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« Reply #5055 on: Jul 12, 2018, 04:39 AM »

Liron Gertsman's best photograph: cobalt-winged parakeets in the Amazon

‘We canoed across a river, hiked up into the rainforest, then waited three days in 30C heat for them to appear’

Interview by Edward Siddons
12 Jul 2018 16.12 BST

I had to wait three days to get this picture, but, when the moment came, it was breathtaking. I was at Yasuní national park, a protected region of the Amazon in eastern Ecuador, spending two weeks with a group of young photographers on a conservation programme. We documented the wildlife, plants and indigenous communities working to maintain the rainforest.

For three days, we hunkered down in a makeshift shack in the rainforest surrounding Clay Lake, where a pool of mud and water collected at the base of a wall. It was gruelling: the temperature never dipped below 30C and it was extremely humid. Each morning, we left our accommodation, canoed across the river, and hiked to this secluded spot in the hope of spotting cobalt-winged parakeets.

Every couple of days, they descend in their hundreds to drink the water and eat the clay-rich mud. They need it to survive: the clay contains nutrients that counteract the toxins and acidity in the fruits they live on. When they finally appeared, they flocked down as one, perhaps 500 in all. In the frenzy, flashes of cobalt and the flap of wings was all you could make out.

In that kind of situation, most bird photographers use a high shutter speed to perfectly freeze a bird in flight, but I wanted to capture the chaos. I used a slightly slower speed, meaning I could maintain that element of frantic activity and bring out the intensity of colour as they pecked at the mud.

    Being 17 helps me to think outside the box. I’m not constrained by tradition or training

A lot of wildlife photography is quite traditional. You position yourself for strong front lighting and try to get as pristine an image as possible, always shooting closeup portraits. But I work in a more abstract way: photos like this go beyond what a straight-up portrait could accomplish.

Being young – I’m 17 – helps me to think outside the box. I’m not constrained by tradition or training. I’ve never felt like my youth holds me back, though – if anything, it gets people interested. And if that gets them thinking about conservation, I’m happy. At the same time, I don’t feel that inexperienced. I’ve been taking photographs since I was five: my parents bought me a miniature digital camera in 2005, which wasn’t all that long after a lot of professional photographers started getting serious about digital photography and technology.

I grew up in Vancouver, which has some amazing wildlife, and my parents were always supportive. Even though they’re both in business, they would drive me to remote locations to photograph birds and other wildlife at weekends. It’s amazing to think that this passion could become a profession, but I also feel a sense of duty. I need to share those experiences because people living in cities don’t get to see this kind of thing.

Actually, I think that’s partly why the environment is in such danger. People aren’t connected with it any more. Even though everything we have comes from the natural world, it isn’t part of their lives.

• Liron Gertsman is the winner of the youth category in the 2018 Audubon photography awards.
Liron Gertsman’s CV
Liron Gertsman
‘Do the unexpected’ … Liron Gertsman

Born 2000, Vancouver, Canada.

Training “Mostly self-taught. I also have occasionally used YouTube tutorials and I was lucky to be mentored a little by Canadian photographers Connor Stefanison and Jess Findlay.”

Influences “The people I have met – Jess Findlay, Connor Stefanison, Karine Aigner, Lucas Bustamante – and the people I hope to meet: Paul Nicklen, Cristina Mittermeier, Tim Laman and Ian McAllister.”

High point “Any time spent out in nature. I’m in awe of everything the natural world has to offer.”

Low point “When you are waiting in the airport for flights disrupted by weather.”

Tip “Do the unexpected.”

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« Last Edit: Jul 12, 2018, 05:35 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #5056 on: Jul 12, 2018, 04:42 AM »

Is Your Horse in a Good Mood? See if It Snorts

By Karen Weintraub
NY Times
July 12, 2018

No one can talk to a horse, of course. But a new study set out to find whether horses are trying to tell us something when they snort.

In the study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers in France determined that the snorting exhale that horses often make may be a sign of a positive emotion.

Mathilde Stomp, a doctoral student at the University of Rennes who led the research, said she set out to understand whether the snort could be used as an measure of the horse’s mood.

She and her collaborators recorded 560 snorts among 48 privately owned and riding school horses. All the horses snorted — as little as once or as often as 13 times an hour. The horses mainly snorted during calm and relaxing activities, and those that spent more time out of doors snorted the most, the study found.

When a horse was snorting, the researchers also recorded the animal’s ear position; forward-pointing ears are a known signal of a positive internal state, Ms. Stomp said. Researchers also developed a composite score of each animal’s stress level when snorting, with measurements including how much time a horse spent facing the wall in its stall, as well as its level of interaction with or aggressive behavior toward the researcher.

Ms. Stomp said her work was motivated by the desire to help people better understand and meet the needs of their animals. “We think that with this acoustic indicator, maybe they will be able to test when their horses are in good conditions or not,” she said.

Not all horses may be snorting in contentment, however, but rather in discomfort or simply acting on a physical need, akin to humans blowing their noses.

Sue McDonnell, a specialist in equine physiology and behavior at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, said not enough is known to draw conclusions about a horse’s emotional state from its snorts. “I think it’s a huge overreach, an over-interpretation of their data,” she said.

Dr. McDonnell, who daily observes her school’s herd, takes the more traditional view that snorting is a way of clearing a horse’s nasal passages. She’s noticed a difference when she lets the horses feed on short blades of grass versus longer ones, which are more likely to tickle their noses. Horses eat shorter grass just as enthusiastically as longer blades, “but they don’t do all that snorting,” she said.

Horses also snort in negative circumstances, Dr. McDonnell said. If they encounter an aggressive or fearful situation, their “fight or flight” response includes a bump in adrenaline, which dries their mouth and nose. Once the situation resolves and adrenaline levels drop, secretions like saliva and mucus start flowing again, Dr. McDonnell said. She’s watched stallions snorting as their adrenaline levels fall, suggesting that the flow of mucus caused them to make the noise, she said.

Then again, horses probably do use snorting to somehow communicate to others in the herd, alerting them when danger has passed. But that doesn’t translate into knowing if a horse is happy, she added.

