Monday 14 October 2019

CRISPRed fruit flies mimic monarch butterfly, and could make you vomit

Scientists recreate in flies the mutations that let monarch butterfly eat toxic milkweed with impunity

Date:October 2, 2019
Source:University of California - Berkeley

The fruit flies in Noah Whiteman's lab may be hazardous to your health.

Whiteman and his University of California, Berkeley, colleagues have turned perfectly palatable fruit flies -- palatable, at least, to frogs and birds -- into potentially poisonous prey that may cause anything that eats them to puke. In large enough quantities, the flies likely would make a human puke, too, much like the emetic effect of ipecac syrup.

That's because the team genetically engineered the flies, using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, to be able to eat milkweed without dying and to sequester its toxins, just as America's most beloved butterfly, the monarch, does to deter predators.

This is the first time anyone has recreated in a multicellular organism a set of evolutionary mutations leading to a totally new adaptation to the environment -- in this case, a new diet and new way of deterring predators.

Koala epidemic provides lesson in how DNA protects itself from viruses

Date: October 10, 2019
Source: Cell Press

In animals, infections are fought by the immune system. Studies on an unusual virus infecting wild koalas, by a team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the University of Queensland, reveal a new form of "genome immunity." The study appears October 10 in the journal Cell.

earRetroviruses, including pathogens like HIV, incorporate into the chromosomes of host cells as part of their infectious lifecycle. Retroviruses don't usually infect the germ cells that produce sperm and eggs and are therefore usually not passed from generation to generation, but this has happened several times during evolution. Out of the entire 3 billion nucleotides of the human genome, only 1.5% of the sequence forms the 20,000 genes that code for proteins -- and 8% of the human genome comes from fragments of viruses. These pathogen invasions of the genome have sometimes been beneficial. For example, a gene "co-opted" from a virus is required for formation of the placenta in all mammals, including humans.

Pictish carved beasts 'unlike anything found before'

A 1,200-year-old standing stone discovered in the Highlands has carvings never before seen on a Pictish stone, archaeologists have said.

The stone was found lying in the ground and covered by vegetation at an early Christian church site near Dingwall.

Archaeologists have now revealed the side of the stone that was down in the earth and hidden from view was decorated with "two massive beasts".

Just over a metre of the original two metre-tall (6ft) stone survives.

The beasts were carved down the side of a cross.

John Borland, of Historic Environment Scotland and president of the Pictish Arts Society, said: "The two massive beasts that flank and surmount the cross are quite unlike anything found on any other Pictish stone.

"These two unique creatures serve to remind us that Pictish sculptors had a remarkable capacity for creativity and individuality.

Norfolk RSPCA centre saves 50th seal with injuries from rubbish

11 October 2019

A grey seal rescued on the North Sea coast has become the 50th to be treated by a wildlife centre for injuries caused by discarded man-made rubbish.

The animal, a male named Scylla, was found with an infected wound caused by a fishing net embedded around his neck.

The RSPCA centre in Norfolk said 2019 could be a record year for seal rescues "for all the wrong reasons".

"It's hard to describe how much pain and distress this can cause a seal," said manager Alison Charles.

"They are weighed down by this huge mass of netting, which must make it hard for them to swim, and then the net starts to cut and embed into their neck too.

"The injuries are horrendous, sometimes inches deep, and all the while the seal is becoming weaker and weaker and cannot feed so their suffering continues and they slowly starve to death.

"It is just horrific."

Sunday 13 October 2019

Imprinting on mothers may drive new species formation in poison dart frogs- What do marrying one's parents, Oedipus complex have to do with evolution? - via Herp Digest

Date: October 3, 2019
Source: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

The old saying that people marry their parents may be true for poison dart frogs, and it may even lead to the formation of new species, according to a new study in Nature based on work at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

Strawberry poison dart frogs live on the mainland in Panama's Bocas del Toro province and have been isolated on islands in the archipelago that formed during the past 10 million years as sea level rose. Only a single color morph exists on some islands -- orange or green, for example, but on other islands several color morphs exist together, like blue and red frogs.

"In the past, people assumed that this group of brightly colored poison dart frogs were warning predators that their skin is toxic," said Corinne Richards-Zawacki, research associate at STRI and professor of biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. "But predators don't seem to care what color the frogs are, at least based on our earlier experiments. That's why we started asking whether the way they choose mates might lead to populations of different colors on different islands.”

