Scientist launches hunt for Loch Ness ‘monster DNA’

A depiction of the double helical structure of DNA. Its four coding units (A, T, C, G) are color-coded in pink, orange, purple and yellow. Credit: NHGRI

Tales of a giant creature lurking beneath the murky waves of Loch Ness have been around for more than 1,500 years—and one academic hopes the marvels of modern science can finally unravel the mystery.


Neil Gemmell has travelled from the University of Otago in New Zealand to collect water samples in the Scottish lake, in the hope of finding out more about the creatures that inhabit its depths.

“Over 1,000 people claim that they have seen a monster. Maybe there is something extraordinary out there,” he told AFP, as he dropped a five-litre probe into the loch.

Gemmell said he would be keeping an eye out for “monster DNA” but the project was more aimed at testing environmental DNA techniques to understand the natural world.

Local resident Adrian Shine said Gemmell’s findings could contribute to his own long running research programme—The Loch Ness Project.

The venture was itself inspired by the efforts of earlier international explorers like American Dan Scott Taylor who patrolled the loch in his Beatles-inspired Yellow Submarine in the late 1960s.

“I’m sure that some species will be found which have probably not been described. They’re more likely than anything else to be bacteria,” Shine told AFP.

“If you did find something else—and I do emphasise the if—then you would actually get quite a good handle on what sort of creature, what class of animal, it is.”

‘Record number of sightings’

Theories abound about the true nature of the Loch Ness Monster, from a malevolent, shape-shifting “water horse”, to an aquatic survivor of the dinosaur age, right down to logs, fish, wading birds or simply waves which have been blown out of all proportion.

“Anything that you see on the loch that you don’t understand can be your Loch Ness Monster on that day,” Shine said.

The earliest chronicles of a creature in Loch Ness are attributed to Saint Columba, who brought Christianity to Scotland in the sixth century.

The last reported sighting was on March 26 this year by a US couple standing on the ramparts of the majestic ruin of Urquhart Castle.

“They described a large shadow moving under the water which they estimated to be around 30 feet in length,” said Dave Bell, skipper of the Nessie Hunter tourist boat.

“Last year we had a record number of sightings: 11 in total.”

Bell has never seen anything himself in his many years on the loch, but that does not shake his belief that there is something down there.

“I find it hard to believe that over 1,000 people can be wrong,” he said.

“Too many rational, level-headed people have said they have seen what they believe to be a creature in the loch.”

-Tourism boom—The Highlands are experiencing a boom in tourism—and not all of it is related to mythical monsters.

Inverness is the gateway to the North Coast 500, a new 500-mile (800-kilometre) trail dubbed “Scotland’s Route 66” which attracted 26 percent more tourists to the area last year, according to the Highlands and Islands Enterprise agency.

“There’s a lot more people around,” said Joanna Stebbings, operations manager at Loch Ness Lifeboat Station, which carried out a record 33 rescues last year.

“All the hire companies, whether they are kayaks or cruisers or even yachts are fully booked.”

Andrea Ferguson, 56, a school teacher from Saint Louis, Missouri, took a trip on Nessie Hunter to try to catch sight of the monster which has fascinated her since childhood.

“So many sightings have been made that there may be a little truth to the Loch Ness Monster,” she told AFP.

“The loch is huge. It’s even bigger than I thought it was.

“It’s dark water, very mysterious, there’s lots of fog and mist, and large mountains draped in clouds so it has an aura of majesty and mystery about it. It’s beautiful!”


Explore further:
Legend of Loch Ness Monster will be tested with DNA samples

Research shows diet shift of beluga whales in Alaska inlet

Research shows diet shift of beluga whales in Alaska inlet
In this August, 2009, file photo provided by the Department of Defense, a Cook Inlet beluga whale calf, left, and an adult breach near Anchorage, Alaska. A new study concludes that endangered beluga whales in Cook Inlet changed their diet over five decades from saltwater prey to fish and crustaceans influenced by freshwater. The analysis of isotopes in beluga bone and teeth by University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers showed belugas formerly fed on prey that had little contact with freshwater. (Christopher Garner/Department of Defense via AP, File)

Beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet may have changed their diet over five decades from saltwater prey to fish and crustaceans influenced by freshwater, according to a study by University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers.


An analysis of isotopes in beluga bone and teeth showed belugas formerly fed on prey that had little contact with freshwater. More recent generations of belugas fed in areas where rivers pour freshwater into ocean habitats.

