Tuatara reptiles’ genome, similar to mammals


This January 2020 video says about itself:

Today, Department of Conservation rangers Lee and Joyce are in search of a rare animal found only on an island in New Zealand. Follow them on their quest to find and breed two Tuataras, an ancient reptile that predates the dinosaurs.

From Northern Arizona University in the USA:

Dinosaur relative’s genome linked to mammals: Curious genome of ancient reptile

August 5, 2020

A lizard-like creature whose ancestors once roamed the Earth with dinosaurs and today is known to live for longer than 100 years may hold clues to a host of questions about the past and the future.

In a study published Aug. 5 in Nature, an interdisciplinary, international team of researchers, in partnership with Maori tribe Ngatiwai, sequenced, assembled and analyzed the complete genome of the Sphenodon punctatus, or the tuatara, a rare reptile whose ancestors once roamed the earth with dinosaurs. It hasn’t changed much in the 150 million to 250 million years since then.

“We found that the tuatara genome has accumulated far fewer DNA substitutions over time than other reptiles, and the molecular clock for tuataras ticked at a much slower speed than squamates, although faster than turtles and crocodiles, which are the real molecular slowpokes,” said co-author Marc Tollis, an assistant professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems at Northern Arizona University. “This means in terms of the rate of molecular evolution, tuataras are kind of the Toyota Corolla — nothing special but very reliable and persistently ticking away over hundreds of millions of years.”

Tuatara have been out on their own for a staggering amount of time, with prior estimates ranging from 150-250 million years, and with no close relatives the position of tuatara on tree of life has long been contentious. Some argue tuatara are more closely related to birds, crocodiles and turtles, while others say they stem from a common ancestor shared with lizards and snakes. This new research places tuatara firmly in the branch shared with lizards and snakes, but they appear to have split off and been on their own for about 250 million years — a massive length of time considering primates originated about 65 million years ago, and hominids, from which humans descend, originated approximately six million years ago.

“Proving the phylogenetic position of tuatara in a robust way is exciting, but we see the biggest discovery in this research as uncovering the genetic code and beginning to explore aspects of the biology that makes this species so unique, while also developing new information that will help us better conserve this taonga or special treasure,” said lead author Neil Gemmell, a professor at the University of Otago.

One area of particular interest is to understand how tuataras, which can live to be more than 100 years old, achieve such longevity. Examining some of the genes implicated in protecting the body from the ravages of age found that tuatara have more of these genes than any other vertebrate species thus far examined, including humans. This could offer clues into how to increase humans’ resistance to the ailments that kill humans.

But the genome, and the tuatara itself, has so many other unique features all on its own. For one, scientists have found tuatara fossils dating back 150 million years, and they look exactly the same as the animals today. The fossil story dates the tuatara lineage to the Triassic Period, when dinosaurs were just starting to roam the Earth.

“The tuatara genome is really a time machine that allows us to understand what the genetic conditions were for animals that were vying for world supremacy hundreds of millions of years ago,” he said. “A genome sequence from an animal this ancient and divergent could give us a better idea about what the ancestral amniote genome might have looked like.”

While modern birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, they are less suitable for this type of research because avian genomes have lost a significant amount of DNA since diverging from their dinosaur ancestors.

But the tuataras, which used to be spread throughout the world, have other unusual features. Particularly relevant to this research is the size of its genome; the genome of this little lizard has 5 billion bases of DNA, making it 67 percent larger than a human genome. Additionally, tuataras have temperature-based sex determination, which means the ratio of males to females in a clutch of eggs depends on the temperatures at which they are incubated. They also have a pronounced “third eye” — a light sensory organ that sticks through the top of their skulls. Mammals’ skulls have completely covered the third eye, though they still contain the pineal gland underneath, which helps maintain circadian rhythms.

The tuatara also is unique in that it is sacred to the Maori people. This research, for all the scientific knowledge that came from it, was groundbreaking for its collaboration with the Indigenous New Zealanders. The purpose was to ensure the research aligned with and respected the importance of the tuatara in their culture, which has never been done before in genomic research.

“Tuatara are a taonga, and it’s pleasing to see the results of this study have now been published,” Ngatiwai Trust Board resource management unit manager Alyx Pivac said. “Our hope is that this is yet another piece of information that will help us understand tuatara and aid in the conservation of this special species. We want to extend a big mihi to all of those who have been involved in this important piece of work.”

With the genome now sequenced, the international science community has a blueprint through which to examine the many unique features of tuatara biology, which will aid human understanding of the evolution of the amniotes, a group that includes birds, reptiles and mammals.

British Conservative government PPE fraud scandal


British healthcare workers demonstrate against Conservative governmental COVID-19 disaster mismanagement

From daily The Morning Star in Britain today:

Editorial: NHS outsourcing and the 50 million faulty face masks fiasco

THE wretched saga of the government’s purchase of 50 million unusable face masks has all the hallmarks of a classic Tory scandal.

Wearily we note that ministers insist there is no conflict of interest when the person who brokered the sale, Andrew Mills, is both a government adviser and sits on the board of Ayanda Capital, the firm that sold the substandard equipment to the state and made between £25 and £50 million doing so.

The revelation that the masks could not be used over concerns they were unsafe comes as part of the Good Law Project’s lawsuit against the government over the Ayanda Capital contract and others.

