Friday 30 September 2016

New safeguards agreed for world's most trafficked mammal

By Matt McGrath Environment correspondent, Johannesburg
28 September 2016

A little known species driven to the edge of extinction by poaching has gained extra protection at the Cites meeting in South Africa.

Pangolins are slow moving, nocturnal creatures found across Asia and Africa but over a million have been taken from the wild in the last decade.

The trade is being driven principally by demand for their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Now the Cites meeting has agreed to ban all trade in eight species of Pangolin.
Scales of destruction
As the world's only mammal covered in scales, these species are sometimes known as scaly anteaters. The creatures have very long, sticky tongues. These come in very handy when searching for ants, their favourite food

However these scales, which the animal uses for protection, are one of the key reasons for their demise.

In traditional Chinese medicine they are dried and roasted and used for a variety of ailments including excessive nervousness, hysterical crying, palsy and to aid lactation.

As well as the scales, the meat of the Pangolin is eaten as bush meat in many parts of Africa and in China it has become something of a delicacy.

The level of illegal trade is astonishing. Between January and September this year, authorities seized more than 18,000 tonnes of Pangolin scales across 19 countries.

The majority of these scales came from African pangolins in Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana. Experts estimate that each kilogramme of scales requires the killing of three or four animals. It is believed that pangolins make up around 20% of all illegal trade in species.


In Japan, owls and reptiles join cats in animal cafe boom (Nope, not to eat, Touch, pet, educate, but mostly have a selfie taken, Read on. Another Fad to Attract more business? - via Herp Digest

By Takao Ueda, The Japan News/Yomiuri, 9/22/16

Riding the coattails of the cat cafe boom, so-called animal cafes have become popular, especially in urban areas. Customers can get up close and personal with a variety of creatures – including snakes, owls and rabbits.

Animal cafes in Osaka have increased eight fold over the last five years, as people seeking solace with the animals, as well as foreign tourists craving novelty, have increasingly sought them out.

Nami Kuroki, an 18-year-old company employee from Osaka, enjoyed the roughly 3-foot-long snake draped around her neck at the Rock Star reptile cafe in the city’s Naniwa Ward.

“I like that she cuddles up to people even though they don’t give her attention. Her mysterious nature is fascinating,” she said.

Rock Star’s reptile collection also includes iguanas and chameleons. The cafe opened in 2014 and, after generating strong word-of-mouth buzz, was able to double its seating capacity to 40 last year.

Eighty percent of its customers are women, many of whom came to the shop in search of a scary experience and later became regulars after finding the atmosphere comfortable, according to the cafe.

Although the number of animal cafes nationwide is unknown, a tally compiled by the Osaka city government showed the number of such cafes in the city totaled 48 as of late August, an eight fold increase from five years ago. More than half are cat cafes, but the number of cafes with reptiles, owls, small birds, hamsters and other types of animals has also increased.

Fukuro no Mise (“Owl Shop”) in Osaka’s Kita Ward has increased its efforts to lure foreign travelers, posting information on the internet and taking other steps. Fukuro no Mise employs people from Taiwan, and 70 percent of its customers are now foreigners.

“It’s interesting because we don’t have shops like this in Taiwan,” said a 20-year-old university student visiting Japan. “The big eyes are charming.”

Ashiya Get Plus, a pet rabbit shop in Higashi-Nada Ward, Kobe, added a cafe to its premises in 2012, making it popular among university students and other young people. “Our place even seems to be on a list of popular dating spots,” its operator said.

The Environment Ministry has conducted surveys on well-known cat cafes. According to a survey carried out last October, cat cafes numbered 314 across the nation, up 89 from two years ago.

At Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, which opened in Kyoto, in 2008, customers sometimes have to wait an hour to enter on weekends. The cafe is home to 12 cats that were adopted from people who rescue strays.

“I want to make this cafe a place where people can learn the importance of life and proper way to care for cats,” said cafe manager Mayuko Horii, 37.

Akemi Natsuyama, a senior researcher at the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, said, “The use (of animal cafes) has spread widely, as they not only serve as places for healing but also offer people a unique experience that’s easy to post on Facebook and other sites.

“For people living in urban areas who have difficulty keeping pets, the fact they don’t have to take care of the animals all the time is one reason the cafes are popular,” she added.

Some animal cafes have raised concerns. In June, the Tokyo metropolitan government revoked the business license of a cat cafe in Sumida Ward for its failure to treat sick cats and other improper management. The revocation is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.

In Osaka, the city government instructed an animal cafe to improve its management after receiving complaints from customers, including that there were animal hairs in the food.

The Animal Protection Law allows pet stores and other facilities to display dogs and cats from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. For cats, the rules were eased in June to extend the display time to 10 p.m., following calls from business operators handling cats. However, other animals are not subject to such time restrictions.

“If animals are abused for the sake of business, it’s really defeating the purpose,” said Megumi Yokoi, the head of Animalship classroom for children, a Tokyo-based company offering animal-assisted education. “I want customers to show good sense by, for example, choosing stores that properly manage the condition of animals.”

Britain's coastline on ALERT for 'alien-like' sea creature threatening to cause CHAOS

AN ABOMINABLE sea creature that looks like something from outer space is threatening to cause chaos on British coastlines
Tunicate colony of Didemnum vexillum overgrowing gravel.JPG

By Stuart Winter
PUBLISHED: 00:01, Wed, Sep 28, 2016 | UPDATED: 14:52, Wed, Sep 28, 2016

The insidious carpet sea squirt looks like something out of a 1950s horror movie and is now battling to get a stranglehold around our shores.

Not only does the creepy, leathery creature wipe out native wildlife it also threatens the UK's valuable shellfish industry.

