Friday 28 February 2020

Madagascar's bizarre aye-aye has 6 fingers on each hand, scientists discover

The aye-aye gets weirder.

The aye-aye is one of nature's most fascinatingly bizarre creatures. Native to Madagascar, this lemur is the largest nocturnal primate in the world and has unique features that set it apart. It has bat‐like ears that allow it to echo-locate and rodent-like ever-growing incisors — both unique among primates.

It is most famous for its exceptionally long and skinny fingers. In fact, they are so long that the aye-aye's hand accounts for about 41% of the total length of the forelimb.

The animals also have highly specialized, extremely long third digits — middle fingers if you like — which they use to find food. They "tap" them against wood to generate acoustic reverberations that allow them to find wood‐boring larvae. These are then fished out with exceptional dexterity because the finger can swivel like a shoulder, and it is so thin that the animal habitually rests it on its even longer fourth finger for support.

My colleagues and I recently found yet another unique specialization that sets the aye-aye apart from other primates: a sixth finger on each hand.

Rare pink manta ray caught courting lady friend Down Under

The manta ray is named after Inspector Clouseau from "The Pink Panther" movies.

Photos of a bright pink manta ray have gone viral after the Pepto-Bismol-colored creature was spotted swimming near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Photographer Kristian Laine, who snapped the photos while was freediving near Lady Elliot Island, initially thought that his camera was broken, National Geographic reported. Later, Laine learned that he had laid eyes on what may be the world's only pink manta ray — a fish comically named Inspector Clouseau, after the klutzy detective in the "The Pink Panther" movies.

Despite his stunning hue, the inspector has been seen fewer than 10 times since he was first spotted in 2015, National Geographic reported. (You can see a 2015 video of the inspector on The Guardian.)

Animal life thriving around Fukushima

Researchers document more than 20 species in nuclear accident zone

Date: January 6, 2020
Source: University of Georgia

Summary:Nearly a decade after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, researchers have found that wildlife populations are abundant in areas void of human life.Share:

Nearly a decade after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, researchers from the University of Georgia have found that wildlife populations are abundant in areas void of human life.

The camera study, published in the Journal of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, reports that over 267,000 wildlife photos recorded more than 20 species, including wild boar, Japanese hare, macaques, pheasant, fox and the raccoon dog -- a relative of the fox -- in various areas of the landscape.

UGA wildlife biologist James Beasley said speculation and questions have come from both the scientific community and the general public about the status of wildlife years after a nuclear accident like those in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

This recent study, in addition to the team's research in Chernobyl, provides answers to the questions.

"Our results represent the first evidence that numerous species of wildlife are now abundant throughout the Fukushima Evacuation Zone, despite the presence of radiological contamination," said Beasley, associate professor at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

Species that are often in conflict with humans, particularly wild boar, were predominantly captured on camera in human-evacuated areas or zones, according to Beasley.

"This suggests these species have increased in abundance following the evacuation of people."

The team, which included Thomas Hinton, professor at the Institute of Environmental Radioactivity at Fukushima University, identified three zones for the research.

Counting Whales From Space: scientists and engineers plan hi-tech effort

New England Aquarium partners with local firm
Project could help work to save endangered right whales

Associated Press in Boston
Sun 5 Jan 2020 18.40 GMT

An aquarium and an engineering firm in Massachusetts are working on a project to better protect whales – by monitoring them from space.

The New England Aquarium, based in Boston, and Draper, a firm based in nearby Cambridge, say new and higher-tech solutions are needed in order to protect whales from extinction. So they are using data from sources such as satellites, sonar and radar to keep a closer eye on how many whales are in the ocean.

A project involving complex data and surveillance has an easy to understand name: Counting Whales From Space. But John Irvine, chief scientist for data analytics at Draper, said that was the only simple thing about the project.

 “If whales are moving out of one area and into another,” Irving said, “what’s the reason for that? Is it due to ocean warming? Is it changes in commercial shipping lanes? These are all questions we’ll be able to start answering once we have the data.”

The work will involve gathering data from sources ranging from European space agencies to amateur radio operators, in order to create a probability map of where in the ocean the whales might be, Irvine said. Conservation groups will then be able to monitor whales and their movements, he said.

The aquarium and Draper have committed a combined $1m to the project, which is expected to develop over several years.

