Category Archives: biology

Insomniac Cavefish Might Hold Clues to Sleep Disorders in Humans

Mexican Blind Cavefish

Mexican blind cavefish

Sightlessness is a common adaptation of cave-dwelling animals. Sometimes, as in the case of the Olm eyeless cave salamander or “human fish,” they no longer even have eyes. Now scientists have learned that at least in a certain kind of cavefish, the Mexican blind cavefish, sleep, too, is a waste of resources.

Well, that’s not quite the right way to put it. It’s not so much that the fish don’t need sleep, it’s that they need to stay awake more, said the researchers in a press release.

“These fish live in an environment where food is generally scarce,” said Richard Borowsky of New York University. “If you are asleep when a bit of food floats by, you are out of a meal and out of luck.”

Borowsky and lead author of the study Erik Duboué first observed hints of the insomniac tendency of cavefish in the laboratory. Fish that typically hang out in brighter surface waters showed obvious sleep patterns. At night, they would get droopy fins and sink to the bottom of their tank. Captive cavefish on the other hand kept patrolling around the clock.

Cross breeding cavefish with other fish has shown that the wakefulness is genetic. Besides the gee whiz factor of the find, scientists think that this cave critter could hold clues to understanding sleep disorder in humans. That’s because the same gene that keeps the fish partying all night long, is likely also the gene that regulates similar behavior in other animals.

Scientific Journal:

Current Biology, April 7 issue

Authors and Affiliations:

Richard Borowsky of New York University

Erik Duboué of New York University

Contact:

Elisabeth Lyons, elyons@cell.com, 617-386-2121


Wildlife Candid Camera at Smithsonian

 

Smithsonian Wild

Want to spy on wild animals?

 

Check out this new website launched by Smithsonian that brings together more than 200,000 camera-trap images from seven of their research projects. The online library reveals the otherwise secret lives of rarely seen species, such as the clouded leopard, Amazon red squirrel and the Chinese Takin. Bet you never heard of that one, huh? Well, now you can see a picture of it and while away the minutes as fast as you can say Tremminck’s tragopan. Yes, that’s a real animal, though it looks about as funny as it sounds. Smithsonian Wild


CAT in WATER Kickstarter Launch!

Support the Kickstarter project to document them in the wild  here.

The fishing cat is up and running! We have 90 days to raise the first round of funds for the CAT in WATER expedition. Check out our Kickstarter project and watch the short video. You can also learn about all the paybacks in store for our supporters. Who wouldn’t want a care package from Thailand and the knowledge they are helping a gorgeous, wild animal in need?



Climate change leaves wolverines on slippery slope

istockphoto.com

Wolverines, those vociferous, marathon-climbing, fearless relatives of the sea otter may soon face a foe that no amount of bravery can outlast — climate change.

Climate model results from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, show wolverine habitat in the Lower 48 warming significantly from climate change during the second half of the century. The pending warmer climes threaten snow cover that is vital to the wolverine’s survival.

“It’s highly uncertain whether wolverines will continue to survive in the lower 48, given the changes that are likely to take place there,” said NCAR scientist Synte Peacock in a press release, and the lead author of a paper, which appears in Environmental Research Letters.

Wolverine Den (Photo/Wikimedia Commons,Ernst Vikne)

Wolverine Den (Photo/Wikimedia Commons,Ernst Vikne)

Wolverines dig snow dens for their kits 8 to 10 feet deep, and are specially adapted to run and hunt across the snow. Snow pack also helps preserve carrion that the wolverines rely on for sustenance throughout the winter. While about 15,000 wolverines are estimated to live across Canada and Alaska, only a few dozen are thought to still live in Montana, Wyoming and Washington State, according to the press release.

If the plight of the wolverine is not the kind of thing that gets your hair on end, there’s still reason to care. The study also found that a side effect of the loss of snow melt means big impacts for people as well. The projected lack of snow could reduce the amount of water in Idaho, western Montana and western Wyoming by as much as three or four-fold by the end of the century. Get those water-saving shower heads now.

The study is not meant to bring only doom and gloom. Researcher say this kind of analysis could help us think preventative. “This study is an example of how targeted climate predictions can produce new insights that could help us reduce the impact of future climate change on delicate ecosystems,” said Sarah Ruth, program director for the NSF’s Directorate for Geosciences in a press release.

