Newly discovered wasp species, with dead ants in walls of its nest


A typical nest of the bone-house wasp D. ossarium containing four brood cells with a pupae each. Photo credit: Merten Ehmig

From LiveScience:

Newfound Wasp Literally Has Skeletons in Its Closet

By Megan Gannon, News Editor | July 02, 2014 02:58pm ET

A newly discovered wasp has been keeping a gruesome secret: It stuffs ant corpses into the walls of its home.

As far as scientists know, the behavior is unique in the animal kingdom. The new creature has been named Deuteragenia ossarium, or the “bone-house wasp,” after the historical ossuaries piled high with human skeletons found in monasteries or graveyards.

“It was a totally unexpected discovery,” said Michael Staab, a researcher at the University of Freiburg in Germany. [Zombie Animals: 5 Real-Life Cases of Body-Snatching]

Skeletons in the closet

Staab had been studying the homemaking habits of cavity-nesting wasps in eastern China, and he and his colleagues had set up trap nests in the Gutianshan National Nature Reserve, a subtropical evergreen forest in the Yangtze River Basin that’s home to steep cliffs and animals like clouded leopards and Asian black bears.

Cavity-nesting wasps may live in self-made holes or pre-existing tunnels in plants or pieces of wood. These cavities typically contain several brood cells — the wasp equivalent of a single hexagon in a beeswax comb — which are separated by thin walls made of bits of plant, resin or soil. Scientists have even found bits of insects in the mix.

But when Staab’s team collected the trap nests, they found something unusual: In 73 of the nests, the researchers discovered an outer cell packed with the whole bodies of dead ants. The species behind the corpse houses was a spider-hunting wasp previously unknown to science. The findings were detailed today (July 2) in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

A smelly shield

Staab said he was puzzled by the discovery until he considered the location of the carcass-filled cells. The dead ants were always found in an outer vestibular cell, a chamber built by a female wasp to close the nest after she lays eggs.

Wasp architects may favor dead ants as a building material because of the way their carcasses smell, Staab and his team suspect. Scents on the ants’ bodies, even in death, might offer camouflage or protection from predators — a red flag to stay away — as many ants are fierce defenders of their nests, the researchers wrote. The ant most commonly found in walls of wasp homes was Pachycondyla astuta, an aggressive ant species with a mean sting that’s abundant in the region.

Because the brood cells are where the wasps’ larvae live, this strategy may help ensure the survival of their young.

Staab said he and his colleagues never directly observed the wasps building one of their bone houses, nor did they see the wasps kill ants to turn them into “bricks.”

“However, due to the very good condition of all ant specimens in the ant chambers, we assume that the wasp must actively hunt the ants and not collect dead ants from the refuse piles of ant colonies,” Staab told Live Science in an email.

Other wasps — especially parasitic ones — resort to similarly grisly measures to protect their offspring. The parasitic wasp Dinocampus coccinellae, for example, hijacks ladybug bodies, turning its victims into zombie slaves that keep predators away from its larvae. And elsewhere in the animal world, other creatures — even snakes — have taken advantage of the bad reputation of ants to survive. A 2009 study in the journal Insectes Sociaux described how banded cat-eyed snakes lay their eggs in the fungus-filled chambers of aggressive leaf-cutter ants to keep their reptilian babies safe before they hatch.

Follow Megan Gannon on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescienceFacebookGoogle+. Original article on Live Science.

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Amur tiger swims from Russia to China


This video is about Amur tigers.

From Wildlife Extra:

Film shows Amur tiger swimming across Russia’s border to China

An Amur tiger has been filmed swimming across the Ussuri River from Russia to China.

The rare episode took place close to Russia’s Bolshekhekhtsirsky Nature Reserve and China’s wetlands of the Sanjiang Nature Reserve.

Its swim was filmed by two Chinese fishermen on their mobile phones.

“In general, it is a usual thing for a tiger to swim across rivers, but in this case I am amazed at the river width – 300-350 metres – that the tiger covered successfully,” said Pavel Fomenko, biodiversity conservation program coordinator at WWF Russia Amur branch.

“The tiger’s swim across the Ussuri can be regarded as a search for prey, or a mate, or new habitats. It is very important for the Chinese colleagues to monitor the tiger translocation. I hope the rare predator will be safe in China”.

