Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Singing For Survival: Gibbons Scare Off Predators With 'Song'

It is well known that animals use song as a way of attracting mates, but researchers have found that gibbons have developed an unusual way of scaring off predators -- by singing to them.
The primatologists at the University of St Andrews discovered that wild gibbons in Thailand have developed a unique song as a natural defence to predators. Literally singing for survival, the gibbons appear to use the song not just to warn their own group members but those in neighbouring areas. They said, "We are interested in gibbon songs because, apart from human speech, these vocalisations provide a remarkable case of acoustic sophistication and versatility in primate communication. Our study has demonstrated that gibbons not only use unique songs as a response to predators, but that fellow gibbons understand them."
"This work is a really good indicator that non-human primates are able to use combinations of calls given in other contexts to relay new, and in this case, potentially life-saving information to one another. This type of referential communication is commonplace in human language, but has yet to be widely demonstrated in some of our closest living relatives - the apes." Gibbons are renowned amongst non-human primates for their loud and impressive songs that transmit over long distances and are commonly used in their daily routine when mating pairs 'duet' every morning. Songs in response to predators -- mostly large cats, snakes and birds of prey -- have been previously noted, but no extensive research into its purpose or understanding by other gibbons has been done until now.
The team, Esther Clarke, Klaus Zuberbuhler (both St Andrews) and Ulrich Reichard (Max Planck Institute, Germany) observed the singing behaviour of white-handed gibbons in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand. They were able to identify individual gibbons according to their voice and describe gibbon songs as a 'crescendo of notes', formed by combining up to seven notes -- including 'wa', 'hoo', 'sharp wow' and 'waoo' -- into more complex structures or 'phrases'. The researchers wanted to establish whether there were any differences between the typical duetting morning song and that delivered in response to a predator. They noted subtle differences between the two songs, particularly in the early stages (first ten notes) of the song, which would be important in the case of predator encounters. Songs usually begun with a series of very soft notes, audible only at close range, but which rapidly changed into louder notes heard over long distances.
They said, "We found that gibbons produce loud and conspicuous songs in response to predators to alert kin, both near and far -- since gibbons frequently change group compositions, neighbouring groups often consist of close relatives. We found that gibbons appear to use loud 'long-distance' calls to warn relatives in neighbouring areas and that those groups responded by joining in the singing, matching the correct predator song, demonstrating that they understood the difference between calls." The researchers also observed the singing behaviour of gibbons spending time away from their home group. They noted that during predator songs within the group setting, the absent individual responded with his own song, before reappearing to join the group again. Because gibbons are unusually monogamous, it is thought that sexual selection is the main evolutionary mechanism for the evolution of gibbon song.
The researchers concluded, "Vocal behaviour appears to function as a powerful tool to deal with immense sexual competition under which these primates operate, and it may not be surprising that they have evolved unusually complex vocal skills to deal with these social challenges.
"Not unlike humans, gibbons assemble a finite number of call units into more complex structures to convey different messages, and our data show that distant individuals are able to distinguish between different song types and understand what they mean. This study offers the first evidence of a functionally referential communication system in a free-ranging ape species
"Finding this ability among ape species, especially gibbons who in a sense bridge the evolutionary gap between great apes and monkeys, could shed light on when this ability developed in the primate lineage."
Citation: Clarke E, Reichard UH, Zuberbühler K (2006) The Syntax and Meaning of Wild Gibbon Songs. PLoS One 1(1): e73. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0000073) Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by Public Library of Science. Article sourced from ScienceDaily.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

New Reptile Population for Hauraki Gulf Islands

A team of Massey University biologists is relocating more than 60 of the relatively rare Duvaucel’s geckos to Motuora and Tiritiri Matangi islands in the Hauraki Gulf. The transfer, along with that of a group of skinks, is aimed at helping protect the gecko population and enhance the reptile fauna of the islands, both of which are predator-free.
For Motuora it is part of ongoing restoration project. Although there are now only two native reptile species there, evidence suggests it was home to as many as 13 reptile species, including tuatara, before forest was cleared. Both islands are predator free.
Auckland Campus conservation biologists Dr Dianne Brunton and Dr Weihong Ji are conducting a reptile study and will be monitoring the geckos and skinks after they are released into their new island habitats. Dr Brunton describes the transfer as exciting and very important to both the species and the islands. “It will help to build a more complete ecology on both islands,” she says. “It’s also expected to help in rebuilding the populations of these species which have low reproduction rates.
The Massey scientists have been holding the geckos and skinks in quarantine to ensure they are disease-free, while preparing the islands for the transfer, checking existing species for diseases and carrying out night searches to collect other data on the habitat.
Duvaucel’s geckos are New Zealand’s largest, growing up to 16cm long and weighing up to 120g. They are sparsely distributed on the northeastern islands off the North Island and in Cook Strait. Project partners include the University, the Department of Conservation, Auckland Regional Council and the Motuora Restoration Society.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Turtle Rescuer Keeps Steady Hours Even During the Winter

Jean Beasley never thought that at her age she'd have to learn the electrical and plumbing trades. "If anyone told me I'd be doing this at age 71, I'd have told them they were crazy," said Beasley, as she sawed off the end of a pipe. But the skills come in handy when you're caring for sick and injured turtles, a job that doesn't end, not even when the "Closed for the Winter" sign goes up in front of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. On a typical winter day, the manpower that goes into caring for the more than 15 sick and injured turtles recuperating there keeps volunteers in a constant scurry.

