Bahamas sharks, new research


This video from the Bahamas is called Bimini Sharklab Naturalist Course: The Shark Dive.

From daily The Independent in Britain:

The truth about sharks: Far from being ‘killing machines’, they have personalities, best friends and an exceptional capacity for learning

A tribe of marine scientists has set up base on the tiny island of Bimini in the Bahamas to unravel the secrets of the creature most misunderstood by man. Oliver Duff dives in..

Oliver Duff

Friday 28 November 2014

I was snorkelling far offshore when the bull shark appeared. Movement in the corner of my eye, then a silhouette 30 metres away, slipping through the turquoise haze on that late afternoon. He was fat, with a bright white belly and distinctive snub nose. He studied the two-legged intruder and began to circle, slowly closing the gap: 20 metres, 15, 12…

I stuck it out for as long as I dared, then, trying to avoid panicked splashing, I kicked for the boat, not taking my eyes off him. You don’t want to mess around with a bull.

These waters off tiny Bimini, in the Bahamas, teem with sharks. A tribe of marine scientists, led by the grandfather of shark biology, Samuel ‘Doc’ Gruber, has set up base on the island, determined to unravel the secrets of the creature most misunderstood by man. The research coming out of the Bimini Biological Field Station – better known around the world as the Sharklab – is transforming our knowledge of what glides beneath the seas and oceans.

This video is called Take A Tour Of The Bimini Shark Lab In The Bahamas.

Turn off the spine-tingling music and forget everything you thought you knew about this solitary, “mindless killing machine”. Sharks have individual personalities. They socialise, choose best friends and create social networks of unusual complexity. They can be trained by humans to complete simple tasks, much more quickly than rabbits or cats, for instance, and retain the knowledge for much longer. Sharks also teach each other new tricks: how to find food, identify predators and charm mates. Like sea turtles, some travel huge distances to return to their own birthplace, again and again, to give birth themselves. Most don’t need to swim continuously to survive. And rather than being near-blind and reliant on smell, which is the general perception, they in fact have advanced sight. They feel pain. And the boldest sharks face a greater risk of dying before adulthood.

Why does any of this matter? Well, we’re killing about 100 million sharks every year, 11,000 an hour, either for the Chinese soup trade (where the de-finned shark is chucked back into the sea to sink and die on the bottom) or as bycatch.

The idea of shark-free waters may seem appealing, until you consider the havoc that would be unleashed on the rest of ocean life if that happened. Sharks, as apex predators, balance ecosystems, stopping animals in the middle of the marine food chain from proliferating and destroying life still further down. Sharks also pick off the weakest, sickest and slowest fish, helping to prevent the spread of disease and parasites, and strengthening the gene pool of prey species. That’s why scientists consider sharks to be ‘keystone’ species in marine ecosystems. Take them away and the structures collapse.

Five years ago, I was a phobic rattled by shadows in the swimming pool. Now I’m a shark nut. I have free-dived – no cage, armed with nothing more than a snorkel and an underwater camera – with about 100 big sharks (by that, I mean longer than two metres). No ‘great’ whites or oceanic whitetips among them, but tiger, yes, bull, great hammerhead, sand tiger, lemon, Caribbean reef, blacktip, grey, and perhaps the laziest, the nurse shark. (This sluggish character loiters near the bottom and sucks in small prey that happens to pass by.) I have not yet been eaten on sight, but I have been stared at with alarm and curiosity.

This video says about itself:

The Sharklab (Bimini Biological Field Station) research team catch a 283 cm tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) in 900 feet of water just off the coast of Bimini, Bahamas.

The Independent article continues:

Underwater, I’m still prone to pangs of claustrophobia from poor visibility, or agoraphobia from the vast expanse, but I’ve rationalised my fear of sharks. Only about a dozen of the 500 species have posed any danger to humans, and even then, very rarely. Calling sharks man-eaters is like judging the whole of humanity by a handful of serial killers. Every year, billions of people around the world enter shark habitats; on average, four of them die.

