Cuban green heron and gallinule


Northern waterthrush, 6 March 2017

Still, after our earlier blog post about that day, 6 March 2017 at Las Terrazas nature reserve in Cuba. We went to a stream; where we saw this northern waterthrush; a North American species wintering here.

Rowing boats, 6 March 2017

We continued to a lake; rowing boats there.

Common gallinule, 6 March 2017

And this common gallinule.

A red-tailed hawk flying.

An Antillean palm swift flying over the water. This species lives only in Cuba, Hispaniola and Jamaica.

Green heron, 6 March 2017

Near the bank, in shallow water, a green heron looks for food.

Green heron, Cuba, 6 March 2017

I remember this species from Costa Rica.

A double-crested cormorant swims.

A spotted sandpiper on the bank.

The bus continues to Viñales.

Along the motorway, another lake. Cuban black hawk (an endemic species), snail kite and little blue heron are present.

So are brown pelicans.

Farm buildings, 6 March 2017

We pass colourful farm buildings.

Farm buildings, on 6 March 2017

Palm leaf roof buildings are especially for processing tobacco for the famous Cuban cigars.

Mountains, 6 March 2017

We pass mountains, with typically west Cuban shapes.

Shop, 6 March 2017

At a viewpoint, a small shop with, eg, Che Guevara t-shirts.

We arrived in Viñales. Stay tuned!

This video says about itself:

Viñales is a beautiful valley with limestone (karst) landscape. It is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

According to UNESCO: “The Viñales Valley is an outstanding karst landscape in which traditional methods of agriculture (notably tobacco growing) have survived unchanged for several centuries.”

In the video: Viñales town, views to the valley from Los Jasmines & La Ermita, Mural de la Prehistoria, Los Aquaticos, Gruta de Viñales (or de Silencio?), Cueva del Indio, Cueva de San Miguel (and Palenque de los Cimarrones), and more …

Recorded April 2015 in 4K (Ultra HD) with Sony AX100.

Rare parrots discovery in Bolivia


This video from Bolivia says about itself:

21 March 2017

POV footage of Barba Azul Reserve Coordinator Tjalle Boorsma. During the 2017 February expedition, Armonía discovered crucial nesting areas of the Critically Endangered Blue-throated Macaw. The discovery is a major step towards ensuring the full protection of the macaw’s lifecycle.

From BirdLife:

23 Mar 2017

Discovery of a new breeding site for the Critically Endangered Blue-throated Macaw

The groundbreaking discovery is a major step towards understanding the life cycle of the macaw and most importantly, to ensure the species’ full protection.

By Asociación Armonía (BirdLife Bolivia)

In early February, an Armonía (BirdLife Bolivia) expedition discovered a new breeding area of the Blue-throated Macaw Ara glaucogularis (Critically Endangered). The groundbreaking discovery is a major step towards understanding the life cycle of the macaw and most importantly, to ensure the species’ full protection.

Since 2008, Armonía has been protecting key roosting and feeding grounds of the largest wild Blue-throated Macaw population at Barba Azul Nature Reserve. Recent sightings of a record-high of 118 macaws indicates a healthy increase of the macaw population at the reserve.

However, the majority of these birds only use Barba Azul from May to November.  At the beginning of the breeding season the macaws appear to disperse to unknown sites, returning to Barba Azul in small groups in March. The question remains: where do all these birds breed?

In January 2016, conservation programme manager Gustavo Sánchez Ávila discovered 15 roosting birds north from Barba Azul Nature Reserve during an expedition supported by Loro Parque Fundación. With this evidence in hand, Armonía with support from American Bird Conservancy and The Cincinnati Zoo kicked off the search for breeding grounds to the north.

The nesting period of the Blue-throated Macaw coincides with the region’s November to April rainy season.  During this time, the Beni savanna is mostly flooded. Inundations halt most vehicular traffic to these areas, therefore the Armonía expedition had no other choice but to venture into this wilderness on horseback.

The February expedition was led by Armonía’s Barba Azul Nature Reserve coordinator, Tjalle Boorsma.  Deep in the wilderness of the Beni Savannah, Tjalle and his crew discovered four unknown Blue-throated Macaw nests northwest from the boundaries of Barba Azul Nature Reserve.

