009 to 6,000 despite 450 being removed each year, he said.

Driscoll said the group believed the current rehoming system was not a humane solution because there was not enough demand for the brumbies. “Only 18% of 3,183 horses removed since 2002 were rehomed,” he said. “The remaining 82% of horses went to abattoirs after a long journey.

Inuit fear they will be overwhelmed as ‘extinction tourism’ descends on Arctic

Visit of giant cruise ship will bring money and tourists to the Northwest Passage, but fears grow for the area’s people and its ecosystem

Robin McKie Observer science editor
Sunday 21 August 201600.05 BST

In a few days, one of the world’s largest cruise ships, the Crystal Serenity, will visit the tiny Inuit village of Ulukhaktok in northern Canada. Hundreds of passengers will be ferried to the little community, more than doubling its population of around 400. The Serenity will then raise anchor and head through the Northwest Passage to visit several more Inuit settlements before sailing to Greenland and finally New York.

It will be a massive undertaking, representing an almost tenfold increase in passenger numbers taken through the Arctic on a single vessel – and it has triggered considerable controversy among Arctic experts. Inuit leaders fear that visits by giant cruise ships could overwhelm fragile communities, while others warn that the Arctic ecosystem, already suffering the effects of global warming, could be seriously damaged.

“This is extinction tourism,” said international law expert Professor Michael Byers, of the University of British Columbia. “Making this trip has only become possible because carbon emissions have so warmed the atmosphere that Arctic sea ice in summer is disappearing. The terrible irony is that this ship – which even has a helicopter for sightseeing and a huge staff-to-passenger ratio – has an enormous carbon footprint that is only going to make things even worse in the Arctic.”

The Serenity is by far the biggest cruise vessel to traverse the fabled Northwest Passage, whose exploration has claimed the lives of hundreds of seamen. The ship has a crew of 655 and carries 1,070 passengers, who have paid between £19,000 and £120,000 for a voyage that Crystal Cruises says will take them on an “intrepid adventure” from Anchorage in Alaska to New York over 32 days.

Monday 29 August 2016

Whales in the desert

August 24, 2016

In Cerro Colorado, located in the Ica Desert of Peru, sedimentary sequences dating back nine million years have been found to host the fossil skeletons of hundreds of marine vertebrates.

In 2008, remains of a giant raptorial sperm whale, Livyatan melvillei, were discovered at this site. In September 2014, the same international team of researchers, guided by Giovanni Bianucci from Pisa University (Italy), found a partial skeleton of a mysticete whale in a rock boulder.

Besides fossil bones of the skull and mandibles, the rock containing the skeleton showed perfect casts of the whale baleen. The exceptionality of the finding is that the casts provide details at the submillimetric scale, revealing under the microscope the subtle structure of the baleen bristles. Indeed, fossilized baleen bristles have been studied for the first time by chemical and mineralogical analyses.

Water voles to be reintroduced to England's highest lake

National Trust will release 100 of the endangered animals, not seen at Malham tarn in Yorkshire dales for 50 years

Friday 19 August 201606.01 BST

Britain’s endangered water voles will reach new heights when they are returned to Yorkshire’s Malham tarn for the first time in 50 years.

Around 100 water voles will be reintroduced on Friday to the National Trust estate in the Yorkshire dales, home to England’s highest freshwater lake, in what the trust says is the highest-altitude reintroduction of the species it has carried out in Britain.

Immortalised as Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, the water vole is Britain’s fastest-declining mammal. The animal was once found in nearly every waterway in England, Scotland and Wales, but is now thought to have been lost in up to 90% of these sites, clinging on in isolated pockets, coastal marshes and backwaters.

The intensification of agriculture, pollution and development, plus poor riverside management, has brought about the loss and degradation of the riverbank habitat in which the voles live. But the sharpest declines in the past 30 years have been caused by the spread of the American mink. These animals have established themselves on the waterways after escaping from fur farms, and they prey voraciously on the water vole.

Sea potatoes wash up en masse on Cornish beach

Marine experts say mysterious orbs found at Long Rock, near Penzance, are species of urchin stirred up from sandy burrows

Friday 19 August 201615.05 BSTLast modified on Friday 19 August 201618.12 BST

With their biomechanical, other-worldly appearance, these orbs look like baseballs reprocessed through the imagination of HR Giger. So their appearance en masse on a beach near Penzance this week left locals uneasy.

“I took one home with me, then panicked and put it in the bin in case it attacked,” said one dog walker who found hundreds on the beach at Long Rock, between Penzance and Marazion. His spaniel refused to go near them, he said.

Others reported finding the objects from Coverack to Looe. Jess Arnieson, 27, who was holidaying in the area, said people were baffled by the orbs. “There were hundreds of them stretching away as far as you could see along the shoreline,” she said. “The ones I saw were a bit smaller than a football but it’s possible there were some that were bigger ... I didn’t want to go any further along the beach.”

But there is no need to napalm the beaches of the west coast just yet. According to a marine biologist, the unsettling spheroids are not the vanguard of an invasion of Xenomorphs. They are a common species of urchin, known as sea potatoes or Echinocardium cordatum.

“They are quite common at the lower end of the right type of sandy beach, living below the sand in burrows,” said Martin Attrill, director of the marine institute at Plymouth University. “You get lots of them on Torbay main beach, for example. “They are related to starfish and usually covered with little spines.”

