Category Archives: Animals

At long last, scientists find a true millipede that has 1,000 legs (more actually)

Credit: Pixabay.

Millipedes are often called 1,000-legged worms. While it’s true that no other creature has as many legs as a millipede, the term is a misnomer since among the more than 7,000 species we know, the leggiest one only numbers about 750 appendages — until now, that is. Biologists in Australia claim they’ve now identified the first true millipede with more than 1,000 legs. Actually, that’s 1,306 tiny legs, to be more precise.

The new species, dubbed Eumillipes persephone after Persephone, the queen of the underworld in Greek mythology, was discovered crawling through the soil deep underground.

Scientists who specialize in millipedes, known as diplopodologists, had always hoped to find one that honors the name but until now they were out of luck. The previous record-holder with a leg-count of 750 had remained undefeated for a hundred years.

But then in the summer of 2020, while most of us were cooped up at home under COVID lockdown, Bruno Buzatto, principal biologist at Bennelongia Environmental Consultants in Western Australia, happened to find E. persephone inside a borehole, of all places, drilled at a mineral-mining site in Western Australia. The site is almost 60 meters (200 feet) below the surface, making the newly found species the deepest-living millipede.

Eumillipes persephone. Credit: Scientific Reports.

Buzatto sent specimens to Paul Marek, an entomologist at Virginia Tech and one of the world’s foremost experts on millipedes, having discovered over 60 species in his career. At Marek’s lab, a careful examination was performed, including electron microscopy and DNA sequencing. Of course, they also counted the legs, finding a female had a record 1,306 limbs while a male had 998, frustratingly close to the threshold of 1,000. There was no help from computers here — the counting was all done by hand, one tiny appendage at a time.

The brown crawler measures nearly 10 centimeters (4 inches) and is about as thin as an USB cable. It has no eyes, which is actually unusual for this order of animals, but since it has adapted to life underground it’s not all that surprising. E. persephone‘s environment is also responsible for the creature’s lack of pigmentation, another remarkable feature which is exceedingly rare among millipedes.

The many legs of Eumillipes persephone under an electron microscope. Credit: Scientific Reports.

The only other millipede that looks similar is Illacma plenipes, an invertebrate native to California and the previous-record holder with 750 legs. As such, the entomologists believe the two creatures are an example of convergent evolution — the process whereby distantly related organisms independently evolve similar traits to adapt to similar necessities.

Based on his earlier work with other similar creatures, Marek believes that all those years of evolving underground fostered super-elongation and shorter legs that help the millipede burrow through soil efficiently. Going from one place to another is critical to E. persephone‘s survival as nutrients are in low supply in the underworld, so having more, shorter legs provides additional propulsion power.

And as amazing as the discovery of E. persephone may be, it’s worth pointing out how lucky the researchers were.

“I don’t think we would have ever known about this had it not been for the mineral exploration that’s occurring,” Dennis Black, the millipede expert from LaTrobe and a co-author on the study, told CNet.

Now the researchers are wondering whether a millipede with even more legs could be found. The likeliest place to look for one is underground, places like the site from Western Australia that E. persephone calls home. Very long millipedes are easy targets for predators, so only those living deep underground would stand a chance. But for this reason, they’re also the hardest to spot by entomologists.

The findings appeared in the journal Scientific Reports.

Solar parks could act as life rafts for bumblebees and other pollinators

Bees around the world are struggling under habitat loss; solar parks could provide a safe haven, according to new research.

Image credits Josef Pichler.

Researchers at Lancaster University have used computer modeling to investigate how different management scenarios of solar parks could help provide a home for ground-nesting bumblebees. The results are quite encouraging, the team explains, showcasing that solar parks can help maintain significant populations of bumblebees both inside their bounds and in their surroundings.

Although the research focused on bumblebees, the authors are confident that the findings translate over to other pollinators as well.

Solar neighborhoods

“Renewable energy development is projected to grow and solar is predicted to lead the way. Solar parks have a high land take per unit of energy produced and this will lead to significant land use change in the future,” says Hollie Blaydes, PhD student and Associate Lecturer at the Lancaster Environment Centre, lead author of the paper, in an email for ZME Science.

“Understanding of the environmental impacts of this land use change is only just emerging, but there is scope to incorporate environmental benefits into the energy transition. One potential benefit is the creation of pollinator habitat within solar parks.”

For the study, the team used computer models that simulated bumblebee foraging behavior across the UK’s solar parks. From there, they examined how different management strategies (each offering varying degrees of resources for the insects) would influence their numbers and activity. They then used statistical analyses to investigate differences in bumblebee density and nest density across the different solar parks in the model.

Managing solar parks as meadows, they explain, would make the most resources available to bumblebees, and could support populations four times as large as solar parks as solar parks with only grassland and no flowers. The changes required to transition solar parks from grass to meadows are quite simple and could provide significant benefits for pollinators across the country — in addition to generating clean energy.

Larger, more elongated, and more resource-rich solar parks (i.e. with more flowers) could help increase bumblebee density up to 1 km outside of their bounds, the team found. This means that well-managed solar parks could act as hotspots, delivering pollinator services to crops in nearby agricultural lands.

“Pollinator habitat has already been established within some solar parks, but there is little evidence of how effective this is and how pollinators respond,” Blaydes added for ZME Science. “This knowledge gap inspired us to perform this research and by doing so we have provided some of the first evidence to suggest that creating suitable habitat on solar parks could be an effective way to support bumblebee populations.”

Solar parks in the UK are often located within areas where intensive agriculture is practiced. This makes them ideally suited as bumblebee refuges, the team explains. Further increasing their potential in this regard is that the total land area used as solar parks in the UK is increasing steadily as more and more of the country’s energy demands are covered by solar panels.

The UK currently has around 14,000 hectares, which is projected to increase to 90,300 hectares as part of the UK’s plan to meet net zero-emission targets. All that space can be put to good use in the service of pollinators.

However, the path forward is not really clear-cut. Solar park management is often outsourced on contracts that typically last around two years at a time. This can make it hard to plan management strategies for the long term, as each new company will need to adapt to and maintain the habits they inherit.

“The creation of floral-rich habitat on solar parks is likely to benefit a wide range of pollinators. In this study, we focused only on ground-nesting bumblebees given they are a key pollinator of agricultural crops in the UK. Other pollinator groups rely on similar resources to ground-nesting bumblebees, but differences in flight ranges and foraging patterns means that a slightly different modelling approach would be needed to test solar park management and design options for these groups,” Blaydes adds for ZME Science.

Besides offering huge economic benefits for farmers and society as a whole by harboring bumblebees which would handle the pollination of crops. Pollinators the world over are struggling, and spaces such as solar parks could provide veritable lifeboats for these species, who are under pressure from habitat destruction, pesticides, pollution, and dwindling food supplies.

“Solar parks could act as safe havens for bumblebees and other pollinators if managed appropriately. Our study found that solar parks providing the most foraging and nesting resources were most effective at boosting bumblebee numbers both inside the solar park and in the surroundings,” Blaydes adds for ZME Science. “This suggests that resource-rich solar parks could be used as a conservation tool to help address drivers of bumblebee decline and that there could be implications for pollination to crops and wild plants in the surrounding land.”

Hollie Blaydes will present the work at Ecology Across Borders’ Annual Meeting, 2021. This study is unpublished and is currently under review. Original story here.

Sea lion whiskers can move like human fingertips: here’s how we found out

Credit: Pixabay.

Humans have amazing fingertips. They are sensitive and can be moved over objects to feel its softness, texture, size and shape. These movements are both complex, and “task-specific”. This means that you adopt different movements depending on what you want to feel about an object. We squeeze or push objects to judge softness, and feel around the edges of objects to judge size and shape. And if you wanted to feel the texture of an object, you would sweep your fingertips over the surface.

