Surfer Pushed into the Path of a Shark

Many people from shark enthusiasts to researchers would love to swim with sharks in their natural environment. We all know the possible dangers of certain species of shark that are exaggerated by films such as ‘Jaws’ and played up in many documentaries. Due to an increased exposure to wild animals via this medium, are some people becoming too relaxed around wild animals?

There is no doubt in many individuals’ minds of the worth of well written and executed documentaries, but what about sensationalist pieces which concentrate on Hollywood stereotypes and do not mention the ‘whole deal’ when it comes to different species? Are we losing a sense of how dangerous wild animals can be with the apparent ‘safeness’ of certain species?

A video has been posted recently of a surfer that is pushed into the path of a shark in the Irish Sea and reported by the media as ‘not as dangerous as it may look’ due the shark in question, being a basking shark. This may be a case of bad journalism, but it highlights a worrying underlying thought of a ‘safe’ wild animal.

Basking sharks are filter feeders, concentrating on plankton found in the sea. Even if they did develop a taste for larger prey, they would not be able to swallow it as their throat only measures 4 inches in diameter. For a shark that can measure up to 10 meters, that is a surprisingly small throat!

However, this does not mean they are ‘safe’ to play around with because they are not ‘as bite-y’ as other sharks. Basking sharks typically measure around 6 – 8 meters, all of which is mostly muscle. If that surfer had been hit by the shark’s tail, it would have resulted in a morbidly different story and no doubt, cries of ‘Jaws’ off the Irish coast.

Despite the basking sharks tag as a ‘safe shark’, it is a very large and powerful wild animal. It is a shame that some bad journalism is promoting the apparent safeness of some species, probably making the decision to push your friend into the path of a basking shark easier than if it was a great white!

Videos like this are making the protection of this vulnerable species and other species harder as disturbances to their behaviour by unregulated boats or flying surfers, will have severe consequences for their population.  Although social media is a great way to promote conservation, unfortunately, some irresponsible individuals are using it to get more hits, retweets and a popular hashtag.

 

Haley Dolton

 

 

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It’s World Penguin Day!

I’m sure you’ve all got this marked down in your calendar, but it is world penguin day! So to celebrate, here are 10 facts about these beautiful birds:

1)            Some species of penguin can live up to 15 – 20 years old

2)            They spend 75% of their lives at sea

3)            Penguin biodiversity ranges from 17 – 20 species

4)            The tallest penguin, the emperor penguin, can reach the dizzy height of 3 feet 7 inches

5)            Penguins can dive further than any other bird species, the emperor penguin can dive 1,870ft for up to 22 minutes at a time

6)            A group of penguins is called a rookery

7)            They can swim at speeds of up to 25mph

8)            Penguins can survive more than 3 months without food or water

9)            The only penguin to cross the northern hemisphere is the Galapagos penguin

10)         The eyesight of penguins is far better underwater than on land

So now you’re armed with 10 fun facts about penguins, go and spread the word about world penguin day! Sadly, most of these penguins need your help to conserve them for future generations!

Haley Dolton

Slow Acting Pesticide To Blame For Bee Population Declines

During the past few years, you may have become aware of a decline in bee populations throughout North America and Europe. The sudden disappearance of adult bees from a nest has been termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and presently has the power to seriously disrupt the environment and economy of North America and Europe.

Bees play a vital role in all environments requiring pollinators such as crops and wild flowers. Not only do they enrich the natural environment, they also provide huge economic benefits from produce such as honey, fruits and vegetables for human consumption. They certainly are busy bees, in the U.S. alone, they are estimated to provide $8-12 billion to the economy!

Professor Chensheng (Alex) Lu and his team of Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) have shown that CCD is not caused by instantaneous death of bees by predators or disease as previously thought, but by the commonly used pesticide, imidacloprid.

Imidacloprid acts slowly on a bee’s central nervous system, often leaving adults unable to return to their nest. Researchers from HSPH exposed 16 hives to differing concentrations of imidacloprid and left 4 untreated. After 12 weeks, all bees were alive, but those exposed to higher levels of imidacloprid were weaker. By 23 weeks 15 out of 16 hives exposed to imidacloprid, entered CCD presenting almost empty nests!

CCD has been affecting bee populations since high – fructose corn syrup has been used to feed bees. In 2004 – 2005 producers of corn in the U.S. started to use imidacloprid to treat crops, a year later outbreaks of CCD occurred.

This research, along with others published last week, provides a vital step towards protecting highly important bee species, for both the environment and economy.

Haley Dolton

 

Burmese Pythons Devastate Mammal Populations In The Everglades


According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the invasive species, the Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus), is the cause of a devastating decline in mammals found in the Everglades, Florida.

Currently, there are no valid estimates for the population density of the Burmese python, but the number caught each year is on the increase. They are thought to have originated in the Everglades due to pet owners being unable to cope with such a large snake at home and consequently, releasing them into the wild.