The team set up three different situations: baby frogs raised with two parents of the same color (red baby, red parents), baby frogs raised with each parent a different color (red baby, one red and one blue parent) and baby frogs raised by foster parents of a different color (red baby, blue parents). In each case they asked which color the female offspring would choose as mates and which color the male offspring would perceive as a rival.

"We discovered that female frogs with parents of the same color tended to choose mates of that same color, whereas frogs with foster parents of a different color would choose mates the color of the foster parents," said Yusan Yang, who is completing her doctoral thesis at the University of Pitts-burgh. "The same was true for male-male aggression. This tells us that imprinting was more important than genetics when it comes to shaping these behaviors that are based on color.”

When baby frogs were raised with one parent of the same color and one parent of a different color, females chose mates the color of their mother, and males chose rivals the color of their mother, indicating that maternal imprinting was probably more important than paternal imprinting.
They also created a mathematical model showing that male aggression based on imprinting, in concert with female mate choice based on imprinting was enough to cause a scenario to evolve, where like mates with like, which could lead to two color morphs becoming separate species.

"We're fascinated by the idea that behavior can play such an important role in evolution," Richards-Zawacki said.

Story Source:
Materials provided by Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:
  1. Yusan Yang, Maria R. Servedio, Corinne L. Richards-Zawacki. Imprinting sets the stage for speciation. Nature, 2019; 574 (7776): 99 DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1599-z

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Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. "Imprinting on mothers may drive new species formation in poison dart frogs: What do marrying one's parents, Oedipus complex have to do with evolution?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 October 2019. 


Tourists previously paid $10 to visit

by Helen Coffey, The Independent

Komodo Island, home to the famed Komodo dragons, will now remain open next year, but with a hugely inflated entry price.

Visitors could previously access the Indonesian island and Unesco World Heritage site for $10, but the cost will now soar to $1,000 for a full-year membership, pricing out many tourists.

Indonesian officials announced the changes on Thursday 3 October, which also include restrictions on visitor numbers to the island.

“Komodo Island will not be closed,“ coordinating maritime affairs minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan said in a statement. "A restriction will be placed on the number of tourists to Komodo Island by rearranging its ticketing system.“

This marks a shift in position from the government, which previously announced the intention to shut the island to visitors for the whole of 2020 due to a decline in the population of the world’s largest lizards.

The original announcement followed the theft of 41 Komodo dragons by an alleged smuggling ring in March 2019; they were sold abroad for 500 million rupiah (£26,825) each.

However, officials have now gone back on the decision, opting instead to restrict access via ticketing and the higher entry cost.

Tourists can choose between a premium membership, which permits access to Komodo Island itself for $1,000, or non-premium, which allows them to visit the neighbouring islands, which are part of Komodo National Park. The price for non-premium membership is not yet known.

Komodo National Park, which comprises the larger islands of Komodo, Padar and Rinca, plus 26 smaller ones, received 10,250 visitors per month in 2018, 95 per cent of whom were foreign tourists.

Komodo dragons aren’t just found on Komodo Island – they also inhabit Rinca, Gili Montang and Gili Dasami, all part of the national park, plus the island of Flores.

Harbour porpoises killed by infected seal bites

11th October 2019

Harbour porpoises found washed up dead on North Sea shores were killed by infected grey seal bites, according to new research.

Scientists examined porpoises recovered from beaches in north-east and south-east Scotland as well as England, the Netherlands and Belgium.

The animals had "chronically inflamed" bite wounds on their fins and tails.

The researchers found the porpoises were infected with the bacteria Neisseria animaloris.

Seals, and also cats and dogs, can carry the bacteria on their teeth.

Grey seals prey on harbour porpoises, and the researchers said even porpoises that survive attacks can later fall victim to infected bites.

The scientists said these porpoises would have suffered a slow death.

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the research involved scientists at the Inverness-based Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, which is part of Scotland's Rural College.

New species of tapir discovered in south-west Amazon

Tapirus kabomani was hidden from science but known to local indigenous tribes in Brazil and Colombia

Jeremy Hance for Mongabay, part of the Guardian Environment Network

Tue 17 Dec 2013 16.30 GMTFirst published on Tue 17 Dec 2013 16.30 GMT

In what will likely be considered one of the biggest (literally) zoological discoveries of the 21st century, scientists today announced they have discovered a new species of tapir in Brazil and Colombia. The new mammal, hidden from science but known to local indigenous tribes, is actually one of the biggest animals on the continent, although it's still the smallest living tapir. Described in the Journal of Mammology, the scientists have named the new tapir Tapirus kabomani after the name for "tapir" in the local Paumari language: "Arabo kabomani."