"People think when we close the doors and put the sign up that nothing goes on here," Beasley said while carefully lifting a blue tank holding one small turtle. "They are very mistaken. There is never a lull." College and high school interns are absent in winter months, adding more work to the local volunteers' load.

"We take the responsibility of the daily chores that the interns do in the summer," volunteer Tina Navale of Surf City said. "But we love it."

The daily routine includes a morning feeding, as each turtle has a diet tailored to its species and health, followed by vitamins and any needed health care.

"I am constantly watching the progression of their wounds, monitoring them with physicals," said Beasley, director of the center. "We do blood work and monitor how they're eating, what they look like, what their attitude is like." Next comes the cleaning, when tanks are scooped for leftover food and the amount of food eaten is recorded. Then come the chores.

Last week, Beasley and Navale spent an entire day connecting the tanks of three new turtles to the plumbing system. The turtles require special attention in the winter, as temperature is key in keeping them warm and on a speedy recovery. Most sea turtles have already migrated this time of year to warmer waters, but some don't make it and end up in the center due to what Beasley calls being "cold-stunned."

"The warmth of the building and the water is very important," she said. "We have to have all of the turtles inside and closed up. That is why we can't have any visitors in the winter, because there is no room to move in here." Working space is cramped, lined with equipment, food, towels and cleaning supplies. A space between the more than 20 tanks in the center is so tight that two people can't pass there at the same time.

"We hope to start building a new center soon," Beasley said. "We had land donated and we are getting the deed drawn up now. We really can't do anything until the transfer." The center isn't solely waiting on the deed of the new land, which is just outside the city limits of Surf City. Funding is key, and there is much more to raise. "We not only have to look at the new building, but run this one," Beasley said. "It costs in excess of $70,000 to run this building each year. So we have to raise more than that."

Beasley hopes to someday see an 18,000-square-foot center, which would cost upward of $1 million. Until then, volunteers will continue to do their best to heal their prized patients. "One in 5,000 to 10,000 turtles survive to be an adult," Beasley said. "So these animals in here represent a lot of turtles that died. That's what makes them so very important."

This year's nesting season on Topsail Island's 26-mile stretch produced 94 nests, though quite a few were lost with high tides during Tropical Storm Ernesto over the summer.

Nests are constantly monitored during the summer, keeping volunteers in all three island towns busy night and day. And turtles are constantly being cared for in preparation for their release. Staff had to say a difficult goodbye to longtime resident sea turtle "Bay" recently. The green sea turtle was found tangled in a flounder net and was admitted to the hospital in 2001. After numerous procedures, Bay was still unable to be released into the wild and required permanent care. The staff found a home for her at the Minnesota Zoo.

"We become quite attached to them and it was hard to see her go," Beasley said. "We begin to see their personalities, how each one responds to a certain volunteer better than another. They recognize our voices."

Turtles can only be released in warm waters, so the center only releases its healthy turtles during the summer season. That means that the current patients are tucked in for the winter. "And looking after them is an everyday job," Beasley said. "We do it all year long."

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Backstory: Swamp Creatures Great and Small

(Photograph) WELCOME: The lurking leer of an American alligator greets visitors to the vast South Florida park.
View photo gallery

Everglades National Park approaches a 60th anniversary of protection.
By Mary Knox Merrill | Assistant photo editor of The Christian Science Monitor
The Everglades teems with the buzz, hum, and chatter of the wild as well as the quiet surprises of the camouflaged. Almost 60 years after Marjory Stoneman Douglas published her bestseller, "River of Grass," boosting public sentiment about the value of the vast swamp and helping win its approval as a national park, man and animal continue the struggle to coexist.
Everglades National Park - 2,358 square miles of Florida's watery trailing-out into the sea - is home to 350 species of birds, including the osprey and great blue heron, and a number of reptiles and amphibians, including the American crocodile and tree frog.
While recent research looks promising for the wading bird population, pollution and urban development remain problems as they encroach on the habitat of animals of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Smoke billows from nearby sugar cane factories, Ft. Lauderdale sprawls right up to the border of the park, endangered birds rest on top of highway light fixtures, and the remains of birds struck by cars pepper the side of the highway. These pressures, combined with the alteration of regional wetland areas threaten the Everglades, which functions as a vast, natural water-filtration system. The National Park Service estimates that 50 percent of south Florida's original wetlands no longer exist, and the wading bird population has been reduced by 90 percent.
What will it take to preserve the biotic engine that supports so much life in South Florida?

A slideshow of other Everglades photos can be seen at

Friday, December 15, 2006

Fort Worth Zoo Building For the Future

Planned herpetarium to aid work against extinction
Lead herpetology keeper Matt Vaughan and other employees work in tight quarters at the Fort Worth Zoo's aging herpetology exhibit.
Lead herpetology keeper Matt Vaughan and other employees work
in tight quarters at the Fort Worth Zoo's aging herpetology exhibit.