Wolverine (Photo/U.S. National Park Service)

Wolverine (Photo/U.S. National Park Service)

A critter of unique character — to really understand what makes the wolverine such a remarkable creature, check out Douglas Chadwick’s book, The Wolverine Way. Even if you’re not a wildlife lover, this is an adventurous read that will leave you in awe of what a creature will do to survive.

NCAR Study available here.


Water flea: small critter, big genome

Daphnia pulex (water flea) with a brood of genetically identical future offspring.

Daphnia pulex (water flea) with a brood of genetically identical future offspring. (Photo/Paul D.N. Hebert, University of Guelph)

In an interesting science factoid of the week, researchers at the University of Guelph have just found the animal with the most genes.

Ringing in at a whopping 31,000 genes, the winner is a near-microscopic crustacean called daphnia, or water flea. In case you’re wondering, humans tally a mere 23,000, about 8,000 less than this little aquatic critter.

Daphnia‘s high gene number is largely because its genes are multiplying, by creating copies at a higher rate than other species,” said project leader and CGB genomics director John Colbourne in a press release. “We estimate a rate that is three times greater than those of other invertebrates and 30 percent greater than that of humans.”

So let that be a lesson. Just because you’re little, doesn’t mean you can’t be big at something.


Bad Ladybug

Different types of Harlequin ladybug, a rapidly spreading invasive pest. ©Entomart

Different types of Harlequin ladybug, a rapidly spreading invasive pest. ©Entomart

Ladybugs, once the championed protectors of backyard gardens, are showing spots of a less flattering color, and their public image looks like it could be taking an even bigger turn for the worse. A new study has found that invasive Harlequin ladybugs crossbreeding with a species of flightless ladybugs are creating a super strain of a buggy pest.

In recent years, ladybugs have taken their voracious appetites around the world, and they don’t just gobble up target insects. Couple this with plagues of ladybugs infesting homes, and you’ve got an unseemly problem on your hands.

To fight their spread, flightless ladybugs were released as a biological control agent. The idea being that the walk-only ladybugs wouldn’t spread as far as quick. Harlequin’s aren’t to be put off it would seem. The two types of ladybugs can hybridize, giving rise to offspring that are larger, faster-growing, and generally more robust than either of its parent species. Preliminary research suggests that the cross-bred young are even better-equipped to deal with starvation.

The findings by BenoÎt Facon of UMR Centre de Biologie et de Gestion des Populations in Cedex, France, and his colleagues are just a beginning. Researchers want to test multiple generations of hybrid and subject them to different conditions to unravel the magnitude of the Harlequin ladybug dilemma.

You can read more about their discoveries in the current issue of Evolutionary Applications.


Cane toads heart climate change

Cane Toad, AKA Bufo marinus, AKA troublemaker extraordinaire (Photo/ Eli Greenbaum)

Cane toads like it hot, and with climate change poised to raise temps in Australia, this persistent, invasive species could soon be living it up even more.

At least that’s the word coming out of new research from the University of Sydney and presented at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual conference in Prague.

A lot of what we hear about climate change focuses on habitat loss (cue rising sea levels) or species extinction (sorry red wolf and coral reefs), but here’s another way the pesky, poisonous cane toad can flip the amphibian bird to mankind – warmer climes mean prolific times as far as the toad is concerned.

“The negative effect of high temperature does not operate in cane toads, meaning that toads will do very well with human induced global warming,” said Professor Frank Seebacher from the University of Sydney in a press release.

Many of you reading this are probably familiar with the story of the cane toad, but here’s the quick shake down. In the mid 1930s, Australian biologists, hoping to stem the onslaught of beetles ravaging cane fields, introduced cane toads to Queensland and the Northern Territory. Unfortunately, toads passed on the beetles, instead turning their appetites towards lizards, snakes and other native wildlife. To compound factors, the toads secrete a toxic substance that can do a serious number on just about anything that tries to eat it. So the cane fields now have beetles and bucket loads of poisonous toads. Sigh.