Thursday 27 February 2020

Florida: $20,000 reward offered after two dolphins found stabbed or shot dead

Officials say dolphins had what looked like bullet wounds
Dead mammals found in waters off Naples and Pensacola

Associated Press in St Petersburg

Tue 11 Feb 2020 22.32 GMTLast modified on Tue 11 Feb 2020 22.42 GMT

US federal authorities have offered a reward of up to $20,000 after two dolphins were found with gruesome and life-ending injuries along Florida’s Gulf coast in recent weeks.

According to the Florida fish and wildlife conservation commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one dolphin was discovered dead in waters off Naples in south-west Florida late last week. Officials said the animal had received bullet, or stab wounds – or possibly both.

Also last week, the Emerald Coast wildlife refuge found a dolphin with a bullet in its left side along Pensacola Beach in the Florida Panhandle.

Experts believe the two deaths might have stemmed from humans feeding the animals. When dolphins learn to associate people and boats with food, they can expose themselves to dangerous situations.

Scientists explain why naked mole-rats' longevity contradicts accepted aging theory

FEBRUARY 10, 2020
Dr. Chen Hou and his research collaborators have found an answer to the decades-old question of why naked mole-rats with high oxidative damage live 10 times longer than mice of comparative weight.
"The long lifespan of the East African naked mole-rats raises one of the most serious paradoxes in the study of aging," says Hou, an associate professor of biological sciences at Missouri S&T. "And geriatric researchers are asking if the oxidative stress theory is dead."
The widely accepted theory of aging is based on a negative correlation between oxidative stress and animal lifespan. This theory posits that aging occurs because of accumulated cellular damage caused by the byproducts of oxidative metabolism—or the way we burn oxygen to produce energy. When a certain threshold of oxidative damage is reached, animals will die.
"We've observed the correlation between damage level and lifespan is the dynamic process of damage accumulation, which is largely determined by the animal's growth and metabolism," says Hou. "Besides offering a simple explanation to the 'naked mole-rats paradox' that has puzzled scientists for years, our results provide a starting point for new comparative aging studies."
To explain the contradiction, the researchers developed a data-based theoretical model that estimates oxidative damage accumulation with age. Their model highlights a tradeoff between the metabolic energy cost of growth versus damage repair. The tested hypothesis is if animals expend too much energy on growth, less will be available to repair their oxidative damage, which will accumulate. It also suggests that high metabolism leads to faster damage accumulation.

Half-a-million insect species face extinction: scientists

FEBRUARY 10, 2020
by Marlowe Hood
The disappearance of bugs that fly, crawl, burrow, jump and walk on water is part of a gathering mass extinction event
Half of the one million animal and plant species on Earth facing extinction are insects, and their disappearance could be catastrophic for humankind, scientists have said in a "warning to humanity".
"The current insect extinction crisis is deeply worrying," said Pedro Cardoso, a biologist at the Finnish Museum of Natural History and lead author of a review study published Monday.
"Yet, what we know is only the tip of the iceberg," he told AFP.
The disappearance of bugs that fly, crawl, burrow, jump and walk on water is part of a gathering mass extinction event, only the sixth in the last half-billion years.
The last one was 66 million years ago, when an errant space rock wiped out land-based dinosaurs and most other life forms.
This time we are to blame.
"Human activity is responsible for almost all insect population declines and extinctions," Cardoso told AFP.
The main drivers are dwindling and degraded habitat, followed by pollutants—especially insecticides—and invasive species.
Over-exploitation—more than 2,000 species of insects are part of the human diet—and climate change are also taking a toll.
The decline of butterflies, beetles, ants, bees, wasps, flies, crickets and dragonflies has consequences far beyond their own demise.
"With insect extinction, we lose much more than species," Cardoso said.
"Many insect species are vital providers of services that are irreplaceable," including pollination, nutrient cycling and pest control.

Endangered Himalayan Salamander In Crisis (considered one of the most primitive species among living Salamanders) – via Herp Digest

Ganga Parajuli, ILAM: The endangered Himalyan Salamander is on the verge of extinction due to the growing human encroachment in its habitat, use of pesticides in cereal crops and its trafficking.

The Himalayan Newt Tylototriton verrucosusis considered one of the most primitive species among living Salamanders. It lives in water and wetland areas.

