Caterpillar vs. Beetle: Who wins?

I have a new video story up at Science magazine about an amazing moth caterpillar that fights off things that try to eat it, including beetles that are called ‘caterpillar hunters’. Check it out, folks!

The accompanying short story is available to read here.

Multimedia credit: Shinji Sugiura

Introducing my newsletter ‘Birds & Words’

Starting today, I will be sending out a monthly newsletter on birds. I have been dwelling on the idea for a while but there couldn’t be a better time than the ‘Year of the Bird’ to stop thinking and start doing.

The newsletter will bring smart stories about some very smart birds straight to your inbox at the end of every month. It’s about all things birds—birds in science, culture and art. What’s not to love?

If you’re into birds, please subscribe here.

Update: It is 2021 and the newsletter is still going strong. So do subscribe, if you haven’t already!

Why do fan-throated lizards come in such a wide variety?

Fan-throated lizards are a group mostly of colorful and some plain lizards that live on sandy beaches and barren plateaus of the Indian subcontinent.

Colourful or drab, all males have a special ornament to lure females – a loose flab of skin under the throat. Doesn’t sound very attractive, does it? But that does it for them. Here’s how: to draw the attention of females, males get their feet on a rock (or any raised platform), stretch their body and extend their loose under-throat into a fan. Hence the name.

1. A fan-throated lizard (Sarada superba)

The first species of fan-throated lizard was found in India back in 1829. Since, there have been rumours of more species in the scientific community but discoveries have been few. That changed in 2016 when scientists found 5 new species in one go. Now, they have found that there are at least 15 species, including the ones discovered in 2016.

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The sheer variety owes itself to changes in climate that happened millions of years ago – with the arrival of monsoons, rains became seasonal and grasslands expanded. This worked in favour of fan-throated lizards as they adapted to these changes and morphed into several species we see today.

I wrote about how a changing climate impacted the lizards for Mongabay-India today. You may also like my other pieces about these beautiful bright beasts published here at The BBC and here at The Wire in 2016.

3. Sitana sivalensis Credit - V. Deepak.JPG

Photo credits: V. Deepak

Inside the secret world of bamboo-breeding frogs

Meet the white-spotted bush frog, a species that is fascinating on several counts. For one, it breeds inside bamboos (yes, in the hollows of the fast growing woody grasses).

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To convince a female to have kids with him, a male frog first finds a nice spot – a bamboo stem with a tiny hole just big enough to get through – and then sings to impress.

If a female likes it, she enters the bamboo, lays her eggs and immediately calls it quits. Daddy babysits alone (and mamma moves on to make more babies).

Image-3 Male guarding eggs
A month later, their round see-through eggs hatch directly into mini versions of their parents, instead of tadpoles.
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The florescent froglets stay put for a while before going it alone. Until they leave, their doting dad guards them round the clock, forgoing his hunt for food. He eats insects that stray into the bamboo cavity – things like ants and flies.
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While daddy does his duty, he aggressively croaks to warn other male frogs against stepping on his patch.

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And with good reason: rival males can make a quick meal of his eggs. They are hungry and, it turns out, cannibals. Eggs, as is obvious, are rich in nutrients and if left behind by their dad, have little chance of survival. Scientists recently uncovered these aspects of the bamboo-breeding frogs using an endoscope – a medical device typically used to peer inside our bodies.

What makes matters worse for the frogs, besides cannibalism, is that they are a critically endangered species existing nowhere but in India’s Western Ghats, a chain of mountains alongside the country’s west coast.

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And given the harvesting pressure facing their bamboo nursery, the frogs need all the help they can get. Finding out where the frogs live outside of reserves can identify bamboo stands worth protecting. Another useful thing would be to stop cutting down bamboo during monsoons, which is when the frogs breed. You can do your bit by spreading the word on a more detailed piece I wrote about these frogs for Mongabay-India.

