Baillon’s crakes, new research

This video says about itself:

Baillon’s Crake (Porzana pusilla)

24 March 2015

♂ Zakaki pool, Cyprus, 23rd March 2015. (Also referred to as Zapornia pusilla)

For more information about the status and distribution of this species see the following link.

For information about birding in Cyprus see the following link.

From the Journal of Avian Biology:

Complex migration and breeding strategies in an elusive bird species illuminated by genetic and isotopic markers


Unlike the annual bi-directional movements of over 200 bird species within the Palaearctic–Afrotropical region, irregular movements such as irruptive migration with a low degree of philopatry are reported for a variety of species depending on highly seasonal and unpredictable resources. These flexible movements allow for itinerant breeding – consecutive breeding attempts in two or more geographically different regions during the same annual reproductive cycle.

In order to illuminate migratory and breeding strategies of the erratic wetland species Baillon’s crake Zapornia pusilla across the W-Palaearctic–Afrotropical region, we used a set of six DNA microsatellites as well as δ2Hf values of individuals sampled at one African and four European breeding sites. We investigated the degree of genetic population structure within and among different sites and assigned individuals’ feathers of unknown origin to their probable moulting (hence breeding) site using a likelihood approach.

We found three genetic clusters, differentiating into one ‘European’ and two ‘African’ populations. Connectivity between the sampling sites was probable as genetic ‘African’ individuals were found in breeding conditions in Europe and vice versa. Likewise, assigned moulting locations based on δ2H isoscapes suggested trans-continental movements as well as moulting and possibly breeding by the same individual both in African and European breeding grounds.

Both isotopic and genetic data reveal the Baillon’s crake pursue a complex migration and breeding strategy, allowing as well for irruptive movements and itinerant breeding across the W-Palaearctic–Afrotropical region. However, a better knowledge about the species’ distribution as well as a more comprehensive data set, including samples from the southern and eastern boundaries of the distribution area would be necessary to improve the spatial resolution to the precision required to unambiguously infer migration directions and extent of exchange between African and European breeding grounds

I have been privileged to see a nesting couple and their youngsters of this rare species.

Barn owls, new research

This videm from Britain is called Slow Motion Barn Owl Attack.

From the Journal of Evolutionary Biology:

Reciprocal preening and food sharing in colour polymorphic nestling barn owls


Barn owl (Tyto alba) siblings preen and offer food items to one another, behaviours that can be considered prosocial because they benefit a conspecific by relieving distress or need. In experimental broods, we analysed whether such behaviours were reciprocated, preferentially exchanged between specific phenotypes, performed to avoid harassment and food theft or signals of hierarchy status.

Three of the results are consistent with the hypothesis of direct reciprocity. First, food sharing was reciprocated in three-chick broods but not in pairs of siblings, i.e., when nestlings could choose a partner with whom to develop a reciprocating interaction. Second, a nestling was more likely to give a prey item to its sibling if the latter individual had preened the former.

Third, siblings matched their investment in preening each other. Manipulation of age hierarchy showed that food stealing was directed towards older siblings but was not performed to compensate for a low level of cooperation received. Social behaviours were related to melanin-based coloration, suggesting that animals may signal their propensity to interact socially. The most prosocial phenotype (darker reddish) was also the phenotype that stole more food, and the effect of coloration on prosocial behaviour depended upon rank and sex, suggesting that colour-related prosociality is state-dependent.

Dinosaur-age haramiyids, mammals or reptiles?

This video from the USA says about itself:

High-tech analysis of proto-mammal fossil clarifies the mammalian family tree

16 November 2015

3D Reconstruction of the jaw of Haramiyavia, one of the earliest known proto-mammals, clarifies the debate over when mammals evolved. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Nov 16, 2015, confirms previous suggestions that mammal diversification occurred in the Jurassic around 175 million years ago—more than 30 million years after Haramiyavia and other forerunners to mammals diversified in the Triassic.

From the New York Times in the USA:

Jawbone in Rock May Clear Up a Mammal Family Mystery


NOV. 16, 2015

With technologies like CT scans and 3-D printing, a team of scientists reported on Monday that it had solved a mystery about the family tree of mammals that started with a single tooth a century and a half ago.

The tooth, found in Germany in 1847, was tiny and distinctive in shape — not quite reptile, not quite mammal. More fossils of that kind were found around Europe, but always just single teeth. Scientists named this group of animals haramiyids — Arabic for “trickster.”

The teeth were embedded in rocks as old as 210 million years, an era in which ancestors of the first mammals were evolving.

