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.

Ancient crustacean fossil named after David Attenborough


This 21 March 2017 video from England is called Cascolus ravitis, a 430 Million-Year-Old ‘Exceptionally Preserved’ Fossil.

From the University of Leicester in England:

430 million-year-old fossil named in honor of Sir David Attenborough

Ancient relative of the lobsters and crabs complete with soft-parts is new to science

March 22, 2017

Summary: A new 430 million-year-old fossil has been discovered by scientists, and has been named in honor of Sir David Attenborough. The discovery is a unique example of its kind in the fossil record, say the authors of a new report.

An international team of scientists led by the University of Leicester has discovered a new 430 million-year-old fossil and has named it in honour of Sir David Attenborough — who grew up on the University campus.

The fossil is described as ‘exceptionally well preserved in three-dimensions’ — complete with the soft-parts of the animal, such as legs, eyes and very delicate antennae. The fossil has been determined as an ancient crustacean new to science — a distant relative of the living lobsters, shrimps and crabs. There are about 40,000 crustacean species known today.

The find comes from volcanic ash deposits that accumulated in a marine setting in what is now Herefordshire in the Welsh Borderland.

Professor David Siveter of the Department of Geology at the University of Leicester made the discovery working alongside researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Imperial College London and Yale, USA.

Professor Siveter said: “Such a well-preserved fossil is exciting, and this particular one is a unique example of its kind in the fossil record, and so we can establish it as a new species of a new genus.”

“Even though it is relatively small, at just nine millimetres long, it preserves incredible detail including body parts that are normally not fossilized. It provides scientists with important, novel insights into the evolution of the body plan, the limbs and possible respiratory-circulatory physiology of a primitive member of one of the major groups of Crustacea.”

The fossil is named Cascolus ravitis in honour of Sir David, who grew up on University College Leicester campus (the forerunner of the University), in celebration of his 90th birthday. Cascolus is derived from castrum meaning ‘stronghold’ and colus, ‘dwelling in’, alluding to the Old English source for the surname Attenborough; while ‘ravitis” is a combination of Ratae — the Roman name for Leicester — ‘vita’, life, and ‘commeatis’, a messenger.

Professor Siveter said: “In my youth, David Attenborough‘s early programmes on the BBC, such as ‘Zoo Quest‘, greatly encouraged my interest in Natural History and it is a pleasure to honour him in this way.”

Sir David Attenborough said: “The biggest compliment that a biologist or palaeontologist can pay to another one is to name a fossil in his honour and I take this as a very great compliment. I was once a scientist so I’m very honoured and flattered that the Professor should say such nice things about me now.”

Professor Siveter added: “The animal lived in the Silurian period of geological time. Some 430 million years ago much of southern Britain was positioned in warm southerly subtropical latitudes, quite close to a large ancient continent of what we now call North America, and was covered by a shallow sea. The crustacean and other animals living there died and were preserved when a fine volcanic ash rained down upon them.”

The fossil specimen has been reconstructed as a virtual fossil by 3D computer modeling.

New frog from the Peruvian Andes is the first amphibian named after Sir David Attenborough: here.

New plant species discovered in Romania


This video from England says about itself:

Flora (Romania) – FFI Conservation Circle Dinner with Paul Hotham

6 July 2015

A talk about FFI’s project work in Romania presented by FFI Director of the Eurasia Programme Paul Hotham.

From BirdLife:

22 Mar 2017

Discovery! New plant species in Romania

By Ovidiu Bufnila

Introducing Ferula mikraskythiana (Apiaceae), a whole new species of flowering plant recently discovered in Romania.

Ladies and gentlemen! SOR/BirdLife Romania is proud to present the latest cellular sensation to hit the botanical world – Ferula mikraskythiana! That’s right, scientists have now confirmed that a brand new species of flowering plant has been discovered in Romania.

The new discovery is a member of the Apiaceae family – a large family of mostly aromatic flowering plants, counting more than 3,700 species and including culinary favourites such as celery, carrot, parsley, coriander, cumin, dill and fennel. The specific epithet of this new member refers to the ancient Greek name of the historical region Scythia Minor or Lesser Scythia (Mikrá Skythia or Μικρὰ Σκυθία) where this species was found. A region known today as Dobrogea. Its closest relative is Eriosynaphe longifolia, a rare species from the Pontic-Caspian steppe of Ukraine, southern Russia, and western Kazakhstan. It was previously thought that the latter was alone in its genus, but this discovery shows that, in fact, both species belong to a broader Ferula genus.

The species was discovered in 2014, when biologists Mátis Attila and Havadtői Krisztina were conducting field-work for a SOR/BirdLife Romania project. At first, they thought the species was only new to the Romanian flora, but after some research, found nothing similar in the neighbouring Bulgarian flora. And so, they collected some leaves and tried to identify the plant. No luck. Step in bio-nanoscience expert Bartha László from the Babeș Bolyai University (UBB) of Cluj who, following genetic investigations, concluded that this mysterious plant was indeed a new species of ‘Ferula’. Then, the university’s phytogeography expert, Alexandru S. Bădărău, suggested a connection with Eriosynaphe longifolia. All that remained was to obtain samples of the latter (provided by Sramkó Gábor, a Hungarian colleague conveniently doing field-work in Russia) and the mystery was solved!

