Tag Archives: animal

We don’t really know how many lions there are — but researchers have an idea to count them

Current calculations estimate that there are somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 lions in the wild… but we’re not really sure. Even if we were totally sure in that interval, a 50% margin of error isn’t exactly trivial.

Counting lions isn’t easy by any means, but one researcher has an idea how to do it more accurately.

A lioness in the Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area. Lions often like to spend hot days in the shade of the parks’ giant fig trees. Image credits: Cody Pope.

There are 102 lion populations are scattered across approximately 2.5 million square kilometers of Africa. The majority of estimates on African lion population and density are based on track counts, audio lure surveys and expert solicitation — hardly reliable enough to make accurate counts.

But without accurate counts, conservation efforts are severely undermined. Since lion populations are thought to have experienced a 50% decline since 1994, that’s quite a concern.

University of Queensland PhD candidate Alexander Braczkowski reviewed existing studies on lion counting and he believes a new approach can work better. It’s not easy, but according to Braczkowski, his idea can help not only in counting lions more accurately but also in understanding their behavior.

“It involves driving extensively and searching actively for lions, and then taking high quality photographs to individually identify them and noting their locations,” Mr Braczkowski said. “We use an analytical method known as Spatially Explicit Capture-Recapture (SECR). For African lions, it was first applied in the Maasai Mara by Dr. Nicholas Elliot and Dr. Arjun Gopalaswamy, and has now been adopted by the Kenya Wildlife Service and others to survey lions and other carnivores across the country.”

The researchers trialed the technique to better understand the density and population of lions in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area, a park known for its wildlife (which includes buffalo, Ugandan kob, hippopotamus, warthogs, crocodiles, elephants, leopards, lions, and chimpanzees) as well as volcanic features. Since these Ugandan lions love their shade, it was also easier to take photos of them.

“This was the perfect place to use this novel approach since lions at Queen Elizabeth spend a lot of their time up in trees and it is relatively straightforward to get good pictures of them,” Mr Braczkowski said. “Due to this unique tree-climbing behavior, managers and tourists at this park very frequently see lions. But, our study showed that these lions are now moving more and have larger home range sizes compared to a previous study conducted about a decade ago.”

According to the SECR analysis, the lion population is lower than previously estimated, so the researchers suggest that lion populations may be even lower than currently expected, and ask that a more rigorous count be urgently implemented across all populations.

Accurate continent-wide counts would then underpin lion recovery projects, ensuring an efficient allocation of resources where they can make the biggest impact, researchers conclude.

Journal Reference: Alex Braczkowski et al. Restoring Africa’s Lions: Start With Good Counts, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution (2020). DOI: 10.3389/fevo.2020.00138

Foxes living in the city are starting to become domesticated

Red foxes living in the city are evolving traits associated with pets or livestock animals such as shorter snouts or smaller skulls among other physical characteristics, a new study suggests.

Image credits Tony Hisgett / Flickr.

Dr. Kevin Parsons, of the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine explains that there are some important physical and behavioral differences between red foxes that live in the UK’s urban and rural environments, with the former becoming more similar to domesticated dogs.

The findings help further our understanding of how domestication processes take place and could help uncover how humanity domesticated other animals in the past

Wild is out of fashion

“We wondered whether this change in lifestyle was related to adaptive differences between urban and rural populations of red foxes,” said Dr. Parsons, of the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, lead author of the paper.

“We assessed skulls from hundreds of foxes found within London and the surrounding countryside and saw that urban foxes had a smaller brain size capacity but also a different snout shape that would help them forage within urban habitats. There was also less of a difference between males and females in urban foxes.”

Coronavirus lockdowns around the world have created space for wild animals to roam (or even take up residence in) our cities more often. However, they present a very different habitat compared to the wilds, and many species just can’t adapt to long-term life in the city.

But some are especially good at it. Red foxes are one such species, and they’ve become quite prevalent in urban areas, especially in the UK. They’re also adapting to be better suited to life here, and to living in proximity to humans.

The team explains that the changes they documented in the study are the same that they would expect to see during a domestication process. The foxes are far from being domesticated, but they are taking on characteristics seen in domesticated animals. The team explains that their findings here can help us piece together how dogs, for example, evolved into pets from predators.

The changes observed by the team are “primarily involved with” the length of their snouts, braincases, and reduced sexual dimorphism (i.e. physical differences between the two sexes). Urban foxes have shorter snouts and smaller braincases, the paper explains. Differences between the two populations are “widespread and related to muscle attachment sites”, they add and likely driven by different requirements for cognitive ability and physical characteristics when feeding in the two habitats.

These changes matched up with what would be expected during a domestication process. In other words, while urban foxes are certainly not domesticated, they are changing in ways that move them closer to what is seen in many domesticated animals.

“This is important because human-animal interactions are continuous and some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today,” adds co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

The paper “Skull morphology diverges between urban and rural populations of red foxes mirroring patterns of domestication and macroevolution” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Researchers find oldest ancestor of all animals so far

A team led by researchers at UC Riversidereports finding the oldest known ancestor of most animals today, humans included. It’s quite tiny.

Image credits Scott Evans et al., (2020), PNAS.

The new species has been christened Ikaria wariootia in honor of Australia’s original inhabitants. The genus name comes from Ikara (“meeting place”) in the Adnyamathanha language, and it’s their name for a group of mountains known in English as Wilpena Pound. The species name comes from the Warioota Creek.

All in all, the organism is a tiny wormlike creature, but it is the earliest one we’ve found that has a front and a back side (‘bilaterianism’), two symmetrical sides (left and right), and a gut connected to openings at the front and back. In essence, this organism set the blueprint for how most animals are structured today.

Trendsetter

“This is what evolutionary biologists predicted,” said Mary Droser, a professor of geology and co-author of the paper. “It’s really exciting that what we have found lines up so neatly with their prediction.”

The first multicellular organisms to spawn on Earth, such as sponges and algae, are collectively known as the Ediacaran Biota. While it was undoubtedly rich, very few animals living today can find their roots in these animals. One which can is a lily pad-shaped creature known as Dickinsonia — it lacks basic features we associate with animals today, such as a mouth or gut.

Most animals today employ bilateral symmetry, i.e. they have a right and a left side that are mirrored. This property was first developed after the Ediacaran Biota, and the blueprint it set down has been in use ever since, from worms to dinosaurs to humans.

Scientists have suspected that burrows found in 555 million-year-old Ediacaran Period deposits in Nilpena, South Australia, were made by bilaterian animals, perhaps even the first ones. Since no sign of any of their fossils could be seen, it remained just a hypothesis.

But Scott Evans , a recent doctoral graduate from UC Riverside and Prof. Droser noticed tiny, oval impressions near some of the burrows. With funding from a NASA exobiology grant, they analyzed them using a three-dimensional laser scanner, finding the shape of a cylindrical body with a distinct head and tail and faintly grooved musculature. Based on the impressions, the animals ranged between 2-7 millimeters long and about 1-2.5 millimeters wide, being roughly the size of a grain of rice.

“We thought these animals should have existed during this interval, but always understood they would be difficult to recognize,” Evans said. “Once we had the 3D scans, we knew that we had made an important discovery.”

“Burrows of Ikaria occur lower than anything else. It’s the oldest fossil we get with this type of complexity,” Droser adds. “Dickinsonia and other big things were probably evolutionary dead ends.”

The tiny animal was very complex by the standards of its day, the team explains. It likely lived by burrowing between layers of well-oxygenated sand on the seafloor where it would use its rudimentary sensory organs to find food. They have distinct front and rear ends, as indicated by a sloping body that helps direct movement. V-shaped ridges in the burrows suggest that the animal moved by contracting muscles across its body like a worm

The paper “Discovery of the oldest bilaterian from the Ediacaran of South Australia” has been published in the journal PNAS.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library made over 150,000 illustrations and 55 million pages of research free to download

The world’s “largest open-access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives” has made 55 million pages of literature and at least 150,000 illustrations open for the public to enjoy.

