European eels, new research

This video is about wild eels in streams (and a few wild brown trout).

From Wildlife Extra:

95% population decline in European eels spurs tracking research

Eels tagged to help scientists understand migration

January 2013. Nobody knows the underlying biological mechanisms of the European eel’s migration. Thanks to an EU-funded research project called eeliad, now about to reach completion, biologists have revealed some of its secrets, including a better understanding of its biology and migration route.

All European eels living from Northern Africa to Iceland are believed to migrate thousands of kilometres to the Sargasso Sea (The Sargasso Sea lies in the middle of the North Atlantic) to spawn. Findings of newly-hatched eel larvae in the Sargasso Sea strongly support this theory. But no eggs or adult eels have ever been caught in the area.

600 eels tagged

By attaching satellite and data storage tags to about 600 eels from different places in Europe the project scientists were hoping to map the route of the spawning eels. “We could track the satellite tags as far away as the Azores. This suggests that the eels take a different route to the Sargasso Sea than previously thought. It seems as if they’re saving energy by hitching a ride on the Azores Current,” Kim Aarestrup tells He is a senior scientist at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), in Silkeborg and one of the leading researchers behind the satellite tagging.

“Very little is known of the oceanic part of the eel’s life history,” says Martin Castonguay, an eel expert and research scientist at The Maurice Lamontagne Institute in Mont-Joli, Canada, adding: “The most important thing the eeliad project provided is that it gave us the first observations of adult eel migrations in the open Atlantic Ocean for distances up to 1,300 km from the release point.” Although he has not been a part of the project, Castonguay believes it has been “very successful”.

Among other things the project scientists also tested the spawning ecology of the eels by using genetic research, combined with a fisheries biology technique for tracking fish movement called otolith microchemistryand modelling methods. The analyses were undertaken both on eel larvae collected in the Sargasso Sea and on glass eels collected from the coastline of Europe and North Africa. “Our genetic research showed that the eels living all across Europe mate randomly. This is very unusual for animals that are so widely distributed. It strongly indicates that the European eels are spawning in the Sargasso Sea and nowhere else,” says Thomas Dammals, a research scientist at DTU who was involved with the genetic research in the project.

95% decline in eel populations

Even though the European eels is still surrounded by mystery, “the eeliad project has successfully addressed some issues,” notes Reinhold Hanel, director of the Thünen Institute of Fisheries Ecology in Hamburg, Germany, “these include questions about the diving behaviour of eels in the open ocean and a provisional clarification of the migration routes of eels leaving the Baltic Sea. And I certainly expect some more [results] after complete data analyses.” Today, the population of the European eels is now less than 5% of what it was 40 years ago. According to Reinhold Hanel, there is an “urgent need” to do more research on this elusive species.

European eels use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate the 6000 mile journey to the Sargasso Sea: here.

Bloodshed in Algeria, Mali

This music video is called Edwin Starr – Stop The War [Now] (Rare Single). The lyrics are here.

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Hostages killed at Algerian gasworks

Thursday 17 January 2013

by Paddy McGuffin and Bill Benfield

There were unconfirmed reports last night that up to 35 people taken hostage by Islamic militants in Algeria had died in an air assault by state forces.

Algeria’s armed forces laid siege to the Ain Amenas gas complex after the plant was seized by members of militant group Katibat Moulathamine on Wednesday – apparently in response to France’s military action in Mali.

A news agency reported that Algerian helicopters had strafed dozens of hostages, including foreign nationals and British citizens, and that rebels were moving around the massive complex.

Rebel fighters claimed only seven foreign hostages were left alive, but an Algerian security official had said earlier that around 20 hostages escaped.

Foreign Secretary William Hague attempted today to downplay suggestions that the ongoing crisis was a direct response to the intervention in Mali.

But Stop the War Coalition convenor Lindsey German accused Mr Hague of being “either a liar or a fool.”

She said: “When France began its air strikes and invasion in Mali last week the rebels there warned its government that there would be retaliation.”

“Blowback has come more rapidly than anyone expected.

“Hague is a completely incompetent fool. Anyone who does not connect the two has something completely wrong with their senses and has no place in politics.

“My fear is that if there are more deaths of foreign nationals it will be used as an excuse for further reprisals and the situation will escalate.”

And while insisting no British troops would be involved in freeing hostages, a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron revealed that the PM had only been told of the botched rescue after it happened.

“We would have preferred to be consulted in advance,” he said.

Meanwhile confusion also surrounded France’s military adventure in Mali today as the ex-colonial power ramped up its military presence to 1,400 troops.

The town of Banamba was put on alert and Malian soldiers sped there after a reported sighting of jihadists in the vicinity.

Banamba is connected by a secondary road to the garrison town of Diabali, which has reportedly been encircled by French special forces and was the scene of intense fighting.