New information on Cook Inlet belugas is important because the species is endangered and its numbers have not increased despite hunting restrictions and other protections. Mark Nelson, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the lead author of the study, called it a little piece of that puzzle.

“If there’s something we can do to help them recover, we might start to know what that might be,” he said in a phone interview from Fairbanks.

A population of 1,300 belugas in Cook Inlet dwindled steadily through the 1980s and early 1990s. Alaska Natives harvested nearly half the remaining 650 whales between 1994 and 1998. Subsistence hunting ended in 1999 but the population remains at only about 340 animals.

Belugas feed on fish, crab, shrimp, squid and clams. Nelson as part of graduate work joined other researchers to analyze samples of cheekbones and teeth of beluga whales that died between 1964 and 2007.

They first looked carbon and nitrogen isotopes taken from bone, which is replenished by a whale’s diet throughout its life.

The analysis indicated that feeding had changed between generations. That could have signaled a prey change from ocean-bottom creatures to fish, Nelson said. It could have meant belugas were leaving Cook Inlet to feed. Researchers said both were unlikely and turned their attention to beluga teeth.

Like tree rings, teeth have annual growth layers. Measuring isotopes in the growth layers reveals how feeding habits by an individual changed over its life, Nelson said.

A key question, Nelson said, was when change occurred in feeding habits and whether the change could be linked to documented events, such as a change in herring abundance or even the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake. Researchers found no evidence of a sudden change in diet.

“It was a pretty steady change over the whole course of time, the whole course of that almost 50 years of data,” Nelson said.

Researchers then analyzed strontium isotopes in teeth. They established that belugas might be eating the same food but that their prey was coming from areas of Cook Inlet influenced by fresh water. That meshed with data from aerial surveys indicating recent generations of belugas were spending time in upper Cook Inlet near big rivers such as the Kenai and the Susitna.

“From that, we were able to say that not only are they spending more time in the freshwater environments, they’re actually getting most of their food from that freshwater environment,” Nelson said.

Verena Gill, a marine mammal specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the findings are significant because they cover five decades.

“We know that it is a real change rather than an anomalous year or two,” she said.

The study tells NOAA administrators that the Cook Inlet belugas’ shift to more freshwater-influenced habitat began long before the documented population decline, Gill said.

“However, whether this is due to a change in prey availability or foraging location of whales has yet to be determined,” Gill said.

NOAA announced in September it was granting $1.3 million to Alaska for additional beluga research.

Researchers will analyze more teeth and pin down strontium signatures of water samples to determine what areas of Cook Inlet are important to belugas, Nelson said. Isotope research will be coupled with acoustic recorder research, which can determine where belugas are spending time and where they are feeding. Much is known about summer feeding habits but not much about winter habits.

“Understanding that better could be a real key here,” Nelson said.


Explore further:
Researchers want to know why beluga whales haven’t recovered

Flatworms found to win most battles with harvestmen

(a) The harvestman Mischonyx cuspidatus alive, in frontal view. The chelicerae cannot be seen because they are hidden behind the pedipalps (dotted circle). Inset: Another individual in ventral view, showing the pedipalps and chelicerae (dotted circle); (b) M. cuspidatus in frontal view after being killed and its body contents consumed by the flatworm Cephaloflexa bergi. Pedipalps and chelicerae have been detached by the flatworm and therefore are missing (dotted circle) and the internal contents of the prey have been ingested by the flatworm. Inset: The same individual in ventral view, showing the absence of pedipalps and chelicerae (dotted circle). Arrows in both figures show the spines of the ocularium. Credit: Journal of Zoology (2018). DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12570

A trio of researchers with Universidade de São Paulo has documented evidence of flatworms and harvestmen engaging in battle in the forests of Brazil. In their paper published in the Journal of Zoology, M. S. Silva. R. H. Willemart and F. Carbayo describe what they observed in the wild and what they saw when they brought samples of the combatants into their lab.


There are a many types of flatworms, including planarians, parasitic flukes and tapeworms. In this research effort, the researchers were looking at Cephaloflexa bergi, a small flatworm that emits mucus as a means of catching prey. There are a lot of types of daddy long-leg spiders, too, one of which is the harvestman. Although not technically a spider, it has the long legs that most people identify with a group of spindly arachnids. Though not typically considered dangerous, it does have sharp spines on its legs. In their study, the researchers sought to uncover more about the interactions that occur between the two bugs in the forests of Brazil.

