L.A. Unleashed

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Category: Science

Humpback whale's unusual migration is believed to be a record-breaker


LONDON — It wasn't love. It could have been adventure. Or maybe she just got lost. It remains a mystery why a female humpback whale swam thousands of miles from the reefs of Brazil to the African island of Madagascar, which researchers believe is the longest single trip ever undertaken by a mammal -- humans excluded.

While humpbacks normally migrate along a north-to-south axis to feed and mate, this one -- affectionately called AHWC No. 1363 -- made the unusual decision to check out a new continent thousands of miles to the east.

Marine ecologist Peter Stevick says it probably wasn't love that motivated her -- whales meet their partners at breeding sites, so it's unlikely that this one was following a potential mate.

"It may be that this is an extreme example of exploration," he said. "Or it could be that the animal got very lost."

Stevick laid out the details of the whale's trip on Wednesday in the Royal Society's Biology Letters, calculating that, at a minimum, the whale must have traveled about 6,200 miles to get from Brazil to Madagascar, off the coast of east Africa.

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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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Recently completed Census of Marine Life offers insights into ocean-dwelling species


WASHINGTON — The world's oceans may be vast and deep, but a decade-long count of marine animals finds sea life so interconnected that it seems to shrink the watery world. An international effort to create a Census of Marine Life was completed Monday with maps and three books, increasing the number of counted and validated species to 201,206.

A decade ago the question of how many species are out there couldn't be answered. It also could have led to a lot of arguments among scientists. Some species were counted several or even dozens of times, said Jesse Ausubel of the Alfred Sloan Foundation, the co-founder of the effort that involved 2,700 scientists.

The $650-million project got money and help from more than 600 groups, including various governments, private foundations, corporations, non-profits, universities, and even five high schools. The Sloan foundation is the founding sponsor, contributing $75 million.

But what scientists learned was more than a number or a count. It was a sense of how closely life connects from one place to another and one species to another, Ausubel said.

Take the bizarre and minuscule shrimp-like creature called Ceratonotus steiningeri. It has several spikes and claws and looks intimidating -- if it weren't a mere two-hundredths of an inch long. Five years ago this critter had never been seen before. No one knew of its existence.

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Drugs may protect bats threatened by disease known as white-nose syndrome, scientists announce

WhiteNoseSyndromeBat BOSTON — Scientists may have found some ways to help the nation's bats, which are being wiped out by a novel fungal disease.

Lab tests show that several drugs can fight the fungus and that some antiseptics might help decontaminate areas where bats live or the shoes and hands of people who visit them, researchers reported at an infectious-diseases conference Sunday.

"Both of those are critical elements. The decontamination is in my mind the most immediate need," because people may be helping to spread the disease, called white-nose syndrome, said Jeremy Coleman, who heads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's response to the problem.

Coleman had no role in the research, which was done by New York state's Department of Health in Albany, the state capital. The department's scientists helped identify the fungus as the cause of the bat die-off, first seen in Albany, about 150 miles north of New York City, in 2006.

Bats have a key role in nature -- eating and helping control mosquitoes and other insects that harm crops and carry disease. One type, the little brown bat, "was the most common bat in the Northeast and typically the most common bat in the nation, and they've been just completely decimated," Coleman said. In some areas, "we're down to 3% of the original population."

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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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Pea-sized frog? Yes, that's a pea-sized frog scientists have discovered in Borneo

Pea-Sized Frog

Scientists have discovered a frog the size of a pea, the smallest found in Asia, Africa or Europe, on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo.

Adult males of the new micro-species range in size from 10.6 and 12.8 millimeters and the pea-sized amphibian has been named Microhyla nepenthicola after the plant on Borneo on which it lives, according to taxonomy magazine Zootaxa.

Dr. Indraneil Das of the Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak said the sub-species had originally been mis-identified in museums.

"Scientists presumably thought they were juveniles of other species, but it turns out they are adults of this newly-discovered micro species," he said.

Das published the paper with Alexander Haas of the Biozentrum Grindel und Zoologisches Museum of Hamburg, Germany.

The mini frogs were found on the edge of a road leading to the summit of the Gunung Serapi mountain in the Kubah National Park in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

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Species of titi monkey found in Colombia is new to science -- and in danger of extinction


Biologists with the group Conservation International hope the discovery of a species of titi monkey previously unknown to science will lead to new efforts to protect it and other species in the Amazon.