My infatuation began on the Barrier Reef in 2009, scuba-diving in Queensland. Your heart drums the first time you see that unmistakeable shadow emerge from the gloom. Two long grey reef sharks approached us. Time stopped as they span back and forth, inspecting the huddle of novice divers. Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, they slipped back into the unseen Pacific. I was awed by their grace, power and inquisitiveness.

Fast-forward to 2014 and I’m on South Bimini, 50 miles east of Miami, to see the Sharklab scientists in action. I spotted an advert online: anyone can visit to take part in their ‘research experience’, five days a month where outsiders can live and study at the field station. It’s a means of fundraising and spreading the urgent conservation message. (I paid my own way.)

The biologists give lectures and take us out on the boats to help with their day job: capturing, tagging and releasing sharks, then tracking their movements, in the hope of finally understanding their behaviour. You get to wear swimming trunks to the office, but have to watch your fingers.

This video is called Ayla visits a shark research lab on South Bimini and talks to the scientists about the tagging program.

Uniquely in the Bahamas, all species of sharks are protected. If you get in the clear, warm water, you will meet large sharks. So an hour after landing at the airstrip, I’m already on a small boat a mile offshore, ready to jump in.

All around us, the dorsal fins of large Caribbean reef sharks chop the surface. Looking over the side I could touch them as they glide beneath us. The main thing to remember is not to jump in right on top of one – unlikely to be enjoyable for either party.

Within seconds of plunging in, we’re face-to-snout with them. Caribbean reef sharks are the bold, boisterous puppy dogs of the Bahamas. It’s utterly thrilling, sometimes too intense for comfort as they dart by – you have to fend off the nosier ones with a raised fin. After 40 minutes, I don’t want to get back on the boat.

The island looks stunning from the air – a spit of sand in coral shallows –but life onshore is less glamorous. The scientists live in a crowded bunkhouse with little privacy and personal space, hungry bugs and stifling heat.

The lab’s executive director, Dr Tristan Guttridge, aged 32, admits: “It’s not easy to get time alone or to reflect. People here endure some tough conditions to experience life-changing moments, like free-diving with a great hammerhead.”

While free-diving with sharks cannot ever be completely ‘safe’, it is a calculated risk, taking account of species, water conditions, and the size of the diving group. I reasoned that the scientists wanted to send us home with all our fingers and toes.

The real stars of the show at Bimini are the great hammerheads, Sphyrna mokarran. These charismatic, elusive and endangered giants grow to six metres long, and for a few months a year they live in the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary. Being close to such a beast – buffeted by its wake as it rockets past your head – leaves you certain of your insignificance in the cosmos.

We floated in the shallows following three of them for an hour. They are superb hunters and glorious to watch, as they spin and dive through the water column, swinging their wide heads packed with electro-sensors over the seabed to scan for hidden stingrays or flatfish. Their attitude to us? Majestic indifference.

Dr Guttridge and his colleagues have pioneered a research project to find out why the great hammerheads visit the Bahamas, where they have come from and where they go. Great hammerheads respond badly to capture – 90 per cent caught on a line die – so they have to be individually tagged by free-diving researchers who hold their breath, kick down and spear an acoustic transmitter through the shark’s dorsal fin.

The first results are in: one female swam a staggering 750 miles from Bimini up to Virginia in four weeks, making dives as deep as 200 metres on the way. The suspicion is that great hammerheads swim from the Caribbean to the United States, where they have no federal protection and fall prey to commercial and sports fishing. To save them from extinction, biologists first need to know exactly where they go.

One of the extraordinary things about the Sharklab is its genetic database, which contains 3,500 lemon sharks, 500 tigers, 200 blacktips, 150 nurse and 50 bulls. This allows the team to discover family ties between sharks and has provided definitive evidence of mothers returning to their own birthplace to deliver their young. Recently the researchers were delighted to catch a lemon shark whose pups were first detected back in 1993, making her at least 37 years old.

Debunking the popular image of sharks as killing machines is Jean-Sebastien Finger, a 29-year-old marine biologist who swapped Paris for Bimini.

