Baby panda born in Malaysia zoo makes public debut

Baby panda born in Malaysia zoo makes public debut
A new baby panda sits on the ground at Malaysia Zoo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Saturday, May 26, 2018. A baby panda born in a Malaysian zoo five months ago has made her first media appearance. The female panda, which has not yet been named, is the second offspring of giant pandas Liang Liang and Xing Xing, both of which are on a 10-year loan to Malaysia since 2014. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

A baby panda born in a Malaysian zoo five months ago made her public debut Saturday.

The female, which has not yet been named, is the second offspring of giant pandas Liang Liang and Xing Xing, both of which are on a 10-year loan to Malaysia since 2014.

The first cub, a female called Nuan Nuan born in August 2015, was sent back to China last November as part of a deal with Beijing to return cubs born in captivity at age 2.

Members of the media watched and filmed the cub in an air-conditioned enclosure at the national zoo through a glass shield. Zoologists said the healthy cub weighs 9 kilograms (19.8 pounds) and will face the public later Saturday.

Zoo officials have said the giant panda pair broke the world record for a second baby in four years via natural reproduction. Malaysia’s national zoo has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on a panda complex including bamboo trees mimicking their natural habitat, after China loaned the cub’s parents to mark 40 years of diplomatic relations with Malaysia.

According to WWF, there are 1,864 giant pandas in the wild, living mainly in bamboo forests high in the mountains of western China and subsisting almost entirely on bamboo.

The pair arrived just weeks after a Malaysian plane carrying 239 people, mostly Chinese citizens, disappeared in March 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Chinese media at the time criticized the Malaysian government and Malaysia Airlines over their handling of the tragedy. The jet still hasn’t been found.

Baby panda born in Malaysia zoo makes public debut
A zoo worker holds a baby panda at Malaysia Zoo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Saturday, May 26, 2018. The female panda which was born in the zoo five months ago and has not yet been named, made her first media appearance. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Baby panda born in Malaysia zoo makes public debut
A zoo worker holds a baby panda at Malaysia Zoo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Saturday, May 26, 2018. The female panda which was born in the zoo five months ago and has not yet been named, made her first media appearance. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Baby panda born in Malaysia zoo makes public debut
A new baby panda looks on at Malaysia Zoo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Saturday, May 26, 2018. A baby panda born in a Malaysian zoo five months ago has made her first media appearance. The female panda, which has not yet been named, is the second offspring of giant pandas Liang Liang and Xing Xing, both of which are on a 10-year loan to Malaysia since 2014. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Baby panda born in Malaysia zoo makes public debut
A zoo worker plays with a baby panda at Malaysia Zoo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Saturday, May 26, 2018. The female panda which was born in the zoo five months ago and has not yet been named, made her first media appearance. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Baby panda born in Malaysia zoo makes public debut
A new baby panda sits on the ground at Malaysia Zoo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Saturday, May 26, 2018. A baby panda born in a Malaysian zoo five months ago has made her first media appearance. The female panda, which has not yet been named, is the second offspring of giant pandas Liang Liang and Xing Xing, both of which are on a 10-year loan to Malaysia since 2014. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Baby panda born in Malaysia zoo makes public debut
A zoo worker plays with a new baby panda at Malaysia Zoo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Saturday, May 26, 2018. The baby panda born in a Malaysian zoo five months ago has made her first media appearance. The female panda, which has not yet been named, is the second offspring of giant pandas Liang Liang and Xing Xing, both of which are on a 10-year loan to Malaysia since 2014. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Baby panda born in Malaysia zoo makes public debut
Media take photographs of a new baby panda at Malaysia Zoo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Saturday, May 26, 2018. A baby panda born in a Malaysian zoo five months ago has made her first media appearance. The female panda, which has not yet been named, is the second offspring of giant pandas Liang Liang and Xing Xing, both of which are on a 10-year loan to Malaysia since 2014. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

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Bumblebees confused by iridescent colors

Bumblebee landing on an iridescent target. Credit: Karin Kjernsmo

Iridescence is a form of structural colour which uses regular repeating nanostructures to reflect light at slightly different angles, causing a colour-change effect.

It is common in nature, from the dazzling blues of peacock’s feathers, to the gem-like appearance of insects.

Although using bright flashy colours as camouflage may seem counterintuitive, researchers at the Bristol Camo Lab found that intense iridescence obstructs the bumblebee’s ability to identify shape.The eyes of bumblebees have been extensively studied by scientists and are very similar to those of other insects.