While Karyn Malinowski, professor and director of the Rutgers University Equine Science Center in New Jersey, discouraged the practice of ascribing human emotions to animals, she said the new study’s findings made sense to her. The horses she studies display emotions, like sorrow when a close companion dies, so she believes they’re certainly capable of happiness.

Dr. Malinowski said the study also aligns with her physiological research that shows horses are much less stressed when they are allowed to live outside, rather than in stables. In the new study, horses that lived in more natural conditions snorted more often, and even the stabled horses snorted more when they were outside.

“I’ve been studying stress for 40 years. The worst thing you can do for a horse is to keep it inside,” Dr. Malinowski said. Outside, “they’re happier, healthier, the air is fresher.”

Lauren Brubaker, a Ph.D. student at Oregon State University specializing in human-animal interactions, said the study also matches the experience of people in the horseback riding world. “You hear a lot of riders and instructors and trainers who will say they’re looking for horses to do that snorting behavior while they’re riding, because they believe the horses are relaxing and releasing adrenaline,” she said.

Ms. Brubaker said it was too early to conclude that snorting is a form of active communication. She would like to see research into snorting behavior when horses are ridden, are pulling carriages, used for therapy and performing in shows or races.

Ms. Stomp said she planned to investigate whether dust levels in stalls affect snorting, to further explore her hypothesis that snorting is about more than nostril-clearing.

« Last Edit: Jul 12, 2018, 05:34 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #5057 on: Jul 12, 2018, 04:47 AM »

Wild Dogs Sneeze When They Are Ready to Hunt

African wild dogs, highly social pack hunters, need a consensus to start a hunt. The votes, of sorts, may be cast by sneezing

By James Gorman
NY Times
When they want to move as a group, meerkats call to each other. Capuchin monkeys trill. Gorillas grunt. Honeybees make what is called a piping sound.

African wild dogs sneeze. And that’s a first.

No other social animal has been reported to cast a vote, of sorts, by sneezing, although in humans sneezing may once have expressed a negative opinion, as in, “nothing to sneeze at.”

Wild dog sneezing is different. For one thing it seems to indicate a positive reaction to a proposal before a group of dogs. When a pack of these dogs is getting ready to hunt, scientists reported Tuesday, the more sneezes, the more likely they are to actually get moving.

Just about all social organisms make group decisions that require reaching a consensus. If monkeys or meerkats are looking for a better place to forage, they need to reach a consensus about moving on among a minimum number of animals — called a quorum, just like in Congress. Even some bacteria do this before releasing toxins or lighting up with bioluminescence.

Bacteria use chemical signals but larger animals often use sounds as a way of saying, I’m in. However, among grunts, huffs, piping signals and others, the sneeze had not been reported as one of those signals until a group of American, British and Australian researchers published their observations of African dogs in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

They were studying the dogs where they live in Botswana to see how they decide to go on a hunt. Like most carnivores, the wild dogs sleep a lot. But at some point one of the pack will start what is called a rally, getting all the other members excited and milling around as if they want to play.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVxKlsfi73g

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« Last Edit: Jul 12, 2018, 05:34 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #5058 on: Jul 12, 2018, 05:38 PM »

cobalt-winged parakeets in the Amazon

I live amongst these small parrots here on the Coastal Caribbean slopes of Costa Rica. I habitat for them (or them for me, !!) I have been conserving this migratory path for the past 25 years, and living intimately with them for the past 10 years. They nest throughout the farm, but a particular family nests every year in the same tree, beginning the end of February and until spring comes. The parents equally raise the off-spring which can be 2 to 3 each year and stay nearby until they fledge. They are not shy with me however they are not domesticated in the least. I feel as though they have found safe haven here with me, as the destruction of the rainforest is shameful and unrestrained.
Numerous other parrots, from the big Mealy Amazonian to numerous others (including the giant green macaw) either migrate or live here. The small parakeets are the least intrusive meaning that they don't eat the cacao like the bigger parrots. Many years ago, I raised an injured parakeet youth who lived with me for about a year until he (or she) flew off. It was an inspiring time in my life in which I learned to speak the heart with the parrots. I am honored to host their nesting, a delight that it is just right in front of me. Aho!
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« Reply #5059 on: Jul 13, 2018, 04:16 AM »

'We know we may be killed': the rangers risking their lives for Virunga's gorillas

The huge national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world. But thanks to the efforts of a committed force of rangers, populations of endangered species are recovering and locals say the park offers hope for the whole region

Jason Burke in Virunga national park

It is dawn on the shores of Lake Edward and the sun is rising over the volcanoes on the eastern skyline. Mist lies over the still water. In the forest there are elephant, hippopotamus and buffalo. Guarding them are 26 rangers in a single fortified post.

Then the silence is rudely broken. There are shouts, scattered shots, volleys from automatic weapons. Waves of attackers rush through the brush and trees. Some are close enough to hurl spears and fire arrows.

Later, the rangers will tell their commanders that their assailants numbered more than a hundred. For 45 minutes the unequal battle continues. Then the guards, ammunition running low, withdraw. They take with them the bodies of three of their comrades. At least a dozen of their enemy lie on the ground.

“This is not an easy profession. Losing your friends and colleagues is very painful. But we chose to do this, and we know the risks,” said Innocent Mburanumwe, the deputy director of Virunga national park, an enormous stretch of more than 5,000 square miles of woodland, savannah and mountains on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The clash last August was the bloodiest in the park for many years. There was little elation when the post was retaken four hours after the rangers’ initial retreat. The steady attrition of what Mburanumwe calls “a low intensity war” in the Virunga has claimed the lives of more than 170 rangers over the last 20 years, a toll earning the park a reputation as one of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world.
Virunga rangers are recruited from villages surrounding the park.

“Every day when the patrols set out, we know that they may come under fire. We know we may lose someone or we may be killed ourselves,” said Mburanumwe.

The threats facing the Virunga, home to one of the world’s largest populations of critically endangered mountain gorillas as well as hundreds of other rare species, are multiple.