Residents who escaped Diabali said French bombs continued to hit Islamist positions there overnight but they said the town remained under the control of the radical Islamists.

Fighting erupted between Islamists and Malian soldiers in the central town of Konna, and the Malian army claimed to have recaptured the town.

French government sources continued to talk up the military action although there remained little to back up their claims.

From CBS in the USA:

A diplomatic source confirmed to CBS News that the Algerian military had a plan to retake the facility and that there had been casualties among both the terrorists and hostages, including multiple deaths.

A British security source, citing a contact close to the scene, told CBS News “that the Algerians were firing from helicopters at anything that moved,” but could not confirm any deaths.

Egyptian lion goddess Sekhmet discovery

Newly discovered Sekhmet statue

From Ahram Online in Egypt:

The lioness for real

A granite statue of the ancient Egyptian warrior goddess Sekhmet was unearthed today in the Mut Temple at Karnak on Luxor’s east bank

Nevine El-Aref, Wednesday 16 Jan 2013

During excavation and cleaning works in the Mut Temple at Karnak, a mission from the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) stumbled on a very well preserved statue of the goddess Sekhmet. The statue is 180 cm tall and depicts Sekhmet as a lioness wearing the cobra and the Aten sun disk on her head and holding the ankh sign in her right hand and the lotus flower in her left.

“This is the first time a standing statue of the goddess Sekhmet in her original lioness form was found in the Mut Temple,” Mansour Boreik, the supervisor of Luxor antiquities, told Ahram Online. He added that previously discovered statues there depict Sekhmet seated with the facial features of the goddess Mut, the consort of the god Amun Re, not her original lioness figure.

The ARCE mission uncovered this statue within the sands of the Mut Temple’s second hall, within the framework of comprehensive restoration work carried out in collaboration with the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA). The project, which began in May 2012, aims at restoring the temple and its surroundings so that it can reopen to the public, as it has been closed since 1976.

The original plan includes the establishment of a visitor centre where a documentary about the goddess Mut and her role in ancient Egypt would be screened alongside photos of the temple before and after restoration.

The Mut Temple is one among several located at Karnak. For many years it stood in ruins beyond the south gate, some 200 meters south of Karnak’s 10th pylon. For some time now it has been undergoing restoration. The Napoleonic Expedition recorded one of the earliest plans of the Mut Temple as well as explorers and historians of the 19th century such as Nestor L’Hôte, whose drawings, made in 1839, recorded details of such temple. The Royal Prussian Expedition in 1842, led by Karl Lepsius and the first directors of the Department of Antiquities of Egypt, August Mariette and Gaston Maspero, had their own record of the monument. However, the first excavation and restoration work started in 1895 by two English women, Margaret Benson and Janet Gourlay.

Saving Zambia’s wildlife

This video says about itself:

Straw-coloured Fruit Bats in Kasanka, Zambia, Nov 2008

Kasanka hosts the largest colony of Fruit Bats in the world. An estimated 8 million visit the park in November and December.

From Wildlife Extra:

Rehabilitating Zambia’s Kasanka National Park

Bastiaan Boon reports on the reintroduction of zebra to Kasanka National Park as work to rehabilitate Kasanka intensify

As the pulsating beeps of our VHF-receiver grow louder and clearer, our anticipation grows stronger. Finally, after an hour or so of searching, the twitch of an ear gives away the presence of a large creature standing in the Miombo woodlands to the left of our vehicle. Perfectly camouflaged, their striped patterns breaking up their body shapes amongst the vegetation, a further eight animals are revealed, grazing casually on the fresh green growth the rains have brought us. After many early rises to feed and water our new arrivals in their temporary enclosures, I can hardly contain my excitement at my first sighting of these magnificent animals in their new home in the woodlands surrounding the Wasa Lakes.

November of 2012 saw the reintroduction of a total of nineteen Plains Zebra (Equus burchelli crawshayi) into Kasanka National Park in Northern Zambia, joining a remnant population which almost certainly numbered less than ten individuals. Prone to being caught in snares, and with their attractive coats fetching high prices from buyers ignorant of their origins, Zebra were hard hit during the years of heavy poaching that preceded the Kasanka Trust Ltd reaching an agreement with the Zambian Wildlife Authority to assume management of the once troubled park.

Rhino, Eland & Wild dog all disappeared

Kasanka has already lost the Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), Eland (Taurotragus oryx) and African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus), with many other species only occurring as vagrants or in heavily reduced numbers. It suffices to say that having this iconic species once again roam the park in viable numbers is a great boost to the confidence of those intimately involved with its management.