Being able to adopt different movement strategies shows that we can precisely control our fingertip movements and draw on our past experiences in order to pay attention to important aspects of an object – the edges of shapes and the surfaces of textures, for example. This means that we have a high level of control over our sensory perception, and we call this active touch sensing.

Touch sensing in mammals

Most mammals do not have as moveable or sensitive fingertips as humans. Instead they have whiskers, which are touch sensitive hairs on their faces, and used to guide locomotion, foraging for food and to explore objects.

Neuroscientists have been studying whiskers for decades, especially in laboratory rats and mice, trying to understand how signals from the whiskers are processed in the brain. But only now are we realising that whiskers are also moved with amazing strategies, just like our fingers.

Rats, mice, and some other mammals, can move their whiskers in a to-and-fro scanning motion called “whisking”. Whisking is one of the fastest movements that mammals can make, occurring up to 25 times per second in mice.

When rats and mice contact objects they also adopt other whisker movements. These include bunching up their whiskers to make more of them touch a surface, making light touches to enable clearer signals against a surface, and slowing down whisker movements so they contact the surface for longer.

But no one knew whether animals could adapt their whisker movements specifically for different tasks.

Such “task-specific” movements would be an exciting discovery as it would indicate a precise level of control over their sensors and perception.

Choosing a candidate species

The first step in answering this important question was to choose a likely candidate species for our investigation.

Pinnipeds, including seals, sea lions and walruses, have whiskers that are particularly thick and long, making them easier to measure than those of smaller mammals such as mice.

They also have some of the most sensitive whiskers of any mammal – they can detect textures and shapes to the same sensitivity as human fingertips, even in cold water when our fingers would go numb.

They are also moveable. We have previously found that California sea lions make the largest and most controlled movements with their whiskers, when compared to harbour seals and Pacific walruses.

Those factors, plus their ability to perform object-discrimination tasks – where they could distinguish between objects based on size and shape – made California sea lions the ideal subject for our investigation on task-specific whisker movements.

Our work with Lo

For our study we used a sea lion, Lo, for the full complement of experiments. Having only one individual is common in marine mammal studies, but it does put pressure on the investigators to collect good quality and highly quantitative data from that one individual.

Lo was trained to complete a texture-discrimination task using only her whiskers.

She had to find a medium-textured, fish-shaped object among other distractor fish. She also completed a size-discrimination task of finding a medium-sized fish amongst other distractors, and a visual task of finding a grey fish amongst other coloured distractors (sea lions use very small whisker movements in visual tasks).

Lo was filmed doing the tasks thousands of times, and her whisker and head positions were tracked in the video footage.

Looking at the data and the video footage it was clear that Lo made task-specific movements with her whiskers. She made sweeping movements over textured surfaces, and felt around the edges of the different sized shapes. These specific movement strategies are also used by humans with our fingertips.

The sea lion, Lo, participating in different tasks for this study.

The ability to switch whisker exploration strategies between tactile tasks enabled Lo to complete the tasks efficiently. Lo found the correct fish in almost all trials and made decisions quickly, in under half a second. Video footage of the other sea lions also showed them employing the same strategies, so we think that this might be common among California sea lions in general.

And now other animals

Seeing the same movement strategies conserved from sea lion whisker movements to human fingertip movements showcases how important these strategies are for improving touch signals across different tasks.

It is likely that other species of Pinniped will be able to make task-specific whisker movements, since they also have sensitive, moveable whiskers. We are investigating this now, along with other species of carnivores, such as otters.

This is the first time that task-specific whisker touch sensing has been documented. It demonstrates that studying whiskers can give us important insights into animal movement control, as well as their perception and cognition.The Conversation

Robyn Grant, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Physiology & Behaviour, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

No males required: Two California condors had “virgin births”

Researchers were stunned to learn that two female California condors, a critically endangered bird, reproduced without the help of males. This type of reproduction (formally called parthenogenesis or asexual reproduction) is extremely uncommon in birds.

California condor Credits: Chuck Szmurlo.

According to Christian myth, Jesus had no biological father and was conceived through virgin birth. In the animal world, that wouldn’t be as striking. Parthenogenesis occurs naturally in some groups of creatures, including plants, worms, scorpions, bees, amphibians, and some reptiles. It can also happen in some birds, but it’s very rare.

So when routine genetic screenings of captive birds suggested that two male chicks had no father DNA, it came as a shock. To make things even more surprising, males were present around the females at the time — oftentimes, parthenogenesis occurs when there are no males for reproduction around. This is the first time this was discovered in any bird species where the female bird had access to a mate.

“This is truly an amazing discovery,” Oliver Ryder, study co-author and director of conservation genetics at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA), where the study was carried out, said in a statement.

“We were not exactly looking for evidence of parthenogenesis, it just hit us in the face. We only confirmed it because of the normal genetic studies we do to prove parentage.”

Historically, confirming parthenogenesis was very challenging, but as genetic analysis has become cheaper and more readily available, our understanding of this process has also improved. Researchers now suspect that other species may also employ this type of reproduction but we just haven’t seen them yet.

Parthenogenesis is sometimes regarded as a last-ditch survival mechanism when there are not enough males around for reproduction (or meeting up with males would just take too much effort).

However, it also comes at a disadvantage, as there is no genetic variation — it’s essentially a type of cloning. Since males were around at the time of the condor parthenogenesis, this doesn’t appear to be the case here, and it’s not exactly clear why the strategy has been employed by two females. Both have since also reproduced sexually.

“We believe that our findings represent the first instance of facultative avian parthenogenesis in a wild bird species, where both a male and a female are housed together,” said Cynthia Steiner, associate director for the conservation research division at SDZWA, and co-author of the study. “Still, unlike other examples of avian parthenogenesis, these two occurrences are not explained by the absence of a suitable male.”

In the 1980s, California condors were almost driven to extinction, and only a handful of birds remained in the wild. Thanks to conservation efforts, their numbers have been boosted to around 500 birds, but the condors are not out of the woods yet, and are still considered critically endangered. Californian condors are the largest bird species in North America (with a wingspan of 2.5-3 meters or 8.2-9.8 feet).

Horses remember their keepers’ faces and are probably smarter than you think

Image credits: Helena Lopes.

We recognize familiar things in many ways. The sense we use most often is our vision, but we can also recall a familiar sound, scent, and even touch. Animals use their senses in different ways. Dogs, for instance, smell you rather than see you. For cats, smell is also the primary way they identify people. But we don’t know that much about how — or even if — horses recognize people.

According to a new study, not only do horses recognize familiar human faces, but they also remember them for at least a few months. Ethologist (someone who studies animal behavior) Léa Lansade of the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment wanted to see how good horses are at recognizing humans from photographs. In order to do this, she and her colleagues first had to teach horses to choose between two side-by-side images on a computer screen. The horses would touch their noses on one of the computer screens to make a choice.

The photos included people the horses had never seen before, as well as photos of their current keeper along with other humans the horses didn’t know. It didn’t always work, but horses identified their keeper in 75% of cases — much better than chance. Even more intriguing, horses also picked photos of their previous keeper, which they hadn’t seen in six months, also with 75% accuracy. This suggests that the horses have a pretty good memory and were equally likely to recognize their current and previous keeper.

This 75% rate is more impressive than it seems — it’s better than what dogs can do. The findings also suggest that horses intuitively understand that photos are 2D representations of people.

For animals, recognizing friends and familiar faces is even more important than in humans, because it tells them whether they need to be on guard (an unfamiliar face may indicate danger) or whether they can relax. Horses are social creatures — they use vocalizations and body language to communicate to members of their herd — so it makes sense that they can distinguish between other horses, but the fact that they can distinguish between people from photographs hadn’t been proven.

Horses have been domesticated more than 5,000 years ago, so it makes sense that they’ve become somewhat attuned to humans. Previous studies have found that horses can read and recognize human emotions and moods and remember them, so this study also makes sense. However, it’s interesting that the horses only seem to recognize their keepers in 75% of the cases — far too high to be mere chance, but also quite a bit off from 100%. This remains a dilemma for future research.

