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phalnikars | Biodiversity & ...

Unraveling a ‘big cat’ DNA mystery

barbary lion skull

A Barbary lion skull at the Natural History Museum

It has all the makings of a historical thriller – scientists in the UK have used the ancient skulls of Barbary lions preserved in the Tower of London to piece together the origin of modern-day big cats. And, they’ve hit upon a vital clue in India which could help resurrect the extinct and majestic Barbary lion of North Africa. First off, what exactly is a Barbary lion? Once found in huge numbers across North Africa, extending from Egypt to Morocco, it had the most spectacular physical features of all lion species. That included an extensive mane, larger body and a more pointed crown and narrow muzzle. Also called the “Atlas lion,” it was reported to have different colored eyes to other lions. Scientists are divided over when and if Barbary lions really went extinct.

The last record of a Barbary lion is an animal shot in Morocco in 1927, though there is circumstantial evidence that Barbary lions may have survived in the wild in the Atlas Mountains till 1942. European zoos have also tended to claim that they have a Barbary lion or two but experts remain skeptical.

asiatic lion

The Asiatic lion is a distant, long-lost cousin of the Barbary, research shows

Now, a team led by Ross Barnett of Durham University, UK, has discovered that the majestic animal has close genetic links to the Asiatic lions that live in India. (Less than 400 Asiatic lions survive at present on the Kathiawar Peninsula of India and the species is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.)

Barnett’s team came to that conclusion after scientists sequenced mitochondrial DNA from museum-held specimens and from Barbary lion skulls discovered preserved in the Tower of London’s moat and believed to date back to the 14th and 15th century. The study was published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology. Barnett said he was surprised by the incredibly close relationship between the extinct Barbary lion from North Africa and the Asiatic lion from India. This, he said, could now get conservationists talking about resurrecting the subspecies and reintroducing lions into North Africa. “This has implications for any future attempts to reintroduce lions into North Africa,” Barnett said. “They could probably be re-seeded with Indian lions.” The researchers compared their findings with genetic sequences drawn from other lions living in Asia and across Africa to work out different subspecies of lion evolved. Their work shows that the single species of modern lions’ most recent common ancestor lived around 124,000 years ago.

Date

April 4, 2014

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Klaus Esterluß | Marvel with us

Dude, you stink! – a list of species with a bad taste in perfume.

While looking up species for this list, a thought almost inevitably pops up in my mind. What would our daily lives be like if we were to share the characteristics of the species in this post. It could be kind of funny, but the world would stink terribly, that’s for sure. This is a list of just four species – but feel free to add to it in the comments section below. Let’s start:

Garlic Toad - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic // wikipedia: http://bit.ly/OqgzDB

Garlic Toad – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic // wikipedia: http://bit.ly/OqgzDB

First of all is a toad. It’s a pretty small one, just between 6,5 and 8 centimetres in length, even the color is not very remarkable. The toad is grey or brown. If you live somewhere between Europe to Western Asia you may have come across them without noticing. But if you stress this little fella, better run. The toad’s name is Garlic Toad, so you get an idea of what’s in store for you, right? If the toad is alarmed, it makes a very loud call and exudes a noxious secretion which smells like – yes, garlic.

Stink Bug - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported / wikipedia: http://bit.ly/NdTTWe

Stink Bug – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported / wikipedia: http://bit.ly/NdTTWe

The stink bug does not try to hide what it is. The bug stinks, again, if in distress. And also again, the smell reminds of a cooking ingredient – coriander in the bug’s case. The strongly smelling substance is secreted from pores on its chest. As an aside – one will probably like the smell, it seems to be down to your (human’s) DNA whether or not you’d find the smell unpleasant. And we stay in the kitchen: In Laos the bugs are commonly eaten and are regarded as delicious due to their extremely strong odor. Yummy.