The researchers went into the forest and watched them interact, which generally meant fight. They discovered that the flatworms usually won such battles, which the team found somewhat surprising. To get a better handle on what occurred, the team collected several specimens of each and brought them into the lab for study.

The researchers report that the flatworms were the aggressors. A flatworm would approach a harvestman and whip the tip of its body at a leg, causing it to adhere via the mucus on its body. As the harvestman attempted to extricate itself, the flatworm would grab another leg. Sometimes, the flatworm would even hogtie the arachnid, gluing its legs together, or to the ground. In each case, the goal was clearly the same—disable the harvestman to the point that the flatworm could eat it. But the battle was not all one-sided, the researchers found. Some of the harvestmen managed to use their sharp spines to injure the flatworms. In some instances, they even managed to cut their attacker in half, allowing them to flee. The harvestmen also emitted chemicals normally used to ward off other predators, but they did not seem to have much of an impact on the flatworms.


Explore further:
Visual processing capabilities of flatworm found to be more complex than thought

More information:
M. S. Silva et al. Sticky flatworms (Platyhelminthes) kill armored harvestmen (Arachnida, Opiliones) but are not immune to the prey′s weapons, Journal of Zoology (2018). DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12570

Abstract
Asking how prey respond to different species of predators helps understanding the repertoire of defenses prey exhibit. This approach may also add to the knowledge on the efficiency of prey′s defenses against each predator and allows studying the costs of being attacked by different predators. Here, we studied interactions between the predatory terrestrial flatworm Cephaloflexa bergi and the harvestman Mischonyx cuspidatus. The flatworm quickly strikes at the prey′s leg with its head, then crawls towards the prey′s body releasing mucus and thus subdues the harvestman. Harvestmen may release defensive chemicals and pinch the flatworm with spines on legs IV, sometimes cutting the predator in two pieces. We also experimentally assessed the benefits of harvestmen′ defense and the cost of being attacked by testing whether the chemical defense of the harvestmen is efficient against the flatworm and whether the harvestmen that had survived a flatworm attack would have their locomotion abilities hampered. Both hypotheses were corroborated. Previous studies on interactions between harvestmen and other predators, such as spiders and scorpions, had shown that defensive secretions and mechanical retaliation were seldom used and were often ineffective. Our results point to the exact opposite and suggest that different predators exert different selective pressures culminating in the array of defenses exhibited by the prey.

Journal reference:
Journal of Zoology

Fish suffer stage fright?

Credit: University of St Andrews

Archerfish, famed for their ability to hunt prey by shooting them down with jets of water, seem to suffer social inhibition, according to new research led by the University of St Andrews.


The new study, published in Animal Behaviour (Friday 15 June), has discovered that archerfish take longer to make a shot when they are observed by another fish.

When shooting, archerfish need to ‘aim’, lining up their body with and focusing on their target, but sometimes they will aim without shooting. On those occasions the fish will reposition before aiming again and making a shot from a different position or angle.

The research, led by scientists from the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution at St Andrews, in collaboration with Bayreuth University, Germany, found that when archerfish are observed by fish in a neighbouring tank, the shooting fish more frequently aim and reposition before making a shot. This change in behaviour may be a tactic to reduce competition from other archerfish.

Archerfish are capable of rapidly determining where and when a shot prey item will land; any archerfish that can see a shot being made can work out where the prey will land – as a result they may be able to get the prey item before the fish that made the effort to shoot. By hesitating before shooting archerfish may be able to find the time and position that allows them to reach their prey before a non-shooting thief.

Archerfish are renowned for behaviours and abilities that are considered cognitively sophisticated, for example being capable of compensating for the effects of light refraction while shooting and even learning to shoot rapidly moving targets. However, until recently little research has been conducted on the social factors that may affect them and their performance of their behaviour. This is the first study to be completed as part of a programme of research into social aspects of archerfish behaviour.

Lead researcher Nick Jones said: “Archerfish may be famous for their shooting ability, but they may be even more remarkable for their capacity for making rapid decisions with high accuracy. Our study suggests that archers are affected by social context and may sacrifice speed to better ensure success when foraging.”


