South African dung beetles, new research


This 2007 video says about itself:

African Dung Beetle | National Geographic

Sacred to ancient Egyptians, these beetles recycle – of all things – dung.

From the University of Würzburg in Germany:

How dung beetles know where to roll their dung balls

June 25, 2019

Summary: When the South African dung beetle rolls its dung ball through the savannah, it must know the way as precisely as possible. Scientists have now discovered that it does not orient itself solely on the position of the sun.

The South African dung beetle Scarabaeus lamarcki has — to put it mildly — an interesting technique to ensure its offspring a good start in life. When the animal, which is only a few centimetres tall, encounters elephant dung, for example, it forms small balls out of it which it then rolls away in a randomly chosen direction. After a while, the beetle stuffs the dung into underground passages, which serve as its breeding chamber; where it then lays its eggs.

How the dung beetle finds its way from the elephant dung pile to the underground passages: This is what Dr. Basil el Jundi is interested in. The neurobiologist heads an Emmy Noether Junior Research Group at the Biocentre of Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany, and investigates the navigational ability of insects.

Together with scientists from Sweden and South Africa, he has now discovered that the dung beetle — contrary to previous assumptions — does not only orient itself on the position of the sun when navigating, but also includes information about wind direction in its route planning. The researchers have published their new findings in the current issue of the journal PNAS — Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

On a straight line away from the dung heap

“South African dung beetles must roll their dung ball away from the dung pile as quickly as possible to prevent the ball from being stolen by other beetles,” explains el Jundi. To ensure that they actually get out of the dangerous area as quickly as possible, the beetles roll the ball away from the dung pile along a straight line. In order to keep their course, they use celestial cues as orientation references — for example, the position of the sun. However, it was not yet clear how the beetles find their way when the sun provides no useful information, for example when it is noon.

Basil el Jundi and his team can now answer this question: “We have discovered that dung beetles use the wind for orientation in addition to the sky.” The animals perceive the corresponding signals via their antennae. The necessary information is provided by high wind speeds, which occur in the African savannah especially around noon, when orientation by the sun becomes difficult.

The combination of the systems increases precision

However, to produce an efficient and robust “compass”, the animals must combine and harmonize the wind information with the other celestial signals. This is the only way to ensure that they find their way, even in a sudden calm, by flexibly switching back to the solar compass as the main orientation signal. As the researchers were able to show, this combination of different orientation systems not only makes it easier for the beetle to find its way, but it also increases the precision of the beetle compass.

For their study, the scientists worked within a laboratory arena in which they were able to simulate and control the position of the sun and the wind direction to precisely record their effects on beetle navigation. Their experiments not only show that the beetles set the wind directional information relative to the position of the sun. “We could also show that the beetles were able to transfer the directional information, which they have set with the sun as their only reference, to the wind compass,” says el Jundi. This shows that both the wind compass and the solar compass in the beetle brain “access” the same spatial memory network and therefore communicate with each other.

A highly plastic neuronal machinery

Thus, the recently published study shows that dung beetles use a much more dynamic compass than science has previously thought possible. The access to different sensory modalities enables the animals to navigate at any time with highest precision. Their abilities clearly exceed human abilities — even though they are equipped with a brain that is smaller than a grain of rice. In addition, the results confirm that an insect brain is not a “static substrate”, but a piece of a “highly plastic neuronal machinery that can adapt to its environment in a perfect way”, as the scientists write.

Elephants help frogs survive


This 2010 music video is called Crazy frog – Nellie the elephant.

From the Wildlife Conservation Society:

Frogs find refuge in elephant tracks

Study says pachyderm puddles are amphibian condos

June 4, 2019

Summary: Researchers in Myanmar describe flooded elephant tracks as key breeding grounds and ‘stepping stones’ connecting populations.

Frogs need elephants. That’s what a new WCS-led study says that looked at the role of water-filled elephant tracks in providing predator-free breeding grounds and pathways connecting frog populations.

Publishing in the journal Mammalia, the researchers found that rain-filled tracks of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) were filled with frog egg masses and tadpoles. The tracks can persist for a year or more and provide temporary habitat during the dry season where alternate sites are unavailable. Trackways could also function as “stepping stones” that connect frog populations.

This study was made available online in September 2018 ahead of final publication in print in May 2019.

The researchers made their observations in Myanmar’s Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary.

Elephants are widely recognized as “ecosystem engineers”, where they extensively modify vegetation through browsing, trampling, and seed dispersal, and convert large amounts of plant biomass into dung that is an important nutrient input for terrestrial and aquatic systems. At smaller scales, local plant species richness is enhanced when elephants open gaps in the forest canopy, browsing damage to trees creates refuges for small vertebrates (lizards and small mammals), and dung piles provide food for a diversity of beetles.