They can be used as a visual model for predatory insects such as wasps and hornets. When presented with different types of artificial flower targets rewarded with sugar water, the bees learned to recognise which shapes contained the sweet reward.

However, they found it much more difficult to discriminate between flower shape when the targets were iridescent.

This current study using bumblebees as a model for (predatory) insect vision and cognition is the first to show that iridescence indeed has the potential to deceive predators and make them overlook the prey, the same way disruptive camouflage would work to break up the otherwise recognisable outline of a prey.

The changing colours make the outline of the prey look completely different to the shape the predators are searching for.

Iridescent rose chafer. Credit: Karin Kjernsmo

The researchers concluded that iridescence produces visual signals which can confuse potential predators, and this may explain its widespread occurrence in nature.

Lead author Dr. Karin Kjernsmo of the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “It’s the first solid evidence we have that this type of colouration can be used in this way.

“Thus, if you are a visual predator searching for the specific shape of a beetle (or other prey animal), iridescence makes it difficult for predators to identify them as something edible. We are currently studying this effect using other visual predators, such as birds as well. This because birds are likely to be the most important predators of iridescent insects.”

The first links between iridescence and camouflage were first made over one hundred years ago by an American naturalist named Abbott Thayer, who is often referred to as “the father of camouflage”.

He published a famous book on different types of camouflage such as mimicry, shape disruption and dazzle, which is thought to have inspired the “Razzle Dazzle” painting of battleships during the first World War.

However, iridescence has been rather overlooked for the past century, as it is often assumed to be purely for attracting mates and displaying to other individuals.

The UK has several species of iridescent beetle, the largest of which being the Rose Chafer, whose superb green and gold colour-changing wing cases can commonly be spotted on flowers in grasslands during the summer.

Dr. Kjernsmo added: “This study has wider implications for how we understand animal vision and camouflage—now when we see these shiny beetles we can know that their amazing colours have many more functions than previously thought.”

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More information:
‘Iridescence impairs object recognition in bumblebees’ by K. Kjernsmo, J. Hall, C. Doyle, N. Khuzayim, I. Cuthill, N. Scott-Samuel and H. Whitney in Scientific Reports, 2018.

Journal reference:
Scientific Reports

Provided by:
University of Bristol

Imminent extinction of northern white rhinoceros motivates genetic recovery efforts

Nola, the last living Northern White Rhinoceroses at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Credit: San Diego Zoo Global

Earlier this year, the last remaining male Northern White Rhinoceros (NWR) died in captivity, nearly cementing the fate of this subspecies for extinction. In the wild, continuing threats of poaching, habitat destruction, and small population size have contributed to the rhinos’ status as critically endangered. Yet, novel conservation efforts that make use of cryopreserved genetic material could save the NWR, and other threatened species, from extinction.

In a study published today in Genome Research, researchers investigated the genetic history of nine NWR cryopreserved cell lines compared to that of a closely related subspecies, the Southern White Rhino (SWR). Genome analyses demonstrated that the NWR and SWR represent two distinct populations that diverge nearly 80,000 years ago, each with fairly high genetic variation compared to other threatened species. Importantly, genetic analyses of variation and inbreeding facilitated identification of cell lines, which may serve as valuable pools of genetic material for genetic rescue. Lead author Tate Tunstall, of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, emphasized the importance of this finding, stating “the SWR went through a severe genetic bottleneck, but is now the most populous of all forms of rhino at ~20,000 individuals, suggesting that a genetic rescue utilizing these cell lines could be the foundation for a similar recovery in the NWR.”

This work presents the first genome sequence of the NWR and thus the current, albeit limited, gene pool of this species. Tunstall and colleagues propose that this knowledge can help guide a tailored recovery program for the NWR.

“Our study demonstrates the emerging role for whole-genome-sequencing analysis to evaluate the potential for population recovery,” said Cynthia C. Steiner, who directed the study. Furthermore, advanced sequencing technologies, cryopreservation efforts like that of the San Diego Zoo Frozen Zoo, as well as novel reproductive strategies can be developed to improve recovery efforts for the NWR and other species that face similar threats of extinction. Recent efforts to this end are promising. The first pregnant SWR from artificial insemination has been reported by the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, and it is hoped that surrogate SWR mothers may someday give birth to NWR progeny.