This area is a transboundary corridor used by tigers when crossing the Sino- Russian border.

“It is significant to monitor the Amur tiger and its prey base progress jointly by Russia and China,” saif Shi Quanhua, senior programme manager of the Asian big cats program of WWF China.

“Our task today is to keep track of this tiger movements, to work with local people and governmental agencies in order to safeguard the animal regardless of the place where it stays – in China or back in Russia”.

Watch the film HERE.

Huge fish discovered from long before dinosaurs


This video is called Fish of the Silurian Period.

By Jennifer Viegas:

Did Super-Sized Animals Live Long Before Dinosaurs?

June 12, 2014 11:00 AM ET

It’s generally believed that Earth’s earliest animals were not very big, but discovery of a huge new fish that lived around 423 million years ago has scientists rethinking what life was like close to 200 million years before the first dinosaurs emerged.

The fish, named Big Mouth Blunt Tooth (Megamastax amblyodus), is described in the latest issue of Scientific Reports. For its time, the toothy and lobe-finned fish was in the number one spot on the food chain.

“At 1 meter (3.3 feet) in length or greater, it was vastly larger than any other animal,” lead author Brian Choo told Discovery News, adding that Big Mouth was “likely the earliest vertebrate (backboned) apex predator in the fossil record.”

Choo, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Flinders University, and his colleagues analyzed Big Mouth’s remains, which were unearthed at the Kuanti Formation in Yunnan, southwestern China. During the fish‘s lifetime, a period known as the Silurian, this region was part of the South China Sea. It is where the marine ancestors of all jawed animals, including humans, first evolved.

Equipped with both piercing and crushing teeth, Big Mouth likely preyed upon hard-shelled moving species, such as mollusks and armored fishes. The second largest animal at the time, Guiyu onerios — aka Ghost Fish, was a mere one-third of Big Mouth’s size.

Why then was Big Mouth so big?

One reason, according to the researchers, is that competition among fish appears to have been fierce.

Co-author Min Zhu explained, “During the Silurian period, the South China Sea, then at the equator, was the cradle of early jawed vertebrates, thus the ecological competition among these creatures was very intense.”

Another reason is that Big Mouth probably had plenty of oxygen. Modern fish are generally worse off in low oxygen conditions, and big fish require more oxygen than small ones, Choo said. Big Mouth therefore could not have existed unless sufficient oxygen was present.

See also here.

New pterosaur species and their eggs discovered in China


This video is called First 3D Flying Reptile Eggs Discovered in China.

From daily The Guardian in Britain:

Getting ahead: the new crested pterosaur Hamipterus has researchers aflutter

The newly discovered Chinese flying reptile is preserved in huge numbers and with rarely found eggs

The pterosaurs have often been the poor cousins of their relatives when it comes to the public’s understanding of them. Incorrectly called flying dinosaurs, mixed up as bird or even bat ancestors, and considered leathery-winged gliders that could barely fly, let alone walk, they remain a relic of the ‘animals are extinct because they failed’ idea of the 1800s. In fact pterosaurs were remarkably good fliers and many were also superb on the ground, and their real limitation is that their fossil record is generally so poor.

Pterosaurs had incredibly thin bones and while this may have helped make them relatively light, it means they did not fossilise well. As a result, we don’t have many good pterosaur skeletons (and rarely have multiple individuals of one species), and the ones we do have tend to come from a few restricted places where the preservation at that time was exceptional. Pterosaur eggs are even more rare, with all of none turning up between 1784 (when the first pterosaur was described) and 2004, and in the last decade that number has reach a grand total of four.

So the announcement of a discovery of a whole pile of pterosaurs, and with several eggs as well, is clearly a tremendous find. The newly named Hamipterus tianshanensis (its name roughly means ‘the wing of Hami, in the Tianshan mountains’) is from Xinjiang of northwestern China, and dates to around 100-120 million years ago. The fossils uncovered in this arid region include bones of at least 40 different individuals (and estimates of the number of pterosaur bones in the area run into the thousands) and so far five eggs. That is quite a haul and immediately makes this one of the better represented pterosaurs and makes the area a prime spot for pterosaur research. Moreover, all previously described pterosaur eggs had been flattened into two dimensions, but the ones preserved here are the first even that are available in 3D (if a little squished).

