Tuatara reptiles’ genome, similar to mammals


This January 2020 video says about itself:

Today, Department of Conservation rangers Lee and Joyce are in search of a rare animal found only on an island in New Zealand. Follow them on their quest to find and breed two Tuataras, an ancient reptile that predates the dinosaurs.

From Northern Arizona University in the USA:

Dinosaur relative’s genome linked to mammals: Curious genome of ancient reptile

August 5, 2020

A lizard-like creature whose ancestors once roamed the Earth with dinosaurs and today is known to live for longer than 100 years may hold clues to a host of questions about the past and the future.

In a study published Aug. 5 in Nature, an interdisciplinary, international team of researchers, in partnership with Maori tribe Ngatiwai, sequenced, assembled and analyzed the complete genome of the Sphenodon punctatus, or the tuatara, a rare reptile whose ancestors once roamed the earth with dinosaurs. It hasn’t changed much in the 150 million to 250 million years since then.

“We found that the tuatara genome has accumulated far fewer DNA substitutions over time than other reptiles, and the molecular clock for tuataras ticked at a much slower speed than squamates, although faster than turtles and crocodiles, which are the real molecular slowpokes,” said co-author Marc Tollis, an assistant professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems at Northern Arizona University. “This means in terms of the rate of molecular evolution, tuataras are kind of the Toyota Corolla — nothing special but very reliable and persistently ticking away over hundreds of millions of years.”

Tuatara have been out on their own for a staggering amount of time, with prior estimates ranging from 150-250 million years, and with no close relatives the position of tuatara on tree of life has long been contentious. Some argue tuatara are more closely related to birds, crocodiles and turtles, while others say they stem from a common ancestor shared with lizards and snakes. This new research places tuatara firmly in the branch shared with lizards and snakes, but they appear to have split off and been on their own for about 250 million years — a massive length of time considering primates originated about 65 million years ago, and hominids, from which humans descend, originated approximately six million years ago.

“Proving the phylogenetic position of tuatara in a robust way is exciting, but we see the biggest discovery in this research as uncovering the genetic code and beginning to explore aspects of the biology that makes this species so unique, while also developing new information that will help us better conserve this taonga or special treasure,” said lead author Neil Gemmell, a professor at the University of Otago.

One area of particular interest is to understand how tuataras, which can live to be more than 100 years old, achieve such longevity. Examining some of the genes implicated in protecting the body from the ravages of age found that tuatara have more of these genes than any other vertebrate species thus far examined, including humans. This could offer clues into how to increase humans’ resistance to the ailments that kill humans.

But the genome, and the tuatara itself, has so many other unique features all on its own. For one, scientists have found tuatara fossils dating back 150 million years, and they look exactly the same as the animals today. The fossil story dates the tuatara lineage to the Triassic Period, when dinosaurs were just starting to roam the Earth.

“The tuatara genome is really a time machine that allows us to understand what the genetic conditions were for animals that were vying for world supremacy hundreds of millions of years ago,” he said. “A genome sequence from an animal this ancient and divergent could give us a better idea about what the ancestral amniote genome might have looked like.”

While modern birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, they are less suitable for this type of research because avian genomes have lost a significant amount of DNA since diverging from their dinosaur ancestors.

But the tuataras, which used to be spread throughout the world, have other unusual features. Particularly relevant to this research is the size of its genome; the genome of this little lizard has 5 billion bases of DNA, making it 67 percent larger than a human genome. Additionally, tuataras have temperature-based sex determination, which means the ratio of males to females in a clutch of eggs depends on the temperatures at which they are incubated. They also have a pronounced “third eye” — a light sensory organ that sticks through the top of their skulls. Mammals’ skulls have completely covered the third eye, though they still contain the pineal gland underneath, which helps maintain circadian rhythms.

The tuatara also is unique in that it is sacred to the Maori people. This research, for all the scientific knowledge that came from it, was groundbreaking for its collaboration with the Indigenous New Zealanders. The purpose was to ensure the research aligned with and respected the importance of the tuatara in their culture, which has never been done before in genomic research.