Explore further:
Archerfish tune their shots to universal properties of prey adhesion

More information:
Nick A.R. Jones et al. Presence of an audience and consistent interindividual differences affect archerfish shooting behaviour, Animal Behaviour (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2018.04.024

Journal reference:
Animal Behaviour

Provided by:
University of St Andrews

Strategic strikes by mantis shrimp smash shells selectively

For a tiny crustacean, Caribbean rock mantis shrimp (Neogonodactylus bredini) pack a ferocious punch. Bludgeoning the shells of snails and other crustaceans to gain access to the tasty snail within, mantis shrimp flick their cudgel-like claws at accelerations approaching those of a bullet exiting a gun. Yet, Rachel Crane from Stanford University, USA, explains that the ballistic shrimp is the odd one out in the world of snail and crustacean demolishers: ‘Animals like crabs and fish slowly crush shells’. However, despite the wealth of high-speed information about the mantis shrimp’s pulverising attacks, little was known about their overall strategies. Would the smashing crustaceans strike shells haphazardly or would they precisely pinpoint their assaults? And could they change their plan of attack if thwarted? Intrigued, Crane and her PI, Sheila Patek from Duke University, USA, began investigating the feisty creatures’ striking strategy and discovered that they specifically strike the most fragile regions of the shell. They published the discovery in Journal of Experimental Biology.


‘Collecting these mantis shrimp is usually easy’, recalls Crane, describing how the animals live in shallow clear water and are conspicuous when they poke their eyes and antennules out of their burrows. Fortunately, the inquisitive scientists’ fingers were at little risk from the spirited crustaceans—which weren’t averse to taking a swipe—as the animals were so small, although Crane recalls that they could draw blood if they unfurled their dactyl spears.

Back at Duke, Crane and Samantha Kisare tempted the stomatopods with snails ranging from squat-shelled Nerita versicolor to long helical-shelled Cerithium atratum to catch the mantis shrimp in the act. ‘We have endless hours of video footage of mantis shrimp doing pretty much everything besides eating’, chuckles Crane, but the team’s patience was eventually rewarded as they caught the animals carefully rotating the shells into position with their maxillipeds, before placing their antennules on the shell and delivering the first of as many as 460 blows. And when Crane and Kisare teamed up with Suzanne Cox to analyse the strike pattern, it was clear that mantis shrimp primarily focused their attack on the opening of the shorter squat shells, chipping away to gain access to the snail within. However, Crane admits that she was blown away when she and Kisare watched a crustacean dine on longer skinny Cerithium snails. Explaining that the mantis shrimp in Patek’s lab usually consume squat-shelled snails, she was astonished when the animals switched the point of their attack to the apex of the long Cerithinum shells after failing to penetrate the open end.

Wondering whether the crustaceans were deliberately targeting the most fragile regions of the shell, Crane and Cox assaulted the shells with a mantis shrimp robot—affectionately known as Ninjabot, which Cox had built previously with David Schmidt, Yahya Modarres-Sadeghi and Patek—to test which portions of each shell were most vulnerable. However, the team quickly realised that the crustacean’s shell-positioning ritual was far more sophisticated than they had thought. ‘Setting up tiny shells to be struck [by Ninjabot] at exactly the desired angle against a complex substrate was exceptionally frustrating and time consuming’, Crane recalls. Eventually, she and Cox confirmed that the central portion of the shell, which the mantis shrimp avoid striking, is the most robust while the opening and apex regions are more fragile. They also realised that the resourceful animals only resorted to hammering on the pointy end of the longest and slimmest shells when they were no longer able to chip away at the opening, because the thick ridges that run across the whorls prevented the damage from penetrating further.

So, mantis shrimp target specific regions of a shell and they can adapt their strategies to suit, but there are still many more tantalising mantis shrimp mysteries to resolve.


Explore further:
Extreme mobility of mantis shrimp eyes

More information:
R. L. Crane et al, Smashing mantis shrimp strategically impact shells, The Journal of Experimental Biology (2018). DOI: 10.1242/jeb.176099

Journal reference:
Journal of Experimental Biology

Provided by:
The Company of Biologists

Elevated androgens don’t hinder dads’ parenting—at least not in lemurs

A male red-bellied lemur cares for his offspring in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park. Credit: Velontsara Jeanne Baptiste

Studies have shown that when men marry and have children, they often see a decline in their androgen levels—or their levels of male sex hormones. Scientists think this could be due to the fact that androgens, such as testosterone, are commonly associated with aggression and mate competition, and could therefore impede dads’ abilities to bond with and care for their children.


Yet, research on another primate—the red-bellied lemur—suggests a different story.