Photo, sound and video credit: Seshadri K.S. (Many thanks to him for sharing the multimedia and giving permissions for use)

Monkeys eat—and then floss

Monkeys living on an island have learned to use a startling variety of tools and techniques to obtain the juicy innards of different foods – and to floss their teeth afterwards.

The Nicobar long-tailed macaque is only found on three islands in the eastern Indian Ocean. One of them is Great Nicobar Island. Many of the macaques’ favoured foods are thorny, slimy, hairy or mucky. To get rid of these inedible coatings, the macaques either wash the foods in puddles or wrap them in leaves and rub them clean.

The macaques eat coconuts too, plucking them from the tree by twisting them around or using their teeth to cut them off. If it is tender, the macaques de-husk the coconut using their teeth. (As someone who’s tried husking a coconut at home, it takes some knife skills 🙂 but these monkeys do it with their teeth!)

After eating, macaques clean their teeth – they were seen holding a fine fibre between their teeth and pulling at it. The macaques used a range of materials as dental floss: a tree needle, a bird feather, a blade of grass, a coconut fibre, a nylon thread and a metal wire. (I wondered if the need to floss comes from all that coconut husk getting stuck in the teeth, but no). They did so after eating various foods in different habitats, the researchers told me.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, read the rest of the story published in New Scientist here.

Scorpion fine-tunes its venom to ward off predators

The Australian rainforest scorpion (Liocheles waigiensis) has been found to be able to tweak the chemical profile of its venom following just weeks of exposure to a predator. The scorpion appears to do this to tailor its cocktail of venom toxins to deter predators that threaten it, rather than to hunt its preferred prey, insects.

The researchers presented scorpions in the laboratory with a taxidermied mouse to mimic a mammalian predator in the wild. They simulated mouse attacks on the scorpions three times a week for five weeks.

Towards the end of the experiment, the researchers found that the venom chemistry of predator-exposed scorpions differed from that of the unexposed scorpions. In exposed scorpions they found a relative increase in the production of some toxins that specifically target mammalian cells. Exposure to the dummy predator also decreased the production of toxins that scorpions use to catch prey such as insects.

Read the rest of the story here at Chemistry World.

Photo credit: Mark Marathon CC-BY-SA

Monkey mom eats mummified baby

Evalyne9bisPrimates are known both to grieve their loved ones and practice cannibalism, but for the first time, scientists have recorded a Tonkean macaque eating her dead baby.

Researchers studying macaques at the Parco Faunistico di Piano dell’Abatino animal sanctuary observed a new mother named Evalyne “caring” for her deceased infant for weeks, and then consuming its mummified body until nothing but a single bone remained.

Tonkean macaques—which are native to Southeast Asia—tote around their babies’ corpses for hours or, even days. It could be a manifestation of grief, or an absence of understanding that the offspring is dead.

“This kind of behavior has been documented in chimpanzees and a few other primates, with mothers carrying their dead infant until it disintegrates,” notes Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University who was not involved in the new research.

To read more, go to National Geographic news.

Photo credit: Arianna De Marco.

Cracking the mystery of not cracking the eggshell

Greater Ani is not your regular cuckoo. Rather than dump its eggs in the nests of other species it builds its own and raises its young alongside other breeding Anis. The eggs bump into each other with quite some force as parent birds turn them during incubation. Now, researchers have shown that Anis have evolved eggs with the added protection of an uncommon mineral that keeps the eggs from cracking under pressure.

Vaterite, a form of calcium carbonate, sits on the eggshell of some birds in tiny spheres of varying size. It is less stable and abundant than calcite – another form of calcium carbonate that primarily constitutes the shell. Vaterite gives freshly laid Ani eggs their white chalky appearance. As incubation progresses, it gets scratched, exposing patches of the pigmented calcite underneath. When scientists studying nesting Greater Anis (Crotophaga major) in the Panama Canal noticed this change in the egg surface they decided to look deep into it.

Read the rest of the story here at Chemistry World.