Relocated zebra

A total of twenty Zebra were transported up north from the Mazabuka area in Zambia’s Southern Province. Although hailing from across the country, these animals belong to the same crawshayi subspecies that call Kasanka home, a prerequisite for reintroduction. Comprising thirteen mares and seven stallions of all ages, the group was divided over two holding boma’s on the shores of Lake Wasa. Sadly, not soon after their arrival, a rather distressed caretaker discovered a foal deceased of injuries sustained during transport. After three weeks the decision was made to release the more restless of the herds to avoid further injuries. The second, calmer and rather habituated herd was kept in holding until one of the adult mares could be fitted with a VHF-transmitter to be tracked in the field – more easily said than done in this remote corner of the African wilderness!

Hard to locate

Upon opening the gate to the first enclosure, two males immediately took their leave – no doubt itching to get away from the rather aggressive dominant stallion. The remaining eight individuals disappeared overnight, not to be seen for several days. Distressing reports from the other side of the Mulembo River indicated that perhaps the animals had left the relative safety of the Park. Fortunately the herd was found grazing in the vicinity of Wasa Lodge later that week, and has since taken up residence in the Maombe area in the north-east of the park, joined by our resident ‘lonesome George’ , a stallion from Chililabola, by the airstrip. The six animals reported from across the river might represent animals still present in the Park prior to the reintroduction, although follow-up with scouts revealed no concrete evidence of their presence in the Nsofu area.

Daily tracking

Volunteers are tasked with tracking both herds on a daily basis and both seem to be faring well. The VHF-collar is proving useful in finding the ‘Wasa II Group’ in the vast Miombo Woodlands where the Park boundaries are not defined by rivers or geographical features other than the chitemene farmlands of the surrounding community. The ‘Maombe Group’ has since surprised us with the birth of a foal to one of the adult mares, the first recorded Zebra birth in the park in at least three years! It is hoped that the reintroduction of these two herds of Zebra will stimulate herding and breeding behavior amongst the remaining animals and help form a sizeable nucleus from which the population may grow and the species once again thrive in this unique corner of Zambia.

Sitatunga hotspot and home to elephant, sable, roan, buffalo and 5 million bats

Kasanka National Park is located in Northern Zambia and more than two decades ago became the first National Park in Zambia to come under private management. At roughly 400 km2 this small national park displays one of the greatest variations of habitats and biodiversity in the country. It is perhaps the best place in the world to see the shy Sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekei), boasts some of the highest densities of Puku (Kobus vardoni)on the continent and is home to growing numbers of Elephant, Hippo and Buffalo and a wide range of other ungulates such as Sable and Roan Antelope as well as many smaller creatures. No less than 467 species of birds have been recorded and the Park is home to the amazing annual congregation of Straw-coloured Fruitbats of BBC-fame.

Lavushi Manda National Park – Lions

More recently, the Kasanka Trust Ltd. has assumed management responsibilities of Lavushi Manda National Park – roughly four times the size of Kasanka. This Park once boasted one of the highest densities of Black Rhinoceros in the country and protects several habitats unique in Zambia. A year of active management and intensified anti-poaching measures has seen game sightings increase: Kinda, Baboon, Common Duiker, Reedbuck, Bushpig and the magnificent Sable Antelope are commonly encountered by scouts, with sightings of Warthog, Hartebeest and Roan Antelope less frequent.

Below towering Mt Lavushi or along the Chiundaponde Road the roar of the Lords of Lavushi – the last few Lions of the area – may still be heard at night and we can only hope that the future will once again bring them healthy herds of Zebra to satisfy their appetite as well.

Earliest amphibian moved like a seal

Three-dimensional reconstruction of Ichthyostega from μCT scan data. a, Anterolateral view. b, Dorsal view. c, Lateral view. d, Ventral view. The forelimbs and hindlimbs are shown in their resting pose from which ranges of motion were calculated

From Nature:

Vertebral architecture in the earliest stem tetrapods

Nature, (2013) doi:10.1038/nature11825

Published online 13 January 2013

The construction of the vertebral column has been used as a key anatomical character in defining and diagnosing early tetrapod groups1. Rhachitomous vertebrae2—in which there is a dorsally placed neural arch and spine, an anteroventrally placed intercentrum and paired, posterodorsally placed pleurocentra—have long been considered the ancestral morphology for tetrapods1, 3, 4, 5, 6. Nonetheless, very little is known about vertebral anatomy in the earliest stem tetrapods, because most specimens remain trapped in surrounding matrix, obscuring important anatomical features7, 8, 9.

Here we describe the three-dimensional vertebral architecture of the Late Devonian stem tetrapod Ichthyostega using propagation phase-contrast X-ray synchrotron microtomography. Our scans reveal a diverse array of new morphological, and associated developmental and functional, characteristics, including a possible posterior-to-anterior vertebral ossification sequence and the first evolutionary appearance of ossified sternal elements. One of the most intriguing features relates to the positional relationships between the vertebral elements, with the pleurocentra being unexpectedly sutured or fused to the intercentra that directly succeed them, indicating a ‘reverse’ rhachitomous design10. Comparison of Ichthyostega with two other stem tetrapods, Acanthostega7 and Pederpes8, shows that reverse rhachitomous vertebrae may be the ancestral condition for limbed vertebrates. This study fundamentally revises our current understanding11 of vertebral column evolution in the earliest tetrapods and raises questions about the presumed vertebral architecture of tetrapodomorph fish12, 13 and later, more crownward, tetrapods.