There are armed rebel groups, hardened by years of combat against the Congolese government troops or those of neighbouring countries, local bandits and self-defence militia, and poachers out for ivory or bush meat. Then there is the hugely lucrative charcoal industry, for which the trees of the park are the principal raw material, and illegal fishing too.

In recent months the DRC has veered close to a plunge back into the appalling violence of the 1997-2003 civil war, which led to the deaths of 5 million and saw the wildlife in the park, Africa’s oldest, decimated. Observers hope catastrophe will be avoided but aid agencies describe the vast central African country as “on a cliff edge”.

Growing violence has displaced more than 4.5 million people, rebellions have claimed thousands of lives, and 2 million children are threatened with starvation. The prospect of elections at the end of the year has intensified fighting over land and resources, such as mines.

The new instability threatens the Virunga. Since January, the park has seen clashes between Congolese forces and neighbouring Rwanda’s soldiers and, in its northern parts, an offensive by a brutal Islamist militia responsible for killing 14 UN peacekeepers last year.

The rangers are recruited from villages surrounding the park. Most are married with many children.

Those in the frontline are often young. David Nezehose, 29, leads the rangers’ dog team. “I grew up and live next door to the park so I know its importance. My grandfather was a guide in the park 40 years ago. I wanted to protect the gorillas who are our neighbours,”he said.

There is a small but growing contingent of women among the 700 rangers who currently defend the park. Angèle Kavira Nzalamingi, 25, trains new recruits. She hopes to join the rangers’ elite rapid reaction force – after running the London marathon this month. In the conservative rural communities from which many of the rangers come, Nzalamingi’s career choice was controversial.

“My family are proud of me … but there were lots of people in my village who said this was not work for a woman. I wanted to show that we can do anything the men can do,” Nzalamingi said.

The Virunga’s fortunes have fluctuated with those of the DRC. Founded in 1925 by Belgian colonial authorities, the park struggled in the immediate aftermath of the country’s independence in 1960 but flourished under President Mobutu Sese Seko, the flamboyant, wasteful and authoritarian ruler who took power in 1965.

Augustin Kambale, a senior ranger, remembers thousands of tourists visiting in the 1980s and early 1990s.

“It all went wrong in 1994 with the genocide in Rwanda. A million refugees crossed the border and set up camps here. They had weapons with them and soon these spread among the local population. It was really bad,” Kambale, 57, said.

By the time relative peace was restored long after Mobutu’s chaotic fall in 1997, the mountain gorilla population had sunk to 300.

In 2007 came what Kambale called “a great change”. A partnership was established between a charity funded by private donors, the European Union, the Howard G Buffett foundation, and the Congolese wildlife service. Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian aristocrat, was appointed director and implemented wide-ranging reforms.

The rangers got better equipment and training, and are now paid a monthly salary of $250, a sizeable sum locally. Others initiatives have focused on local communities, with micro loans and hydroelectric power projects to boost the local economy and, it is hoped, thus reduce recruitment to the rebel groups or criminal gangs among the 6 million living within a day’s walk of the park’s borders.

The mountain gorilla population now stands at more than 1,000, while the numbers of other animals, such as forest elephants, is also rising, and tourists are returning in significant numbers.

Local administrators say the park offers hope to the whole region, one of the poorest in Africa.

“Imagine what would happen here if we had 10,000 tourists coming every year,” said Julien Paluku, the governor of North Kivu province.

But the local economy is dependent on the security situation. When a rebel group swept into Goma, the provincial capital, in 2012, the park shut down. On the rutted road to the Virunga are military checkpoints. Rusty AK47s over a shoulder, eyes hidden by dark shades, troops from the DRC’s demoralised and poorly equipped army make desultory checks for illicit charcoal or bushmeat.

In a detention block at the park headquarters, smugglers and poachers are held pending transfer to local authorities. Outside stood a seized truck loaded with charcoal worth about $7,000, made in the park from felled trees. Its load will be distributed to hospitals. In a cell lay 24-year-old Jean-Paul Gambale, the driver.

“I know it’s not a good thing to do but I have four children. They don’t have any dinner at night. I was promised $15 by my boss to drive the truck,” he said.

Rangers admit that those running the charcoal networks are rarely caught. On a wall outside the detention block is a poster of a notorious wanted criminal described as a “major bandit and national parliamentary candidate”.

Such problems will eventually be overcome, says Kambale, the veteran ranger.

“I know the Virunga will go on getting better. One day the armed groups and the bandits and the poachers will all be gone from the park, and the tourists will go everywhere and the animals will live in safety. I know it.”

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« Reply #5060 on: Jul 13, 2018, 04:19 AM »

Birdwatch: seasonal flow in a farewell call and dusky drapes

It’s mid-summer yet the cuckoo’s adieu and spotted redshank’s dark plumage hint at autumn

Stephen Moss
13 Jul 2018 21.30 BST

It may be the hottest, driest, summer since 1976 but on the first day of July I said goodbye to spring and greeted the coming of autumn, within a few short hours.

The farewell to spring came in the form of a calling cuckoo at the RSPB’s flagship Ham Wall reserve in Somerset.

As those unmistakable notes floated through the early morning heat haze I knew this would be the last time I would hear them this year, as by then most cuckoos had already migrated from Britain.

Later that day I headed to my coastal patch, the Brue estuary. Here I found the first sign of autumn: a splendid spotted redshank, feeding with a flock of its commoner cousins as the tide fell to reveal the river’s muddy banks.

Spotted redshanks breed on the Arctic taiga, that vast area of boreal forest stretching from Lapland in the west to Chukotka in the east. They then go south to spend our winter months in equatorial Africa, though a handful do stay put in the UK.

Sporting its dark breeding plumage – an old name for the species is “dusky redshank” – the bird was a fitting symbol of the season to come.

• Stephen Moss’s latest book, Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names (Guardian Faber) is out now.

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« Reply #5061 on: Jul 13, 2018, 04:21 AM »

We might not feel we've had a summer yet, but for migrating birds it's nearly over

Weatherwatch Species that breed around the Arctic Circle are already heading south

Stephen Moss

The birds have to time their outward and return journeys to coincide with a brief window of opportunity during the middle of summer.