Stacey Tecot, an associate professor in the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology, has spent 18 years studying red-bellied lemurs in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park.

Her most recent research, to be published in a special issue of the journal Physiology and Behavior, looks at how male lemurs’ hormone levels fluctuate as they care for their infants.

Much to her surprise, Tecot discovered that male lemurs’ androgen levels actually increase the more they engage in child care behaviors.

“When we think of paternal care, we tend to think lower androgens mean less aggression and more nurturing behaviors, but this research tells us that in lemurs, androgens are not inhibiting infant care, and they might actually be facilitating care,” she said.

Red-bellied lemurs live in close-knit groups of three to five—one adult female, one adult male and their offspring. The male and female reproduce no more than once a year.

Tecot and her co-author, Hunter College biological anthropologist Andrea Baden, based their findings on observations, over a two-year period, of 56 red-bellied lemurs across 13 groups.

Male red-bellied lemur carrying his baby. Credit: Pierre Lahitsara

They recorded the lemurs’ engagement in five different infant care behaviors: grooming, playing, carrying, holding and “huddling,” which entails snuggling close to one another in a group, with tails wrapped around each other’s bodies. They then tested fecal samples, gathered from the rainforest floor, for their androgen levels.

Overall, the more that lemur dads engaged in caretaking behaviors, the higher their androgen levels were. Only one caretaking behavior—carrying—was associated with a decrease in androgens.

Like humans, lemurs engage in allomaternal care, meaning others besides the biological mother participate in caring for offspring. In lemur families, fathers and siblings may help out, while in humans, caregiving responsibilities may also extend to other family members, friends, teachers, babysitters and so on.

Tecot and Baden studied the caregiving behaviors of all members of the lemur groups, but they found the elevated androgen levels only in fathers.

Tecot suspects the spike is not the result of increased mating urges, since red-bellied lemurs only mate once a year, but may instead be linked instead to protective parenting.

“When you think about how you care for a child, it consists of not only nurturing behaviors, but also protective behaviors,” Tecot said. “We think you will see elevated androgen levels across a wide variety of species, including humans, when they’re guarding and protecting their infants. Then, when they perform other, more nurturing behaviors, you’ll see a negative relationship with androgen levels, like we saw with carrying.”

The male lemurs’ interactions with their infants varied widely across the groups, and even among single subjects from year to year. Future research should consider what might cause those variations, Tecot said.

In red-bellied lemurs, dads participate in childcare responsibilities as well as moms and siblings. Credit: Pierre Lahitsara

“There were some dads that invested more time with their infants than the mom did, and there were other dads who maybe only performed the behaviors we measured once or twice,” she said.

On average, male lemurs spend about as much time with their infants as human fathers in the United States do, Tecot said. Research suggests that male lemurs generally have about 27 percent as much contact as females with their offspring, while human dads, on average, have 25 to 35 percent as much contact with their infants as mothers do.

Tecot suggests future studies should consider how human dads’ androgen levels may also fluctuate as they engage in different child care behaviors.

“In humans, several studies have looked at how males’ androgen levels change once they’ve been paired up in a committed relationship and once they become dads,” Tecot said. “It’s hard to know if it’s because they’ve stopped the search for a mate or if it’s because of the child, but we know that, overall, dads show this decline in androgen levels. But not much research has looked at how those levels change in response to their interactions with their kids.”

The bottom line, Tecot says: Elevated androgen levels may not hinder the ability to bond with and care for infants, as expected.

“Fathers go through hormonal changes, as well as mothers, that can help facilitate care of offspring, and elevated androgen levels don’t necessarily inhibit infant care,” Tecot said. “They could actually facilitate it.”


Explore further:
Prague zoo says it’s on its way to breeding rare lemurs

More information:
Stacey R. Tecot et al, Profiling caregivers: Hormonal variation underlying allomaternal care in wild red-bellied lemurs, Eulemur rubriventer, Physiology & Behavior (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2017.12.007

Provided by:
University of Arizona

Flying spiders sense meteorological conditions, use nanoscale fibers to float on the wind

The crab spider spins out tens of fine silk fibers for its aerial dispersal. A triangular sheet of fibers is observed at the moment of the takeoff. Credit: Moonsung Cho, Technical University of Berlin.

