Sunday 31 March 2019

Role of sea urchins on California kelp

The new research provides valuable information to understand and protect California's quintessential kelp forests
Date:  March 14, 2019
Source:  San Diego State University
California sheephead and spiny lobsters may be helping control sea urchin populations in Southern California kelp forests, where sea otters -- a top urchin predator -- have long been missing, according to a new San Diego State University (SDSU) study published in the journal Ecology. The research provides new insight into the complex predator-prey relationships in kelp forests that can be seen in the absence of sea otters.
The study is also the first to experimentally test the relative impact, or rate of feeding, of the California sheephead and spiny lobsters in comparison to sea otters, whose historical range spanned from British Columbia, Canada to Baja California, Mexico.
"Healthy kelp forests are important both economically and ecologically along our coast. They act as nurseries and vital habitat for valuable fishery species, recreation sites for kayakers, free divers, and scuba divers, and serve as the base of rocky reef food webs," says Robert Dunn, who led the study as a Ph.D. candidate at SDSU and University of California, Davis, funded by a NMFS-California Sea Grant Fellowship.
Kelp forests rely on the proper balance of herbivory and predation. Sea urchins dwell on the seafloor where they forage on macroalgae, including giant kelp. If their populations are left unchecked by predation, they can decimate kelp forests and prevent kelp from growing. That can transform a thriving community of kelp into an oceanic desert, known as an urchin barren.
The relationships between predators and prey vary among communities. Sea urchins have recently decimated kelp forests in Northern California, leaving researchers to wonder why Southern California kelp forests have remained relatively intact without sea otters to control the urchin populations.
Past research has indicated that Marine Protected Areas in Southern California house a diversity of predators -- warranting fewer urchins and abundant kelp. Dunn and his SDSU graduate advisor, Kevin Hovel, set out to better understand the potential for top-down control by these two distinct predators: the California sheephead and spiny lobsters.

Large lizard from South America has Georgia on its mind (So far four adult Argentine black and white tegus seen) – via Herp Digest

March 16, 2019 SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) 

A South American lizard could be establishing a breeding population in south Georgia, state wildlife officials say.

The lizards — known as tegus — can grow up to 4 feet (1.2 meters) long.

Talk of large, odd-looking lizards has been circulating in eastern Toombs and western Tattnall counties, The Savannah Morning News reported.

People have reported seeing the reptiles crossing dirt roads, and they've shown up on trail cameras.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has documented at least four adult Argentine black and white tegus in the state. Also, there have been 20 sightings in the stretch of forest, farmland and streams from the south Georgia town of Lyons to Reidsville.

The agency is encouraging residents to report sightings as biologists investigate their possible expansion into Georgia.

"We think there's something going on. But we need to know more," said John Jensen, a senior wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

Argentine black and white tegus are an invasive species that grows large, reproduces fast and eats lots of things, from fruit to eggs, birds and small mammals, the Savannah newspaper reported.

Tegus would pose a threat to native wildlife, including gopher tortoises, a candidate for Endangered Species Act listing. Tegus have been documented using gopher tortoise burrows and eating tortoise eggs and the young. Tegus will also eat vegetables, pet food and chicken eggs.

If tegus are reproducing in the wild in south Georgia, catching them early is crucial.

Once the lizards are established — as they are in Florida's two known populations — the only effective response is to try and stem their numbers and spread, officials said.

The Tiny Plastics in Your Clothes Are Becoming a Big Problem – via Herp Digest

Microfibers from synthetic clothing can make their way into seafood and drinking water every time the garments are washed

Makers of sportswear and fleece jackets are trying to address concerns about tiny plastic particles from synthetic clothing finding their way into seafood and drinking water.

While the plastics backlash has focused on single-use products like straws, bottles and coffee cups, synthetic clothing is gaining attention because such garments shed plastic every time they are washed.

Each year, more than a half-million metric tons of microfibers—the equivalent of 50 billion plastic water bottles—enter the ocean from the washing of synthetic textiles, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, a Switzerland-based group that counts governments, nonprofits and charities among its members.

While all clothing sheds fibers when washed, synthetic particles—unlike wool and cotton—don’t biodegrade. Most conventional washing-machine filters aren’t designed to trap such tiny particles, and while wastewater-treatment plants capture a big slice, they don’t trap everything. The problem is worse in countries that use lots of synthetic clothing and have fewer wastewater-treatment plants.

Production of synthetic textiles has risen amid growing demand from the clothing industry.

