Sandfish stays sand-free

The sandfish lizard spends most of its life buried in the sand—emerging only to eat, poop, and mate. This lifestyle helps the lizard evade the sweltering desert heat in the Middle East and North Africa, but it causes another problem: inhaling sand particles. Yet when scientists looked into the respiratory tract and lungs of five dead lizards, they couldn’t find a single grain of sand. They couldn’t find an obvious filter in the lizard’s respiratory system, either.

Puzzled? So were the scientists. To know how they solved the mystery, go to Science.

Photo credit: Anna T. Stadler

Slow slimy slugs slaughter songbirds

What harm could a slimy little critter slowly crawling on the forest floor possibly do to a bird? A lot, it turns out. Slugs are shell-less mollusks that have a specialized mouth with a sandpaper-like structure. That rough surface can easily rip the skin and eyes off of a baby bird, leaving the chick to fight for its life.

Many don’t survive.

To be sure, this chick-icide by slugs is rare, European scientists now report. Still, they note, it could become a problem for ground- and shrub-nesting birds if slug numbers climb.

Justyna Chachulska is a graduate student at the University of Zielona Góra in Poland. Katarzyna Turzańska studies at the University of Wrocław, also in Poland. In 2014, both PhD students were monitoring nests of the common whitethroat (Sylvia communis), a mid-size European warbler. They were on the outskirts of the city of Wrocław.

The season was wet and cold. As a result, the ground teemed with slugs. One day, the young scientists noticed a slug in a nest with three newly-hatched chicks. They couldn’t imagine this slug posed a threat to the baby birds. So, they carried on with their work on other nests. But when they returned to the same nest the next day, two nestlings were dead. The third was missing.

To know how this avian murder mystery was solved, read the full story over at Science News for Students.

Photo Credit: Andrzej Wuczyñski

Queenless ant colony trapped in nuclear bunker forever

Keep calm and carry on building. That’s the motto of 100,000 or so wood ants stranded without food in a nuclear bunker until they starve.

Wood ants (Formica polyctena) typically build a cosy mound nest on the forest floor. They seek out the sugary secretions of aphids living on trees and supplement their diet with insects. Now, scientists have uncovered a population of wood ants that has sustained for years without food and light inside a bunker where temperatures are constantly low.

The ant population was discovered in 2013 by a group of volunteers counting bats overwintering in the bunker, which is part of an abandoned Soviet nuclear base near Templewo in western Poland.

Later, Wojciech Czechowski at the Museum and Institute of Zoology in Warsaw, Poland, and his colleagues, entered the bunker to study the ants more closely. They noticed that the wood ants had built a nest on the terracotta floor of the bunker – right below a ventilation pipe. Looking up through the five-metre-long pipe, they realised where the bunker ants come from.

Read the rest of the story over at New Scientist.

Photo credit: Wojciech Stephan

Mummy face

An Egyptian mummy’s head and face have been reconstructed with forensic science and 3D printing, offering scientists a tantalizing glimpse of the individual’s life and death.

The mummified head was discovered by accident in the collections of the University of Melbourne in Australia. A museum curator happened upon the remains during an audit and, concerned about the state of the specimen, sent it for a computed tomography (CT) scan.

“Turns out, [the skull] is actually quite intact; it has got bandages and looks well on the inside,” said Varsha Pilbrow, a biological anthropologist in the University of Melbourne’s Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience. “Of course, that then allowed us to think what to do next.”

With the help of an imaging specialist, Pilbrow and her team used the scans to create a 3D-printed replica of the mummy’s skull. Then, the scientists studied the specimen’s facial-bone features, such as the size and angle of the jaw and characteristics of the eye sockets, to determine that the head belonged to a female. The researchers are calling the specimen Meritamun. They say she was probably not more than 25 years old at the time of her death and was important enough to be mummified.

Read the rest of the story over at Live Science.