Explore further:
Rhino genome results: Frozen Zoo collection has same diversity as living population

More information:
Tunstall T, Kock R, Vahala J, Diekhans M, Fiddes I, Armstrong J, Paten B, Ryder O, and Steiner C. 2018. Evaluating recovery potential of the Northern White Rhinoceros from cryobanked cells. Genome Research,

Journal reference:
Genome Research

Provided by:
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press

Mongooses inherit behavior from role models rather than parents

Mongoose escorting. Credit: Harry Marshall

Young mongooses learn lifelong habits from role models rather than inheriting them from genetic parents, new research shows.Banded mongooses live in social groups where pups are consistently cared for one-to-one by a single adult known as an “escort—not their mother or father.

They develop “niche” diets and, by studying these, University of Exeter researchers showed pups inherit the behaviour of their escort, rather than parents.

The findings offer a fascinating insight into one of the great puzzles of evolution—how diversity persists rather than disappearing with passing generations.

“It was a big surprise to discover that foraging behaviour learned in the first three months of life lasts a lifetime,” said Professor Michael Cant, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

“This is pretty remarkable, since we have no evidence that pups and escorts preferentially hang out together after pups become independent.

“Cultural inheritance, the transmission of socially learned information across generations, is a huge influence on human behaviour: we behave the way we do not just because of our genes but also because of what we learn from parents, teachers and cultural role models.

“It is less well appreciated that cultural inheritance is a major force shaping behaviour in a wide range of non-human animals, from insects to apes—and mongooses.”

An adult mongoose escorting a pup. Credit: Harry Marshall

To explore the influence of escorts on eating habits, the researchers chemically analysed the whiskers of individual mongooses.

The findings help explain how diverse behaviour persists in nature.

Early critics of Darwin’s theory of natural selection argued that, if his theory was correct, the result should be the erosion of the very variation he suggested as the engine of evolution.

The genetic reasons why this does not happen have long been understood, but the same criticism could be made of cultural inheritance: when everyone learns from the same teacher, or where each individual learns from everyone, variation should disappear.

But the new research on mongooses shows that where individuals learn from their own personal teacher, cultural inheritance can work to maintain diversity.

“Cultural inheritance is usually expected to lead to uniformity within groups,” said Dr. Harry Marshall of the Centre for Research in Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour at the University of Roehampton, a co-author of the study.

“But our work confirms a classic theoretical prediction that where individuals learn from their own personal teacher, cultural inheritance can work to maintain diversity.”

The paper, published in the journal Current Biology, is entitled: “Decoupling of genetic and cultural inheritance in a wild mammal.”

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More information:
“Decoupling of genetic and cultural inheritance in a wild mammal” Current Biology (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.05.001

Journal reference:
Current Biology

Provided by:
University of Exeter

The path to success for fish sperm

Male spawning. Credit: Michael Taborsky

In many animals, males pursue alternative tactics when competing for the fertilization of eggs. Some cichlid fishes from Lake Tanganyika breed in empty snail shells, which may select for extremely divergent mating tactics. A recent study at the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the University of Bern shows that different male types within a species produce divergent sperm, specializing either in speed or longevity.

In the context of reproductive competition, males find different ways to enhance their odds. This may include flamboyant colours, gorgeous feathers, impressive antlers or conspicuous courtship displays. Now a team lead by Michael Taborsky at the Behavioural Ecology Division of the University of Bern found that the harsh competition for fertilizations can result in the production of specialized sperm in dependence of the particular mating tactic pursued by a male.

Dwarf males versus bourgeois territory holders

“Males of cichlid fish breeding in empty snail shells may exhibit a striking divergence in traits boosting their chances in the race for fertilizations”, Michael Taborsky says. In one of these species, large males collect empty snail shells in which females can breed. They may be extremely haremic, with up to 20 females breeding in their shells at the same time. The drawback is that these males have to grow big to be able to collect and transport these massive snail shells. This means that they have to wait up to two years before being able to reproduce, that is after passing the size threshold required for successful shell carrying. This opens a niche for an alternative mating tactic: tiny males may take advantage of the nest building effort of their large competitors and sneak into shells in which a female is spawning, attempting to fertilize her eggs from inside the shell. These males can start reproducing early in life, because it takes little time to grow to a size at which this parasitic strategy warrants success. Previous studies revealed that the alternative male types in this species result from a Mendelian, sex-linked genetic polymorphism.