Tapirus kabomani, or the Kobomani tapir, is the fifth tapir found in the world and the first to be discovered since 1865. It is also the first mammal in the order Perissodactyla (which includes tapirs, rhinos, and horses) found in over a hundred years. Moreover, this is the largest land mammal to be uncovered in decades: in 1992 scientists discovered the saola in Vietnam and Cambodia, a rainforest bovine that is about the same size as the new tapir.

Found inhabiting open grasslands and forests in the southwest Amazon (the Brazilian states of Rondônia and Amazonas, as well as the Colombian department of Amazonas), the new species is regularly hunted by the Karitiana tribe who call it the "little black tapir." The new species is most similar to the Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris), but sports darker hair and is significantly smaller: while a Brazilian tapir can weigh up to 320 kilograms (710 pounds), the Kabomani weighs-in around 110 kilograms (240 pounds). Given its relatively small size it likely won't be long till conservationists christen it the pygmy or dwarf tapir. It also has shorter legs, a distinctly-shaped skull, and a less prominent crest.

Friday 11 October 2019

Pigs observed using tools for the first time


by Bob Yirka ,

A team of researchers affiliated with several institutions in France has found evidence of pigs using tools—a first. In their paper published in the journal Mammalian Biology, the group describes multiple instances of Visayan warty pigs using sticks and bark to assist with nest building.

There was a time when scientists believed humans were the only animals that used tools—a skill that set us apart from the other creatures of the Earth. But such assumptions have long been laid to rest as multiple research efforts have shown that many animal species use tools in their own unique ways. Crows have been observed using sticks to hook prey, for example; otters use stones to crack open shellfish; elephants have been observed moving rocks and logs to cover watering holes. Tool use has long been a sign of intelligence, which has led researchers to wonder why no one had ever seen pigs using tools of any kind. They are, after all, considered to be among the smartest animals. As it turns out, at least one kind of pig does use a tool—the researchers observed several of them at a Parisian zoo using sticks and lengths of bark to dig out a nest.

How bats relocate in response to tree loss

OCTOBER 9, 2019

by Wiley

Identifying how groups of animals select where to live is important for understanding social dynamics and for management and conservation. In a recent Journal of Wildlife Management study, researchers examined the movement of a maternity colony of big brown bats as a response to naturally occurring tree loss.

The colony began moving to a new patch of forest approximately seven kilometers away when cumulative loss of trees, over three years, in the old patch reached 18%. Most bats roosted in the new patch by year four, when cumulative loss of roost trees reached 46%.

The authors noted that to maintain high densities of suitable roost trees for bats,management plans must retain live and dead trees in multiple stages of growth and decay.

"This is the first time that the movement of bats in response to a natural loss of roost trees has been documented. Our work suggests that general patterns for how bats respond to loss of roost trees may exist across bat species and forest types," said lead author Kristin Bondo, MSc, Ph.D., of the University of Regina, in Canada.

From Med's biggest nesting ground, turtles swim to uncertain future

OCTOBER 9, 2019

by John Hadoulis

Freed from its eggshell by a volunteer, the tiny turtle hatchling clambers across a pebble-strewn sandy Greek beach in a race to the sea, the start of a hazardous journey that only one in 1,000 will survive.

Kira Schirrmacher, 22, donning black gloves to gently ease the newborn loggerhead turtle on its way, grins at suggestions that she's a kind of "midwife".

"Yes, I do that all day," says the German social sciences student, of her role.

She's one of several volunteers monitoring the beaches of Kyparissia Bay, the Mediterranean's largest nesting ground for the loggerhead, whose scientific name is Caretta caretta.

Tourism, climate change and good fortune all weigh on the future of the loggerhead population, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists as vulnerable.

Even sun loungers on the beach that can snag the turtles and bright lights that lure the hatchlings away from the water at night are potential threats, say environmentalists.

Growing in the Med

Their overall numbers are unknown but some Pacific and Indian Ocean populations are critically low, while conservation measures have bolstered their presence in the Mediterranean, environmental groups say.

With around 44 kilometres (27 miles) of coastline, Kyparissia on the western Peloponnese, had over 3,700 nests this year, up from 3,500 in 2018, says the Athens-based Archelon turtle protection organisation.

China says Thailand's panda died from heart attack

OCTOBER 9, 2019

A giant panda whose sudden death in Thailand sparked outrage in China last month died from a heart attack, according to a Chinese government agency.
China dispatched a team of experts to Thailand after 19-year-old Chuang Chuang died at the Chiang Mai Zoo on September 16. Pandas can live up to 30 years in captivity.