July may not feel like autumn, but in the world of birds, the return migration has already started – bringing an autumnal tinge to the air. Species that breed around the Arctic Circle – mostly waders such as plovers and sandpipers – are already heading south, towards their winter quarters in sub-Saharan Africa.

These birds may only have passed through Britain in the opposite, northerly direction a few weeks ago, in mid-to-late May. They have to time both their outward and return journeys very carefully, to coincide with a brief window of opportunity during the middle of the summer, lasting just a few weeks.

From mid-June to late July, temperatures in these high latitudes rapidly rise. Because this coincides with almost 24-hour, round-the-clock daylight, there is a massive but short-lived abundance of food. These birds are able to take advantage of the glut to feed their growing chicks.

Local weather conditions can play a crucial part in their success or failure. A late, cold spring might mean that they arrive too soon, and then need to wait until they can start nesting. But an early spring can be even worse: if the birds have arrived too late, the food supply will be on the wane.

Should this happen, instead of attempting to breed, many waders simply cut their losses and fly straight back south. So from early July onwards look out for turnstones and knots, bar-tailed godwits and spotted redshanks, many of them still in their splendid breeding garb, as they drop off to feed on our coastal estuaries, marshes and wetlands.

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« Reply #5062 on: Jul 13, 2018, 04:26 AM »

From Single Cells, a Vast Kingdom Arose

NY Times

Lurking in the blood of tropical snails is a single-celled creature called Capsaspora owczarzaki. This tentacled, amoebalike species is so obscure that no one even noticed it until 2002. And yet, in just a few years it has moved from anonymity to the scientific spotlight. It turns out to be one of the closest relatives to animals. As improbable as it might seem, our ancestors a billion years ago probably were a lot like Capsaspora.

The origin of animals was one of the most astonishing and important transformations in the history of life. From single-celled ancestors, they evolved into a riot of complexity and diversity. An estimated seven million species of animals live on earth today, ranging from tubeworms at the bottom of the ocean to elephants lumbering across the African savanna. Their bodies can total trillions of cells, which can develop into muscles, bones and hundreds of other kinds of tissues and cell types.

The dawn of the animal kingdom about 800 million years ago was also an ecological revolution.

Animals devoured the microbial mats that had dominated the oceans for more than two billion years and created their own habitats, like coral reefs.

The origin of animals is also one of the more mysterious episodes in the history of life. Changing from a single-celled organism to a trillion-cell collective demands a huge genetic overhaul. The intermediate species that might show how that transition took place have become extinct.

“We’re just missing the intervening steps,” said Nicole King, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

To understand how animals took on this peculiar way of life, scientists are gathering many lines of evidence. Some use rock hammers to push back the fossil record of animals by tens of millions of years. Others are finding chemical signatures of animals in ancient rocks. Still others are peering into the genomes of animals and their relatives like Capsaspora, to reconstruct the evolutionary tree of animals and their closest relatives. Surprisingly, they’ve found that a lot of the genetic equipment for building an animal was in place long before the animal kingdom even existed.

It was only in the past few years that scientists got a firm notion of what the closest relatives to animals actually are. In 2007, the National Human Genome Research Institute started an international project to compare DNA from different species and draw a family tree. The cousins of animals turn out to be a motley crew. Along with the snail-dwelling Capsaspora, our close relatives include choanoflagellates, amoebalike creatures that dwell in fresh water, where they hunt for bacteria.

Now scientists are trying to figure out how a single-celled organism like Capsaspora or choanoflagellates became a multicellular animal. Fortunately, they can get some hints from other cases in which microbes made the same transition. Plants and fungi evolved from single-celled ancestors, as well as dozens of other less familiar lineages, from brown algae seaweed to slime molds.

Primitive multicellularity may have been fairly easy to evolve. “All that has to happen is that the products of cell division stick together,” said Richard E. Michod of the University of Arizona. Once single-celled organisms shifted permanently to colonies, they could start specializing on different tasks. This division of labor made the colonies more efficient. They could grow faster than less specialized colonies.

Eventually, this division of labor could have led many cells in proto-animals to give up their ability to reproduce. Only a small group of cells still made the proteins required to produce offspring. The cells in the rest of the body could then focus on tasks like gathering food and fighting off disease.

“It’s not a hurdle,” said Bernd Schierwater of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hanover, Germany. “It’s a very good way to be very efficient.”

Yet multicellularity also threw some new challenges at the ancestors of animals.

“When cells die in a group, they can poison each other,” said Dr. Michod. In animals, cells die in an orderly fashion, so that they release relatively few poisons. Instead, the dying cells can be recycled by their living brethren.

Another danger posed by multicellularity is the ability for a single cell to grow at the expense of others. Today that danger still looms large: cancer is the result of some cells refusing to play by the same rules as the other cells in our body.

Even simple multicellular organisms have evolved defenses to these cheaters. A group of green algae called volvox have evolved a limit to the number of times any cell can divide. “That helps reduce the potential for cells to become renegades,” said Dr. Michod.

To figure out the solutions that animals evolved, researchers are now sequencing the genomes of their single-celled relatives. They’re discovering a wealth of genes that were once thought to exist only in animals. Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo of the University of Barcelona and his colleagues searched Capsaspora’s genome for an important group of genes that encode proteins called transcription factors. Transcription factors switch other genes on and off, and some of them are vital for turning a fertilized egg into a complex animal body.

In the current issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution, Dr. Ruiz-Trillo and his colleagues report that Capsaspora shares a number of transcription factors that were once thought to be unique to animals. For example, they found a gene in Capsaspora that’s nearly identical to the animal gene brachyury. In humans and many other animal species, brachyury is essential for embryos to develop, marking a layer of cells that will become the skeleton and muscles.

Dr. Ruiz-Trillo and his colleagues have no idea what Capsaspora is doing with a brachyury gene. They’re now doing experiments to find out; in the meantime, Dr. Ruiz-Trillo speculates that single-celled relatives of animals use the brachyury gene, along with other transcription factors, to switch genes on for other tasks.