Dwarf male and female and nest male. Credit: Michael Taborsky

The ejaculates of these divergent male types face different challenges. While dwarf male sperm are released next to the eggs deposited in the snail shell, the sperm of nest males have to travel at least two centimetres before reaching the eggs, because nest owners are much too big to enter the shell. Hence, if at all possible, males pursuing different tactics in this species should adjust the performance and longevity of their sperm accordingly. The current study reveals that they do.

Divergent sperm performance

Measuring sperm performance at their race for the egg showed that dwarf male sperm swim swiftly and highly targeted right from the start, whereas nest male sperm start more slowly, staggering toward their target. This lessened performance pays off in the end. Taborsky’s group observed that while dwarf male sperm lose momentum quickly and die off after 2-3 minutes, nest male sperm persist for much longer, thereby surviving the long trip to the goal.

This study, which was published in Science Advances, hence showed that males pursuing different mating tactics within a species can produce highly specialized, divergent sperm that perform according to their particular fertilization conditions. This is obtained by different sperm morphology. Nest male sperm have larger heads, which allows storage of greater energy reserves for continued propulsion of the flagellum. Obviously, this comes at a cost of reduced directional swimming ability. Hence, the ecology of sperm competition can select for intricate adaptations at the level of gametes. The crucial point is to adjust to the specific challenges of the trip to the egg: either swim fast but die young, or stagger along at leisure but persist for much longer.

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More information:
“Alternative male morphs solve sperm performance/longevity trade-off in opposite directions” Science Advances (2018).

Journal reference:
Science Advances

Provided by:
University of Bern

Researchers build most comprehensive tree of life for malaria parasites

In this microscopic image, two different genera of malaria parasite interact within a bird host. Credit: AMNH/S. Galen

A new study led by the American Museum of Natural History puts forth the most comprehensive tree of life for malaria parasites to date. Known for being a devastating scourge of human health, with five species known to infect humans, there are more than 500 described species of malaria that infect mammals, birds, and reptiles. Among the researchers’ findings, which were published today in the journal Royal Society Open Science, is that the diverse malaria parasite genus Plasmodium (which includes those species that infect humans) is composed of several distantly related evolutionary lineages, and, from a taxonomic standpoint, many species should be renamed.

“Many problems related to diseases that afflict humans involve the capacity of infectious organisms to evolve and adapt,” said co-author Susan Perkins, a curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology and a principal investigator in the Museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. “We won’t be able to fully understand human-infecting malaria parasites—and possibly, develop unique ways to fight them—until we know more about their evolutionary history.”

Mapping the relationships of malaria parasites is challenging on multiple levels. Many of these parasites are rare and difficult to sample, and tailored to infect specific species, such as a single type of green-blooded skink in New Guinea or bats in remote forests of Africa. Malaria parasites also have peculiar DNA: while most organisms have a relatively even proportion of the four chemical bases (A, C, T, and G) that make up the genome, these parasites’ DNA is heavily biased toward A (adenine) and T (thymine) couples, with as much as 80 percent of their genome consisting of just these two bases. However, this bias is not uniform across the diversity of these parasites and not accounting for these disparate ratios can result in skewed results. The researchers, led by Spencer Galen, a comparative biology Ph.D.-degree student in the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School, found a way to correct for this phenomenon. Working closely with Museum research fellow Janus Borner, who developed new genetic markers for the group while at the University of Hamburg, they were able to include malaria species from deep evolutionary lineages—like those infecting deer, turtles, bats, and numerous species of birds—that were missing from previous analyses. The resulting tree, which sampled 58 malaria species from eight of the currently recognized genera and included DNA sequence data from more than 20 genes, is the most comprehensive of its kind.

The team’s most surprising finding was that the genus Plasmodium consists of several groups that are not each other’s closest relatives, and therefore, from a taxonomic standpoint, many species should be renamed. Importantly, this affects Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest species of malaria for humans. Because it is in a separate group from the so-called “type species” that defines Plasmodium, P. falciparum should receive a new name—but it’s not so simple.

“If we worked on a group of fishes or beetles, we would just split them up and put them into new genera,” Perkins said. “But to do this based on our tree would involve changing the name of the most deadly protozoan parasite in the world, and there’s too much inertia working against us. We have to be bad taxonomists in this case and let it continue to be called Plasmodium.”