Spiders take flight on the smallest of breezes by first sensing the wind, and then spinning out dozens of nanoscale fibers up to seven meters long, according to a study publishing June 14 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Moonsung Cho, Ingo Rechenberg, Peter Neubauer, and Christoph Fahrenson at the Technische Universität in Berlin. The study provides an unprecedentedly detailed look at the “ballooning” behavior that allows certain spiders to travel on the wind for hundreds of kilometers.


Many kinds of spiders engage in ballooning, either to disperse from their birth site, to search for food or mates, or to find new sites for colonization. While most ballooning spiders are juveniles or small adults, under 3 millimeters in length, some larger adults also balloon. Although the behavior has been studied before, these authors are the first to make detailed measurements of both the sensing behavior and the silk fibers that are used to catch the wind.

Through a combination of field observations and wind tunnel experiments, they found that large crab spiders (Xysticus species), about 5 mm long and weighing up to 25 milligrams, actively evaluated wind conditions by repeatedly raising one or both front legs and orienting to the wind direction. At wind speeds under 3.0 m/sec (7 mph), with relatively light updrafts, the spiders spun out multiple ballooning silks averaging 3 meters long, before releasing themselves from a separate silk line anchoring them to the blade of grass from which they launched. A single spider released up to 60 fibers, most of them as thin as 200 nanometers. These fibers differed from a drag line, which has been known as a ballooning line, and were produced by a separate silk gland.

The authors concluded that ballooning spiders actively sense wind characteristics and launch only when the wind speed and updraft are within relatively narrow ranges, increasing the odds of a productive flight. According to the fluid dynamic calculations the authors performed using their wind tunnel data, the spider relies on updrafts that form in the light winds into which they launch, further ensuring a successful flight.

“The pre-flight behaviors we observed suggest that crab spiders are evaluating meteorological conditions before their takeoff,” Cho said. “Ballooning is likely not just a random launch into the wind, but one that occurs when conditions most favor a productive journey.”


Explore further:
Seafaring spiders depend on their ‘sails’ and ‘anchors’

More information:
Cho M, Neubauer P, Fahrenson C, Rechenberg I (2018) An observational study of ballooning in large spiders: Nanoscale multifibers enable large spiders’ soaring flight. PLoS Biol 16(6): e2004405. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2004405

Journal reference:
PLoS Biology

Provided by:
Public Library of Science

Naming rights for five new snail-sucking snake species auctioned to save forests in Ecuador

The newly described species Dipsas bobridgelyi trying to suck a snail out of its shell. Credit: Matthijs Hollanders

Five new species of eye-catching snakes with curious eating habits were found to dwell in forests in Ecuador. Their unusual taste for snails—a rather unusual diet among typical snakes—has even sculpted their jaws in such a way that they can suck the viscous slimy body of a snail right out of its shell.


With four out of the five already deemed at risk of extinction, the international research team decided to auction their naming rights and use the money to purchase and save a previously unprotected 72 ha (178 acre) plot of land where some of these species live.

In its turn, Fundación Jocotoco is to add the purchased plot to the Buenaventura reserve, thereby expanding the only protected area where two of the new snakes are found, and prevent these endangered snake species from going extinct.

The new snail-sucking snakes are described by Alejandro Arteaga, an Ecuadorian-Venezuelan Ph.D. student at the American Museum of Natural History and scientific director of Tropical Herping and his team. Their study is published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

Three of the five species were discovered during a series of expeditions to three rainforests in Ecuador between 2013 and 2017, conducted by Alejandro and Dr. Alex Pyron, The George Washington University and National Museum of Natural History, USA.

In another habitat type, the dry forest, Ecuadorian scientists Dr. Omar Torres-Carvajal, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE), David Salazar-Valenzuela, Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica, Diego Cisneros-Heredia, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Juan Carlos Sánchez, Universidad del Azuay, Mario Yánez-Muñoz, Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INABIO), and Peruvian scientist Pablo Venegas, CORBIDI, noted the existence of the other two new species.

The new species Sibon bevridgelyi is arguably the prettiest of the lot, according to the research team. Credit: Alejandro Arteaga

In order to confirm these five snakes as new species, the team of researchers, particularly Drs. Konrad Mebert, Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz, Nicolás Peñafiel, Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica, Gabriela Aguiar, Tropical Herping, and Timothy Colston, The George Washington University and National Museum of Natural History, USA, counted scales and gathered measurements from more than 200 museum specimens, and extracted DNA from nearly 100 individual snakes.

Having made the highest bid at the auction, the Rainforest Trust (RT) and Bob Ridgely got to name three of the five new snakes.