The study has been published in Scientific Reports.

Hydroelectric dams are taking over jaguar and tiger habitats

Over one in five tigers (Panthera tigris) worldwide have been affected by the expansion of hydroelectric dams around the world, a new study concludes. To a lesser extent, jaguars (Panthera onca) are also displaced by dams, and researchers say the problem can get much worse as more dams are planned near the habitat of jaguars and tigers. 

Image credit: Flickr / Eduardo Merille.

Large-scale dams have become a major driver of habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation worldwide — and as the world uses more and more electricity, many more dams are under work. There are 3,700 dams currently under development, especially in tropical developing countries with high levels of biodiversity. Although previous research has shown that dams can impact freshwater biodiversity, their impact on land animals has been less studied.

Now, a new study suggests that large predators on land could also be affected.

Biting their habitats 

Jaguars have seen population declines of up to 50% in some areas and are currently classified as near threatened. Tigers have disappeared from over 90% of their original range and are now classified as endangered. Both play a critical role in ecosystem functioning and face similar threats, mainly in the form of habitat loss and poaching. 

Hydropower expansion has been identified as a driver of habitat loss of jaguars and tigers, but the magnitude of this hasn’t been thoroughly examined until now. In the new study, researchers calculated the area of habitat loss and the number of individuals of both species affected by dams – using previously published data on population distribution. It was a painstaking process of piecing data together but in the end, they were able to draw a comprehensive conclusion.

Luke Gibson, a tropical biologist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in China, and his colleague Ana Filipa Palmeirim, identified a total of 164 dams overlapping the distribution of jaguars and another 421 dams intersecting the range of tigers. Of those, 282 dams intersect areas where tigers are resident, 90.7% of which are in India.

“Although jaguars and tigers are primarily affected by habitat loss and poaching, here we show that hydropower development constitutes an important driver of such habitat loss. This elevates the overall importance of preserving terrestrial habitats required to sustain populations of apex predators,” the researchers write in the study. 

Future impacts

While the scenario is already bad for both species, it could get even worse. The researchers found 10 times more dams planned within the jaguar range compared to within the distribution of tigers. Most will be built in the Amazon, the Cerrado forest, and the Andes-Amazon frontier, with 319 dams planned near jaguar habitat in Brazil. 

Hydropower dams intersecting the distribution of jaguars and tigers. Image courtesy of the researchers.

These future projects could derail recent biodiversity commitments, the researchers argue. In 2010, government ministers from 13 countries with wild tiger populations signed the St. Petersburg Declaration on Tiger Conservation through which they committed to implementing actions to double the number of wild tigers by 2022. The declaration, as well as other similar conservation plans, are seriously jeopardized under current dam-building plans.

The researchers called for strategies to mitigate the impacts of dams. These include expanding protected areas and carrying out further environmental impact assessments, with a group of independent experts. National legislation should be adapted so as to incorporate these recommendations and act on them, they argue.

“Planned hydropower projects should minimize the trade-off between biodiversity loss and electricity generation,” the researchers conclude. “Considering the potential of hydropower to meet future energy demands, we recommend a more cautious balance between electricity generation and the conservation of terrestrial habitats.”

The study was published in the journal Communications Biology. 

Deep-sea mining could push many delicate species to extinction

There are hundreds of mollusk species living in the deep sea and about two-thirds of them could face extinction if the plans to mine the seabed continue as planned, a new study reports. The findings already triggered reactions, with 184 mollusk species living near hydrothermal vents added to the global list of threatened species.

Image credit: Flickr / Klaus Stiefel

The seabed is home not only to a wide array of living organisms but also to vast amounts of commercially valuable minerals such as copper, nickel, and manganese. These are found in specific structures such as polymetallic nodules lying on the seafloor. Of course, a lot of people want to get their hands on them.

Countries and companies are currently discussing mining these deep-sea environments and their resources, as demand for minerals grows and supply is becoming scarcer. From smartphones to electric vehicles, practically every tech device needs minerals for its manufacture, and some people are increasingly looking to the sea to find new sources of minerals.

But the problem is that deep-sea mining can be devastating to the environment.

Several studies have found deep-sea mining would have adverse and irreversible effects on biodiversity, but only a few conservation measures have been implemented to date. Still, mining hasn’t officially started yet, as countries have to agree on an international mining code – which falls under the International Seabed Authority.

A group of researchers from the UK, the US, Germany, and Canada wanted to further understand the impacts of deep-sea mining on hydrothermal vents. These occupy small areas (just 50 squared kilometers of the seafloor globally) but host a multitude of unique species due to their unique environment. Mollusks are the dominant group in vents, so likely the ones to be most affected.

“As important members of the vent community, they inhabit an array of niches including hosting endosymbiotic bacteria in specialized organs, forming dense aggregations that provide substrate for other species and exhibit unique ecological traits,” the researchers wrote in their paper, referring to the role of mollusks. 

Mining vs mollusks

The researchers assessed 184 vent-endemic mollusk species from around the world and listed over 60% of them as threatened (vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered) by deep-sea mining. A further 45 species (24%) were listed as near threatened, with only 13% of all species of mollusks classified under a low level of risk. 

Among the nine biogeographical regions examined, vent-mollusks located in the Indian Ocean were considered to be under the greatest extinction risk – with all species there listed in threatened categories. This matches with the distribution of mining licenses across vent sites in the Central and Southwest Indian Ridges in the Indian Ocean. 

The researchers called for “real conservation measures” to be implemented to mitigate the effects of deep-sea mining to vent species. One approach is the implementation of marine protected areas (MPAs). In fact, the reason why some mollusk species were classified as low risk is that they are at locations with MPAs.

However, MPAs don’t necessarily guarantee the protection of biodiversity, as the outcome depends on how the protected area is managed. Simply put, classifying an area as ‘protected’ and actually ensuring it is protected are two different things, and enforcing this protection at sea can be challenging. Another possibility, the researchers said, is implementing a moratorium on deep-sea mining to allow further research into the biodiversity, resilience, and connectivity of vent communities.

Ultimately, it’s crucial that society has a real discussion about what deep-sea mining actually entails and ensure that it doesn’t just happen while the world is busy with something else. As it so often happens, this involves a balancing act between exploiting natural resources and protecting the natural environment, and we’d be wise not to merely forego the latter.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science. 

In the frigid Arctic, these foxes grow their own gardens

If you were to walk in the Arctic tundra and came across an Arctic fox den, you’d probably see it a mile away. Not because the fox itself is visible (they’re masters of disguise) or because their den is visible (it’s usually well-hidden), but because there’s a lot of green vegetation around it.

We tend to think of gardening as a truly human endeavor, but other animals may also do it — though they may not necessarily realize it. All predators provide ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling when they hunt other creatures, but in the case of Arctic foxes, the effect is more pronounced.

For starters, these foxes live in nutrient-poor areas like the Arctic tundra, so when they recycle nutrients through their prey, the effect is much stronger. But it goes even deeper.

Foxes tend to reuse their dens over multiple generations; some are hundreds of years old. This means that the effect is also amplified over multiple generations. Over time, the land around their dens become greener and greener, contrasting with the barren land around them.

Aerial photo of an Arctic fox den in Wapusk National Park, Canada, showing the contrast between the lush green vegetation around their dens and the background. For scale, a 1 × 1 m quadrat can be seen in the middle of the den. Image credits: Gharajehdaghipour et al.

For Arctic foxes, their den is their lifeline. They use it to hide prey, rear their young, and hide from predators, as well as the fierce Arctic cold and wind. In a single season, they can catch hundreds of goose eggs along with other prey.