“They have to check out their environment,” said Dr. Ruiz-Trillo. “They have to mate with other organisms. They have to eat prey.”

Studies by other scientists point to the same conclusion: a lot of the genes once thought to be unique to the animal kingdom were present in the single-celled ancestors of animals. “The origin of animals depended on genes that were already in place,” Dr. King said.

In the transition to full-blown animals, Dr. King argues, these genes were co-opted for controlling a multicellular body. Old genes began to take on new functions, like producing the glue for sticking cells together and guarding against runaway cells that could become tumors.

Paleontologists have searched for decades for the fossils that chronicle this transition to the earliest animals.

Last year, Adam Maloof of Princeton and his colleagues published details of what they suggest are the oldest animal fossils yet found. The remains, found in Australia, date back 650 million years. They contain networks of pores inside of them, similar to the channels inside living sponges.

Sponges may have also left behind other ancient traces. Gordon Love of the University of California, Riverside, and his colleagues have drilled down into deposits of oil in Australia dating back at least 635 million years. In the stew of hydrocarbons they’ve brought up, they have found cholesterol-like molecules that are produced today only by one group of sponges.

The fact that sponges show up so early in the fossil record is probably no coincidence. Recent studies on animal genomes indicate that sponges are among the oldest lineages of living animals — if not the oldest. Sponges are also relatively simple compared with most other animals. They have no brains, stomachs or blood vessels.

Despite their seeming simplicity, sponges are card-carrying members of the animal kingdom. Like other animals, sponges can produce eggs and sperm, which can then produce embryos. Sponge larvae swim through the water to find their way to a good spot where they can settle down for a sedentary life and grow into adults. Their development is an exquisitely sophisticated process, with stem cells giving rise to several different cell types.

The first sponge genome was only published in August. It offered scientists an opportunity to compare the DNA of sponges to that of other animals as well as to Capsaspora and other single-celled relatives. The researchers looked at each gene in the sponge genome and tried to match it to related groups of genes in other species, known as gene families. All told, they were able to find 1,268 gene families shared by all animals — including sponges — but not by other species.

Those genes were presumably passed down to living animals from a common ancestor that lived 800 million years ago. And by surveying this catalog, scientists can infer some things about what that ancestor was like.

“It wasn’t just an amorphous blob of cells,” said Bernard M. Degnan of the University of Queensland. Instead, it was already setting aside eggs and sperm. It could produce embryos, and it could lay down complicated patterns in its body.

Animals didn’t just evolve multicellular bodies, however. They also appear to have evolved new ways of generating different kinds of bodies. Animals are more prone to mutations that shuffle sections of their proteins into new arrangements, a process called domain shuffling. “Domain shuffling seems to be a critical thing,” Dr. Degnan said.

Dr. Degnan and his colleagues have found another source of innovation in animals in a molecule called microRNA. When cells produce proteins from genes, they first make a copy of the gene in a molecule called RNA. But animal cells also make microRNAs that can attack RNA molecules and destroy them before they have a chance to make proteins. Thus they can act as another kind of switch to control gene activity.

MicroRNAs don’t seem to exist in single-celled relatives of animals. Sponges have eight microRNAs. Animals with more cell types that evolved later also evolved more microRNAs. Humans have 677, for example.

MicroRNAs and domain shuffling gave animals a powerful new source of versatility. They had the means to evolve new ways of reshaping their embryos to produce a wide range of forms — from big predators to burrowing mud-feeders.

That versatility may have allowed early animals to take advantage of changes that were unfolding all around them. About 700 million years ago, Earth emerged from the grips of a worldwide ice age. Noah Planavsky of the University of California, Riverside, and his colleagues have found evidence in rocks of that age for a sudden influx of phosphorus into the oceans at the same time. They speculate that as glaciers melted, phosphorus was washed from the exposed land into the sea.

The phosphorus may have acted as a pulse of fertilizer, stimulating algae growth. That may have been responsible for the rapid rise of oxygen in the ocean at the same time. Animals may have been prepared to use the extra oxygen to fuel large bodies and to use those bodies to devour other species.

“It was a niche to be occupied,” said Dr. Ruiz-Trillo, “and it was occupied as soon as the molecular machinery was in place.”

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« Reply #5063 on: Jul 13, 2018, 04:28 AM »

This Snail Goes Through Metamorphosis. Then It Never Has to Eat Again

The transformation of a deep sea mollusk is comparable to an average person growing as much as 60 feet tall with a giant sac of bacteria filling its guts.

By JoAnna Klein
NY Times

In the ocean off the coast of Antarctica, a snail lives around scorching hydrothermal vents. Its name is Gigantopelta chessoia. From the outside, it looks like any other shelled slug. But on the inside, something strange is happening, scientists report in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, like no metamorphosis ever observed in any other animal on the planet.

“We’re calling it crypto-metamorphosis,” said Chong Chen, a deep sea biologist at Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology who uncovered this hidden transition that is unlike the external body changes most other animals undergo during metamorphosis.

Once the snail reaches a certain body length, its digestive system stops growing. Its teeth, stomach and intestine make way for an expanding esophageal gland. The organ gets so big, it takes up most of the snail’s body, and basically becomes a new organ. Bacteria colonize it, and the snail, which grazed for food when it was smaller, no longer needs to eat. Instead it just sits there getting bigger, surviving on energy the bacteria produces inside the snail’s cells.

To make a human comparison, imagine growing from an average size adult to one 30 to 60 feet tall, with a giant sac of bacteria living inside you.

Not all animals eat. Some shallow water corals, for example, have algae living inside their tissues that take in sunlight and convert it to energy that provides the corals with nutrients. In the deep sea, there is no sun, but vents provide chemicals that bacteria break down. This is the basis of the deep sea food chain. Gigantopelta chessoia, instead of algae, have bacteria living in some of their cells that convert hydrogen sulfide and oxygen the snails absorb from the vents into energy.

Because their guts and their radula, or snail teeth, were kind of small, and they seemed to be fine relying on bacteria, Dr. Chen and his colleagues originally thought these snails didn’t feed.

