L.A. Unleashed

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Category: Insects & Spiders

U.N. agency warns of further decline in world's bee population without big changes in human behavior


NAIROBI, Kenya — The U.N.'s environmental agency warned in a new report Thursday that the world's bee population is likely to keep declining unless humans change the way they manage the planet.

North America, Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia have been affected by losses in bee numbers, the report said. It called for farmers and landowners to be offered incentives to restore bee habitats, including key flowering plants.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the U.S. honey-producing colonies dropped from a population of 5.5 million in 1950 to 2.5 million in 2007.

The bees are needed to pollinate crops that feed the world's growing population. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world's food, more than 70 are pollinated by bees, the U.N. report said.

"Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N.'s environmental program. "Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less dependent on nature's services in a world of close to 7 billion people."

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200 species new to science are found in Papua New Guinea


A thumbnail-sized frog with a long snout, a brilliant green katydid with bright pink eyes and a mouse with a white-tipped tail are among 200 species scientists have discovered in Papua New Guinea.

The findings were unveiled this week by Washington D.C.-based Conservation International, whose researchers discovered a kaleidoscopic array of critters during two expeditions to the South Pacific island nation in 2009.

Among the finds: 24 frog species, scores of spiders and around 100 insects including ants and dragonflies that appear to have never been described in scientific literature before, the conservation group said.

"They tell us how little we still know about the world," research team leader Stephen Richards said Thursday. "There's a lot of concern, quite rightly, about biodiversity loss and climate change and the impacts on biodiversity and what biodiversity means to us.... Then we do projects like this and we discover, 'Hey -- we don't even know what biodiversity is out there.' "

In April 2009, the scientists flew to the Nakanai Mountains of the island of New Britain, and then traveled by dugout canoe, on foot and by helicopter to a remote research area of the rainforest. There, they found scores of fascinating animals, Richards said, including a mouse with a white-tipped tail that appears to have no close relatives and represents an entirely new genus.

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Tree's weapon against elephants? Ants!

Ecologists have discovered the secret weapon used by certain acacia trees to defend themselves against ravenous elephants: ants.

The finding could one day help conservationists protect vulnerable plants from elephants and other large herbivores, said University of Florida biologist Todd Palmer, who reported the discovery online Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Elephants can have a devastating impact on the trees of the African savannas, Palmer said. A hungry pachyderm can easily demolish a tree, wrapping its prehensile trunk around thick branches and ripping them off. A herd of them can lay waste to an area -- a problem for people trying to protect wild lands or cropland.

Yet elephants always seem to avoid one particular type of acacia tree called Acacia drepanolobium, also known as the whistling-thorn tree.

What sets these acacias apart is the ants that inhabit them. The insects live in the trees' golf-ball-sized "swelling thorns" and feed on the nectar that oozes from the base of each leaf, Palmer said. In return, they provide the tree with bodyguard service, swarming out of the tree to face any attack.

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Group petitions U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to offer Endangered Species Act protections to bumblebee

Franklin's bumblebee

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — A conservation group filed a petition Wednesday to add a bumblebee from Southern Oregon and Northern California to the endangered species list.

The Society for Invertebrate Conservation and University of California at Davis entomologist Robbin Thorp formally petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the insect -- called a Franklin's bumblebee -- under the Endangered Species Act.

Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the of the Xerces Society in Portland, said the petition is part of an effort to reverse the decline of bumblebees and other native bees around the world due to habitat loss, pesticides and diseases spilling out of commercial greenhouses.

The group is preparing petitions to protect other bumblebee species as well. The Franklin's bee was chosen for this petition because documentation of its decline is more detailed than for other species. Thorp found 94 Franklin's bumblebees in 1994, but he has seen none since 2006.

Farmers often hire honeybee keepers to pollinate crops, but hives have been decimated by a mysterious honeybee killer known as colony collapse disorder.

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Frog without lungs, 'love dart'-shooting slug among species discovered in Borneo

Lungless frog

A lungless frog, a frog that flies and a slug that shoots love darts are among 123 new species found in Borneo since 2007 in a project to conserve one of the oldest rain forests in the world.

A report by the global conservation group WWF on the discoveries also calls for protecting the threatened species and equatorial rain forest on Borneo, the South China Sea island that is the world's third-largest and is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

"The challenge is to ensure that these precious landscapes are still intact for future generations," said the report released Thursday.

The search for the new species was part of the Heart of Borneo project that started in February 2007 and is backed by the WWF and the three countries that share the island.

The aim is to conserve 85,000 square miles of rain forest that was described by Charles Darwin as "one great luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself."

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A dozen bizarre caterpillars discovered in Hawaii living underwater with no gills

Moths of the Hawaiian genus Hyposmocoma are an oddball crowd: One of the species' caterpillars attacks and eats tree snails. Now researchers have described at least a dozen different species that live underwater for several weeks at a time.

"I couldn't believe it," said study coauthor Daniel Rubinoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Hawaii at Honolulu, of the first time he spotted a submerged caterpillar. "I assumed initially they were terrestrial caterpillars . . . how were they holding their breath?"

