This Week in Biodiversity News – May 20th

Research carried out over a three-year period during a reintroduction project has shown that Pine Martens seem to establish their new territories more quickly with the presence of Pine Marten neighbours, but spend more time investigating their new habitat before settling when there are no other Pine Martens nearby.

A new study has hailed the rainforest fjords of southeastern Alaska as a global lichen hotspot. Over 900 lichen species have been documented in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, 27 of which are new to science. 

Researchers estimate that urban insect abundance would need to increase by a factor of at least 2.5 for urban Great Tit breeding success to match that of Great Tits living in forests. Providing nutritional supplementary food, such as mealworms, can help to boost urban Great Tit breeding success. 

Sauvages de ma rue (“wild things of my street”) is a chalking campaign that began in France to increase the awareness of plants growing in urban areas, encouraging the connection between people and surrounding wildlife. Botanical chalking has gone viral and can now be seen on the pavements of London, but chalking without permission is illegal in the UK.

Little is known about the threatened African Forest Elephant and this lack of knowledge hinders conservation efforts. A new study led by an international research team estimates that their population is between 40-80% smaller than previously thought.

This Week in Biodiversity News – May 6th

Until now, it was not known how Koalas drink in the wild, but now the mystery has been solved. For the first time, Koalas have been observed licking the water running down smooth tree trunks during rainy weather. 

An animatronic spy hummingbird has been used to film the mass flight of Monarch butterflies as they leave their wintering grounds in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. 

Animals that do not hibernate often use more energy to maintain their body temperatures during the winter. Common Shrews, however, do not need to increase their metabolic rate and instead maintain an equally active metabolism in both the summer and winter months.

Sinharaja is a lowland rainforest and a designated UNESCO world heritage site in Sri Lanka. It is here that a rare new orchid species has been discovered. This new species has been named Gastrodia gunatillekeorum after the two renowned forest ecologists Nimal and Savithri Gunatilleke. 

With the help of camera traps, a Brown Bear has been spotted in the Invernadeiro national park in Spain for the first time in 150 years. The Brown Bear has been a protected species in Spain since 1973.

This Week in Biodiversity News – April 22nd

A new species of bent-toed gecko has been described at the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Cambodia. This new discovery has been named Cyrtodactylus phnomchiensis after Phnom Chi mountain where it was found. 

Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis embryos are able to communicate with each other from within the egg. Studies have shown that eggs exposed to predator alarm calls hatch later than eggs that are not. Newly hatched chicks also produced less noise and crouch more than chicks that were not exposed to sound while in the egg. 

A five-year study looking at four species of flamingos at the WWT Slimbridge Wetlands Centre has shed light on the long-lasting social bonds flamingoes can form. Not only do they spend time with their mate, but they also regularly socialise with three or four others and have been shown to avoid certain individuals. 

A report by the National Capital Committee explains why poorly-planned tree planting on peat bogs could result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. 

The use of pheromones has been seen for the first time in a primate – male Ring-tailed Lemurs Lemur catta produce a fruity ‘perfume’ from the scent glands in their wrists to attract a mate.

This Week in Biodiversity News – April 8th

 

Seven new defence behaviours have been reported for the False Coral Snake Oxyrhopus rhombifer, one of which is the first registered for all Brazilian snakes. Cloacal discharge, body flattening, and false strikes are just a few examples of the variety of defence behaviours demonstrated by this species. 

The average wing size of two Nightingale populations in central Spain has fallen over the last twenty years. Nightingales migrate over vast distances from Sub-saharan Africa to Europe, where they breed. But, after their first journey to Africa, those with a shorter wing length are less likely to return to their breeding grounds. Climate change is the accused culprit; the timing of spring has changed and droughts are lasting longer in central Spain. Scientists believe this is having a knock-on effect on a series of adaptive traits that enable Nightingales to migrate effectively. 

Two new studies have shed light on the best way to achieve long-term success after giraffes are translocated for conservation. A founding population of at least 30 females and 3 males is amongst the recommendations given by scientists to achieve long-term population viability post translocation. 