“But when we looked at the small guys, they had a very different anatomy,” said Dr. Chen. “Their internal organs were much more like a normal snail.”

And there was no bacteria inside them.

This was weird.

The only other snail in its family that relied on chemical-converting bacteria was an armadillo-esque mollusk called the scaly-foot gastropod. And in that species, the small ones looked just like the big ones. The two had evolved with the same ultimate adaptation, but through very different routes.

The team wanted to see if this transition from grazing to relying on bacteria was gradual — like how humans shift from breast milk to solid food as they grow — or sudden — like how a caterpillar may switch from eating plant matter to sipping nectar when it becomes a butterfly.

To find out, they gathered snails from their homes, 9,000 feet below the surface, and preserved their bodies so they could scan them and reconstruct the internal organs on a computer. By evaluating the relative size of these organs, they determined that the change was sudden.

Just as the snail’s body length reached 5 to 8 millimeters, the esophageal gland expanded dramatically and was teeming with bacteria. Indeed, this was a new type of metamorphosis, only visible from the inside.

However this change occurs, the snails gain an advantage by producing their own energy. They can grow bigger and make babies instead of searching for food.

Knowing about this change will also help researchers make more accurate calculations about the flow of energy in deep sea ecosystems. And in the future, looking at anatomy could prove useful in other ecosystems too.

“We think this crypto-metamorphosis could be common in other animals,” Dr. Chen said. “If we look closely enough, maybe it’s even present in systems like forests or coral reefs.”

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« Reply #5064 on: Jul 14, 2018, 05:27 AM »

The week in wildlife – in pictures

Pacific walruses, Tapanuli orangutan twins and a moon bear are among this week’s pick of images from the natural world

Compiled by Eric Hilaire
14 Jul 2018 14.33 BST

Click here to see all: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2018/jul/13/the-week-in-wildlife-in-pictures

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« Reply #5065 on: Jul 16, 2018, 04:31 AM »

Live animal exporter hit with second licence suspension

Agriculture department suspends company in Emanuel Exports group, preventing plan to export 60,000 sheep stranded in Perth

Paul Karp
16 Jul 2018 00.04 BST

A company in the Emanuel Exports group has been hit with a fresh live export licence suspension, preventing a new plan to export 60,000 live sheep to the Middle East.

In a midnight announcement, the Department of Agriculture said it had suspended a second live export licence, after a reshuffle of directors in the Emanuel Exports group of companies attempted to sidestep the first suspension.

In June the department suspended the licence of Emanuel Exports, the company that stocked the Awassi Express which lost 2,400 sheep due to heat stress in 2017, pending a review into a separate incident.

On Tuesday the department confirmed that EMS Rural Exports, a wholly owned subsidiary of Emanuel Exports, had notified it of its intention to export the 60,000 sheep stranded in a feedlot in Perth using a separate licence.

Under Australian export rules, if an export licence is disqualified, other licences held by the same person are also rendered inoperable.

In an attempt to use EMS Rural Exports’ licence to export the sheep, Emanuel Exports and the subsidiary had updated their directors, removing 70-year-old Graham Daws and appointing his son, Nicholas, as director and company secretary.

The department said the fresh suspension “will remain in place pending a full review” but it was not appropriate to provide further information while the investigation is ongoing.

“Sheep that had been due for export remain in a registered feedlot,” it said in a statement. “The sheep have been inspected by the department’s veterinarians; they are in good health and well-cared for.

“Arrangements for these animals remain the responsibility of the exporter.

“Exporters are also responsible for ensuring they meet all animal welfare requirements imposed under commonwealth and state law.”

On Tuesday the agriculture minister, David Littleproud, had said he had “no power” to interfere in the operations of the independent regulator.

Emanuel is under criminal investigation, and two departmental investigations, into the company and the Awassi voyage after allegations of overstocking, failing to have sufficient food and water available, animal injury and illness not being treated, and accredited vets and stockmen leaving vessels prior to unloading.

The controversies surrounding live exports – particularly footage of the Awassi voyage – has prompted the Turnbull government to propose tougher penalties for directors who breach licence conditions and improved animal welfare measures including reducing stocking density by 28%. However, the government decided against a ban on live exports.

The Liberal MP Sussan Ley, with backing from colleagues Sarah Henderson and Jason Wood, has introduced a private members bill to ban live sheep exports in the northern summer from next year and, in five years, totally ban the transport of sheep and lambs to the Middle East or to any routes through the Persian Gulf or Red Sea.

Animals Australia say they’re relieved by the decision after earlier threatening to stop the export with federal court action.

“The possibility of these sheep being exported by an affiliate of suspended exporter Emanuel Exports, has had both the public and politicians shaking their heads in dismay and disbelief,” Animals Australia’s Lyn White said.

Guardian Australia has contacted the Australian Live Exporters’ Council and Emanuel Exports for comment.

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« Reply #5066 on: Jul 16, 2018, 04:33 AM »

'Heartbreaking': nine greyhounds found in mass grave in Sydney

Other greyhounds found alive but emaciated on the property of a licensed trainer

• Warning: the story contains graphic images

Naaman Zhou
16 Jul 2018 08.38 BST

Nine greyhounds have been discovered in a mass grave in Sydney, along with 12 greyhounds that are alive but emaciated and diseased, on the property of a licensed trainer and breeder.

The chief inspector for RSPCA NSW, Andrew Clachers, said the greyhounds had been held in appalling conditions on the property in Marsden Park in Sydney’s north-west until they were discovered this month.

“Some of them have such horrendous dental disease that you could actually smell the rotting in their mouths,” he said. “The compression sores and the condition they were in – it’s heartbreaking.

“Some of the kennels were just hopeless. Inspectors had to open some with a hammer. They were rundown. They were not in a fit state.

“To chuck them in a pit and treat them like disposable rubbish – it shocks me and I’ve been investigating in animal cruelty for 10 years.”

The state’s new greyhound regulatory body, the Greyhound Welfare and Integrity Commission – which was set up as part of an industry-wide reform – said it would investigate the matter together with the RSPCA.

