Monday 30 October 2017

Museum safari: The myriad unknown species lost in dusty drawers

18 October 2017

Millions of animals unknown to science languish in the world's natural history collections. Just open a forgotten cupboard and you could find a new species

By Christopher Kemp

A COUPLE of years ago, Stylianos Chatzimanolis received a box of insects in the post. The package came from London’s Natural History Museum: Chatzimanolis was updating the classification of an obscure group of beetles and – as taxonomists often do – had asked to borrow some specimens.

The beetles had been collected long ago but never formally described. They were just roughly classified as members of the same genus, Trigonopselaphus. But when Chatzimanolis opened the box, he could see that one of the 24 specimens clearly didn’t fit in. Long-bodied, with a segmented, sinuous abdomen, it was much larger than the others and had a distinctive, iridescent head.

As he read the beetle’s yellowed, handwritten label, he realised the specimen had been collected in 1832 in Argentina by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. Somehow it had never been described. It was stored away unnamed, then disappeared into the museum’s vast beetle collection. Finally, after 180 years in limbo, Chatzimanolis gave it a name: Darwinilus sedarisi, in honour of Darwin and the writer David Sedaris, whose audiobooks he listened to while writing the description in his office at the University of Tennessee.

The rediscovery of Darwin’s long-lost beetle was a remarkable stroke of fortune, but the wider story – of a new species being found in a museum collection – is surprisingly common. More than 1000 new beetle species are described each year from the Natural History Museum’s collection alone.

Transgender fish filmed changing sex for BBC’s Blue Planet II

Sarah Knapton, science editor 
23 OCTOBER 2017 • 12:01AM

Mating is never easy when you have an unsightly bulbous appendage protruding from your head.

But the male Asian Sheepshead Wrasse has even greater problems to contend with.

The female wrasse is endowed with the extraordinary ability to unexpectedly switch gender, a change which not only scuppers any burgeoning relationship with the male but also creates another headache for him - a new love rival.

The gender-bending ability of the wrasse has been captured in detail for the first time for BBC Blue Planet II which airs on Sunday.

Scientists believe the female wrasse makes the switch because she can pass on more genes as a male, although it is unclear why some change while others remain female.

Ancient DNA offers new view on saber-toothed cats' past

Date:  October 19, 2017
Source:  Cell Press

Researchers who've analyzed the complete mitochondrial genomes from ancient samples representing two species of saber-toothed cats have a new take on the animals' history over the last 50,000 years. The data suggest that the saber-toothed cats shared a common ancestor with all living cat-like species about 20 million years ago. The two saber-toothed cat species under study diverged from each other about 18 million years ago.

Skilled Animal Fighters May Have an Edge in Brawls

By Edd Gent, Live Science Contributor | October 18, 2017 07:03am ET

Brawling beasts may be relying on more than brute strength and size, say researchers, who now suggest the most skillful fighter may often come out on top.

While previous assessments of animal fights have looked more at physical traits  to predict the outcome, scientists think these evaluations may be missing another crucial ingredient: actual fighting talent.

"I think it's something that's been massively overlooked when studying how animals fight and why they win," Mark Briffa, a professor of animal behavior at the University of Plymouth in the U.K., told Live Science. "Having observed hundreds and hundreds of animal fights," Briffa has found that "some animals seem to be competent at doing the aggressive behavior needed in a fight. But others seem to be more inept and don't perform the movements as accurately and precisely as other individuals." [Beasts in Battle: 15 Amazing Animal Recruits in War]

Fanged kangaroo research could shed light on extinction

Date: October 16, 2017
Source: University of Queensland

Fanged kangaroos -- an extinct family of small fanged Australian kangaroos -- might have survived at least five million years longer than previously thought. A new study has found the species might have competed for resources with ancestors of modern kangaroos.

Sunday 29 October 2017

Encouraging insects back into arable land

In Sussex scientists have found that insecticide use has stabilised over the past two decades with an associated stabilisation of some insect groups, write Dr Julie Ewald and Prof John Holland of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. Plus Judith Wright says we should let verges grow

Friday 20 October 2017 18.35 BSTLast modified on Friday 20 October 2017 22.00 BST

It is with great interest that we read about the long-term decline in the biomass of flying insects on German protected areas (Scientists tell of alarm at huge fall in flying insects, 19 October).

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) carries out two long-term surveys of insects on farmland in England – the Sussex Study (1970 to present) and at our demonstration farm in Loddington (1992 to present).