The panda had been living in an air-conditioned enclosure with female Lin Hui.

The pair were on loan from the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu as part of Beijing's so-called "panda diplomacy" and were supposed to be returned in 2023.

Chuang Chuang's demise became a trending topic on China's Weibo, a popular social media platform where people discussed the "suspicious circumstances" of his death.

Users criticised the zoo for giving him mature bamboo—usually harder and used to make furniture—as food, though it remained unclear if photos shared were actually of Chuang Chuang.

After an autopsy, a joint group of Thai and Chinese experts "unanimously" concluded that there was no trauma on the panda's body and no foreign body in his trachea, China's National Forestry and Grassland Administration said on its Weibo account on Tuesday.

The cause of death was "an acute attack of chronic heart failure" resulting in a lack of oxygen, it said.

Thursday 10 October 2019

Proximity to paths and roads is a burden for white-tailed sea eagles

Date: October 7, 2019
Source: Forschungsverbund Berlin

The white-tailed sea eagle is known for reacting sensitively to disturbances. However, research into which factors have which effects on the animals and how these impacts influence breeding success has so far only just begun. A research team led by Dr. Oliver Krone from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) has now measured concentrations of the hormone corticosterone and its metabolic products in white-tailed sea eagles in northern Germany and correlated these values with potential causes of "stress." They found that the levels of corticosterone in the birds' urine are higher the closer a breeding pair's nest is to paths or roads. From this, the scientists derive implications for the management and protection of white-tailed sea eagles, in particular for protection zones around the nests. The study was published in the journal General and Comparative Endocrinology.

Important areas of distribution of the sea eagle in Germany -- such as the Mecklenburg Lake District or the Baltic Sea coast -- are also attractive tourist regions. As a result, visitor numbers in core breeding areas are high and continue to rise. Since typical tourist activities -- hiking, cycling, and water sports -- focus on experiencing nature, researchers see a potential conflict between visitors and the sensitive animals. "In order to either confirm or refute this assumption, we measured the level of the hormone corticosterone in urine samples of 52 white-tailed sea eagles in the Usedom Island Nature Park in spring and early summer," explains Dr. Oliver Krone of Leibniz-IZW, head of the study.

Badger culls risk increased spread of TB to cattle, study finds

9 October 2019

Culling badgers drives them to roam further afield, allowing them to disperse tuberculosis over a larger area, new research suggests.

The culls might thus increase the risk of TB spreading to cattle, the scientists behind the study warn.

The government commissioned its own review of the culls, but has yet to respond to the recommendations.

The review urged the government to explore alternative approaches to culling.

It was led by zoologist Sir Charles Godfray, from Oxford University.

The government said its own research indicated that the culls were working.

Co-author Rosie Woodroffe, from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), said the results backed the scientific consensus that culling will - at best - slow the spread of TB only to a modest extent.

Additionally, it could potentially accelerate infection.

A Lesson for Ravens: Don’t Eat the Tortoises-Can fake tortoise shells teach predators to stop devouring soft-shelled juveniles? - via Herp Digest

OCT 8, 2019, The Atlantic


Tim Shields didn’t see any young tortoises himself. For the most part, the only sign of them was their shells, desiccated and punctured, scattered around the landscape and piled under the occasional Joshua tree. He was working on a long-term monitoring project in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, where over the past few decades juvenile tortoises had all but disappeared from the study areas. This particular year, the scientists and volunteers spotted a single live juvenile tortoise—in the beak of a raven, flailing its legs as it was carried away.

That was eight years ago, and it marked a turning point for Shields, he told me, sitting in his kitchen in Joshua Tree, California. While desert tortoises face a range of threats, for juveniles whose shells are still soft, raven predation is perhaps the biggest concern. Shields knew that past efforts to control the canny birds by shooting or poisoning them had faced legal challenges from animal activists; many scientists think, as well, that killing enough ravens to protect tortoises simply isn’t possible. So Shields went in search of an alternative.

After talking with other biologists, engineers, and even some rocket scientists—with anyone, really—he concluded that he needed to teach ravens a new way of life. Working with a diverse cadre of collaborators, including the noted raven-biologist William Boarman, the design software company Autodesk, and a science teacher from Shields’s hometown, his company, Hardshell Labs, created the “techno-tort”—an educational tool for ravens designed to get across one lesson: They ought not to eat tortoises.