The number of microfibers entering the ocean is forecast to accelerate as demand for clothes rises. More than 22 million metric tons of microfibers are estimated to enter the ocean between 2015 and 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a nonprofit.

That is prompting new scrutiny and early attempts at regulation. Companies are now starting to look for ways to curb microfiber shedding.

Adidas AG , Hennes & Mauritz AB and Patagonia Inc. are among companies funding research into how microfibers are created, shed and end up in the ocean. They have found that how fibers are woven and clothes are washed matter.

“We are very concerned about microfiber leakage from synthetic fibers,” H&M’s sustainability head Cecilia Brännsten said. “We use synthetic fibers of course, and so it’s our responsibility that they don’t end up where they shouldn’t be.”

Microfibers are just one type of microplastic. The particles, less than 5 millimeters long, come from a range of other things like tires, toothpaste and marine coatings.

The U.S. and the U.K. are among countries that have outlawed personal care-products containing tiny plastic beads, such as facial scrubs and soaps, raising fears among apparel makers of a crackdown on textiles.

Textiles are a much bigger problem than personal-care products, contributing 35% of primary microplastics released into the ocean, compared with 2% from personal care, according to IUCN.

The World Health Organization is reviewing microplastics’ potential impact on human health after a study found plastic in 259 bottles of water from 11 different brands bought in nine countries. Microplastics have turned up in seafood, drinking water, beer, honey and sugar, according to studies, but the impact on human health is unclear.

Research shows that ingesting microplastics can hurt the ability of planktonic organisms to feed and the ability of fish and marine worms to gain energy from food.

Pending bills in New York and California, if successful, would require labels on clothes made from more than 50% synthetic material to tell consumers that these shed plastic microfibers when washed.

“It probably won’t change too many adults’ minds, but it can bring awareness where maybe 10-20 years from now that generation will be more conscious about microfibers,” said Felix Ortiz, assistant speaker of the New York state Assembly who introduced the bill in New York.

Nate Herman of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, a trade body, said the legislation is getting ahead of science and that more research is needed before slapping labels on garments. Mr. Herman was part of a working group set up by Connecticut last year to examine how the public could be educated about microfibers.

“We don’t know if synthetic apparel is a primary contributor to the microfiber issue,” said Mr. Herman. “There is very little way to accurately measure the impact of one type of thing versus another.”

H&M said it is exploring whether clothes can be designed to minimize shedding. The brand is monitoring the development of alternative biodegradable fibers, although it said there are limitations.

“You wouldn’t want to swim in a cotton bathing suit,” Ms. Brännsten said.

Researchers also have zeroed in on how clothes are washed. Outdoor-apparel brand Patagonia found fabrics shed lots of microfibers on the first wash, but few in subsequent washes. That suggests pretreating garments before they are sold could potentially capture and recycle what otherwise goes down consumers’ drains.

It also found types of washing machines matter. Jackets washed in top-load washing machines shed seven times as many microfibers as front-loaders.

Companies have started selling washing bags and balls intended to catch fibers in washing machines.

Adidas said it has developed a method to analyze the shedding properties of different materials and is sharing this with others to define a common, accepted standard. It also is drawing up specific measures it can outline to suppliers on how to mitigate shedding and handle waste.

Fleeces have been in the spotlight for shedding microfibers. One study found polyester fleeces shed 85 times more fibers than polyester fabric does. In Britain, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds stopped issuing fleeces to staff because of microfiber concerns. It is now examining other ways to keep staff warm.

Microfiber shedding can most effectively be addressed when textiles are being designed, said Richard Thompson, a professor at the University of Plymouth’s school of biological and marine sciences, who has researched the issue.

“The garments we have on shelves at moment we’ve arrived at almost by random, some are releasing four to five times more fibers than others,” Mr. Thompson said. “It’s not a requirement of the performance of those garments, it’s come because they haven’t put much thought into it.”

In Assam, turtles are breeding again — in temple ponds – via Herp Digest

The caretaker of a 500-year-old temple in Assam is the man-on-the-ground at the state’s only turtle conservation project.

Written by Tora Agarwala , Hajo (assam), March 17, 2019

In 1994, the residents of Hajo, a small town in middle Assam, remember congregating around a rickety old wheelbarrow. Later, as the cart moved around the town, so did the small procession — each person wanting to pay their respects and see Mohan one last time.