From Nature:

Three-dimensional limb joint mobility in the early tetrapod Ichthyostega

Stephanie E. Pierce, Jennifer A. Clack & John R. Hutchinson

Published online 23 May 2012

The origin of tetrapods and the transition from swimming to walking was a pivotal step in the evolution and diversification of terrestrial vertebrates. During this time, modifications of the limbs—particularly the specialization of joints and the structures that guide their motions—fundamentally changed the ways in which early tetrapods could move1, 2, 3, 4. Nonetheless, little is known about the functional consequences of limb anatomy in early tetrapods and how that anatomy influenced locomotion capabilities at this very critical stage in vertebrate evolution.

Here we present a three-dimensional reconstruction of the iconic Devonian tetrapod Ichthyostega and a quantitative and comparative analysis of limb mobility in this early tetrapod. We show that Ichthyostega could not have employed typical tetrapod locomotory behaviours, such as lateral sequence walking. In particular, it lacked the necessary rotary motions in its limbs to push the body off the ground and move the limbs in an alternating sequence. Given that long-axis rotation was present in the fins of tetrapodomorph fishes5, 6, 7, it seems that either early tetrapods evolved through an initial stage of restricted shoulder8, 9 and hip joint mobility or that Ichthyostega was unique in this respect. We conclude that early tetrapods with the skeletal morphology and limb mobility of Ichthyostega were unlikely to have made some of the recently described Middle Devonian trackways10.

British cuckoo research news

This video is called BBC Natural World – Cuckoo.

From Wildlife Extra:

BTO cuckoos update

Poor summer and difficult conditions meant very poor survival rates on migration

January 2013. The BTO expanded their cuckoo tracking project in the summer of 2012 to include males from Scotland and Wales to add to the birds they tagged in East Anglia in 2011. They were keen to discover if Scottish birds, numbers of which do not seem to be declining, might have different migratory strategies (which may just be the case -read on!) and to look for east-west differences between Norfolk and Wales.

Cuckoos called BB, Chance, Mungo, Roy and Wallace were tagged in Scotland, whilst David, Indy, Iolo and Lloyd began their journeys south from Wales. John and Reacher joined Chris and Lyster as BTO East Anglian Cuckoos.

Many 2012 birds didn’t survive the migration

Most of the Class of 2012 failed to make it to the African wintering grounds – in complete contrast to the Class of 2011. Hopefully, as BTO analyse this year’s data, and start to add in data from future years, they will better understand the rules of the game of ‘snakes and ladders’ that Cuckoos face each autumn, winter and spring on their 10,000 mile round trips.

Wet summer may have been detrimental

The summer of 2012 was wet – very wet, with a real dearth of insects – and BTO were concerned that migratory birds may be in poor condition when it came time for departure. This was not the last of their problems, however, as the birds fared very badly over the autumn period. We can only speculate as to what proportion of the losses was associated with conditions on the ground in southern Europe and how much due to poor preparations in the UK.

Individual challenges

In 2011 migration was relatively straightforward but in 2012 there were a number of cases where birds returned northwards, presumably because they could not find food. Lloyd sampled sites in north-western and north-eastern Italy as well as in south and southwest France before making it across the Mediterranean, whilst John gave up on Spain and returned to France. We guess that Indy’s u-turn in the middle of the Mediterranean, as he flew back to northern Italy, must have been associated with running out of resources and going back to his last known feeding ground to refuel.

West not best

BTO were surprised when, in 2011, two of the tagged birds successfully used a previously-unknown westerly route through Spain and western Africa. In 2012, no bird that took this option completed the journey; see the map. John died in France, Reacher died in the droughts of Granada (Spain) and Lyster did not manage to complete his journey across the Sahara. Chris who was the only English Cuckoo to take the more easterly route, made it across the desert and south to his wintering area in Congo.

Different routes

It is early days and these are small samples but, looking at the routes taken by East Anglian, Scottish and Welsh birds, there do seem to be some interesting patterns. The only birds using the western route were tagged in England. Scottish and Welsh birds over-flew the southern coast of the Mediterranean in a broad wave, from Tunisia to Egypt, with two birds (and possibly a third) using countries to the east of the Adriatic as stop-overs, whilst Cuckoos tagged in England have crossed from coastal Morocco east through to Libya across the two years. Perhaps the westerly route is good in some years and not in others? Of the five birds to reach the wintering grounds, the two birds from Wales are wintering further east than the remaining English and Scottish birds.