In the Sussex Study, which is one of the first Farmer Clusters in the country, over 100 cereal fields are sampled every year, which has revealed declines of 35% overall in the total number of invertebrates compared with the 87% decline in the biomass of flying insects found by Hallmann et al, with most of the decline in Sussex happening in the 1970s.

However, for insects that are chick-food for declining farmland birds, we found declines of up to 72% from 1970 to 2015, with 45% of invertebrate groups declining significantly.

Analysis on a field-by-field basis indicates that it is insecticide use that is responsible for lower insect numbers, especially those that provide food resources for declining farmland birds.

54-Million-Year-Old Baby Sea Turtle Had Built-In Sunscreen – via Herp Digest

Live Science By Mindy Weisberger, Senior Writer, October 20, 2017

Preserved soft tissue in Tasbacka danicai held traces of pigments, hinting that the turtle's shell was patterned with dark regions.
Credit: Johan Lindgren

An extraordinarily well-preserved fossil of a baby sea turtle that lived 54 million years ago contains traces of dark pigments that would have acted as built-in sunscreen, protecting the animal from the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

The specimen, which is among the best-preserved fossils of sea turtles in the world, includes soft tissue, and analysis identified molecules linked to color, muscle contraction and oxygen transport in the blood, researchers reported in a new study.

One molecule in particular — eumelanin, a pigment linked to dark skin color in humans — hinted that the ancient turtle's shell contained dark colors, perhaps in patterns such as those found in sea turtles alive today, the study authors wrote.

Found in 2008 entombed in fine-grain limestone in a marine deposit in Denmark, the fossil is very small — about 3 inches (74 millimeters) long, and many of the bones retain their original shape in three dimensions. The reason the fossil is in such good condition is likely that the turtle's remains were trapped within a hard, rocky mass of sediment very early in the fossilization process, the study's lead author, Johan Lindgren, a senior lecturer with the Department of Geology at Lund University in Sweden, told Live Science in an email.

After much of the fossil mineralized, protecting remnants of soft tissue, the absence of extreme heat or cold would have prevented any remaining soft tissue from degrading further, Lindgren explained.  

The scientists evaluated five samples of soft tissue from a sublayer in the turtle's shoulder area, which was revealed during a second stage of fossil cleaning and preparation in 2013. When the researchers probed the tissue samples, they noted "a dark, well-defined film" containing structures that were carbon-rich, and which may have held organic compounds, they reported in the study.

The researchers analyzed the film using a combination of imaging and chemical techniques, which allowed them to identify molecules and determine their precise locations within the fossil — specifically, in organic material that once made up the turtle's skin and shell, Lindgren told Live Science.

Molecules of eumelanin revealed to the scientists that the turtles were pigmented with dark patches, much like the dark patterns seen on the backs of modern sea turtles, the study authors wrote. Patterns with dark coloration are known to protect sea turtles from UV rays and also help young turtles retain heat, which can enable them to grow faster. This biological feature is known as adaptive melanism — coloration that improves the turtles' chances for survival — and the researchers' findings suggest that this adaptation may have emerged in the turtle lineage as early as 54 million years ago, according to the study.

Scientists have examined fossilized plants and animals for centuries, yet there is still much to be discovered about how living organisms are preserved for millions of years, and how much of their biological makeup may be retained after fossilization, Lindgren told Live Science.

"Despite many years of research, we still have an incomplete understanding of what can be retained in the fossil record and exactly how the fossilization process works," Lindgren said.

The findings were published online Oct. 17 in the journal Nature: Scientific Reports.

Dolphins have ‘human-like’ societies...but are held back by a lack of opposable thumbs, say scientists

 Sarah Knapton, science editor 
16 OCTOBER 2017 • 4:00PM

Whales and dolphins live in human-like societies and share similar brain evolution to primates and man, scientist have concluded.

A new study which looked at 90 species found a link between brain size and social and cultural traits in marine mammals.

It is the first time that scientists have considered whether ‘social brain hypothesis’ applies to whales and dolphins, as well as humans. The theory suggests that intelligence developed as a means of coping with large and complex social groups.

Just like humans, whales and dolphins live in tightly-knit social groups, cooperate with other species, talk to each other and even have regional dialects.

Oysters and mussels produce 'ridiculous' levels of gasses causing climate change

13 OCTOBER 2017 • 6:24PM

Populations of mussels, clams and oysters produce “ridiculous” levels of climate-warming gasses on a par with herds of cattle, a new study shows.

Scientists have warned the ocean creatures are producing large amounts of the strongest greenhouse gases - methane and nitrous oxides - from the bacteria in their guts.

This methane bubbles out of the water contributing to global warming as it as 28 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide.