The oldest building at the Fort Worth Zoo is a plain cinder-block box with a leaky roof, shaky plumbing and paper-thin walls that make the place deafening at times. Yet the herpetarium -- more often called the snake house -- is also one of the most popular exhibits at the park, at least with one noticeable group. "Young boys," said Michael Fouraker, the zoo's director of five years.
Snakes, lizards, frogs and turtles from around the world have emerged over the years as one of the park's signature collections and form the heart of an ambitious, behind-the-scenes conservation program that hopes to save species from extinction. After five years of talking about the need and receiving a get-busy warning from its accreditation agency, the zoo is raising money and drawing up plans for a more than $15 million herpetarium that will rival any other exhibit.
"We're going to try to take it out of the old-style, jewel-box, aquarium-in-the-wall herpetarium," Fouraker said. "We have searched the world trying to find an example to model. It looks like we're going to have to build an example. We really want to set the bar high and make a real mark with this." Zoo officials, led by Fort Worth Zoological Association heavyweights Ramona Bass and Ardon Moore, have half of the money in pledges and expect to break ground on the new building by summer. The public contribution will be $1 million in unused bond money that was designated for repairs at the city-owned zoo. The rest will be private donations.
The new building will go up on the site of the aquarium that was demolished in 2002. The herpetarium is the last major exhibit that has not been completely overhauled since 1991, when the zoological association took over zoo operations. Plans will include a more natural environment for the animals and more room for the keepers backstage. But the design will also contain rooms dedicated to saving entire species of frogs and lizards.
Many, if not most, species of reptiles and amphibians are under assault worldwide, and some are disappearing every year because of habitat loss, climate change and disease organisms. A third of all frog and toad species in the world are threatened with extinction, a scale unimaginable in mammals, birds or other animal classes.
"You know the Fort Worth Zoo not to be alarmists," Fouraker said. "This is really serious. They're equating the demise of amphibians with the extinction of the dinosaurs. It's happening that rapidly, and it's that serious." Experts suspect that a particularly lethal fungal disease that has been linked to changes in the climate is decimating frog populations, even in protected areas. And by geologic standards, the decline has occurred in the blink of an eye -- the last 30 years. "Amphibians have been around 100 million years, virtually unchanged," said Robin Moore, amphibian conservation officer with Conservation International in Washington, D.C. "They are survivors. That's why their sudden decline is very alarming. Something has changed. They are sensitive indicators of environmental change."
Increasingly, conservation groups are talking of removing endangered species from the wild so they can be preserved until more is understood about what is happening to them. Fouraker said the Fort Worth Zoo plans to add room in its herpetarium to quarantine and breed some species to make sure they don't become extinct. Zoos in Houston and Atlanta have been active in the same field. "Zoos are definitely rising to the challenge and starting to acknowledge the severity of the situation and wanting to do something to help," Moore said.
The zoo is already basking in the glow of a number of breeding successes involving extremely rare animals -- blue poison dart frogs, Puerto Rican crested toads, and Pan's box turtles and coral cat snakes. "This zoo has had four decades of success in breeding reptiles, but amphibians have been lacking until" recently, said Matt Vaughan, the lead herpetology keeper. "With the amphibian crisis, we'll be on the forefront of conservation with them." Yet that work is being done in a building that is showing its age, and not very well.
The herpetarium -- 9,000 square feet with 120 exhibit spaces -- is a tangle of electrical wires, with heaters behind the exhibits for the animals and air-conditioning streaming in for the visitors. The building has no insulation, collapsed plumbing and insufficient quarantine rooms. It also has a multitude of cracks, holes and other spots where escaped animals can hide.
Fouraker and Vaughan recently took a donor through the building. They stopped at the African dwarf crocodile exhibit, where the donor remarked that the rain falling gave the exhibit a very natural feel. "That's the roof leaking," Vaughan said.
Rarely do the needs of a zoo intersect so neatly with the needs of animals in the wild, and that has Fouraker and others at the zoo energized about their mission. "We have led the way on turtle survival, and we have a tremendous lizard collection," Fouraker said. "But we hope to bring more emphasis to amphibians in the new building."
Breeding success
The Fort Worth Zoo has more than 700 snakes, lizards, frogs and turtles in its herpetology collection. The zoo is one of the most active and successful in the nation at breeding reptiles and amphibians, including some of the rarest and most endangered species in the world.

Puerto Rican crested toad
Only toad native to Puerto Rico
Listed as critically endangered
Tadpoles bred in Fort Worth are being reintroduced in the wild

Pan's box turtle
Found only in two Chinese provinces
Discovered in 1984
Critically endangered by poaching and loss of habitat

Coral cat snake
Lives in trees in Central America
Has the same tricolor pattern as the venomous coral snake
Believed to have been bred in captivity for the first time

Thursday, December 14, 2006

PetClub UK Launches Online Information Website

petclubukcat.jpgUs Brits are supposed to be a nation of animal lovers, and with that in mind, PetClub UK has launched its interactive information portal for all manner of pets.
The site is aimed at anyone who already owns an animal, is looking to take one on, or works with them, with separate sections for cats, dogs, horses, small animals, reptiles, and aquarium.

The site aims to be a one-stop shop for pet lovers, providing useful tools and resources, plus a discussion forum, and the ability for users to share photos of favourite pets.
Animal loving founder of PetClub UK Chris Jones, himself a dedicated reptile enthusiast, said "I set out to publish an informative, factual site that will help owners understand and look after their pets. Where we recommend products, these are specifically to help ensure that the creatures we care for lead healthy, contented lives. The main aim is to create a community for the exchange of experience, best practice and sound advice."
All visitors can access the information pages and articles but members of PetClub UK are entitled to additional benefits of discounts on every product, a regular newsletter and the chance to enter regular competitions to win some fantastic prizes. Annual membership of the Club costs L5 and is open to everyone.

