Monday 31 December 2018

Cambodia seizes record three-tonne haul of African ivory

Discovery of 1,026 tusks at Phnom Penh port follows a tip from the US embassy
Agence France-Presse
Sun 16 Dec 2018 06.04 GMTLast modified on Sun 16 Dec 2018 18.50 GMT
Cambodia seized more than 3.2 tonnes of elephant tusks hidden in a storage container sent from Mozambique, a customs official said on Sunday, marking the country’s largest ivory bust.
The discovery of 1,026 tusks at the Phnom Penh port followed a tip from the US embassy, the official said, and highlights Cambodia’s emergence as a key regional transit point for the multibillion dollar trade in illicit wildlife.
“The elephant tusks were hidden among marble in a container that was abandoned,” Sun Chhay, director of the customs and excise office at the port, said.
He said the ivory was sent from the southern African nation of Mozambique and arrived at the port last year.
The unidentified owner of the shipment did not arrive to pick up the cargo. Pictures of the massive haul showed long rows of confiscated tusks spread out on the ground at the port.
Sun Chhay said he did not know whether the shipment was destined for markets in other countries.

Scottish ministers urged to honour pledge to protect beavers

Wildlife groups say delay has allowed some farmers to systematically cull the animals
Severin Carrel lScotland editor
Fri 21 Dec 2018 06.01 GMTLast modified on Fri 21 Dec 2018 06.03 GMT
Wildlife experts have said wild beavers in Scotland are being trapped and shot because ministers have broken promises to make them a protected species.
A group of 17 prominent ecologists and conservation bodies have signed a letter to the Guardian urging the Scottish government to honour its pledge two years ago to legislate to protect more than 400 wild beavers in the southern Highlands and Tayside.
“Without this protection, beavers are subject to unregulated culling, which can take place any time, anywhere,” says the letter, signed by groups including the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. “This causes concern for the individual welfare of animals and the ability of the species to naturally spread through Scotland’s lochs and rivers. Lethal control must be a last resort rather than the go-to solution.”
A year ago the Scottish environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, told MSPs new regulations under the EU habitats directive would be in force in the first half of 2018 to prevent any unlicensed killing, dam destruction or relocation.

A New Snake Species Was Found in Another Snake’s Stomach – via Herp Digest

The so-called “mysterious dinner snake” represents not only a new species, but an entirely new genus
This isn't the first time snakes have been found inside of coral snakes' stomachs, but it is the first recorded instance of a new genus being identified from the remnants of a fellow serpent’s last meal. (John Livzey Ridgway 1859-1947)
by Meilan Solly, SMITHSONIAN.COM, 10/21/18 
The elusive Cenaspis aenigma, or “mysterious dinner snake,” has never been captured alive. In fact, Jake Buehler reports for National Geographic, the slithering serpent has only surrendered itself to scientists once—and even then, in a distinctly roundabout manner.
Unwittingly trapped in the belly of the beast—specifically, the venomous Central American coral snake—Cenaspis first landed on researchers’ radar in 1976, when palm-harvesters working in the Mexican state of Chiapas caught a coral snake that had recently snacked on the smaller species. Due to the partially digested specimen’s irregular stripes, spineless hemipenes and skull shape, Cenaspis defied categorization for decades. But now, 42 years after this initial discovery, biologists from the University of Texas at Arlington have finally shed some light on the enigmatic snake’s origins.
The team’s findings, newly published in the Journal of Herpetology, identify Cenaspis as not only a new species, but an entirely new genus. As Buehler notes, the sole 10-inch male that represents both genus and species boasts an underside decorated with three triangular marks, affording its ventral scales a striped appearance divergent from that of other New World snakes.
Additionally, Cenaspsis’ hemipenes—branched sexual organs that essentially amount to dual penises, according to National Geographic’s Tina Deines—lack the spines commonly seen along the organ, instead featuring cup-like structures known as calyces that Buehler likens to “some kind of otherworldly honeycomb.”
Michelle Starr of Science Alert adds that Cenaspis further differs from known species because of its elongated skull and undivided subcaudal scales, which are plates on the underside of the tail. Combined with the “unremarkable, … uniformly pale brown” coloring described by the researchers, these characteristics offer a strong argument for Cenaspis’ classification as a burrowing snake that spends most of its time underground.
Still, the scientists point out that the reptile’s triangular ventral scale pattern complicates this categorization: “Why a secretive burrowing snake would have such a distinctive ventral pattern is unknown,” the team writes in the study. “The ventral pattern is not replicated in any other Middle American snake.”
Cenaspis’ teeth also suggest the snake is more complex than your average woodland burrower, which typically feasts on soft-bodied prey such as slugs and earthworms. The snake’s mouth and teeth—14 short chompers in the upper jaw—appear to be equipped for wrangling hard-bodied prey, including insects and spiders.
It may seem like the unusual manner of Cenaspis’ discovery outweighs its singular physical characteristics, but actually, the researchers write that “prey items, especially small snakes, are frequently encountered” in coral snakes’ stomachs. As far as the team knows, however, this study marks the first time a new genus has been identified from the remnants of a coral snake’s last meal.
The fact that scientists have yet to identify more than one Cenaspis specimen doesn’t mean the animal has vanished from the face of the Earth. Lead author Jonathan Campbell, a herpetologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, tells Buehler he thinks the mysterious snake still roams Chiapas, perhaps burrowing underground or adopting similar tactics to evade detection.
“This provides evidence of just how secretive some snakes can be,” Campbell says. “Combine their elusive habits with restricted ranges and some snakes do not turn up often.”