The locals also call this amphibian as ‘Pani Kukur (water dog)’. It is light brown in colour. As per a study conducted in 2004, the Himalayan newt which is in the IUCN red list is found in Ilam, Panchthar and Taplejung of Nepal. It is also found in India, China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Thailand. However, biologists have not been able to determine its population.

Another study done in the period from 1980 to 2000 showed that the Himalayan newt is highly endangered due to deforestation, human encroachment and use of harmful pesticides in cereals. Although this species is highly in danger, no initiation has been taken so far to protect it.

Found at an altitude of 1,000 to 3,000 metres, the Himalayan Salamander lives in forest full of lichen, fresh water bodies, ponds, wetland and water sources, according to KR Khumbu, a doctor who has studied this animal. It hibernates during winter and is seen in the summer.

It is stated in the study that the local communities kill the Himalayan salamander for making medicines out of its body parts and it is used for killing fish in Myanmar. Kamal Mukhiya of Maipokhari in Ilam said that this amphibian is used as medicine for back pain.

Researchers have pointed out that smuggling of this amphibian is also increasing from Nepal as its demand for domestication is increasing in the world. The male of the species is 15.3 centimetres while the female is16.4 centimetres long, as per a study conducted in 2004 by Haz and Duty. The study pointed out that the Himalayan salamander will become extinct from Nepal if steps were not taken for its conservation. Another study on it was conducted in the Maipokhari of Ilam in 2016. Even children kill the animal.

The study also showed that the population of Himalayan salamander is declining due to the pollution of the wetlands, water sources and water bodies resulting from the rampant infrastructure construction going on these days. Another reason for decline in its population in Darjeeling area is the expansion of tea plantation, development of tourism areas and building construction and rapid urbanization.

Although the non-governmental organizations have been conducting awareness raising programmes on the protection of Himalayan salamander, these efforts are not adequate. There are no programmes for its conservation from the government side.

Chief administrative officer of Sandakpur Rural Municipality in Ilam, Mahesh Rai said initiatives are being taken from at the rural municipality level for conservation of the Himalayan salamander in and around Maipokhari area, a major habitat of this species. Maipokhari is the first Ramsar site in Ilam. He said efforts are also underway to protect this species of salamander in other habitats in the district as well.

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Proper etiquette in the presence of bison

FEBRUARY 10, 2020
by Bianca Stefanut, WWF
Since the start of the Life Bison Project in 2016, 56 bison have been translocated from Germany and Poland—55 to reintroduction areas and one to the breeding center in Hunedoara. The bison roam freely at two main reintroduction sites in the Țarcu and Poiana Ruscă Mountains of Romania. These areas comprise one of Europe's largest wilderness areas and encompass 4 national parks and 1 natural park, totaling about 300,000 ha where species and the landscape benefit from their protected status.
However, the animals do not recognize the boundaries and borders that humans draw on maps. Therefore, when rewilding leads to the recovery of wildlife populations—either naturally, or through reintroductions—it is critical to employ measures that promote human-wildlife co-existence. Maintaining harmonious relations between humans and reintroduced European bison is the aim of a new animation produced by the Rewilding Southern Carpathians team and WWF-Romania with the talented artists at Animation Worksheep.
The bison reintroduction to the landscape after a 200 year absence, just like the sturgeon, is an excellent example of our regional strategies to implement the New Deal for Nature and People. The project can help us achieve the zero-half-zero goals by lessening the impact on natural resources and increasing biodiversity in the Southern Carpathians. Through the education and support of the local community, not only is the ecological footprint reduced, but the ecosystem services gained by the reinvigorated protected areas have led to ecotourism and sustainable development benefiting the local economy. More than 100 families are benefiting from the resulting ecotourism packages; goods and services based on the presence of the bison, such as souvenirs and experiences that over 700 tourists enjoy annually.