However, most research on ecosystem engineering by elephants has focused on savanna elephants (Loxodonta Africana) and to a lesser extent, forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) in Africa; the role of Asian elephants as ecosystem engineers is much less well-known. Asian elephants are considered Endangered by IUCN due to habitat loss, poaching and retribution for crop raiding and human/elephant conflict.

Said Steven Platt, Associate Conservation Herpetologist with WCS’s Myanmar Program and lead author of the study: “Elephant tracks are virtual condominiums for frogs. This study underscores the critical role wildlife play in ecosystems in sometimes unexpected ways. When you lose one species, you may be unknowingly affecting others, which is why protecting intact ecosystems with full assemblages of wildlife is so important.”

African elephants, less poaching, still threatened


This 2015 video from South Africa says about itself:

MASTHULELE. The Largest Elephant Tusker Alive! Amazing Footage.

Kruger National Park Tusker Masthulele deceases 15 September 2017

It is with deep sympathy that we announce the unfortunate passing on of Masthulele, meaning ‘the quiet one’; Masthulele passes on at an estimated age of 49 and 50 years. This bull’s name was very appropriate as he lived up to the ‘quiet one’ reputation by being seldom seen, he had only been photographed twice at the time of naming. The first two series of photographs of this bull were both taken from a helicopter during the elephant censuses in 2003 and 2004.

From the University of York in England:

Africa’s elephant poaching rates in decline, but iconic animal still under threat

May 28, 2019

Elephant poaching rates in Africa have started to decline after reaching a peak in 2011, an international team of scientists have concluded.

However, the team say the continent’s elephant population remains threatened without continuing action to tackle poverty, reduce corruption and decrease demand of ivory.

The research, which included scientists from the universities of Freiburg, York and the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), reveals a decline in annual poaching mortality rate from an estimated peak of over 10% in 2011 to less than 4% in 2017.

It is estimated there are around 350,000 elephants left in Africa, but approximately 10-15,000 are killed each year by poachers.

At current poaching rates, elephants are in danger of being virtually wiped from the continent, surviving only in small, heavily protected pockets.

One of the authors of the study, Dr Colin Beale, from the University of York’s Department of Biology said: “We are seeing a downturn in poaching, which is obviously positive news, but it is still above what we think is sustainable so the elephant populations are declining.”

“The poaching rates seem to respond primarily to ivory prices in South-East Asia and we can’t hope to succeed without tackling demand in that region.”

The research team say it is impossible to say if the ivory trade ban introduced in China 2017 is having an impact on the figures as ivory prices started to fall before the ban and may reflect a wider downturn in the Chinese economy.

“We need to reduce demand in Asia and improve the livelihoods of people who are living with elephants in Africa; these are the two biggest targets to ensure the long-term survival of elephants,” Dr Beale added.

“While we can’t forget about anti-poaching and law enforcement, improving this alone will not solve the poaching problem,” Dr Beale added.

The scientists looked at data from the MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) programme, which records carcass data provided by park rangers at 53 protected sites across Africa.

Dr Beale added: “Elephants are the very definition of charismatic megafauna, but they are also important engineers of African savannah and forest ecosystems and play a vital role in attracting ecotourism so their conservation is a real concern.”

Lisa Rolls Hagelberg, Head of Wildlife Communication & Ambassador Relations, UN Environment, said: “Ensuring a future with wild elephants, and myriad other species, will require stronger laws and enforcement efforts and genuine community engagement; however, as long as demand exists supply will find a way to quench it.

“Only about 6% of the current funding going towards tackling illegal trade in wildlife is directed to communication.

For long-term success, governments need to prioritize comprehensive social and behavioural change interventions to both prevent and reduce demand. We have the know how, now we need to invest to truly influence environmental consciousness.”

Severin Hauenstein, from the University of Freiburg, added: “This is a positive trend, but we should not see this as an end to the poaching crisis.

“After some changes in the political environment, the total number of illegally killed elephants in Africa seems to be falling, but to assess possible protection measures, we need to understand the local and global processes driving illegal elephant hunting.”

The study is published in Nature Communications.

European Union makes Tilos dwarf elephants invisible


Tilos dwarf elephant reconstruction

This photo shows the reconstruction of a prehistoric dwarf elephant, found on Tilos island in Greece.

From the Aegean Islands site in Greece:

Tilos is a gem of the Dodecanese islands, rich in both culture and natural beauty, and its breathtaking views represent much of its charm. From peculiar wildlife and spectacular flowers to magnificent historic villages and pure-white secluded beaches, there’s absolutely nothing you can’t find on the dazzling little island.

If you’re searching for an adventure on a lost island, how about a peek at the fossilized bones of dwarf elephants? For those interested into the island’s past, they will truly fascinate you.

On the left hand side of the road to Megalo Chorio is the Charkadio Cave where the remains of dwarf elephants were discovered in 1971. The cave is not open to the public as excavations are still not completed. In this cave also neolithic ceramics and tools made of stone have been found, just as deer bones from a much older date than the bones of the elephants (about 140.000 BC).