The giant tortoise lived for more than a century, carrying genes linked to a robust immune system, efficient DNA repair and resistance to cancer. – via Herp Digest

Lonesome George was the last known individual of the Galapagos tortoise subspecies Geochelone nigra abingdoni. He died in 2012.
By Steph Yin, 12/8/18
 When Lonesome George, the only survivor of the Pinta Island tortoises of the Galápagos, died in 2012, the news landed with a blow. 
Rationally, people had time to prepare for the reality that George would one day fade away, and with him, an entire lineage. He had lived for a century or more, a common life expectancy for giant tortoises, and all attempts to mate him during his last few decades were unsuccessful. 
But emotionally, it’s hard to brace oneself for the realization that something that was once there is finally, completely gone. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you ponder life, our fleeting stint in the universe and the unrelenting, forward march of time 
Similar feelings drive longevity research. Recently, a team of scientists turned to George for help in this search, mining his genetic code for clues to his long life span. 
In a paper published Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the researchers reported preliminary findings of gene variants in George linked with a robust immune system, efficient DNA repair and resistance to cancer. The study also sets the stage for understanding giant tortoises’ evolutionary past, which might help to conserve them in the future. 
Giant tortoises helped launch the theory of evolution. When Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos, he noticed the tortoises’ shell shapes were unique adaptations to their environments. He hypothesized that natural selection was at work. 
The Galápagos tortoises have since continued to be a rich source of inquiry for evolutionary scientists. Adalgisa “Gisella” Caccone, a researcher at Yale University, has spent decades studying the reptiles that are the size of upright pianos. 
But years ago, Dr. Caccone hit a wall — she needed someone to help her decipher which parts of the tortoises’ DNA were functional genes, which regions were not and what the genes’ functions might be.
She received a fateful message from Carlos López-Otín, a professor at the University of Oviedo in Spain who has built a career studying cancer and aging in humans. Dr. López-Otín was interested in unlocking the genetic secrets behind giant tortoises’ legendary longevity. 
Dr. Caccone loved the idea of “a conservation icon providing insights” into human health and longevity. The scientists sequenced the entire genome of Lonesome George, plus that of an Aldabra giant tortoise from the Seychelles, another extraordinarily long-lived species (one was rumored to have lived up to 250 years in captivity). 
The researchers then compared the tortoise genomes with those of mammals, fish, birds and other reptiles, looking for discrepancies that could affect aging. The scientists found evidence that a mutation in a gene called IGF1R, which has been linked with longevity in humans and mice, might contribute to the tortoises’ exceptional life span. 
They also discovered that the tortoises had more copies of genes related to energy regulation, DNA repair, tumor suppression and immune defense compared with other creatures. While most mammals have only one copy of a gene involved in immune response called PRF1, for instance, both tortoises had a whopping 12 copies in their genome. 
Generally, having many copies of genes can allow existing functions to occur more efficiently, or provide fuel for the evolution of new functions. 
The research opens the door to learning more about tortoise biology, too. Dr. Caccone plans to dive deep into the genomes to piece together how giant tortoises evolved traits like gigantism and carapace shape. Genomic data will also aid her efforts to revive two extinct species of Galápagos tortoise. 
Future avenues of research will only expand as scientists sequence the genomes of more reptiles, said Kenro Kusumi, a professor of life sciences at Arizona State University. 
There are many lessons to learn from reptiles. They are the closest relatives of humans that can regenerate entire body parts, a trait that could inform medical treatments. 
And many reptiles, including tortoises, can enter an inactive state that allows them to survive extreme conditions. The ability to induce similar states in humans could be useful for future space travel, Dr. Kusumi said. 
“The beauty of having these genomes is that it’s a great starting point to ask questions,” he added. “Even after death, Lonesome George is teaching us things — just like his ancestors taught Charles Darwin.”