Beloved Colombian hippos pose environmental dilemma

FEBRUARY 11, 2020
by Angela Nicoletti, Florida International University
At dusk, the street lights flicker on around a city park, located not far from the Magdalena River in Colombia. An enormous figure emerges from the shadows. It lumbers forward, stopping to graze on the grass. The scene verges on surreal: A hippopotamus—in South America.
This is not the only one. An estimated 50 hippos, which are native to Africa, have made Colombia their home. That number is likely to grow. More hippos could mean more problems, especially for the Magdalena River—Colombia's largest and most important river system. Traveling almost the entire length of the country, the river supports the livelihoods of more than half of Colombia's population.
In the first ever study of its kind, Florida International University (FIU) Assistant Professor Elizabeth Anderson and an international research team warn this number could skyrocket to anywhere between 400—800 hippos by 2050.
"The ecological impact grows as the number of hippos grows," Anderson said.
The hippos in Colombia have long fascinated people around the world. They are the descendants of four hippos imported by drug trafficker Pablo Escobar for his private collection of exotic animals. After he was killed in a 1993 shootout with Colombian national police, all of the animals were seized and taken to zoos. Except the hippos. Weighing thousands of pounds, they proved too difficult to transport. Abandoned, they spread along the Magdalena River and multiplied.
To understand the impact the hippos could have in Colombia, the researchers looked at how they interact and shape the environment in Africa. Spending the majority of their time in the water, hippos only venture onto land when they are hungry. When they do, they tend to eat a lot of grass. Then, they digest it. One hippos can produce up to 13 pounds of waste each day, which alters the nutrient levels of the river. This has a domino effect on other species and can even result in massive fish kills.

Cluster of sharks in one spot off Carolinas coast grows more intense

FEBRUARY 11, 2020

by Mark Price

The clustering of great white sharks off the Carolinas coast is growing more pronounced and mysterious, based on satellite tracking data shared Saturday on social media.

Eight tagged great white sharks are now practically on top of each other along the border of North and South Carolina—and they represent the only sharks currently tracking along the East Coast, according to a map posted on Facebook by OCEARCH.

"What do you think could be causing this big gap in where white sharks are pinging right now," the nonprofit asked in its post. "There are pings in the Gulf of Mexico and then a big grouping in North Carolina/South Carolina but none in the middle."

Researchers began noticing a convergence of great white sharks off the Carolinas in late January, but the group was more spread out.

Now the sharks are exhibiting a clear preference for the same spot off Southport, near Wilmington, the data shows.

Beavers cut flooding and pollution and boost wildlife populations

Five-year study of animals in Devon finds measurable benefits to wildlife and people

Mon 17 Feb 2020 07.00 GMT

Beavers have alleviated flooding, reduced pollution and boosted populations of fish, amphibians and other wildlife, according to a five-year study of wild-living animals in Devon.

The report, which will help the government decide whether to allow wild beavers to return to England after being hunted to extinction more than 400 years ago, concludes that the species has brought measurable benefits to wildlife and people.

The study, by a team of scientists overseen by Prof Richard Brazier of the University of Exeter, concludes that beavers’ quantifiable benefits on the River Otter, including eco-tourism and “ecosystem services” such as flood alleviation, outweigh costs such as the minor flooding of some farmland.

Monday 24 February 2020

Why the goby can conquer the waters of the world

FEBRUARY 11, 2020

The round goby, one of the most common invasive freshwater fish in the world, boasts a particularly robust immune system, which could be one of the reasons for its excellent adaptability. This is the result of genome research by an international team of biologists, coordinated at the University of Basel and published in the journal BMC Biology.

With its stocky, spotted body, big eyes and large mouth, the round goby (Neogobius melanostomus) may not be the most attractive of aquatic creatures, but it is one of the most successful invasive species of fish. Within a few years, it has spread rapidly around the world. Usually introduced via the ballast water from ships, the fish has now become the dominant species in terms of numbers in various fresh and salt waters. Its marked ability to adapt to new environments is apparently related to its immune system, as the researchers report based on their genome analysis.

Up to 30 times more inflammation genes
For this analysis, the researchers read and assembled particularly long genome fragments from a round goby originating in Basel. Because of their length, these fragments produced an exceptionally complete genome, which was used to analyze gene families that were thought to relate to the fish's ability to deal with new environments. Here, the researchers described expansions in specific enzymes known as cytochrome P450.