The lawsuit is driven by concerns that the Tories are handing contracts to cronies without any relevant experience in delivering what they say they will: project director Jolyon Maugham, previously more famous for repeated bids to have the EU referendum overturned in the courts and for boasting about beating a fox to death while wearing a kimono, points out reasonably enough that there is “cause for alarm” when PPE contracts of over £100m each are signed with “a pest control company, a confectioner and a family hedge fund.”

Labour calls for an inquiry. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves says the National Audit Office ought to investigate the government’s mishandling of personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies.

A ticking off from the National Audit Office will no doubt force ministers to change their ways, as it did when it condemned universal credit in 2018, or pointed out that benefit sanctions cost more than they save in 2016, or slapped George Osborne on the wrist for pretending loss-making sales of public assets were actually profitable in 2013.

Setting in motion the tired constitutional machinery by which ministers’ decisions are scrutinised and criticised after the fact is not an adequate response to this sordid deal, because its roots lie — as Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy points out — in the government’s entire outsourcing strategy.

Asking a wealth advisory firm like Ayanda to supply face masks is typical of a government that awards Brexit ferry contracts to a company with no ships, or gives serial outsourcers Serco a lucrative test-and-trace contract despite it having no track record in the field and having been fined over £1m just months before for bungling its last government contract. (Junior health minister Edward Argar used to be a lobbyist for Serco, but, of course, there is no conflict of interest).

The catastrophic failure to supply front-line workers with PPE, which has cost uncounted lives, has been exposed by campaign group We Own It as a consequence of the impact of privatisation and outsourcing on the NHS supply chain, creating “a chaotic mish-mash of private contractors managing the purchasing process,” in the words of director Cat Hobbes.

The campaign group’s investigation study Privatised and Unprepared: the NHS Supply Chain, published in May, pointed out that “this isn’t just a story about bad apples. It is a story of a flawed system that has helped turn the pandemic into an utter disaster.”

Labour remains theoretically committed to cleansing our NHS of private-sector providers, whose creeping infestation of the service undermines quality and accountability, enables the super-exploitation of outsourced workers and puts patients at risk.

But like so much that was bold and ambitious in the party’s prospectus, that demand is no longer raised, with criticism of the government carefully kept from implying criticism of the system itself.

Even if the courts demonstrate wrongdoing over a handful of contracts, such abuses are written into the process, especially given the revolving door between government and the businesses that bid for government contracts.

Cleaning the Augean stables requires a rather more radical challenge to the status quo, one that insists that public services should be publicly owned, publicly controlled and publicly delivered.

Pygmy owls threatened by climate change


This April 2018 video says about itself:

In an old forest in France, we meet a pygmy owl family and discover the feeding and young owls just going out of the niche.

I was privileged to see a pygmy owl near Turku in Finland.

From the University of Turku in Finland:

Climate change may melt the ‘freezers’ of pygmy owls and reduce their overwinter survival

August 5, 2020

Ecologists at the University of Turku, Finland, have discovered that the food hoards pygmy owls collect in nest-boxes (“freezers”) for winter rot due to high precipitation caused by heavy autumn rains and if the hoarding has been initiated early in the autumn. The results of the study show that climate change may impair predators’ foraging and thus decrease local overwinter survival. The study has been published in the internationally esteemed Global Change Biology journal.

Doctoral Candidate Giulia Masoero together with co-authors from the Department of Biology at the University of Turku analysed the unique long-term data set collected by Professor Erkki Korpimäki and his research group in 2003-2018. The aim was to study how the changing weather conditions in late autumn and winter affect the initiation of pygmy owls’ food hoarding as well as the accumulation, use and preservability of the hoarded food. The data set was collected from the Kauhava region in South Bothnia with over 500 food hoards and a research area covering 1,000 square kilometres.

Pygmy owls are small predators that feed on small mammals, especially voles which are their main prey, and birds. Pygmy owls start hoarding for winter usually in late October when the temperature drops below 0° C. They hoard a large amount of prey in tree cavities or nest boxes.

The food stores may be located in multiple nest boxes some kilometres apart. Female owls that are larger than males as well as young owls accumulate larger food stores than males and adult owls.

According to Erkki Korpimäki, the hoarded food is important for pygmy owls during winter, when small mammal prey are under snow and birds are scarce.

“This hoarding behaviour is highly susceptible to global warming because the weather during autumn and winter can affect the condition and usability of the food stores. In several northern areas, autumns have already become warmer and winters milder and rainy. Predictions show that climate change will likely continue along this path and the length of winter will strongly decrease.”

According to the study, the more rainy days there are between mid-October and mid-December, the more likely the food hoards of pygmy owls are to rotten. The owls use rotten food hoards particularly during poor vole years. However, the study showed that having rotten food hoards reduced the recapture probability of female owls in the study area, meaning female owls either die or are forced to leave the area.

“This result indicates that either the use of the rotten low-quality food and/or the energy waste linked with collecting a large food store that will not be used can lead to lower survival or dispersal from the study area,” notes Doctoral Candidate Giulia Masoero.

Pygmy owls might be partly able to adapt to climate change by delaying food hoarding but will more likely suffer due to the changes caused by the warming climate. The results of the study together with global climate predictions thus suggest that climate change has the potential to strongly impair the foraging behaviour and food intake of wintering predators, likely having negative impacts on the boreal forest food web as a whole.