The presence of a distinct type of titi monkey in the Colombian department of Caquetá, near the country's borders with Ecuador and Peru, was suspected for decades, "but for a long time we could not confirm if it was different from other titis," said Dr. Thomas Defler, a primatologist and professor at National University of Colombia in Bogotá, who led the research team. "We now know that this is a unique species, and it shows the rich diversity of life that is still to be discovered in the Amazon."

Biologist Martin Moynihan reported observing the species when he traveled to the area in the mid-1970s. Other scientists were eager to confirm Moynihan's report and learn more about the Caquetá titi monkeys, but years of insurgent violence made traveling to the region too dangerous.

In 2008, research student Javier Garcia, a Caquetá native, was able to make an extensive survey of the region and discovered 13 populations of the Caquetá titi monkeys there.

Caquetá titi monkeys can be distinguished from many of their closest cousins because they lack a signature white strip of fur across their foreheads exhibited by many titi monkeys. Caquetá titis are similar in size to domestic house cats and have bushy red beards.

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Climate change appears to be helping, not hurting, the yellow-bellied marmot (for now)

Marmot In a new report published last week in the journal Nature, scientists explained that at least one animal -- the yellow-bellied marmot -- appears to be benefiting, rather than suffering, from the effects of climate change.

The researchers take an annual census of the yellow-bellied marmots in Colorado's Upper East River Valley, and what they've learned from the yearly count may surprise you: Warmer weather seems to help the animals to store fat that helps them survive in the winter. It also results, of course, in shorter winters, which are easier for a marmot to survive regardless of his or her weight.

Since the researchers began their detailed study of the marmot population in 1976, spring-like temperatures have arrived in their home range about a day earlier every year.

Those incremental changes have added up to mean that the marmots emerge from hibernation close to a month earlier than they did when the study began. That allows them to get in extra eating time, and it also means that baby marmots are born earlier in the year. Those baby marmots have more time to put on weight before they hibernate. Fat marmots are happy marmots who are statistically more likely to survive a winter without food.

There's a downside to all of this, though, the researchers warn. "The summer food is drying up," study coauthor Daniel Blumstein of UCLA said. "Summer droughts really nail the population." That could eventually be the marmots' undoing.

Learn more about the study in reporter Karen Kaplan's recent story in The Times.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A yellow-bellied marmot pup. Credit: Raquel Monclus / Nature

Octopus species with venom that works at sub-zero temperatures discovered in Antarctica


Researchers have discovered four new species of octopus in Antarctica with venom that works at sub-zero temperatures.

They hope to analyze the venom to see if it has medical uses, said one of the researchers, Bryan Fry, of the University of Melbourne. Their discovery, during a six-week expedition to Antarctica in 2007, was published in the journal Toxicon.

Experts have long known there were octopuses in Antarctica, but what surprised Fry and his colleagues was the sheer biodiversity and how natural selection changed the way they hunted and the nature of their venom.

The octopuses drill small holes in large, shelled prey, through which they inject their toxic saliva.

"We found that venom can work at sub-zero temperatures. It was quite remarkable to find how well octopuses have adapted to Antarctic life," Fry said.

There was a great diversity of species, ranging from octopuses that were two inches long to giant ones, he said.

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North Atlantic right whales struggling to make themselves heard, new research suggests

Much like humans struggling to make themselves heard by companions in a loud restaurant, North Atlantic right whales must raise their voices to compensate for the increasing volume of ambient noise in the ocean, according to new research.

North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species, live primarily in the waters off eastern Canada and the U.S. The whales frequent areas with a high level of commercial, naval and recreational shipping traffic, according to Susan Parks, lead author of the study. Compounding the problem, Parks says, is the fact that commercial ships generate noise at the same frequency as the whales' calls.

The study, which has been published in the July issue of Biology Letters, followed 14 North Atlantic right whales living in Canada's Bay of Fundy. It found that the whales "are compensating for increased ocean noise by going up in volume when they call to one another, which is basically the same thing that humans do when they're trying to talk in really noisy bars," according to Joseph Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society at UC Davis, who was not involved in the study.

The research brings up new and troubling questions. Since right whales rely far more on sound than sight or other senses, will increased noise levels eventually force them to remain closer together in order to communicate with one another? If so, scientists speculate, the area where the whales mate and search for food could shrink substantially.

Learn more about the new study on North Atlantic right whales' increasing volume in reporter Jessie Schiewe's recent story in The Times.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Video: An adult North Atlantic right whale and its calf swim in the Bay of Fundy. Credit: bpatricksullivan via YouTube


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