Thus, the species name Dipsas georgejetti was chosen to honor George Jett, who supported the inception of Fundación Jocotoco’s reserves in Ecuador; while Dipsas bobridgelyi is a tribute to Dr. Robert “Bob” S. Ridgely himself—a leading ornithologist and distinguished conservationist, who helped the establishment of the Buenaventura reserve. In his turn, Bob, who was at the auction, chose the name Sibon bevridgelyi (Bev Ridgely’s Snail-Eater) to honor his father.

The remaining two snail-eating species, Dipsas oswaldobaezi and Dipsas klebbai, were named after Dr. Oswaldo Báez and Casey Klebba, respectively, in recognition for their passion for Ecuador’s biodiversity and conservation.

“We had to let people know that these cool snakes exist,” Alejandro said, “and that these species might soon stop to exist, and we need people’s help to protect the snake’s habitat.”

The species Dipsas klebbai is the only one of the newly described not currently threatened with extinction. Credit: Alejandro Arteaga

“Several companies let you name a star after a loved one,” he noted, “but, generally, such names have no formal validity. Naming an entire species after someone you love or admire is different. With few exceptions, this is the name that both the general public and the whole scientific community will use. So, why not let people choose the name of a species in exchange for a donation that protects its habitat?”

The act of naming species is essential in raising awareness about the existence of a species and its risk of extinction, but it also provides an opportunity to recognize and honor the work of the people and institutions fighting to protect the species.

“Naming species is at the core of biology”, says Dr. Juan M. Guayasamin, co-author of the study and professor at Universidad San Francisco in Quito. “Not a single study is really complete if it is not attached to the name of a species, and most species that share the planet with us are not described.”

“Everybody knows elephants and orangutans,” says Dr. Martin Schaefer of Fundación Jocotoco, “but some reptiles and amphibians are even more threatened. Yet, we still lack even basic information needed to protect them better. This is why the work by scientists is so important; it provides the necessary information to guide our conservation decisions.”

“Through photography or by joining a scientific expedition, the general public can learn more about hidden biodiversity and how threatened it is,” says Lucas Bustamante of Tropical Herping. “This is a model to obtain support for research and conservation while recruiting more environmental ambassadors.”


Explore further:
A rather thin and long new snake crawls out of one of Earth’s biodiversity hotspots

More information:
Arteaga A, Salazar-Valenzuela D, Mebert K, Peñafiel N, Aguiar G, Sánchez-Nivicela JC, Pyron RA, Colston TJ, Cisneros-Heredia DF, Yánez-Muñoz MH, Venegas PJ, Guayasamin JM, Torres-Carvajal O (2018) Systematics of South American snail eating snakes (Serpentes, Dipsadini), with the description of five new species from Ecuador and Peru. ZooKeys 766: 79-147. doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.766.24523

Journal reference:
ZooKeys

Provided by:
Pensoft Publishers

Zinc plays vital role in animal and human fertility, can help scientists quickly diagnose infertility

Infertility affects about 20 percent of the U.S. population and can be incredibly costly; it also costs the livestock industry billions of dollars each year. Researchers at the University of Missouri have found that zinc plays a key role in promoting fertility in males, a discovery that has implications for improved in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination in livestock, and for human infertility diagnostics and therapies.


“Zinc is linked directly with fertility,” said Peter Sutovsky, a professor of animal science in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “We have known that giving males zinc supplements—whether pigs or humans—improves fertility. Now we know that analyzing zinc signatures can help us quickly evaluate the fertilizing potential and quality of sperm.”

Scientists have long struggled to understand what regulates sperm “capacitation,” the vital physiological process sperm must undergo to become capable of fertilizing an egg cell. Sutovsky and doctoral student Karl Kerns used a state-of-the-art image-based flow cytometer—which can take images of up to 2,000 cells per second and track biomarkers such as zinc with fluorescent dyes—to monitor zinc localization during various stages of capacitation in sperm cells. They found that zinc ions (Zn2+) exert significant control over capacitation beyond merely enabling the process, in that the ion can prevent and even reverse the capacitation process in some cases. This also occurs when an egg has already been fertilized and must defend against another fertilization.

MU Finds New Way to Combat Infertility. Credit: MU News Bureau

Another product of the research was the ability to quickly and accurately evaluate the fertility of livestock or humans by analyzing their sperm cells with the flow cytometer. This allows for more informed decision-making when it comes to alternative processes like in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination. For example, sperm cells are traditionally “diluted” before artificial insemination into livestock, which eliminates some of the zinc. Preserving the zinc would lead to healthier sperm and a greater ability to identify infertility.

