1. Big Cats Facing Extinction in Just 20 Years.

    In articles appearing in USA Today, experts forecast the disappearance of virtually all of the world’s big cats in just 20 years. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has reported on the population trends in big cats over the past 50 years. In that time frame, African lions have decreased from 450,000 to 25,000; leopards have gone from 750,000 to 50,000; and tigers from 50,000 to 3,000. If these trends continue, we will lose all the big cats within 10 to 20 years.

    Read more on RedOrbit.

  2. Good Fungi Attack Bad Fungi.

    Every gardener knows that fungus growth on plants can be damaging. However, mould fungi can actually be beneficial to plants. The DNA of mould fungi allows them to produce deadly toxins that can eliminate competing and harmful fungi and even bacteria. Because mould fungi’s DNA allows it to chemically adapt to its environment, it’s highly versatile. There are many members of the mould fungi family and determining which ones are suitable for the protection of which particular crops will be a task for the future. The researchers caution, however, that in order not to disturb ecological balances, mould fungi should only be utilized where it already naturally occurs.

    Read the story at Science Daily.

  3. Meet “Panzee” the Verbally Communicative Chimp

    How do we know that a chimp is actually using verbal communication the way humans do, and not simply memorizing sound or symbol associations? In a recent paper, researchers at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center have conducted an experiment that suggests chimps can learn and use language just like humans. The star of the research is Panzee, a 25-year old female chimp. By electronically transforming the words with which Panzee already is familiar into computer generated “sine-wave” sounds, at a frequency appropriate to chimpanzee vocalizations, the researchers have shown that Panzee understands and processes even this synthetic speech. The research suggests that speech is not unique to the modern human brain, but rather that other primates, and presumably our human ancestors, possessed the capacity to “accomplish speech perception tasks.”

    Read more at Discovery.

  4. Can Python Blood Plasma Squeeze Out Human Heart Disease?

    Pythons can grow to enormous sizes and they can eat an animal as big as they are. After Pythons gorge, they can go without food for many months or even a year. But what happens to a Python’s organs after a super-sized meal is intriguing to scientists and heart disease researchers. Chemicals released in the Python’s blood after gorging change the cell growth in its heart. The heart cells become individually larger, rather than more numerous, as the heart strengthens and expands. The chemicals responsible appear to be fatty acids and lipids which drastically multiply in quantity in the Python’s blood right after gorging. Experiments with mice showed that the same Python blood plasma chemicals could re-condition the hearts of mice in the same way a human athlete’s heart becomes stronger through exercise. Whether the specific chemicals in Python plasma can be harnessed into medicines for heart disease remains to be seen.

    Read the story at the New York Times.

  5. Videotape of Extinct Imperial Woodpecker Rediscovered.

    The Guardian reports that Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology has found a 1956 movie, filmed in Mexico, of the Imperial Woodpecker, which has since become extinct. On this site also are videos of the ivory-billed woodpecker (also extinct) and the pileated woodpecker.

  6. Vampire Bats Utilize Heat Sensors to Home in on Prey.

    Vampire bats have heat detector ability built into their DNA. A protein that is encoded on a gene in vampire bat DNA allows the bats to detect the presence of a heat source. In most animals, this protein simply warns them when a surface is too hot to touch. However, when a hungry vampire bat is in proximity to a surface vein of an animal, its heat detecting chemistry tells it that fresh blood is nearby. Why vampire bats alone in the bat family have developed this ability, which complements their use of sonar-like echolation in hunting, is unknown. And why this DNA variant is shared by animals such as cows but not by more physically similar animals, is also a mystery.

    Read more at Australian Georgraphic

  7. First Compound Eye Dated to 500 Million Years Ago.

    A tiny crustacean that lived in the oceans 500 million years ago was preserved as a fossil and was found in Sweden in the 1970’s. Using electron microscopy, researchers have examined the tiny eye stalks of the creature and have determined that it used its six compound eyes to see its prey. Apparently, what the creature’s eyes lacked in visual acuity they made up for in range. The animal could see prey or predators coming from various angles. And, the multiple eyes worked together so that the overlapping images allowed it to detect direction of motion. The crustacean’s eye is an example of one of the earliest evolved compound eyes.

    Read more at Live Science.

  8. Hybrid Coywolves Next Obstacle to Wolf Survival.

    In a relatively new twist on evolution and ecological change, coyotes have been migrating, in large part because of human encroachment on their territories. Their meanderings took some north and somewhere along the way, they interbred with Great Lake wolves. Now the hybrid result of that pairing, the coywolf, is poised to supplant the North American wolf population in the future. The coywolf is moving south and expanding its range. Apparently the endangered red wolf of North Carolina may be the next subject of hybridization.

    Read more at Discovery.

  9. Conservationist Has Plan to Save Sumatran Orangutans.

    Dr. Ian Singleton is trying to come to the rescue of sick and injured orangutans which currently live in cages in Indonesia. He is trying to create almost 50 acres of man-made islands near northern Sumatra that will become a sanctuary for the animals. Since orangutans are fearful of water, the islands would be an ideal environment to contain them until they are well enough to be released into orangutan populations on the Indonesian mainland. It is estimated that human activity in Indonesia has reduced the orangutan population there to just 6,000 individuals.

    Read more at Global Animal.

  10. Lobsters and Lobstermen in Hot Water Over Die Off.

    In their efforts to reduce the mosquito population, health officials might have seriously harmed the lobster population in Long Island Sound and elsewhere. A popular insecticide for mosquito control, methoprene, flows from swamp areas into storm drains and then into fishing areas, such as Long Island Sound. Lobstermen see a connection between this pesticide and a marked increase in lobster deaths and sickness. However, scientists remain skeptical. Dr. Anne McElroy, a marine toxin specialist at Stony Brook University, believes that it is environmental change, such as warmer water temperatures, and not methoprene that is primarily responsible for the lobster die off.
    Read the story at Huffington Post.

“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.

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