August 26, 2016
Dodo skeleton goes up for auction for first time in 100 years
by Brett Smith
For the first time in nearly a century, a mostly-complete skeleton of an extinct dodo bird is set to go up for auction.
Being put up for bid by Summers Place Auctions in the United Kingdom, the skeleton was assembled from bones gathered over several decades. The private collector putting the item up for sale said it only lacked a section of the skull and a set of claws.
"The rarity and completeness of this specimen cannot be overemphasized,” said Rupert van der Werff, a director at the auction house. "It provides a unique opportunity for an individual or an institution to own a specimen of this great icon of extinction."
The dodo was native to the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius. It became extinct in the late 17th Century, less than 100 years after Europeans settlers arrived.
Revisiting an Extinct Creature
Incapable of swimming or flying, the dodo was bigger than a turkey and weighed around 50 pounds. It evolved without any natural predators and wasn't afraid of humans. Dodo meat was said to be very tasty, which probably sealed the animal's fate.
Most of the bones in the skeleton up for auction were retrieved from the Mare aux Songes swamp, in south-eastern Mauritius, during the 1800s. The Mauritian government has since prohibited all exports of dodo bones.
There is only one known dodo skeleton made from the bones of a single animal and it is on display in Port Louis, Mauritius. Around a dozen other specimens are composites comprised of bones from many birds.
The composite skeleton being released for auction is said to be the first assembled since the early 20th Century.
There has been talk in recent year about bringing back the dodo, possibly Jurassic Park-style, through genetic engineering. At a 2013 TEDx conference in Washington DC sponsored by National Geographic, scientists discussed the prospect of de-extinction, for the dodo and 23 other species.
While the scientific community largely agrees that bringing back the dodo will be a possibility in the near future, the real question is if we should. Detractors say bringing back extinct animals could upset the equilibrium of the modern-day habitats where these animals would be placed.
Mama shark leads researchers to first-ever discovery of great white nursery
Ocearch, a group that tags and researches great white sharks, says they have made a groundbreaking discovery off the New York coast.
By Story Hinckley, Staff August 26, 2016
For the first time, Ocearch, a group that tags, tracks, and monitors great white sharks, has discovered a nursery of baby great whites off the coast of New York.
“We have just been totally overwhelmed by the abundance here and the volume of sharks we’re seeing,” Chris Fischer, founder of Ocearch, told ABC7 in New York.
And for researchers, understanding the dynamics and location of great white nurseries was the end goal all along.
“Back in 2012, 2013, the real question was where are these sharks in the North Atlantic giving birth? Because that’s where they’re most vulnerable,” Mr. Fischer told CBS News.
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“The strategy at the time was, get a tag out on big mature animals, and when you get one on a big female, 18 months later, she should lead you to the holy grail of the research, the birthing site.”
And it worked.
Mary Lee, a 16-feet long, 3,456-pound female tagged by Ocearch in 2012, returned to New York waters in May, suggesting to researchers that this area may be a favored birthing location.
“This is a really unique population of animals,” said Haley Newton, a veterinary pathologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society who has been involved with the research. “It’s a life stage that really hasn’t been studied very much.”
Ocearch tracks sharks by putting GPS tags on their dorsal fins, so each time a shark’s dorsal fin comes above the water, the location is pinned to the Ocearch database. The group’s researchers say attaching the tags is painless for the sharks and only lasts 15 minutes from start to finish. And tagging a few individuals helps researchers protect the entire shark population, adds Fischer.
Over the course of five days, Ocearch installed GPS transmitters on nine pups. Of those, five are currently living along the Long Island coast, including a 42-pound male named Hampton and a 50-pound female named Montauk. Ocearch expects the pups to stay in the general location until they reach adulthood at age 20.
New York waters are home to other shark pups, too.
In January, researchers discovered a sand shark nursery near the shore of Long Island’s Great South Bay.
Like Fischer, the New York Aquarium's vice president and director, Jon Dohlin, was delighted to find a younger population.
“One of the reasons we are excited about this information is because there are a lot of unanswered questions,” said Mr. Dohlin told LiveScience in January.