Hamipterus was a medium sized pterosaur with a wingspan of up to 3.5 m. It is referred to a group of pterosaurs called the pteranodontoids which include the famous toothless Pteranodon, but also numerous other pterosaurs including many with large teeth. Members of this group are generally considered to be primarily fish eaters and excellent fliers, catching their food on the wing by snatching fish from the surface of the water. The anatomy of the new find matches this interpretation with a series of long teeth in the thin jaws, and the bones were buried around the margin of a large lake. However, it is in the shape of the top of the head that the real interest lies, with specimens bearing a bony crest that runs along the top of the skull and is much larger in some individuals.

Pterosaurs are in part famous for the wild variety of head crests seen on various species. These include those composed of bone, others of soft tissues and some that combined the two. Over the years various hypotheses have been brought forwards for their function, but the main prevailing idea is that in most forms they likely functioned in some forms of sexual display and / or as social dominance signals. In the case of Hamipterus it is suggested that the different sizes may represent males and females (with the males bearing the larger crest) which is very much a reasonable starting hypothesis, but one that requires a degree of further testing. There’s a huge variation in the size and shape of crests in various things that have them (look at the horns in sheep and antlers in deer) and telling male from female, or young male from old male and so on, can be very difficult.

The data is naturally limited at the moment, but the fact that already numerous different individuals and eggs have turned up together is the first on record. There is obviously the potential here for many more animals to be found, and comparable big aggregations of nesting animals are already known for both ancient birds and non-avian dinosaurs. It would not at all be a surprise if pterosaurs did something similar, and indeed this has been suggested in various quarters a number of times, so thepossibility is there, even if it is currently very tentative. Such a haul of specimens though provides an excellent starting point and there is certainly much more to come from this amazing collection.

Wang et al., Sexually Dimorphic Tridimensionally Preserved Pterosaurs and Their Eggs from China, Current Biology (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.04.054 (Current paywall, but open access in 2 weeks).

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‘Pinocchio’ dinosaur discovery in China


The image shows the skull of Qianzhousaurus (upper jaw in left lateral view and lower jaw in reversed right lateral view). Credit: Junchang Lu

From the University of Edinburgh in Scotland:

Long-nosed dinosaur is cousin of T. rex

Scientists have discovered a species of long-snouted dinosaur which stalked the Earth more than 66 million years ago.

The animal, nicknamed Pinocchio rex, belonged to the same family as Tyrannosaurus rex.

It was a fearsome carnivore that lived in Asia during the late Cretaceous period.

New specimen

The ancient predator had an elongated skull and long, narrow teeth compared with the deeper, more powerful jaws and thick teeth of a conventional T. rex.

Palaeontologists were uncertain of the existence of long-snouted tyrannosaurs until the remains of the dinosaur – named Qianzhousaurus sinensis – were unearthed in China.

Until now, only two fossilised tyrannosaurs with elongated heads had been found, both of which were juveniles. The new specimen is of an animal nearing adulthood.

New group

Experts say Qianzhousaurus sinensis lived alongside deep-snouted tyrannosaurs but would probably have hunted different prey.

Researchers have created a new branch of the tyrannosaur family for specimens with long snouts, and they expect more new dinosaurs to be added to the group.

Qianzhousaurus sinensis lived until around 66 million years ago when all of the dinosaurs became extinct, likely as the result of a deadly asteroid impact.

This is a different breed of tyrannosaur: It has the familiar toothy grin of T. rex, but its snout was much longer and it had a row of horns on its nose. It might have looked a little comical, but it would have been as deadly as any other tyrannosaur, and maybe even a little faster and stealthier.

Dr Steve Brusatte, Chancellor’s Fellow in Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Edinburgh

Findings from the study are published in the journal Nature Communications.

See also here. And here.

Qianzhousaurus sinensis, in spite of its Pinocchio like nose, probably did not lie as often as Pinocchio; or as another life form often compared to Pinocchio, Tony Blair.

This video from the USA is called George W. Bush Pinocchio: Weapons in Iraq.

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