Mohan, a 40kg jet-black turtle and resident of the pond that lay next to the town’s Hayagriva Madhava Temple, had died. And everyone, who had grown up around the pond, had a “Mohan story” to tell.

Thirty-five-year-old Pranab Malakar remembers how, as a 10-year-old, he and his friend spent all their free time at the pond, feeding the turtle, and sometimes even sitting on it. “Mohan weighed about 40 kgs — he was enormous, bigger than any other turtle that has ever lived in the pond,” says Malakar.

Black softshell turtles, the species Mohan belonged to, were classified as extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red list in 2002. In 2004, after 408 of them were found in the pond of the Bayazid Bastami shrine in Bangladesh, the status was changed to “threatened.”

In the late eighties, research on turtles in Assam was sparse, but Mohan became the star attraction of Hayagriva Madhava Temple. On most days, it was common for devotees to worship at the sanctum sanctorum — a stone structure built in 1583 — and then proceed to the pond, calling out to Mohan. The giant creature, often found sunning himself in the pukhuri paar (or the side of the pond), would heave himself up and approach his visitors, who would gingerly hold out bits of biscuits and fruits for him to eat. 

“And he would eat right out of their hands,” says Malakar. Mohan, unlike the other turtles in the pond, would never bite.

Years after Mohan died, 16-year-old Malakar was hired as the “caretaker” of the temple grounds. His job required him to clean the pukhuri, or the pond that lay adjacent to it, 

It isn’t uncommon for pukhuris (ponds or ancients tanks commissioned under royal patronage) to be built alongside temples in Assam. Used for ritual bathing and
drinking, these historical reservoirs, have over the years, become hotspots for rich forms of biodiversity, especially turtles. Devotees, since times immemorial, have “donated” turtles to temple ponds in the hope for long and healthy lives. Hindus believe that turtles are an avatar of Lord Vishnu.

India will be eternally grateful to Manohar Parrikar, says PM Modi
“As kids, we were used to having turtles in the ponds. But only later did I really start really studying them,” says Malakar. The caretaker, who has been educated till Class 10, says he was soon obsessing over the reptiles. “I bought a couple of Assamese books, compared pictures and discovered 13 species living in that single pond.”
Today Malakar is the man on the ground for the state’s only turtle conservation project aided by Guwahati-based NGO Help Earth. The project had its first major success in January when it introduced a batch of 35 black softshell turtles back to where it belonged: in the wild.

Help Earth’s turtle conservation project started in 2011 with a $5,000 grant from the Abu Dhabi-based Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund after much running around by its members. “Turtles are not tigers and rhinos. It is difficult to get funds for them,” says Jayaditya Purkayastha, Founder, HelpEarth. “Both tigers and turtles are Schedule I animals — a classification under the Wildlife Protection Act that identifies these creatures as threatened. If a tiger is killed, it is front page news but if a turtle dies, it is not even a news item.”
Most ponds have a concrete periphery which is a major hindrance for turtles laying eggs.(Express photo)" 

Over the years, temple ponds had emerged, though unintentionally, as sites for turtle conservation. “But it was more ‘spiritual’ conservation rather than ‘scientific.’ People were feeding them biscuits and chips! Nobody was harming them or killing them but they were not breeding properly either,” says Purkayastha.

The group is now doing full-time conservation in 18 temple ponds across Assam, the focus areas being Ugratora temple and Kamakhya in Guwahati, and Hayagriva Madhava Temple in Hajo. “The busier the temple, the more the (turtle) donations,” says Purkayastha, adding that theirs is essentially a “reintroduction” project. In the Hajo pond, where Malakar works, there are 14 out of 20 species alone.

The most tangible outcome of Help Earth’s initiative has been setting up of “egg-incubation rooms” in two temples — Hajo and Ugratora. It is here that the eggs are reared, before being moved to the Assam Zoo and then being reintroduced into the wild: either the Brahmaputra or Barak rivers, the two major rivers that flow through Assam.
Most ponds have a concrete periphery which is a major hindrance for turtles laying eggs. “I would find a lot of scar marks on the underside of the turtles — it is because they were trying to come up to lay eggs, and in the process, scratching themselves,” says Malakar. In 2010, when a local news channel had visited the temple, Malakar brought this up and also pointed out the government’s apathy towards these creatures.

While the authorities were initially unhappy with Malakar for “not sticking to his actual job”, he soon became friends with the conservationists who occasionally visit. “Once, someone took me to a conference on turtles in Guwahati, well-attended by many scholars. I stood up and asked them a question about when turtles lay eggs. None of them could answer.”