And because of research by Seebacher, we now have a good idea that toads are going to thrive even more as temperatures rise from climate change. Warmer weather makes for stronger, or at least more efficient, heart and lungs in the cane toad, Seebacher found. And if that’s not unsettling enough, the study also states “the cane toad can adapt its physiology in response to a changing environment repeatedly and completely reversibly many times during its lifetime.”

Will nothing temper their proliferation?

Before you totally throw up your hands and say, “Why do I read this if all you’re going to tell me is bad news,” here’s a ray, or sliver, of hope. Maybe, just maybe, this phenomenon will prove true for other toads, ones we actually would like to see stick around. I’ll get back to you when Seebacher conducts that study.


Changing Chesapeake Bay acidity endangers oysters

New research shows that the shell growth of Crassostrea virginica from Chesapeake Bay could be compromised by current levels of acidity in some Bay waters. (Photo/Chris Kelly, UMCES Horn Point Laboratory)

Growing up at the mouth of the Lynnhaven River in Virginia, where the river meets the Chesapeake Bay and the bay meets the ocean, I can’t tell you how many mornings I woke up and looked out my window to see neighbors wading in rubber boots, harvesting oysters from the beds just off our riverbank. For some, like my neighbors, oysters were a way to connect with the land and make a little extra dough. For others it was their livelihood. The act was something that just was. It never occurred to me that the oysters could one day be gone.

That’s why I was especially alarmed to read this new report from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences. Rising acidity levels in the Chesapeake Bay are making it harder for oysters to grow their shells. I’ve heard the news before that rising ocean acidity from sources such as carbon dioxide can spell disaster for marine wildlife, but this new study shows that acidity is rising faster in the Chesapeake Bay than in the ocean and having a measurable impact on Bay wildlife.

“With oyster populations already at historically low levels, increasingly acidic waters are yet another stressor limiting the recovery of the Bay’s oyster populations,” said marine biologist Dr. Roger Newell of the UMCES Horn Point Laboratory in a press release.

But don’t turn around to blame climate change just yet. The story is a bit more nuanced than that, though the source of the problem still has to do with us. In the saltier areas of the bay, the acidity is going up, leading to thin shell growth that makes oysters more vulnerable to predators, including crabs. But in more freshwater portions of the Bay, acidity is actually going down, said the study, which looked at more than 20 years of historical water quality data from the Bay.

The difference seems to be not atmospheric carbon dioxide, but the base of the food chain. In freshwater areas along the upper Chesapeake, sewage and agricultural runoff cause phytoplankton blooms, which consume carbon dioxide and lower acidity, said the study. Sounds good at this point right? Here’s the catch. As phytoplankton drift through the Bay, they are eaten by animals and other bacteria, releasing the carbon dioxide that the plankton so diligently consumed in the first place. This carbon dioxide lingers in the water, leading to spikes in acidity in the saltier regions of the Bay near the ocean.

“While these variations in acidity may improve conditions for shellfish in some areas, they may also magnify detrimental impacts in others,” said lead author Dr. George Waldbusser of Oregon State University in a press release. “What our study indicates is there may be an important shifting baseline and without better measurements we will fail to fully understand impacts on estuarine biota.”

Beyond the science itself, this study highlights how connected and varied our environment is. It lays out a pathway of human-induced consequences to an ecosystem, and teaches that we need to look beyond one-to-one cause and effect. Erin Voigt, an undergraduate student who worked on the study puts it well. “The complex response of oyster shell formation to temperature, salinity, and acidity highlights the need to understand how the entire ecosystem is changing, not just acidity,” she said.

And that ecosystem includes us.

You can view the article online in the journal Estuaries and Coasts.


Red squirrels are people too. They adopt

Red squirrel taking an adopted baby from nest. (Photo/Ryan W. Taylor)

In another life, I must’ve been a dog. Whenever I’m out walking and see a squirrel, I have an almost uncontrollable urge to see how close I can get to it before the scrappy rodent scrabbles up a tree. Inevitably, a staring contest ensues, which the squirrel usually ends up winning.

My suppressed animal urges aside, I do notice something kind of educational about squirrels. They tend to be alone. When they’re not, they are usually chasing each other like crazed maniacs in a not too friendly manner without regard to life or other happenings.