Illustration from the Transactions of the Entomological Society of London, 1911.
Image credits Biodiversity Heritage Library / Flickr.

Do you like life, science, cool art, or all three? Then the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BIH) has a treat for you. The BIH pools together diagrams, sketches, studies, and data pertaining to life on Earth from hundreds of thousands of journals and libraries, some of them from as far back as the 15th century. You can see it all, and download it all, without paying a dime.

Science for all

“To document Earth’s species and understand the complexities of swiftly-changing ecosystems in the midst of a major extinction crisis and widespread climate change, researchers need something that no single library can provide – access to the world’s collective knowledge about biodiversity,” the Library’s about page explains.

“Scientists have long considered this lack of access to biodiversity literature as a major impediment to the efficiency of scientific research.”

The sheer wealth of information that the BIH contains is staggering. However, this is a goldmine even if you’re not too keen on learning biology, even if you don’t need some citations for your degree paper — there is a lot of beauty to be found here. Illustrations of plants, animals, and the biological mechanisms that keep them going abound. They’re analyzed in hand-drawn diagrams, detailed in bright watercolors, and celebrated in dazzling lithography.

From “Report on the work of the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia, pt. 2 – zoology, London: Dulau, 1896.”
Image credits Biodiversity Heritage Library / Flickr.
From “Beiträge zur Pflanzenkunde des Russischen Reiches. Lf. 10 (1857)”.
Image credits Biodiversity Heritage Library / Flickr.

Among the works in the BIH is a digitized copy of Joseph Wolf’s 19th-century The Zoological Sketches, two volumes totaling around 100 lithographs of wild animals kept in London’s Regent’s Park (which are drop-dead gorgeous). Dig around deep enough and you will find a DIY taxidermy guide, full with illustrated guides, published in 1833. Weird, but cool. One of my personal favorites is Osteographia, or the Anatomy of the Bones, a body of sketches published in London, 1733, looking at the human skeleton and its afflictions. Die Cephalopoden by one G. Fischer and Margaret Scott’s British sea-weeds could easily pass for surrealist artwork in my book. The striking yet translucent watercolors of The genus Iris make for an almost otherworldly look at the family of flowers.

From “Die Cephalopoden T.2”.
Image credits Biodiversity Heritage Library / Flickr.
From “British sea-weeds, v. 1”.
Image credits Biodiversity Heritage Library / Flickr.
From “The genus Iris”.
Image credits Biodiversity Heritage Library / Flickr.

Still, this is, when you get down to it, a resource aimed at scientists. As such, it comes with a wide range of tools to help navigation and assist research: these include features to monitor online conversations related to books and articles in the archive or to find works related to a particular species. But, if all you want to do is look at the pretty pictures (I don’t blame you), the BIH also has an Instagram and Flickr account that you can check out.

“Through Flickr, BHL provides access to over 150,000 illustrations, enabling greater discovery and expanding its audience to the worlds of art and design. BHL also supports a variety of citizen science projects that encourage volunteers to help enhance collection data,” the Library’s about page adds. “Since its launch in 2006, BHL has served over 8 million people in over 240 countries and territories around the world.”

“Through ongoing collaboration, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to open access, the Biodiversity Heritage Library will continue to transform research on a global scale and ensure that everyone, everywhere has the information and tools they need to study, explore and conserve life on Earth.”

That’s definitely a goal I can get behind.

Meet the largest amphibian species — it’s been in a museum for 74 years

The salamander, which lived at the ZSL London Zoo, has been in a museum for 74 years. DNA analysis of confirms that it is indeed a unique species, and probably the largest amphibian that we know of.

New giant salamander species (Andrias sligoi) painting from ZSL archives.

The Chinese giant salamander used to roam the rivers of central, southern and eastern China. However, the species is now classified as critically endangered, which makes genetic analysis very challenging (you really don’t want to take samples when every individual is so important).

So instead, researchers used 17 museum specimens for genetic analysis.

They found that what was once considered a single species (Andrias davidianus) is actually three distinct species: Andrias sligoi, Andrias davidianus, and a third species which has yet to be named.

The former of these was actually proposed as a distinct species almost 100 years ago, in 1920 — but the idea was dropped due to insufficient evidence. This recent genetic analysis confirms the ideas of previous naturalists.

The unnamed species is only known from tissue samples and has not been formally described. Its conservation status is unknown, but it is almost certainly critically endangered — or even worse. Even when the three species were considered to be a single group, they were critically endangered; now that the individual species numbers are split even more, things can’t be better.

Unfortunately, salamanders in China have become highly sought-after, in the country’s luxury cuisine black market. Researchers say that this study can help conservationists better understand the evolution of the species, and therefore improve conservation strategies.

“The decline in wild Chinese giant salamander numbers has been catastrophic, mainly due to recent overexploitation for food,” says Professor Samuel Turvey of ZSL’s Institute of Zoology. “We hope that this new understanding of their species diversity has arrived in time to support their successful conservation, but urgent measures are required to protect any viable giant salamander populations that might remain.”

Salamanders are currently moved a lot around China, both for conservation and for usage in farms for the black market. The plans need to consider the existence of multiple separate species and attempt to reduce the risk of competition and genetic hybridisation.

Conservation centers can also play an important role in the species’ conservation. The ZSL recently received four juveniles in September 2016, which had been previously seized by Border Force after an attempt to illegally import them. The general idea with this conservation strategy is to breed the salamanders, then spread them in more conservation centers, and when a stable population is reached, start working on releasing them into the wild. The ZSL and local partners have also conducted extensive wildlife surveys to assess the state of the salamander population, with field surveys carried out at 97 sites over a four-year period between 2013 and 2016.

Melissa Marr, a researcher at the Natural History Museum London explains:

“These findings come at a time where urgent interventions are required to save Chinese giant salamanders in the wild. Our results indicate that tailored conservation measures should be put in place that preserve the genetic integrity of each distinct species. Our research also highlights the central role that The Natural History Museum’s collections can play in the conservation of Critically Endangered species.”

There’s another important aspect to this: one of the analyzed species is probably the world’s largest amphibians. Chinese giant salamanders have been considered the world’s biggest amphibians, reaching almost two meters (6.5 feet) in size. The newly discovered species Andrias sligoi is the largest of the three, and therefore, the largest of the 8,000 amphibian species alive today. It’s the world’s biggest salamander, but it’s potentially going extinct.

The study has been published in the journal Ecology & Evolution.

Black-capped chickadee.

Animals can experience post-traumatic stress disorder from exposure to predators

New research at Western University shows that animals can suffer post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms following exposure to predators.

Black-capped chickadee.

Black-capped chickadee.
Image via Skitterphoto.

Fear, especially strong fear such as that generated by life-threatening events, can cause significant and long-lasting changes in the circuitry of our brains. These neural changes lead to a host of shifts in behavior that we collectively refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Wild animals also experience these same changes in traumatic situations, new research shows. Fear of predators can lead to enduring neural changes that induce fearful behavior, comparable to effects seen in human PTSD patients.

Genetically-dictated fear

“These results have important implications for biomedical researchers, mental health clinicians, and ecologists,” explains Liana Zanette, a biology professor in Western’s Faculty of Science and lead author of the paper.

“Our findings support both the notion that PTSD is not unnatural, and that long-lasting effects of predator-induced fear with likely effects on fecundity and survival, are the norm in nature.”

The team worked with wild-caught black-capped chickadees at Western’s Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR). The birds were individually exposed to audio recordings of either predators or non-predator species for two days. Afterward, all birds were allowed to flock together in outdoor conditions for a week, during which they were not exposed to any further audio recordings.

They gauged ‘enduringly fearful behavior’ after this week-long period by measuring each individual’s reaction to hearing a chickadee alarm call distinct from those they were exposed to seven days previously. The team estimated each bird’s levels of fearfulness by measuring how long they remained ‘vigilant and immobile’ (i.e., ‘freezing’) upon first hearing the alarm calls. They used freezing as a proxy as it is an anti-predator behavior demonstrated in almost every type of animal, they explain.