To alert the public, the GB Non-native Species Secretariat - the official watchdog guarding the country from potentially dangerous plants and animals - has put the carpet sea squirt on its high alert list.

Underwater footage shot in Herne Bay, Kent, during the summer shows the dreadful impact of the sea-squirt - scientific name Didemnum vexillum - as it takes over the seabed with its creamy yellow lobes.

It was aired by the Marine Biological Association after being shot by diver Debbie Phillips and warns: "...The footage shows an extensive population of the sea squirt, in places covering over 50 per cent of the sea bed.

"Didemnum vexillum was first found in the UK in 2008 and was first reported on the shore in north Kent in 2011, but an extensive sub-tidal occurrence on the open sea bed is a worrying further step in the colonisation of UK waters by this invasive species."

The harmful effects of carpet sea-squirt have already been suffered around the world since the filter feeding invertebrate began forming colonies at a rate of knots.

Believed to have originated in Japan, the sea squirt has gone on to carpet seabeds in the Netherlands, Georges Bank off Massachusetts and New Zealand.

Rattlesnakes have reduced their repertoire of venoms-Reptiles’ common ancestor possessed greater variety of toxic proteins – via Herp Digest

Science News by Laurel Hamers 9/15/16

Modern rattlesnakes have pared down their weaponry stockpile from their ancestor’s massive arsenal. Today’s rattlers have irreversibly lost entire toxin-producing genes over the course of evolution, narrowing the range of toxins in their venom, scientists report September 15 in Current Biology.

“After going through all the work of evolving powerful toxins, over time, some snakes have dispensed with them,” says study coauthor Sean B. Carroll, an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute who is at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. These modern rattlesnakes produce smaller sets of toxins that might be more specialized to their prey.

Carroll, an evolutionary biologist, and his colleagues focused on a family of enzymes called phospholipase A2, or PLA2. Genes in the PLA2 family are one of the main sources of toxic proteins in the deadly cocktail of rattlesnake venom. This set of genes can be shuffled around, added to and deleted from to yield different collections of toxins.

Data from the genome — the complete catalog of an organism’s genetic material — can reveal how those genetic gymnastics have played out over time. Carroll’s team looked at the relevant genome regions in three modern rattlesnake species (western diamondback, eastern diamondback and Mojave) and also measured molecules that help turn genetic instructions into proteins. That showed not just how the genes were arranged, but which genes the snakes were actually using. Then, the scientists blended that data with genetic information about other closely related rattlesnakes to construct a potential evolutionary story for the loss of PLA2 genes in one group of snakes.

The most recent common ancestor of this group probably had a large suite of PLA2 genes 22 million years ago, the scientists found. That collection of genes, which probably came about through many gene duplications, coded for toxins affecting the brain, blood and muscles of the snake’s prey. But 4 million to 7 million years ago, some rattlesnake species independently dropped different combinations of those genes to get smaller and more specialized sets of venom toxins. For instance, three closely related rattlesnake species in the group lost the genes that made their venom neurotoxic.

“The surprise is [the genes’] wholesale loss at two levels: complete disappearance from the venom and complete disappearance from the genome,” Carroll says. In other words, some of the genes are still lurking in the genome but aren’t turned on. The proteins those genes produce don’t show up in the venom in modern snakes. But other genes have left the genome entirely — a more dramatic strategy than simple changes in gene regulation.

Environmental shifts might have encouraged this offloading of evolutionary baggage, Carroll says. If a certain snake species’ main food source stopped responding to a neurotoxin, the snake would waste energy producing a protein that didn’t do anything helpful.

Plus, a rattlesnake doesn’t just invest in producing venom. It also needs to produce antibodies and other proteins to protect itself from its own poison, says Todd Castoe, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Texas at Arlington who wasn’t involved in the study. As a snake’s weapon becomes more complex, its shield does too — and that protection can use up resources.

Researchers also found that venom genes might not be consistent even within a single species of rattlesnake, perhaps because snakes in different areas specialize in different prey. One western diamondback rattlesnake that Carroll’s team sampled had unexpected extra genes that the other western diamondbacks didn’t have. His lab is currently looking into these within-species differences in venom composition to see how dynamic the PLA2 genome region still is today.

As for the ancestral rattlesnake, it’s impossible to say exactly how powerful the now-extinct reptile’s venom was, Carroll says. But the wider variety of enzymes this rattlesnake could hypothetically produce would have given it more flexibility to adapt its poison to environmental curveballs — an ability that Castoe describes as “the pinnacle of nastiness.”

Editor's note: Sean B. Carroll is on the board of trustees of Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News.


N. Dowell et al. The deep origin and recent loss of venom toxin genes in rattlesnakes. Current Biology. Published online September 15, 2016. doi:10.1016/j.cub/2016.07.038.

Further Reading
T.H. Saey. Evolution of venom, binge eating seen in snake DNA. Science News, Vol. 185, January 11, 2014, p. 7.

L. Sanders. Venom hunters. Science News. Vol. 176, August 15, 2009, p. 16.

Edible crickets can be reared on weeds and cassava plant tops

Date: September 22, 2016
Source: Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)

To become a sustainable alternative to meat, reared crickets must be fed feeds other than the chicken feed that is most commonly used today. Researchers from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences now present a study which shows that there are weeds and agricultural by-products that actually work as single ingredients in feeds for crickets. The study was conducted in Cambodia, where many children suffer from malnutrition and where the need for cheap protein is large.

The study was led by Anna Jansson, professor of animal physiology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. The results have very recently been published in the Journal of Insects as Food and Feed.

"Since there are both climate and environmental benefits of eating insects, we believe that this habit will become more common, also in Western countries. What our study shows is that it is possible to rear crickets on feeds that don't compete with other kinds of food production," says Anna Jansson.

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