Source: TechDigest

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

FOLLOW-UP: 500 Species Found in Census of Marine Life

Some 500 previously unknown species of marine life were discovered during the latest Census of Marine Life (CoML), a research effort involving some 2000 researchers from 80 countries. The discoveries, made during 19 ocean expeditions in 2006, included a gigantic 1-centimeter in diameter single-celled organism in the Nazare Canyon off Portugal, a "blonde-haired" lobster near Easter Island, a "chewing" squid, and a four-pound (1.8 kg) lobster off Madagascar.
"Each Census expedition reveals new marvels of the ocean – and with the return of each vessel it is increasingly clear that many more discoveries await marine explorers for years to come," said Fred Grassle, Chair of the Census Scientific Steering Committee. Now in its sixth year, the Census is working to record the diversity, distribution, and abundance of global marine life. Among its many findings in 2006:

Species discovery

    Kiwa hirsuta, the Yeti crab, a new species found
    near Easter Island. Credit: Ifremer/A. Fifis ©2006.

    A colonial siphonophore: several swimming
    bells surround red and yellow feeding
    tenticles. Grows to 1.5 cm. From the
    Danish Galathea 3 expedition off Broome
    in Northwestern Australia, November 2006.
    Photo Credit, Russ Hopcroft,
    University of Alaska Fairbanks ©2006

    A new species of squid, Promachoteuthis sloani,
    found along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
    Credit: MAR-ECO/R. Young ©2006.

    Tracks of tagged sooty shearwaters as they made
    their way back and forth across the Pacific Ocean.
    Credit: TOPP ©2006

Macro microbe. The protozoan that Census explorers of the continental margins discovered in the Nazare Canyon off Portugal differs from the usual protozoans seen swimming in a drop of water under a microscope. The single cell of this fragile new species of Xenophyophore, found at 4,300 m depth, is enclosed within a plate-like shell, 1 cm in diameter, composed of mineral grains.

Furry crab. Near Easter Island, Census researchers discovered a crab so unusual it warranted a whole new family designation, Kiwaidae. Beyond adding a new family to the wealth of known biodiversity, its discovery added a new genus, Kiwa, named for the mythological Polynesian goddess of shellfish. Its furry or hairy appearance justified its species name, hirsuta.

A squid that chews. Among the 80,000 organisms – encompassing 354 families, genera and species – that Census deep-sea investigators collected from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was the reference specimen or holotype for a new species of squid: Promachoteuthis sloani. Although collection easily damages the soft cephalopods, the hard beaks are unique to each species, including that of the new squid, which looks quite capable of chewing its food.

Komoki in Antarctic waters
. Komokiaceae or "komoki" dominate deep-sea foraminifera, protozaons with false feet used for locomotion and food collection. In the Weddell Sea, where ice crushed the ship of Antarctic explorer Shackleton in 1915, Census polar researchers found 59 komoki and komoki-like species, at least 42 unknown to science.

Doubling Zooplankton
. Census zooplankton researchers discovered 3 new genera and 31 new species of copepods and mysids, small crustaceans, in Southeast Asian, Australian, and New Zealand waters. Analysis of collections from biodiversity hotspots, the deep sea, and other unexplored regions is on track to double the number of known zooplankton species

Extremes of Science

. At a thermal vent 3 km below the surface in the equatorial Atlantic, Census researchers found shrimp and other life forms on the periphery of fluids billowing from Earth’s core at an unprecedented marine recording of 407ºC, a temperature that would melt lead easily. Although the species resemble those around other vents, scientists want to study how, surrounded by near-freezing 2ºC water, their chemistry allows them to withstand heat pulses that approach the boiling point – up to 80ºC. Shrimp were seen on the walls of the vent chimney. Others in the habitat include mussels and clams. All somehow tolerate an environment of extreme temperature changes within a few centimeters and high concentrations of heavy metals from the vent fluids.

. Southern Ocean census takers revealed an astonishing community of marine life shrouded beneath 700 meters of ice – 200 km from open water. Equally remarkable, sampling of this most remote ocean’s depths during three lengthy cruises yielded more new than familiar species.

Most. Census fish counters' observation off the New Jersey coast of 20 million fish swarmed in a school the size of Manhattan Island qualifies as most new abundance found. Sound emitted by a new ship-based technology illuminates life in an oceanic area tens of thousands times larger than previously possible. It updates instantaneously and continuously, revealing the extension and shrinking, fragmentation and merging of the island-sized swarms as a person might watch schools of minnows swimming in a brook beneath a bridge.

. Sampling 5 km below the surface in the Sargasso Sea, deploying a unique trawl configuration that filtered large volumes of water for rare-but-diverse zooplankton living in the ocean’s deepest depths, Census experts from 14 nations caught these drifting, often soft and elusive animals in a sophisticated net, the MOCNESS. They collected more than 500 species, including 12 likely new species, eating each other at the great depths or living on organic matter falling like snow from above. (CMarZ photo of menacing-looking, animals such as this amphipod, a small prawn-like crustacean, the supposed inspiration for the movie Alien.

. Census seamount researchers found a shrimp, believed extinguished 50 million years ago, alive and well on an underwater peak in the Coral Sea. Neoglyphea neocaledonica was nicknamed "Jurassic shrimp" by its discoverers, who say it rivals the find in South Africa and Indonesia of the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish previously known only through fossils.