A demanding 130 km (70 miles) horse ride led the team deep into the flooded grasslands.  Initially, the field team focused their searches on Motacú forest islands, as in Barba Azul the Blue-throated Macaw prefers this palm. The macaws forage on the abundant, year-round available fruits of the Motacú palm (Attalea phalerata).  A total of 31 Motacú dominated forest islands were surveyed with few results. However, 16 birds were again observed at the Motacú roosting island, previously discovered in 2016.

“We registered a significant number of Blue-and-Yellow Macaws Ara ararauna in the area, but to our surprise the Motacú dominated forest island showed no signs of Blue-throated Macaws”, Boorsma said.

“The breakthrough happened when we sighted a pair of Blue-throated Macaws flushing from an elongated patch of Royal palms Mauritia flexuosa. The discovery gave a new scope to the whole expedition”, recalled expedition leader Tjalle Boorsma.

Contrary to previous beliefs, instead of Motacú, the birds were found perching on dry Royal palm snags. These palm patches were difficult to access, as they were flooded due to recent rainfall. This natural barrier could very well be the reason that the macaws choose these palm snags for hosting their nesting cavities.

To confirm that the Blue-throated Macaws were indeed using these cavities for nesting, Tjalle concealed himself in a make-shift palm blind.  After six hours of patient waiting, he observed the cautious Blue-throated Macaw pair return to the nest.  This activity confirmed that the cavity was indeed being used as a nesting site.

A second nest was later discovered in another dead Royal palm trunk.  This was followed by the discovery of two more nests in Totaí palms Acrocomia aculeata.

“Finding the nests in Royal palm and Totaí delivered the missing piece to complete our investigations. Now we definitively know that the Blue-throated Macaw prefers Totaí and Royal palms to nest in, as dead palm snags provide excellent vantage point to observe their surroundings”, detailed Boorsma.

After verifying that the birds are not disturbed by the presence of our drone, we used the remotely piloted vehicle to film them.

In case of an accessible nest, Boorsma could verify that the cavities in the palms actually held a Blue-throated Macaw nest. Surprisingly, in the case of the two nests in Totaí palms, the birds chose locations 50 meters (164 feet) away from a populated farm and showed no signs of disturbance from its proximity to humans and livestock.

“Nests were dispersed along pretty much the same latitude, at a distance of 10-12 kilometers (7,4 miles), generally located to a comfortable daily flying distance from the boundaries of Barba Azul Nature Reserve“, added Boorsma.

“At this point it would be too early to speculate whether the birds found during this expedition are from the same colony which visits Barba Azul Nature Reserve in the dry season, or they constitute a separate population”, said Boorsma.

To answer this, and many other pending questions about the breeding habitats of the Blue-throated Macaw, Armonía and ABC will launch a second expedition into the Beni savannah later this March. Alongside our team in the field, a group of experts led by Lisa Davenport are in the process of designing macaw-proof GPS-units, so that tagged birds can be traced during their seasonal migrations.

Given this new information on the local breeding habitat of the Blue-throated Macaw, Armonia will adjust its nest box program at Barba Azul Nature Reserve to include much higher elevated nest boxes, with isolated palms imitating the nest of this region. We need financial support for this project. Please consider supporting our conservation effort with your donation.

Sea otter tool use, new research


This video from the USA says about itself:

26 May 2016

An abalone can be pretty hard to pry off a rock. Just ask a sea otter! But if there’s a handy stone nearby? Good luck abalone!

See how our researchers study the way sea otters use tools: here.

An otter fuels its fast metabolism by eating up to a quarter of its weight in food a day. (A 150-pound person would have to eat 35 to 40 pounds of food a day to match that!)

A sea otter may hunt on the seafloor, but always returns to the surface to eat. Floating there on its back, it uses its chest as a table. (And if dinner’s a crab or clam, the otter may use a rock to crack open its prey.)

An otter’s coat has pockets—pouches of loose skin under each forearm. An otter uses them to stash prey during a dive, which leaves its paws free to hunt some more.

From Science News:

Tool use in sea otters doesn’t run in the family

by Helen Thompson

8:44pm, March 21, 2017

Aside from being adorable, sea otters and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins share an ecological feat: Both species use tools. Otters crack open snails with rocks, and dolphins carry cone-shaped sponges to protect their snouts while scavenging for rock dwelling fish.