The researchers do recommend the scientists adopt a new parlance for this group. Instead of referring to Plasmodium broadly, they recommend that scientists should be more specific and use the subgeneric names. This is because the evolutionary tree shows that not all of these parasites are transmitted by mosquitos or replicate inside red blood cells—the two key defining characteristics of Plasmodium. Additionally, other parasites that defy this definition are intermingled with the human parasites and the model species used to study the disease in the lab, including those that infect mice.

The study also weighs in on a long-standing debate about how many times malaria parasites jumped into major vertebrate groups, in particular mammals, via blood-feeding insect vectors.

“The specifics surrounding vertebrate colonization by malaria parasites have been pretty heavily debated,” Galen said. “We found support for the idea that malaria parasites jumped to mammals just once.”

The research confirms previous work tying the origin of malaria parasites to birds (likely including some dinosaurs). The parasites then made a jump to mammals followed by a secondary colonization of birds as well as reptiles. The study also supports work showing that bats were a major driver in the dramatic diversification of malaria parasite lineages. The authors suggest that there is much more work to be done, and possibly more name changes needed. In 2016, Perkins and others reported malaria parasites from white-tailed deer. The current study shows that these and others that infect hoofed mammals should get a new name. A malaria parasite isolated from a turkey vulture in California was also unlike anything else that has been found in birds and is likely a new genus, too.

“Malaria parasites are far more diverse than most people realize, and the picture we’re painting shows yet another level of complexity,” Galen said. “We really need a widespread assessment of malaria parasite taxonomy.”

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More information:
Spencer C. Galen et al, The polyphyly of Plasmodium : comprehensive phylogenetic analyses of the malaria parasites (order Haemosporida) reveal widespread taxonomic conflict, Royal Society Open Science (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.171780

Journal reference:
Royal Society Open Science

Provided by:
American Museum of Natural History

Chimpanzee calls differ according to context

Chimpanzees have at least three acoustically different ‘hoo’ call variants, each given in a different behavioural context. Credit: Liran Samuni

An important question in the evolution of language is what caused animal calls to diversify and to encode different information. A team of scientists led by Catherine Crockford of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology found that chimpanzees use the quiet ‘hoo’ call in three different behavioural contexts—alert, travel and rest. The need to stay together in low visibility habitat may have facilitated the evolution of call subtypes.

Studies examining animal alarm calls suggest species which require different escape responses for different predators are more likely to have correspondingly different alarm calls, facilitating appropriate escape responses from receivers. However, what causes calls to diversify in less urgent contexts is little examined. “To address this, we examine a quiet contact vocalisation of chimpanzees, the ‘hoo'”, says Catherine Crockford of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “We found that chimpanzees have at least three acoustically different ‘hoo’ variants, each given in a different behavioural context: alert, travel and rest.”

In order to maintain cohesion, chimpanzee receivers must respond differently to signallers in each context: in rest contexts, receivers must stay in the vicinity of signallers, in travel contexts, receivers must approach signallers, and in alert contexts, receivers must approach signallers slowly. “Chimpanzees benefit from cooperating with bond partners, and are thus particularly likely to gain from staying close to cooperation partners”, says Crockford. “However, chimpanzees live in low visibility habitat, such that even when separated by short distances visual signals or non-specific vocal signals are likely to be unreliable in maintaining cohesion. Thus, encoding contextual information in quiet ‘hoos’ may facilitate cohesion—and therefore cooperation.”

One particularly interesting feature of the hoos is the low emotional arousal associated with their production, and that acoustic properties of the three hoo variants cannot be easily explained by emotional state, although this is a common explanation for call diversification in non-human animals. The need to stay together in low visibility habitat may have facilitated the evolution of different calls, with each call informing receivers how to behave in order for signaller and receiver to stay together. Whilst all the hoo variants like indicate a desire to stay together, rest hoos may specifically indicate to receivers that they should stay put, whilst travel hoos may indicate that receivers should approach signallers, and alert hoos, that receivers should approach signallers slowly. “One factor driving the evolution of call diversification may have been the demands of cooperative activities,” concludes Crockford.