It was then that Malakar was called to the front of the room. “They asked me who I was. When I told them, they asked me how many species lived in the Hajo pond. And I rattled off the names,” he recalls.

The most tangible outcome of Help Earth’s initiative has been setting up of “egg-incubation rooms” in two temples — Hajo and Ugratora.”
Since then, Malakar has become the go-to man for any turtle query in Assam. The caretaker says there were many efforts to start a conservation programme but it was only when he teamed up with Purkayashta in 2016 (incidentally at a conference) that the process actually began.

In January, when the first batch of turtles was released into the Handuk Beel of the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, among the many smiling faces, including top forest officials, was Malakar’s.

According to Purkayashta, the project has worked so well in Hajo only because of Malakar. “We need Malakars not just in Hajo but in all the temple ponds in Assam.”

On a Sunday morning, a huge model of the black soft-shell turtle stands outside the Hayagriva Madhava temple in Hajo. “This is our ‘flagship’ species because at one point, they were thought to be extinct,” says Purkayastha. At the edge of the pond, many youngsters try to take selfies with, and feed the turtles, after buying “turtle feed” from a tiny shop on the premises. Chips and biscuits have been banned.

Sea otters' tool use leaves behind distinctive archaeological evidence

Researchers used an interdisciplinary approach combining ecology and archaeological methods to study sea otters' past behavior
Date:  March 14, 2019
Source:  Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
An international team of researchers has analyzed the use by sea otters of large, shoreline rocks as "anvils" to break open shells, as well as the resulting shell middens. The researchers used ecological and archaeological approaches to identify patterns that are characteristic of sea otter use of such locations. By looking at evidence of past anvil stone use, scientists could better understand sea otter habitat use.
Sea otters are an especially captivating marine mammal, well known for their use of rocks to break open shells. Sea otters are estimated to have once numbered between 150,000-300,000 individuals and their range stretched from Baja California, Mexico, around the northern Pacific Rim to Japan. Their numbers were dramatically reduced by the fur trade. In California, the southern sea otter population was reduced to around 50 individuals, but a massive conservation effort has resulted in increasing their numbers to around 3000 today. However, the southern sea otter is still considered threatened.
Sea otters are unique for being the only marine mammal to use stone tools. They often use rocks to crack open shells while floating on their back, and also sometimes use stationary rocks along the shoreline as "anvils" to crack open mollusks, particularly mussels. A joint project including the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the University of California, Santa Cruz, among others, has resulted in a first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary study published in Scientific Reports, combining ten years of observations of sea otters with archaeological methods to analyze sea otter use of such anvil stones, also known as emergent anvils.

Friday 29 March 2019

For hyenas, there's no 'I' in clan

March 11, 2019 by Layne Cameron, Michigan State University
When it comes to advancing social status, it's not what you know, it's who you know—for humans and spotted hyenas alike.
In a new study published in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Michigan State University scientists show that hyenas that form strong coalitions can gain social status, which can have lasting benefits over many generations.
"The high-ranked animals clearly benefit from this system," said Eli Strauss, MSU integrative biologist and the study's lead author. "But low-ranked animals have a strong incentive to challenge the established pecking order and attempt to improve their position in society. This work represents a first step in reconciling the advantages of high status with the appearance of 'arbitrary' conventions that structure inequality in animal and human societies."
Moving up the proverbial ladder can result in substantive differences in health, survival and reproductive success. So, with some animals, social rank is determined by individual fighting ability or physical attributes. Typically, low-ranked individuals are unable to defeat their larger or stronger, higher-ranked contemporaries. However, in other species, such as spotted hyenas, social rank is determined through a convention known as "maternal rank inheritance."
This structure can be compared to royal families. The queen sits at the top, and her offspring are the heirs to the throne. This explains what's been observed in hyena clans since Kay Holekamp, MSU University Distinguished Professor of integrative biology and co-author, started her study in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve 27 years—and five generations of spotted hyenas—ago.
Spotted hyenas live in large, mixed-sex groups, or clans. They have highly stable hierarchies, in which being a "queen" reaps many benefits. Sometimes, however, the crown is challenged, and "lesser" hyenas move up the ladder.

The Secret Behind The Evolution Of Snake Venom Has Finally Been Revealed – via Herp Digest

March 9, 2019, Rob Mitchell,, UK

In order to better understand the evolutionary history of snake venom, an international research college investigated the genome of a Japanese specimen, the Okinawa habu.