“These were some of the most enigmatic fossils for years,” said Neil H. Shubin, a professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago. “People didn’t know what they were at all.”

In the late 1980s, Dr. Shubin, then a graduate student, was part of a team led by Farish Jenkins, a Harvard paleontologist, that searched for fossils in East Greenland. “You’re looking for tiny teeth in this vast Arctic landscape,” Dr. Shubin said. “The words ‘needle in a haystack’ seem very appropriate.”

The researchers found one particularly intriguing specimen, which they named Haramiyavia. “Avia” is Latin for “grandmother” — this was the grandmother of the trickster.

After a couple of years of meticulously clearing away much of the limestone surrounding the fossil, they reported on part of the Haramiyavia jawbone, revealing that the animal was indeed a proto-mammal.

What was unclear was whether Haramiyavia was a direct part of the family tree of mammals — that would push the emergence of mammals back to more than 200 million years ago — or an evolutionary branch that split off before common ancestors of mammals emerged, the view of paleontologists who believe that the first mammals evolved 170 million to 160 million years ago.

About two years ago, Dr. Shubin decided to re-examine the slab of Greenland limestone that enveloped the Haramiyavia fossil. “We knew that there were more bones in the rock,” he said.

Clearing away more limestone would jeopardize the fragile fossil. Instead, Dr. Shubin and his colleagues placed it in CT scanners and saw a mostly complete jawbone and many of the teeth.

“This kind of work used to be unimaginable,” said Zhe-Xi Luo, another University of Chicago paleontologist who joined Dr. Shubin on the new analysis.

Their conclusion: Haramiyavia, and thus all haramiyids, were not mammals, but belonged to a more ancestral side branch.

The crucial evidence they cite, reported Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is a trough in the lower jaw of Haramiyavia. In mammals, the trough is absent, because two bones connected to the trough migrated to the middle ear to form part of the three-bone hearing mechanism. (Birds and reptiles have only one bone in their middle ears.)

“This thing had a very primitive ear,” Dr. Shubin said. “That is the piece that is sort of the smoking gun.”

From the scans of the jaw and the teeth, the researchers created three-dimensional enlargements of the fossils, studying them like puzzle pieces to see how they fit together. Haramiyavia, a few inches long and rodentlike in appearance, ate plants by grinding leaves between broad teeth.

One argument that haramiyids were mammals was the similarity of the teeth to those of later animals known as multituberculates that were unquestionably mammals. But Dr. Shubin said the explanation instead was that the similar tooth characteristics evolved independently.

Timothy Rowe, a professor of geology at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved in the new research, praised the work. “They really stepped out and squeezed every last bit of information that they could from these fossils,” he said. “What a relief after all these years to see a very compelling case made for exactly where haramiyids fit on the family tree.”

Dr. Rowe said there was no longer evidence that the earliest divergence of mammals occurred during the Triassic Period more than 200 million years ago. “The oldest date that’s based on real evidence is 30 or 40 million years younger than that,” he said. “It helps more accurately calibrate the mammalian tree of life.”

Not everyone agrees. “It’s a very great work, but I don’t think I’m totally convinced that is the case,” said Jin Meng, the curator of fossil mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Dr. Meng is a member of a team that in the last couple of years has described more recent species of haramiyids that lived in China about 160 million years ago. The well-preserved Chinese fossils, nearly complete, possessed the characteristics of true mammals, Dr. Meng and his colleagues said.

The mammalian characteristics include the absence of a jawbone trough, Dr. Meng said in an interview. “If we accept the conclusion of this study, many of those mammalian structures must have evolved independently,” he said. “I still think the other hypotheses remain alive.”

Fossil seal discovered in South America

Figure 6, from Valenzuela-Toro et al. (2015) shows the relative size of Australophoca changorum (number 12 in the figure) to other assemblages of fossil and living pinnipeds, from other places (based on latitude) and geologic times

This picture shows the relative size of newly discovered fossil seal Australophoca changorum (number 12 in the figure) to other fossil and living pinnipeds (seal relatives), from other places (based on latitude) and geologic times.

From Pyenson Lab:


by Ana Valenzuela-Toro

Australophoca, a new dwarf fossil seal from South America

Today, my South American colleagues and I announce the publication of a new species of fossil seal from the western coast of South America. The name of the new genus and species, Australophoca changorum, reflects its austral origin from Chile and Peru, and honors the Changos, a coastal tribe of indigenous people who lived in the Atacama (from northern Chile to southern Peru), and were short in stature. The description, published in Papers in Palaeontology, provides a scientific name for a dwarf species of true seal from the late Miocene Bahía Inglesa and Pisco formations of Chile and Peru, respectively. One of the paratype specimens that we identified was originally recovered from Cerro Ballena in the Atacama Region of Chile; the type specimen is USNM 438707.