Diseases spread from wildlife pose risk to livestock and humans in Alberta, scientists find

FEBRUARY 11, 2020
by Katie Willis, University of Alberta
Diseases transmitted from wildlife are a common threat to livestock and humans in Alberta, according to new research by University of Alberta biologists.
"One of the biggest risks to the livestock industry is the transmission of disease from wildlife to livestock," said Mark Boyce, an ecologist in the Department of Biological Sciences.
Boyce said the long list of diseases that occur between livestock and wildlife includes anthrax, bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis, and many species of worms such as tapeworm and roundworm.
"And in addition to infecting one another, many of the diseases that are shared by wildlife and livestock are zoonotic, meaning that they also can infect humans," he noted.
Boyce said the foothills in the southwestern part of the province are home to wild elk as well as cattle on ranchlands—and when the species intermingle, the potential for disease to spread grows.
The researchers used data gathered from GPS-collared elk combined with cattle management information from 16 cattle operations in southern Alberta to identify locations and times where the probability of disease transmission is high.
They found the highest risk occurs in winter months, when livestock and elk are in the same pastures and use the same resources.
Based on their results, the researchers developed guidelines to help producers minimize the risk of infection.
"Livestock management that minimizes the risk of contact with wildlife will reduce the risk of disease transmission," said Boyce. "This includes keeping cattle in pastures near farm buildings during winter and calving season.
"It is also important to keep mineral supplements and hay next to ranch buildings, again to reduce the contact between cattle and elk," he added.

This may be the biggest turtle that ever lived

This jaw-droppingly huge specimen is the largest known complete turtle shell on Earth.

An 8-million-year-old turtle shell unearthed in Venezuela measures nearly 8 feet (2.4 meters) long, making it the largest complete turtle shell known to science, a new study reported. 

This shell belonged to an extinct beast called Stupendemys geographicus, which lived in northern South America during the Miocene epoch, which lasted from 12 million to 5 million years ago. 

S. geographicus weighed an estimated 2,500 lbs. (1,145 kilograms), almost 100 times the size of its closest living relative, the Amazon river turtle (Peltocephalus dumerilianus), and twice the size of the largest living turtle, the marine leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), the researchers wrote in the study.

Its impressive shell makes this ancient creature "one of the largest, if not the largest turtle that ever existed," study senior researcher Marcelo Sánchez-Villagra, the director of the Paleontological Institute and Museum at the University of Zurich, said in a statement

The species likely achieved its colossal size thanks to the warm wetlands and lakes in its habitat, Sánchez noted.

Rare bats in decline

Date: February 14, 2020
Source: City College of New York

A study led by Susan Tsang, a former Fulbright Research Fellow from The City College of New York, reveals dwindling populations and widespread hunting throughout Indonesia and the Philippines of the world's largest bats, known as flying foxes.

Unfortunately, hunting not only depletes the flying foxes, which are already rare, but also potentially exposes humans to animal-borne pathogens (a process known as zoonosis). "For instance, the current case of Wuhan Coronavirus is thought to have been spread from wild bats to humans through an intermediate host at a wildlife market," said CCNY biologist and Tsang's mentor David J. Lohman, an entomologist and two-time Fulbright recipient.

The CCNY experts found that flying foxes originated in a group of islands in Indonesia called Wallacea. They diversified into different species by flying to other islands that presumably lacked competitors and established themselves. Thus, islands are critical to the evolution and conservation of this large group of around 65 mammal species.

"This study provides insight into biodiversity conservation and public health. Islands are frequently home to endemic species found nowhere else," noted Tsang, who earned a PhD in biology from the Graduate Center, CUNY.

Sunday 23 February 2020

World’s largest rattlesnakes are dying off, but Columbia’s zoo is trying to save them – via Herp Digest

By Noah Feit, 12/30/19, The State, South Carolina
Go to, home page for various videos and photos.

Such as a video of a rattlesnake swimming in the Florida Keys.

Ted Wilson, a captain with the Islamorada Fishing Guide, came across a five-foot Eastern diamondback rattlesnake swimming in the waters near the Florida Keys. The Eastern diamondback is the heaviest though not the longest venomous snake in the Ame by McClatchy

Ted Wilson, a captain with the Islamorada Fishing Guide, came across a five-foot Eastern diamondback rattlesnake swimming in the waters near the Florida Keys. The Eastern diamondback is the heaviest though not the longest venomous snake in the Ame by McClatchy
The world’s largest rattlesnakes can be found in South Carolina, but the eastern diamondback’s population is declining

While this might seem like good news to people afraid of snakes, officials at Riverbanks Zoo disagree.