“Infertility is a costly issue for both humans and animals,” Kerns said. “This study gives us tools to approach the problem more efficiently by demonstrating the importance of zinc—both as a mediator of fertility and as an indicator we can use to identify issues with sperm. If we could add just one more pig to every litter, that would increase the income of U.S. pork farmers by $130 million per year.”

The study, “Zinc ion flux during mammalian sperm capacitation,” was published in Nature Communications.


Explore further:
Study in Bangladesh shows zinc is an essential element in male fertility

More information:
Karl Kerns et al. Zinc ion flux during mammalian sperm capacitation, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04523-y

Journal reference:
Nature Communications

Provided by:
University of Missouri-Columbia

Study shows more people are afraid of scorpions than spiders

Study shows more people are afraid of scorpions than spiders
People are more fearful of scorpions than spiders, a UCR study shows. Credit: University of California – Riverside

“I hate spiders.”


“How do you work with them?”

“I’d rather scoop maggots off a corpse than deal with a spider.”

Those are some of the typical responses Rick Vetter hears when he tells people about his work as an arachnologist at the University of California, Riverside.

“It doesn’t matter if I say they’re beneficial, many people just want them dead,” said Vetter, a retired research associate who spent 32 years in UCR’s entomology department. “Even some of the entomologists I’ve worked with are incredibly afraid of spiders.”

Spiders and snakes reign supreme in the world of animal phobias, but the evolutionary reason for spider fear isn’t well understood. Some psychologists believe it has an innate foundation, since humans may be genetically programmed to fear animals that can cause them harm.

But such visceral reactions to spiders have always intrigued Vetter, who said most of the long-legged arthropods are “easily squishable” and few are harmful to humans. Even those that bite often leave nothing more than a pinprick at first, with more severe symptoms developing hours or days later.

The danger of spiders pales in comparison to another member of the arachnid family: scorpions, whose venomous stings cause immediate searing pain, severe reactions, and sometimes death.

“In terms of innate fear, scorpions would be a much better candidate for aversive reaction than spiders. But as an arachnologist, I rarely hear about peoples’ fear of scorpions,” Vetter said. “Nor do scorpions enjoy the same monster-like status in popular culture.”

With this in mind, Vetter and colleagues from five universities across the U.S. set out to study fear of spiders and scorpions among 800 students in Green Bay, Wisconsin; Cookeville, Tennessee; Athens, Georgia; Tucson, Arizona; and Riverside. The Wisconsin site is the only location devoid of scorpions, while the Arizona location is the only one to host a potentially deadly scorpion, Centruroides sculpturatus, commonly known as the Arizona Bark Scorpion.

The researchers used the well-known “Fear of Spiders” questionnaire, which they adapted to measure fear of scorpions. The participants were asked to agree or disagree with statements, such as, “If I saw a spider now, I would leave the room,” and “Spiders are one of my worst fears.” The scientists predicted spider fear would be higher than scorpion fear overall, with students in Arizona being the most fearful of scorpions, and those in Wisconsin the least fearful.

Published today in the non-peer reviewed “Musings” section of American Entomologist, the results surprised them: respondents from all locations reported being more fearful of scorpions than spiders.

“The results from our survey blew our predictions to smithereens,” Vetter said. “Not only were people more afraid of scorpions than spiders at all universities, but scorpion fears in Wisconsin were equal to or higher than scorpion fears in Arizona. That fact that students in scorpion-free Wisconsin registered such high fear scores is mind boggling.”

Vetter said it’s possible that exposure to arachnids leads to habituation and therefore lower scores, which might also explain why scorpion fear was low among Arizona students.

“Are high scorpion fear scores in Wisconsin due to fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar?” said Vetter, who said the paper’s inconclusive findings open the door for psychology researchers to explore scorpion fear, which is much less studied than spider fear.

“By adding scorpions to the research mix, psychologists might be able to get a better understanding of arachnid fear in humans,” he said.


Explore further:
Entomologist explains why you shouldn’t kill spiders in your home

More information:
Richard S Vetter et al. Spider Fear Versus Scorpion Fear in Undergraduate Students at Five American Universities, American Entomologist (2018). DOI: 10.1093/ae/tmy030

Provided by:
University of California – Riverside