“To assess effects on behaviour, individuals were again housed solitarily in acoustic isolation chambers, and all were exposed for 15 minutes to playbacks of conspecific alarm calls, a signal which, like hearing predator vocalizations, alerts the hearer to a predator danger,” the paper explains.

The long-term effects of exposure on the brain were assessed by measuring ∆FosB protein levels in the amygdala and hippocampus, two areas of the brain involved in PTSD in humans. The amygdala is responsible for fear processing and the acquisition and expression of fear memories, the team explains, whereas the hippocampus is involved in memory formation. ∆FosB is a transcription factor, meaning it can turn other genes on or off. It is “unusually stable” for a transcription factor (i.e. has long-lasting effects) and, among other things, is known to promote resistance to the consequences of chronic stress.

Zanette’s team is the first to show that the effects of predator exposure on the neural pathways that govern fear in animals can persist far beyond the initial ‘fight or flight’ response. They showed that this response remains measurable over one week later even for animals that have been allowed a peaceful, quality life after exposure.

They explain that retaining a powerful and enduring memory of a life-threatening predator encounter might seem crippling, but it’s actually evolutionarily-rewarding if it helps the individual avoid such events in the future. The team says their findings support the view that PTSD is the cost of inheriting an evolutionarily primitive mechanism that prioritizes survival over the quality of life.

The results suggest predator exposure could impair the behavior of prey species much more, and for longer than previously assumed. They also tie in well with past research in which Zanette and her collaborators show that scared parents are less able to care for their young.

The paper “Predator-induced fear causes PTSD-like changes in the brains and behaviour of wild animals” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Birds also prefer fancier neighborhoods — as long as there’s enough green space

 

In the developing world, where urbanization is taking place at an accelerated rate, this could be extremely important for native bird populations.

The African Olive Pigeon — a fancy bird which enjoys fancy neighborhoods. Image credits: Dom Henry.

All over the world, mankind is spreading. We’re building bigger cities, wider neighborhoods, more and more roads. Wildlife is trying to cope with this, and it’s doing it in different ways. Some species are thriving in human areas — species like rats and seagulls have grown to unprecedented numbers and follow the development of human settlements. Others (the vast majority) have withdrawn step by step, giving way to relentless urbanization.

Sometimes, this interaction happens in unexpected ways.

A study on birds in South Africa found a “luxury effect”: provided that birds had sufficient green spaces to establish a habitat, more species were present in richer areas than in poorer areas.

This luxury effect was previously described in some developed countries, and it doesn’t only apply to birds — insects, bats, and lizards all seem to prefer fancier neighborhoods. However, it doesn’t happen in all affluent neighborhoods. If there’s too much concrete and not enough green space, populations will dwindle. The effect is particularly visible in areas with greater investment in gardens, parks and other green spaces — think rich, quiet suburbs or large parks.

However, researchers found that tree cover alone can’t explain this effect. The diversity of trees and plants also drives a diversity of birds, and in general, encourages are more varied ecosystem. Lead author Professor Dan Chamberlain from the University of Turin said:

“This study shows that rich, leafy suburbs have more bird species, and probably higher biodiversity in general, than poor areas of the city or areas that have too much asphalt and concrete. Understanding the factors which drive the ‘luxury effect’ will help us to design more biodiversity-friendly cities in the future, thus promoting environmental justice for all urban inhabitants.”

Chamberlain and colleagues analyzed a broad range of environments and neighborhoods, with average incomes varying from $1,000 to $30,000. The findings were generally consistent regardless of the type of environment: the more affluent a neighborhood was, the more bird species it had, as long as it wasn’t too heavily built-up.

The case study is important because it confirms this luxury effect in a developing country and South Africa, in particular, is significant. A country with thriving biodiversity and roaring inequality, South Africa will need to consider its future development carefully if it wants to encourage a stable environment.

According to the study, “maintaining green space in at least an equal proportion to the built environment is likely to provide a development strategy that will enhance urban biodiversity, and with it, the positive benefits that are manifest for urban dwellers.”

The authors hope that the “findings can form a key contribution to a wider strategy to expand urban settlements in a sustainable way to provide for the growing urban population in South Africa, including addressing imbalances in environmental justice across income levels and racial groups.”

Co-author on the study, UCT Associate Professor Arjun Amar said:

“This work is of particular importance because it is one of the few studies conducted in a developing country, and the only study of its kind in Africa, where urbanisation is predicted to occur at a faster rate than any other region on the planet.”

Researchers hope that urban planners will use this information to ensure greater urban biodiversity, something which will help not only wildlife but also the urban dwellers. As for places that already developed without consideration for biodiversity, researchers also hope that they will address “imbalances in environmental justice across all income levels.”

The study “The relationship between wealth and biodiversity: A test of the Luxury Effect on bird species richness in the developing world” by Chamberlain et al was published in the journal Global Change Biology. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.14682

Microscope image of the billion-year-old fungi discovered in Canada's Arctic coast. Credit: Corentin Loron.

The first fungi may be a billion years old

Microscope image of the billion-year-old fungi discovered in Canada's Arctic coast. Credit: Corentin Loron.

Microscope image of the billion-year-old fungi discovered on Canada’s Arctic coast. Credit: Corentin Loron.

Fossils unearthed in Canada suggests that fungi — organisms that include mushrooms, mold, and yeast — are at least a billion years old. The discovery pushes back the existence of fungi by almost 500 million years and reshapes our understanding of how life on land appeared.

Really old shrooms

The tiny fossil specimens were found embedded in ancient rocks that are 900 million to 1 billion years old, according to radiocarbon dating. Corentin Loron, a Ph.D. student at the University of Liege in Belgium, knew they were dealing with some ancient fungi after they found evidence of chitin — a fibrous substance that forms on the fungal cell walls.

To reveal the fungal structures, the researchers first had to dissolve the rocks in which they were found with acid. After the minerals were removed, many floating microfossils became visible. These look like a partially deflated balloon with a stalk at the base which is connected to a long tube that links up with other balloon-shaped structures. Modern fungi look very similar, where the balloon structure is meant to hold spores while the tubes allow the organism to grow and expand across a surface. However, the billion-year-old fungi, which the researchers named Ourasphaira giraldae, have a unique characteristic: the stalk branches off at a right angle.

Fungi are eukaryotes, meaning they’re organisms whose cells possess a clearly defined nucleus. Plants and animals fall under the same eukaryote family.

“This means that if fungi are already present around 900-1000 million years ago, so should animals have been,” Loron told AFP.

“This is reshaping our vision of the world because those groups are still present today. Therefore, this distant past, although very different from today, may have been much more ‘modern’ than we thought.”

Previously, genetic studies suggested that fungi first appeared long before animals, about 900 million years ago. This new study agrees almost perfectly with the molecular data. If the dating is indeed accurate, it means we now have a clearer picture of when plants and animals branched off from one-celled eukaryotes.

Another thing that these findings show is that fungi are amazing creatures. Even today, perhaps a billion years later, they’re still incredibly successful. They’re among the most abundant organisms on the planet after plants and bacteria, being responsible for a third of the world’s biomass. All the fungi on the planet are actually six times heavier than the mass of all animals combined.

The study appeared in the journal Nature.

Chernobyl has turned into a thriving habitat for hundreds of species

Without disruptive human activity, the ‘exclusion zone’ of Chernobyl has become a green oasis teeming with life. Defying expectations, the heavily irradiated area has become a vibrant wildlife hub.

In a way, Chernobyl is one big tragic science lab. Image credits: Yasemin Atalay/Unsplash.

A tragic accident

The fateful day of 26 April, 1986, will forever remain in history as the date of the disastrous Chernobyl explosion. The largest nuclear accident in history, the Chernobyl explosion emitted more than 400 times the radiation from the bomb dropped over Hiroshima during World War II. It’s unclear just how many people were killed directly and indirectly by the event, but the kill count is huge. More than 350,000 people were evacuated from the site and never returned.