Plan bee: Minnesota sets broad limits on chemicals blamed for bee decline
But farmers are concerned they will not be able to protect crops from insects if they cannot use neonicotinoids
Saturday 27 August 2016 02.01 BST
Minnesota’s governor on Friday ordered the broadest restrictions yet in a US state on the use of agricultural pesticides that have been blamed for hurting bees, fuelling concerns that farmers there will not be able to protect crops from insects.
Governor Mark Dayton issued an executive order that requires farmers to verify they face “an imminent threat of significant crop loss” before using the chemicals, called neonicotinoids.
Details of how farmers would prove their need have not yet been determined.
Minnesota, the country’s third-largest soybean producer, carried out a special review of neonicotinoids that prompted the new limits, the first US state to do so.
Honey bees have been in serious decline in the US for three decades, threatening billions of dollars in crops. In recent years, their death rate has become economically unsustainable, according to the government.
A survey of more than 20,000 honey beekeepers conducted by the Department of Agriculture and released in May showed there were 2.59 million or 8% fewer honey bee colonies on 1 January, 2016 than the 2.82 million a year earlier for beekeeper operations with five or more colonies.
Honey bees pollinate plants that produce about a quarter of the food consumed by Americans.
“Minnesota just became the national leader in protecting pollinators,” said Lex Horan, an organizer for Pesticide Action Network, a US activist group.
Restrictions on neonicotinoids come two years after the European Union limited use of the chemicals, made and sold by companies including Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, after research pointed to the risks for bees.
Neonicotinoids are used worldwide in a range of crops and have been shown in lab-based studies to be harmful to certain species of bee, notably commercial honeybees and bumblebees.
The chemicals can be sprayed on crops to fight insects, but it is more common for US farmers to plant seeds treated with neonicotinoids to keep pests, such as aphids, off crops.
State officials said they want Minnesota lawmakers to grant them the authority to regulate the sale and use of such seeds, a power that now lies with the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Removing the pesticides would leave farmers more dependent on a smaller number of chemicals to control bugs, said Seth Naeve, an extension soybean agronomist for the University of Minnesota, thereby making it more likely that pests would develop resistance to those chemicals.
“We’re concerned about losing tools and a lack of flexibility to address issues,” said David Kee, director of research for Minnesota Soybean Growers Association.
Farmers said they hoped other US states would not follow Minnesota’s lead.
Paul Schlegel, director of environment and energy policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the governor was “restricting the ability of farmers to use all the tools the EPA has said they can use”.
“I don’t think that we’re aware of any other state that’s going to start taking away tools from farmers,” Schlegel said.
Large blue butterfly thriving in UK since reintroduction
Numbers of the endangered butterfly, once pronounced extinct in the UK, have reached their highest level in 80 years, according to conservationists
Saturday 27 August 2016 08.01 BST
A butterfly once pronounced extinct in the UK has been seen in record numbers this year, according to conservationists.
There were over 10,000 adult large blue butterflies in Gloucestershire and Somerset – the largest concentration of the species known in the world.
Conservationists said the findings contradicted widely reported warnings that 2016 could be the worst year on record for British butterflies.
In total more than 250,000 eggs were laid by large blue butterflies this summer on the abundant thyme and marjoram flowers at the Daneway Banks reserve in Gloucestershire and the Green Down reserve in Somerset.
Prof Jeremy Thomas, chairman of the Joint Committee for the Restoration of the Large Blue Butterfly, said the numbers of the butterfly, which was reintroduced to the UK in 1984, were its highest for 80 years.
“The success of this project is testimony to what large scale collaboration between conservationists, scientists and volunteers can achieve,” he said.
“Its greatest legacy is that it demonstrates that we can reverse the decline of globally-threatened species once we understand the driving factors.”
The large blue has a bizarre life-cycle.
Having fed for three weeks on the flowerbuds of wild thyme or marjoram, the caterpillar produces scents and songs that trick red ants into believing it is one of their own grubs and is carried underground into the ants’ nest and placed with the ant brood.
The caterpillar spends the next 10 months feeding on the grubs before pupating in the nest the following year and then emerging to crawl above ground as a butterfly.
Despite over 50 years of effort to halt its decline, the large blue butterfly was pronounced extinct in Britain in 1979.