When taking science to the next level, a certain measure of courage is sometimes needed. Scientists have been collecting DNA samples directly from snake specimens in Japan in order to uncover the mysteries surrounding their venom. They targeted a common snake species from the Ryukyu islands, named after one of the islands in the archipelago: the Okinawa habu. Also called Protobothrops flavoviridis or honhabu, it is the most venomous of the three species of habu found on the island.

Following the courageous act of obtaining venom, blood and skin samples from wild specimens, scientists looked at their genome. Their goal was to better understand the mechanisms involved in the evolution of snake venom. They therefore deconstructed the entire genome of the species using a high-performance sequencer at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.

With this sequencing the researchers were particularly interested in the genes responsible for venom production. They detected sixty of these genes, and were able to determine that they came from 18 different gene families, which were occasionally common to other more distant species. To better understand the usefulness of this discovery, different families of venomous snakes were studied.

The Okinawa habu belongs to the Viperidae family, which has hemotoxic venom that attacks blood cells and tissues. The other big family of poisonous snakes is the Elapidae, which includes the cobra species, which have a neurotoxic venom that attacks the nervous system. Other snake groups exist, but these two categories are the only ones to consist of species that are uniquely venomous.

Researchers have found similarities with the genomes of other species in these different groups. They were able to single out the existence and the position of a common ancestor on the phylogenetic tree, where two different lines of serpents diverged. This snake would have existed a little over 60 million years ago, and the toxins present in the venom of present-day snakes could derive from that of this ancestor.

Scientists went even further back in evolution of snakes. According to the findings of their study, the first appearance of venom was probably 185 million years ago, which corresponds to the time when the Toxicofera ancestor differentiated itself from other scaled reptiles known as Squamates.

In this branch, some lizards in the Autarchoglossa group are also poisonous. Professor Shibata, one of the authors of the study, when explaining this connection says that ‘the gene copies associated with venom production have their origins from long ago, possibly at one of the earliest stages of vertebrate evolution.’

Venoms are complex cocktails composed of many proteins. This research, beyond giving us a better view of its evolution, provides valuable information on the venom of the honhabu, and on how to make more effective antidotes. About 50 people are bitten annually in Japan.

According to the press release, the properties of venoms are also of interest to researchers in order to make new types of drugs, which would potentially be able to fight against cancer, or cardiovascular disease. In the meantime, multiples branches of research on different venomous species should help unravel the enigma of venom production in snakes.

‘Genome decoding is a powerful tool for understanding the mechanisms involved in the evolution of snake venom. We expect that different species of poisonous snakes produce different protein cocktails, derived from new gene arrangements, so decoding the genome of other snakes is essential to understanding the entire evolutionary process,’ said the group of researchers in conclusion.

Stags in the city: how deer found their way into our town centres and back gardens

As the UK’s deer population explodes, more of the animals are heading into urban areas. Why – and will they be welcome there?
Wed 20 Mar 2019 12.00 GMT
If you head out to the shops today, or a churchyard, or a school, or a playground, and you live in a town or city, you might be in for a surprise. Cats, dogs, squirrels, even foxes are part and parcel of our urban landscapes now but increasingly, it’s not out of the question that you might just as easily meet a deer.
The deer population in the UK is at the highest it has been for at least 1,000 years, at around two million. Over the past few decades, does and stags have been spotted in urban areas and villages around the UK, from Glasgow, to Sheffield and London. This week, the Royal Horticultural Society released guidance on how gardeners can deer-proof their outdoor spaces. Replace tulips with daffodils and red hot pokers, it suggests, because deer don’t like the taste and it will stop them rummaging through your flowerbeds.
So how did deer come to wander into our back gardens? For a start, population growth. Accurate data on exact deer numbers is scarce because the animals are secretive with a significant range. However, there is evidence that numbers of red, roe and muntjac deer are increasing. In Scotland, the deer population has doubled in the past 50 years. There are many reasons for this: since wolves, lynx and bears became extinct hundreds of years ago, deer have had no predators to contend with. They, along with other wildlife, have also benefited from other factors including milder winters, increased woodland cover in some areas and changes in farming such as the planting of winter crops.