This tiny fossil seal was smaller than a living harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), and ranks among the smallest true seals ever described, including both living and fossil ones. Interestingly, in the past ~11-3 million years, the western coast of South America seems to have been only occupied by true seals (or phocids), a fact that stands in stark difference to what we know about pinniped communities from other parts of the world, and other time[s] in the geologic record. This unusual feature of the pinniped community in western South America fits into a broader pattern of ecological turnover seen in the fossil record of marine consumers, including pinnipeds and seabirds, throughout the Southern Hemisphere, since the late Miocene.

Bird migration, new research

This video says about itself:

Physics of Bird Migration

29 April 2013

It is spring and we went to check out the migratory birds returning from their winter grounds. It is pretty incredible to think that some of them have crossed deserts and oceans on their journeys, and they still manage to find their way back to the same locations every year.

For example, did you know that the Arctic Tern is the World Record holder when it comes to migration amongst birds? It spends Northern Hemisphere summers in the Arctic and then for winter it flies all the way to the Antarctic! Absolutely crazy to think that in one year it has seen more of the world than most of us will in a lifetime. In this week’s video we take a look at the physics behind a few of the adaptations that the birds have evolved to be able to perform these annual migrations. Enjoy!

Produced by: Jonas Stenstrom

Filming help by: Louise Fornander & John-Mehdi Ghaddas

From the Annual Review of Physiology (2015):

The Neural Basis of Long-Distance Navigation in Birds


Migratory birds can navigate over tens of thousands of kilometers with an accuracy unobtainable for human navigators. To do so, they use their brains. In this review, we address how birds sense navigation- and orientation-relevant cues and where in their brains each individual cue is processed. When little is currently known, we make educated predictions as to which brain regions could be involved.

We ask where and how multisensory navigational information is integrated and suggest that the hippocampus could interact with structures that represent maps and compass information to compute and constantly control navigational goals and directions. We also suggest that the caudolateral nidopallium could be involved in weighing conflicting pieces of information against each other, making decisions, and helping the animal respond to unexpected situations. Considering the gaps in current knowledge, some of our suggestions may be wrong. However, our main aim is to stimulate further research in this fascinating field. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Physiology Volume 78 is February 10, 2016. Please see for revised estimates.

Otter news from the Netherlands

This is an otter video from Poland.

Translated from Alterra Wageningen in the Netherlands:

Friday, November 20th, 2015

The number of otters in the Netherlands has again increased last year, as evidenced by the latest monitoring data, from the winter of 2014/2015, which are now available. However, this does not apply to the spatial distribution, otters have barely expanded into new areas. There is mainly compaction in the areas where the otter already occurred. Unlike in previous years, there was no further loss of genetic variation due to inbreeding.

New bird atlas for Portugal

This is a video about sanderlings in Portugal.

From BirdLife:

BirdLife in Portugal publishes atlas of national seabirds

By Sanya Khetani-Shah, Tue, 17/11/2015 – 17:27

Compiling data from eight years of boat-based surveys, five years of coastal censuses, the national coastal bird count and a citizen science project, the Atlas of Marine Birds of Portugal is finally here to guide us through Portuguese waters, roughly one quarter of the European seas.

The atlas, prepared by SPEA (BirdLife in Portugal) and its partners, covers the entire national territory and the status of 65 marine species. For 50 ‘main’ species, the atlas gathers detailed factsheets on their distribution, movements and phenology, abundance and population trends, ecology and habitat and threats, and conservation through more than 500 modelling species distribution maps or by time of year and geographic region. Both the Madeira and Azores archipelagos are included in the maps.

This book also compiles information about the historical aspects of marine ornithology in Portugal and bird conservation, and presents a broad outline of the composition and dynamics of seabird communities and their breeding colonies in Portuguese territory.

This atlas is thus the most comprehensive compilation to date of data on the distribution and abundance of seabirds and shorebirds that use Portuguese waters. It is a considerable leap forward in our knowledge of European seabirds and helps plug our information gaps on life in our seas.

The whole interactive atlas is available online here. It’s also available for free download in two versions: high resolution and low resolution, although currently, it is only available in Portuguese.