Shields introduced me to the techno-tort in the front yard of his house. Originally inspired by basic styrofoam tortoises that Boarman made in the 1990s, the techno-tort is now uncannily lifelike. Lying in the sand, the 3-D-printed shell had a similar solidity and texture to the real thing but was considerably lighter. This one had been color-printed, but earlier prototypes were hand-painted—and subsequent shells have been too, while the company searches for a printing pigment that will last under the desert sun.

In the field, techno-torts will be fitted with accelerometers and methyl anthranilate, a nontoxic bird deterrent. When a raven disturbs the shell, it will let out an explosive spray with a noxious taste and odor. A more low-tech version will involve packing shells full of meat treated with another nontoxic substance that will briefly nauseate the raven. The aim is to effectively communicate, through the experience of fright or queasiness, a simple message: Stay away.

Until recently, the main approaches available to conservationists for dealing with difficult wildlife have been limited—basically fencing them out or killing them. But now pedagogic alternatives are beginning to emerge, raising the question of whether fractious relationships might be modified by a little interspecies education.

Conservationists have tried to reeducate wildlife in the past. A range of animals, from stout wallabies to the giant lizards of the Canary Islands, has undergone training on avoiding predators, with mixed results. There have been efforts to teach golden lion tamarins to eschew dangerous foods, and whooping cranes to migrate. But these projects had only small, usually captive classes of students. In recent years, behavioral interventions have been significantly scaled up.

In the Kimberley region of Western Australia, for instance, researchers have launched the world’s largest cane-toad-mitigation effort, which depends on teaching wild animals about the dangers of these toxic toads. Introduced in 1935, cane toads have caused severe population declines among many species of larger predators, from freshwater crocodiles and giant monitor lizards to the critically endangered northern quoll, a small but fierce nocturnal marsupial. To these animals, accustomed to eating local amphibians without consequence, cane toads look like a tempting meal.

Many of these predators might survive an encounter with a smaller cane toad, but the toads at the front of this advancing wave are large, highly toxic animals. So Rick Shine of Macquarie University in Sydney and his collaborators have sought to create their own advance guard. In a study led by Samantha J. Price-Rees, they introduced bluetongue lizards to nauseating sausages made of minced cane toad; in another, led by Georgia Ward-Fear, they exposed monitor lizards to juvenile, less toxic “teacher toads.” Both of these animals proved to be quick studies and began to avoid adult toads. Shine, along with a group of research and conservation partners known as the Cane Toad Coalition, is currently rolling out a multiyear project to drop teacher toads and sausages ahead of the main toad wave.

The cane toad project is meant to protect predators from their own appetites, but other new initiatives, such as the techno-torts, are trying to save vulnerable prey by reeducating the animals that eat them. On the South Island of New Zealand, a massive campaign is under way to encourage more recently arrived predators—hedgehogs, rats, cats, and ferrets—to ignore the eggs and chicks of banded dotterels, wrybills, and other birds. In two study areas totaling 1,800 hectares, plus control sites, a team of ecologists has been smearing Vaseline infused with bird scents around the landscape. This system of “chemical camouflage,” developed by Catherine Price and Peter Banks of the University of Sydney (where I work as well), starts with spreading the scent of birds for a month or so prior to the breeding season; predators learn to ignore this olfactory cue as an unrewarding distraction. The trial results are still being analyzed, but previous efforts with other species and on smaller scales produced remarkable results. In an earlier study, the nests in treated areas had a 62 percent greater survival rate than the controls.

What unites all of these projects is a curiosity about how animals learn. But teaching animals means that researchers have to do their own deep learning on the ways different animals think and behave. In Australia, researchers have found that while bluetongue lizards can be effectively trained with cane toad sausages or teacher toads, monitor lizards require the latter to retain their aversion. In New Zealand, researchers need to worry about how different predators generalize: What combination of bird scents will teach a predator to ignore all avian species? This kind of question is part of a growing appreciation of the complexity of animals’ cognitive abilities. As Shine told me, “We can attempt to use those abilities to change the outcomes of encounters between potential predators and prey in a way that probably we weren’t thinking about a decade ago.”

In Joshua Tree, Shields and Boarman showed me footage from cameras they placed out in the desert with prototype techno-torts. In one memorable clip, an adult raven confidently approaches the techno-tort and, without hesitation, flips it over and pounds down on the underside of the shell. Was she curious about a strange object in the environment? Was she wondering where this bad replica of a tortoise shell had come from? Or did she believe that she had come across the familiar form of a tortoise? From the clip, the last possibility seems likely.