Photo credit: Christina Riehl

Fungus creates zombie bugs with a short afterlife

Dying on a bed of flowers might seem like a good way to go. Except it’s not when you’re a beetle suffering a gruesome fungal infection.

Goldenrod soldier beetles (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) feed and mate on flowers – and that’s where some of them meet their end, too. When infected with the fungus Eryniopsis lampyridarum, the beetles clamp their jaws onto a flower and die soon after.

Hours later and still stuck to the flowers, the dead beetles’ wings snap open as though ready to fly. With their wings raised, these beetles even attract mates – live males were seen having sex with zombie females.

Read more about the zombie beetles here at New Scientist.

Photo credit: Donald Steinkraus

This tree leans more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Image-1Never mind the Leaning Tower of Pisa – this is the leaning tower of pines.

Cook pines are towering trees that were once restricted to their native home of New Caledonia, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Through cultivation, they have taken root across tropical, subtropical and temperate regions around the world.

The trees often have slightly tilting trunks. Scientists have now noticed a bizarre pattern in their tilt: they lean south in their northern range and north in their southern range.

Find out why they lean in opposite directions in my story for New Scientist.

Photo Credit: Matt Ritter

Tadpoles piggyback on strangers to avoid getting eaten — by siblings

Newborn poison frogs of Peru have quite an appetite. If left home alone in their hatching pool, the ravenous tadpoles will eat each other. To keep the tadpoles from gorging on their siblings, their doting father will carry them one at a time on his back and drop them in separate pools, where other food is available.

Some frog fathers, however, abandon their young. For unknown reasons, these males leave and never return to fetch their developing offspring.

But there’s a twist in the tale. To find out what that is, read the full story at Live Science.

Photo credit: Lisa M. Schulte

Female dragonflies drop dead to avoid males

Moorland Hawker Dragonfly-1-Credit-Rassim KhelifaOnce a female dragonfly has mated, all she is interested in doing is laying eggs and getting on with her life. So, when stalked by an unwelcome lover (or two), she crashes to the ground and plays dead. When the duped males eventually leave, the female flies off. The behavior was reported recently in the journal Ecology.

This may seem counter-intuitive, for one “purpose” of a species is to leave as many offspring as possible. But female dragonflies “know” what’s best for them. And what’s that? Find out in my story for Live Science.

Photo credit: Rassim Khelifa

The strange origins of alcohol intake

Birds do it. Chimps do it. Humans do it. We all booze. Some get tipsy, others don’t. Find out why in my latest story here at BBC Earth and if you make it to the end, you might even be rewarded with a smile. Now, I’ll drink to that.

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If you like it, share it. The story I mean (and maybe a drink, but please don’t drink and fly).

When life gives you ice, break through it

Animals struggle during winters. No surprise there. But it isn’t a shortage of food alone that bothers them. This January was pretty harsh with temperatures lingering below zero for days on end and that meant ice was everywhere. Even the city lakes were covered in ice. When it comes to birds, you may think “that’s no problem, they can fly.” But icy conditions made it really hard for some. From the antics that played out on the ice, it seemed highly sensible of these swans to break their way through the ice than to walk over it or take off on the slippery runway:

Swan photo and video are mine, all mine.

 

Wasp turns host into a self-sacrificing zombie

If there were a horror movie set in the animal kingdom, a turquoise-green insect named the “crypt-keeper wasp” would likely play a starring role. A new study has found that this crafty, parasitic wasp can manipulate other parasitic wasps to finish an assigned task and then become its meal.

The amber-colored victims are known as “crypt gall wasps” (Bassettia pallida). They nest in tiny cavities called “crypts” on their host tree, which provides free nutrition throughout its development. Typically, when the adult wasps are ready to leave, they chew a hole through the trees’ woody tissue and make their way out. But for some gall wasps, things don’t go according to plan.

To find out why, go to Live Science.

Photo credit: Andrew Forbes