The environment was also dramatically affected by the explosion. The infamous “Red Forest” was closest to the nuclear plant, and took the brunt of the radiation. Almost all its trees were killed by the radiation, with the leaves turning red (hence the name). All but a handful of animals were also killed, and the survivors all had taken high doses of radiation. Most scientists believed that the area would be abandoned by wildlife, becoming a ‘desert’ for centuries.

They were wrong.

Just 33 years after the explosion, the area is inhabited by over 200 species, including bison, brown bears, lynxes, horses, and countless birds. Even with all the radiation, the lack of human activity was enough to spur a thriving ecosystem.

Defying the odds

European bison, boreal lynx, moose and brown bear photographed inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Ukraine). Image credits: Proyecto TREE/Sergey Gaschack.

The area around Chernobyl is not exactly a safe space. There’s still a dangerous amount of radiation, and spending more than a day or two can be quite risky. However, several groups of scientists were curious to see how the wildlife at Chernobyl was faring. After all, it’s a rare chance to study a unique environment, with conditions that aren’t present anywhere else in the world.

In Portsmouth, England, about 30 researchers from Europe met up to present their results on the wildlife in Chernobyl. It all pointed to the same thing: the environment seemed to have recovered greatly and life there had started to develop adaptations to living in high levels of radiation. For instance, researchers studying amphibians, one of the more delicate groups of creatures, have observed well-established communities in the area, which are showing some signs of adaptations, such as turning darker.

Motion cameras installed in the area have also captured images of large mammals such as bison, wolves, moose, and even horses (Przewalski horses, the world’s last free horses), which seem to be doing fine and increasing in numbers despite the radiation levels in the exclusion area.

However, that’s not to say that the radiation doesn’t have a negative effect. Insects tend to have a shorter lifespan in the area, and some birds are showing higher rates of albinism and physical malformations.

Images taken with some of the camera traps reveal stunningly active animal communities.

It’s not exactly clear why the animals around Chernobyl are doing so well, although researchers have a few theories. The first one is that animals are simply more resilient to radiation than anticipated, or they are developing adaptations much faster than expected. This would be great news — but the other theory isn’t nearly as optimistic.

Simply put, what makes Chernobyl different nowadays is the presence of radiation and the absence of humans. If the animals are doing better than in other parts of the world, it could mean that the environmental pressure generated by humans is larger than a nuclear explosion — a revealing vision of the type of impact we’re having on the world.

The future of Chernobyl

It’s not exactly clear what will happen to the area now. It’s still a contaminated area, but in recent years, interest regarding Chernobyl has spiked from more than one group. Scientists are interested in studying it because it serves as a natural laboratory. The site has also developed into a bit of a tourist attraction, for small groups interested in a different kind of experience. Officially, some 70,000 tourists have visited the area in 2018 alone, though the real number is likely much higher. There are also plans for developing a solar panel field in the area, as well as expanding forestry. Last year, there was even an art gallery and a techno party inside of Pripyat, the now-abandoned city which hosted Chernobyl.

As weird as it sounds, in the long run, we might have to think of ways to conserve the thriving wildlife in Chernobyl and ensure that this unlikely oasis continues to survive without human interference.

Over 13 tons of pangolin scales have been seized in a single bust in Singapore

The shipment, worth an estimated US$38.7 million on the black market, also contained 177kg of and carved
elephant ivory.

The pangolin is the only scaled mammal. It’s also threatened by extinction, largely due to trafficking. Image credits: David Brossard.

The pangolin is one of the most trafficked animals on Earth, accounting for as much as 20% of all illegal wildlife trade. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that over a million animals have been poached in 2004-2014, and the trend does not seem to slow down.

“The container was declared to have contained cassia seeds,” Singapore’s National Parks Board, Customs and Immigration and Checkpoints Authority said in a joint statement, adding that the shipment came from Nigeria.

This is the second massive seizure of pangolin scales after a 12.9-ton package was discovered last week, also from Nigeria. That one was labeled as “frozen beef.”

The seizure of 12.7 tons of scales, worth an estimated $38 million, follows last week’s haul of 12.9 tons. The scales in that seizure, the biggest of its kind worldwide in five years, were said to have come from about 17,000 pangolins. Singaporean authorities estimate that the scale capture came from 17,000 and 21,000 pangolins respectively (different species have somewhat differently-sized scales).

There are two main reasons why these unfortunate animals are trafficked: as luxury bushmeat (in Vietnam and China), and for use in traditional Chinese medicine (and to a lesser extent, to traditional African medicine) — needless to say, there is no science whatsoever supporting these practices. Increasingly, African communities are also using pangolins for spiritual and occult practices.

Tree pangolin. Image credits: Valerius Tygart.

The pangolin is a harmless cat-sized animal which eats ants and termites. It inhabits central and southern parts of Africa, as well as India and south-east Asia. There are currently 8 pangolin species, all of which are hunted and trafficked, and all of which are threatened by extinction — with official IUCN designations ranging from “Vulnerable” to “Critically Endangered.”

Governments and non-governmental organizations have undertaken a variety of conservation efforts to protect pangolins. The pangolin needs to enjoy public support to be able to survive. According to Annette Olsson, technical advisor at Conservation International, one of the problems the pangolin faces is that, unlike more well-known endangered animals, it’s just not cute enough. “It’s not huge and not very charismatic. It’s small and weird and just disappearing,” Olsson commented. The fact that conservationists have found it very hard to breed pangolins in captivity is also an issue: in addition to not having a reliable breeding program, it also means that people are more unfamiliar with the creatures.

In addition to notoriety and conservation programs, pangolins also need firmer legislative support. Under the Endangered Species (Import & Export) Act, the maximum penalty for illegal import, export and re-export of wildlife is a fine of up to $500,000 and/or 2 years’ imprisonment —  hardly a solid deterrent. Hopefully, these seizures will send a strong signal to poachers everywhere.

Earth’s last wilderness areas may soon be lost, study warns

A new study on the planet’s last remaining marine wildernesses finds similar results to what was observed on land: the world’s last wild areas are disappearing, and fast.

Explicit, urgent, and decisive measures are required if we want to preserve what’s left of the planet’s last wild areas. Researchers from the University of Queensland recently mapped ocean ecosystems that have remained unchanged, complementing a 2016 project charting remaining terrestrial wilderness.

The initial land study brought forth some worrying results, says Professor James Watson, from UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

“A century ago, only 15 per cent of the Earth’s surface was used by humans to grow crops and raise livestock,” he said. “Today, more than 77% of land — excluding Antarctica — and 87% of the ocean has been modified by the direct effects of human activities.”

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”Wild things” footer=””]A wilderness area is a region that’s not been strongly affected by human activity. It can also be called a wild or natural area, but in many countries, Wilderness Area actually has a legal meaning.

Most scientists and conservationists agree that no place on earth is completely untouched by humanity, either due to past occupation or through global processes like climate change, but in a wilderness area, human impact is still minimal.[/panel]

Image credits: Nature.

Now, Watson and colleagues have published similar results on ocean habitats, finding that outside the polar areas, there are almost no wilderness areas — and if current trends continue, they will soon be altered too.

“In the ocean, the only regions that are free of industrial fishing, pollution and shipping are almost completely confined to the polar regions,” he adds.

Postdoctoral Research Fellow James R. Allan, who is also a study author, said the world’s remaining wilderness could only be protected if they are clearly defined in national and international policy and if urgent measures are taken to protect them. Particularly, international accountability is necessary, he argues.

“Some wilderness areas are protected under national legislation, but in most nations, these areas are not formally defined, mapped or protected,” he said. “There is nothing to hold nations, industry, society or communities to account for long-term conservation.”

“We need the immediate establishment of bold wilderness targets — specifically those aimed at conserving biodiversity, avoiding dangerous climate change and achieving sustainable development.”

Overall, 77% of land — excluding Antarctica — and 87% of oceans had been modified by human intervention. Furthermore, just five countries (Australia, the US, Brazil, Russia, and Canada) host the world’s remaining wilderness areas.

