Wildlife

Reindeer Cyclones Are Real

Vikings hunting reindeer in Norway were once confounded by “reindeer cyclones”; a threatened herd would literally run circles around the fierce hunters, making it nearly impossible to target a single animal.

Faced with this spinning reindeer stampede, any predator — wolf, bear or human — would have a very tough time targeting and overpowering a single reindeer, making this a formidable defense strategy.

 

Wildlife

Huge muddy plume of water seeps into Great Barrier Reef

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Images show Australia’s Great Barrier Reef being hit by an “extremely large” patch of muddy flood water that experts say could harm the world wonder. The polluted floodwater is flowing out as far as 60 kilometres from the Queensland coast following weeks of heavy rain.

It’s thought that around 600km of the reef’s outer edges have been affected by the dirty water. Scientists say that the water is likely to contain nitrogen and pesticide chemicals that could potentially kill coral and seagrass should it stay around for some time.

Smart Swimmers

A lowly reef-dwelling fish known as the cleaner wrasse has been elevated into an exclusive club in the animal kingdom whose members have the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror.

Other than humans, only great apes, killer whales, Eurasian magpies and bottlenose dolphins had demonstrated that ability. The trait is viewed as an indication of self-awareness.

The cleaner wrasse had previously been observed living complex social lives where it formed allegiances and even demonstrated the capacity for deception. “These fish are fascinating in their breadth of cognitive abilities – and underappreciated,” said Alex Jordan, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute and the study’s lead researcher.

Wildlife

Worldwide Catastrophic Decline Of Insect Species

Nearly half of all insect species worldwide are in rapid decline and a third could disappear altogether, according to a study warning of dire consequences for crop pollination and natural food chains.

“Unless we change our way of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” concluded the peer-reviewed study, which is set for publication in April.

The recent decline in bugs that fly, crawl, burrow and skitter across still water is part of a gathering “mass extinction,” only the sixth in the last half-billion years. “We are witnessing the largest extinction event on Earth since the late Permian and Cretaceous periods,” the authors noted.

The Permian end-game 252 million years ago snuffed out more than 90% of the planet’s life forms, while the abrupt finale of the Cretaceous 66 million years ago saw the demise of land dinosaurs.

“We estimate the current proportion of insect species in decline – 41% – to be twice as high as that of vertebrates,” or animals with a backbone, Francisco Sanchez-Bayo of the University of Sydney and Kris Wyckhuys of the University of Queensland in Australia reported. “At present, a third of all insect species are threatened with extinction.” An additional one percent join their ranks every year, they estimated. Insect biomass – sheer collective weight – is declining annually by about 2.5% worldwide.

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Nature – Images

Interesting Images

Some finalists in the 2019 Sony World Photography Awards

Fluffy-looking bunch of penguins in a huddle.

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Pacific salmon during their annual migration in Taiwan.

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Eagles squabbling over prey in Canada.

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Wildlife

‘Grieving’ Dolphin

New Zealand officials advised boaters to steer clear of a grief-stricken bottlenose dolphin that had been spotted carrying around her deceased calf for days. It’s believed the calf was stillborn in the Bay of Islands.

“The mother is grieving and needs space and time to do this,” senior ranger of biodiversity Catherine Peters said in the statement. The sighting was reminiscent of a mother orca whale off the coast of British Columbia last July who carried her dead newborn calf for more than two weeks.

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Wildlife

Humans Are Eating Most of Earth’s Largest Animals to Extinction

It’s hard to argue that the world is not made more interesting by singing whales the size of school buses, dinosaur-footed bird monsters that can leap clean over your head or slimy, cannibal salamanders that grow as large as crocodiles.

Giant animals like these are known as megafauna. Beyond being awesome in every sense of the word, these mammoth species are crucial to keeping their respective ecosystems balanced — and, according to a new study, about 60 percent of them are hopelessly doomed.

In new research published today (Feb. 6) in the journal Conservation Letters, scientists surveyed the populations of nearly 300 species of megafauna around the world, and saw some troubling trends emerge. According to the authors, at least 200 species (70 percent) of the world’s largest animals are seeing their populations dwindle, and more than 150 face the risk of outright extinction.

The primary threat in most of these cases appears to be human meat consumption.

“Megafauna” is a broad biological term that can apply to any number of large animals, equally apt for describing a chunky Australian codfish as a long-dead T. rex. To narrow down things in their new study, Ripple and his colleagues defined megafauna as any non-extinct vertebrate above a certain weight threshold. For mammals, ray-finned and cartilaginous fish (like sharks and whales), any species weighing more than 220 lbs. (100 kilograms) was considered megafauna. For amphibians, birds and reptiles, species weighing more than 88 lbs. (40 kg) made the cut.