Wild African ape reactions to novel camera traps

African wild apes notice and often react to novel items in their environment
Date:  March 14, 2019
Source:  Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
An international team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, analyzed video from remote camera-trap devices placed in ape-populated forests throughout Africa to see how wild apes would react to these unfamiliar objects. Responses varied by species, and even among individuals within the same species, but one thing was consistent throughout: the apes definitely noticed the cameras.
"Our goal was to see how chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas react to unfamiliar objects in the wild since novel object experiments are often used in comparative psychology research, and we wanted to know if there were any differences among the three great apes," says Ammie Kalan, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "We were specifically surprised by the differences in reactions we observed between the chimps and bonobos. Since they're sister species and share a lot of the same genetic makeup, we expected them to react similarly to the camera, but this wasn't the case."
"The chimpanzees were overall uninterested in the camera traps -- they barely seemed to notice their presence and were generally unbothered by them," Kalan says. "Yet the bonobos appeared to be much more troubled by camera traps; they were hesitant to approach and would actively keep their distance from them."

Review of noise impacts on marine mammals yields new policy recommendations

Date:  March 13, 2019
Source:  University of California - Santa Cruz
Marine mammals are particularly sensitive to noise pollution because they rely on sound for so many essential functions, including communication, navigation, finding food, and avoiding predators. An expert panel has now published a comprehensive assessment of the available science on how noise exposure affects hearing in marine mammals, providing scientific recommendations for noise exposure criteria that could have far-reaching regulatory implications.
Published March 12 in Aquatic Mammals, the paper is a major revision of the first such assessment, published in 2007 in the same journal. Both efforts were led by Brandon Southall, a research associate at the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz and senior scientist at Southall Environmental Associates.
"One of the things we did in 2007 was to identify major gaps in our knowledge, and we now have considerably more data. We thought there was enough new science to reconvene the panel and revisit these issues," said Southall, who served as director of NOAA's Ocean Acoustics Program from 2004 to 2009.

Thursday 28 March 2019

Tracking turtles with telemetry-New model predicts where Eastern Pacific leatherback turtles travel to help protect endangered species – via Herp Digest

Date: March 14, 2019
Source: University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

A new model has been created that can forecast the location of Eastern Pacific leatherback turtles along the coast of Central and South America in an effort to decrease bycatch mortality of this critically endangered and ecologically important species.

Scientists from University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science have developed a unique model in collaboration with Dr. George Shillinger at the nonprofit Upwell Turtles that can predict on a monthly basis where Eastern Pacific leatherbacks are most likely to be residing.

"Upwell was created to address an unmet need in sea turtle conservation: protecting turtles in the ocean, where they spend most of their lives. By engaging new consistencies and improving access to predictive tools, like the South Pacific Turtle Watch, we can reduce the threats turtles face at sea from fisheries interactions," said Upwell Executive Director Dr. George Shillinger.

A website called South Pacific Turtle Watch will be launched in coordination with this study as an online resource to educate the public on the importance of protecting leatherback turtles and to allow public access to the models predicting Eastern Pacific leatherbacks' location.

By providing countries connected to this species with this information, scientists hope for a decrease in the accidental capture of Eastern Pacific leatherback turtles by fisheries, a threat that is partially responsible for the species' 98 percent decline since the 1980s.

"A lot of managers and government agencies in Central and South America have been asking for something. They know leatherback populations are declining, they know fisheries have a role in it, so they have been thirsty for some information about what they can do so leatherbacks don't disappear," said study author Aimee Hoover of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

The decline in this leatherback turtle population is not all to blame on fisheries, but the purpose of this study was to produce data to inform potential management strategies to help both turtles and fishermen.

"Fishers aren't targeting leatherbacks and other marine turtle species," said Shillinger. "Incidental capture of turtles consumes time, damages equipment, and attracts unwanted negative attention. The South Pacific Turtle Watch tool will enable fishers to take proactive measures to reduce their bycatch, potentially reducing the risk of fisheries-turtle interactions within high-use turtle habitats.”

Leatherback turtles, which can live over 45 years, grow up to 2000 pounds, and reach lengths over 9 feet, prey exclusively upon gelatinous zooplankton. As such, leatherbacks play an important role as a keystone species in controlling jellyfish populations, which may be increasing as a result of changing climatic conditions and food web alterations from fisheries pressures. Jellyfish are not only important for the diet of these turtles but can damage fishermen's nets and boats if they are caught in high numbers. It is estimated that less than 1,000 adult females of the species remain.

This study is the first segment of a two-part project hoping to improve leatherback turtle management strategies. This portion focused on modeling turtle residence time -- how long the individual stays in one location -- through satellite telemetry. Researchers are currently working on a complementary paper that will predict leatherbacks' location through observer data collected from trained observers and volunteers on fishing vessels that encounter this critically endangered species.