Shields and Boarman are passionately interested in understanding how ravens make sense of techno-torts. They need to be. For this approach to have any chance of success, the ravens need to mistake these shells for the real thing. Otherwise they won’t be learning to avoid tortoises, just techno-torts. In other trials, the researchers are changing the shape and color of the shells to see how these tweaks influence raven interactions. Which of these cues really matter?

As I drove away from Shields’s house that afternoon, I saw a group of ravens eating roadkill. This readily available food source is just one of the many transformations to the desert that have increased raven numbers. In recent decades, human settlement has provided a steady supply of food, water, and nesting places. These changes have also destroyed tortoises’ habitat, which is now crisscrossed by roads, overtaken by human uses, and modified by introduced plants and cattle. While ravens are a worrying threat to young tortoises, they are far from the only danger.

The techno-tort project, then, might only sidestep a larger problem. This criticism is leveled at many of these “educational” projects. After all, even if they succeed, abundant numbers of ravens, cane toads, and rats will still be left roaming around. And Shields and Boarman are pretty sure that whatever they develop will work for only a limited time with crafty ravens. Alongside the techno-torts, they are working on a suite of other tools, including modified lasers and drones, to both haze and educate these birds. In the end, Shields explained to me, it’s going to be a bit like a chess match, an ongoing effort to adapt to ravens’ own prodigious capacities for learning and experimentation.

These conservationists don’t see educational approaches as a cure-all. Instead, their projects are often meant to buy time. Boarman was explicit about this: All that mitigating the impact of ravens can do, he told me, is produce a whole lot of tortoise teenagers, which will still need a desert that can support them. Shields agreed: The aim of the techno-tort, he said, is simply to “stop the hemorrhaging.” But, he went on to say, until we can modify human behavior in the desert, “we need to buy time, and we can buy time by altering raven behavior. That’s the hope.”

Thieves steal duffel bag, apparently unaware it's full of snakes - via Herp Digest

HTV National Desk, 10/8/19. Hartford, CT, The Hour

Reptile breeder Brian Gundy had just given a talk and animal presentation Saturday in San Jose, California. While going to get his car parked in a garage around 4:30 p.m., he left his his snakes and lizards in boxes and a bag in a no-parking zone.

When he returned for his critters, he made a grim discovery. 

"As I was loading up my gear, I realized the bag that had my four pythons and blue skink lizard inside was gone and they were just there seconds ago," Gundy told KTVU Fox 2.

Gundy had seen several people walk by his equipment, so he ran after them but couldn't catch up. He told KTVU he doesn't think they knew what was inside.

If the thieves were surprised by the contents of the bag, Gundy worries that the pythons — three ball pythons and a baby albino caramel Burmese python — and the blue-tailed skink could have been tossed into a dumpster or otherwise abandoned.

"It's very upsetting for me because — even though there is quite a bit of money involved in this loss — my biggest concern is the safety of these animals," Gundy said in a video he uploaded to YouTube.

He added that the thieves probably have no idea how to care for a snake.

The stolen animals were worth approximately $5,000, according to the reptile breeder. A box containing a tegu lizard and an ice chest with a 13-foot Burmese python inside were not taken.

Gundy filed a police report and hopes that the garage's surveillance video will help identify the thieves. He told KTVU that he isn't looking to press charges.

He said he just wants his snakes and lizard back — no questions asked.

Sunday 6 October 2019

Collecting polar bear footprints to map family trees

By Anne-Marie Bullock Producer, Costing The Earth

Scientists from Sweden are using DNA in the environment to track Alaskan polar bears.

The technique which uses DNA from traces of cells left behind by the bears has been described as game changing for polar bear research.

It's less intrusive than other techniques and could help give a clearer picture of population sizes.

Environmental DNA (eDNA) comes from traces of biological tissue such as skin and mucus in the surroundings.

Scientists and now conservationists are increasingly using such samples to sequence genetic information and identify which species are present in a particular habitat.

It's often used to test for invasive species or as evidence of which animals might need more protection.

In another application of the technique, geneticist Dr Micaela Hellström from the Aquabiota laboratory in Sweden worked with WWF Alaska and the Department of Wildlife Management in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) to collect snow from the pawprints of polar bears.

They tested the technique on polar bears in parks in Sweden and Finland.

Global wildlife trade higher than was thought

By Helen Briggs BBC News

At least one in five vertebrate species on Earth are bought and sold on the wildlife market, according to a study.

Scientists from universities in the US and UK, who jointly analysed data collated on a range of species, say they are "astounded" by the figure.

They point out that it is about 50% higher than previous estimates.

