California condor chick fledges, video

This video from the USA says about itself:

California Condor Chick #980 Fledges! – Oct. 14, 2019

Big news! At just over 6 months of age, the young condor nestling #980 has fledged after 187 days. Watch the young condor confidently take wing on October 14. After making a sustained flight out of view, the fledgling returns to perch on its favorite rock in the nesting cave. Way to fly #980!

Watch live at

This condor nest, known as the Pole Canyon nest, is located in a remote canyon near the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. The parents of the chick in the Pole Canyon nest are mom #563 and dad #262. Dad #262 was laid in 2001 and was the first viable egg laid in the wild since the reintroduction program began. He was actually one of two eggs laid to a trio (male #100 and females #111 and #108) but was brought into captivity to ensure proper incubation. He hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo and was released back to the wild a year later in 2002. Mom #563 hatched at the Oregon Zoo in 2010. This is their first nesting attempt together but both have nested previously with mates who are now deceased. A single egg was laid in this nesting cavity, and the chick hatched on April 10, 2019.


American mountain lions, research and conservation

This September 2014 video from the USA is called Mountain lion encounter in Montana.

From the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the USA:

Whole genome sequencing could help save pumas from inbreeding

October 18, 2019

Summary: The first complete genetic sequences of individual mountain lions point the way to better conservation strategies for saving threatened populations of the wild animals.

When students at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) found a dead mule deer on campus, they figured it had been killed by coyotes. Wildlife biologist Chris Wilmers rigged up a video camera to spy on the carcass at night. But the animal that crept out of the shadows to dine on the deer was no coyote — it was a mountain lion.

Mountain lions, or pumas, stay close to their prey, “so it must have been hiding in a nearby gorge all day,” says Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary biologist at UCSC.

The persistent puma was already well-known by Wilmers, who had radio-collared and tagged him as part of a long-term study of California mountain lions. But now the animal, dubbed 36m, is becoming even more famous: he’s the first puma to have his complete genome deciphered by scientists.

The information in 36m’s genes may lead to better conservation strategies, Shapiro, Wilmers, and their colleagues report October 18, 2019, in the journal Nature Communications. Many puma populations across North America are becoming increasingly isolated, Wilmers says. That ups their chances of succumbing to inbreeding and its consequences — serious abnormalities such as damaged hearts and malformed sperm. But with whole genomic information, scientists can pinpoint populations that need an influx of new genes or identify the best pumas to move between populations.

Such work could stop inbreeding in its tracks and help keep local populations from going extinct, Shapiro says. “This is the first time that whole genomes have been used in this way.”

Pumas in peril

The team’s new sequencing work is not the first effort to unlock pumas’ genetic secrets. Years of painstaking research by geneticist Stephen O’Brien, molecular ecologist Warren Johnson, and others had previously shown that Florida’s tiny population of pumas (also known as cougars or panthers) had become dangerously inbred, resulting in health defects like holes in their hearts and missing testicles. These abnormalities threatened the animals’ ability to reproduce.

The research team also proved that the introduction of eight female cougars from west Texas in 1995 had added enough new genes to boost health and help the population grow from about 30 individuals to more than 120. But the team’s effort was limited by the genetic technology available at the time, which relied on analyzing just small snapshots of DNA, or markers, scattered throughout the genome. So the scientists didn’t have a complete picture of the pumas’ genes.

Animals get two versions of every gene — one from mom and, usually, a different one from dad. This means that offspring have the genetic diversity needed to keep populations healthy. But when populations become small and isolated, relatives breed with each other. As a result, genetic diversity plunges, and many genome locations end up with two identical versions of a gene. That’s when weird things happen to animals, like the kinked tails, damaged hearts, and malformed sperm found in the inbred Florida panthers before the infusion of Texas cougar genes.

Using DNA markers alone, scientists can estimate the average amount of genetic variation within a population and get a rough picture of the level of inbreeding. But this approach can’t say whether major stretches of DNA between those markers contain copies of genes that are the same. These runs of identical gene copies are crucial, says Johnson, who is at the Walter Reed Biosystematics Unit and affiliated with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Species Survival.

The number and length of these stretches provide a precise measure of both the extent of inbreeding and how recent it is — and, therefore, how close a population is to falling off a genetic cliff. Inbreeding is not a slow and progressive process, Shapiro explains. Instead, once enough long runs of DNA with identical copies accumulate, the effects of inbreeding kick in suddenly, like turning off a light switch, she says.

From mammoths to mountain lions

Shapiro is best known for recovering and sequencing tiny bits of DNA from ancient bones, charting the genetic changes in mammoths and other now-extinct animals as their numbers shrank. But she also has a keen interest in applying the same techniques to existing creatures, like the North American mountain lion. She wants to learn more about the genetic roads to extinction — and possibly prevent those creatures from suffering the same fate. While talking with Wilmers one day about the Santa Cruz lion population, the two scientists realized that a crucial piece of information was missing: the puma’s complete genetic sequence.