Satellite telemetry technology allows for measurements and data to be collected remotely, which allows these free-moving creatures to be tracked from a distance for years once they are tagged with satellite transmitters. Turtles tagged in Costa Rica, Mexico and Peru were tracked for up to two years during a period spanning over two decades. In total, tracks from 45 different leatherbacks were used in the final analyses of this study.

The model predicts the seasonal route of leatherbacks, who migrate south from their nesting beaches into the South Pacific Gyre and then travel north to warmer temperatures near the equator during the winter, forming a circular pattern. Leatherback turtles are predicted to either travel down along the coast of Central America or travel out to the Pacific Ocean and south.

This statistically advanced model confirms previous tracks that have been developed and allows monthly models to be predicted based on current environmental conditions of leatherbacks' habitat, such as temperature, upwelling and sea surface height. Upwelling is of particular interest to turtles as it refers to the process of nutrient rich waters being brought to the surface that leads to increased abundance of prey, like gelatinous zooplankton.

"To our knowledge we're paving the way by incorporating dynamic environmental variables," commented Hoover. "Every month we're looking at a different temperature and environment over time to help model our predictions based on the changing environment this animal is experiencing."

Story Source:
Materials provided by University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:
Aimee L. Hoover, Dong Liang, Joanna Alfaro-Shigueto, Jeffrey C. Mangel, Peter I. Miller, Stephen J. Morreale, Helen Bailey, George L. Shillinger. Predicting residence time using a continuous-time discrete-space model of leatherback turtle satellite telemetry data. Ecosphere, 2019; 10 (3): e02644 DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.2644

Rukwa Rift Basin Project names new Cretaceous mammal from East African Rift System

Date:  March 18, 2019
Source:  Ohio University
Ohio University researchers announced a new species of mammal from the Age of Dinosaurs, representing the most complete mammal from the Cretaceous Period of continental Africa, and providing tantalizing insights into the past diversity of mammals on the planet.
The National Science Foundation-funded OHIO team, in collaboration with international colleagues, identified and named the new mammal in an article published today in Acta Paleontologica Polonica. This nearly complete lower jaw represents the first named mammal species from the Late Cretaceous Period (100-66 million years ago) of the entire African continent. The squirrel-sized animal was probably related to a group of southern hemisphere mammals known as gondwanatherians, yet a bizarre combination of features (including evergrowing and enamel-less peg-like teeth) make it challenging to easily place within any group of mammals yet known, living or extinct.
The new mammal is named Galulatherium jenkinsi, a name based on the Galula rock unit (itself derived from one of the local villages in the field area) and therium, Latin for beast, with the species name "jenkinsi" honoring the late Farish Jenkins, distinguished professor of anatomy and organismic biology at Harvard University and a strong supporter of the Rukwa Rift Basin Project early in its development.
The type and only specimen of Galulatherium was discovered in 2002, when Rukwa Rift Basin Project researchers found a bone fragment eroding from Cretaceous-age red sandstones in the Rukwa Rift Basin in southwestern Tanzania. After painstakingly removing the rock from the delicate specimen, the team announced the discovery of a new mammal in 2003, yet they conservatively refrained from establishing a name for the enigmatic new species until additional details of its anatomy could be revealed. In the intervening years, improvements in high-resolution x-ray computed tomography enabled the team to document detailed anatomy of the specimen and to establish Galulatherium as a species new to science.

Mowing for monarchs

Date:  March 12, 2019
Source:  Michigan State University
You might think that mowing fields wouldn't benefit monarch butterfly populations. New research from Michigan State University, however, shows that disturbances like mowing -- at key times -- might help boost the iconic butterfly's numbers.
The results are published in the current issue of Biological Conservation, and they show that strategic grassland management benefits monarchs in two ways. First, monarchs lay more eggs on young milkweed -- new growth after mowing -- the sole food source for the butterflies in their larval stage. Second, fewer predators visit immature milkweed; more come during its mature stages, such as when it flowers.
"Monarch butterflies scout young milkweed to lay their eggs," said Nate Haan, MSU postdoctoral research associate in entomology and the study's lead author. "And in terms of a food source, milkweed is more like spinach when it's young and comparable to cardboard as it ages."
Monarchs have declined for decades and are close to being named as a threatened species. There are many reasons for their steep population decline. They face deforestation in and around their Mexican wintering grounds, increased exposure to pesticides and lost nectar resources along their migratory routes.
Back in the Midwest, monarchs, in their egg and caterpillar phases, face equal challenges. In fact, many challenges have probably increased since they've been forced out of crop fields and into grasslands where predators are more common. Most eggs are eaten within the first 24 hours by katydids, ants, stink bugs, spiders and many other predatory insects.