Its reintroduction in 1984 was based on the discovery that large blue caterpillars can only survive in the nest of one particular species of red ant.
Roger Mortlock, chief executive of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, added: “This is fantastic news for this globally endangered butterfly whose extraordinary life cycle makes its conservation very challenging.
“Scrub clearance and careful grazing of wildflower-rich grasslands is key to ensuring a future for this beautiful insect.
“This special management also helps a huge diversity of wild plants and other insects to thrive.”
Venomous Snakes Ride Ocean Currents Around the World
The impressive yellow-bellied sea snake has spread across the globe by simply riding the waves, a new model suggests.
Photograph by Adrian Hepworth, Alamy
By Traci Watson
PUBLISHED August 27, 2016
It has no arms and is about as long as a baguette, but that hasn’t stopped the yellow-bellied sea snake from conquering the world’s oceans.
Now, there's new evidence that the reptiles travel around the globe by just going with the flow.
The venomous snake can drift on ocean currents for thousands of miles—possibly clocking distances of 20,000 miles and more over ten years, computer simulations show. That means that, at least theoretically, a snake could float from near the Philippines to east of Hawaii or from Mexico to the island of Mauritius in the western Indian Ocean. (Related: "What's This Tropical, Venomous Sea Snake Doing in California?")
“I’m impressed, especially because it’s a really small species,” says study co-author François Brischoux, a biologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research.
At only a hundred to 200 grams (three to seven ounces), the snake “is not comparable with a whale, but the distances traveled are comparable” to those of a whale.
Is Eating Venomous Sea Snakes a Bad Thing?
The growing consumption of venomous sea snakes in Southeast Asia has resulted in the massive harvesting of these marine animals in the Gulf of Thailand.
Overall the yellow-bellied sea snake boasts an incredible resume for an animal that weighs less than a mango. It breathes air, but can stay underwater for three-and-a-half hours. Its arsenal includes venom that can kill a person—though deaths are not common—and a paddle-shaped tail that helps steer the animal through the water. It never lives on land and can survive for months in a state of dehydration.
Snakes on a Sea
Still, those skills don’t explain how the species managed to migrate from its evolutionary birthplace in southeastern Asia to the Americas to Africa. No other snake, land or sea, has a broader range.
Complicating matters, the yellow-bellied sea snake has flipped its tail at efforts to track it. In one experiment in the 1970s, a scientist tagged almost a hundred snakes and recaptured exactly four.
While at sea off Costa Rica, Brischoux and colleagues have seen large numbers of the snakes amid shoals of drifting flotsam, suggesting the animal drifts where the water carries it.
So, using computer programs that simulate ocean currents, the researchers followed the progress of more than 10,000 “virtual snakes” set adrift from 28 different sites where the species is known to live.
After a decade of riding the waves, 12 percent of the “virtual snakes” were still alive, the researchers report in this week’s Biology Letters.
What’s more, their spread in the computer simulation is a good match for the snake’s current range.
Mixing it Up
The results also help explain why sea snakes from the eastern and western Pacific are genetically similar, despite the vast space between them. Drifting snakes would help ensure genetic mixing between populations, Brischoux adds.
Long-distance reptile rafting is known to science, even by species that live mostly on land—though these voyages occurred when the continents were closer together. Iguanas on the eastern Pacific island of Fiji originated in South America, and crocodiles rafted from Africa to the Americas, says Peter Uetz, curator of the Reptile Database and a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Such epic journeys make the study’s results plausible, Uetz says, but he’s “a little bit skeptical” because most data on sea snakes comes from animals seen close to the coasts. What happens to them in the open ocean may be very different, he says.
For instance, it's well known that the tropical snakes have trouble tolerating cold water.
But Brischaux responds his model showed many of the animals managed to drift for ten years without spending too much time in lethally chilly waters.
“I was not expecting this high survival rate … and the really long distances the [simulated snakes] were able to travel.”
Lions Sync When They Ovulate—But People Don't
The African big cats give birth around the same time so that they can take care of each other's cubs.
By Kristin Hugo
PUBLISHED August 23, 2016
While researching lions in Zambia, biologist Thandiwe Mweetwa noticed that lionesses within a pride will all have cubs around the same time.