Researchers have linked tool use in dolphins to a set of differences in mitochondrial DNA — which passes from mother to offspring — suggesting that tool-use behavior may be inherited. Biologist Katherine Ralls of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and her colleagues looked for a similar pattern in otters off the California coast. The team tracked diet (primarily abalone, crab, mussels, clams, urchins or snails) and tool use in the wild and analyzed DNA from 197 individual otters.

Otters that ate lots of hard-shelled snails — and used tools most frequently — rarely shared a common pattern in mitochondrial DNA, nor were they more closely related to other tool-users than any other otter in the population.

Unlike dolphins, sea otters may all be predisposed to using tools because their ancestors probably lived off mollusks, which required cracking open. However, modern otters only take up tools when their diet requires them, the researchers report March 21 in Biology Letters.

Dinosaur family tree, new theory


Dinosaur family trees, K. Padian/Nature 2017

From Science News:

Anatomy analysis suggests new dinosaur family tree

Proposal would radically alter century-old groupings

By Rachel Ehrenberg

2:06pm, March 22, 2017

Relative rethink

Scientists have long-divided the dinosaurs into two main groups, the bird-hipped and the reptile-hipped (top). A new analysis breaks up the reptile-hipped lineage and suggests the bird-hipped group shares recent ancestors with meat-eating theropods (bottom). Scientists have been unsure where to put the confusing two-legged, meat-eating herrerasaurids (red lines, top). The new analysis suggests they are close relatives of the sauropods (bottom).

The standard dinosaur family tree may soon be just a relic.

After examining more than 400 anatomical traits, scientists have proposed a radical reshuffling of the major dinosaur groups. The rewrite, reported in the March 23 Nature, upsets century-old ideas about dinosaur evolution. It lends support to the accepted idea that the earliest dinosaurs were smallish, two-legged creatures. But contrary to current thinking, the new tree suggests that these early dinosaurs had grasping hands and were omnivores, snapping up meat and plant matter alike.

“This is a novel proposal and a really interesting hypothesis,” says Randall Irmis, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Utah and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Irmis, who was not involved with the work, says it’s “a possibility” that the new family tree reflects actual dinosaur relationships. But, he says, “It goes against our ideas of the general relationships of dinosaurs. It’s certainly going to generate a lot of discussion.”

The accepted tree of dinosaur relationships has three dominant branches, each containing critters familiar even to the non–dinosaur obsessed. One branch leads to the “bird-hipped” ornithischians, which include the plant-eating duckbills, stegosaurs and Triceratops and its bony-frilled kin. Another branch contains the “reptile-hipped” saurischians, which are further divided into two groups: the plant-eating sauropods (typically four-legged, like Brontosaurus) and the meat-eating theropods (typically two-legged, like Tyrannosaurus rex and modern birds).

This split between the bird-hipped and reptile-hipped dinos was first proposed in 1887 by British paleontologist Harry Seeley, who had noticed the two strikingly different kinds of pelvic anatomy. That hypothesis of dinosaur relationships was formalized and strengthened in the 1980s and has been accepted since then.

The new tree yields four groups atop two main branches. The bird-hipped ornithischians, which used to live on their own lone branch, now share a main branch with the reptile-hipped theropods like T. rex. This placement suggests these once-distant cousins are actually closely related. It also underscores existing questions about the bird-hipped dinos, an oddball group with murky origins; they appear late in the dinosaur fossil record and then are everywhere. Some scientists have suggested that they evolved from an existing group of dinosaurs, perhaps similarly herbivorous sauropods. But by placing the bird-hipped dinos next to the theropods, the tree hints that the late-to-the-party vegetarian weirdos could have evolved from their now close relatives, the meat-eating theropods.

Sauropods (like Brontosaurus) are no longer next to the theropods but now reside on a branch with the meat-eating herrerasaurids. Herrerasaurids are a confusing group of creatures that some scientists think belong near the other meat eaters, the theropods, while others say the herrerasaurids are not quite dinosaurs at all.

The new hypothesis of relationships came about when researchers led by Matthew Baron, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge and Natural History Museum in London, decided to do a wholesale examination of dinosaur anatomy with fresh eyes. Using a mix of fossils, photographs and descriptions from the scientific literature, Baron and colleagues surveyed the anatomy of more than 70 different dinosaurs and non-dino close relatives, examining 457 anatomical features. The presence, absence and types of features, which include the shape of a hole on the snout, a cheekbone ridge and braincase anatomy, were fed into a computer program, generating a family tree that groups animals that share specialized features.