At the time the greyhounds were discovered, the owner of the property had a valid greyhound licence. Guardian Australia understands the property was inspected in September last year, and was approved by the commission’s precursor, Greyhound Racing NSW.

However, a GWIC spokeswoman could not explain how the property was approved, how long the owner had had his licence, or if he had any previous infractions.

“Legally, no further comment can be made, as investigations are ongoing,” she said.

A special inquiry into NSW greyhound racing in 2016 found up to 68,000 “uncompetitive” greyhounds had been killed since 2004 and one in five trainers used live animal baits.

Repeated discoveries of mass greyhound graves prompted the NSW government to ban greyhound racing, before then-premier Mike Baird reversed the decision in October 2016.

He also established the independent GWIC to take over the regulatory functions of Greyhound Racing NSW – an industry group – on 1 July.

In November 2017, the Australian Capital Territory banned greyhound racing, becoming the first state or territory to do so.

Clachers said he found the continued abuse of greyhounds astonishing.

“To have all this still happening with all that we know about the reform process and the industry [being] given a real clear message from the community – for this to still happen, we still have a long way to go,” he said.

“We are astonished that we are still pulling greyhound bodies out of mass graves. There is an element of people for whom no amount of regulation is going to stop people from this kind of conduct.”

On Thursday the NSW racing minister, Paul Toole, said there was “zero tolerance” for animal abuse and said offenders “will be caught”.

“There is zero tolerance for such abhorrent behaviour and those who engage in it can expect to be removed from the industry and face criminal prosecution,” he said.

“The Greyhound Welfare and Integrity Commission formally assumed its powers on 1 July and its staff are already attending race meets and conducting investigations,” Toole said. “The government has been fortunate to appoint high-calibre people to the commission.”

But NSW Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi said the findings proved “nothing has changed” in the greyhound racing industry.

“This incident just shows that the second chance given to the industry was a huge mistake and all the promises they made to end the cruelty lack any kind of credibility,” she said. “This is not yet another bad apple. This is evidence of continued systemic cruelty.”

All the greyhounds are now in the care of the RSPCA and are being treated by veterinary surgeons.

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« Reply #5067 on: Jul 16, 2018, 04:35 AM »

The killing of a blue whale reveals how disconnected we are from nature

Philip Hoare

We need a better story than the pathetic one played out by beautiful animals that we haul into the sea of our ignorance

16 Jul 2018 12.50 BST

They might as well have shot a giant panda. This week an Icelandic whaling company, Hvalur hf, caused uproar when it was revealed that it had killed a blue whale. Hvalur has killed hundreds of fin whales – mostly destined as meat for export to Japan. It resumed its hunt in June, after a three-year hiatus. But no blue whale – a highly endangered cetacean – has been deliberately killed for 40 years.

“We have never caught a blue whale in our waters since they were protected,” Kristján Loftsson, the managing director of Hvalur told CNN. “We see them in the ocean. When you approach a blue whale, it’s so distinct that you leave it alone.”

Hvalur claims that the whale was a blue-fin whale hybrid. But experts agree the slumped leviathan on the Icelandic killing slope shows all the features of the largest animal that has ever existed on Earth. The mottled blue skin, the black baleen, the relatively tiny, hooked dorsal fin – all point to a pure blue whale (as if its purity actually mattered). Having seen many blue whales at close quarters, I can attest to this identification. As Peter Wilson, a whale expert and tour guide to Iceland, notes in his blog: “Whether they thought it was a blue or had someone out there who doesn’t know the difference, it shows complete disregard for any idea of expertise and a scientifically supported sense of sustainability”.

Surely the killing of such an animal should raise a furore as great as the one that met the shooting of Cecil the lion by a Minnesota dentist in 2015? Yet the (potentially very painful) death of this blue whale follows a under-reported story in May that Japan had killed 122 pregnant minke whales in its 2018 whaling season (sorry, “field survey”). It all starts to look like a sadly familiar game. Who can offend the most? Can they get away with it?

The heart of this issue lies in appropriation. Who owns a whale? When a sperm whale died off the coast of the Netherlands two weeks ago, it was towed back to land and lifted on to a quayside, where a necropsy was performed to determine cause of death (pneumonia) and ascertain how to deal with live strandings – a vital question on the shores of the shallow North Sea, where there has been a spate of such incidents in recent years. Unlike Hvalur, the organisations involved were behaving absolutely honourably. But as usual, the public was told to keep away, for reasons of “health and safety”. Sometimes science can get in the way of the very thing it tries to understand. By removing a whale from public sight – as if it is somehow shameful – don’t we increase the same sense of disconnection that can allow an Icelandic whaler to kill a blue whale, or Japanese whalers to slay hundreds of minkes?

“Charismatic megafauna” – whales, elephants, rhinos, lions, polar bears – have become the ammunition at the front line of ecopolitics. They’re media-friendly memes in the polarised debate over the animate “resources” of our planet. Both sides use animals to further their aims. The animals lose out, twice over. Their right to selfdom is denied, and the distance between us – what the art critic John Berger called “the narrow abyss of miscomprehension” – increases.

    Charismatic megafauna​e​ – whales, elephants, rhinos, lions – are the ammunition on the front line of eco​-​politics

This spring, Cape Cod’s Center for Coastal Studies announced that the North Atlantic right whale, of which fewer than 430 remain, faces extinction by 2050. In the past 12 months, 18 individuals have been killed by ship strikes or by being caught in fishing gear. Not a single new calf has been observed this year. These whales haven’t been hunted by Icelandic or Japanese whalers. They die within sight of US shores, in the purview of the richest, most powerful democracy on Earth. Ordinary people are left feeling powerless. It is the monolithic leviathan of state that Hobbes critiqued, versus the exquisite yet fragile leviathan of the sea.

Ever since it began, the environmental movement has used the weighty issue of whaling as a Manichean struggle of good and evil. But given the urgency of this situation, we need new ways to think about ourselves and animals – as a continuum, not a demarcation. There is no “them” and “us”. The radical contemporary philosopher Tim Morton has defined a “dark ecology”, as an expression of “irony, ugliness, and horror”.