The longevity of the largest fish in the world, the Whale Shark Rhincodon typus, has up until now proven difficult to determine. But past atomic bomb testing has given rise to an identifiable ‘time marker’ that can allow scientists to estimate the age of specimens. 

Herpetofauna Workers’ Meeting 2020

Wind farms, conflicts in conservation, and the use of photo identification as a population monitoring technique were amongst the many themes covered at the 2020 Herpetofauna Workers’ Meeting. Running for over 30 years, this popular event attracts ecological consultants, academics, students, and conservation organisations from far and wide. As the weather worsened with the arrival of Storm Dennis, we settled in for a jam-packed two days filled with presentations, workshops, and poster displays.

Scout Moor wind farm, image by Stephen Gidley via Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

So how is a talk on wind farms relevant at a herpetology conference? Wind farms cover a large expanse of land and, as Jeanette Hall from the Highland Biological Recording Group explained, could provide a conservation opportunity for Adders Vipera berus. Birds of prey are typically the main predator of Adders, but these predators are present in low numbers on wind farms. If managed correctly, wind farms could offer a suitable refuge for Adders. To test this Jeanette and her team used clay snake models to measure avian attack rates both within the wind farm and on a control site roughly a kilometre away. The models were made to roughly the same size as a yearling Adder, and the attacks were recorded by the presence of talon marks on the clay models.

Despite observing raptors in both sites, they found that attack rates were significantly lower on the wind farm. Interestingly, attack rates were higher in areas where grazing sheep were present.

Sheep grazing, image by David Pics via Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

With grazing and habitat management in mind, could these vast areas that wind farms cover offer an opportunity for reptile conservation? 

 Clay snake models are one simple but effective approach for measuring attack rates. Suzanne Collinson, from the University of Cumbria and the Cumbria Amphibian & Reptile Group, discussed another interesting technique that she used when studying Slow Worms Anguis fragilis. She used photo identification to study the size and dynamics of a Slow Worm population in a churchyard in Dalston, Cumbria. Slow Worms are a UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species and protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 due to their overall decline, therefore this population in the village of Dalston is of great interest, especially to the locals. Due to their morphology and cryptic behaviour, mark and recapture is a difficult method to use to survey Slow Worms. In addition to this, the markings on the neck and chin of a Slow Worm are unique to the individual and so, photo identification could offer a viable monitoring method.

Slow Worm, image by Bernard Dupont via Flickr,(CC BY 2.0)

In order to take a photograph of an individual, the Slow Worm would be placed on a clear tray, enabling photographs of the Slow Worm’s ventral surface to be taken quickly. The Slow Worms were found at various shelters or ACO’s (artificial cover objects) that were positioned across the churchyard. Suzanne also measured the body length of each new individual that she photographed and recorded the ambient temperature and the number of ant nests and snails present at the ACO. Suzanne counted 25 individuals in total (the original population estimate was 18) and found that as temperatures increased, Slow Worm encounters decreased. Ending on this note, Suzanne discussed the potential implications of climate change and how future monitoring will be necessary to understand what these future impacts could be on the population. 

 On both days there was a choice of five different workshops, all on very different topics, that we could take part in. On the first day, we attended ‘Managing habitats for conflicting species’ led by Jim Foster and Andrew Hampson from the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust. Faced with a real-time scenario, we discussed in small groups the potential conflicts that could arise and what approach should be used to move forward – our scenario was based at the dunes of Sefton coast, and focused on the population of Natterjack toads that reside there. This was an interesting opportunity to hear what lessons had been learnt from previous conservation projects and how this knowledge can be used for effective conservation planning in the future. 

Sand dunes on the Sefton Coast, image by Natural England, Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

Of course, this is just a snapshot of the range of topics discussed over the duration of the conference. Hearing first hand what organisations such as the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust and Amphibian and Reptile Groups of UK are doing to conserve reptile and amphibian species in the UK, plus the ongoing research on both British species and those of other countries was fascinating. 