Credit: Varsha Pilbrow and Gavan Mitchell

Poo matters: Earwig young survive on siblings’ poo

Desperate times call for desperate measures. As food shortages hit, European earwig babies resort to eating each other’s faeces in their underground homes, helping to keep hunger and death at bay.

In times of plentiful food, the earwig offspring, or ‘nymphs’, feast on scraps of plant and insect material that their mother brings back from her trips above ground, and on food she regurgitates.

But when faced with limited supplies, the nymphs have to make do with what’s around them to survive.

Unlike many other insects that live in groups, European earwigs don’t clear their nest of faeces. Availability of faeces in hard times keeps the nymphs alive for about two more days on average than without them, researchers have now found.

In the lab, researchers deprived 56 five-day-old nymphs of food, and offered 28 of them faeces from their siblings. Nymphs with nothing to feed on survived for an average of 14 days, but those with access to their siblings’ faeces lived for an average of 16 days.

Read the rest of the story over at New Scientist.

Photo credit: Joël Meunier

Butterfly back-stabs its guardian ants

The metalmark butterfly cooperates with ants when it’s a caterpillar, only to stab them in the back when it has metamorphosed into a beautiful – thieving – butterfly.

While still a caterpillar, the metalmark butterfly wins over local ants, including those of the species Ectatomma tuberculatum, with gifts of sugary secretions. In return, the ants, which could easily eat the caterpillar or its adult butterfly form, defend the vulnerable caterpillars from other predators.

But this friendly give-and-take doesn’t last forever, work by Phillip Torres of Rice University in Houston, Texas and Aaron Pomerantz of the University of Florida, Gainesville, has now revealed. When the caterpillars have become butterflies, they turn on their protectors, plundering the source of their nectar.

This nectar is produced by organs called nectaries at the tips of new bamboo shoots, which are tended by ants. Using their mouthparts, they improve the flow from these nectaries, and stop them from running dry. The nectar is an important source of food for them, so they defend these nectaries fiercely.

Read the full story here at New Scientist. 

Photo credit: Phillip Torres

What’s behind the recent spate of discoveries?

Deepak Veerappan was in-between research jobs when, out of boredom, he started exploring the parched open lands in the south and west of India. He ventured out on his own into sun-baked landscapes in search of a “fan-throated lizard” – a small lizard with a large double chin. His post-doctoral position at the Indian Institute of Science, and thus funding, were yet to come but he had already laid the foundation of what would keep him busy for the next few years.

Only two species of the unusual lizards Veerappan loved watching had been known from India. From observing them in the wild, he knew there were actually more than two. This led Veerappan to discover five new species of fan-throated lizards – named so because the males have loose, stretchable skin hanging from their necks.

This spectacular find is one among a slew of discoveries we have seen so far this year in India. Wherever you look, be it the shores in the south or mighty mountains in the north, sun-scorched lands of the west or wet hills of the east, new species are being found everywhere. And yet scientists say there’s more to come. What on earth is going on?

To find out, read the full feature at The Wire.

Photo credit: Varad Giri

The tadpoles that swim in sand

In 2014, 14 new species of “dancing frogs” were discovered in the Western Ghats, a wildlife-rich mountainous region along the west coast of Peninsular India.

5. Tadpoles of Micrixalus herrei

These Indian dancing frogs are named for the antics males get up to when they want to grab the attention of a female.

Perched on a wet rock in a noisy, fast-flowing stream, a male sings and waves to the females. He lifts and stretches a leg to flag his white, webbed toe.

Any rival males on the territory are literally kicked out by the singing-and-dancing male.

It now turns out that this foot-waving, which was observed in nine species of the genus Micrixalus, is not the only bizarre trait that runs in the family. For the first time, researchers have found the tadpoles of a dancing frog, specifically the Kallar dancing frog (Micrixalus herrei).

Unlike most tadpoles, which live in water, they live underground until they develop into froglets.

Read more about the tadpoles here at BBC Earth.