Using blood that Wilmers had already collected from puma 36m, Shapiro and her team, including graduate student Nedda Saremi and postdoc Megan Supple, read the lion’s entire genome to serve as a reference for the species. Then, for comparison, they sequenced the genomes of nine other mountain lions using stored samples — another from the Santa Cruz area, two from the Santa Monica mountains, one from Yellowstone, three from Florida, and one from Brazil.

The work let Shapiro see what had taken years to figure out in Florida — that the translocation of Texas cougars had boosted genetic diversity and health of the Florida panthers. The sequences also brought new insights: even after mixing in the Texas DNA, the Florida population remains closer to the genetic brink than previously thought. “The big takeaway is that translocation worked, but the lights are going to go off because they continue to inbreed,” Shapiro explains.

Similarly, the population in the Santa Cruz Mountains “is not doing as well as we expected,” she says. The 10 genomes also held controversial hints that mountain lions may have existed in North America far longer than previously thought — as many as 300,000 years, instead of fewer than 20,000 years. “What Beth and her students are able to learn from just 10 individuals greatly extends what could be inferred with traditionally used DNA markers,” Johnson says.

More insights will come as scientists ramp up whole genome sequencing. Sequencing the full genomes of many individuals across a species’ range is “tremendously valuable,” explains Brad Shaffer, director of the UCLA La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science. “That can tell us a lot about the potential for climate adaptation and other critical conservation goals.” And with costs rapidly declining — Shapiro says reading 36m’s genome cost about $10,000, down from $30,000 a couple of years ago, with subsequent lions sequenced for just $400 each — O’Brien and others are pushing for a much larger effort. “Whole genome sequencing should be done for every critter we can catch,” says O’Brien, of Nova Southeastern University.

Already, Shapiro’s work is shining a powerful new spotlight on the genetic health of individual mountain lions and populations, pointing the way to more effective conservation strategies. Isolated populations, for example, may benefit from wildlife bridges across major highways, to allow animals to wander more widely. In other cases, scientists may need to move animals from one region to another. Overall, a more complete picture of the genome makes it possible to spot populations at greatest risk for inbreeding ¬- and the best candidates for translocation.

“Now we can make more informed decisions,” says Johnson. “In the past, we made decisions based on limited genetic information.” The new approach takes out much of the uncertainty about a population’s genetic heritage, he says. It also offers clues about how to preserve genetic variation and may help populations adapt to change.

Though puma 36m didn’t live to see any of these advances, his genetic legacy will remain. “While 36m was a badass puma by any measure, he might one day come to be the most recognized puma anywhere,” Wilmers wrote in a tribute.”[His] will be the puma genome against which other puma genomes can be compared and used to test all sorts of evolutionary and ecological questions.”

American phainopepla birds, nesting and migration

This November 2013 video from the USA says about itself:

Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens) is a gorgeous desert bird often seen alone or in a pair at the top of a tree jealously guarded because of ample food supply in the form of mistletoe berries. It eats other berries as well and occasionally will catch an insect, like the flycatcher that it is. The males are glossy black with red eyes and the females are gray. They both have a ragged crest and white wing patches obvious in flight. Here is a rare sight of a flock hanging out at the top of a mesquite tree. Juicy red hackberries were nearby but I didn’t notice any mistletoe yet.

From the American Ornithological Society Publications Office in the USA:

Rare ‘itinerant breeding’ behavior revealed in California bird

October 15, 2019

Reproduction and migration are the two most demanding tasks in a bird’s life, and the vast majority of species separate them into different times of the year. Only two bird species have been shown to undertake what scientists call “itinerant breeding”: nesting in one area, migrating to another region, and nesting again there within the same year, to take advantage of shifting food resources. New research just published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances provides strong evidence that a third bird species takes on this unusual challenge — the Phainopepla, a unique bird found in the southwestern U.S. and the northernmost member of an otherwise tropical family.

Scientists had known for years that some Phainopeplas breed in the desert in spring, where they feed on desert mistletoe berries, and others breed in woodlands in the summer, where a wider range of foods are available — but could these actually be the same birds? To find out, Princeton University’s Daniel Baldassarre, now an Assistant Professor at SUNY Oswego, and his colleagues captured 24 adult Phainopeplas breeding in the Mojave Desert in March and April 2017 and fitted them with tiny GPS tags. To download the GPS data and see where they went, they had to recapture the same birds. Fortunately, five of the 24 birds returned to the same site that fall, and all five tagged birds had migrated to coastal woodland habitats and back in the intervening months — exactly where and when the itinerant breeding hypothesis predicted.