These small yet very abundant animals may play an important, but so far neglected, role in regulating the emissions of greenhouse gases in the seaDr Stefano Bonaglia, Stockholm University

The finding are significant as it is proposed to expand the farming of oysters, mussels and clams to help feed growing populations.

Jeremy the 'lefty' snail dies - but not before finally producing offspring

12 OCTOBER 2017 • 9:22AM

Jeremy the "lefty" snail, who captured the nation's hearts as he searched for a fellow rare garden snail with which to mate, has died.

Scientists at the University of Nottingham asked the country to check the snails in their garden and find one with a left-coiling shell.

Most garden snails have right-curling shells, but in the end they found some 'lefties' for Jeremy to mate with.

In studying the offspring of two 'lefty' snails, scientists think they can unlock the secrets behind the left and right sides of human bodies and brains.

Jeremy was so rare that scientists called him a one in a million gastropod, and had to ask the public to find him a mate.

Friday 27 October 2017

Flower petals have ‘blue halos’ to attract bees

By Virginia MorellOct. 18, 2017 , 1:00 PM

Many wild bees prefer flowers in the violet-blue range—in part because these blossoms tend to produce high volumes of nectar. But it’s not easy for plants to produce blue flowers. Instead, a new study shows that many have evolved “blue halos” to allure bees, nanoscale structures on their petals that produce a blue glow when light hits them. The blue halo is created by tiny, irregular striations—usually lined up in parallel fashion—and is found in all major groups of flowering plants pollinated by insects, the scientists report today in Nature. They made their find by using scanning electron microscopy to examine every type of angiosperm—or flowering plant—including grasses, herbaceous plants, shrubs, and trees. 

How sponges ‘spike’ themselves with glass

By Andrew WagnerOct. 18, 2017 , 2:00 PM

Sponges are, for lack of a better term, weird. Aside from being some of the most ancient animals on Earth, these marine invertebrates maintain their shape and stiffness with a matrix of glass. Their spiny silica-based spicules grow and branch to form wicked shapes, from thin needles to spiked spheres. But no one knew precisely how sponges could make such a wide variety of symmetrical shapes. So scientists investigated their 3D structure using x-ray nanotomography, a way of peering within tiny structures without destroying them.

Migrant moths arriving from Europe to eat Britain's ivy

Spectacular insects include silver-striped hawk-moth which is more often found in Africa and south Asia

Wednesday 11 October 2017 23:30 BST
The Independent Online

Hungry migrant moths from Europe are arriving in Britain and eating the nation’s ivy, with warm weather from the continent expected to drive a surge in numbers. 

Over the next three nights nature lovers are being urged to investigate local patches of ivy, which produces a lifeline to moths and butterflies as it flowers late in the year when other sources of nectar have disappeared. 

The spectacular moths include the silver-striped hawk-moth, which is more often found in Africa and south Asia, and the giant convolvulus hawk-moth, which has a wingspan of up to four inches. 

Richard Fox, Butterfly Conservation Head of Recording, told The Independent that rare moths are being "blown up by the wind" and into Britain.  

"We've got very mild temperatures, which is really good for our resident moths," he said. "On top of that we’ve got these southerly winds that are likely to bring migrant moths up to Britain."

Scientists warn of 'ecological Armageddon' after study shows flying insect numbers plummeting 75%

Destruction of wild areas for agriculture and use of pesticides considered likely factors

The Independent Online

The number of flying insects has plummeted by 75 per cent in the last 25 years, according to a study that suggests we are approaching an “ecological Armageddon”. 

The implications for humanity are profound, with insects providing an essential role for life on earth as pollinators of plants and prey for larger animals.  

Although it was known species such as bees and butterflies were declining, scientists were left shocked by the drop in numbers across nature reserves in Germany.

While no single cause was identified, the widespread destruction of wild areas for agriculture and the use of pesticides are considered likely factors. Climate changewas also cited as playing a potential role. 

Dave Goulson, professor of life sciences at the University of Sussex and the study’s co-author, said: “Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth but there has been some kind of horrific decline.

“We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.”

DRI busts animal smuggling racket, rescues 1,000 turtles (Editor- note the 852 red-eared sliders confiscated because its an exotic turtle so falls under endangered species act’s protection) – via Herp Digest

The gang procures turtles from forest areas in Telengana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka through its agents. DH File Photo (Example of species confiscated, not actual animals)

DH News Service, Bengaluru, Oct 10 2017, 2:39 IST

The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) has claimed to have busted an animal smuggling racket and rescued 1,012 exotic turtles and tortoises, whose notional value was put at Rs 4 crore in the international market.

