Kermit Needs a Hug.
A new U.S. Geographical Survey has revealed that the pace of amphibian disappearance in the United States is much faster than previously thought. Frogs, salamanders and other amphibians have been a constant presence for the past 350 million years. The present rate of amphibian disappearance from normal habitats is now approaching 3.7% each year and it is much faster for species facing actual extinction. The recent survey covers 48 different amphibian species located at 34 different locations throughout the country and is based upon nine years of observational data.
Bottlenose Dolphin Finds Military Relic.
With their unique ability to use underwater sonar, bottlenose dolphins have been drafted into the Navy. Their specialty is locating mines and other dangerous objects that cannot be found with traditional radar or sonar. In this case, however, when the enlisted dolphin signaled to his handler that it found something interesting, it was an understatement. The object on the ocean floor turned out to be one of the first selfpropelled torpedoes used by the American military. The 130-year-old relic is headed for a military museum all the dolphin got was a free lunch.
Odds Stacked Against the Asiatic Golden Cat.
The Asiatic Golden Cat is a shy, reclusive animal that lives in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. It is critically endangered because one of things that the species needs to survive an undisturbed ecological niche is becoming increasingly scarce. Intrusion by loggers into the forests of Southeast Asia is quickly displacing the species. The valuable golden pelt of the animal has also given rise to a fur trading industry. Then, there is the golden cat’s own problematic disposition. They are known to kill each other at an alarming rate and even infant cannibalism is well documented and made worse by the fact that single birth cubs are the norm. The good news is that new techniques to artificially inseminate some of the 51 cats remaining in zoos so far has been a success.
Bacterial Cold Weather Champion.
Sub-freezing temperatures should be inhospitable to microbial life. Tell that to the newly discovered Planococcus halocryophilus OR1. This bacterium makes its home in the Canadian permafrost and can survive salty water at temperatures of at least 25 degrees Celsius. As expected, the bacterium has adapted to cold temperatures by evolving special cell membranes and proteins. Most interesting, perhaps, is that the bacterium may be an example of the kind of microbial life that is possible on the frozen liquid covered moons of Saturn and Jupiter.
Spiders Actively Monitor their Webs.
One might think that a spider simply sits inside its web and waits for lunch to arrive. But a new experiment shows that spiders are far more proactive than that. The experimenters measured how much the spiders pulled on both the horizontal and vertical segments of their webs—a way of increasing vibrational sensitivity. Then, by placing tasty flies on either the horizontal or vertical segments, they measured the spiders’ pull again. After a few trials, it became clear that when a spider came to expect a fly on the vertical segment, it started to pull on that segment automatically, and vica versa. In other words, the spiders were learning and adapting their behavior to their experiences.
Hundreds of years ago, a glacier in Canada buried several different species of mosses under tons of ice. Now, with the ice shield melting, those same mosses are being uncovered and have sprung back to life, turning green before the investigators’ eyes. The idea that individual plants buried for so long can rejuvenate so quickly comes as a surprise to scientists. Moss cells seem to react the way stem cells do—a single moss cell can regenerate the entire plant. Of course, mosses are indeed ancient and date back more than 400 million years ago.
Bees Buzzing Birds.
Are you afraid of the loud buzz of bumblebees? You’re not alone. In new research, it appears that birds, too, are frightened off by bumble bee buzzing, even to the extent of abandoning their nests to the intruders. In fact, bumble bees like to take over bird nests and renovate them to their own design. When experimenters used recorded bumble bee buzzing sounds and a dead bumblebee, they were able to frighten birds out of their newly constructed nests.
Carnivorous Pitcher Plants Team Up with Ants.
Carnivorous pitcher plants devour insects, so you would expect ants to steer clear of them, right? Actually, some ants and pitcher plants have developed a mutualistic relationship. In Borneo, the Camponotus schmitzi ant has learned to swim in the juices of the pitcher plant. In doing so, it grabs and eats mosquito larvae that had been laid in the plant and that would otherwise be harmful to the plant’s health because as they develop they drain the plant of nutrition. Beside providing this service, the ant also leaves it droppings in the pitcher plant, andthose droppings provide nutritional value. After studying this strange mutualism, scientists were impressed by the fact that pitcher plants that hosted many ants were larger and healthier than those that did not. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
Today’s Koala a Far Cry from Its Ancestors.
Only one species of koala exists in Australia today, and its disposition is anything but active. Slow and sloth-like, today’s koala is nothing like some of the 18 extinct koala species whose fossils scientists have discovered. In fact, 20 million years ago there were several coexisting koalas, and some were very active, jumping from tree to tree. One such species, Litokoala dicksmithi, was only a third of the size of today’s koala and from this scientists speculate that it had far greater jumping ability and was more active. Ancient climate change probably drove these other koalas into extinction.
The First Bird?
It may be time to rewrite the textbooks, again. Languishing on the shelves of a Chinese museum, researchers have just identified a fossil that predates the well known Archaeopteryx. The newest contender for the title of earliest bird is called Aurornis xui, which means “dawn bird.” At around 18” from beak to tail tip, the new find has small, sharp teeth in its beak. But already there is dissent in the scientific community with some paleontologists doubting that Aurornis is really a bird at all but rather a dinosaurbird crossover.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.
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