When she looked into it further, Mweetwa learned lionesses sync their fertility cycles so that they can all raise their young together.
There's a reason for that. “Synchronized estrus is thought to increase reproductive success in the pride,” says Mweetwa, a National Geographic emerging explorer and Big Cats Initiative grantee. Having cubs at the same time means that mother lions can rely on each other to nurse, babysit, and protect the youngsters.
This safety in numbers also allows more lions to survive to adulthood. Predation is a great threat to small, vulnerable babies in any species, but if all babies are born at the same time, there are only so many that predators can eat.
If young are born at different times throughout the year, predators could use them as a steady source of food.
Even so, many still die: More than half of all African lion cubs don’t make it past their first year. They're at risk from predation, disease, abandonment, starvation, and being killed by an outside male.
When male lions strike out on their own, they will challenge another male for control of his harem. If the interloper succeeds, he'll kill all the cubs, which brings the females into estrus, or heat, again.
Timing Is Everything
Though many other animals come into heat at the same time, fewer species go into heat when their young die. Instead, most go into heat seasonally, including most wild species of hooved mammals, which only give birth in the spring. Male deer testosterone peaks in fall, during the “rut,” when they will compete for and mate with females. Does are pregnant during the winter and give birth around May and June, when warmer weather helps fawns survive.
If lions had periods, lionesses within a pride might get them at roughly the same time. But lions don't menstruate: The only mammals that menstruate overtly the way that humans do are some other primates and a few species of bats and rodents.
A persistent myth is that people living in close proximity—such as several women sharing a dorm in college—synchronize their estrus cycles, which is evidenced by having periods around the same time. This idea, which caught on due to research by psychologist Martha McClintock in 1971, has been discredited in several studies since.
In 2006, Zhengwei Yang and Jeffrey C. Schank found the chance that a woman would share a cycle with someone living with her is about as likely as sharing it with anyone else. (Read "The Scientist Who Said Periods Weren’t a Big Deal.")
Because women have slightly different menstrual cycles, there is a good chance that, if two women spend enough time together, they will eventually match cycles.
“It’s just a mathematical property of irregular rhythms, and rhythms of different lengths,” says Schank. He adds that it’s human nature to notice when things match, but not to notice when they don’t match.
Since menstruation also wastes nutrients and can attract predators, with all the other problems that lion cubs face it’s lucky that at least lionesses don’t have periods.
Daylight encounter with a hungry pine marten
Strathnairn, Highlands Its rich chocolate fur looked luxuriant, and it was easy to see why it was so much prized in the middle ages as a trimming for robes of state
Saturday 27 August 2016 05.30 BST
Mid-afternoon, and I watched the pine marten hunting a woodland bank, sniffing and listening for prey such as voles. Above it was ripening the rich crop of rowan berries that would augment its diet in late autumn.
It must have been hungry to be out hunting at this time of day, as pine martens are normally nocturnal. No doubt the poor weather of late had not helped. However, this one – a female, judging from its size – was in good condition, graceful and agile, with its slender body and long, bushy tail. Its rich chocolate fur looked luxuriant and it was easy to see why it was prized in the middle ages as a trimming for robes of state.
This female also had a very large throat patch, or bib, which was, unusually, almost apricot in colour. The bib varies from individual to individual – which often helps to identify them – and is sometimes almost absent.
At one time their food would have been largely invertebrates, small mammals and birds, but the pine marten’s recent expansion in range and numbers has changed the emphasis. There have been more raids on domestic poultry and on young pheasants, for instance, and predation on the ground-nesting and very rare capercaillie is an increasingly serious problem in some areas.
Because pine martens have been taking over nest boxes intended for such birds as barn owls and goldeneye ducks, the Vincent Wildlife Trust has now designed special den boxes for them. These purpose-built homes were an integral part of the trust’s first translocation of these captivating carnivores from the Scottish Highlands to mid-Wales last year.
Because of its size Martes martes is often known as the marten cat, and the young are called kits, kittens or cubs. However, I can find no specific names for the adult male and female. It is also known as the sweet mart, in contrast to the foul mart or polecat, and the Gaelic name is taghan. Best of all is the collective noun for these elusive creatures: a richness of martens.