. In the sense that biodiversity is richness, Census microbe hunters found 20,000 kinds floating in a single liter of sea water. Samples were taken from the Atlantic and Pacific, including from an eruptive fissure 1,500 meters deep on a seamount in the Pacific a few hundred kilometers west of Oregon, USA. Revealed by DNA studies, most of the different kinds of bacteria were unknown and likely rare globally. The richness of the diversity invites speculation about what rare species contribute to their biosphere and an estimate that the kinds of bacteria in the oceans exceed five to 10 million. The researchers also began assembling the best-ever video of protists (mostly microscopic organisms that are neither animals, plants, or fungi) and to pioneer optical and genetic techniques to extend the limits of knowledge. (The video is available for media at the embargoed media materials URL. Credit: Jeremy Pickett-Heaps)

. Tracking tagged sooty shearwaters by satellite, Census researchers mapped the small bird’s 70,000 km search for food in a giant figure eight over the Pacific Ocean, from New Zealand via Polynesia to foraging grounds in Japan, Alaska and California and then back. Making the longest-ever electronically-recorded migration in only 200 days, the bird averaged a surprising 350 km daily. In some cases, a breeding pair made the entire journey together.

. Among the many new species discovered by Census participants during 2006, a 1.8 kg (4 lb) rock lobster that Census explorers found off Madagascar may be the largest. Named Palinurus barbarae, the main body spans half a meter.
While the census found hundreds of previously unknown species -- including 150 species of fish -- the researchers behind the project also found evidence that marine biodiversity is in decline due to human influences. "The historical studies of the CoML agree with recent studies showing steep declines of most wild populations of marine animals that people eat," says Grassle.
According to a CoML news release, researchers "reconstructed the changing abundance of marine life in 12 estuaries and coastal seas around the world. In archives from Roman times in the Adriatic Sea, the medieval era in Northern Europe, to Colonial times in North America and Australia, they confirmed the fears that exploitation and habitat destruction depleted 90 percent of important species. They also confirmed elimination of 65 percent of seagrass and wetland habitat, a 10 to 1,000-fold degradation of water quality, and accelerated species invasions."
"The past richness of the oceans in many near shore regions is hard for people today to believe," added Grassle. Despite the declines, the census says that the research will help humans better utilize marine resources going forward. "The dream of abundant and sustainable stocks of commercial fish is now one step closer, thanks to this Census of Marine Life program. The new data reveal for the first time those zones of the ocean where we have the highest leverage for conservation and thus smarter fishing," said D. James Baker, President of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
CoML found that marine preservation efforts are working in some areas, with "signs of transitions from degradation to recovery where conservation was implemented during the 20th century." Looking towards 2010, CoML seeks to have completed an initial census describing what lived, now lives, and will live in the oceans. "The vast expanse of the oceans, the rarity of some animals, their movements, and fluctuations challenge Census researchers. Happily, the astonishing progress of the past six years shows the community will create the first-ever Census of Marine Life in 2010," said Jesse Ausubel, a program manager for the Sloan Foundation, a Census sponsor.
"Together, we can see the wonders of the ocean and excite the world to preserve and increase them," added Ron O’Dor, CoML Senior Scientist.

This article is based on a news release from CoML. Photos from mongabay.com

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Never-Ending Marvels of the Ocean

Source: Playfuls.com
The ocean has yet more mysteries to yield to human kind; those with an affinity for such discoveries can only stand in awe as Nature reveals itself to us mortals.
2006’s Census of Marine Life participants must have stood in awe. This is the sixth year that researchers from around the world have collaborated, in a valiant attempt to shed some light over the dark depths of global seas and oceans and to attach a statistical viewpoint to marine life. They recorded the diversity and distribution of species, and came up with some startling discoveries.
Animals seem to have found a way to make a living just about everywhere,” said Jesse Ausubel of the Sloan Foundation, about the findings of year six of the census of marine life. Ron O'Dor, a senior scientist with the census, said: “We can't find anyplace where we can't find anything new.” These are just a few of their findings.

* CoMF researchers found shrimp, as well as mussels and clams, living in waters of 407ºC. The animals were found in the equatorial Atlantic, at a thermal vent 3 km below the surface that releases fluids containing heavy metals from the Earth’s core – hot enough to melt lead. This is the hottest sea vent ever documented. Bizarrely enough, the vent is surrounded by near-freezing water.
This is the most extreme environment and there is plenty of life around it,” said Chris German, of Britain's Southampton Oceanography Center and a leader of the Atlantic survey.

* Researchers investigating the waters of the Southern Ocean discovered a community of marine life thriving in darkness below 700 meters of ice and 200 km away from open water.

* A school the size of Manhattan Island, comprising some 20 million fish, was reported off the coast of New Jersey. This is the most abundant grouping of sea creatures ever found.

* Census experts utilized a sophisticated net dubbed MOCNESS to catch animals living at great depths below the surface (5 km) in the Sargasso Sea. 12 new species were reported.

CoMF devotees uncovered a shrimp that scientists believed had become extinct 50 million years ago – it was actually quite prosperous in its underwater peak in the Coral Sea. The creature, officially named neoglyphea neocaledonica, received the nickname of “Jurassic shrimp”, in honor of its mathusalemic age.

* Census microbe hunters found 20,000 kinds of bacteria floating in a single liter of sea water. The samples came from the Atlantic and Pacific. DNA studies revealed that most of the different kinds of bacteria were unknown and likely rare globally. Researchers estimate that the kinds of bacteria in the oceans exceed five to 10 million.

* Sooty shearwaters seem to be deserving of the moniker “globetrotters” By way of satellite, Census explorers tracked tagged specimens as they made their way through an impressive distance of 70,000 km, searching for food. They flew over the Pacific Ocean, from New Zealand via Polynesia to foraging grounds in Japan, Alaska and California and then back, which makes this trek the longest migration ever recorded electronically, over a period of just 200 days. The average daily distance was even as long as 350 km.