This left the researchers with a list of 292 supersize animals. The list includes a cast of familiar faces like elephants, rhinos, giant tortoises and whales, as well as some surprise guests like the Chinese giant salamander — a critically endangered, alligator-size amphibian that can weight up to 150 lbs. (65.5 kg).

As humans got better at killing from a distance over the past several hundred years, megafauna have started dying at an increasingly quick rate, the authors wrote. Since the 1760s, nine megafauna species have gone extinct in the wild, all thanks to human over-hunting and habitat encroachment.

Today, most of the threatened megafauna species face a lethal cocktail of human-induced dangers, including pollution, climate change and land development. However, the researchers wrote, the single biggest threat remains harvesting — that is, being hunted and killed for their meat or body parts.

“Meat consumption was the most common motive for harvesting megafauna for all classes except reptiles, where harvesting eggs was ranked on top,” the researchers wrote in their study. “Other leading reasons for harvesting megafauna included medicinal use, unintended bycatch in fisheries and trapping, live trade and various other uses of body parts such as skins and fins.”

According to the researchers, establishing legal barriers to limit the trade and collection of megafauna products is an essential step toward slowing this mass-extinction-in-progress.

Wildlife

Shark-eating killer whales move into Cape Town

Scuba divers diving along a popular site inside Table Mountain National Park discovered a broadnose sevengill shark graveyard within a protected area known to be home to an exceptionally large group of the sharks.

At any given time, divers in this area typically come across roughly 70 sharks in an hour-long dive, this is the only noted place in the world that is as populated by such a large concentrated number of sevengill sharks.

The cause of the mass deaths remained a mystery at first due to the inability to recover shark bodies for examination, and suspicions fell on great white sharks, humans and killer whales, or orcas.

Months later scientists managed to examine shark carcasses and determined that the culprit was indeed orcas.

After reviewing information on orca behavior, dietary specialisation and population delineation both globally and locally, it was decided these attacks might be due to the arrival of a different sub-group of killer whales that feed specifically on sharks.

At the same time as the dead sharks were first discovered, a local whale-watching charter documented the arrival of two new killer whales in the bay in January 2015. These individuals were easily identifiable by their characteristic bent dorsal fins, and were nicknamed “Port” and “Starboard”. They were sighted near the sevengill aggregation site at the time of both incidents of mass shark deaths in 2015 and 2016.

It is suspected that these same two orcas were also responsible for the deaths of five great white sharks further up the coast in Gansbaai in 2017.

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Wildlife

Massive Fish Die Off

Australia’s record heat and severe drought this Southern Hemisphere summer have led to the deaths of more than a million fish in some drought-stricken areas.

Residents along New South Wales’ Darling River report seeing a “sea of white” as dead fish blanketed the waterway near the Outback town of Menindee. Low water levels, toxic algae and oxygen depletion are said to be the main causes of the die-offs.

Australia’s back-to-back heat waves in recent weeks have pushed the endurance of humans and animals, as well as the country’s power grid, to the limit. Many Australians, used to broiling summers, say the season seems to be growing hotter.

Britain’s Hares Dying

Britain’s wild brown hares are being made ill and killed by a pathogen found to be the deadly rabbit hemorrhagic disease type 2.

Numbers of the beloved animals, which have a special place in British folklore, have plummeted by about 80 percent in recent decades, manly due to a shift to intensive agriculture that has destroyed their habitats and food supplies.

Members of the public who come across dead hares are asked to contact biological scientist Diana Bell of the University of East Anglia so the bodies can be tested for disease. She says the hemorrhagic disease is only one of two pathogens being found in dead hares.

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Vanishing Stars

The once abundant sunflower starfish that lives along the Pacific coast of North America is disappearing at an alarming rate due to a combination of warming waters and infectious diseases.

A new US study found that the population of the species declined by 80 to 100 percent in the waters from Alaska southward to California during the three years beginning in 2013.

Researcher Joseph Gaydos, of the University of California, Davis, says the ravenous manhole-cover-sized starfish are important to the seabed ecology because they keep the sea urchin population under control.

Wildlife

Sonar Can Literally Scare Whales to Death, Study Finds

Naval sonar has been linked to mass strandings of otherwise-healthy whales for nearly two decades, but the precise mechanisms of how it affects whales has eluded scientists. Now, researchers have explained key details of how this disruptive signal triggers behavior in some whales that ends in death.

Previously, necropsies of beaked whales from multiple stranding incidents found nitrogen bubbles in their body tissues, a hallmark of decompression sickness, or “the bends.” This dangerous condition also affects scuba divers when they rise too rapidly from deep water; it can cause pain, paralysis and even death.

