New Bird Species on the Rise.
A Yale University research team is putting together a detailed family tree of bird species. There are about 10,000 different species of birds worldwide, and by connecting their DNA, scientists will learn more about their evolution. However, right now, the biggest surprise is that far from becoming less various, over the past 50 million years, birds seem to have increased their rate of speciation. And, although it would appear that birds from the tropics have accumulated more species quickly, even birds from higher latitudes are becoming more diverse. Still unknown is why Eastern Hemisphere birds show less diversity than those of the Western Hemisphere, and why island birds have greater rates of diversification than mainland birds.
Good News For Tarantula Fans.
Several new and very colorful tarantula species have been identified, many in Brazil. Some are tree climbers. Very few of the many species of tarantulas in the world are harmful to people, although they have a high creepiness factor, which appears to be universal. However, like many animals, many species of tarantula are endangered.
Diminutive Three-fingered Frogs New Species Discovered.
In the highest hilltops in Brazil, a new species of frog has been discovered. Rather than the usual four fingers, this one has evolved with only three. It took biologist Michel Garey 18 months to collect seven specimens of the tiny new frog and publish his findings. Brachycephalus tridactylus is mostly orange but also sports olive-colored spots and markings on its body. About one-third of the world’s many amphibian species are threatened with extinction. Approximately 120 species have become extinct since 1980.
Koshik the Talking Elephant.
At the age of 14, not having had much contact with other elephants, Koshik, an Asian elephant in a South Korean zoo, began to imitate the commands of his trainers. He has only a six-word vocabulary, but his ability to imitate a human voice is all the more extraordinary when his method for doing so is considered. Unlike a parrot, which is naturally endowed with a versatile vocal chord structure, Koshik has to manipulate his trunk by tucking it into his cheek to approximate a human voice.
Alcohol Abuse in Young Blackbirds.
When a dozen young dead blackbirds were discovered in northwestern England, anxiety revolved around the possibility of west Nile virus or some type of bird flu. However, further investigation showed that the young birds had eaten berries that had become fermented. The resulting alcohol intoxication resulted in death, possibly from flying accidents due to disorientation. How the berries became fermented is still questionable, but scientists know that similar instances of accidental bird alcohol intoxication have been documented.
Nine Million Years Ago, Top Dog Was Part Bear.
In the days of fearsome sabre-toothed cats, wild boar and horses, Europe’s top predator was a dog-like bear. Magericyon anceps belonged to a now extinct family that resembled both a dog and a bear. The large creature was powerful with jaws strong enough to crush bones and competed with the sabre-tooths for large prey such as antelopes. The intermingled remains of both these predators and their prey come in the form of fossils which are being studied today. As one scientist put it, “Even though none of the species in this 9-million-year-old ecosystem are still alive today, we found evidence for similar ecological interactions as in modern ecosystems.”
City Birds Develop New Escape Strategies.
Compared to their urban brethren, city birds of the same species seem to develop different strategies for coping with different predators. In the country, birds are most vulnerable to sparrowhawks, but in the city, stray cats are the most common enemy. As a consequence of their different environments, city birds give more alarm shrieks than their country counterparts, but fight less vigorously and part with more feathers — all an apparent adaptation to a different survival threat.
Giant Daddy Long Legs “Spider” Discovered.
In caves in Laos there lives the grandaddy of what is popularly known as the daddy long legs spider. With a leg span of around 12 inches, the Laos specimen is just slightly smaller than its South American cousin. Scientists say that the daddy long legs or harvestman, as it is also called, is an arachnid, but only a cousin to true spiders, which unlike the harvestman have segmented bodies. This Laotian specimen has not been completely categorized yet. Apparently, Laotian caves are the place to be if you enjoy creepy-crawlies: they also host foot-long centipedes and 10 inch scorpions.
New Dinosaur Species Is Oldest Horned Dinosaur in North America.
Eighty million years ago, much of Canada was frost-free. It was also home to what is now thought to be the ancestor of the familiar triceratops dinosaur. The new member is called Xenoceratops foremostensis, which means “alien horned-face” from the town in Canada where it was discovered, Foremost. It was an average-sized plant eater, weighing in at around two tons. Biologist Michael Ryan recently dug up the fossils in Canada and decided to search the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa to look for similar finds. Sure enough, similar fossils were collected and stored in 1958. Now, there is enough information to assign Xenoceratops foremostensis, to its rightful place as the oldest horned dinosaur in North America.
Another Reason Not to Smoke.
As if there weren’t enough already. Scientists studying the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus have discovered that it transformation from a harmless respiratory denizen to a dangerous and sometimes fatal respiratory infection depends on cigarette smoke. Ritwij Kulkarni of Columbia University has shown that smokers who have S. aureus in their respiratory tracts can soon be dealing with an extremely dangerous disease. Apparently chemicals in cigarette smoke activate the formation of bio-films, which alter the characteristics of this bacteria.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.