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More information:
Catherine Crockford et al, Chimpanzee quiet hoo variants differ according to context, Royal Society Open Science (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.172066

Journal reference:
Royal Society Open Science

Provided by:
Max Planck Society

A necessary evil? What you need to know about animal research

Credit: EPA, CC BY-SA

Every year, millions of animals are used in scientific research across the UK. Statistics suggest that almost four million scientific procedures were carried out on animals in 2016 alone. The majority of these were reported to be on mice (73%), followed by fish (14%), rats (6%) and birds (4%). The remaining proportion was made up of other species including horses and other equines (0.23%), dogs (0.13%), primates (0.09%) and cats (0.004%).

These numbers make most of us feel a little uneasy. While many understand and accept (perhaps reluctantly) that animal research is necessary for tackling the major health, environmental and economic issues of our times, the fact that so many animals are used for advancing these causes can seem counter-progressive and cruel.

Still, we cannot shy away from the reality that this research is going on and is of huge benefit to human beings and other species. So it is important to consider the facts.

The animals

Closer examination of these numbers reveals several things. First, they only include non-human vertebrates – animals with a backbone – and cephalopods, such as octopus or squid. These animals are deemed capable of experiencing pain, suffering, distress and lasting harm. As a result they are covered by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA), the UK legislation for regulation of animal research.

However, trillions of invertebrates – animals without a backbone such as insects, worms, crustaceans and molluscs – are used each year for research into a range of topics including genetics, health and food security. Historically, invertebrate species have been thought to have less developed sensory systems and considered less likely to experience pain; for this reason they are not covered by ASPA legislation.

As our understanding of the physiology and behaviour of these “less feeling” creatures improves, this seemingly arbitrary division of protection for backboned vs non-backboned (with the exception of cephalopods) has started to blur. Recent evidence suggests that some invertebrates may well have capacity for feeling pain and distress, so there may be an argument for ASPA inclusion.

The procedures

The majority of ASPA-covered research animals are used in genetic research. In 2016, for example, approximately 50% of all animals (mostly mice) were used for the creation of genetically altered animals.

A large proportion of these creatures – 37% in 2016 – were also used in basic research into improvements in the health and safeguarding of various species, and applied research such as the development of antibiotics and vaccines.

A contentious area is “regulatory testing” which covers animal use for testing of chemicals to determine hazards to humans. It should be noted that this does not include cosmetic testing, banned in the UK since 1998. While a relatively smaller percentage (approximately 14% in 2016) in comparison to other uses, this remains a miserable fate for several hundred thousand animals.

Though uncomfortable to discuss, the severity of procedures is also worth considering. Referring to the level of discomfort, pain and suffering that an animal will experience, it is categorised in order of increasing severity: below-threshold; mild; moderate; severe; and non-recovery (death). In 2014, approximately 6% of procedures to ASPA-regulated animals were deemed severe.

The researchers

The uneasiness felt by much of the public around the use of animals for research extends into the research community. Many researchers feel strongly conflicted about using animals to support their research, especially those whose aim is to ultimately preserve and protect animals.

A necessary evil? What you need to know about animal research
Gene therapy research into Alzheimer’s has studied the brains of hibernating hamsters to explore similarities with an affected human brain. Credit: EPA

This ethical dilemma can motivate a researcher to ensure that research is carried out in a highly humane and responsible manner. It may also assure a strong rationale and high degree of experimental rigour so that results are meaningful and valid.

Maintaining the welfare of animals is also of considerable benefit to researchers. For example, where animals are sick or in discomfort, results will be highly flawed. Animal research can be a costly business, so lack of provision of humane conditions can also lead to major financial losses. Finally, there are major legal implications to consider. Anyone not adhering to regulations can face penalties ranging from the loss of research licenses to imprisonment.

The ASPA regulating office (that is, the UK Home Office) and the research community do not take the use of animals lightly, and there are substantial conditions that must be met. First, all research on ASPA-regulated animals cannot be conducted without Home Office licensing of the relevant institute, research project and researcher.

The Home Office also requires that organisations carrying out animal research have a comprehensive and dedicated team of individuals (including their own vet) which oversees all procedures and research personnel. All institutes conducting animal research should also have an Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body (AWERB) that provides guidance on all aspects of animal well-being. An AWERB also provides ethical review of all research projects and protocols which involve any animals (including invertebrates) in any way.

The use of animals in research is by no means ideal and the promotion of ways to reduce this kind of research is well underway. The 3R principles – replacement, reduction and refinement – provide a framework for animal research by which all researchers and their institutions must demonstrate progression. The 3Rs call for animals to be (i) replaced with alternatives such as models or in vitro approaches (for example, testing takes place on cells which are grown externally rather than using the whole organism); (ii) reduced in numbers (where enough animals are used to ensure statistically significant results but not in excess); and (iii) for experimental procedures to be refined to avoid unnecessary suffering.