Yellowstone fish deaths: 183 miles of river closed to halt spread of parasite

Ban on all fishing, rafting and other river activities in the US river will remain until fish stop dying, say officials

Associated Press
Sunday 21 August 201602.51 BST

Closures on a 183-mile stretch of the Yellowstone river and hundreds of miles of other waterways could continue for months while biologists try to prevent the spread of a parasite believed to have killed tens of thousands of fish.

The closures will remain until the waterways improve and fish stop dying, according to officials from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The ban includes all fishing, rafting and other river activities.

Officials are now worried the fish kill could have a lasting impact on the Yellowstone’s reputation as a world-class trout fishery that draws visitors from around the world. 

The closures extend to hundreds of miles of waterways that feed into the Yellowstone, including the Boulder, Shields and Stillwater rivers. 

No dead fish were found inside Yellowstone National Park, where a celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary is set for next week and no closures were planned there.

Genetic study of skinks suggests extreme matrotrophy evolved only once in Africa

August 24, 2016 by Bob Yirka 

(—A team of researchers with Villanova University in the U.S. and associates from South Africa, Germany and Switzerland has found via genetic study that extreme matrotrophy evolved just once in African mabuyine skink. In their paper published in the journal Biology Letters, the researchers describe how they ventured to Zambia and Angola to obtain skink samples and then conducted DNA tests on them to create family trees which allowed them to learn more about the evolutionary history of matrotrophy in skinks.

Skinks are lizards with smooth bodies and short or even absent limbs. Quite often, they look like snakes. In this new effort, the researchers sought to learn more about a certain group of them—those that reproduce using a process called extreme matrotrophy. Instead of simply delivering their young through live birth, or by laying eggs, as is done by most other lizards and snakes, some skinks provide nutrients to their embryos through a placenta—a form of extreme live birth. But has such an ability evolved more than once in different species, or are all such skinks related to a common ancestor? That is what the researchers wanted to know. To find out, they collected multiple samples representing multiple different species, took them back to their lab and set about reconstructing their evolutionary history via genetic study (using multilocus DNA data). They then compared their results with species obtained from other sites in Asia and the Neotropics.

The team reports that testing suggests one likely evolutionary moment that led to matrotrophy in Africa—though they could not rule out the possibility of a second. The data also indicated that there may have been another unassociated moment in the Neotropics. Taken together, the evidence indicates the likelihood that there were no more than three moments (leading to the evolution of three sister groups) that led to matrotrophy in the three groups that make up skink ancestry (which includes 66 species). The results also showed a lot of similarity between the ways mammalian reproduction evolved and placental development in skink ancestors.

Carp demonstrate rapid de-evolution to get their scales back

August 24, 2016 by Bob Yirka 

(—A team of researchers with members from France, Hungary and Madagascar has found that a type of carp bred to have fewer scales and subsequently released into the wild in Madagascar a century ago has devolved to get its scales back. In their paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the team describes how they collected large numbers of specimens to study their scales and to look at their DNA and what they found.

Approximately a century ago, a group of monks in Europe embarked on a mission to make carp less work to prepare for eating—they bred them to have fewer and fewer scales over successive generations and were so successful that the fish became known as mirror carp because of their newly reflective properties. Then, in 1912, a group of Europeans released mirror carp into the wild in Madagascar as a food source for people living there—until that time, there were no carp present at all. The program was considered a success as the fish flourished in the new environment. It did not take long for the breeding process to begin reversing itself, however—as early as 1950, people in the area were reporting that the carp were becoming scalier. In this new effort, the researchers sought to better understand the evolutionary process that the fish have been undergoing over the course of the past century.

Sunday 28 August 2016

Sluggy McSlugface no more: sea slug named for fly-in, fly-out mining workers

Multicoloured slug, a species of nudibranch, was discovered in 2000 off the Western Australian coast and will be officially named Moridilla fifo

Monday 22 August 201605.51 BSTLast modified on Monday 22 August 201606.15 BST

A multicoloured sea slug discovered off the coast of Western Australia has been named for the state’s fly-in, fly-out mining workforce after a judging panel ruled that Sluggy McSlugface breached the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.

The slug, which is a species of nudibranch, was discovered in 2000 off the coast of Dampier, about 1,500km north of Perth, by the WA scientist Dr Nerida Wilson.

Wilson will apply for it to be officially named Moridilla fifo after a public competition to name the nudibranch received more than 4,500 entries.

A significant number of those entries suggested either Sluggy McSlugface or Nudie McNudeface, but Dr Amber Beavis, who was on the judging panel, said that breached international rules against “frivolous” scientific names, as well as a few other regulations.

 “Sluggy McSlugface – there’s no way to Latinise that,” Beavis said. “You can do the ‘sluggy’ bit but to get the spirit of that would be impossible.”

Beavis said Moridilla fifo was the clear winner after Patrick Dwyer made a compelling argument likening the nudibranch’s toxic secretions to the transient workforce.

The logic, as explained by Dwyer, is that nudibranches eat jellyfish and other animals with stingers and then secrete those same toxins out of its cerata, the blue and orange sausage-shaped appendages that line its back, as a form of self-defence. Fly-in fly-out (fifo) workers, Dwyer told Radio National, were similarly “an important resource also brought in from elsewhere”.

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