“Seeing the GPS tracks for the first time was amazing, but the biggest thrill for me was re-sighting the first tagged bird that returned to the capture site,” says Baldassarre. “We were a bit unsure how likely they were to come back to the same spot, so to see that a tagged bird had returned was an exhilarating moment. When he hit the net it was like, okay, we’re in business here.”

Circumstantial evidence has long raised suspicions that Phainopeplas might be itinerant breeders. Phainopeplas are vocal mimics, and birdwatchers had observed individual birds in desert habitats mimicking species found in woodland habitats and vice versa. The GPS data from this study still doesn’t completely prove that Phainopeplas are itinerant breeders because the researchers were not able to directly observe any tagged birds nesting in coastal woodlands. However, Baldassarre and his colleagues were able to further support their conclusions with DNA analysis showing that desert breeders and woodland breeders are not genetically different.

“I approached this just thinking about it being a cool species and a rare behavior, but as I started to consider the bigger picture, I realized that the sort of flexibility that itinerant breeding species like this seem to be capable of is also interesting from a climate change perspective,” says Baldassarre. “It suggests that they might be able to deal with climate change better than other birds. They’re highly mobile, they can modulate their physiology to go between migratory and breeding periods quickly, and they can deal with different physical and social environments. It makes this interesting beyond just being a weird bird behavior.”

Why no three-legged animal species?

This March 2018 video says about itself:

3-Legged Deer Is So Grateful His Mom Saved Him | This deer lost a leg when he was 2 days old and could barely walk — but he found a mom who helped him RUN.

This deer has only three legs because of a grave injury. How about animals without such injuries?

From the University of California – Davis in the USA:

Why are there no animal species with three legs?

October 2, 2019

If “Why?” is the first question in science, “Why not?” must be a close second. Sometimes it’s worth thinking about why something does not exist.

Such as a truly three-legged animal. Tracy Thomson, graduate student in the UC Davis Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, has been pondering the non-existence of tripeds. He recently published an essay on it, “Three-Legged Locomotion and the Constraints on Limb Number: Why Tripeds Don’t Have a Leg to Stand On” in BioEssays.

Thomson got the idea after taking a graduate class on evolution with UC Davis paleontologist Geerat Vermeij, who challenged the students to come up with a “forbidden phenotype:” an animal or plant that does not and cannot exist.

Thomson points out that there are lots of animals that use a tripod stance to rest. Meerkats in an upright stance rest on their tail and rear feet; woodpeckers use tail feathers to brace themselves against a tree-trunk.

A tripod stance does not require any energy to be stable, Thomson noted. Unlike, for example, standing upright on two feet, which does require some muscle work as well as relatively large feet.

Three-limbed movement is less common. Insects, which of course have six legs, have a mode of movement where their legs move in sets of three: two legs on one side and one on the opposite side are on the ground, with the opposite legs moving, at any time. This is called the “alternating tripod” gait.

Gripping tails and beaks

Many tree-dwelling animals use their tails for additional gripping, although they may be moving with all four of their limbs as well. Parrots are quite tripedal, using their strong, flexible beak as an additional grip to maneuver in tree branches.

Long rear feet make it difficult for kangaroos to “walk” like other mammals. Instead, they use their strong tail and front limbs to push the rear feet off the ground and forwards while grazing.

Given that three-limbed movement does seems to work for some animals, why are there no animals with three legs? That might go back a long, long way, Thomson said.

“Almost all animals are bilateral,” he said. The code for having two sides to everything seems to have got embedded in our DNA very early in the evolution of life — perhaps before appendages like legs, fins or flippers even evolved. Once that trait for bilateral symmetry was baked in, it was hard to change.

With our built-in bias to two-handedness, it can be hard to figure out how a truly three-legged animal would work — although that has not stopped science fiction writers from imagining them. Perhaps trilateral life has evolved on Enceladus or Alpha Centauri (or Mars!) and has as much difficulty thinking about two-limbed locomotion as we do thinking about three.

This kind of thought experiment is useful for developing our ideas about evolution, Thomson said.

“If we’re trying to understand evolution as a process we need to understand what it can and can’t do,” he said.

Californian worm species with three sexes discovery

This April 2018 video from the USA says about itself:

Mono Lake is a striking blue oasis in the eastern California surrounded by desert peaks, volcanoes, and the Sierra Nevada. Strange tufa tower formations and saline waters lie at the edge of mountain streams and snow-capped mountains. Millions of birds, trillions of brine shrimp, and countless alkali flies contribute to one of the most productive lake ecosystems on the planet.