* The largest species discovered during a 2006 Census expedition was a 1.8 kg rock lobster named Palinurus Barbarae, off Madagascar. The main body spans half a meter. Census scientists organized 19 ocean expeditions in 2006 (a 20th one is underway in the Antarctic). The number of active sampling sites grew exponentially from 30 to 128 in 2006 alone, and satellites were a big part of the explorations, as well as laboratories, archives and other technology.

"Each Census expedition reveals new marvels of the ocean – and with the return of each vessel it is increasingly clear that many more discoveries await marine explorers for years to come,” says Fred Grassle, Chair of the Census Scientific Steering Committee.

Monday, December 11, 2006

What to Get Your Pet for Christmas

Is your pet on your Christmas list?
For an increasing number of pet owners, the answer is yes. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association conducted a survey last year that found eight of 10 dog owners buy presents for their dogs and 63 percent of cat owners buy for their pets. The average for each gift (which wasn’t just tracked for the holidays — pet owners also buy for birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and other special occasions) was $17. This year alone, Americans will spend about $38 billion in pet supplies.
So, what can you get this year for the pet that has everything? Well, more of the same. If your dog loves chew toys, a new one is sure to be a hit. A cat that enjoys catnip will undoubtedly like that herb in a new toy.
Really smart dogs may enjoy a new trend in toys: Brain-teasers for pups. Ourpets.com offers a range of “interactive toys” that are intended to keep a dog busy for a while. Note the MolecuBall, which rolls and slides in unpredictable directions. As it moves, the dog figures out how to get the toy to release a treat. The Buster Food Cube also rewards canines for their problem-solving behavior — as the dog plays with the cube, treats come trickling out of a small hole on the side. “This motivates the dog to learn how to ’work’ the cube so more treats roll out,” the company’s press release says. I haven’t tried these out on my personal dog, but they’d be a good bet for someone looking to keep their pet entertained for a few hours.
Your cat may like a new scratching post or condo. There are literally hundreds of different styles to choose from, ranging from small cardboard models to huge, carpeted, multi-level constructions. I always like to recommend the Cosmic Catnip Alpine Scratcher, an inexpensive cardboard “hill” that lets cats exercise their claws and enjoy catnip at the same time. These can be found in different sizes at most pet supply stores. Of course, you can cover your bases with a gift basket for your cat or dog, filled with a variety of goodies and toys.
Looking for something for a smaller pet? The KONG Company, which makes popular chew toys for dogs, has recently come out with a line of chew toys that work for rabbits, ferrets and rodents. I haven’t seen these available yet, but the company says they should be out for Christmas, so keep your eyes peeled! I do know that while the new one has pictures of rabbits and rodents on the packaging, the company has an existing KONG for ferrets that may be easier to find (in a pinch, order online at amazon.com or your favorite pet supply store).
The lizard in your house might enjoy a vibrating food dish. Sounds funny, but makers at the Rolf C. Hagen Corp. believe that its Exo Terra Vivicator Feeding Dish will encourage reptiles and amphibians, which normally prefer their food to be live, to eat canned food or pellets. The bowl moves food across its rubber surface and is controlled by remote to vibrate for 15-second intervals.
When looking for a present for any pet, make sure it is wrapped safely (if you choose to wrap the gift at all). Ribbons can be ingested by cats and all kinds of pets can nibble on or eat paper and cardboard. It’s probably best to avoid these issues by removing any packaging from the pet right away. You’ll also want to steer clear of pet toys that look like household items — the kids’ stuffed animals or your favorite slippers, for example — so they don’t inadvertantly encourage your pet to chew on the wrong thing.
Don’t forget, if buying a food item, to check the label for anything to which your pet might be allergic. Toys or treats that have dyes may also cause problems — pets can’t tell the colors, but those dyes might stain your carpeting or furniture. Give anything edible in moderation and supervise so that your pet doesn’t accidentally choke or otherwise get hurt.
Photo courtesy of HickerPhoto / Article by Jennifer Gardner

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Protection of Biodiversity

The Osa Peninsula, in the Costa Rican South Pacific, is a unique place which, in only 160,000 hectares (some 395,355 acres), encompasses 2 percent of the world’s biodiversity and 50 percent of all the species in Costa Rica. Its forests are home to at least 5,000 species of plants, over 700 species of trees, more than 8,000 species of insects, and 117 of reptiles. Also, there we find 375 species of birds, 124 of mammals, 40 of fresh water fish, and 28 species of dolphins and whales.
In order to protect that wealth, The Osa Campaign (Campaña Osa in Spanish) was launched in 2003, but it was not until now that the project was made public. It is a joint effort by the Costa Rica-USA Foundation (CRUSA), the Ministry of the Environment and Energy, Conservancy International, and The Nature Conservancy. The goal is to collect us$32.5 million, by the year 2008, to manage conservation and establish a trust. So far, us$19 million has been collected and each Costa Rican is expected to donate at least us$1, to add another us$3.2 million in the coming months.
Several major Costa Rican firms, such as La Nación, Intel Costa Rica, Tribu, Holtermann, and Pipasa partake in the non-profit campaign.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Dramatic snake colour-change mystery solved