In fact the Columbia zoo is teaming up with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to help stave off the trend and better support remaining eastern diamondback rattlesnakes.

The zoo said it is collaborating with DNR to conduct research on diamondback rattlesnake populations in South Carolina.

Once fairly common, populations of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes have declined dramatically. 

Riverbanks is helping the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources conduct research on diamondback populations in this state. The goal is to attempt to learn enough about the biology and natural history of these snakes to allow us to manage the remaining populations, and prevent us from losing a part of our natural heritage, and a potentially important component of the long-leaf pine ecosystem.

The goal of the study is to learn about the biology and natural history of the snakes, according to the zoo. That would allow researchers to better manage the remaining populations, and prevent eastern diamondbacks from dwindling to the point of extinction, zoo officials said.

While the population is dwindling, the rattlesnakes are in the category of “Least Concern,” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List for threatened species.

Still, the zoo contends the declining population is a threat to “our natural heritage, and a potentially important component of the long-leaf pine ecosystem.”

The snakes are valuable to humans because they are natural exterminators that preys on household pests, the Florida Museum reported. Their prey includes rats, mice, rabbits, squirrels and birds, according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

The snakes are threatened by indiscriminate killing in rattlesnake roundups, widespread loss of habitat from development, and hunting,” according to National Geographic. Agriculture and changes in forestry practices have also been a factor in the population decline, according to the zoo.

The eastern diamondback is found in the Southeast, from North Carolina to south Florida, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In South Carolina, the rattlesnakes are most commonly located from the eastern Midlands to the coast, including the Lowcountry and Grand Strand regions, the organization said.

The snake’s average length is between 3 to 6 feet, but some grow as large as 8 feet, according to the Smithsonian.

The rattlesnake can strike as far as two-thirds of its body length, and it “tends to release a lot of venom with each bite, making it a very deadly snake,” the Smithsonian said.

The bites are “extremely painful and can be fatal to humans,” according to National Geographic.

According to the University of Florida’s Department of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation, the odds of dying from a snake bite in the U.S. are 1-in-50 million, which is about five or six deaths a year. More people die on an average annual basis from spider bites; dog attacks; hornet, wasp or bee stings; and lightning strikes than snake bites, the university said.

In spite of those statistics, at least two Southerners died after snake bites in May this year.

Oliver “Chum” Baker was an Alabama man who died days after he was bitten by a snake over Memorial Day weekend, The State reported. The 52-year-old was unconscious minutes after he was bitten by a copperhead, according to The State.

Georgia resident Priscilla Meridith died in June, weeks after a Timber rattlesnake bit the 62-year-old as she attempted to sit down in a garden, The State reported.

In 2016, Columbia-area conservationist Wayne M. Grooms died after suffering a rattlesnake bite at a Clarendon County wildlife preserve, according to The State. Grooms died within 15 minutes of the snake bite at Santee National Wildlife Refuge.

While there is mixed reaction to the snakes, feedback on Riverbanks’ posts have been supportive of the effort.
“Keep up the great work, Riverbanks! Despite not being a fan of snakes, I completely understand their importance to the environment and appreciate what you are doing to help them,” one comment said.

Another person said “Thanks, Riverbanks, for all you do to keep these handsome guys in our lives!”

Eastern diamondbacks are on display at the zoo’s Aquarium Reptile Complex. Other snakes housed there include king cobras and green mambas.

Video- Venomous or harmless? How to tell the difference between Carolina snakes

The snakes are coming out for the spring season in the Carolinas. Watch how to tell the difference between a deadly cottonmouth snake and a nonvenomous rat snake in this video.

Scientists unexpectedly witness wolf puppies play fetch

Date: January 16, 2020
Source: Cell Press 

When it comes to playing a game of fetch, many dogs are naturals. But now, researchers report that the remarkable ability to interpret human social communicative cues that enables a dog to go for a ball and then bring it back also exists in wolves. The study appears January 16 in the journal iScience.

The findings were made serendipitously when researchers tested 13 wolf puppies from three different litters in a behavioral test battery designed to assess various behaviors in young dog puppies. During this series of tests, three 8-week-old wolf puppies spontaneously showed interest in a ball and returned it to a perfect stranger upon encouragement. The discovery comes as a surprise because it had been hypothesized that the cognitive abilities necessary to understand cues given by a human, such as those required for a game of fetch, arose in dogs only after humans domesticated them at least 15,000 years ago.