Catherine on the NHBS stand, image by Catherine

You can visit the NHBS website here to browse our selection of herpetology books, as well as a range of equipment required for the surveying or monitoring of reptiles and amphibians 

Biodiversity News

Oldest bee discovered

The oldest fossilised bee has been identified, complete with pollen and beetle parasites. The fossil, discovered in Myanmar, belongs to the mid-Cretaceous period approximately 97 to 110 million years ago. It has been shown that this is a completely new species, named Discoscapa apicula, belonging to a new family, Discoscapa. Morphologically, there are similarities with the modern bees that we are familiar with, such as the presence of plumose hairs and spurs on the hind tibia. But there is a difference too, namely a bifurcated scape (a two-segment antenna base), a trait unique to D. apicula. This is what led to its new name; Disco is Latin for ‘different’ and scapa is ‘stem’, alluding to the unique antennal structure (apicula is the Latin for ‘small bee’). But even more impressive, is the 21 beetle larvae, or triungulins, also found within the amber. Bees evolved from carnivorous apoid wasps, but little is understood about the evolutionary changes involved as bees moved to a pollen diet. The presence of pollen and triungulins show that this particular specimen had visited flowers shortly before becoming entrapped, but there are also some morphological similarities with apoid wasps – this kind of discovery can help researchers understand the changes involved as the pollen-eating bee lineage evolved. 

 

Colourful spiders lure prey

The Golden Orb-weaver Nephila pilipes, also known as the Giant Wood Spider, can be found in Australia and across most of Asia. They build their webs in different light levels and are active both at night and during the day. As this species also sports a distinct yellow and black colouration, researchers wanted to know whether this pattern helps to lure prey in different light conditions. Researchers used cardboard Golden Orb-weaver models to investigate how colour and pattern impact the foraging success of the spider. One of these models accurately matched the pattern of the Golden Orb-weavers, whereas the other models displayed variation in both colour and pattern. They found that the bright yellow colour was important in luring prey during both the day and night, whereas the pattern of the colour patches play an important role in prey attraction in the day. The scientists speculated that it is the association with yellow pollen and flower heads that attracts pollinators to the spider’s web in the day.

 

Foraging preferences of the Indian Pangolin

A new study on the Indian Pangolin Manis crassicaudata has emerged in time for World Pangolin Day. Despite its wide distribution across the Indian subcontinent, the Indian Pangolin is an endangered species and threatened by hunting, poaching, trafficking and habitat destruction. Researchers investigated the foraging behaviours of the Indian Pangolin, including the composition of their diets and what habitat they preferred to forage in. By searching though pangolin faeces, they learnt that their preferred food choice is termites; they are easier to digest compared to other insects, such as ants (their second favourite choice). Five habitat types were looked at to determine where pangolins preferred to forage for their food, including forests, oil palm plantations, cinnamon farms, rubber plantations, and tea plantations. Forests took first place. This is perhaps not too surprising, as there is less human activity occurring in this habitat type and a higher abundance of termites, but what surprised researchers was that rubber plantations came second. This has important conservation implications for the Indian Pangolin. In areas where forests have already been lost, it would be best to maintain them as the preferred rubber plantations instead of converting them to other types of plantation, such as oil palm.

BIAZA Field Conservation and Native Species Conference at Chester Zoo

Greeted by the trumpeting of elephants across the otherwise silent car park, we arrived at Chester Zoo. With a quick glimpse into the rhino enclosure, we turned away from the main entrance and headed towards the lecture theatre (passing an impressive and colourful bug hotel) for the start of the BIAZA conference. The theme for this event was to be rewilding – an extremely topical and exciting subject in the current world of conservation.