“They are not machines, they have personality,” Finger explains. He is conducting the first study into the personalities of lemon sharks – the lab mice of the sea (but feistier). By observing them for thousands of hours he’s built a “Facebook of sharks” and found that they have their own distinct personalities which are consistent over time. Some are sociable, bold, others shy, territorial, mellow, novelty-seeking, risk-averse, leaders, followers… “You can’t generalise behaviour of one individual to a species,” he cautions. The research may eventually be compared across species, including humans, to try to shed light on the evolution of personality.

Another man dedicated to challenging stereotypes is the Belgian photographer Jean-Marie Ghislain. He has chosen art over science, publishing his stunning black-and-white work (pictured on these pages) in a new book, Shark: Fear and Beauty. Ghislain was scared of water until the age of 52, when he was still working in real estate. A friend persuaded him that he could overcome this fear by swimming with sharks. Over the past five years he has spent thousands of hours diving with them, trying to capture their beauty and presence. “I realised it was a projection of a fear,” he says. “Once I faced the sharks, it was gone.”

Danger is something few of us experience. For me, though, swimming with sharks is about more than sensing your own mortality. It’s the exhilaration of finding the last real wilderness on Earth, just a few inches beneath the ocean surface.

And if all this seems too much, you will soon be able to marvel at sharks without getting your hair wet. The BBC’s Natural History Unit has been filming a startling new series, Shark, scheduled for broadcast on BBC1 next year. Four decades after Steven Spielberg’s hysterical big-screen effort, rehabilitation cannot come soon enough.

For more on Bimini Biological Field Station, visit biminisharklab.com

‘Shark: Fear and Beauty’, by Jean-Marie Ghislain (Thames & Hudson, £29.95)

Coypu collects grass for nest, video


This video shows a coypu, collecting grass for its nest.

Ronald Aarns from the Netherlands made this video on 11 August 2014 near the De Wittsee in Germany, close to the Dutch border.

Coypus are originally from South America, but there feral animals in many European countries.

Peregrine falcons as parents, new study


This video says about itself:

Peregrine falcon fieldwork

11 November 2014

It takes quite some courage to work with Peregrine falcons! Fieldwork for the study “Breeding performance and survival in the peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus support an age-related competence improvement hypothesis mediated via an age threshold” by Jabi Zabala and Iñigo Zuberogoitia.

From the Journal of Avian Biology about this:

Breeding performance and survival in the peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus support an age-related competence improvement hypothesis mediated via an age threshold

Jabi Zabala, Iñigo Zuberogoitia

Published online: 6 November 2014

We studied the effects of age on breeding performance and survival probability in a peregrine falcon population, using data from a long term monitoring programme (carried out over 16 yr), in which we were able to identify individual birds. We compared the breeding performance and survival of yearling breeders, first-time adult breeders and adult breeders. We found significant differences in breeding performance but not in survival.

Yearling breeders had lower breeding success than older individuals but the breeding performance of inexperienced adults did not differ from that of experienced adults. We did not find changes in terminal breeding success since peregrines in their last year of life sustained the performance levels shown in previous years although with increasing variability. We found no evidence that attempting to breed affected survival probability in any age group.

We argue that differences in breeding performance are related to age, not to breeding experience, and that there is an age threshold, coincident with the development of adult plumage, after which breeding performance is not affected either by age or experience. Peregrines that start breeding as yearlings are likely to have greater lifetime reproductive success than birds entering the breeding pool as adults. Consequently, such birds may represent a set of high quality individuals. Our results support the age-related competence improvement hypothesis as being the relevant explanation for the increase in breeding performance with age.

Little auks, new research


This video says about itself:

Foraging strategy of the little auk

9 May 2014

Summary of the paper ‘Foraging strategy of the little auk Alle alle throughout breeding season – switch from unimodal to bimodal pattern‘.

Mammoth ancestor discovery in Namibia


Moeritherium

This picture, like the others in this blog post, is by German artist Heinrich Harder (1858-1935). It depicts Moeritherium, one of the earliest species, ancestral to present day elephants.