Each of the 12 species lives in and along streams running down the mountains on several different islands of Hawaii, said Rubinoff, who has studied Hyposmocoma, a group of more than 350 moth species, for more than seven years.

They usually eat algae or lichen, and build silk cases -- which one species even adorns with bird feathers -- for shelter and camouflage. They spin silk drag lines to withstand the high pressure of fast floodwaters.

Unlike other amphibious creatures that can survive underwater on stored oxygen but must come back up for air, these caterpillars can spend several weeks without ever breaking the surface, according to the paper, which was published online on Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Michigan man attempts to break world record by stuffing 16 cockroaches in his mouth

DontJustDont LANSING, Mich. — A Michigan pet store employee got himself a mouthful of cockroaches -- on purpose. The Lansing State Journal reported Sean Murphy on Friday stuffed 16 Madagascar hissing cockroaches into his mouth. He was trying to set a new Guinness World Records mark and said the old record was 11.

Murphy initially got 12 squirming cockroaches into his mouth, but then kept adding them until he got to 16. He says it was a "big surprise" since he's never fit that many in his mouth before "in one try."

The employee of Preuss Pets in Lansing says each cockroach was at least 2 1/2 inches long. Murphy says he might try for 20 next year. A video of the feat was posted on the newspaper's website.

Murphy's effort would need to be certified by Guinness for it to be official.

Utah boy breaks record for snails stuck to his face

-- Associated Press

Jeepers creepers: Bedbug-sniffing dogs save the day


Trained dogs sniff out drugs in schools, detect bombs in airports, and even chase geese away from golf courses, but now trainers are focusing their efforts on another type of smart canine: bedbug-detection dogs. 

Today, L.A. Times reporter Bob Drogin wrote about the hard-working animals who sniff out infestations of real-life bedbugs -- those tiny, blood-sucking pests that leave itchy, painful welts -- in apartment buildings, hotels and office buildings so people really can sleep tight. This pest problem has become more than just a childhood scare tactic: Bedbugs are very real.

Many pest-control companies are now purchasing the dogs from two main trainers in Florida, who sell the dogs for up to $9,500 each. The dogs receive treat rewards whenever they alert for bedbugs, so experts caution against some exterminators whose dogs report false alarms, allowing the company to tack on extra charges.

We hope that this means the old adage will soon become a meaningless good-night saying once again.

Read the full article here, or look through the photo gallery of bedbug dogs on the prowl.

-- Kelsey Ramos

Photo: Sara, a lab trained to hunt bedbugs, poses after checking an apartment in Jersey City, N.J. Credit: Michael Nagle / For The Times

Dung beetle named for Charles Darwin


Recently, we learned that a newly discovered hairy yellow spider had been named for David Bowie.

Since the undisputed "rock star" of the field of biology would have to be Charles Darwin (no matter what Kirk Cameron may think of him), we can't be too surprised that the latest celebrity-namesake insect is a dung beetle named Canthidium (Eucanthidium) darwini.

The newly discovered beetle measures only about 4 millimeters in length and was found during a series of expeditions to the remote Talamanca mountains of Costa Rica, during which over 30 species of amphibians, beetles and plants were found.  C. darwini is one of about 180 known species of dung beetle native to Costa Rica, according to the American Museum of Natural History.

The expedition was founded by the U.K.'s Darwin Initiative project, which has granted funds since 1992 to countries that are "rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives" for conservation.  (No word on why the dung beetle was named for Darwin, rather than a seemingly more prestigious amphibian.)  Researchers were able to coax C. darwini out of hiding by baiting traps with pig manure, a delicacy by dung beetle standards, the Telegraph reports.

This year marks not only the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, but also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his landmark work "The Origin of Species."

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Undated file photo of the naturalist.

Hairy, yellow spider is named for David Bowie

David Bowie recently had a spider named for him

A German scientist specializing in the discovery of rare species of arachnid has named his latest find after David Bowie, he who introduced the world to "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" in 1972. 

Unlike the album for which it was named, though, the Heteropoda davidbowie is no alien -- it was discovered in Malaysia by Peter Jäger, who has found about 200 new spider species over the past 10 years. And H. davidbowie, despite its name, bears no resemblance to either the Thin White Duke or his long-discarded Ziggy Stardust persona. It's large, yellow and hairy -- but its very strangeness, in a way, does seem to fit in with the theatricality of "Ziggy."

His penchant for naming his discoveries after celebrities isn't just for fun, either, Jäger says. Instead, he hopes that the names (another species was named after German musician Nina Hagen) will grab the attention of the public, whose help is needed to save these species, many of which are endangered. "It is working against time," Jäger told the Observer. "Along with the species, we are also quickly losing genetic resources that have evolved over more than 300 million years." 

Environmental authorities, the Telegraph notes, have often shied away from including spiders on their lists of endangered species, although the same dangers that affect other animals -- habitat loss, deforestation -- can affect them too. The International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of threatened species features only 27 species of spider, although more than 40,000 species are thought to exist.

No word as of yet from Bowie himself about what he thinks of the dubious honor of having a spider named for him.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Bowie as Ziggy Stardust in the film "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars."  Credit: Cowboy Pictures


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