In terms of society, it is vital that we are not indifferent about the use of animals in research. Instead, we should each aim for a comprehensive understanding and appreciation of the immense sacrifice that animals provide for the benefit of other life on this planet. We owe them that.

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Provided by:
The Conversation

Study bolsters bats’ reputation as mosquito devourers

Zach Peery and Heather Kaarakka collecting guano for a study of bat’s diets. Credit: Heather Kaarakka

It’s a common assumption: Bats are important because they feast upon those pervasive warm-weather pests known as mosquitoes. You want to see bats flying above, cleaning up the night sky and ridding you of itchy bites and pesky ear-buzzing.

However, the claim that bats can make a dent in the mosquito population (and save your cherished Wisconsin summer) has little evidence to back it. That is, until now.

A team of University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers set out to determine the extent to which mosquitoes are included in the diets of two common species of North American bats found in Wisconsin. Their findings, published recently in the Journal of Mammalogy, suggest that bats may indeed be effective exterminators of the aggravating insects.

“Our results show that bats eat more types of mosquitoes, and do so more frequently, than studies have shown in the past,” says Amy Wray, a doctoral student in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology and lead author of the study. “While this study doesn’t tell us whether bats actually suppress mosquito populations, it does create a strong case for re-evaluating their potential for mosquito control through additional research.”

The role of bats in suppressing agricultural pests is well documented, but there is far less evidence of their impact on mosquitoes. One commonly referenced study claims that a single bat consumes 10 mosquitoes per minute. But those results came from enclosure experiments that didn’t represent natural conditions, says Wray.

A bat roost in Governor Dodge State Park. Credit: Amy Wray

In contrast, the current study gathered its data in the wild. In the summer of 2014, citizen scientists used plastic sheets to collect bat fecal samples, or guano, from areas beneath 12 little brown and 10 big brown bat maternity roosts in agricultural and forested landscapes across Wisconsin. They surveyed bat roosts in northern regions such as Bayfield, Iron and Burnett counties; and from Manitowoc and Sheboygan Counties along Lake Michigan, and across south central Wisconsin to the Mississippi River near LaCrosse.

The research team, which included collaborators at the United States Forest Service and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, then extracted DNA from the samples and screened for the presence of mosquitoes using a newly enhanced sequencing technique designed for analyzing insectivore diets. They detected at least one mosquito in all of the little brown bat sites and 60 percent of the big brown bat sites.

They also found that bats eat many species of mosquitoes in a broad range of ecological conditions. For example, little brown bats ate nine mosquito species known to harbor the West Nile virus, a disease that poses a threat to humans and many bird species.

“This study is the first step in revisiting important questions regarding the bat’s role as a mosquito control agent, which could have implications for human health,” says Claudio Gratton, a professor of entomology at UW–Madison and co-author of the study. Gratton serves as Wray’s graduate co-advisor along with Zach Peery, a UW–Madison professor of forest and wildlife ecology.

Citizen scientists collected bat guano at locations across Wisconsin to survey the bats’ diets. Credit: Amy Wray

“Bats continue to decline globally due to habitat loss, wind turbines and, in North America, white-nose syndrome,” says Peery, who is also one of the study’s co-authors. “So it’s critical that their potential role as mosquito control agents, and thus their importance as a target for conservation, be re-examined thoroughly.”

The study also found that little brown bats ate more mosquitoes than big brown bats. Big brown bats have body size constraints that affect their ability to prey on small mosquitoes. Mosquitoes also don’t offer enough calories to meet the energy needs of the larger bats.

The results of the study lead to more questions about the extent to which bat species actually eat mosquitoes in the wild and how that consumption varies by region, time of year, and mosquito type.

“Mosquitoes only constitute part of a larger diet that includes many other components,” says Wray. “In future studies, we hope to explore the feeding interactions between bats and mosquitoes, particularly for different bat species across different regions.”

A little brown bat is spotted in a bat house in Silverwood County Park. Credit: Amy Wray

The researchers also propose that future studies could develop more advanced techniques to test for the volume of mosquitoes that bats eat and how that contributes to mosquito suppression.