It’s crucial that these five nations take an active leadership role in protecting what’s left of the wild areas, and all other countries step in as well, researchers add. The team is calling for an international agreement to protect 100% of remaining intact ecosystems, which they believe is still feasible.

“It’s achievable to have a target of 100%,” Watson said. “All nations need to do is stop industry from going into those places.”

The study was published in Nature.

Enigmatic creatures that lived 630 million years ago were animals — but not like anything we’ve seen before

The year is 600 million BC — and the Earth is a completely different place from what we know it to be. The most advanced creatures on Earth are (probably) the so-called Ediacaran fauna. To the untrained eye, they look just like plants, static and seemingly inactive. But things are not always as they seem.

The Ediacaran fauna has fascinated scientists for years, trying to figure out whether they were algae, fungi, animals, or of a completely different kingdom. Now, a group of scientists believes they finally have the answer. In a new study, they present convincing arguments that the Ediacaran fauna were indeed animals.

Dickinsonia costata, an iconic Ediacaran organism. Image credits: Verisimilus / Wikipedia.

They dominated the seas all around the world, with traces of their fossils appearing in all corners of the Earth. The Ediacaran fauna first emerged some 635 million years ago, only to disappear quickly after the Cambrian Explosion, some 542 million years ago. Part of the reason why these creatures have been so hard to pin down is their unique anatomy. They featured tubular-type fronds, which branch out in a fractal matter. They bear a resemblance to mollusks (and other creatures with a similar symmetry), but they also resemble some sponges and even jellyfish. Some paleontologists have suggested that they represent a completely extinct branch of life, perhaps even a link between plants and animals.

But a new study says that they were definitely animals — and it brings the evidence to back it up.

Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Jian Han at Northwest University in Xi’an, China, analyzed more than 200 fossils of a 518-million-year-old marine species named Stromatoveris psygmoglena.

It was already believed that this creature was some sort of animal, but it was not clear whether it also belonged to the Ediacaran fauna. If this connection could be established, then it would indicate that the Ediacaran fauna were indeed animals.

Cuthill and Han ran a computer analysis, using anatomical features to reconstruct evolutionary relationships between Stromatoveris and creatures genetically close to it. They found that Stromatoveris, just like all other Ediacaran organisms they analyzed, didn’t belong to any living animal group (or phylum). They have their own branch, somewhere between the simple sea sponges and more complex animals such as worms and mollusks.

“This branch, the Petalonamae, could well be its own phylum, and it apparently lacks any living descendants,” Hoyal Cuthill says.

There’s a very good chance that the Ediacaran fauna were the world’s first animals, but this opens up another thorny question: the extinction of the Ediacaran was linked to Cambrian animals. But if they themselves were animals (and some survived well into the Cambrian), the explanation isn’t so elegant anymore.

“It’s not quite so neat anymore,” she says. “As to what led to their eventual extinction I think it’s very hard to say.”

The study was published in Paleontology.

Butcher.

Study weighs environmental costs of producing animal proteins so you know what to buy

Our food choices help shape the environment around us. A new study looks at how livestock, farmed seafood, and wild-caught fish compare in the environmental impact department — so we know exactly what our choices of animal protein entail.

Butcher.

Image via Public Domain Pictures.

The study’s authors call it the most comprehensive look at the effect different types of animal protein production have on the environment. While the rating depends on exactly which criteria you’re looking at, in general, industrial beef production and farmed catfish are the most taxing on the environment, while small, wild-caught fish and farmed mollusks like oysters, mussels and scallops have the lowest environmental impact, they report.

What to eat

“From the consumer’s standpoint, choice matters,” says lead author Ray Hilborn, a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington.

“If you’re an environmentalist, what you eat makes a difference. We found there are obvious good choices, and really obvious bad choices.”

The team drew their data from previously-published life-cycle assessments for various types of animal protein production. The dataset included hundreds of papers penned throughout the last decade. This type of assessment is also known as a ‘cradle-to-grave’ analysis, as it accounts for a product’s environmental impact during every stage of its life. The team started with over 300 papers assessing animal-associated food production, which they whittled down to 148 studies that were comprehensive enough for the team’s purpose without being focused on a too-narrow subject.

Each type of animal food production was broadly analyzed through the prism of four metrics: energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, potential to contribute excess nutrients to the environment (such as fertilizers), and each’s potential to emit substances that contribute to acid rain. The present analysis also included other environmental impacts such as water demand, pesticide use, antibiotic use, and soil erosion. However, as they were only addressed in some of the studies the team drew on, the team didn’t use them as overarching points of comparison.

Production methods analyzed include aquaculture (farmed seafood), livestock farming, and wild-capture seafood. To make the environmental impacts easily relatable, they were calculated for the daily recommended serving of protein,  40 grams (1.4 oz), across all food types, where data permitted.

Meat me halfway

All in all, the paper found some stark differences in the impacts associated with different types of animal protein. Certain production methods are just better from an ecological standpoint — across all measures. Farmed shellfish and mollusks, as well as wild-capture sardines, mackerel, and herring show some of the lowest ecological footprints. Wild-capture whitefish like pollock, hake, or cod, also had relatively low environmental impacts, as did farmed salmon.

Livestock farming scored strongly for energy use, even better than most types of aquaculture. For example, catfish, shrimp, and tilapia aquaculture consume a lot of energy, since they require constant water circulation — which means constant energy use.

Mollusk (oysters, mussels, or scallops, for example) aquaculture scored high on nutrient leaks — these animals actually absorb excess nutrients in the ecosystems, helping to insulate them from fertilizer pollution, for example. Beef production, on the other hand, rated very poorly here, since the waste winds up in waterways. Capture fisheries scored better here than aquaculture or livestock — it doesn’t require any fertilizer.

Livestock farming scored poorly in the acid rain category because of methane emissions associated with their rearing. Catfish aquaculture and beef production release 20 times more greenhouse gases than small capture fisheries, mollusk, salmon or chicken farming. Farmed mollusks rated the highest here, followed by small capture fisheries and salmon aquaculture. Capture fisheries fell behind in the emissions department due to the high fuel consumption associated with sending vessels out to sea. Small schooling fish like herring and anchovy uses the least fuel, but pot fisheries for lobster use lot of fuel and thus have a high impact per unit of protein produced. Trawling (dragging nets through water) has a variable impact, mostly dependent on the availability of fish stocks.

Quite surprisingly, the paper finds that a selective diet of aquaculture and wild-capture fish has a lower overall environmental impact than vegetarian or vegan diets (as calculated in previous studies). One metric the team didn’t include in their study is how each production method impacts biodiversity — but they plan to factor it in in the future.

“I think this is one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” Hilborn said. “Policymakers need to be able to say, ‘There are certain food production types we need to encourage, and others we should discourage.'”

The researchers advise that consumers decide what environmental impacts are most important to them, then use the results to select what they put on the plate.

The paper “Choice matters: The environmental costs of producing meat, seafood” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Nipah.

Three confirmed, six suspected deaths from emerging Nipah virus in India

Health officials in the state of Kerala, India, report that nine people lost their lives in confirmed and suspected case of the emerging Nipah virus.

Nipah.

Transmission electron micrograph (TEM) showing a number of Nipah virus virions isolated from a patient’s cerebrospinal fluid.
Image credits CDC / C. S. Goldsmith, P. E. Rollin.

Three victims have tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks. The results from the other six are expected later today. A further twenty-five people have been hospitalized with symptoms indicative of the same infection in Kozhikode, Kerala.

Nipah is one of the viruses on the list of the most dangerous viral threats, candidates for a major outbreak, published by the WHO — in fact, it was at the top of the list. It got there by virtue of two characteristics: Nipah can be transmitted to humans from animal hosts, and there is no current treatment against it. Nipah has a mortality rate of 70%.

Fruit bats are currently considered to be one of the most prolific carriers and spreaders of the virus. Local authorities reported finding mangoes bitten by bats in the home of three suspected Nipah victims. Furthermore, Kerala’s health secretary Rajeev Sadanandan told the BBC that a nurse who treated the patients had also died. However, doctors are yet to confirm if she had contracted the Nipah virus, The Indian Express adds.