Jonathan Elphick gives this year’s William Condry memorial lecture (thecondrylecture.co.uk) on the Birds of North Wales at Tabernacle/MoMA, Machynlleth, 1 October, 7pm for 7.30. £5 including refreshments (no need to book)
More wolves killed because of the sacred cow at the public trough
Originally published August 26, 2016 at 12:42 pm Updated August 26, 2016 at 1:27 pm
The way the state Department of Fish and Wildlife are slaughtering wolves is an outrage. Guest columnist Brooks Fahy explains way.
By Brooks Fahy
Special to The Times
IF you’ve heard about the wolf killing under way in northeastern Washington, you most likely have been led to think that progress is being made, simply because groups as disparate as ranchers, wildlife officials and environmentalists have agreed on something.
But what’s going on is an outrage. And it can only be understood if the common assumptions about ranching and wolves are exposed for what they are — a travesty for wildlife, public lands and the taxpayer.
What has happened is a family of wolves known as the Profanity Peak pack has been targeted for death by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Their “crime” was killing livestock grazing on public lands in remote and rugged parts of the Colville National Forest after ranchers had allegedly used nonlethal deterrents. The first two wolves were gunned down by helicopter on Aug. 5. Four more were killed by Friday morning. The agency has slated the rest for death — this in a state that has barely more than 90 wolves.
The agency’s reaction — killing wolves at the behest of ranchers — is a loss for Washingtonians and the American public. Here’s why:
Brooks Fahy of Seattle is a wildlife filmmaker and executive director of the national wildlife advocacy organization Predator Defense.
• It’s cruel, anti-science and fiscally unfair.
• Nonlethal deterrents work when used appropriately.
• Ranching is destroying our public lands.
• Wildlife should live in peace on public lands.
First, the cruelty: Science increasingly shows that animals experience pain and loss. Wolves are pack animals with a social hierarchy similar to our own families. Imagine what they experience when they see family members killed and maimed. With aerial gunning, wolves are chased by helicopters and often run to exhaustion before being blasted by a shotgun as the helicopter hovers. They experience sheer terror. The actual act is something government agencies don’t want the public to see. Isn’t it odd that we see news coverage from war zones, but not from the war on our wildlife?
Next, the financial reality: The iconic image of cowboys on horseback tending their herds was deeply ingrained into our psyches by old Western movies. No one is stopping ranchers from tending livestock this way now — but ranchers don’t tend livestock this way. Livestocks on public land tend to be scattered far and wide, and most ranchers don’t want to spend time and money guarding them. Why should they? They know the government will come in and kill predators on the taxpayers’ dime. They also know they’ll be compensated for their losses, and many ranchers now consider these handouts a right, not a privilege. No other industry has been more adept at externalizing their costs. This is not a fair or sustainable business model.
Nonlethal ways to protect livestock abound, but the best is effective human presence. With the Profanity Peak pack, the terrain is not suitable for grazing; it is pristine forest where only an army of range riders could effectively deter wolves. Equally troubling, ranchers have been known to put cattle in the middle of wolf rendezvous areas in hopes of encouraging predation. We’ve heard reports that may have happened in this case.
Livestock causes enormous environmental damage. They remove forage and ground cover other animals need to survive. Cattle trample and denude riparian areas and pollute streams with waste. Heated-up streams can no longer support dozens of species, including fish. Thousands of miles of fencing fragment habitat, causing deathly obstacles for fast-running species like pronghorn antelope.
So we pay for ranchers to destroy our land, and wildlife’s habitat!
Surely we want the word “wild” to remain part of wildlife. Wolves and other predators shouldn’t have to suffer a mortal fate for doing what they are born to do. And we shouldn’t remove what balanced ecosystems require.
It all points to bigger questions. But I will close with just one: What is the appropriate use of public lands?
Public lands are our lands; they don’t belong to ranchers. They are inappropriate places for livestock.
It’s high time the public and politicians say: “Enough! Get your livestock off our lands!”
Brooks Fahy of Seattle is a wildlife filmmaker and executive director of the national wildlife advocacy organization Predator Defense.