In the rugged lands which Arctic foxes call home, bringing this many nutrients can enrich the soil. Researchers used satellites and trackers to trace this effect, documenting the greening effect that Arctic foxes have on the surrounding environment. But since GPS updates are slow (researchers received an update every 3 days) and foxes move quickly. In the end, the researchers used a fixed-wing aircraft to get a better view of this greening.

“In conclusion, our study shows that Arctic foxes engineer Arctic ecosystems on local scales,” the researchers write. “By enhancing nutrient dynamics locally, Arctic foxes could have an important role in providing ecosystem services in the Arctic tundra landscape.”

So the foxes act as engineers, or gardeners, making sure the area around their den is green and lush.

Polar foxes are often overlooked when it comes to Arctic creatures — and the Arctic itself is often overlooked as an ecosystem — but these foxes show a remarkable ability to influence the environment around them.

However, Arctic foxes are in trouble. As climate change is reducing its habitat, the Arctic fox is also losing ground to the larger red fox. In some areas of northern Europe, some programs are in place to hunt red foxes, allowing Arctic foxes to remain in place. The Arctic is nothing if not unforgiving.

The study was published in Nature.

Chickens pay the price for our large eggs: 85% of them suffer fractures

Every year, human-raised poultry produce over one trillion eggs — that’s over 80 million tons of eggs, just from chicken alone — and the figure keeps growing from year to year. Life for the egg-laying chicken is never easy, and it’s not very long either.

The problems start from their very first day of life when the males (considered unwanted surplus by the industry) are slaughtered either through a grinding machine or through asphyxiation. For the females, most will spend their life in cages, laying some 300 eggs a year (two or even three times more than they would in nature). After the first year, it’s common in the industry to slaughter the egg-laying hens, since their egg productivity tends to drop. But even in this one year which they spend alive they are not spared of pain.

According to a new study, hens selected to lay larger eggs are very prone to fractures. Based on an analysis carried out in Denmark, up to 85% of these hens suffer keel bone fractures.

Big eggs, big problems

According to Tom Vasey, chair of the British Free Range Producers’ Association, laying larger eggs is painful for the hen. Although some researchers have argued that the evidence is not conclusive, it’s not uncommon for large eggs to have bloodstains on them — a strong indicator of painful laying.

The new study looked at keel bone fractures — a major welfare problem that seems to be worsening.

“Depending on the housing system, fracture prevalences exceeding 80% have been reported from different countries. No specific causes have yet been identified and this has consequently hampered risk factor identification,” write the researchers led by Michael J.Toscano from Bern University.

The objective of the study was to investigate the prevalence of keel bone fractures in Danish layer hens and to identify risk factors in relation to this type of fracture. In total, the researchers investigated 4794 birds from 40 flocks. All flocks were 60 weeks old and had reached the so-called “end of lay” stage, where they were about to be slaughtered to prevent their egg production from declining.

The worst-off birds seemed to be the ones living in cages, although a majority of large-egg-laying birds from all setups seemed to suffer from this type of fracture.

“In flocks from non-caged systems, fracture prevalence in the range 53%-100% was observed whereas the prevalence in flocks from enriched cages ranged between 50–98%,” the researchers explain. The presence of multiple fractures was also not uncommon.

Although the study only analyzed Denmark, the prevalence of these fractures is likely very high in hens in other parts of the world as well — especially since Denmark is one of the countries with stricter animal welfare practices.

For consumers who care about animal welfare, this is another reminder that large eggs come at a cost, and in a greater sense, all eggs come at a cost.

The study was published in PLoS.

Migratory birds have lighter feathers to deal with the heat

Flying nonstop for hundreds of kilometers can be a difficult task for migratory birds. To go through it, birds developed many adaptations — some of which we’re only now starting to understand. In a new study, researchers found that on average, migratory birds are lighter colored than species that don’t migrate, which helps them reduce the amount of heat absorbed from the sun during the trip.

Image credit: The researchers.

Migratory birds undertake long and extremely challenging journeys, which puts great pressure on their entire bodies — from the sensory mechanisms that facilitate orientation to physically enduring the whole thing. It’s not just the distance, or finding food and water, or staying on track — there’s plenty of other, less-obvious challenges as well. For instance, sunlight. With birds sometimes flying at higher altitudes, sunlight can become a major problem, overheating them and potentially causing great problems.

Studies have suggested that birds increase their flight altitude dramatically during the day compared to at night to cope with radiation. It has also been hypothesized that animals benefit from being darker when living in cold regions and from being lighter where it’s warm because lighter colors absorb less solar radiation. If lighter-colored plumage keeps birds cooler, then migratory species should be lighter colored than residents, a group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute suggested.

“Flying at higher altitudes where it is colder may offset the heat generated by absorbing solar radiation. Thus, we wondered whether an alternative response to reduce the risk of overheating while migrating in the sun would be for migratory species to evolve lighter plumage colors,” Kaspar Delhey, study author, told ZME Science.

Understanding migratory birds

To check whether this was the case, Delhey and colleagues quantified the overall plumage lightness of all bird species, assigning a score of 0 for birds that are completely black to 100 for being completely white. They used bird images from the Handbook of the Birds of the World, a multi-volume set of books that summarizes what is known for all bird species we know of – which is now online and can be seen here.

The researchers extracted the image of the bird from the background using machine learning and averaged the color for all pixels in the image. This took quite a bit of trial and error and a lot of computational power, Delhey explained. But after a while, they were able to compare the data on coloration with species migratory behavior, while controlling other factors that affect plumage color. 

The findings showed that birds get lighter as they migrate more, which also means resident species are darker than those who migrate. The pattern was consistent across different types of birds, either small, large, waterbirds, and land-dwelling birds. It’s a reminder of the role climate factors play in the evolution of animal coloration, the researchers said. 

Looking ahead, the team wants to continue exploring the dataset to further examine whether and how migratory behavior and other variables (such as habitat use and size) affect the evolution of aspects of color variation other than light to dark variation. They are especially interested in finding factors that predict the type of color.

“In addition, we expect that in the next years the importance of thermoregulation in migratory birds will be directly studied taking advantage of recent technological advances. For example, now it is possible to measure the temperature of birds while they migrate at the same time as their flight altitude, speed and heart rate,” said Delhey. 

The study was published in the journal Current Biology. 

New gene-editing technology creates single-sex mice

A group of researchers at the Francis Crick Institute, working with the University of Kent, have used gene-editing technology to create male-only and female-only mice litters. The technology could avoid the destruction of hundreds of thousands of unwanted mice in the academic world, as either male or female mice are typically required. 

Image credit: Flickr / Nick Harris.

Whether we like it or not, there’s still a great deal of research that requires animal subjects. However, this demand isn’t uniform across genders. For any given task, there’s usually a demand for just male or female animals, not just in scientific research but also in farming.

Laboratory studies sometimes require only animals of the sex being studied, while in farming only female animals are needed for egg production and in dairy herds. That’s why it’s a common practice for animals of the undesired sex to be culled after birth. But that could change soon.

By deactivating a gene involved in the embryo development, the mice can be programmed to only form female embryos at an early stage of development, the researchers explained. This seems to work in experiments (with 100% accuracy), but the next step will be pilot studies, which will hopefully prove the feasibility of the method.

This could end up preventing millions of animals from being culled, having long-reaching implications, researchers say. It could be transformative — but it’s a form of animal eugenics, and we shouldn’t rush into it without discussing the implications at the society level.

“The implications of this work are potentially far-reaching when it comes to improving animal welfare, but should be considered at ethical and regulatory levels,” Peter Ellis, study author, said in a statement. “Before any use in agriculture, there would need to be extensive public conversation and debate, as well as changes to legislation.”

What’s behind this technology 

Sex chromosomes are behind whether a mammal turns out of male or female sex. Males have a Y chromosome from their father and an X chromosome from their mother, while females have two X chromosomes. In the study, the researchers found a way to deactivate a gene and prevent XX and XY mouse embryos from developing.