“We have sent blood and body fluid samples of all suspected cases for confirmation to National Institute of Virology in Pune. So far, we got confirmation that three deaths were because of Nipah,” he said.

“We are now concentrating on precautions to prevent the spread of the disease since the treatment is limited to supportive care.”

The first time we had seen the Nipah virus (NiV) was during a 1999 outbreak of encephalitis and respiratory illness in Malaysia and Singapore. The outbreak centered around pig farmers and other people in close contact with pigs, suggesting the animals were helping spread the disease. More than a million animals were euthanized in a bid to limit the spread.

The outbreak reached nearly 300 confirmed human infections and 100 deaths. However, in subsequent NiV outbreaks, there were no intermediate hosts.

Nipah’s symptoms include fever, headache, drowsiness, respiratory illness, disorientation and mental confusion — and can progress to coma within 24-48 hours. The WHO recommends avoiding contact with sick pigs or bats in endemic areas, as well as not drinking raw date palm sap as precautions against infection.

10 of the Weirdest Prehistoric Creatures

Eons ago, many millennia before written history, bizarre animals roamed the Earth. The most renowned of these prehistoric creatures were the dinosaurs. Countless films have been made featuring these great reptiles. But during the various epochs of our world’s prehistory there existed many other weird and wonderful beasts. And many of them had names that were even weirder.

You will find some of these to be even more fascinating than dinosaurs. It was in this era before the dominance of mankind that life on Earth underwent a great deal of evolution. And, in fact, the Earth itself, its land masses and oceans, also evolved drastically.

Ichthyostega

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Living in the late Devonian period, Ichthyostega was one of the earliest amphibian-like animals. It had the head and tail of a fish, and it needed to return to the water in order to breed. The feature which differentiated Ichthyostega from lobe-finned fish was the limbs. In Ichthyostega, the fins were jointed, with leg and toe bones. Ichthyostega‘s foot was odd by modern standards. It had eight toes.

Sharovipteryx

Sharovipteryx. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Scientists believe Sharovipteryx to be an ancestral link to the winged reptiles the pterosaurs. Not classified as a true pterosaur itself, it lived in the early Triassic period over 240 million years ago. It’s in a class of its own. The creature’s remains have been unearthed at the Madygen Formation in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia. It was a mere one foot in length. It had four appendages which seem to have possessed thin flaps of skin like wings. The two forelimbs were quite short, and the rear limbs were much longer. Some theorize this design enabled Sharovipteryx to jump with ease. Paleontologists believe its mode of transportation was more like gliding than true flying.

Longisquama

Longisquama. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Longisquama. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

This creature was what has been called a diapsid. The diapsids were a reptilian subclass which eventually would evolve into the most important reptile subclass. But it began as a small group of climbing and gliding reptiles. The diapsids lived in forests located on the supercontinent Pangea during the Triassic period. Thus, Pangea was the place Longisquama would have called home.

The skeleton’s most stunning feature is a double row of long scale-like structures running along its back, forming six to eight pairs. It had one pair of scales for each of its pairs of ribs. The scales had a central hollow vein, like bird feathers. But unlike feathers, Longisquama‘s scales seem to have been formed of flat sheets and not genuine plumes. This is the creature featured in this article’s header image.

Stagonolepis

Illustration of an Aetosaur. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

 

Stagonolepis was an aetosaur, sometimes also synonymically referred to as a stagonolepid. The Triassic world was filled with a vast variety of crocodilian species. The aetosaurs were unique among the early crocodiles since they were herbivorous. Unlike modern crocs, they were vegetarians. And Stagonolepis was one of the most prevalent of the stagonolepids at the close of the Triassic. Its long, narrow body was armor-coated, and it was capable of reaching a length of nine feet. Some artist renderings depict a creature which rather resembles a modern armadillo.

Casea

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The caseids were another group of early reptiles. No reptile living today looked as odd as the Casea. The massive pig-like body, tiny head, overhanging upper jaw with peg-like teeth, and lower jaw with no teeth gave Casea a goofy look. These prehistoric creatures had large ribcages and were capable of reaching four feet long. Their prime occurred in the late Permian period. The term “casea” means “cheesy.”

Nothosaurus

Nothosaurus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Nothosaurus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Nothosaurs were related to the plesiosaurs but did not always have the best physical capabilities for coping with marine life. These reptiles did not have gills. So they had to come up to the surface for fresh air. Their long necks which would have easily been able to sneak into a school of fish were a big asset when it came to catching their prey.

Nothosaurus is one example of a nothosaur. Others such as Ceresiosaurus, Pachypleurosaurus, and Lariosaurus are also classified as nothosaurs. A good deal of our basic understanding of these marine reptiles comes from Dr. Oliver Rieppel of the Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois. Nothosaurus itself lived in the mid-Triassic, and its name’s meaning is translated as “false lizard.” Scientists have considered two possibilities as to how the animals gave birth to their offspring. The eggs were laid on the sandy shores like modern sea turtles. Or a Nothosaurus would give live birth to its young at sea just as some sharks do today.

Stegosaurus

3D Model of Stegosaurus

You know, it would be kind of unfair not to include at least one dinosaur in this list. (Although, cinema and literature have almost made them overrated.) What is so special or weird about Stegosaurus apart from the fact that it was a dinosaur? Well, it isn’t really. It is primarily included on this top ten list in order to clear up some misconceptions and mysteries surrounding its public consideration. Dwelling in the prehistoric Americas in the late Jurassic period, Stegosaurus had bony plates along its back and small ossicles covering its throat.

In relation to the creature’s mass, it has the smallest brain of all dinosaurs. Speaking of brains, here is another fun fact which some people still may have never heard. For a time, scientists were throwing out the hypothesis that a certain organ located in the tail of a Stegosaurus was responsible for performing some actions in the dinosaur’s posterior end.

However, the mass of nerves or whatever organ it may have been is no longer considered to have been a true brain. As for its renowned plates, scientists have made several speculations as to their function. They could have been for simple body defense when sparring with its peers or evading predators. They might have been for storing up heat during the day to then “burn up” after the sun went down. Or the plates even could have a means to attract mates.

Thylacosmilus

 

 

Artist Rendering of Thylacosmilus

 

Thylacosmilus obviously has the body style of a saber-toothed tiger. Interestingly enough, the animal also happened to be a marsupial. A marsupial is simply an animal which has a pouch of skin in which to carry its newborn young for a period. Modern marsupials include kangaroos and opossums. Living in the late Tertiary period, Thylacosmilus had strong, long-lived family relationships. Any restoration is far from perfect since a full skeleton has never been found.

Tsaidamotherium

Credit: Frontiers of Zoology.

Credit: Frontiers of Zoology.

Considered a pronghorn, Tsaidamotherium lived in the late Tertiary and bears some resemblance to the musk ox of present-day. Its body shape seems related to that of bovines. Tsaidamotherium was a grazing creature like many of its Miocene peers and lived on the Mongolian plains. It possessed one great cylindrical horn ontop its forehead and directly in the center. Another much smaller horn was located directly adjacent to it.

The likely function that its larger horn is supposed to have carried out was perhaps for display to attract a counterpart of the opposite gender. At first glance then, this creature could resemble the description of the mythical beast the unicorn. Dougal Dixon states this same relation in The World Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Creatures.

Megatherium

Artist Depiction of Megatherium. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

 

As the name implies, this brute was a pretty large mammal. It was actually a giant ground sloth related to modern sloths. An inhabitant of South America during the Quaternary period, an adult standing on its hind legs could reach a height of 20 feet. Megatherium was previously regarded as a slow tree ripper. But recent studies show that its great claws might have been used for stabbing and killing. If this was the purpose of its claws, it would make the giant sloth the largest predator of the South American plains.