The female park rangers protecting turtles from traffickers in Nicaragua - via Herp Digest

(“We are the only organization that employs women rangers in the country, which is rare throughout Latin America,” Paso Pacífico’s Liza González says.)
by Monica Pelliccia 12/21/18, Mongabay.
The female park rangers in Nicaragua’s San Juan del Sur area patrol the beaches against the theft of eggs from endangered sea turtles that nest there.
Species like the leatherback turtle have dwindled to less than 3 percent of their population in the eastern Pacific in the last three generations.
In Nicaragua, an estimated more than 6,000 dozen turtle eggs are sold every month, with restaurants by the coast offering them in dishes as part of their menus.
The NGO that hires the rangers say they manage to preserve 90 percent of turtle nests on the beaches they patrol, compared to 40 percent on government-patrolled beaches.
The lights draw uncertain lines under the blanket of stars that joins the sea to the sky at El Ostional Beach in southern Nicaragua, 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the border with Costa Rica. The silence of the darkness is interrupted by the noise of waves crashing on the shore and the clicks of flashlights turning off and on again a few meters apart, like lonely fireflies.
The flickering flashlights belong to hueveros, turtle egg traffickers who scour the beaches of La Flor Wildlife Refuge, a marine conservation area, every night.
“Tonight, there are quite a few hueveros because an olive ridley sea turtle laid its eggs yesterday,” says Yajaira Vargas, a park ranger at El Ostional. “They usually nest during the waning moon.”
Vargas, 30, is one of the five women who work as park rangers for the NGO Paso Pacífico, which promotes biodiversity conservation initiatives in Nicaragua. The organization started hiring women as park rangers in 2009, and more women have joined their ranks since then.
Sea turtles return to the place where they were born to reproduce. They follow routes that are known to the rangers, and to the egg traffickers. El Ostional is one of many nesting spots along Nicaragua’s Pacific coast.
A few kilometers from El Ostional sits La Flor Beach, one of seven mass nesting sites for sea turtles in the world. Thousands arrive here between July and December every year to lay their eggs. In a single week, 70,000 turtles might cram onto the sand, according to Liza González, the head of Paso Pacífico.
It’s an attraction for tourists and residents, and the eggs are a treasure for those who take and sell them illegally.
“There is egg theft on all the beaches,” González says, adding that, in places without park rangers, traffickers snatch nearly all of the eggs.
“On mass nesting beaches controlled by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, the looting is estimated at 40 percent,” González says. “We succeed in protecting more than 90 percent of nests in the spots where our rangers work.”
Yajaira Vargas, a park ranger at El Ostional Beach in Nicaragua, patrolling the beaches of La Flor Wildlife Refuge on the lookout for sea turtles. Image by Monica Pelliccia.
Following the moon
The previous night, Vargas saw an olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) emerge from the water and walk around on the sand until it found a hidden spot to lay its eggs. It used its flippers to dig a hole around 50 centimeters (20 inches) deep, and then it stayed there for another 40 minutes laying 70 eggs, one after another.
Once the work was finished, the turtle covered the hole and went back to the ocean. It will never meet its hatchlings, who will be born after 45 days. At that point, they’ll have a gauntlet to run, as they try to avoid predators that hunt them from the air, such as cormorants and seagulls, as well as those in the sea, like white sharks and killer whales.
Vargas always pays attention to the sea, even when she isn’t working. She studies the phases of the moon to understand the life cycle of turtles, a rhythm she learned about during her two years as a night ranger with her colleague, Karen Lacayo.
Vargas says she loves her job. She has imparted her passion to the other members of her family, especially to her oldest daughter, 6-year-old Shanti Sofía.
“If we want to tease her, we tell her we’ll be eating turtle eggs,” Vargas says as she pulls her hair up to reveal her turtle-shaped earrings. “My daughter says that eggs need to hatch [on the beach], not in the mouth.”
Although nighttime is when the action takes place, the female rangers only work the daytime shift. Still, their strategy is the same.
“When we see a huevero, we go to him and try to convince him that if he keeps stealing eggs, his children won’t ever see a turtle because they’ll be extinct,” Vargas says during a patrol on El Ostional. “Many hueveros tell me that they would like to give me their loot, but they need it because it’s their only source of income. They don’t have any other options. That’s why we try to exchange the eggs for money, incentives or vouchers that they can use to buy food in the grocery store.”