Wolverine - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported / wikipedia: http://bit.ly/1kRlMSO

Wolverine – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported / wikipedia: http://bit.ly/1kRlMSO

We leave the insect world for the third species on our smelly list. The wolverine is not exactly what you would think about as a comic book reader. There are no metal implants in the skeleton, but it’s a hairy creature as well. The wolverine we are talking about here can be found in larger numbers in nothern Canada or Alaska, even in the boreal forests and the tundra in Russia. It belongs to the family of the weasels, but looks more like a little bear. That’s where one of it’s nicknames originates from: skunk bear. Yes, the skunk is up next to complete our list. But anyway, the wolverine has potent anal scent glands he uses for marking his territory (and sexual signaling of course). We won’t delve into this subject any further.

Skunk -  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported/ wikipedia: http://bit.ly/1cZ6Lfj

Skunk – Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported/ wikipedia: http://bit.ly/1cZ6Lfj

Finally, the skunk. Skunks are mammals often found in the Americas. They are notorious for their anal scent glands, which they can use as a defensive weapon. Bad news is, they have two glands, one on each side of the anus. These glands produce a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals which have a highly offensive smell. The odor is strong enough to ward off even bears and it can be really difficult to remove from clothing.

Date

March 15, 2014

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Gianna Gruen | Marvel with us

5 really clever defense strategies of animals

Without the massive budgets that humans lavish on their territorial defense, animals have to turn to creativity to protect themselves from enemies – or attack them.

Researchers recently discovered, why the tawny crazy ant was so successful in invading the fire ants territory (which the latter may have stolen from the former, previously): when a fight with a fire ant is looming, tawny crazy ants secrete an acid they cover their body with (they rub their body with their legs to spread the chemical). This chemical protects them from the toxic attack of fire ants.

Tawny crazy ant standing on cricket le g, expressing detoxification behavior. (Photograph by Lawrence Gilbert)

Tawny crazy ant standing on cricket leg, expressing detoxification behavior. (Photograph by Lawrence Gilbert)

 

To defend their colony, termites were found to sacrifice themselves for their colleagues’ sake. Being threatened, they grow a sack with toxic liquids on their back, which then explodes spreading the toxins all over nearby enemies – as well over the termite itself.

Most people don’t like anything that is about inner body parts. For the sea cucumber‘s enemies, this might certainly be an issue: If feeling threatened, sea cucumbers expel their internal organs rapidly – which are sticky and partly toxic. The creatures may not be missing their body parts for long: they can regenerate the organs.

sea cucmber

Photo credit: CC BY NC ND 2.0: Jamie Henderson

When the bones in your legs break you’d immediately get to a doctor to get them to put a cast on. You’d never think of breaking your arms or legs on purpose. But for the Hairy frog breaking its toes is an effective way of defending itself. Facing an attacker it breaks its own toes, pushes the splinters through the skin, which then act as tiny sharp claws.

Photo credit: CC BY NC ND 2.0: Todd Barrow

Photo credit: CC BY NC ND 2.0: Todd Barrow

If you don’t possess any of the above skills, there’s only one thing left, that might help: pretending you’re dead. That’s what Fainting Goats do. When frightened, their muscles seize up for about 15 seconds – and they just fall over.

Date

February 15, 2014

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Klaus Esterluß | Marvel with us

Top5: You better steer clear of these venomous (or poisonous?) animals

When we start talking about animals that can easily kill or at least terribly hurt humans, we have to start with a clarification: There’s a difference between venomous and poisonous creatures. The difference lies in the delivery of the toxic material that harms a human being. Let’s say, a king cobra bites you, it delivers the poison by performing an action. That’s called venomous. If you, on the other hand, happen to eat incompetently prepared toxic puffer fish (or Fugu), it’s called poisonous. The fish does not take action but scores a strike anyway. Fugu is considered to be a delicacy in Japan, by the way. When its organs, which are covered by neurotoxins are hurt, the meal could easily become the last one for the brave eater.