The DRI sleuths arrested one person and are searching for his associate in Chennai. The sleuths refused to divulge details of the arrested.

“He had tightly packed animals in seven travel bags and had kept the bags in two car bound for Chennai from Bengaluru,’’ said a senior officer. On definite leads, DRI staff intercepted the car at Attibelle toll gate and arrested the man.

There were 76 Tricarinate hill turtles, 852 red eared sliders, 11 Indian star tortoises and 46 female melanochelys tricarinate turtles and 27 Indian tent turtles, the official stated.

Exotic turtles and tortoises fall under endangered species category and their illegal capture and transport attract a minimum prison term of seven years under Customs Act and Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

The suspect told DRI sleuths that he operated through his associates in Bengaluru since 2016. They would procure animals captured from forest areas in Telengana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, through their agnets. Later, they would transport animals to Chennai by road. They would send them by cargo flight to China.

Turtles will be treated at veterinary care centre for a few days and later released into the wild or rehabilitated in any government animal centre, the official added.

Thursday 26 October 2017

Mexico takes ‘unprecedented’ action to save vaquita

by on 15 October 2017

A team of marine mammal experts have begun a search for the last vaquitas (Phocoena sinus) in a last-ditch effort to capture the remaining 30 porpoises until they’re no longer threatened by gillnets.

VaquitaCPR seeks to house the vaquita in sea pens and includes plans for long-term care and breeding.

Though seen as ‘risky’ and ‘bold,’ many conservation organizations agree that finding the animals before it’s too late is the only option.

A team of marine mammal experts is searching for the last vaquitas (Phocoena sinus) in the Gulf of California. They’ve gathered in northern Mexico, at the invitation of the government of Mexico, to make a last-ditch effort to capture and keep the remaining 30 porpoises safe until they’re no longer threatened by the gillnets that have decimated their numbers in recent years.
“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” said Rafael Pacchiano, Mexico’s minister of the environment and natural resources, in a January 2017 statement from the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF). “This critical rescue effort is a priority for the Mexican government and we are dedicated to providing the necessary resources in order to give the plan its best chance of success.”

We’ve drawn iconic sail-wearing Dimetrodon wrong for 100 years

13 October 2017

By Colin Barras

Dimetrodon, one of the most recognisable of the pre-dinosaur predators, is due a makeover. For more than a century, it has been depicted as a sluggish, belly-dragging beast with sprawling legs – but it might actually have held its legs in a more upright position and kept its stomach off the ground as it walked.

Often mistaken for a dinosaur, Dimetrodon actually belonged to a group called the pelycosaurs that were more closely related to mammals. It lived between about 290 and 272 million years ago, with some species measuring more than 3 metres from nose to tail. Its most iconic feature was a gigantic sail on its back, the function of which is still debated.

Nineteenth Century artists drew Dimetrodon as a sluggish-looking animal with legs sprawled out to each side of its body, resting its weight on an enormous belly – and even in the 21st century nothing much has changed.

“I was baffled as I was going through the literature how little this had been questioned,” says Caroline Abbott at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. It’s particularly surprising given that the fossil trackways left by Dimetrodon seem to tell a different story. The relatively narrow distance between left and right sets of footprints suggest Dimetrodon did not have sprawling legs.

“That’s where the real head-scratcher is,” says Abbott. “The trackways are more narrow than you’d expect and in a lot of cases they lack belly dragging marks.”

Myanmar caves yield up 19 new gecko species - via Herp Digest

Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta, October 11, 2017

            •          Scientists have discovered 19 new species of strikingly patterned geckos within a small area of 90 kilometers by 50 kilometers in Myanmar.
            •          These geckos are most likely restricted to the limestone hills and towers within which they were found.
            •          Conservationists hope that these newly discovered animals can serve as "ambassadors" for the limestone hills, especially since many of these hills are being mined by cement companies.

In a tiny, remote region of Myanmar, scientists have discovered 19 new species of strikingly patterned geckos.

These lizards were found in isolated limestone hills and towers (known as karst) within a small area of 90 kilometers by 50 kilometers (56 miles by 31 miles), and are most likely restricted to these limestone blocks, the researchers say.

“I was quite surprised both by the numbers but even more so by the close proximity of the species to one another,” Lee Grismer of La Sierra University in California, who led the surveys, told Mongabay. “Nothing like this has ever been discovered in this group. The published official count now is 15 and I will submit a paper soon describing another four.”