Four endangered species
Twice a month, Vargas and fellow ranger Lacayo take a boat out to monitor the turtle populations in the marine protected area. All of the area’s sea turtle species are classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List. The most frequently encountered is the olive ridley turtle, whose population has been nearly halved in the last three generations. The other local species are even more threatened. Numbers of the green turtle (Chelonia mydas), which can weigh up to 300 kilograms (660 pounds), are down by more than 60 percent in the last three generations, and the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is almost extinct, having lost 80 percent of its population in the last three generations. Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), however, have seen some of the biggest declines in the eastern Pacific: Their population is now less than 3 percent of what it was three generations ago, according to the “State of the World’s Sea Turtles” (SWOT) report that focuses on the problem in South America. The main threats to turtles identified in the study include incidental capture in deep-sea fishing equipment, egg theft, and the construction of hotels and other buildings near their nesting sites, which complicates the laying of eggs due to light pollution and human presence.
Turtle eggs are a valuable commodity, especially between December and July every year, when the mass arrivals of sea turtles are still a few months away. Only occasionally will a turtle leave the ocean to lay eggs during this time.
To improve their success rate, people who steal eggs go waist-deep into the water, catch the turtles and haul them up onto the beach, carrying up to three at a time in their arms. Then they watch them while they lay their eggs, sometimes even placing a bag under the turtle so they catch every single egg.
Over the next few days, they’ll sell the eggs for $1.50 or $2 a dozen. An estimated 6,250 dozen eggs are sold every month in Nicaragua, valuing the trade at up to $13,000, according to a 2012 report by Fauna & Flora International. Most of the people interviewed for the report said they had eaten turtle eggs because it’s a typical food in Central America. It’s also thought to be healthy and have aphrodisiac powers.
The hunters usually sell the eggs in the markets of the capital, Managua, or in the city of Masaya, close to the active volcano of the same name. When the turtle nesting season is in full swing, the markets are full of eggs. Vendors display them in their kiosks, and some restaurants along the coast in Managua and León offer dishes that contain turtle eggs.
Mongabay Latam contacted Ronald Miranda Mejía, an official with the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in the Department of Rivas, to ask about turtle egg theft in the eastern Pacific. He hung up the phone after hearing the question.
Turtle egg consumption and theft is illegal under a 2005 law. Penalties range from jail time of two to four years and fines of up to $10,000. In practice, however, no one stays behind bars very long for these crimes, according to locals working with Paso Pacífico.
Despite the prohibition on the trade and the threat of extinction that turtles face, egg theft is a common practice on these beaches.
Relying on the Pacific
The ocean is at the center of life for Nicaraguans born and raised in the communities next to the turquoise waters of the Pacific, and turtles are an integral part of it. They’re a national symbol, appearing on some of the country’s banknotes.
Nicaragua is one of the worst-performing countries in the Americas on the United Nations’ human development index. The country has been mired in a deep political crisis since late April 2018, leading to massive demonstrations by students unhappy with changes to social security and other reforms. The protesters have also complained about oppression in the streets and demanded the resignation of President Daniel Ortega. More than 250 people have died and 1,800 injured during the protests and subsequent crackdowns, as reported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Amid this political strife and lack of employment opportunities, families in the region have had to rely on the sea for survival, even when that means trafficking turtle eggs. All of the female rangers know of neighbors, relatives and friends who steal turtle eggs. Many of the rangers themselves did the same in the past.
“My mother-in-law used to be a huevera. She started stealing eggs to settle debts she had contracted when she was sick,” says Liessi Calero, a 29-year-old park ranger who has patrolled Brasilon Beach for two years. “The police arrested her when she was coming back by bus from taking eggs with other women, and she spent a month in prison. When she was released, she stopped doing it.”