Subsequent research shows this species to be endemic to Romania, with a very small population (172 individuals in 2015) restricted to a few steppe grassland enclaves within Dumbrăveni Forest Nature Reserve. The species should therefore be classified as ‘Endangered’ according to the IUCN. Indeed, the reason the species managed to survive is because it was protected in a remote and isolated nature reserve. Across most of Dobrogea, similar steppe habitats have long since disappeared due to destructive effects of overgrazing livestock.

So let us hope that this discovery – and the genuine excitement it has elicited across Romania in the media – teaches us a valuable lesson about the importance of protecting our natural habitats.

Ovidiu Bulfina is Head of Communications for SOR/BirdLife Romania

To read more about the science of this exciting discovery, check out Mátis Attila’s article in the journal Phytotaxa.

North American nesting birds research report


This video says about itself:

A short documentary on the Dark-Eyed Junco.

The Junco is one of the most common birds in North America. This video highlights the Junco‘s colouring, nesting habits, and diet. You will also find out what you need to do to have these wonderful birds come and visit your backyard.

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the USA:

Your Data at Work: The 2016 NestWatch Digest

When the breeding season comes to a close, the real work of analyzing your data begins. Every winter we comb through nesting attempts from across North America and tease out the season’s trends for different regions. Want to know if last year was a “good” year for nesting birds? Read the Digest’s Regional Roundups to find out.

This year’s Digest also takes a closer look at an unusual nesting discovery, a Dark-eyed Junco nesting in a nest box. Juncos typically nest near the ground. We also celebrate historic Eastern Phoebe records now archived in our database and consider the impact of human structures on phoebes’ nest site preferences. Plus, get the scoop about our student-led research on supplemental feeding. The 2016 NestWatch Digest combines our latest data analysis and must-read news! Check it out.

Feathered dinosaurs, new research


This video says about itself:

29 July 2015

“Anchiornis” is a genus of small, feathered, eumaniraptoran dinosaurs. The genus “Anchiornis” contains only the type species “Anchiornis huxleyi“. It was named in honor of Thomas Henry Huxley, an early proponent of biological evolution, and the first to propose a close evolutionary relationship between birds and dinosaurs. The generic name “Anchiornis” means “near bird”, and its describers cited it as important in filling a gap in the transition between the body plans of birds and dinosaurs.

“Anchiornis huxleyi” fossils have been found in the Tiaojishan Formation of Liaoning, China, in rocks dated to the late Jurassic period, 161.0–160.5 million years ago.

Given the exquisite preservation of one of the animal’s fossils, “Anchiornis huxleyi” became the first dinosaur species for which almost the entire life coloration could be determined.

“Anchiornis huxleyi” was a small, paravian dinosaur with a triangular skull bearing several details in common with dromaeosaurids and troodontids. “Anchiornis” had very long legs, usually an indication that they were strong runners. However, the extensive leg feathers indicate that this may be a vestigial trait, as running animals tend to have reduced, not increased, hair or feathers on their legs. The forelimbs of “Anchiornis” were also very long, similar to archaeopterygids.

The first fossil was recovered from the Yaolugou locality, Jianchang County, western Liaoning, China; the second, at the Daxishan locality of the same area. The deposits are lake sediment, and are of uncertain age. Radiological measurements indicate an early Late Jurassic age for them, between 161 and 151 million years ago.

From Science News:

Under lasers, a feathered dino shows some skin

Geochemical fluorescence method illuminates Anchiornis soft tissue, but some remain skeptical

By Helen Thompson

2:40pm, March 20, 2017

What happens when you shoot lasers at a dinosaur fossil? Some chemicals preserved in the fossil glow, providing a nuanced portrait of the ancient creature’s bones, feathers and soft tissue such as skin.

Soft tissue is rarely preserved in fossils, and when it is, it can be easily obscured. A technique called laser-stimulated fluorescence “excites the few skin atoms left in the matrix, making them glow to reveal what the shape of the dinosaur actually looked like,” says Michael Pittman, a paleontologist at the University of Hong Kong.

Pittman and colleagues turned their lasers on Anchiornis, a four-winged dinosaur about the size of a pigeon with feathered arms and legs. It lived around 160 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. The researchers imaged nine specimens under laser light and used the photos to reconstruct a model of Anchiornis that shows an exceedingly birdlike body, the team writes March 1 in Nature Communications.

In the crooks of its elbows and wrists, the dinosaur had what looks like taut tissues called patagia, a feature in modern bird wings. “The wings of Anchiornis are reminiscent of the wings of some living gliding and soaring birds,” Pittman says. Plus, the images capture minute details like feather follicles and scales, and confirm some characteristics of Anchiornis long surmised by scientists: that it had drumstick-shaped legs, pads on the balls of its feet and a slim tail.

Still, it’s unclear what geochemicals are actually fluorescing in the fossils because the team didn’t perform any chemical analyses to determine the organic compounds or minerals present. “The images are very cool,” says Mary Schweitzer, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. But, she cautions, a few hurdles remain, including testing fluorescence in different fossil types and verifying how skin glows under laser light in modern bird fossils.

Scientists normally rely on light-based methods and skeletal data to reconstruct the appearance of dinosaurs and other ancient creatures. Ultraviolet fluorescence works similarly to the new method, but the laser technique captures greater resolution. If laser-stimulated fluorescence lives up to its promise, it could help discern fossilized features that are invisible to the naked eye.

Functional form

Drawing from Anchiornis fossil specimens housed in a Chinese museum, researchers used measurements from laser-stimulated fluorescence images to create a more refined outline of the dinosaur’s body.