The sea urchin that won’t die

In the freezing, inhospitable water off Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, a wounded sea urchin the size of a walnut staggers across the seafloor. Its precious gonads and half its shell are missing, yet it clings to life for more than 43 hours. Lucky for scientists, they caught the nearly dead urchin on camera, allowing them to witness, for the first time in the wild, sea urchins’ stunning capacity for survival… Read the full story over at Hakai.

Update: This story was selected as a top pick in the Best Shortform Science Writing!

Image credit: Max Wisshak

Citizen science helps assess the state of India’s birds

The State of India’s Birds 2020 takes into account 867 of the 1,333 species that have been documented in India on eBird. According to the assessment, species adapted to living alongside humans are doing well, others not so much. Overall, migratory shorebirds and raptors have been hit the hardest. Read the full story here.

Fish eggs hatch after being pooped

Found in temporary desert pools and mangrove swamps, some species of killifish can go without water for weeks at a time. And their eggs are no different: no water, no problem! Now, scientists have found that the eggs of two killifish species are so hardy, they can withstand being digested by birds, too. The finding may be the first firm evidence supporting an idea that has long held sway in scientific circles—that birds disperse fish.

Read my full story about killifish eggs over at Hakai.

Image of a developing killifish embryo. Credit: Vinícius Weber

This moth supplements its diet with bird tears

In the forests of Brazil lives a moth that drinks tears of birds. It perches quietly at the back of an antbird at night – when the bird’s not very active – and uses its long, flexible proboscis to lap up its tears. Don’t believe me? See for yourself!

*I’m not crying; there’s something in my eye*

You can read the story behind the video over at Science magazine.

Multimedia credits: Leandro Moraes

Egg theft might cause seabird decline

Among the 36 Lakshadweep islands dotting the Indian Ocean, one is particularly famous for its bird life. Pakshi Pitti is a flat sandbar that several species of seabirds come to for breeding. Devoid of predators such as rats and cats, and even humans, it is the perfect place for these birds to nest in.

Except, year after year fisherfolk from the nearby populated island of Kavaratti come to Pitti and plunder its wealth of seabird eggs. On every visit they make, they collect 14%–45% of the eggs. About 72% of the islanders of Kavaratti are involved in poaching and trading eggs from Pitti, showing that the network is quite vast.

The eggs are sought for their supposed medicinal properties, and their trade, scientists fret, could have a huge impact on the island’s seabirds, especially terns, whose numbers have plummeted from 20,000 in the mid-1900s to 970 in 2014.

Pitti was declared a bird sanctuary and afforded legal protection to stop this age-old practice of egg consumption. But a lack of regulation is defeating that purpose.

To know more, read my report published today in The Wire.

Photo credit: Ravichandra Mondreti

Little auks slurp like fish

The little auk is a small seabird that would fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. At only about 150 grams, this featherweight bird eats 20% of its body weight in prey each day. And this takes some underwater hunting skills. Diving up to depths of 27 meters, the bird spots and slurps its prey, much as fishes do. Read more about the world’s only slurping seabird here in my first piece for Hakai magazine.

Photo credit: Manfred Enstipp

Tick-borne monkey fever strikes again

  • Kyasanur forest disease or monkey fever strikes monkeys and humans bitten by virus-infected ticks.
  • The disease has spread through the Western Ghats and with increased awareness, more instances have come to light.
  • Detected in 1957 from Karnataka, it was officially reported in Maharashtra only in 2016. But scientists have now found evidence of previous episodes in the state’s rural population.

Kyasanur forest disease (KFD) is a tick-borne illness that was once restricted to the southern Indian state of Karnataka. It was first detected in the 1950s from Karnataka’s Shivamogga district, in the forest of Kyasanur, after which it is named. Back then the local community, noticing that monkeys were dying and making humans sick (whoever came in close contact with the sick monkeys), dubbed it the ‘monkey fever.’ But monkeys themselves, like humans, are hosts; the actual causative agent of KFD is a virus carried by ticks.

KFD rears its ugly head post-monsoon when young ticks, called nymphs, actively look for warm-blooded animals to attach to and feed on. With the bite of an infected tick, the virus gets into the bloodstream of humans, causing fevers, headaches, bleeding and, in some cases, death.

Over the past decade, KFD has been reported from the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu – outside its original range in Karnataka. In Maharashtra, it was first documented in 2016.

Now, a team of researchers from the National Institute of Virology, Pune, have investigated the 2016 KFD outbreak in Maharashtra and found that it may not have been the first episode of KFD for the state.

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Bonnet monkey. Photo by Raju Kasambe / Wikimedia Commons.

First, the researchers estimated the KFD prevalence in Dodamarg cluster of villages at Sindhudurg district in Maharashtra. Using data from house-to-house surveys conducted by health workers and patient records from hospitals in the district, they shortlisted 488 individuals whose symptoms matched with that of the disease.

They further screened these individuals and confirmed 130 to be KFD-positive. Three of the 130 patients died. A vaccine against KFD is available but none of the patients had received it.

Vocation, living conditions linked to tick exposure

When researchers looked at the possible reasons for the patients’ exposure to ticks, they learnt that vocation and living conditions had a major role to play. About 93 percent of the KFD-infected patients had visited the forest in Dodamarg before coming down with the disease. They had ventured into the forests to work in cashew, betel nut or coconut farms, to collect firewood or to graze their cattle, and likely got bitten by ticks there.

According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), “clearing of forest area for cultivation causes changes in tick fauna and is considered as an important risk factor for outbreaks.”

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Kyasanuru village on Google Maps.

Incidentally, Dodamarg borders Goa, where KFD struck in 2015, and Karnataka, where it continues to prevail. Its forests are also home to the red-faced bonnet monkey (Macaca radiata) and black-faced langur (Semnopithecus entellus) – species that are susceptible to monkey fever. “It is possible that the monkeys carry and spread ticks around when they move from one forest of the Western Ghats to another,” said researcher Pragya Yadav.

Monkeys do not play a direct role in the transmission of KFD, which is not aerosol-generated, Yadav clarified, but they do act as hosts. After a monkey dies from infection, the ticks drop off and scramble to find new hosts, which could be humans. “When they find a warm-blooded animal, they run like crazy creatures because they want to suck its blood.”

Sick of ticks before

Yadav and colleagues checked blood samples for antibodies against the virus in KFD-affected villages of Dodamarg. Overall, 9.7 percent of the individuals had antiviral antibodies in their blood. A study of healthy, uninfected individuals in KFD-unaffected villages 15 km away, surprisingly, showed a similar prevalence of antibodies.

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Black-faced monkeys in the Western Ghats. Photo by Jrimman / Wikimedia Commons.

The antibodies persist for at least two years after a tick bite, according to Yadav. This means that the two areas had been exposed to the virus before and 2016 was not the first time that Maharashtra had had a KFD outbreak. The previous cases probably went undetected, Yadav says, indicating that many people got tick bites, recovered and were doing fine.

Yadav’s analysis of the 2016 outbreak was published online earlier this year. New cases of KFD continue to emerge everyday from the region as we near the middle of the peak season. Not only this, the virus seems to be spreading geographically as well. During 2016–17, Yadav says, already many villages of Sindhudurg were affected but now it’s being detected in more villages.

CITATION:
Gurav, Y.K., et al. (2018). Kyasanur Forest Disease Prevalence in Western Ghats Proven and Confirmed by Recent Outbreak in Maharashtra, India, 2016. Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases. https://doi.org/10.1089/vbz.2017.2129.

(I wrote this piece originally for Mongabay-India.)

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

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