Every day at dawn, Calero and fellow ranger Darling Delgado put on their blue uniforms and go to work. They used to spend the day doing house chores and taking care of their families. Now they walk to the main street and wait to hitch a ride or take the first bus to Brasilon Beach, 7 kilometers (4.4 miles) from El Coco, where they live. El Coco is a village of 200 inhabitants on the road to touristy San Juan del Sur, a renowned surf mecca. It’s also a place where the extraction of turtle eggs is a practice that goes back generations.
At 6:30 a.m., they arrive at Brasilon, a white-sand beach where pelicans soar above long waves beyond the break, ending their horizontal flight to dive into the water for fish. Calero and Delgado watch the beach to prevent the theft of the eggs laid by the turtles during the night.
“We start the day by revising the notes that the night rangers left for us, where we can see the turtles that arrived during the previous night,” Delgado says. “We locate the nests and move [the eggs from] the ones that could be in danger to the nursery under this tree. We tag each of the points where we bury the eggs to indicate the hatching date.”
Each hatching is a big event for the rangers. For many, it’s the best part of their job. Once the baby turtles hatch, the rangers, accompanied by their children, wait until the evening to release the baby turtles, when there are fewer hungry predators in the sky and the sea. They also clean up the plastic waste brought in by the tide because it makes nesting more complicated. The trash is yet another obstacle that the little turtles have to contend with in their struggle to survive.
“We are the only organization that employs women rangers in the country, which is rare throughout Latin America,” Paso Pacífico’s Liza González says. “They have shown clear leadership: They used to be housewives, and now they play a very important role for the livelihood of their families and for the conservation of the environment.”
‘I used to steal eggs. Now I’m a park ranger’
The sun is at its highest point above Brasilon Beach. It’s 1 p.m., and Calero and Delgado must get back home and leave their spot to the evening park ranger, Félix Pedro Reyes, who will work until 6 a.m., checking each of the lights that appear on these beaches at night.
“I was born in a community of hueveros. I was raised in the Pacific Ocean. I’ve lived by the sea my entire life. The Pacific has always responded to all our needs,” Reyes says. “I became a huevero at 9 years old with my group of friends. We used to sell the eggs to international traders. I was the leader of the gang. Back then, I didn’t understand what I was doing.”
For many years, Reyes used to go out to steal eggs every night. But a revolution engulfed Nicaragua in the late 1970s, and at 13 years old, Reyes went to fight with the insurgent Sandinista National Liberation Front. More than five years passed before he could return to his home and his ocean. By then, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it would be years before he could live a normal life again. Every night, he would hunt for turtle eggs the same way he now guards their nests.
“I used to take everything there was on these beaches, until one night, after stealing the eggs of five green turtles that had come to La Flor, I realized that people were doing the same on the neighboring beach,” Reyes says. “I started thinking that we were exhausting our natural resources and that if we continued, the future generations wouldn’t know about turtles.”
Maura Antonia Martínez had a similar epiphany.
“When I was 18, I ate and stole eggs to help my family’s economy. I didn’t understand the damages we were inflicting upon our environment,” Martínez says. “Now I have the chance to feel useful, not only at home. I work to achieve equality and take care of nature.”
A single mother of 10 children, today she proudly sees herself as the head of her household, where some of her 28 grandchildren run and play.
“I’m the boss here!” says the 56-year-old one day after returning from her job at the nursery at El Coco Beach.
In the yard, one of her grandchildren is playing with another child, who is chasing a butterfly with a stick. When they see what’s happening, her grandchildren tell Martinez that the child is hurting the butterfly.
“He is the son of a huevera. I’m taking care of him because his mother is in San Jorge Prison. She was arrested for stealing eggs,” Martínez says. “She is a single mother who has no one to care for her children.”
Martínez approaches the boy and tries to explain to him how important it is to protect nature and to care for the Pacific Ocean, which is part of who they are.