This is how it works. The team embedded one half of the gene-editing molecule, known as Crispr-Cas9, which deactivates the gene, into the father’s X or Y chromosome (depending on the sex needed) and the other into the mother’s DNA. This only works if both parts of Crispr-Cas9 are linked together, the researchers said.

“This method works as we split the genome editing process in half, between a male and female, and it is only when the two halves meet in an embryo through breeding, that it is activated. Embryos with both halves cannot develop beyond very early cell stages,” Charlotte Douglas, first author and scientist at the Crick, said in a statement. 

Surprisingly, the litter of the mice edited thusly didn’t turn out 2 times smaller (as you may expect with one of the sexes gone). Instead, litter sizes were around 30-40% smaller than the control litters. This happened because mice produce more eggs than needed. This would mean that when one sex is needed, fewer breeding animals would be required to produce the same number of offspring. 

The offspring that do survive only have half of the CRISPR-Cas9 elements within their genome. This prevents sex selection from being inherited by further generations – unless they are bred with an individual of the opposite sex that has the other half. It’s a different approach to “gene-drive” methods, which spread a mutation widely in a population.

It’s not the first time something like this has been proposed. Billions and billions of male chicks are slaughtered each year, as only females are useful for egg-laying, and researchers are developing ways to select the sex of chick embryos. 

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications. 

Myth-busting Facts about Black Widow Spiders

Black widow (probably Latrodectus mactans or Latrodectus hesperus). A spider’s delicate steps do not trammel the petals of the rose. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Black widows are perhaps the most famous spiders in the world. But as is often the case with celebrities, myths and rumors outweigh actual facts in the public consciousness. Let’s have a look

Black widow venom is very strong, but their bite isn’t actually THAT dangerous

Did you know a black widow’s venom is about 15 times stronger than a rattlesnake’s? Yikes! However, they’re also more than 1,000 times smaller and, what’s more, the black widow doesn’t release all of its venom at once. Remember, the dose makes the poison.

When a black widow bites a human, neurotoxins in the venom can cause pain, swelling around the wound, cramping, sweating, and chills. These are some pretty nasty symptoms, but they’re not nearly as concerning as some think. The black widow’s venom is meant to neutralize tiny prey like insects, not kill large predators like humans.

Every year, thousands of people get bitten by a black widow in the United States, mostly in the south and western regions of the country where the spiders thrive. Less than 1% of these cases resulted in severe symptoms. When severe symptoms occur, most hospitals now have antivenom which neutralizes the neurotoxins.

Black widows are sometimes called the deadliest spiders in the world — but that’s not true at all. Although fatalities may happen — usually to small children, the elderly, or the infirm — these are extremely uncommon. Many years can go by without any black widow-related fatalities. The world’s deadliest spider is actually the male Sydney funnel-web spider, Atrax robustus, which (of course) can be found in Australia.

Black widows almost never bite people unprovoked. The spiders will bite in self-defense when they feel threatened, usually when a person accidentally steps or sits on them. Black widows like to hunt in vineyards, outdoor toilets, and other shelters where debris builds up, so it’s best to be extra careful in these contexts. According to one 2014 study, people are most at risk of getting bitten by a black widow when it is squeezed or pinched.

Females have a reputation as man eaters, but that’s a myth

In popular culture, women who kill their husbands are sometimes called ‘black widows’, in reference to the notion that such female spiders devour the males after mating. However, this is a myth (with just a sliver of truth).

Research has shown that female redback spiders, which are closely related to black widows, eat their mates after copulation only about 2% of the time.

The notion that female black widows eat their mates can be traced to lab experiments in which a single male and a single female were trapped in the same enclosure. Female black widows are up to 150 times larger than males, and thus can be much hungrier too. With nowhere to run, of course the males are at a huge risk of getting cannibalized. But in the wild, males have ample opportunities to escape.

“To understand the facts about black widow mating, you must first understand that there are many different species worldwide in the black-widow group (genus Latrodectus), and three different black widow species in the United States alone, two in the east and one in the west (not counting the brown and red widows). These species do not all behave alike. Moreover, in the past, most observations of mating took place in laboratory cages, where males could not escape,” biologists affiliated with the Burke Museum wrote in a blog post.

“The only known Latrodectus species in which mate cannibalism in nature is the rule, not the exception, are in the Southern Hemisphere. Of U.S. species, mate cannibalism occurs sometimes in Latrodectus mactans, the eastern (southern) black widow, but most males survive to mate another day. In the other two black species, including the western black widow L. hesperus (only species west of Kansas), mate cannibalism has never been observed in the wild!” they added.

Their offspring are a different matter, though. All young black widow spiders start off as cannibals

When they’re well-fed, black widow spiders spin large webs to ensnare prey, such as flies, mosquitoes, beetles, and even caterpillars. The females also use the web to suspend a cocoon with hundreds of eggs. But when they hatch, these younglings aren’t exactly filled with brotherly love.

Jonathan Pruitt, an assistant professor who studies spiders at the University of California at Santa Barbara, noticed that all of these eggs were the exact same size and that spiderlings hatched and molted at roughly the same time. He found it odd and in a study published in 2016, Pruitt and fellow biologists conducted an experiment in which they varied the spider eggs’ rate of development by adjusting the temperature. When the spiderlings hatched at different sizes and were mixed together, it didn’t take more than a few days for the biggest hatchling to devour all his smaller siblings.

Spider moms would like to avoid this outcome as much as possible since having just one surviving offspring out of hundreds that initially hatched is an evolutionary disaster. This is why the female black widows have developed means to provision their eggs very precisely so the spiderlings develop in lockstep.

The black widow’s combed limbs give it ‘spidey senses’

Black widow and its prey. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Black widows spun their irregular, funnel-shaped webs using its combed hind pair of limbs. The tiny bristles covering the long limbs also allow the spiders to cover and trap their prey in silk once the unsuspecting victim is foolish enough to come close to the widow’s web. Speaking of webs, the strands of silk also extend the widow’s senses. Once a fly slightly touches the web, vibrations are sent along the string, which can be sensed by organs on their leg joints.

Like their relatives, black widow spiders produce silks with exceptional material properties, including strength on par with steel. In 2018, Northwestern University researchers found that the spiders employ a complex, hierarchical protein assembly process to produce their hyper-strong silk. If the method can be mimicked, scientists believe we could make synthetic spider silk-like materials that could be used in high-performance textiles, cable bridges and other constructions, replacements for plastic, and biomedical applications.

Only females have the emblematic red hourglass

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

While they’re juveniles, black widows are colored brown and white and only acquire their signature charcoal color once they molt and reach adulthood. The adult females, but not the males, also develop a red hourglass mark on their abdomen, as well as a few red spots over the spinnerets (the silk-spinning organs of a spider) and along the middle of the back. Scientists believe the red coloring helps the females, which are much larger than males and thus easier to spot, to ward off predators. In the animal kingdom, red marks send a clear ‘stay away, I’m dangerous’ message.

Black widows are getting replaced by brown windows in some places

The brown widow spider (Latrodectus geometricus Koch) resembles the black widow, however, the hourglass of the brown widow is yellowish-orange or reddish-orange instead of bright red as in the black widow. They’re relatively new to North America, with the first documented sighting of a brown widow spider occurring in 1935, in Florida. In the last decade, researchers have found that the range of the brown widow spider has been rapidly expanding, especially in California. They’ve become so successful they’ve started displacing native black widow spiders.

Males do not bite, however, the female brown widow is venomous and injects a neurotoxic venom when it bites.  However, the venom is much less potent than a black widow’s so homeowners may rejoice. 

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Japan’s snow monkeys go fishing to survive the harsh winter

Image credits: Alexander Milner.

Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata) are tough creatures. They’re the northernmost-living nonhuman primate, inhabiting various habitats across several islands in Japan. The most rugged of the bunch live in the Kamikochi area of Chubu Sangaku National Park of the Japanese Alps.

But winter isn’t easy for them. Although the snow monkeys are omnivorous and not particularly fussy about what they eat, they can spend months in snow-covered areas, and finding food in the winter is a big challenge. However, according to a new study, they make due by fishing in groundwater-fed streams that remain liquid during the winter.

Go fish

Alexander Milner, Professor of River Ecosystems at the University of Birmingham, who led the study, wanted to see how the macaques were getting through the winter. They had a suspicion that the monkeys were going fishing, but there was no confirmation until now.

“There was circumstantial evidence (BBC footage and our own) that snow monkeys visited streams in the winter but we wanted to prove definitively that they ate freshwater organisms. This is the first time that this type of feeding has been shown before in the scientific literature. The reason is that a number of streams are fed by groundwater with a constant water temperature of 5 degrees Celsius all year round allowing access to the snow monkeys to feed.  These types of streams have a high abundance of biota including fish,” Milner told ZME Science.

To get to the root of the monkeys’ food, researchers gathered samples of their poop. It wasn’t easy, Milner says; on one hand, wintertime there is so cold that it was difficult to find samples of snow monkey poop. To add to that, they also worked in some tourist areas, and this made for some unusual events.

“We did collect in March when the Kamikochi area is open again to visitors as it is one of the most visited National Parks in Japan – we got some strange looks from tourists as we were collecting the snow monkey poop. Also, we used a tracer dye to follow the groundwater and got the dose wrong and turned a whole stream purple for 30 minutes which certainly created a surprised look from tourists standing on a bridge where the stream went under.”

Kamikochi area. Image credits: Lienyuan Lee

The results of the analysis were also unexpected. Previously, Japanese macaques had been shown to opportunistically capture marine fish, especially when the fish get washed up ashore. But it was surprising to find traces of brown trout in the monkeys’ feces, Milner explained in an email. The researchers were assuming it was just freshwater invertebrates that the monkeys were munching on.

So how do the monkeys catch the fish? The researchers don’t know yet, but it’s something they’d like to investigate in the coming seasons. They’re also planning to look at the diet of the monkeys over their entire year, to see if they munch on fish during the rest of the year as well.

“We would have liked to examine the year around diet – we only worked in the wintertime and look at other seasons and also try and quantify what percentage of their winter diet is freshwater fauna.”

However, it could be that this behavior is only restricted to one group of snow monkeys, where all the right conditions are met.

“With high numbers of freshwater animals in its rivers and streams, the Kamikochi area may be the only environment in Japan where the topographical, geological, and meteorological conditions allow Japanese macaques to supplement their winter diet in this way,” Milner says.

“Japanese macaques have a wider winter home range when food resources are scarce, but Kamikochi lies in a deep valley where they cannot cross the mountains. Population density is exceptionally high and macaques must overwinter in an extremely harsh environment.”

“These larger populations create additional stress for surviving winter, but an abundance of groundwater upwellings and hot spring inputs from active volcanoes ensures many streams flow without ice cover allowing easy access to the monkeys.

The study was published in Scientific Reports.

Feeding dogs only once a day may protect them from age-related disease

Credit: Pixabay.

An analysis of a survey of more than 24,000 pet canines found that dogs that were fed only once a day were significantly less likely to be diagnosed with age-related diseases than dogs that had more meals. For now, veterinarians say dog owners should not change their pets’ current feeding regimes until further research establishes a causal link.

You may have heard about intermittent fasting, eating only during a specific time. While most diets focus on what you eat, such as consuming fewer carbs or fats, intermittent fasting is all about when you eat — the calories and nutrients themselves matter too, but they’re secondary in this instance.

And unlike most fad diets, science actually supports a range of health benefits that have been associated with fasting. A 2021 study published in the journal Nature Aging analyzed the effects of different fasting methods on longevity in organisms ranging from yeast to humans. The researchers found that the alternation of fasting and refeeding periods reduces risk factors for aging, diabetes, autoimmunity, cardiovascular disease, neurodegeneration, and cancer, linking these effects to major nutrient-sensing signaling pathways.

The metabolic and cellular responses triggered by fasting may explain the most recent findings by researchers from the University of Washington, who concluded that dogs that ate just once a day were advancing in age more healthily than dogs fed twice or more per day. Dogs evolved from wolves, predators that would often go for days without eating until they found their next prey, so it would make sense that time-restricted feeding may be beneficial for them.

The study involved thousands of dogs as part of the Dog Aging Project, an ambitious initiative that aims to follow thousands of dogs for ten years in order to identify the biological and environmental factors that maximize healthy longevity.

“Controlling for sex, age, breed, and other potential confounders, we found that dogs fed once daily rather than more frequently had lower mean scores on a cognitive dysfunction scale, and lower odds of having gastrointestinal, dental, orthopedic, kidney/urinary, and liver/pancreas disorders. Therefore, our findings suggest that once-a-day feeding in dogs is associated with improved health across multiple body systems,” the researchers wrote in their study that appeared in the pre-print journal bioRxiv.

Previously, research from the Dog Aging Project investigated how canine health is affected by their gut microbes and breed-specific risks of genetic disease.

Although the new study on dog feeding patterns provides compelling evidence that fasting may protect pets from age-related conditions, the findings are purely correlative at this point. The survey data did not include information about what exactly each dog ate or the number of calories, which can be very important. For instance, dogs who are fed multiple times a day may tend to overeat, which could lead to obesity, an important risk factor in a range of diseases.

Ideally, the researchers would like to perform a randomized trial in which they can monitor canine diets over a long period of time and measure the effects on their health in a controlled setting.

In the meantime, pet owners are advised to not alter their dogs’ diets until further evidence surfaces. At the moment, most veterinary associations advise feeding dogs twice a day. 

Amsterdam trials pigs to deter birds from its main airport

Next time you travel to Amsterdam, don’t be surprised if you see a group of pigs when your plane lands at Schiphol airport. They didn’t escape from a nearby farm or anything like that. It’s actually a pilot project to study whether a small group of pigs can deter birds from the airport vicinity. The birds are attracted by the discarded sugar beet and can pose problems for pilots.

Image credit: Schiphol airport

Airport authorities placed a group of 20 pigs on a two-hectare (five-acre) plot, hoping the pigs will eat the food that attracts the birds. Birds can collide with planes and even get sucked into engines, causing major damage — as it happened in 2009 when a pilot had to land the plane on the Hudson River after losing power on both engines.  

Aware of the risks, the airport had already implemented a set of bird controllers years back. The controllers track avian activity and keep birds away, using technology such as laser beams and special sounds. They also tried making the airfield unappealing for birds by using special types of grass. But it was still problematic, so they’ve now decided to take it a step further – with pigs. 

The pilot project is carried out in cooperation with the Infrastructure and Water Management ministry. In the next few weeks, they will monitor bird activity in the area and compare it to a reference plot without pigs. Simultaneously, they will use a bird radar to map the areas of the Schiphol airport most frequented by birds – alongside visual observations. 

The pigs are owned by a small-scale farm near the airport, Buitengewone Varkens. Its owner, Stan Gloudemans, was approached by the authorities at Schiphol as they were seeking for solutions to deter birds. Speaking with The Guardian, Gloudemans said the pilot is already a success and it should be expanded to more hectares near the airport. 

The bird problem

Birds and planes don’t get along, ever since Orville Wright – one of the pioneers of aviation – knocked into a flock while flying over a cornfield in 1905. Airport managers and aviation experts have worked hard over the years to keep birds far away from airports as they can crack windshields, bend instruments, and get sucked into fuselages.

To keep birds away, airports have tried all sorts of methods. One of the most popular ones is firing air cannons when birds are in an area of aircraft activity. Airports have also altered the nearby landscape to make it less bird-friendly, for example replacing grass with gravel or filling in ponds. But some airports have been even more creative.