Wolves lead, dogs follow -- and both cooperate with humans

Date:  March 14, 2019
Source:  University of Veterinary Medicine -- Vienna
Human social life would be unthinkable without cooperation. The frequency and complexity with which humans cooperate with each other are extraordinary, if not unique. To better understand the evolution of this outstanding human skill, researchers have proposed dogs (Canis familiaris) as a good model of human cooperation.
The wolf inside dogs makes the difference
A recent study by Vetmeduni Vienna, published in the journal Scientific Reports, shows that the ability to work with people lies not so much within dogs themselves but in the "wolf within the dog" -- that is to say, in very specific behavioural characteristics that dogs share with wolves. The study tested the extent to which dogs and grey wolves collaborate with humans in order to solve certain tasks. The findings show that both dogs and wolves cooperate intensively with humans and are equally successful, although the animals attain their goals in different ways.
Wolves show more initiative
Especially in one point the two closely related animals show significantly different forms of behaviour. In their cooperation with human partners, dogs follow the behaviour of the humans while wolves lead the interaction: they are more independent. Study director Friederike Range from the Konrad Lorenz Institute at Vetmeduni Vienna says, "The detailed analysis of the cooperative interactions revealed interesting differences between wolves and dogs. It shows that, while wolves tend to initiate behaviour and take the lead, dogs are more likely to wait and see what the human partner does and follow that behaviour."

Star Wars and Asterix characters amongst 103 beetles new to science from Sulawesi, Indonesia

Date:  March 7, 2019
Source:  Pensoft Publishers
The Indonesian island of Sulawesi has been long known for its enigmatic fauna, including the deer-pig (babirusa) and the midget buffalo. However, small insects inhabiting the tropical forests have remained largely unexplored.
Such is the case for the tiny weevils of the genus Trigonopterus of which only a single species had been known from the island since 1885. Nevertheless, a recent study conducted by a team of German and Indonesian scientists resulted in the discovery of a total of 103 new to science species, all identified as Trigonopterus. The beetles are described in the open-access journal ZooKeys.
"We had found hundreds of species on the neighboring islands of New Guinea, Borneo and Java -- why should Sulawesi with its lush habitats remain an empty space?" asked entomologist and lead author of the study Dr Alexander Riedel, Natural History Museum Karlsruhe (Germany).
In fact, Riedel knew better. Back in 1990, during a survey of the fauna living on rainforest foliage in Central Sulawesi, he encountered the first specimens that would become the subject of the present study. Over the next years, a series of additional fieldwork, carried out in collaboration with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), managed to successfully complete the picture.

Wednesday 27 March 2019

Male bottlenose dolphins form bachelor groups with their relatives

When it comes to wooing the 'ladies', it turns out male bottlenose dolphins employ special tactics with their brothers or cousins to increase their odds of sexual success
Date:  March 6, 2019
Source:  Flinders University
When it comes to wooing the 'ladies', it turns out male bottle nose dolphins employ special tactics with their brothers or cousins to increase their odds of sexual success.
New research has analysed the behaviour of 12 dolphin social groups in South Australia's Coffin Bay region and shows males who team up in groups of two to five to form beneficial alliances may have more success.
The collaboration improves the bottle nose chances of finding and breeding with females in a competitive environment, ensures they stay fit, and leads to stronger family bonds over time.
Led by Dr Fernando Diaz-Aguirre at the Molecular Ecology at Flinders University, the study examined the social and genetic structure of Southern Australian dolphins dealing with population density, an unfavourable sex ratio, and their own behavioural characteristics.
"Our research shows males form tight groups likely to increase their chances at mating with limited numbers of females, and at the same time they can defend females and prevent other male groups from mating with them," says Dr Diaz-Aguirre.
"The study highlights which geographic and demographic factors directly influence how male dolphins go about increasing their success rate with females."
Male lions, chimpanzees and horses are known to form bachelor groups in the animal kingdom, but it's even more important for dolphins because females only give birth to a single calf every two to five years.
Previous research has shown other dolphin's types form similar relationships, but this study analysed why bonds are based on blood relations in the Coffin Bay region.

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