Sunday 30 December 2018

Females prefer city frogs' tunes

Date:  December 10, 2018
Source:  University of Texas at Austin
Urban sophistication has real sex appeal -- at least if you're a Central American amphibian. Male frogs in cities are more attractive to females than their forest-frog counterparts, according to a new study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.
Frogs in urban areas have more conspicuous and complex vocal calls, in part because they have fewer predators than those in natural habitats, say scientists from Vrije Universiteit (VU) in the Netherlands, The University of Texas at Austin, Purdue University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
University of Texas at Austin professor of integrative biology Mike Ryan joined team leader Wouter Halfwerk and colleagues to investigate how city life has altered the signaling behavior of male túngara frogs. The trappings of cities often interfere with animal communication, as noise and light pollution affect the visual and auditory signals animals use to attract mates. Halfwerk previously has published work showing how urbanization affects birdsong in Europe.

Half-Size, Ruffle-Headed Relative of Triceratops Discovered

By Laura Geggel, Senior Writer | December 14, 2018 11:20am ET
If head frills were a fashion statement, a newly identified 73-million-year-old triceratops relative was certainly at the top of its game.
The newfound dinosaur named Crittendenceratops krzyzanowskii sported a fancy frill on the top of its head, a new study finds. In fact, it's the youngest-known dinosaur of its clade (the nasutoceratopsins), as well as the first of its clade on record to sport an elaborate frill, the researchers said.
"This clade has simple frills." said study co-lead researcher Sebastian Dalman, who was at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science at the time of the research. "Crittendenceratops is the first member of this clade with [an] ornamented frill." [Tiny & Old: Images of 'Triceratops' Ancestors]
The late Stan Krzyzanowski, a research associate at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, discovered two of the late Cretaceous creatures in the 1990s in a mountain range near Tucson, Arizona. Krzyzanowski and his colleagues briefly described the dinosaur in a 2003 study, but it wasn't until recently that another look at the fossils revealed they represented an unidentified species.

Unpredictable food sources drive some bats to cooperatively search for food

Date:  December 13, 2018
Source:  University of Maryland
Humans aren't the only species that have dinner parties. Scientists have observed many animals, including bats, eating in groups. However, little was known about whether bats actively help each other find food, a process known as social foraging.
With the help of novel miniature sensors, an international group of biologists that included University of Maryland Biology Professor Gerald Wilkinson found that bat species foraged socially if their food sources were in unpredictable locations, such as insect swarms or fish schools. In contrast, bats with food sources at fixed locations foraged on their own and did not communicate with one another while foraging or eating. The results of the study were published in the November 19, 2018 issue of the journal Current Biology.
"We were able to show that bats who can't predict where their food will be are the ones that cooperate with each other to forage," Wilkinson said. "And I don't think they are unique -- I think that if more studies are done, we will find that other bat species do similar things."

Think Keeping Up With Your Dog Is Tough? Try a Pet Tortoise - via Herp Digest

The hardy reptiles are escape artists, capable of evading enclosures and law enforcement; ‘I put on my lights. He kept going’ 
By Kathleen Hughes, Wall Street Journal, 12/11/18 
Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter, discovered last March that the family’s pet Russian tortoise, Roshi, had escaped from their yard in Marin County, Calif. 
Mr. Stone’s wife, Livia, had put Roshi on the grass under a mesh tent to protect him from their new Black Labrador puppy while she moved their chickens out of the coop. 
“In those five minutes,” says Mr. Stone, “Roshi managed to dig out, boogie to the edge of the property, and get under the fence. 
The couple needed to break the news to their 6-year-old son, Jake. “Let’s not freak out,” suggested Ms. Stone, as they searched in vain for the rescue tortoise they had kept for 15 years. “Let’s say Roshi went on a grand adventure.”
Eight months later, Jake, now 7, was in a gardening class in school, not far from the house, when someone said, “Oh look, a tortoise!” 
It was Roshi, eating the clover. “That’s my tortoise!” said Jake, who spotted the familiar three white splotches on his shell. “Incredible!” tweeted Mr. Stone in October. “Roshi is back after a grand adventure.”
 Aesop’s fable, it seems, may have sold the tortoise short. Tortoises and turtles of all types have soared in popularity as pets. It turns out they are resilient escape artists with long lives—and surprisingly adept at outmaneuvering their owners.
“Tortoises can walk really fast and get really far away,” says Susan Tellem, executive director at American Tortoise Rescue in Malibu, Calif. “They have nothing to do all day but figure out how to escape.”