… Nearby the entrance, you will see the construction of a new museum which will eventually contain the finds inside the cave.

… These dwarf elephants lived on the island until about 4000 BC.

The bones of thousands of elephants have been found in the cave and this discovery was one of the first to establish the existence of elephants in Europe.

Wikipedia also mentions the dwarf elephants of Tilos, and the exhibition about them.

On 1 May 2019, we saw the brand new paleontological museum, where the elephant fossils and other finds were supposed to go. However, the building was very empty and very closed.

That evening, we heard why. The European Union told Tilos that the museum was only allowed to open if visitors would pay at least six euros. Tilos did not want that, as that would mean employing a cashier whose wages would cost more than incoming entry fees. As not that many tourists come to Tilos; the museum is a bit in the middle of nowhere; and not many tourists and Tilos inhabitants would want to pay six euros to see the small museum. Though more would come if the museum would be free.

According to the European Union, a museum should be a business out to make a profit. European Union bureaucrats are apparently better at reading the novels of pro-capitalist propagandist and Donald Trump favourite Ayn Rand than at reading books on paleontology or other sciences. Museums should be about scientific research and informing the public about science for free, not about profits.

After this 1 May 2019 elephant interlude, the blog posts on Tilos will resume in proper chronological order. So, stay tuned!

Woolly mammoths’, Neanderthals’ Ice Age adaptations


This 2013 video is called A group of Neanderthals attack a herd of woolly mammoths.

From the American Friends of Tel Aviv University:

Woolly mammoths and Neanderthals may have shared genetic traits

Findings point to molecular resemblance in climate adaptation traits of the two species

April 8, 2019

A new Tel Aviv University study suggests that the genetic profiles of two extinct mammals with African ancestry — woolly mammoths, elephant-like animals that evolved in the Arctic peninsula of Eurasia around 600,000 years ago, and Neanderthals, highly skilled early humans who evolved in Europe around 400,000 years ago — shared molecular characteristics of adaptation to cold environments.

The research attributes the human-elephant relationship during the Pleistocene epoch to their mutual ecology and shared living environments, in addition to other possible interactions between the two species. The study was led by Prof. Ran Barkai and Meidad Kislev of TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and published on April 8 in Human Biology.

“Neanderthals and mammoths lived together in Europe during the Ice Age. The evidence suggests that Neanderthals hunted and ate mammoths for tens of thousands of years and were actually physically dependent on calories extracted from mammoths for their successful adaptation,” says Prof. Barkai. “Neanderthals depended on mammoths for their very existence.

“They say you are what you eat. This was especially true of Neanderthals; they ate mammoths but were apparently also genetically similar to mammoths.”

To assess the degree of resemblance between mammoth and Neanderthal genetic components, the archaeologists reviewed three case studies of relevant gene variants and alleles — alternative forms of a gene that arise by mutation and are found at the same place on a chromosome — associated with cold-climate adaptation found in the genomes of both woolly mammoths and Neanderthals.

The first case study outlined the mutual appearance of the LEPR gene, related to thermogenesis and the regulation of adipose tissue and fat storage throughout the body. The second case study engaged genes related to keratin protein activity in both species. The third case study focused on skin and hair pigmentation variants in the genes MC1R and SLC7A11.

“Our observations present the likelihood of resemblance between numerous molecular variants that resulted in similar cold-adapted epigenetic traits of two species, both of which evolved in Eurasia from an African ancestor,” Kislev explains. “These remarkable findings offer supporting evidence for the contention regarding the nature of convergent evolution through molecular resemblance, in which similarities in genetic variants between adapted species are present.

“We believe these types of connections can be valuable for future evolutionary research. They’re especially interesting when they involve other large-brained mammals, with long life spans, complex social behavior and their interactions in shared habitats with early humans.”

According to the study, both species likely hailed from ancestors that came to Europe from Africa and adapted to living conditions in Ice Age Europe. The species also both became extinct more or less at the same time.

“It is now possible to try to answer a question no one has asked before: Are there genetic similarities between evolutionary adaptation paths in Neanderthals and mammoths?” Prof. Barkai says. “The answer seems to be yes. This idea alone opens endless avenues for new research in evolution, archaeology and other disciplines.

“At a time when proboscideans are under threat of disappearance from the world due to the ugly human greed for ivory, highlighting our shared history and similarities with elephants and mammoths might be a point worth taking into consideration.”

How elephants survive African heat


This February 2019 video says about itself:

See How Cracked Skin Helps Elephants Stay Cool | Decoder

Why do elephants have wrinkled skin? The intricate web of cracks and crevices that gives African elephants their distinctive look is, in fact, an essential adaptation. Their ability to stay cool in hot African temperatures is thanks to these “wrinkles”, which aren’t actually wrinkles at all, but millions of microscopic cracks in their epidermis.