In this new interpretation of dinosaur anatomy and the resulting tree, many of the earliest dinosaurs have grasping hands and a mix of meat-eating and plant-eating teeth. If the earliest dinos were really omnivores, given the relationships in the new four-pronged tree, the evolution of specialized diets (vegetarians and meat eaters) each happened twice in the dinosaur lineage.

When the researchers saw the resulting tree, “We were very surprised — and cautious,” Baron says. “It’s a big change that flies in the face of 130 years of thinking.”

The arrangement of the new tree stuck even when the researchers fiddled around with their descriptions of various features, Baron says. The close relationship between the bird-hipped, plant-eating ornithischians and the reptile-hipped, meat-eating theropods, for example, isn’t based on one or two distinctive traits but on 21 small details.

“The lesson is that dinosaur groups aren’t characterized by radical new inventions,” says paleontologist Kevin Padian of the University of California, Berkeley. “The relationships are read in the minutiae, not big horns and frills.” That said, Padian, whose assessment of the research also appears in Nature, isn’t certain that the new tree reflects reality. Such trees are constructed based on how scientists interpret particular anatomical features, decisions that will surely be quibbled with. “The devil is in the details,” Padian says. “These guys have done their homework and now everyone’s going to have to roll up their sleeves and start checking their work.”

Female guppies’ brains and choice of mates


This video says about itself:

4 October 2014

Sustainable Innovation Initiatives (SII) creates bridges between research, business, industry, tourism and educators to make ecological sustainability a priority for societies in tropical forest ecosystems. Our upcoming documentary series helps us accomplish this goal by reaching many people through video. “Home of the Guppy” is our first episode. It highlights unique features of research in the Northern Range of Trinidad and grassroots efforts in habitats critical to this watershed and communities that use it.

Home of the Guppy Summary:

Streams in Trinidad’s Northern Mountain range have been epicenters for breakthroughs in evolutionary theory over the last five decades. A unique combination of isolation, species-diversity and system-replication has created a “natural laboratory” like no other in the world. These unique conditions have allowed scientists to examine every guppy in multiple wild populations for as many as 15 generations. Guppy studies in Trinidad have produced one of the most detailed multi-generation data collections ever compiled in a wild vertebrate. Results from these studies are reshaping longstanding views of evolutionary theory.

What it means for the world

Features of Trinidad’s stream ecology enable mergers between field and laboratory studies that connect traits such as lifespan, age of maturity and mate-selection, to functions such as cognition and cooperation. Work with Trinidad’s guppies demonstrates the first time that so many traits have been connected with such detail in a wild organism under multiple conditions. Data from Trinidad’s streams has powerful implications for models of evolution and conservation, as well as population management of rare, common and commercially valuable species. Work in Trinidad also vastly updates our understanding of how ecology and evolution are intertwined, and has led to upheavals regarding the time-scales on which the two processes were previously thought to function.

Why are we making this film?

Trinidad’s Northern Range exemplifies how diversity contained in less than 400 square miles of habitat is influencing the world of biology. However it is also valued for land-use, extraction and recreation, as increasing numbers of people utilize the range.

Studying ecology of wild guppies has led to insights affecting applications for biology education, behavioral models, health care and the design of cooperative networks. These applications are assigned high value in the global marketplace.

However, Trinidadians have limited access to globally valued information generated by the biodiversity of their land. This documentary connects local communities and global networks for informed management and value-assignment.

This documentary also raises awareness of how guppy studies are affecting standards of modern biology education. We are working with scientists to make this knowledge accessible at multiple levels of outreach. Our documentary contributes to the type of information access needed for the types of societal functionality that enable sustainable management.

From Science News:

Female guppies with bigger brains pick more attractive guys

But the additional mental power has downsides, too

By Susan Milius

3:54pm, March 22, 2017

When choosing more attractive guys, girl guppies with larger brains have an advantage over their smaller-brained counterparts. But there’s a cost to such brainpower, and that might help explain one of the persistent mysteries of sex appeal, researchers report March 22 in Science Advances.

One sex often shows a strong preference for some trait in the other, whether it’s a longer fish fin or a more elaborate song and dance. Yet after millions of years, there’s still variety in many animals’ color, size, shape or song, says study coauthor Alberto Corral-López, an evolutionary biologist at Stockholm University. Somehow generations of mate choice have failed to make the opposite sex entirely fabulous.