“Tuatara are a taonga, and it’s pleasing to see the results of this study have now been published,” Ngatiwai Trust Board resource management unit manager Alyx Pivac said. “Our hope is that this is yet another piece of information that will help us understand tuatara and aid in the conservation of this special species. We want to extend a big mihi to all of those who have been involved in this important piece of work.”

With the genome now sequenced, the international science community has a blueprint through which to examine the many unique features of tuatara biology, which will aid human understanding of the evolution of the amniotes, a group that includes birds, reptiles and mammals.

After George Floyd murder, New Zealand, Kentucky


Protest against the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis USA, in Auckland, New Zealand

Translated from Dutch NOS radio today, about Auckland, New Zealand:

In New Zealand, thousands of people have marched in a protest march following George Floyd’s death. …

In the US city of Louisville, Kentucky, police officers shot a man dead last night.

New Zealand blue whales, new research


This 14 November 2019 video is called Spotting a huge BLUE WHALE in Kaikoura, New Zealand.

From Oregon State University in the USA:

New Zealand blue whale distribution patterns tied to ocean conditions, prey availability

May 28, 2020

Oregon State University researchers who recently discovered a population of blue whales in New Zealand are learning more about the links between the whales, their prey and ocean conditions that are changing as the planet warms.

Understanding how changes in climate affect the ability of blue whales to feed gives researchers more insight into the whales’ overall health and provides critical information for conservation and management, said Leigh Torres, an assistant professor and director of the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Laboratory at OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute.

“These whales don’t move around at random. We found that the same ocean patterns that determine where whales are also determine where their prey are, under both typical and warm ocean conditions,” Torres said. “The more we learn about what drives these whales’ movement, the more we can help protect them from whatever threats they face.”

The researchers’ findings were published today in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series. The study’s lead author is Dawn Barlow, a doctoral student in Torres’ lab; additional co-authors are Kim Bernard of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences; Daniel Palacios of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute; and Pablo Escobar-Flores of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Sciences in New Zealand.

Torres, Barlow and colleagues recently documented this new population of New Zealand blue whales, which is genetically distinct from other blue whale populations and spends much of its time in the South Taranaki Bight between New Zealand’s North and South Islands.

“The goal of our study is to understand the habitat use patterns of this population of blue whales — why they are where they are and how they respond to changing ocean conditions,” Barlow said. “We know this area is important to this population of whales, and we want to understand what it is about this spot that is desirable to them.”

The region is often rich in prey — blue whales feast on patches of krill — but the prey is patchy and influenced by changing ocean conditions, including warmer temperatures and changes in ocean properties. The South Taranaki Bight also sees frequent shipping traffic and activity from oil and gas exploration and production, Torres said.

Using data collected during typical summer conditions in 2014 and 2017 and warmer than average conditions in 2016, the researchers analyzed how changing ocean conditions affect the blue whales’ distribution in the region’s waters and the availability and location of their prey within the water column.

They found that during a regional marine heatwave in 2016, there were fewer aggregations of krill for the whales to dine on. With fewer options, the whales pursued the densest aggregations of krill they could find, Barlow said.

The researchers also found that during both warm and more typical ocean conditions the whales were more likely to feed in areas where the water was cooler. During the marine heatwave, when even the coolest water temperatures were higher than normal conditions, the whales still sought the coolest waters available for feeding.

In this region, cooler water temperatures represent deeper water that was pushed toward the surface in a process called upwelling and tends to be nutrient-rich, Torres said.

The nutrient-rich water supports aggregations of krill, which in turn provide sustenance for the blue whales. In their study, the researchers were able to bring all of the pieces of this trophic pathway together to describe the relationships between oceanography, krill and whales.

As warmer ocean conditions become more frequent, this new knowledge can be used to inform and adjust spatial management of human activities in the region in an effort to reduce impacts on New Zealand blue whales, Torres said.

“Documenting information like this can really help us understand how to reduce threats to these animals,” Torres said. “We need continued monitoring to understand how these whales will respond to both the changing climate and human impacts.”