Scientists say cheetahs should be on the endangered list

It’s bad news for one of the most iconic creatures on Earth: a comprehensive assessment of cheetah populations reveals that the big cats’ numbers have decreased dramatically. Researchers now want to list the fastest land animal as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Cheetahs grooming each other. Image credits: Stolz, Gary M., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

An international team led by Florian Weise of the Claws Conservancy and Varsha Vijay of Duke University, working with National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, analyzed more than two million collared cheetah observations as well as 20,000 observations from both the research community and the general public. They concluded that across 789,700 square kilometers in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, a prime area for cheetahs, only 3,577 adults remain. They believe this justifies changing the classification of the animals from Vulnerable to Endangered.

“This collaborative, multiyear effort sounds the alarm about the state of cheetah populations in southern Africa, shining a light on the imperative need to protect these majestic predators,” said Gary E. Knell, President and CEO, National Geographic Society.

“The National Geographic Society is proud to support such a comprehensive assessment and similar efforts aimed at safeguarding our most precious species, their habitats and the planet we call home.”

The area they studied isn’t the only one to host cheetahs, but it does host the largest free-roaming population on Earth. In other, more remote areas, the paper believes 3,250 cheetahs still roam. Together, that’s less than 8,000 individuals, which is disturbing and not nearly enough for a healthy population.

“Around the world, big cats are suffering big losses and having big trouble in more and more human-dominated landscapes,” says study co-lead author Florian Weise of the Massachusetts-based conservation group Claws Conservancy.

The only encouraging news from this study comes from the methodology. The fact that researchers were able to incorporate so many observations, both from a professional setting and from the general public, could enable us to better understand big cat populations, which are struggling in most parts of the world.

“We have a larger degree of certainty in the lower estimate because it is based on those areas where we have recorded estimates of cheetahs,” says study co-lead author Varsha Vijay, who specialises in geospatial analysis for The Pimm Group at Duke University.

“There is greater uncertainty in the higher estimate because it assumes the very optimistic scenario that all the areas we identified as potential cheetah habitat are occupied by cheetahs at similar densities to the areas with confirmed cheetah presence,” Vijay says.

The cheetah’s complete home range. Image credits: Al Pereira / Wikipedia.

But for the cheetahs, things don’t really look so good. Humans have altered around 90% of their historic habitat, and with cheetahs having ranges of tens to hundreds of square kilometers, cornering them in can have devastating consequences. In prehistoric times, the cheetah was distributed throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. Gradually, they vanished from Europe and started to retreat more and more in the face of an expanding humankind. Nearly 500 years ago, the cheetah was still common throughout Africa, with an estimated range of 25,344,648 km2 (9,785,623 sq mi). As of 2015, their range has decreased by 89%. Nowadays, cheetahs exist mostly in eastern and southern Africa, with only fragmented, isolated populations in Iran, Afghanistan, and India. People are repurposing the land cheetahs used to prowl for agriculture. Farmers won’t hesitate to kill cheetahs, which they see as a threat to livestock. Cheetahs are also sometimes hit by cars and poached. This sum of threats might just be too much for the cheetahs to handle.

The IUCN Red List is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. IUCN is the main authority on animal conservation, with both animals and plants potentially included on the list as Vulnerable, Endangered, and Critically Endangered. An endangered species is a species which has been categorized as very likely to become extinct. Generally speaking, the IUCN will move a species from Vulnerable to Endangered if there’s a decline in 50 to 70 percent of the population over 10 years or three generations (whichever is longer). But even if they are reclassified, this might not improve things significantly. Just 18.4 percent of the southern African cheetah range lies within protected lands. Farmers will still continue to change the land according to their needs, they will continue to shoot cheetahs on site, and poachers will continue to poach. That’s where action needs to be taken if we want future generations to grow up in a world with emblematic big cats.

“The future of the cheetah relies heavily on working with farmers who host these big cats on their lands, bearing the heaviest cost of coexistence,” concludes Weise.

The study was published in the journal PeerJ.

Italian Parliament votes to ban animals from circuses

The law passed in Italy calls for a gradual elimination of all animal circus acts in the country. Thus, Italy joins 50 other countries and states which have already banned animals in circuses.

“We applaud Italy and urge countries like the U.K. and the U.S. to follow this example and end this cruelty,” said Jan Creamer, president of Animal Defenders International, which supported the launch of the bill.

Image credits: Martin Lacey.

It’s been well documented that a circus environment goes hand in hand with animal cruelty. Animal welfare groups have documented many such cases in the training of performing circus animals. Even if trainers treat animals decently (which is often not the case), animal circuses are still riddled with animal cruelty. Living in a small cage, constantly on the road, and having to learn and perform tricks in front of large crowds is no way of life for animals.

More and more countries are starting to address this issue. In recent years, the European countries of Romania and the Netherlands have also banned the practice while just last week, the Indian government passed a similar bill. These moves are highly justified.

Before passing the ban, the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality of the Netherlands asked researchers from Wageningen University to conduct an investigation into the welfare of circus animals. Here are some of the issues they found:

  • 71% of the observed animals had medical problems
  • 33% of tigers and lions did not have access to an outdoor enclosure
  • Lions spend on average 98% of their time indoors
  • An average enclosure for tigers is only 5 m2
  • Elephants are shackled in chains for 17 hours a day on average
  • Elephants spend on average 10 hours a day showing stereotypic behaviour — abnormal behavior exhibited solely by animals subjected to barren environments, scheduled or restricted feedings, social deprivation, and other cases of frustration
  • Tigers are terrified of fire but are still forced to jump through fire rings
  • Since 1990 there have been over 123 cases of lion attacks at circuses
  • Animals are trained through physical discipline

Over the years, no animals were spared from circuses. Image: Barnum & Bailey clowns and geese, circa 1900.

This is quite similar to what’s happening in circuses in Italy or in other parts of the world. In 2015, the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe adopted a position paper in which it recommends prohibiting of the use of wild animals in all traveling circuses.

Thankfully, more and more governments are starting to tackle this issue. Over 50 countries now have total or partial bans on circus animals and animal-free circuses are becoming more and more common. It’s encouraging to see Italy also join them. The US and the UK have only implemented partial or local bans.

However, there are also concerns about how this law was passed, as some say it still leaves a lot of wiggle room. Concerns loom about how “gradual” the change will be and whether the law leaves any room for ambivalence.

Mouse.

Mice will pick social rules over might-makes-right, hinting at the birth of human societies and laws

Living in a group can be a hard thing to navigate, especially as an individual’s short-term interest can conflict strongly with the group’s long-term interests. A new paper looks into how mice juggle costs and benefits in social settings, with implications for other animals and humans as well.

Mouse.

Image via Pixabay.

People have learned to live together in huge communities, and a big part of that is solving conflicts through compromise and by following rules, instead of making justice with one’s fists. The sheer scale and complexity of the frameworks of rules we use to guide these resolutions, as well as our heavy reliance on cooperation, sets us apart from other animals.

Still, this also raises a question. How did this web of rules and cooperation evolve, and can other animals set up new social rules to help guide their interaction? A new study from the Center for Cognition and Sociality, part of the Institute for Basic Science (IBS), shows that lab mice can establish and then follow rules that are equitable (provide equal rewards in the long-term) even if they have to exercise patience and tolerance in the short-term. The findings provide a glimpse into how humans and other animals weigh costs and benefits in social interactions.

I don’t make the rules I just work here

Competition can be a powerful tool to getting what you want and need. But it’s also a very risky, one-against-all strategy, which comes with great costs both of time and of energy. With that in mind, humans generally adopt rules to guide how people with conflicting interests solve their differences without having to resort to aggression. The ‘first-come, first-served’ approach, or territorial ownership, are examples of such rules that, in the long-term, maximize the mutual benefit of everybody involved.

Other species also follow such rules. Some species of social spiders, the team notes, will back away when trespassing on someone else’s territory and will look for an unoccupied place. Rodents, however, are known to be impulse-driven, especially when food is concerned. A mouse would rather eat a small amount of food now than wait for a large serving later. Chow, after all, is a matter of survival.

However, the IBS researchers were curious to see how well-fed mice would behave when presented with a less immediate and necessary reward — could they learn to adapt to new social rules to maximize the rewards for all involved?