"When I saw the first wolf puppy retrieving the ball I literally got goose bumps," says Christina Hansen Wheat of Stockholm University, Sweden. "It was so unexpected, and I immediately knew that this meant that if variation in human-directed play behavior exists in wolves, this behavior could have been a potential target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication."

Polar bears in Baffin Bay skinnier, having fewer cubs due to less sea ice

Date: February 12, 2020
Source: University of Washington

Polar bears are spending more time on land than they did in the 1990s due to reduced sea ice, new University of Washington-led research shows. Bears in Baffin Bay are getting thinner and adult females are having fewer cubs than when sea ice was more available.

The new study, recently published in Ecological Applications, includes satellite tracking and visual monitoring of polar bears in the 1990s compared with more recent years.

"Climate-induced changes in the Arctic are clearly affecting polar bears," said lead author Kristin Laidre, a UW associate professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. "They are an icon of climate change, but they're also an early indicator of climate change because they are so dependent on sea ice."

The international research team focused on a subpopulation of polar bears around Baffin Bay, the large expanse of ocean between northeastern Canada and Greenland. The team tracked adult female polar bears' movements and assessed litter sizes and the general health of this subpopulation between the 1990s and the period from 2009 to 2015.

Polar bears' movements generally follow the annual growth and retreat of sea ice. In early fall, when sea ice is at its minimum, these bears end up on Baffin Island, on the west side of the bay. They wait on land until winter when they can venture out again onto the sea ice.

The Orange Cave Crocodiles Of Gabon Are Evolving Into A Completely New Species – via Herp Digest

December 31, 2019 by Nancy Youm, Gentside

Crocodiles are evolving into a new species right in front of our eyes. These huge orange beasts that live in the caves of Gabon have developed DNA that is different from that of their surface-dwelling peers.

The Abanda cave is not a place you want to live unless you enjoy total obscurity, high temperatures, foul-smelling vapours and soil that is covered with a thick layer of guano (bat faeces). An environment that speleologists had to explore to uncover a treasure: a new species of crocodiles, hard proof of nature's adaptability.

An inhospitable environment

"It looks like liquid mud," scientist Olivier Testa told National Geographic of the substance that covers the surface of the cave, "... but it's not mud." This pasty substance is guano. Tons and tons of guano mixed with the cave's water, forming a pool of bats faeces.

"It's a particularly demanding environment," says herpetologist Matthew Shirley. But the crocodiles that live there - a bright orange species that is almost blind and resembles the Osteolaemus tetraspis, their surface-dwelling cousins - don't seem to mind. According to the scientists, these crocodiles get their colour from guano, which they bathe in throughout their underground life.

"Bat guano is largely comprised of urea," says Shirley. "When they're sitting in this bat guano slushie, we think the highly basic pH water is tanning their skin." The cave crocodiles' diet is also different from other species': in the cave, they mainly feed on bats, whereas other crocodiles eat fish and shellfish.

Two different species?

But there's an even more striking difference between these two types of crocodiles that were originally the same species. According to Shirley, the cave population has developed its own genetic signature, which is different from that of Osteolaemus tetraspis. To confirm this hypothesis, the team collected blood samples from about 40 underground crocodiles and 200 from those living in broad daylight.

The results of the genetic analysis revealed that orange crocodiles were endowed with a unique haplotype, a group of genes that are close to each other on the same chromosome and are passed down together. These genetically linked alleles suggest that cave crocodiles are progressively becoming genetically distinct from surface-dwelling crocodiles.

The team's article is still under review. "As a result of that isolation and the fact that few individuals come in or go out, they're in the process of [becoming] a new species," says Shirley."Whether that happens soon or not is anyone's guess." It remains to be seen how these animals reproduce.

Too big to get out

The smaller crocodiles can easily venture outside of the caves. But it looks like the larger ones are actually unable to get out. So, they have two options: they can either stop reproducing altogether or nest inside the caves - a case that, so far, has never been documented. Crocodiles generally need vegetation for their eggs, a resource that is unavailable in the depths of the underground habitat.

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