Pigs were used in Salt Lake City’s airport to eat up gull eggs, border collies were used in Southwest Florida International to chase away herons and egrets, and LED screens were placed in France’s Lourdes-Tarbes Pyrénées airport – displaying a googly eye graphic to scare off birds. Even drones were once used in Edmonton airport in Canada. Now, pigs are entering the fray, and we can’t wait to see how it works out.

Lobsters, octopuses and crabs recognized as “sentient” in the UK

Credit: Flickr.

Lobsters and other shellfish served in restaurants are often boiled alive — an excruciating process carried out because once the lobster is dead it releases a lot of toxic bacteria. Cooking the lobster alive therefore minimizes the chance of food poisoning. Besides, lobsters don’t have a brain and can’t feel pain, right?

Wrong. A massive review of over 300 previously published studies found there is strong evidence that at least some invertebrates are sentient. On the heels of these findings, the UK government officially updated an animal welfare law recognizing decapods and cephalopods — which include crabs, lobsters, shrimp, prawns, and crayfish, as well as octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish — as capable of “sentience”.

Sentience refers to “the capacity to have feelings, such as feelings of pain, pleasure, hunger, thirst, warmth, joy, comfort, and excitement.” Previously, the British animal welfare bill already recognized all animals with a backbone as sentient beings.

Sentience is not exactly the same as consciousness, but the two are closely related because feelings represent the most basic sense of “conscious”. For instance, studies show that lobsters become highly stressed during the catching, handling, and transport phases, arriving either very weak or dying at factories. Both decapods like lobsters and cephalopods like octopuses show they can not only feel pain but remember painful or threatening objects or situations and take steps to avoid them.

Although lobsters and other decapods don’t have a brain, at least not in the familiar human-like sense, they do have a complex nervous system that includes nociceptive receptors that signal pain and opioid receptors that respond to morphine.

These latest updates to UK legislation, however, will not affect any current practices in the fishing and restaurant industries — not yet at least. It is very likely that inhuman slaughtering and catching practices for these animals will be eventually banned. Some of the recommendations in the review for animal welfare protection policies in the future include banning the declawing of crabs and inhumane slaughtering methods like live boiling and dismemberment.

Banning these inhumane practices wouldn’t be a premiere — boiling crustaceans alive is illegal in countries like Switzerland and New Zealand.

“The amendment will also help remove a major inconsistency: octopuses and other cephalopods have been protected in science for years, but have not received any protection outside science until now. One way the UK can lead on animal welfare is by protecting these invertebrate animals that humans have often completely disregarded,” said Dr. Jonathan Birth, Associate Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science and lead author of the government-commissioned independent review.

“The Animal Welfare Sentience Bill provides a crucial assurance that animal wellbeing is rightly considered when developing new laws. The science is now clear that crustaceans and mollusks can feel pain and therefore it is only right they are covered by this vital piece of legislation,” said Animal Welfare Minister Lord Goldsmith.

Galápagos giant tortoises often live over 100 years without cancer. The secret to their longevity may be in their genes

Extra copies of genes, known as duplications, protect these giant tortoises from cancer and help them live a long life.
Galápagos tortoises. Credit: Ylenia Chiari.

Galápagos giant tortoises are one of the longest-lived vertebrates, with many living past 100 years of age in the wild. In captivity, they can live even longer. One captive individual, Harriet, lived for at least 175 years. How do they do it? In a new study, researchers at the University of Buffalo compared the genomes of Galápagos giant tortoises with those of other turtles and found the animals evolved to have extra copies of certain genes. These extra copies are thought to offer protection against the biological degeneration typically associated with aging, including cancer.

The new study builds upon past research performed in 2018. Back then, Yale University and Universidad de Oviedo, Spain, sequenced the genome of the famous Lonesome George, who died in 2012 at age of 100 and was the last giant tortoise on Pinta Island. When researchers compared Lonesome George’s genome, as well as that of the Aldabra giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea), to other species, they found genes associated with metabolism regulation and immune response.

These genes may explain the generous size and long lifespans of these species. The researchers have found that tumor suppressors are expanded in the tortoises’ genomes compared to other vertebrates. The analysis also found specific alterations in two genes whose overexpression is known to contribute to cancer, and which may be part of a giant-tortoise-specific cancer mechanism.

But it’s not only the genes themselves that may offer protection against cancer. The new study found that giant tortoises have extra copies of genes, an indirect consequence of a defense mechanism they evolved in order to cope with stress related to damaged proteins.

Experiments on cells cultured from Galápagos giant tortoises showed that they self-destruct faster and easier than those of other turtle cells when exposed to stressors. That may sound like a poor defense mechanism, but this proclivity for self-destruction protects the giant tortoises from biological glitches that can form tumors, thereby helping the animals evade cancer.

“In the lab, we can stress the cells out in ways that are associated with aging and see how well they resist that distress. And it turns out that the Galápagos tortoise cells are really, really good at killing themselves before stress has a chance to cause diseases like cancer,” said Vincent Lynch, an evolutionary biologist at the University at Buffalo and co-author of the new study.

Very large animals like the Galápagos giant tortoises, which can weigh as much as 300 kg (660 lbs) and can grow to be 1.3 m (4 ft) long, ought to be more prone to cancer because, all other things being equal, they have more cells in their bodies. The more cells, the greater the statistical odds that some mutations arise that can lead to cancer. But since the 1970s, scientists have found that there is no relationship between body size and cancer incidence, a counter-intuitive phenomenon known as Peto’s Paradox after English statistician and epidemiologist Richard Peto, who first observed the connection.

In fact, one of the largest animals in the world, the bowhead whale, is virtually cancer free. On land, only a fraction of elephants get cancer compared to 1 in 5 humans. Why exactly some of the largest animals have such long lives is a major avenue of research with important implications for our cancer-prone species.

“If you can identify the way nature has done something — the way certain species have evolved protections — maybe you can find a way to translate those discoveries into something that benefits human health and disease,” Lynch says. “We’re not going to go treating humans with Galápagos tortoise genes, but maybe we can find a drug that mimics certain important functions.”

The authors of the new study add that their research also carries a message about conservation. Five subspecies of the Galápagos tortoise have been extinct since they were first studied by Charles Darwin, who used their evolutionary defenses, like a distinct shell, to define his theory of natural selection. Over 100,000 have been killed over the centuries by hunters, pirates and whalers who ate the tortoises on their travels. Although not endangered, the Galápagos tortoise is listed as a vulnerable species.

“Studies like this demonstrate why preserving biodiversity is so important,” says Scott Glaberman, the paper’s first author and an assistant professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. “Extreme species like Galápagos giant tortoises probably hold many secrets for dealing with major human challenges like aging and cancer, and even climate change. Our study also shows that even within turtles, different species look, act and function differently, and losing any species to extinction means that a piece of unique biology will be lost to the world forever.”

The findings appeared in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution.

Bird populations in Europe plummeting since the 1980s

One in six birds in Europe has disappeared, according to a survey that compared today’s bird populations in Europe to those in the 1980s. Overall, the continent lost about 600 million birds.

The house sparrow is one of the most affected birds. Image credit: Flickr: Pete Beard.

While not as known as climate change, biodiversity is also facing a deep crisis, with researchers repeatedly emphasizing that we’re causing a sixth mass extinction. A previous study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), called the Living Planet Report, found that the population sizes of birds, fish, mammals, and amphibians have declined a whopping 68% since 1970. 

In a new study, researchers from Birdlife International, the Czech Society for Ornithology and the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds brought together two large datasets to explore abundance change in Europe’s birds. Integrating the two allowed to double the number of species included and to extend the temporal range.

The group of researchers analyzed data for 378 out of 445 native bird species in European Union countries and estimated a decline between 17% and 19% between 1980 and 2017. 