Source: Physorg
Dramatic snake colour-change mystery solved
An adult green python (top) and a spectacular
yellow juvenile green python.
Credit: Australian National University
The mystery surrounding a snake that undergoes a spectacular colour change has been solved by ANU ecologists who have found that the skin of the green python – which begins life either bright yellow or red – transforms to blend into a new habitat as the snake gets older.
Dr David Wilson and Dr Robert Heinsohn from the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at ANU, with Professor John Endler of Exeter University, solved the mystery after a three year study radio-tracking the green python at Cape York Peninsula. “Animals sometimes change colour during their lives, but none as dramatically as the green python of northern Australia and New Guinea. It has puzzled evolutionary biologists for decades,” Dr Heinsohn said. “This beautiful reptile is popular in the pet trade because it hatches either bright yellow or red, but eventually turns emerald green. It turns out there is a very good reason for this dramatic change.
For the study, published this week in the scientific journal Biology Letters, the researchers radio-tracked a large number of juvenile and adult pythons and analysed their colours using advanced spectrophotometry. To their surprise, they found that the brightly coloured youngsters live in a completely different habitat to the older snakes. The juveniles remained outside the rainforest where they hunted small prey such as skinks and cockroaches, whereas the adults moved into the rainforest canopy to hunt rodents and birds.
The juvenile yellow and red colour allows them to blend in remarkably well with the multi-coloured leaves and grass at the forest edge. The adult green allows them to hide from their predators as they hunt for birds and rodents in the canopy.
It was only when we established the total divergence in behaviour of the juveniles and adults that we could begin to understand their remarkably different colours. It takes a year before the young ones are large enough to catch bigger prey like birds. They then shed their skins, change to green, and move inside the rainforest to try their luck off the ground. Drab juveniles are the norm in the animal world, but the brightly coloured young of green pythons are unique. They are helping us to understand where the bright and beautiful colours seen in nature come from and how they are maintained,” Dr Heinsohn said.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

20 ft Crocodile Skeleton on Display in Orissa

Source: India News
The skeleton of a massive 20 feet crocodile, probably one of the largest in India, has been put on display at a wildlife park here for the benefit of researchers and students. The male crocodile was found dead in September at Kaliabhanjadiha area inside the famous 670 sq km Bhitarkanika National Park, 130 km from the Orissa capital Bhubaneswar, which is home to the largest population of giant saltwater crocodiles in India.
The skeleton is kept at the interpretation centre of the crocodile breeding and rearing farm at Danmal inside the national park, said Bhitarkanika divisional forest officer A.K. Jena. A team of herpetologists painstakingly brought the skeleton to the centre, preserved it and mounted it on a frame, he added. The whole process took about a month.
The age of the crocodile is not known. 'We will determine it after tests,' said reptile researcher Siba Prasad Prasida who was involved in the elaborate preservation work.
Wildlife officials are now planning to focus on preserving the skull of another crocodile kept by members of the erstwhile royal family Rajkanika in Kendrapada. According to noted reptile researcher Romulus Whitaker, the skull measures 75 cm, considered to be the largest saltwater crocodile in India. The size of a skull is nearly one-seventh of the reptile's body length. The reptile therefore could have been 25 ft, Whitaker, who founded the crocodile bank in Chennai, said. 'My grandfather Raja Rajendra Narayan Bhanja Deo had shot the biggest crocodile in 1930 within the park as it had killed many people,' said Shivendra Narayan Bhanja Deo, a member of the royal family which shifted it to his residence in Bhubaneswar.
The Guinness Book of World Records this year registered the presence of a 23 ft estuarine crocodile in Bhitarkanika as the largest crocodile in the world.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Expose Students to Pros and Cons of Theory (Editorial)

Source: The News Star
The following is an editorial written by Sociology Ph.D. and attorney Jack Wright, Jr.:
It is amazing that anyone would object to teaching evolution as merely a theory, and not an established fact. There are numerous objections to the theory of evolution, and every student should be made aware of them. After all, any educational system should be guided by the truism, "Whoever knew the truth put to worse, in a free and open encounter?" (John Milton).
The theory of evolution has a testable link the transitional form. If Darwin were right, scattered throughout the geological record would be millions of intermediate forms between fish, reptiles, birds, animals and man.
In 1872, an oceanic expedition set forth on the H.M.S. Challenger to retrieve transitional forms from the oceans. But alas and a lack, neither the Challenger nor any other expedition before or since has been able to dredge up any meaningful kind of intermediate form. The problem has been called the 'missing link.' What is missing? The evidence.
Dr. Elridge, a world-famous paleontologist of the British Museum, has remarked, "Nine-tenths of the talk of evolutionists is sheer nonsense, not founded on observation, and wholly unsupported by the facts. This museum is full of the proof of the utter falsity of their views. In all this great museum, there is not a particle of evidence of the transmutation of species." Notwithstanding shortcomings of the Darwinist theory, it has been accepted in biology textbooks as a fact. Anyone questioning this world view is subject to being treated as a member of the flat-earth society.
Darwin was honest enough to point out what would be necessary to refute his theory: he wrote, "If it would be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modification, my theory would absolutely break down." The Harvard atheist, now deceased, Stephen J. Gould, points out Darwin's theory fails at this point: "Of what possible use are the imperfect, incipient stages of useful structures?" What good is half a jaw? Or half a wing? Evolutionists have tried to salvage Darwin's thought by adding mutations.
In response, Dr. Walter Brown, in his book, In the Beginning, writes, "What mutations could transform a crawling larva into a flying monarch butterfly that can accurately navigate three thousand miles, using a brain the size of a pinhead?" Obviously, the vast information that directs every stage of a larva and an adult's development, including metamorphosis, must reside in its genetic material at the beginning. This only fits creation. Thus both within and without the evolutionary camp, there are devastating criticisms of Darwin's theory. Students should be exposed to the pros and cons of this debate, so they can make up their own minds about what is, ultimately, the truth.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Robert Wilson Pledges $1 Million to Halt Bird Extinctions