In lieu of food, the team used headsets that could produce a wireless electrical brain stimulation (WBS) in the medial forebrain bundle, the brain’s reward circuitry. The mice would feel this as a very powerful (yet nonaddictive) sense of pleasure, which they tend to prefer even over mating, as previous work revealed.

The mice were then trained using a specially designed box. It had a starting area in the center, and two reward zones to its left and right. The animals learned to start the round by entering the central area, and then follow a blue light indicating one of the reward zones. The light was randomly allocated and indicated where a mouse had to go to receive a five-second WBS pleasure-burst.

For the experiment, the team first placed two trained mice in the same box, setting them up for a winner-takes-all scenario. The mice had to further learn that the round only started when both entered the start zone together. Moreover, they had to figure out that only the first mouse to enter would receive the WBS — as soon as the second one entered the same zone, the signal was interrupted.

Cooperation rules

Over time, the researchers report, mice developed a “social rule” through which to split up the box. One mouse would only go for the pleasure doses on the left zone, while the other would only go for those on the right. Out of the 38 mice tested in this step, 23 (60%) observed the rule and waited for their turn. Those that respected the rule went through more rounds during the experiment than their peers, thus receiving more reward time overall. In other words, despite the initial effort of obeying the rules, teams of cooperating mice got more reward for each member than those who didn’t work together.

“Violating the rule is not a problem in the short term, but it is not sustainable in the long-term,” says Professor Shin Hee-Sup, corresponding author of the study. “Mice that respect the social rule learn how to play to their mutual advantage.”

However, he admits that the mice were still tempted to cheat the system and get some extra reward out of the situation. “From time to time,” even the most cooperating mice would, after waiting for a few seconds so as not to disrupt the other mouse’s WBS hit, “try their luck by going to the opponent’s territory,” Hee-Sup explains. Here is where another rule underpinning social cooperation comes into play.

“Another rule is tolerance. If a mouse violates the rule, the other mouse has the choice of retaliate immediately, or tolerate and keep on observing the rule. Tit for tat brings a disruption of the system, while tolerance to partner’s mistakes allows the system to continue, and as a result both mice receive a long-term benefit,” explains the professor. “This is called Bourgeois strategy in psychology. It limits aggression and is better for the long-term.”

Overall, rule observance increased over time during the test. This happened independently of the mice’s body weight or learning ability. To prevent habit (such as a mouse forming a preference for one side of the box) from biasing the results, the authors also swapped members between the teams to couple rats that had previously gone on the same side. Disoriented and confused at first, the animals quickly re-assigned territory, one going to the left and one to the right. This phenomenon is known as “rapid rule transfer,” and shows that mice are capable of adapting the same social rule to new situations.

In the future, the authors want to see if familiarity between the mice influences their tendency to observe the rules. Another interesting avenue of research would be to see if the mice keep following the rules in unfair conditions — i.e. when they’re trained to expect that the zones receive an equal amount of reward but that doesn’t happen.

The paper “Mice in social conflict show rule-observance behavior enhancing long-term benefit” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Romania bans wild animals in circuses

Romania just joined a growing list of countries where wildlife animals are banned from circuses, a decision which was hailed by the international community and conservationists worldwide.

This is encouraging progress, but there is still much more work to be done if we want to end the inhumane treatment of circus animals. Image credits: Usien / WikiCommons.

Tigers, lions, bears, and every other wild animal, regardless how tame they are, whether born in the wild or in captivity, will now be banned from circus shows throughout the country. However, some unwelcome additions to the law have managed to sneak in, allowing circuses to use dogs, horses, dolphins, and some exotic birds. Late 2016, Romania also issued a ban on trophy hunting of brown bears, wolves, lynxes, and big cats

Circuses have 18 months to comply with the law and transfer animals to reserves or zoos, or they face criminal charges and a one-year prison sentence. The law passed through Parliament and it still technically has to be signed by President Klaus Iohannis — though there is no doubt that this will happen as he has been a supporter of the law.

“No tiger, lion, bear or elephant will suffer any more in Romania for the amusement of people,” Magor Csibi, director of WWF Romania, said in a statement. “Our society is evolving.”

Unfortunately, it took a tragedy for Romania to pass this law: 11 animals, including two tigers, were killed in a fire in January at an animal housing building in Bucharest. This raised a lot of awareness regarding the inhumane conditions circus animals are forced to live and prompted a petition which gathered over 60,000 signatures. Romania, which hosts almost 20 million residents, passed the law less than six months after that, entering a rather short list of countries which have passed such bans.

  • Four countries have a full ban on circus animals: Cyprus, Greece, Malta, and Bolivia.
  • Fourteen more have a full ban on wild circus animals: Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Singapore, Israel, and Mexico.
  • Three countries have bans on most wild animals in circuses: Belgium, Bulgaria, and The Netherlands. This is where Romania would fit in.
  • The Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Portugal, Sweden, and India have a ban on some wild animals.
  • Ecuador has a ban on native wild animals.
  • Estonia, Hungary, and Poland have a ban on wild-born animals.
  • Some local restrictions exist in Ireland, Norway, Spain, UK, USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Australia.

Notably, the US, the UK, and France are at the very bottom of the list when it comes to enforcing circus animal rights.

Turns out goats and dogs aren’t that different when communicating with humans

The derpy goat might rival a dog’s ability to communicate with humans, a new study found. This adds to previous research showing that these animals are good problem-solvers and have excellent long-term memory, suggesting these ruminants are more intelligent than they appear.

This guy learned how to bleat fluently in several languages.
Image credits wikimedia user EnderWikiTX.

Goats are the first domesticated animals we know of, with evidence of their husbandry stretching as far as 10,000 years ago according to lead author Dr. Alan McElligott from Queen Mary University of London’s Department of Biological and Experimental Psychology. During all this time they’ve built a reputation of eating virtually anything and getting stuck in weird places in their unending quest for food — hardly what you’d expect from an intelligent animal.

But their wily ways might hide a sharper mind than we give them credit for. McElliogott’s team found that goats employ human communication behaviours very similar to the ones dogs rely on. The researchers trained the animals to remove a lid from a box with a tasty reward inside. After the goats got the hang of it, the team made the rewards inaccessible and recorded the animals’ reactions towards an experimenter supervising the test — who was either facing the animal or had his back to it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CJgWjhW2CE

When the animals found they couldn’t reach the treat, they shifted their gaze between the box and their human experimenters, similar to what dogs do when they need help. The ruminants also seemed to understand when communication was viable or not: they looked towards a person facing them more often and for longer periods of time compared to an experimenter facing away from them.

Average time for (a) gaze latencies, (b) gaze durations, (c) gaze frequencies, (d) latencies until first gaze alternation and (e) frequencies of gaze alternations towards either Experimenter 1 or Experimenter 2. Dark grey bars indicate forward looking group of experimenters, and light grey bars the ones facing away. Asterisk indicates significant differences between groups.
Image provided by authors.

“Goats gaze at humans in the same way as dogs do when asking for a treat that is out of reach, for example. Our results provide strong evidence for complex communication directed at humans in a species that was domesticated primarily for agricultural production, and show similarities with animals bred to become pets or working animals, such as dogs and horses,” said first author Dr. Christian Nawroth.

If you look at dogs, domestication came with a decrease in foraging skills and social complexity, but their brains adapted so they can perceive information from humans. This makes sense for dogs as they are bred to be companion animals, but not so much for goats — they have always been bred almost exclusively for agricultural purposes. The findings of this study thus suggest that domestication has more far-reaching implications on animals’ psychology than previously believed.

“From our earlier research, we already know that goats are smarter than their reputation suggests, but these results show how they can communicate and interact with their human handlers even though they were not domesticated as pets or working animals.”

The researchers hope their findings will help farmers better understand their animals and lead to a general improvement in animal welfare.

The full paper, titled “Goats display audience-dependent human-directed gazing behaviour in a problem-solving task” has been published online in the journal Biology Letters.