Palaeomastodon

This picture shows Palaeomastodon, which lived later than Moeritherium: about 36 million years ago.

Deinotherium

Still later came Deinotherium, looking more like present day elephants; though its tusks pointed downwards.

Before elephant evolution led to the woolly mammoths of about 100,000 years ago, ancestors of these mammoths lived in Africa. Recently, Dutch paleontologist Dick Mol found such a fossil ancestor, 3-4 million years old, in Etosha national park in Namibia. Later, Mr Mol says, mammoths left Africa for Eurasia; and humans went along with them.

Yesterday, in Amsterdam, the exhibition Giants of the Ice Age, on mammoths and similar animals, started.

Southern African birds, new app


This video, from and about North America, is called Bird watching apps.

From The Independent daily in South Africa:

Conservation app for birders

November 28 2014 at 08:25am

By MPHATHI NXUMALO

Durban – A new phone application could change the way bird conservation is carried out – and also help fight poaching.

The app, called Birdlasser, was showcased at the Nurturing Environmental Sustainability Through Technology summit at the Manyoni Bush Camp in Mkuze at the weekend.

The free technology encourages users to log bird sightings they make and enter the information in the app. The data then gets sent to the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town and becomes available for academics, people doing environmental impact assessments, conservation companies – as well as the public.

The entire process, from the time someone logs the information to being received in Cape Town, takes just three minutes.

The information will also form part of the Southern African Bird Atlasing Project 2, an update of the previous project which was conducted between 1987 and 1991.

The project will help provide an understanding of the changes bird populations have gone through in terms of habitat and population.

Birdlasser creator Henk Nel said: “It started with a vision four years ago on how technology can work towards conservation. I saw birding needed technology. There were apps, but they were not professionally done.”

Nel, 39, said although the idea had been percolating in his head for four years, actual software development started last November and was completed in August.

He has put his life savings into the project and says that, despite this, he has the support of his family. But it had not been an easy road.

“I am aware that not everything goes smoothly. I have learned not to be too emotionally involved in the project even though the project feels like my baby.”

He has learned to take advice from his colleagues about various aspects of the project, he said.

He describes the response to the project as “overwhelming.” The app will have a competitive edge too. A list of top spotters who have the most spottings will be posted on the Facebook page.

According to Nel the “gamification” of the app will encourage enthusiasts to do as much bird watching as possible. “Introducing the gamification aspect helps to make the spotting fun and competitive,” Nel said.

The app’s users will have to do “intensive” birding in a 7km by 8km area for a minimum of two hours and a maximum of 10 a hours a day over a five-day period.

Information systems specialist at the Animal Demography Unit based at the University of Cape Town, Michael Brooks, said they have taken into consideration the possibility of people trying to “cheat” by reporting false bird sightings.

Brooks said if there is a suspicious sighting, the person who made the sighting has to give a justification on whether it is taken to a committee of regional experts. The committee makes the final decision on whether to accept the sighting or not.

“With the app, we will be able to get information that is live and get real data in real time… It is a project that I believe will be useful to citizens and scientists.”

The data will be used by the SA National Biodiversity Institute which can influence government policy.

Communications co-ordinator at African Parks, Carien Soldatos, said she wanted to take the model and use it for anti-poaching activities in the seven parks the organisation operates in.

“We are looking for a technology solution for park management and anti-poaching. I know Birdlasser is for birds, but we believe we can use it for anti-poaching. We would like to develop something similar to Birdlasser. We are looking especially at getting field data and use it for planning.”

Soldatos said the model would be used by rangers and field guides. This was important as it could monitor fires started by poachers.

Poachers use fires to push animals in a certain direction and isolate them and poach them. We could use satellite images to track fires and send the correct amount of rangers to the scene,” Soldatos said.

The app is currently available on iPhones. But an Android version is currently being developed. The app currently caters for Southern Africa.

Green woodpecker video


This is a video about a green woodpecker, looking for food in a garden in Veenwouden in Friesland province in the Netherlands.

Johann Prescher made the video.