Mate choice could require a certain amount of brainpower, with animals weighing the appeal of suitors and choosing among them. Previous research suggests a smaller brain dims guppies’ mental abilities, and the researchers wondered how brain size might affect the fish’s choice of mate.

To test the idea, researchers used female guppies bred for either a larger or smaller brain. Guppy brains are tiny to begin with, but after five generations of breeding the brain sizes in the study differed by about 13 percent, within the range of what biologists find in the wild.

Each female was offered a choice between a colorful male with orange spots and a bigger tail versus a drab male of about the same weight but without much glory behind. The male fish were installed in compartments at either end of a tank, and females swam back and forth, forced to remember and mentally compare one suitor with his rival.

Females with larger brains showed a preference overall for the more colorful male. Smaller-brained females showed no preference. (The difference did not come from differences in color vision, Corral-López says. The researchers checked the eye genes of the fish and also tested their ability to distinguish colors.)

Interest in flashy-looking males may not be just a fashion choice for females. Orange colors come from pigments in food, suggesting that brighter males may be better fed and healthier, which could lead to healthier offspring. And more colorful males are typically better at finding food. Corral-López also tested females that had not been specially bred for brain size, and these fish preferred the colorful males, too.

But bigger-brained females did not beat their small-brained compatriots in all tests. The smaller-brained guppies tended to grow faster when they were young and to have better immune systems and more offspring.

Thus, circumstances might tip the balance toward or against braininess, the researchers say. Having more babies might be more useful than a discriminating brain, for instance, when food is plentiful and most males manage a decent orange. Such changes in fortune might help explain how variety in appearance persists despite strong mating preferences, Corral-López and colleagues argue. Sometimes flashier males win females, but sometimes drab is just fine.

“Exciting work,” says Molly Cummings of the University of Texas at Austin, who studies fish brains and sexual selection. Checking the fish’s vision was especially important, she says. The results show that females were not “simple slaves to their sensory system.”

The new paper, of course, tracked lab animals, and there’s little data on what differences in brain size mean for mate choice in the wild, says evolutionary biologist Kimberly Hughes of  Florida State University in Tallahassee. The new guppy study suggests it’s certainly worth looking at what girl guppies do naturally, she says.

Further Reading

L. Hamers. Brain’s blood appetite grew faster than its size. Science News Online, August 30, 2016.

C. Samoray. Forgetful male voles more likely to wander from mate. Science News Online, December 14, 2015.

Lance-tailed manakin webcam in Panama


This video from Panama says about itself:

20 March 2017

Male Lance-tailed Manakins go to great lengths to keep a well maintained display perch. Notice how this male “cleans” the area by tearing away at leaves in the area and scratching the surfaces of the surrounding branches with his beak.

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the USA:

The Manakin Cam Returns

On the small Panamanian island of Boca Brava, male Lance-tailed Manakins are beginning to compete for mates—which they do by working together. You’ll have a front row seat when you watch our live cam.

The Cornell Lab has partnered with Dr. Emily DuVal to bring this live view of manakins to your screen. She has been studying these cooperative displays since 1999, unraveling the mystery of why males form alliances and work together to woo females—even though only one male typically gets to mate.

Here’s what to look for: The live cam shows a display perch used by one pair of males, within a larger area with up to 30 “alpha” males and their partners. Throughout the day, the males perform coordinated displays featuring leaps and butterfly-like flights on the display perch.

Occasionally, a brownish female stops by to watch. If she seems interested and receptive, the beta male typically leaves the area and the alpha male starts displaying on his own.

Through much of the day the perch may appear empty; but you can often hear the sweet calls of the male manakins singing a duet, trying to entice a female to check out one of their meticulously maintained display perches (they also have two other display areas off-cam). When the manakins aren’t around, other species (like this antshrike, this wren, or even this wood-rail!) may wander into the frame, and in the mornings and evenings the roaring of howler monkeys echoes through the forest.

Share what you see and hear with us on the cam’s Twitter feed, @ManakinCam, and join us in learning more about these gorgeous birds and their complicated approach to courtship. Save up your questions—Dr. DuVal will be joining us for a live Q&A session in the near future. Stay tuned for more details, and thanks for watching.