Tortoises have been breaking out of fenced yards, heading down sidewalks and crossing busy streets at a good clip—leaving heartbroken owners and bewildered bystanders to post lost and found photos on social media.
Speeds vary by tortoise, experts say, but one British tortoise, Bertie, was clocked at a pace of .92 feet per second, which made him the Guinness World Record holder as fastest tortoise. 
Many owners never research the challenge of building a truly secure outdoor habitat. “Tortoises can scale a 6-foot fence and dig a 20-foot burrow,” warns James Liu, managing director of the Turtle Conservancy in New York. A tortoise on the run could be seeking a mate, heading out to lay eggs or foraging for food, he adds. 
There could be as many as a million pet tortoises in California, according to the Tortoise Group, a Las Vegas nonprofit focused on the welfare of the desert tortoise. The group estimates there are more than 188,000 tortoises in captivity in the greater Las Vegas area alone. That rivals the number of wild tortoises roaming free in the Mojave Desert, says Kobbe Shaw, the executive director of the Tortoise Group, which sponsored a study on captive tortoises. 
Those who start with a cute little baby tortoise from a pet store, particularly if it is an expensive Sulcata, are often shocked as it grows to more than 100 pounds. And many tortoises have lifespans of well over 60 years. While some may break free, others are eventually dumped. Some are stolen. 
“We get 1,500 calls a year about abandoned tortoises,” says Mr. Shaw who drives around Las Vegas picking up lost and found tortoises in his gray Honda Accord, with an odometer that has passed 250,000 miles. 
The escapees are considered a threat since pet tortoises can carry diseases that can wipe out vulnerable wild tortoises.
Consider Tortle, a 50-pound pet Sulcata tortoise the size of two basketballs. 
Three years ago, Ronna Rodarte, who works with special-needs children in Lancaster, Calif., came home to find traffic stopped in both directions. Tortle had exited her front yard, probably through an open gate, making it to the center yellow line of the boulevar
“The traffic travels at 70 miles per hour,” she says. “It was wonderful to see how many people stopped.” Ms. Rodarte put a padlock on the gate. This year, the day after Thanksgiving, Tortle went missing again. He failed to show up for meals, and Ms. Rodarte searched his burrow, which curves out of sight.
“I’m 200 pounds and I almost made it into the burrow,” says Ms. Rodarte. But since she didn’t fit, she rigged a mirror to a curtain rod and dropped a flashlight down using a dog leash. The burrow was empty. 
After days of searching, the family finally spotted Tortle. He had scaled a tall display case in the yard, becoming wedged between a chain-link fence and a heap of furniture and appliances covered with a tarp. 
Ms. Rodarte is considering finding Tortle a safer home, fearing that her family members don’t take his security seriously. “No one loves that tortoise like I love him. 
Last month, Alicia Chavez, a medical assistant in Peoria, Arizona, went to work, leaving Bubba, her 40-pound Sulcata tortoise in the front yard. Her brother-in-law called at 5 p.m. to say the gate was open. Bubba was gone. 
“When we called his name and he didn’t show up, we knew something was wrong,” says Ms. Chavez. “We were panicked.” The family put up fliers and searched the neighborhood. 
Ms. Chavez posted Bubba’s photo on the Tortoise & Turtle Lost & Found page of Facebook . Ten minutes later, Peoria Police Animal Control officer Megan Smith called to say she caught Bubba after he was spotted crossing the street near City Hall. 
“I could see his little bottom tail walking,” the officer says. “I put on my lights. He kept going. He was heading to the alley.”
Ms. Smith stopped her truck and got out. ”I ran and grabbed him,” she says. “He was unusually fast for a tortoise.” 
The family retrieved Bubba at the police station.
“I don’t think he would have come back on his own,” says Ms. Chavez. “Bubba just likes to be on the go.” 
Last week, Ms. Chavez tried to create a more secure area for Bubba by placing cinder blocks around a doghouse.

Researchers observe a defense mechanism for caterpillars can attract unwanted attention

December 17, 2018, Ecological Society of America
When a caterpillar disguises itself as a snake to ward off potential predators, it should probably expect to be treated like one.
This is exactly what happened in Costa Rica earlier this year, when researchers witnessed a hummingbird defending its nest from what it interpreted to be a snake, but was actually a larva of the moth Oxytenis modestia. The encounter is described in a new paper published in the Ecological Society of America's journal Ecology.
These moths—sometimes called the dead-leaf moth or the Costa Rica leaf moth—resemble flat dried leaves as adults. The caterpillars can inflate the top of their heads to expose a pair of eyespots. When disturbed, they raise their head up and move from side to side, increasing the snake-like appearance. In particular they resemble a green parrot snake, known to prey on nesting birds.
The attacking hummingbird's nest with eggs was about 10cm away from the caterpillar in a small tree. When the researchers went to look for an assumed snake, they instead found the caterpillar feeding on a leaf immediately above the nest.
"Hummingbirds have a few stereotypical styles of flying: visiting flowers, preying on swarms of tiny insects, chasing each other, and mating/territorial display flights," says lead author James H. Marden, professor with the Department of Biology at Pennsylvania State University. "Mobbing behavior directed against a threat to their nest is much less common but distinct and easy to recognize if you know their other flight behaviors... One can recognize this from a distance and only notice the source of their agitation upon close inspection."