Bounty Island shags video


This 1 May 2020 video says about itself:

Bounty Island shag – New Zealand Bird of the Week

Living only on a small group of islands, Bounty Island shags are a rare species, with a population likely under 1,000, and as such, are vulnerable. Nonetheless, they are remarkable birds, and they still manage to survive in a world of competition. I hope you enjoy.

Royal albatross father feeds his chick, video


This 21 April 2020 video from New Zealand says about itself:

OGK Returns! Long Feeding Visit By Royal Albatross Parent | #RoyalCam | NZ DOC | Cornell Lab

After more than 4 weeks, the father of the Northern Royal Albatross chick returned to feed. According to rangers from the New Zealand Dept. of Conservation, he appears to be unfortunately injured; hopefully this is superficial and he can recover from this. We have no way of knowing what has happened while he was out over the ocean, but the fact that he returned and fed the chick and flew away from the colony are at least positive developments.

New Zealand little owl visits albatross nest


This 9 April 2020 video says about itself:

(Full Visit!) A Little Owl Makes a Surprise Appearance on the #Royal [Albatross Nest] Cam

For the first time ever, a Little Owl flew into view of the infrared illuminator, alighting first on the ground near the nestling, then flying up to perch on the camera before flying again out of frame.

Little Owls were introduced to the South Island of New Zealand in the first decade of the 1900s with the goal of helping to control pest species. While they didn’t appear to have a large impact on pests, they also haven’t seemed to have a negative effect on native fauna, mainly eating insects (particularly beetles, also caterpillars, earwigs and moths); they also eat small mammals, small birds, lizards and frogs.

RoyalCam was set up in January 2016 by the Department of Conservation. For the 2019/2020 season, we have collaborated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

New Zealand workers strike against coronavirus danger


This 2016 trade union video from New Zealand says about itself:

The Migrant Workers Association stands in solidarity with the exploited workers in Sistema Plastics.

From the World Socialist Web Site, 28 March 2020:

New Zealand: Sistema plastics workers walkout over COVID-19 concerns

Sistema plastics factory employees in Auckland walked off the job on March 25 citing health and safety concerns associated with the spread of coronavirus. The plant employs around 500 workers. With New Zealand currently in a national lockdown, only businesses deemed “essential” are permitted to continue operating.

While Sistema is deemed an essential business, workers said the company had not provided any personal protective gear, such as gloves and masks, and employees were expected to work for hours within one metre of each other. Lockdown procedures currently dictate that, apart from members of their own household, everyone should be at least two metres from other people.

Workers said they would not return to the plant until it was safe to do so. Trade union officials met with Sistema management on Wednesday and following a WorkSafe inspection of the plant on Thursday, the company said workers could remain at home and would receive full pay during New Zealand’s four-week coronavirus national shutdown.

Kea parrot intelligence, new research


This 3 March 2020 video says about itself:

The parrots that understand probabilities

Kea, a type of parrot from New Zealand, have been surprising scientists with their smart predictions. Researchers set them a series of intelligence tests based around probabilities and social cues. They found that kea can perform better than monkeys, showing abilities only previously seen in great apes such as humans and chimpanzees.

Read the paper here.

Sperm whales disturbed by earthquakes


This 2015 video from the USA says about itself:

At 598 meters (1,962 ft) below the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, ROV Hercules encountered a magnificent sperm whale. The whale circled Hercules several times and gave our cameras the chance to capture some incredible footage of this beautiful creature. Encounters between sperm whales and ROVs are incredibly rare.

From the University of Otago in New Zealand:

Earthquakes disrupt sperm whales’ ability to find food

February 20, 2020

Otago scientists studying sperm whales off the coast of Kaikōura discovered earthquakes affect their ability to find food for at least a year.

The University of Otago-led research is the first to examine the impact of a large earthquake on a population of marine mammals, and offers new insight into how top predators such as sperm whales react and adapt to a large-scale natural disturbance.