“This report loudly and clearly shows that nature is sounding the alarm. While protecting birds that are already rare or endangered has resulted in some successful recoveries, this doesn’t seem to be enough to sustain the populations of abundant species, Anna Staneva, BirdLife Europe Interim Head of Conservation, said in a statement.

Heavy declines

The house sparrow (Passer domesticus), which used to be very common all over the continent was the worst hit, the study found, losing 50% of its population since 1980 — a total loss of 247 million birds. Meanwhile, its close relative, the tree sparrow (Passer montanus), has declined by 30 million individuals. Both species were affected by changes in agricultural policy and management. 

In fact, the most significant change was registered in farmland and grassland birds. Farming practices have been widely thought to cause a decline in wildlife, and this study clearly showcases just how big of an impact these changes can have on wildlife. Damaging practices include the growing use of monocultures and pesticides, changes in grassland management, field drainage, and overall larger field sizes. 

Most of the observed decline in bird numbers happened during the 1980s and the 1990s, with the decline rate slowing down (but not stopping) in the last decade. The authors linked this to recent regulations implemented in the EU that give legal protection to priority species and also extend their protected habitats, such as the Birds and the Habitats Directives. 

In fact, seven species of birds of prey increased in recent decades thanks to more comprehensive protection, new targeted recovery projects, and limited use of pesticides, the study showed. If the EU hadn’t implemented the directives on birds protection, declines in many bird species would have been much worse, the authors wrote.

“Our study is a wake-up call to the very real threat of extinctions and of a Silent Spring, and we are fully supportive of ensuring a strong framework which puts conservation front and centre of any global plans” Fiona Burns, RSPB scientist, said in a statement. “We need transformative action across society to tackle the nature and climate crises together.”

The researchers also highlighted the upcoming UN conference next year to negotiate a new global agreement on biodiversity conservation, after the previous one failed to deliver most of the targets. The upcoming agreement should increase conservation efforts to prevent further declines in the number of birds worldwide, the researchers wrote.  

The study was published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

Colorado man finds North America’s rarest mammal in his garage

The black-footed ferret was found in Pueblo West, Colorado. Credit: CPW.

It’s common for people living close to rural areas to find various critters ransacking their garages and tool sheds, looking to find something good to eat, or at least some cozy shelter. Usually, it’s rats, mice, or the occasional raccoon, but a man’s garage in Colorado had a very special visitor. The man had stumbled upon a black-footed ferret, perhaps the rarest mammal in North America and the only ferret species native to the continent.

Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes), also known as the American polecat, or the prairie dog hunger, have a distinctive “robber’s” mask that adorns their faces. The mammal has a long slender body, similar to that of a weasel, which is perfectly suited to crawling in and out of holes, where they seek their primary prey — the prairie dog. These ferrets also have black markings on their feet, legs, and the tip of the tail.

In the early 20th-century, farmers and ranchers started culling prairie dogs in massive numbers since their underground complexes were a problem for crops. As prairie dog populations were decimated across the continent, so too were other animals that were further up the food chain, such as black-footed ferrets. In fact, in 1979 black-footed ferrets were declared extinct but a very small remnant population miraculously survived and was discovered in 1981.

A handful of individuals were captured and enrolled in a breeding program that has been going on for decades and, more recently, even involved cloning. The ultimate goal of this program is to reintroduce the animals back to the wild, but this is a very cumbersome process. Reintroduced ferrets raised in captivity have a very high mortality rate since they lack many basic survival skills, making them easy pickings for predators such as owls, coyotes, and golden eagles. They also need food of their own, so the ferrets need to be introduced close to viable prairie dog towns in order to survive.

One of these rare prairie dog habitats in North America is found close to the garage in Pueblo West, Colorado where our little intruder was found. The owner of the garage was sharp enough to capture the ferret in a box before calling Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). When researchers arrived, they used a scanning device that detected a passive integrated transponder microchip inserted between the shoulders of the animal. This confirmed the ferret was part of a group of nine animals recently released on Walker Ranch, a tract of land where more than 120 black-footed ferrets have been released since 2013.

However, this was the first time a resident have spotted a black-footed ferret. These animals are very solitary and tend to keep themselves.

A black-footed ferret (not the one found in the garage). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

“We don’t know exactly why this black-footed ferret left the colony,” said Ed Schmal, CPW conservation biologist. “We put them into prairie dog burrows, but they may not stay. Sometimes they scramble around the colony to find the right home. This one might have gotten pushed out by other ferrets, and it went looking for a new home. We really don’t know.”

The furry visitor seemed to be in excellent health, though. It didn’t show any signs of injury and the CPW says the animal will soon be released back into the wild.

“This is extremely rare,” Schmal said. “Black-footed ferrets are nocturnal and extremely shy. For some reason, this one left the colony and was seeking shelter. We’re just glad it appeared healthy, not starving or sick, and we were able to capture it and return it to the colony.”

Despite these conservation efforts, black-footed ferrets remain one of the most endangered mammals in the United States. However, despite a radically-altered environment, scientists believe that the recovery of the species is within reach. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now working alongside scientists to use the latest genetic tools to disease resistance and genetic diversity in black-footed ferrets.

People underestimate how much anxiety household sounds can produce for dogs

There are more sounds that can make your dog anxious in your home than you assumed, a new paper reports.

Image credits Susanne Pälmer.

Research at the University of California, Davis, has examined the potential of common household noises to make dogs anxious. Although it’s common knowledge that sudden, loud noises — fireworks or thunderstorms, for example — can easily trigger anxiety in man’s best friend, the results point to a much wider range of sounds our dogs might become frightened by.

But an arguably more important finding is that most owners can’t reliably pick up on the hallmark signs that their dog is anxious.

Misunderstandings

“We know that there are a lot of dogs that have noise sensitivities, but we underestimate their fearfulness to noise we consider normal because many dog owners can’t read body language,” said lead author Emma Grigg, a research associate and lecturer at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

According to the findings, even common noises such as a microwave, a vacuum cleaner during operation, or the battery warning of a smoke detector can trigger a dog’s anxiety. As a rule of thumb, high-frequency intermittent noises are more likely to make your dog anxious than continuous, low-frequency ones.

Some of the most common signs of a dog’s anxiety include cringing, trembling, or retreating. These are the ones most people can reliably pick up on, quite understandably so, as they mimic our own anxiety responses. But other behaviors can be more subtle and easily missed. These include panting, the turning of the head away, or a stiffening of the body. Other signs are a turning back of their ears or lowering of the head below their shoulders.

Gigg says it’s important for dog owners to learn about the anxiety-related behavior that dogs exhibit so that they can better understand and help their pets.

The data for this study was collected as part of a survey of 386 dog owners about their animals’ responses to a range of household sounds. The authors also examined the dogs’ behaviors and the reactions of their owners. This revealed that people both underestimate the anxiousness of their dogs, with a majority of those appearing in the videos actually responding with amusement to their displays of anxiety.

“There is a mismatch between owners’ perceptions of the fearfulness and the amount of fearful behavior actually present. Some react with amusement rather than concern,” Grigg said. “We hope this study gets people to think about the sources of sound that might be causing their dog stress, so they can take steps to minimize their dog’s exposure to it.”

Since dogs can perceive sounds from a broader spectrum than humans, it is possible that something which seems innocuous to us is quite painful to their ears — very loud or high-pitched sounds being some examples. Grigg says that any steps taken to prevent such noises, for example changing the batteries in your smoke detectors more often, can help improve your dog’s quality of life tremendously.

“Dogs use body language much more than vocalizing and we need to be aware of that,” said Grigg. “We feed them, house them, love them and we have a caretaker obligation to respond better to their anxiety.”

The paper “Stress-Related Behaviors in Companion Dogs Exposed to Common Household Noises, and Owners’ Interpretations of Their Dogs’ Behaviors” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.