“Bat declines resulting from white nose syndrome and other factors may compromise potential mosquito suppression, but they also provide opportunities to test the hypothesis that bats limit mosquitoes through a natural experiment,” Peery says.

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More information:
Amy K Wray et al. Incidence and taxonomic richness of mosquitoes in the diets of little brown and big brown bats, Journal of Mammalogy (2018). DOI: 10.1093/jmammal/gyy044

Journal reference:
Journal of Mammalogy

Provided by:
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Bunya pines are ancient, delicious and possibly deadly

Credit: TreeMappa 2.0/Flickr, CC BY

The Bunya pine is a unique and majestic Australian tree – my favourite tree, in fact. Sometimes simply called Bunya or the Bunya Bunya, I love its pleasingly symmetrical dome shape.

But what I really love about it is that there are just so many bizarre and colourful stories about this tree – the more you learn, the more you find it fascinating. (That is, unless the tree has harmed you; they come with some hazard warnings.)

Can you grow it?

Bunya pines (botanical name: Aracauria bidwilli) are living fossils. They come come from a fascinating family of flora, the Araucariaceae, which grew across the world in the Jurassic period. Many of its “cousins” are extinct. The remaining members of the family are spread across the former landmasses of Gondwana, particularly South America, New Zealand, Malaysia and New Caledonia, as well as Australia.

This family includes one of the most amazing botanical discoveries of the 20th century, the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis).

Bunyas used to be much more widespread than they are now. Today they grow in the wild in only a few locations in southeast and north Queensland. One such area, the Bunya Mountains, is the remains of an old shield volcano – about 30 million years old, with peaks rising to more than 1,100 metres. The Bunya pines grow in fertile basalt soils in this cool and moist mountain environment.

If you want to grow a Bunya, I would suggest that you need a large garden. The tree needs fertile and well-drained soil, and regular watering in drier climates. A shaded position will also help – it can struggle in direct sunlight in its youth.

Credit: TreeMappa 2.0/Flickr, CC BY

Bunyas also produce highly valued timber, which is used for musical instruments. It is particularly valued as “tonewood” for producing stringed instruments’ sound boards. Saw logs for Bunyas come from plantations only, as they are protected in their national park wild habitat.

Stand well back!

While many people love Bunya pines, this love affair comes with a health warning. They are best regarded with both distance and respect!

The trees are big and typically range from 20m to 50m in height. Their leaves have strings of very rigid and sharply pointed leaves. If you come into physical contact with its leaves or branches, you must wear protective clothes and carefully handle them to avoid pain or even cuts. As a child, the swinging branch of a Bunya made a formidable garden weapon.

But that is nothing compared to this tree’s ability to hit you on the head, possibly with serious consequences. When in season (generally December to March) they can produce dozens of massive cones weighing up to 10 kilograms. These can drop from up to 50m without warning.

I first learned of this when a fellow university student in the 1980s scored an impressively large Bunya cone dent in the roof of his battleship-solid FB Holden ute. My university campus has beautiful gardens displaying dozens of massive Bunyas, but one was perhaps a bit close to the car park. My university friend was lucky not to get hit. Many people have not been so lucky and some have even been hospitalised.

Bunya pines are beautiful trees in large gardens and are a feature of parks around Australia, but their habit of “bombing” people and property causes considerable angst. Many local councils erect warning signs or rope off the danger zone during cone season. Others hire contractors to remove the cones to protect their residents (and perhaps limit their own legal liability). Sadly, some Bunya pines have been cut down to remove the risk.

Indigenous use

The cultural connection of the Bunya pine to Aboriginal Australians is very powerful. The Bunya Mountains in southeast Queensland used to host massive gatherings of Aboriginal groups.

People came to visit the Bunya pines and feasted on the nuts in their abundant cones. Some travelled from hundreds of kilometres away, and traditional hostilities were dropped to allow access. The seed in the Bunya cone is a delicious and nutritious food, a famous and celebrated example of Australian bush tucker.

Today some trees remain marked with hand and foot holes that Aborigines made in the trunks of older Bunyas. The climbers must have been brave and agile to harvest the cones from such heights.

Sadly, the last of the Aboriginal Bunya festivals was held in about 1900, as European loggers came to the area for its many timber resources.

But even those European timber pioneers realised the significance of the Bunya Mountains area. The Bunya Mountains National Park was declared in 1908, creating Queensland’s second national park.

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Provided by:
The Conversation