The wildlife trade - in the likes of horns, ivory and exotic pets - is the number one cause of animal extinction, tied only with land development.

Prof David Edwards of the University of Sheffield, a co-researcher on the study, said: "The sheer diversity of species being traded is astounding - the risk that that will grow is very worrying," said Prof David Edwards of the University of Sheffield, a co-researcher on the study.

The study, published in Science, identified hotspots for traded birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles in regions within the Andes mountain range and Amazon rainforest, sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia and Australia.

The research also identified another 3,000 or so species that look set to be traded in the future, based on their similarities with animals currently bought and sold - for example if they have bright plumage or exotic horns.

More than a quarter of UK mammals face extinction

By Claire Marshall Environment correspondent

More than a quarter of mammals are facing extinction, according to a detailed and devastating report on the state of the natural world in the UK.

It also said one in seven species were threatened with extinction, and 41% of species studied have experienced decline since 1970.

Providing the clearest picture to date, the State of Nature report examined data from almost 7,000 species.

It drew on expertise from more than 70 different organisations.

These included wildlife organisations and government agencies.

The report said 26% of mammal species were at risk of disappearing altogether.

A separate report outlined the picture in Scotland, where the abundance and distribution of species has also declined.

Scotland saw a 24% decline in average species abundance, and about one in 10 species threatened with extinction.

Thursday 3 October 2019

Wolverines, Anacondas, Raccoons Join New York’s ‘Dangerous Animals’ List - Regulation would create new licensing requirements for zoos, wildlife parks, exhibitions – via Herp Digest

By Melanie Grayce West 
Sept. 19, 2019 Wall Street Journal

Badgers and boomslang snakes would seem to be dangerous animals to the average New Yorker.

State environmental officials now want to make it an official designation.

On Thursday, the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation released proposed regulations that would expand the state’s list of "dangerous animals.” The regulation would create new licensing requirements for zoos, wildlife parks and exhibitions that have those animals.

The proposal includes 17 different categories of animals that could pose a threat to public safety. The list includes the usual suspects like wolverines, raccoons and the Eurasian lynx, plus the obscure and less fuzzy: the DeSchauensee’s anaconda; and the Nile monitor, a large lizard with a nasty demeanor. Elephants are on the list, too.

The state already considered some animals dangerous, including wolves and coyotes, and by law individuals can’t keep exotic animals as pets. Exhibition operators, such as animal parks or zoos, are already required to be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the most dangerous animals.

However, the state said that to ensure the safety of people, fish and wildlife populations, it needed additional powers. The public will have time to comment on the proposed regulation before it goes into effect.

Jeff Taylor, who owns the Wild Animal Park in Chittenango, N.Y., said the state’s move amounted to overregulation for legally licensed operators. His park has several of the dangerous animals, including bears.

“People already breaking the law aren’t going to follow it,” he said. “It’s making it more of a permit process for us.”
Conservation officials point to a growing number of incidents with dangerous animals, including one in June where an Orange County man was bitten by one of the more than 150 venomous snakes he kept in his basement. In 2011, a New York woman died after being bitten by an African black mamba snake and in 2006, a New York woman was attacked by a capuchin monkey, the DEC says.

Sue McDonough, president of  the animal-rights advocacy group New York State Humane Association, said such designations were needed to combat “roadside zoos” that are unlicensed, and to address people who keep wild animals as pets.

“You have people getting wildlife as pets without any training or background in handling wild animals and it is a problem,” she said.

Planned roads would be 'dagger in the heart' for Borneo's forests and wildlife

Date:  September 18, 2019
Source:  James Cook University
Malaysia's plans to create a Pan-Borneo Highway will severely degrade one of the world's most environmentally imperilled regions, says a research team from Australia and Malaysia.
"This network of highways will cut through some of the last expanses of intact forest in Borneo, greatly increasing pressures from loggers, poachers, farmers and oil-palm plantations," said Professor Bill Laurance, project leader from James Cook University in Australia.
"This would be a nightmare for endangered species such as the Bornean orangutan, clouded leopard and dwarf elephant," said Professor Laurance.
The study focused on new planned highways in the Malaysian state of Sabah, in the north of Borneo, the world's third-largest island.
"Some of the planned highways are relatively benign, but several are flat-out dangerous," said Dr Sean Sloan, lead author of the study and also from James Cook University. "The worst roads, in southern Sabah, would chop up and isolate Sabah's forests from the rest of those in Borneo."
"Slicing up the forests is toxic for large animals, such as elephants, bearded pigs and sloth bears, that must migrate seasonally to find enough food or otherwise face starvation," said Professor Laurance.
The new roads would also bisect protected areas in northern Borneo, making them vulnerable to illegal poachers and encroachers, say the researchers.