So how do we compile this list of the Top5 of venomous (or poisonous) animals? We take the deadliness of the candidates into account. And here are the winners of the competition, remarkably enough most of them live in the oceans:

poison dart frog, credit: CC BY 2.0 by cliff/flickr.com: http://bit.ly/1ezoiVD

poison dart frog, credit: CC BY 2.0 by cliff/flickr.com: http://bit.ly/1ezoiVD

But let’s stay out of the water first. The poison dart frogs are a group of frogs (Dendrobatidae) in various colors from blue to red or black. The most deadly species is called the golden dart frog. It caries enough venom to kill 10 grown men. The frogs were given the name by the indigenous people of Colombia who used the strong toxic to tip their blowgun darts for hunting.

stonefish, credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by PhylB, flickr.com - http://bit.ly/1d9ULAN

stonefish, credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by PhylB, flickr.com – http://bit.ly/1d9ULAN

You have to look twice to not step upon the second member of our list. The stonefish got its name from its ability to camouflage itself by donning stone like colors. But what is so dangerous about this fish? Along the stonefish’s back a row of 13 venomous spikes is protruding from its spine. It does not really attack its victims, but squeezed or pressured the spines release their venom. The result is terrible pain, muscle weakness, shock and – if untreated – death.

marbled cone snail, credit: public domain/wikipedia

marbled cone snail, credit: public domain/wikipedia

The next sea creature in our list you better not pick up as well. The marbled cone snail has a sting to protect itself from enemies. But also to attack , if a careless collector comes up with the slightly stupid idea to grab the marble housing. As there is no antidote available, touching the snail most commonly is followed up by an initial sharp pain, paralysis and may result in death within 2 to 6 hours.

Blue-Ringed Octopus, credit: CC BY 2.0 by Angell Williams/flickr.com: http://bit.ly/1fiZ8hp

Blue-Ringed Octopus, credit: CC BY 2.0 by Angell Williams/flickr.com: http://bit.ly/1fiZ8hp

Number four: The Blue-ringed octopus is as deadly as any other of the competitors in the list. And it is malicious because it bites and the bite is said to be painless. If bitten the clinical effects depend on how much of the venom was transferred into the wound. Usually the symptoms set in fast. Within minutes, the victims feel numbness, muscular weakness and difficulty breathing and swallowing. Death is possible. Experiments with the  venom concluded that a single adult octopus is able to fatally paralyze 10 adult humans.

box jellyfish, credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Joshua Lambus/flickr.com: http://bit.ly/1fiZvbv

box jellyfish, credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Joshua Lambus/flickr.com: http://bit.ly/1fiZvbv

We started the list with a blue species and we are going to finish it the same way. The box jellyfish (or sea wasp) got it’s name from the shape of their bell.  The jellyfish’s toxic is delivered through it’s up to 3 m (10ft) long tentacles to attack the victim’s heart, nervous system, and skin cells. Because of its painfulness, human victims may go into shock or die by heart failure. It’s possible to survive attacks, but survivors experience long-lasting pain and often have scars where the tentacles made contact.

Stay save out there.

Date

January 30, 2014

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Klaus Esterluß | Ideas

Are drones the next weapon against poaching?

In 2013 South Africa lost more than 1000 rhinos to illegal hunting. In other countries such as Vietnam,  rhinos are already extinct. Now, a US company hopes to launch unmanned drones equipped with cameras to frighten off poachers.

Airware is a company that develops a new autopilot system for commercial drones. Those drones can be used for many different purposes, the company says. Such as inspections, search and rescue operations – or to watch out for poachers across large areas of African safari parks.

The company has conducted a field test in Kenya with drones designed to protect rhinos. First results suggest they may be a promising tool for wildlife conservation.

But why in Kenia? The country lost 50 rhinos in 2013. The team went to Ol Pejeta which is East Africa’s largest black rhino sanctuary. Set up to act as a deterrent and for surveillance the drone was sending real-time video and thermal imaging feeds to the rangers on the ground. The drone navigates autonomously, along a prescribed flight route and requires just one person to operate, who can also instruct the aircraft what to look out for with the on-board camera.

a rhino

Picture Credit: Big Five by Robert Chew via http://io9.com/

The test prototype “surpassed all our expectations,” the team said afterwards. Just maybe tech innovations like these could help to preserve threatened species.

And it is an effort, that is obviously more realistic than a concept by artist Robert Chew. He thought about robots that take the forms of (poached) animals to blend in with the wildlife and help capture poachers.

Date

January 17, 2014

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