Data collected in the 1990’s of road kill and live and dead animals seen on surveys, were compared with data collected (using a similar method) between 2003 – 2011. On average the snakes measured approximately 12 feet long! Due to their large size, they are capable of preying upon some of the Everglade’s endangered species such as, the Key Largo woodrat (Neotoma floridana smalli), listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List and the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), listed as Vulnerable.

Results from this research indicate that the Burmese python is the cause of a dramatic drop in the populations of native mammals found in the Everglades. Bobcat (Lynx rufus) sightings were down by 87.5%, white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) by 94.1%, Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana) by 98.9%, raccoons (Procyon lotor) by 98.9% and marsh rabbits were not recorded at all! Sightings of these, and other mammals were also more common in the areas where the Burmese python has not been present for very long.

It is also important to note that the introduction of a top predator that should not be there, may be affecting the whole food chain found within the Everglades. For example, the larger mammals such as the bobcat have probably been displaced to other habitats due their prey, marsh rabbits, disappearing, rather than the Burmese python developing a sudden taste for bobcats.

The U.S. federal government is obviously very keen to try and reverse the affects of unwanted pets released into the Everglades. Importation and sale of the Burmese python, the yellow anaconda (Eunectes notaeus) and two subspecies of the African python (Python sebae), are now banned.

Hopefully, this research has highlighted the significant effect an invasive species can have on a highly important ecosystem such as the Everglades and action can be taken to preserve it and prevent similar situations arising in the future.

By Haley Dolton


Bootylicious Beyonce Horsefly Discovered

Photo courtesy of Bryan Lessard

A species of previously undescribed horsefly, held in fly collection since 1981, has been named after the singer Beyonce (Scaptia (Plinthina) beyonceae)). Mr Bryan Lessard, a researcher at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, chose to name the fly after Beyonce due to it’s dazzling golden behind.

Some people may have experienced the painful bite of a female horsefly whilst on a countryside walk. However, it is unknown whether this species feeds on nectar, pollen or if it is a bloodsucker. This is because a specimen of this particular horsefly has not been found in the wild despite attempts made by Mr Lessard in 2010. Encouragingly, Mr Lessard did obtain anecdotal evidence from locals of northeast Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands who had been bitten from a ‘gold bum fly.’

These statements suggest the Beyonce horsefly may rely on blood as a primary food source, but until more specimens are found or the flies are observed in the wild, this is speculation.

The discovery of a new horsefly species is significant to humans (despite their tendency to give us a nasty nip) as they are fundamental pollinators of plants, ensuring the survival of necessary food chains and for the aesthetic pleasures of diverse and plentiful flora.

Mr Lessard’s choice of name will encourage others who may be fans of Beyonce, to take an interest in something they might normally ignore. This is surely a good thing for conservation and perhaps we will see additional new species named after celebrities in the future? Maybe a Rickey Gervais beetle being chased by hoard of angry Madonna birds after presenting itself cheekily, one too many times?

Haley Dolton

2011: a fantastic year for discovering new species!

Matilda’s horned viper. Photo by: Tim Davenport.

Despite some conservationists warning about the possible problems of unearthing new species to poachers in the media, their existence should celebrated by conservationists and animal lovers alike! Here is just a selection of some of the good news we have had from researchers this year:

  • Frogs the size of Tic Tacs belonging to the genus Paedophryne were discovered in Papa New Guinea
  • Three different species of pit vipers – two in Southeast Asia and the beautiful Matilda’s horned viper in Tanzania
  • A new species of bottlenose dolphin in Southeast Australia
  • The Italian sparrow was finally confirmed as a distinct species
  • A new species of titi monkey in Brazil
  • In Vietnam, researchers were shocked by the new peculiar species, the ferret – badger
  • Over 300 species of flora and fauna were described by the California Academy of Sciences and other scientific institutions in the Philippines
  • A colourful new species of mushroom in Borneo named after SpongeBob SquarePants

This is just a selection of the new species that researchers have discovered this year. With camera traps and DNA analysis becoming common practice whilst identifying new species, hopefully similar discoveries will continue throughout 2012!

Haley Dolton

THE SLOW WADDLE OF A PREGNANT DOLPHIN

We are all used to seeing acrobatic dolphins surfing and jumping effortlessly through the ocean. But until recently, we were unaware of the expectant mothers lagging behind their pod.

Dr. Shawn Noren and her team observed dolphins (located in Hawaii) for 10 days before giving birth and followed their progress for 2 years after calving. Dr. Noren observed that during their 12-month gestation period, dolphins develop a ‘bump’ akin to the ‘bumps’ seen in humans. However, for a marine mammal designed to be streamlined, the ‘bump’ could drastically affect an expectant mother’s lifestyle and lifespan!

Dr. Noren explained how the drag experienced by an expectant mother effects their speed:

“When a pregnant animal is swimming at 1.7 metres per second, it has the same drag force acting on it as a non-pregnant dolphin swimming at 3.4 metres per second.”

“So the pregnant dolphin can only go half the speed as the non-pregnant dolphin before it gets the same drag force.”

Dr. Noren also observed the arc of the tail whilst swimming reduces by 13% in a pregnant female. This is thought to be down to the location of the foetus in the abdomen creating surface tension in the mother’s skin, reducing its flexibility. 