Whales are adapted for deep-sea diving, and beaked whales are the record-holders for the longest and deepest dives. But the new research explains how sonar in certain frequencies disorients and terrifies some beaked whales so much that the experience overrides an important adaptation for deep diving: a slower heartbeat. Extreme fear accelerates a whale’s heart rate, which can lead to decompression sickness; the intense pain of this condition incapacitates the whales, so they strand on beaches and eventually die.

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Wildlife

Spider ‘Rain’

Residents in a rural area of Brazil’s Minas Gerais state reported being alarmed after seeing spiders “raining” from the sky, which experts say was due to the region’s hot and humid weather.

While it did appear as if the arachnids were falling from above, experts said they were actually hanging in a giant web to catch prey.

Parawixia bistriata is a rare “social” spider that nests in a giant ball during the day in vegetation. It emerges at night to catch small insects and even birds in its nearly invisible but massive webs.

Wildlife

Poland plans to kill thousands of boars

Poland’s battle to control highly contagious African swine fever (ASF) is turning into a political problem for the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Since Saturday, hunters have been out in force across the country gunning for wild boars — many of which are carriers of the deadly disease that the Polish government wants to stamp out to protect domestic pigs.

It’s the scale of the cull that’s causing the trouble. A total of some 20,000 wild boars will be killed over the next few weekends — bringing this season’s overall cull to about 190,000 — the government estimates the total wild population is about 214,000.

The plan has galvanized a coalition of environmental groups, scientists and the political opposition. Polish Facebook pages are filled with cute pictures of boar piglets while the next few days will see protests in several Polish cities.

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Wildlife

Massive Migrations

About 2 billion birds cross the Gulf of Mexico during the spring migration season, according to a new study that combined data from 11 weather radar stations and observations from citizen scientists.

Researcher Kyle Horton of Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology said that before he and his colleagues looked at the data from 1995 to 2015, “we could only guess at the overall numbers from surveys done along small portions of the shoreline.”

Horton says that while climate change has caused the earliest seasonal migrations to begin 1.5 days earlier per decade, the peak has remained at the same period between April 19 and May 7.

Wildlife

Thousands of Female Penguins Are Being Stranded in South America

Female Magellanic penguins — a mid-size species of black-and-white bird native to South America’s Patagonia region are vanishing from their nests. When not breeding in the latter part of the year, both male and female members of the species migrate north toward Uruguay and Brazil to hunt for the tasty anchovies that call those waters home. Over the last decade, however, scientists have observed an upsetting trend: some penguins are swimming too far north — sometimes hundreds of miles away from their breeding grounds — and getting stuck there.

According to a new study published today in the journal Current Biology, every year, thousands of Magellanic penguins fail to return home from their migrations. Some become stranded on the shores of Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. Others wash up already dead, their stomachs empty or polluted with plastic waste. Strangely, about two-thirds of the stranded birds are female.

During their spring and summer migrations, male penguins tended to dive deeper and stay closer to their Patagonian breeding grounds; female penguins swam closer to the water’s surface, but migrated significantly farther north than their male counterparts.

There, in the waters near Uruguay and southern Brazil, the penguins approached known penguin-stranding hotspots. According to the researchers, these stranding sites — such as the riverfront near the city of Buenos Aires, in northern Argentina — likely trap the penguins through a mixture of strong currents that prevent smaller-bodied birds from swimming home.

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Wildlife

Aerial Assault

An invasive Asian hornet that has decimated bee populations and killed some humans across the Iberian Peninsula will now be attacked by a fleet of armed drones. Experts are teaching local firefighters how to fill drones with insecticide, then fire the payload into hornets’ nests.

The pest is native to China and has spread southward into Spain at about 20 miles per year since arriving in France two decades ago. Its territory is also expanding elsewhere across Europe.

Stings from the aggressive hornets have killed two people so far in Spain, and the numbers of honeybees and butterflies have plummeted there since 2010.

Victims of Extreme Weather

Increased episodes of severe weather are causing populations of some species around the world to fall, and have even brought on local extinctions, scientists warn.

“The growing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as cyclones, droughts and floods is causing unpredictable and immediate changes to ecosystems,” researcher Sean Maxwell of the University of Queensland said.

Writing in the journal Diversity and Distributions, Maxwell and colleagues say that birds, fish, plants and reptiles are under the greatest threat from stronger and more frequent cyclones. Mammals and amphibians are said to be among the most threatened by drought.

But the scientists point out that all kinds of plants and animals can be affected by the weather extremes.