Friday 28 December 2018

Newly described aquatic salamander Siren reticulata (SE US) – via Herp Digest

By Mindy Weisberger, Senior Writer | December 5, 2018, Live Science
Newly described aquatic salamander Siren reticulata — reticulated siren — has a spotted, eel-like body and no hind limbs.
A sinuous swamp salamander with spots like a leopard and Christmas-tree-shaped fronds growing from its head hid from scientists for decades. But researchers have finally described this elusive and two-legged aquatic oddity. 
Dubbed Siren reticulata — reticulated siren — the animal bears a closer resemblance to an eel than a salamander, with a long body and no hind limbs. In fact, its body shape and spotted pattern previously earned it the name "leopard eel," scientists reported in a new study. 
Only recently did researchers confirm that the slippery salamander is a new species. Like other sirens (a group of aquatic salamanders) the newfound species is huge — it measures up to 2 feet (60 centimeters) in length, and is one of the largest animals with backbones described in the U.S. in more than a century, according to the study. 
Unlike many other types of salamanders, sirens have extremely elongated bodies, are entirely aquatic and only have front legs. Their heads are crowned with branching external gills — structures that help them extract oxygen from the water, study co-author David Steen, a research ecologist with the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, told Live Science. 
Sirens were first described in the 18th and 19th centuries, but they remain poorly understood; the group has flown under the scientific radar for so long primarily because they're tricky to detect and observe in the murky streams and ponds of their swamp habitats in the southeastern United States, Steen explained.Frond-like structures in the siren's external gills help it to breathe underwater 
To determine if the spotted siren was indeed a new species, the researchers needed specimens. Steen caught one in 2009, and it wasn't until 2014 when scientists captured three more. 
Evaluation of these sirens — along with preserved museum specimens — enabled the study authors to perform detailed analysis of the animals' DNA and body structures, determining that they were genetically and physically distinct from known siren species that live in the area: the greater siren and the lesser siren.Patterns of dark spots on the reticulated siren's back inspired the animal's previous common name of "leopard eel," though it is "neither a leopard nor an eel," according to the study authors.
Natural predators for the reticulated sirens likely include snakes, herons, egrets and predatory fish, Steen told Live Science. But the giant salamanders face a more dire threat from human activity, such as development that encroaches on their habitat. Because little is known about the extent of the sirens' range, it's possible that wetlands where sirens lived are already being drained, Steen said. 
Identifying this giant salamander also serves as a reminder that there are new species to be discovered "right in our own backyards," Steen said. 
"This is a big animal, and it's only being described in 2018. There's probably a lot more species for us to learn about — and we should do it quick, before these things disappear."

Lizards adapt to invasive fire ants, reversing geographical patterns of lizard traits

Date:  November 29, 2018
Source:  Penn State
Some lizards in the eastern U.S. have adapted to invasive fire ants -- which can bite, sting, and kill lizards -- reversing geographical trends in behavioral and physical traits used to avoid predators. A new study describing this reversal appears online on November 29, 2018, in the journal Global Change Biology and reveals that new environmental challenges can override the historical influences that originally determined geographical trends in traits.
"Rapid environmental change, be it from changing climate or the introduction of invasive species, is putting a lot of pressure on native species," said Christopher Thawley, graduate student at Penn State at the time of the study and first author of the paper. "Usually when researchers look at how native species might respond to these kinds of threats, they might measure one characteristic of the animal and at one or a few sites. In this study, we looked at three separate characteristics of eastern fence lizards from thirteen sites spanning a thousand miles and found that these lizards are capable of adapting in a concerted way to meet the threat of invasive fire ants, and in a relatively short time frame."
Some behavioral and physical characteristics within a species change gradually across geographical space, for example animals at one end of the range may have relatively short limbs that, as you move across the range, are longer. These geographical "clines" may be related to changes in temperature, precipitation, or other environmental factors that also change across the geographical range, often with latitude.

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