Changes in habitat use by a deep-diving predator in response to a coastal earthquake, has recently been published in Deep Sea Research Part I.

Earthquakes and aftershocks can affect sperm whales in several ways, the study explains.

The whales depend on sound for communication, detection of prey and navigation and are also highly sensitive to noise.

Earthquakes produce among the loudest underwater sounds which can induce injuries, hearing damage, displacement and behavioural modifications.

While earthquakes and other extreme natural events are rare occurrences, they can really shift the state of ecosystems by wiping out animals and plants, lead author and Marine Sciences Teaching Fellow Dr Marta Guerra says.

“Understanding how wild populations respond to earthquakes helps us figure out their level of resilience, and whether we need to adjust management of these populations while they are more vulnerable.”

The fatal 7.8 magnitude Kaikōura earthquake on November 14, 2016 produced strong ground shaking which triggered widespread underwater mudslides in the underwater canyon off the coastline.

This caused what’s known as ‘canyon flushing’, which in the case of the Kaikōura earthquake, involved high-energy currents flushing 850 tonnes of sediment from the underwater canyon into the ocean.

The Kaikōura canyon is an important year-round foraging ground for sperm whales, which have an important ecological role as top predators and are a key attraction for the local tourism industry — the main driver of the town’s economy.

Just why the canyon is important to sperm whales is “a piece of the puzzle we are still trying to nut out,” says Dr Guerra.

“But it’s likely related to the immense productivity of the canyon’s seabed, and a combination of how the currents interact with the steep topography of the submarine canyon.”

Scientists examined data collected on the behaviour of 54 sperm whales between January 2014 and January 2018 — a timeframe which allowed an opportunity to determine any significant changes in pre and post-earthquake whale foraging behaviour.

“We really didn’t know what to expect, as there is so little known about how marine animals react to earthquakes,” Dr Guerra says.

The researchers found clear changes in the whales’ behaviour in the year following the earthquake: most noticeably whales spent about 25 per cent more time at the surface — which potentially meant they needed to spend more effort searching for prey, either by diving deeper or for longer times

There are two main reasons the whales may have expanded their search effort, the study explains.

Firstly, benthic invertebrate communities which lived in the upper canyon may have been removed by the canyon flushing event, resulting in sparser prey and reduced foraging abilities.

Secondly, sediment deposition and erosion may have required sperm whales to ‘re-familiarise’ with a modified habitat, increasing the effort to navigate and locate prey whose location may have changed.

“The flushing of almost 40,000 tonnes of biomass from the canyon’s seabed probably meant that the animals that normally fed on the seabed had a short supply of food, possibly moving away,” Dr Guerra says.

“This would have indirectly affected the prey of sperm whales (deep-water fish and squid), becoming scarce and making it harder for the whales to find food.”

Scientists were particularly surprised by how clear the changes were, especially in terms of where the sperm whales were feeding.

“The head of the Kaikōura canyon, where we used to frequently find sperm whales foraging, was quiet as a desert,” Dr Guerra says.

Although earthquakes happen relatively frequently in areas where marine mammals live, this study was the first to document the impact on a population, thanks to a long-term monitoring programme which has been in place since 1990.

Globally, there have been punctual observations, such as a fin whale displaying an ‘escape response’ after an earthquake on the Gulf of California, or particularly low sightings of humpback whales coinciding with the months following an earthquake off Alaska, Dr Guerra says.

“Deep-sea systems are so out of sight that we rarely consider the consequences of them being disturbed, whether by natural of human impacts.

“I think our results emphasise how far-reaching the impacts to the sea bed can be, affecting even animals at the top of the food chain such as sperm whales.”

The study found the whales’ behavioural changes lasted about a year after the 2016 earthquake and returned to normal levels in the summer of 2017-18.

Dr Guerra believes this study also highlights the importance of long-term monitoring of marine wildlife and ecosystems, without which scientists wouldn’t be able to detect changes that occur after marine mammals are exposed to disturbance.

A better pregnancy test for whales. New measurements will help biologists understand a changing ocean: here.