Are we doomed to re-enact these narratives, playing hopelessly with archetypes while animals die, over and over again? Or can we find a better story than the pathetic one told by that deflated, beautiful animal, hauled out of the infinite sea and into our sea of ignorance?

• Philip Hoare is the author of Leviathan or, The Whale

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« Reply #5068 on: Jul 16, 2018, 04:37 AM »

Eight of 14 rhinos die after move to Kenyan national park

Relocation of endangered animals carries risks but loss of half of them is highly unusual

Sandra Laville and agencies
16 Jul 2018 15.20 BST

Eight out of 14 critically endangered black rhinos have died after being moved to a reserve in southern Kenya, wildlife officials have revealed, in what one conservationist described as “a complete disaster”.

Preliminary investigations pointed to salt poisoning as the rhinos tried to adapt to saltier water in their new home, the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife said in a statement. It suspended the moving of other rhinos and said the surviving ones were being closely monitored.

Save the Rhino estimates there are fewer than 5,500 black rhinos in the world, all of them in Africa, while Kenya’s black rhino population stands at 750, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Losing the rhinos was “a complete disaster”, the prominent Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu, of WildlifeDirect, told the Associated Press.

Cathy Dean, chief executive of Save the Rhino, said she and international colleagues were shocked and deeply saddened.

She called for external experts to be called in to carry out a thorough investigation into what went wrong, with the findings published in full.

Dean said the scale of the deaths from the translocation was greater than rhino fatalities caused by poaching so far this year in Kenya.

“It’s an absolute tragedy to lose seven [now eight] animals in this way,” Dean said. “The most important thing is for Kenya to do a proper inquiry and investigation into what went wrong. For that to happen the Kenya Wildlife Service needs to bring in external vets and translocation specialists from other countries - Namibia, for example.”

The relocation of endangered animals – known as translocation – involves putting them to sleep for the journey and then reviving them in a process that carries risks. But the loss of half of them is highly unusual.

The black rhinos were moved from the Nairobi and Lake Nakuru national parks to a new sanctuary created in Tsavo East national park in an operation announced by Najib Balala, the Kenyan tourism minister and carried out in collaboration with WWF Kenya.

In a statement the ministry said its preliminary investigations suggested the rhinos had died of salt poisoning as they tried to adapt to saltier water in their new home. It suspended the ongoing move of other rhinos and said the surviving ones were being closely monitored.

“The eight dead rhinos were among those that had been moved to the sanctuary in an initiative to start a new population in line with the National Rhino Conservation and Management Strategy,” the ministry said. “This kind of mortality rate is unprecedented in Kenya Wildlife Service operations.”

“A total of 14 rhinos had been planned to be translocated.

It was the first time since the 1990s that black rhinos had been moved to Tsavo East, which originally had a population of nearly 2,000, according to Save the Rhino, but now has between 10 and 20.

Kahumbu said officials must take responsibility and explain what went wrong. “Rhinos have died. We have to say it openly when it happens, not a week later or a month later,” she said. “Something must have gone wrong, and we want to know what it is.”

Kenya wants to increase its black rhino population to 2,000 by creating populations in areas that provide the right habitat for the animals to thrive.

Dean said translocation was not as common in Kenya as in other southern African countries, such as Namibia.

“In Kenya, they do it every three to four years, whereas other countries are doing them every year,” she said.

“There needs to be a postmortem and we need to look at the whole protocol for translocation.”

The ministry said it had invited an external expert from South Africa to join its investigation and if negligence was found to be a contributory factor disciplinary action would be taken.

“We will make the investigation results public as soon as we receive them,” the statement said.

According to KWS figures, nine rhinos were killed in Kenya last year. In May, three more were shot dead inside a specially protected sanctuary in northern Kenya and had their horns removed. In March, the last male northern white rhino on the planet, an older bull named Sudan, was put down by Kenyan vets after becoming ill.

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« Reply #5069 on: Jul 16, 2018, 04:39 AM »

Country diary: soft sounds of sparrow seduction

Sandy, Bedfordshire: The house sparrows are busy caring for their young, but can still find time to mate dozens of times a day

Derek Niemann
16 Jul 2018 05.30 BST

Lolling in the shade under a hazel bush, I had become the inadvertent eavesdropper on a private conversation. Out of the canopy came a whispered “brrr” whirr of wings and then the soft sounds of sparrow seduction, a love song of tenderness that was scarcely imaginable from a bird known for its strident chirps.

Gentle, soothing, piteous peeps drifted down, an intimate dialogue that was both charming and disarming. I caught a glimpse through the sparrows’ bower and saw the female, mouth agape, wings a-flutter. The male rode her for a second or two only. House sparrows may mate up to 40 times a day, but it’s always a quickie.

For the female, coitus interrupted something far more pressing. The instant he dismounted, she flew back to her chick-packed nestbox, clawed against the rim of the hole, and tipped inside.

For a full fortnight, I shared outdoor mealtimes with the sparrows and observed their own nutritional nous in feeding their young. I knew the eggs had hatched when the pair started making frequent sorties to a row of nearby lime trees. They were probably bringing back baby food, their beaks stuffed full of soft-bodied aphids. Days later, the female took in bigger, hard-bodied prey – I saw the tangle of legs and wings of a cranefly, and a giant baguette of a broad-bodied chaser dragonfly held lengthways, only just fitting through the aperture. By now, the male had vanished, and feeding was done by the female alone.

Each arrival at the nest set off a thin, piping chorus. She would habitually fly from the nesthole with a cream-coloured faecal sac in her beak. The peeps grew louder and more chirp-like, the chick “nappies” got bigger.

On one of the last days, I counted the times between her leaving and returning to the nest – 32 seconds, 27, 35. She had found a source of fast food – a ground feeder in a neighbouring garden – but the switch to a seed-packed diet was exactly what her nearly grown chicks needed.

The chicks have fledged, and the female and her new beau were at it again just now up on the gutter. I listened hard and caught the quiet hum, the murmur of sweet sparrow nothings.

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