Professor Alastair Driver

It seemed fitting that the event began with a talk by the highly esteemed conservationist Professor Alastair Driver, who is also the director of Rewilding Britain. It was amazing to hear how much popularity the concept of rewilding has gained, with many landowners now approaching Rewilding Britain, searching for advice on how best to rewild their own land. Dr Daniel Hayhow, the main author of the State of Nature report published in October 2019, followed with a discussion of the key findings of this pivotal report to paint a picture of how nature is faring in the UK. Jo Kennedy with the Manchester Mossland project brought the first session of the day to an end, demonstrating how collaborations such as the one that exists with themselves and Chester Zoo have been a vital aspect of captive bred reintroduction projects. The successful reintroduction of the Large Heath butterfly to the Manchester Mosslands Special Area of Conservation is a great example of this.

Toni on the NHBS stand

As the attendees patiently queued for their cups of tea and bourbon biscuits, we stationed ourselves in the adjoining room by the NHBS stand. We had brought with us various pieces of kit that are used for species surveys and monitoring, an important aspect of assessing the success of rewilding projects. Our selection of trail cameras were a popular talking point in particular, attracting interest from keen naturalists eager to investigate the wildlife in their back garden, to professional researchers and conservationists in charge of species reintroductions.

Manchester Mossland project display

In the same room you could also marvel at the amazing models on the Manchester Mossland project display that show the species that they are working with at their sites. Or perhaps explore the insect collection brought by the Tanyptera Project, who seek to promote the study of invertebrates in Lancashire, Merseyside, Cheshire and Great Manchester. There was also a raffle where a lucky winner had the opportunity to win a NHBS voucher or a British Wildlife gift subscription!

The next session featured a rather lively talk from Philip Turvil of Kew Gardens, who told us how 4 million people have been engaged by the Grow Wild mission, and certainly entertained all of us with a ‘Wildflower rap’ video (not performed by Philip I hasten to add!). BIAZA also used this opportunity to launch ‘Grab that Gap’, an initiative to encourage BIAZA members to transform a section of their site (the edge of a car park for example) into a wildlife haven and calls for participants to use social media to share their story #GrabthatGap2020.

Chester Zoo’s nature reserve

After lunch we were all taken outside to explore Chester Zoo’s very own nature reserve. We were taken through the history of the reserve, the types of species to be found (14 species of dragonfly at the last count, and over 20 butterfly species) and management techniques in place. It struck us how much vandalism occurs at the site; many Malaise traps had been destroyed and there was evidence of graffiti. But the staff at Chester Zoo are extremely dedicated and have big visions for the future.

Catherine, hedge laying

We were also given an opportunity to pitch in and help. Dead hedges are used not only to stop the little ones from running down the hill and straight into the pond, but also to provide a habitat for invertebrates and birds as the hedge starts to rot down. Our job was to top up these hedges with new branches (and to not slip down the muddy hill of course).

 

 

Then back to the warmth with an interesting line up of talks to finish the day. This session had a species reintroduction theme covering mammals, birds and insects, starting with the reintroduction of Pine Martens to the Forest of Dean. It was fascinating to hear of all the measures involved to ensure that there is a genetically diverse reintroduced population, minimal stress to the animals and the prevention of the spread of disease. The focus was shifted to a rare invertebrate, the Pine Hoverfly Blera fallax – the adults of which have not been seen in the wild for seven years. Dr Helen Taylor from RZSS discussed the captive breeding programme put in place to ensure there is a viable population for future reintroductions and the associated challenges with this approach.

Chris Sandom

Next we heard about the Red-billed Chough, the flagship species for the Birds On The Edge project, and their reintroduction to Jersey following a successful captive-breeding programme at Jersey Zoo. The session was drawn to a close with the final two talks of the day, the first of which reviewed the native bat species recorded at Knowsley Estate and their habitat use, followed by Will Mallard describing his PhD research project on the Barberry Carpet Moth.

The take home message? Rewilding is a step in the right direction to restore ecosystems and habitats to a state where nature can take care of itself. It isn’t just about wolves and bears.

With each day we were all generously given a free ticket to enter Chester Zoo, so of course we had to nip in before we left!

Toni and Catherine at Chester Zoo