Source: PNNOnline
American Bird Conservancy
(ABC) and its partners seeking to acquire habitat for endangered and declining bird species received a major boost with the announcement of a $900,000 challenge grant and $100,000 for other conservation work from New York philanthropist Robert Wilson.
We are thrilled by the huge opportunity Robert Wilson’s foresight and dedication presents for conserving the world’s rarest bird species,” said George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy. “With the average cost to acquire land in South America only $100 per acre, this generous challenge grant means many more imperiled bird species will have a permanent place to call home.
This year alone, ABC and its partners have so far protected 28 tracts of land in Central and South America that provide core habitat for more than 700 species of birds, including four that are globally endangered, the Santa Marta Parakeet, Jocotoco Antpitta, Black-breasted Puffleg, and Long-whiskered Owlet. The sites also provide key wintering habitat for dozens of migratory songbird species including the Cerulean and Golden-winged Warblers.
Mr. Wilson has asked for a 3:1 match for his gift, to leverage additional support and encourage others to participate in this critical land acquisition campaign. “These funds will be targeted towards priority sites for species that are very rare or declining fast,” said Fenwick. “With the help of others to match Mr. Wilson’s generous offer, we can buy parcels to protect several additional priority bird species. But it is not only birds that will benefit. Biodiversity including declining frogs and other amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and plants can all benefit from the management of these lands as protected reserves.
Priority bird species in immediate need of habitat protection in Latin America include Worthen’s Sparrow and Long-billed Curlew (Mexico), Honduran Emerald hummingbird (Honduras), Chestnut-capped Piha (Colombia) and Lear’s Macaw (Brazil).
ABC has embarked upon a new, $40 million, five-year initiative, the American Birds Campaign aimed at protecting the great bird diversity of the Americas. The central themes of the conservation campaign are ensuring the future for endangered birds, restoring habitat for all declining birds, eliminating the worst threats, supercharging the bird conservation community, and applying conservation innovations to solve problems. Mr. Wilson’s pledge includes $900,000 for land purchase and $100,000 for other conservation work.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Where do reptiles such as alligators go when winter comes?

Source: Orlando Sentinel
While people burrow under mounds of warm blankets on cold winter nights, alligators also seek shelter from the cold. But in their case, muddy burrows provide warmth, and the beds they settle into are often on the side of a riverbank or at the bottom of a lake. Although they might disappear from sight for several days, alligators don't actually hibernate. Their metabolism slows down, and they breathe less often. But they seldom stay undercover longer than a week or two -- not long enough to be considered hibernation.
During times of dormancy, alligators live off their own fat, not needing to consume new food. But as soon as the sun comes out and the weather warms up, gators emerge from their dens to glide through the water and bask in the sun.
Occasionally in winter, alligators use a unique method to maintain body heat. They pile on top of one another in huge stacks of reptilian bodies. While the bottommost gators must gain massive amounts of heat from this precarious approach to generating energy, there is doubt that it benefits the reptile unfortunate enough to have landed on top of the pile.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Elusive Alligator May Have Said 'See ya later,' but Reptile Sightings Still Reported in Crown Colony

The Lufkin Daily News

One of the top golf courses in the state, Lufkin's Crown Colony Country Club, attracts people with its lush greens, its lavish fairways and its scenic beauty. But according to some who live there or frequent the area on a regular basis, alligators seem to like it, too. Danny McCoy, manager of the Crown Colony Country Club, said he had heard rumors about alligators in lakes that dot the club's golf course.
"I have never seen them myself," he said. "They're probably very small. Our grounds superintendent is always keeping an eye out for them ... but there is not any confirmation." Not many members have actually reported sighting the alligators, McCoy said. While some members claim to have seen them, they did not want their names used in this story. "We saw the head (a couple of weeks ago)," said a woman who plays golf regularly on the Crown Colony course. McCoy believes the alligator tales began after the black panther legends died down. "There was a story that there was black panther going around and then (the alligator story) came up."
Stories of alligator sightings have been going on since the summer, McCoy said, "but the employees never saw them." The golf course has three small lake areas that are anywhere between five and 10 feet deep, he said. The alligators could be there. There are a lot of creeks too, but they don't hold water continuously. "In the summertime, alligators can be seen basking in the sun," McCoy said. "But we didn't see them in the summer."
Gordon Henley, director of the Ellen Trout Zoo and resident alligator and crocodile expert, said he too had heard that there were alligators in or around the golf course. He has not seen them either, and he says this is the wrong time of the year to start looking for them. "(The current) weather conditions cause alligators to retreat," Henley said. "In (the Ellen Trout Lake) I don't recall seeing alligators when the temperature was below 80 degrees."
Alligators need a pond or a lake to live in — "a wet environment," Henley said. "They need ample food supply and shelter. And there has to be more than one to multiply." Alligators eat snakes, turtles, fish, raccoons and opossums, he said.
While they are no longer an endangered species, they are still threatened, said Monique Slaughter, natural resource specialist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It is important for people to remember, Henley said, that the eastern part of Texas is the natural home of the alligators. Mostly, alligators are content basking in the sun and being left alone, Henley said. The danger comes when people try feeding them. "They don't eat people as a regular food item," he said.
McCoy said he would concerned about alligators on the golf course in the country club area because of pets, dogs and children who are always nearby. "If we see one, we will call the parks and wildlife department," he said. "And we encourage anyone who sees one to do the same."