These two factors slow pregnant females to a maximum speed of 13km/h (8mph), which is markedly slower than a non – pregnant female whom can reach speeds in excess of 22km/h (14mph). This puts them in danger of becoming ‘easy prey,’ as the top speed of their natural predators would be equal to, or higher than, the maximum speed of a pregnant dolphin.

Pregnant humans may feel ‘less streamlined’ as the weeks pass by, but at least they are not reliant on their shape to glide through the world’s oceans like these graceful mammals!

By Haley Dolton

A CROAK FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE

Preserved specimens at museums always draw a crowd due to the extraordinary rarity to see whole animals preserved in liquid. Not only are they are crowd pleasers; they allow museums to catalog species we know exist on this planet.  An exciting new discovery by graduate student Tina Cheng and her team will put museum specimens to another great use.

The main focus of this study was the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) and it’s spread across Mexico and Central America. Bd causes chytridiomycosis, a disease that is currently devastating amphibian populations with approximately 40% of total species affected by it. The disease changes both morphology and behavior and eventually leads to death.

Museum specimens are normally preserved in formaldehyde, which interacts with proteins found in DNA. This allows the fixation of body tissues to occur. Ms. Cheng and her team were able to use old specimens from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley, Calif, to establish where and when the deadly fungus Bd first appeared.

Swabs were taken from frog and salamander specimens (collected in the 1960s) that inhabited the mountains of southern Mexico, western Guatemala and the cloud forests of Monteverde, Costa Rica. Interestingly, the swabs showed the presence of Bd corresponding with the earliest reports of Bd related deaths of amphibians in the wild.

Ms. Cheng and her team were effectively able to take a ‘freeze frame’ of time to show the spread if the disease. It appears Bd spread in a southerly direction across Central America in the 1970s – 1980s.

Using museum specimens in molecular research is a massive step forward in research science, as it was previously believed formaldehyde would denature the proteins needed for testing in DNA. Encouragingly, this study shows tiny stretches of DNA can survive the preserving process, leaving the opportunity for additional research to be conducted using museum specimens. As scientists are currently in the process of establishing how Bd spreads, how to stop it and how to treat infected individuals, this new research method could not have come at a more important time.

KILLER WHALE CHANGES ITS COLOUR

Whilst watching Frozen Planet, has it crossed your mind why the killer whales in the Antarctic are slightly off colour? This slight yellow tinge is caused by nutrient rich diatoms and algae found in these chilly waters which attach to the mammals skin. John Durban of the NOAA has offered a new proposal as to why a certain type of killer whale will migrate thousands of miles in relation to this yellow tinge.

Since the killer whales travel at a constant speed during this migration, researchers believe that they are not traveling to find prey or to give birth. Type B killer whales (which feed mainly on seals) were tagged off the Antarctic Peninsula and it was revealed that they move towards sub – tropical waters continually. One tagged individual travelled over an incredible 5, 000 miles to Brazil, only to return just 42 days later to Antarctica! The speed and distance travelled is unprecedented in killer whales and it implies the individual departed from Brazil immediately, but why?

Killer whales return from this journey to warmer seas ‘cleaner’ than when they left. It is thought the warmer water helps killer whales to shed the algal growth and regenerate skin tissue. It is possible that the energy they would need to expend in the cold Antarctic waters can be utilised to repair any tissue damage created by diatoms or algae. Further evidence for this theory is shown by killer whales actually slowing down their speed in warmer waters. They do not travel slowly enough to indicate calving or extensive feeding, but it would give the killer whales extra time in warmer waters to shed and heal their skin.

As more research is conducted on these beautiful mammals, the more we are finding out about how clever they are. This may provide interesting comparisons when researching into the evolution of intelligence and how similar to the intellectual capability of humans they may be.

SPOTTING A JAGUAR NOW MADE EASIER

Thanks to a revised photograph identification technique, developed originally for tigers, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC) are able to better recognise individual jaguars in Bolivia than previously possible.

Coat patterns are as unique as our fingerprints, allowing researchers to accurately log data about individuals. The technique involves creating a digital map of an individual’s coat pattern by stitching a series of photographs together which have been taken by camera traps or even tourist photographs. The use of this method has spread throughout the animal kingdom to include species such as grey seals, cheetahs, whale sharks and now, jaguars.

The technique is also proving to be useful for persecuting those involved in the illegal fur trade. Animals can now be traced back to their natural habitat through the development of ‘maps’ created by digital imaging. This drives the direction of investigative enquiries by establishing the location of the population in the wild.

WSC researchers using the photograph identification technique have been able to recognise 19 individual jaguars from a total of 975 photographs taken by only one camera. The number of photos taken during this study is at record high due to digital cameras being used rather than the normal traps that use film. The practice of using spot patterns to identify individual jaguars has been made possible due to the high resolution offered by digital cameras.

The ability to accurately identify individuals at such a high resolution will allow researchers to gain an intimate insight into the lives of these secretive animals and how best to protect them against the dangers of poaching.