The 15 officially described species include three new dwarf geckos from the genus Hemiphyllodactylus, reported in the Journal of Natural History. The list also includes 12 new species of bent-toed geckos from the genus Cyrtodactylus, described in a study that will soon be published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

A new species of Cyrtodactylus, a bent-toed gecko discovered in Myanmar. Photo by L. Lee Grismer.

Finding these geckos wasn’t easy.

Guided by people from local villages, forest officials and Buddhist monks, Grismer and his team spent several nights searching for geckos in thick, remote karst forests and dark limestone caves.

Not all the newly described geckos were unknown. The monks who occupied monasteries associated with some of the caves might have seen some of the lizards now and then, Grismer said. “But some of the other caves were unoccupied and we had to hike quite a distance to get to them,” he added.
Sometimes their hikes took them through treacherous regions held by armed insurgents.

The research team walking toward Chaunghanakwa, a limestone karst. Photo by L. Lee Grismer.

The team has named one of the newly discovered dwarf geckos Hemiphyllodactylus tonywhitteni after Tony Whitten of Fauna & Flora International, a UK-based conservation nonprofit that supported Grismer’s surveys. H. tonywhitteni is known only from Phapant Cave, a complex of three caves along a narrow river in Shan State.

Whitten “championed a broad range of conservation efforts in Indonesia and the Asia Pacific for well over a quarter of a century,” the authors write in the Journal of Natural History paper. “His tireless efforts to conserve and help manage karst ecosystems have been a great inspiration to the senior author [Lee Grismer].”
“It is always terribly flattering to learn that there is a species with your name attached,” Whitten told Mongabay. “I would add my hope that this amazing discovery, and more to come, will increase people’s understanding of, and concern for, karst systems and their biodiversity which until recently had little or no profile.”

Hemiphyllodactylus montawaensis, a new species of a dwarf gecko, discovered in Myanmar. Photo by L. Lee Grismer.

The discovery of the new geckos also shows that these limestone blocks harbor an “unprecedented degree of biodiversity” of not just invertebrates like snails or insects, but of backboned animals as well, according to Grismer. The isolated limestone hills act as islands within a sea of rice paddies, he said, making them the only places left for forest-adapted species to survive.

Whitten hopes that these newly discovered animals can serve as “ambassadors” for the limestone hills, especially since many of these hills are being mined. In fact, some of the limestone blocks within the team’s research were being mined by cement companies and smaller village operations at the time of the surveys.

“When assessments are made of these areas for development projects it’s simply not enough to look at mammals and birds which can walk, jump or fly away from danger, and may not be that dependent on the hills anyway,” Whitten said. “One rather has to give attention to the geckos and cave fauna whose ranges are limited to these hills and caves. To not do so can lead to extinctions.”

Grismer’s team will soon start surveying Kayah State in eastern Myanmar, an area bordering Thailand that has never been explored for its reptiles,  according to a press release by La Sierra University.

Another new species of Cyrtodactylus discovered in Myanmar. Photo by L. Lee Grismer.

Citation:  Grismer LL et al (2017) Phylogenetic taxonomy of Hemiphyllodactylus Bleeker, 1860 (Squamata: Gekkonidae) with descriptions of three new species from Myanmar. Journal of Natural History. DOI: 10.1080/00222933.2017.1367045
            •          Grismer LL et al (2017). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. DOI: in press

Female dolphins have weaponised their vaginas to fend off males

11 October 2017

By Josh Gabbatiss
Some female dolphins have evolved a secret weapon in their sexual arms race with males: vaginas that protect them from fertilisation by unwelcome partners.

Penises come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, especially in dolphins and other cetaceans. That seems to imply a similar diversity in vaginas, but Dara Orbach of Dalhousie University, Canada, says there is “a huge lag” in our understanding of female genitalia.

That is partly because it is tricky to visualise vaginal structure. To overcome this problem, Orbach has created silicone moulds of cetaceans’ vaginas, revealing complex folds and spirals.

“There’s this unparalleled level of vaginal diversity that we had no idea existed before,” Orbach says.

Similarly complex vaginal structures are found in several species of duck. Orbach’s collaborator Patricia Brennan of Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, has previously found evidence that duck vaginas have evolved to make it harder for males to force copulation. So Orbach wondered if female cetaceans’ unusual vaginas had also evolved to keep out unwanted sperm.

Orbach, Brennan and their colleagues obtained genitals from marine mammals that had died of natural causes: common and bottlenose dolphins, common porpoises and common seals. They inflated the males’ penises with saline to see how they looked when they were erect, and compared them with the vaginal moulds. They also took CT scans of penises inserted into the corresponding vaginas, to determine whether they fitted in easily and the best positions.

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