In 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power began the Mono Lake Storydiverting water from Mono Lake’s tributary streams, sending it 350 miles south to meet the growing water demands of Los Angeles. Deprived of its freshwater sources, the lake dropped 45 vertical feet. Its salinity doubled and the ecosystem approached collapse.

Researchers, students, bird freaks, and an engaged public took notice and formed the Mono Lake Committee. Sixteen Years later, this dedicated grassroots movement altered history by protecting Mono Lake, securing new water solutions for Los Angeles, and transforming water law in California. The Mono Lake Story is about changing values and balancing those values against difficult odds. It’s about how a small and dedicated group of individuals, trying to do the right thing, can grow into an effective coalition of organizations, agencies, and public support that triumph over fundamental environmental challenges.

The Mono Lake story is a rare environmental success that can inspire and inform the environmental challenges of our time.

From the California Institute of Technology in the USA:

Otherworldly worms with three sexes discovered in Mono Lake

Eight species of nematode discovered in the lake’s harsh conditions

September 26, 2019

Summary: The extreme environment of Mono Lake was thought to only house two species of animals — until now.

Caltech scientists have discovered a new species of worm thriving in the extreme environment of Mono Lake. This new species, temporarily dubbed Auanema sp., has three different sexes, can survive 500 times the lethal human dose of arsenic, and carries its young inside its body like a kangaroo.

Mono Lake, located in the Eastern Sierras of California, is three times as salty as the ocean and has an alkaline pH of 10. Before this study, only two other species (other than bacteria and algae) were known to live in the lake — brine shrimp and diving flies. In this new work, the team discovered eight more species, all belonging to a class of microscopic worms called nematodes, thriving in and around Mono Lake.

The work was done primarily in the laboratory of Paul Sternberg, Bren Professor of Biology. A paper describing the research appears online on September 26 in the journal Current Biology.

The Sternberg laboratory has had a long interest in nematodes, particularly Caenorhabditis elegans, which uses only 300 neurons to exhibit complex behaviors, such as sleeping, learning, smelling, and moving. That simplicity makes it a useful model organism with which to study fundamental neuroscience questions. Importantly, C. elegans can easily thrive in the laboratory under normal room temperatures and pressures.

As nematodes are considered the most abundant type of animal on the planet, former Sternberg lab graduate students Pei-Yin Shih (PhD ’19) and James Siho Lee (PhD ’19) thought they might find them in the harsh environment of Mono Lake. The eight species they found are diverse, ranging from benign microbe-grazers to parasites and predators. Importantly, all are resilient to the arsenic-laden conditions in the lake and are thus considered extremophiles — organisms that thrive in conditions unsuitable for most life forms.

When comparing the new Auanema species to sister species in the same genus, the researchers found that the similar species also demonstrated high arsenic resistance, even though they do not live in environments with high arsenic levels. In another surprising discovery, Auanema sp. itself was found to be able to thrive in the laboratory under normal, non-extreme conditions. Only a few known extremophiles in the world can be studied in a laboratory setting.

This suggests that nematodes may have a genetic predisposition for resiliency and flexibility in adapting to harsh and benign environments alike.

“Extremophiles can teach us so much about innovative strategies for dealing with stress,” says Shih. “Our study shows we still have much to learn about how these 1000-celled animals have mastered survival in extreme environments.”

The researchers plan to determine if there are particular biochemical and genetic factors that enable nematodes’ success and to sequence the genome of Auanema sp. to look for genes that may enable arsenic resistance. Arsenic-contaminated drinking water is a major global health concern; understanding how eukaryotes like nematodes deal with arsenic will help answer questions about how the toxin moves through and affects cells and bodies.

But beyond human health, studying extreme species like the nematodes of Mono Lake contributes to a bigger, global picture of the planet, says Lee.

“It’s tremendously important that we appreciate and develop a curiosity for biodiversity,” he adds, noting that the team had to receive special permits for their field work at the lake. “The next innovation for biotechnology could be out there in the wild. A new biodegradable sunscreen, for example, was discovered from extremophilic bacteria and algae. We have to protect and responsibly utilize wildlife.”

The paper is titled, “Newly Identified Nematodes from Mono Lake Exhibit Extreme Arsenic Resistance.” Shih and Lee are co-first authors on the study; Shih is now a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University and Lee is now a postdoctoral fellow at The Rockefeller University. In addition to Shih, Lee, and Sternberg, other co-authors are Ryoji Shinya of Meiji University in Japan, Natsumi Kanzaki of the Kansai Research Center in Japan, Andre Pires da Silva of the University of Warwick in the UK, former Caltech Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow student Jean Marie Badroos now of UC Berkeley, and Elizabeth Goetz and Amir Sapir of the University of Haifa in Israel. Funding was provided by the Amgen Scholars Program, the Leverhulme Trust, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.