That’s why it might come as a surprise that they practice a typically human behavior – they adopt. And they adopt outside their social group. A new study by researchers at the University of Alberta determined that red squirrels will take in abandoned or otherwise parent-less young and raise them as their own, a seemingly altruistic act. The behavior turns out not to be as charitable as it sounds – the squirrels do get a survival perk. But the discovery is nonetheless an unusual one in the animal kingdom, with its own squirrely flare to boot.

Jamieson Gorrell, a Ph.D. student in evolutionary biology at the University of Alberta and lead of the study, was observing a population of Yukon red squirrels and noticed a lone female had taken a baby from an abandoned nest to raise as her own. When Gorrell sifted through 20 years of red squirrel research from the area, he found four other instances of the same behavior. Not only that, but in each account, the baby adopted was a relative.

Gorrell found that despite their antisocial tendencies, red squirrels are still able to recognize, and decide to care for, relatives. Right now the predominant notion is that the chitter-chatter squirrels screech out to mark territory or ward off others contains vocal clues about relativity. So an encroaching squirrel could hear the calls of another adult, and recognize kinship. If that other mother disappears, the encroaching squirrel may recognize the kinship of the abandoned nest and take action.

In addition to the novelty factor of the behavior, the study authors also state that this finding proves a long-standing evolutionary theory true. It is a concept known as Hamilton’s Rule, which suggests that despite “the law of the jungle and survival of the fittest,” animals can be altruistic.

Though for red squirrels, it’s a tempered altruism. The red squirrel is still helping out a member of its bloodline, and will only help one baby out of a litter. Adopting more than one is “out of the question,” according to the study, as the strain of adding more than one baby to a single mother’s already full house would outweigh any benefits.

You can read more about the study in the online journal Nature Communications, or visit this link http://www.redsquirrel.ca/KRSP/Media.html to get more info, cute pics, and free copy of the study.


Could a proposed EU ban on discarding bycatch threaten seabirds?

Northern gannet picture taken at bird colony of Helgoland, North sea, German Bight, May 2002. (Photo/ Michael Haferkamp)

You know the scene. A commercial fisherman hoists a net roiling with flip-flopping fish. Clouds of seabirds swarm and fill the air with a greedy squawking, their beaks hungry for unwanted catch.

That raucous chorus may get a little quieter soon as birds are forced to seek their feast elsewhere. In a move aimed at curbing the devastating environmental consequences tied to commercial fishing, the European Union looks to consider new restrictions that would ban the discard of unwanted fish. The rule could be a win for fisheries conservation, but in a twist of good intentions, could also risks endangering the gannet, a seabird that thrives on bycatch tossed overboard.

Fisheries have dealt more than one blow to seabird populations as birds compete for resources or risk becoming ensnared in equipment. One of the few successful species, the gannet, has adapted to exploit the leftovers of commercial fisheries, swooping in on fish and other creatures thrown aside and left behind.

Dr. Keith Hamer, a researcher with Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences is leading a team of researchers that will study the gannet and assess the possible consequences of imparting a ban on discarding unwanted catch. “Although discards should be stopped to protect marine biodiversity, research is needed on the impact of a ban, so policy makers can understand the best way to implement it,” said Hamer in a press release.

The study will especially look to better understand how gannets rely on bycatch for raising chicks. Past research indicates that breeding pairs may prefer different menus with some birds relying mostly on discards from fishing boats and others seeking out sand eels or diving for mackerel and herring. “We think gannets have different aptitudes and specialities and for some, that skill might be finding and following fishing boats,” said Hamer.

So if gannets feel like they’re being watched, they’re not so far off. Researchers plan to catch and tag breeding pairs from 12 colonies throughout the United Kingdom. Hamer along with scientists Stephen Votier of the Marine Biology & Ecology Research Centre at the University of Plymouth, and Stuart Bearhop, with the University of Exeter, will keep tabs on the birds’ locations, diving patterns, diet and nests.

“Although the long-term benefits of a ban will be positive, we need to accurately predict short-term impacts as well,” said Hamer. “If gannets have specialised to the extent we believe, rather than cut off a crucial food source overnight, a gradual phasing in of the ban would allow them time to retrain to find food elsewhere.”

Hopefully this thinking ahead will help prevent a new conservation crisis from cropping up even as the EU takes steps to solve another.


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