Did mosasaurs do the breast stroke?

Date:  September 23, 2019
Source:  Geological Society of America
Mosasaurs were true sea monsters of late Cretaceous seas. These marine lizards -- related to modern snakes and monitor lizards -- grew as long as fifty feet, flashed two rows of sharp teeth, and shredded their victims with enormous, powerful jaws.
Now, new research suggests that mosasaurs had yet another potent advantage: a muscular breast stroke that may have added ambush-worthy bursts of speed.
"We know that mosasaurs most likely used their tails for locomotion. Now we think that they also used their forelimbs, or their tail and forelimbs together," explains lead author Kiersten Formoso, a Ph.D. student in vertebrate paleontology at the University of Southern California. That dual swimming style, she says, could make mosasaurs unique among tetrapods (four limbed creatures), living or extinct.
Previous studies noted that mosasaurs had an unusually large pectoral girdle -- the suite of bones that support the forelimbs. But most assumed the creature's swimming was mainly driven by their long tails, something like alligators or whales. That smooth, long distance-adapted swimming style is called "cruising," as opposed to "burst" motion. "Like anything that swims or flies, the laws of fluid dynamics mean that burst versus cruising is a tradeoff," explains co-author Mike Habib, Assistant Professor of Anatomical Sciences at USC. "Not many animals are good at both."
To dive in more closely on whether mosasaurs were burst-adapted, cruise-adapted, or an unusual balance of both, Formoso and co-authors focused on the oversized pectoral girdle. They studied a fossil Plotosaurus, a type of mosasaur, at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. In addition, they used measurements of mosasaur pectoral girdles published in other studies.

Possums bounce back from Devils on Maria Island

SEPTEMBER 23, 2019

The recent introduction of healthy Tasmanian Devils to Maria Island was initially bad news for the local possum population, a species blissfully ignorant of the predator's existence.
But the ability of the prey species to rapidly modify its foraging behavior is the subject of a new report from the University of Tasmania published in the journal Ecography.
"In response to extinction fears, devils were introduced to Maria Island, where their abundance rapidly increased," according report lead-author and UTAS School of Natural Sciences researcher Calum Cunningham.
"This was really important for safeguarding the devil's future, but it also provided a unique opportunity to research how apex predators structure ecosystems."
And the Maria Island experience could have implications for the "rewilding" of apex predators across the world, according to Mr Cunningham.
"Rewilding is a management approach that aims to restore important ecological processes by introducing species that play important roles."
Mr Cunningham said that declines of large carnivores across the world had reduced the "landscape of fear" that constrains the behavior of other species.
"Our study shows that recoveries of top predators can re-establish missing controls on the behavior of other species," he said.
The Maria Island study used a foraging experiment specifically designed to measure how possums—a key prey species of devils—perceive predation risk. The experiment compared possum behavior before devils were introduced to the island, and again after devils had become very abundant.

Wednesday 2 October 2019

How gliding animals fine-tuned the rules of evolution

SEPTEMBER 23, 2019
by Lachlan Gilbert, University of New South Wales
A study of gliding animals has challenged the idea that evolutionary innovations—adaptations that bring new abilities and advantages—spur the origin of other new body types and other characteristics in descendant species.
The research, undertaken by evolutionary biologists at UNSW Sydney and universities in the US and Spain, examined the key innovation of gliding in two types of gliding animals: 'flying' dragons (family Agamidae) and 'flying' squirrels (family Sciuridae), both common to forests in South East Asia.
The study confirms previous assumptions that gliding animals originated from arboreal ancestors and likely arose as a means of escaping predators some 25-30 million years ago.
Lead author Dr. Terry Ord, an evolutionary ecologist with UNSW's Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, says another advantage that gliding brought was the ability to exploit a new three dimensional environment and explore more of the forest than just one tree.
"From an evolutionary biologist's perspective, these types of innovation that open up new opportunities are assumed to drive even more adapted diversification," Dr. Ord says.
"Suddenly there's all these new microhabitats available offering up new resources and you have new species moving into those particular microhabitats where you would expect them to adapt even more."
Winging it
The evolution of flight in birds, insects and bats is an example where the changes brought about by 'taking to the wing' caused an explosion in diversity. Millions of species of insects, tens of thousands of birds and more than a thousand species of bats developed greatly different shapes, sizes, behaviours and habitats since their ancestors first evolved to fly.

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