Photo credit: SD Biju

Beautiful bright beasts

One new genus and five new species of fan-throated lizards have been found in the drier parts of India.

Fan-throated lizards are small ground dwellers. The males flaunt a multihued, fan-shaped fold of skin on their throats during the breeding season.

Because they live in dry and barren soils, when the midday heat starts to get to them they skitter about on their rear legs. Fan-throated lizards are restricted to parts of South Asia. Little has been known about them since the first species was reported in 1829 from India. After this, only six more species have been found: three from Nepal, two from Sri Lanka and one from India.

Know more about the lizards at BBC Earth.

Photo credits: V. Deepak

Meet the Western Ghats’ new freshwater crabs

Five new species of brightly coloured freshwater crabs have been found in the Western Ghats, India’s wildlife haven. Of these, two species belong to the genus Ghatiana (discovered in 2014) and the remaining to Gubernatoriana (known since 1970).

Behind the discoveries are an undergraduate student and researchers from the Zoological Survey of India and the Indian Herpetological Society. They described the five new species, named Ghatiana atropurpurea, Ghatiana splendida,Gubernatoriana thackerayi, Gubernatoriana waghi, and Gubernatoriana alcocki, in the journal Zootaxa on February 23.

Prior to this, 36 species belonging to 14 different genera were known from the Western Ghats in the family of freshwater crabs called Gecarcinucidae. So the latest discoveries bring the total species count to 41.

Read all about the new crabs at The Wire.

Photo credits:  Shailesh Bhosale

Found: Snake that remained hidden for 145 years

Indian researchers, in collaboration with the Natural History Museum in London, have found a new species of burrowing, non-venomous snake that has smooth, shiny scales.

The species remained misidentified and stashed among museum specimens for a long time before scientists thought it might be distinct. To confirm their doubts, they looked in the wild – and unlike many museum finds that are extinct by the time they are discovered, this one still existed. And it continues to do so in the semi-evergreen forests of the Western Ghats of India.

Read the full story at Nature India.

Photo credit: Varad Giri

Secrets of the insect architects

Insects are skilled architects that build homes of all kinds, from basements to tree houses and even skyscrapers.

Weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina)

This ant weaves a nest out of tree leaves high up in the canopy. To build one, a group of workers forms live ant bridges to bring the leaves together, while another fetches larvae from an existing ant nest.

Worker ants hold these larvae in their jaws and squeeze them while moving along the leaf edges. On squeezing, the weaver ant larva produces a fine silk fibre that glues the leaves. As more and more leaves are pulled along, a lump of fresh green leaves lined with a white silk mat is formed.

Know about other insect architecture in my story for BBC Earth.

Songbirds tap dance to seduce their mate

The blue-capped cordon-bleu (Uraeginthus cyanocephalus) has a special talent. Not only can it sing, it can shake a leg or two. For its courtship display, it holds a piece of nesting material in its beak, points its head upward, moves up and down, and sings. Both males and females bob and sing like this, and choose their partner…

Read the full story here at Science.

Velvet ants are almost invincible

In a dry, open field in New Mexico, US, a hungry lizard spots a brightly-coloured, hairy insect scurrying across the sandy soil. Thinking it has found a meal, the lizard sprints to catch the insect. But once it has the insect in its mouth, it finds it is too hard to chew.

The lizard then moves the insect around to find a softer chewing angle but gets nowhere. Meanwhile the insect starts to squeak and finally stings the luckless lizard in its mouth. Alarmed, the lizard spits it out.

The insect, still squeaking, gets away unscathed. The lizard is left with nothing but a sore mouth and a foul taste.

This sturdy insect is a female velvet ant. These females have an arsenal of defences unmatched by their male partners, or any other insect. The question is, what terrifying predator forced the females to evolve so many defences? And if they are in such dire threat from predators, why are they brightly coloured?

Answer to these questions (and more) in my feature at BBC Earth.

Photo credit: Joseph Wilson

What’s driving the endangered purple frog to extinction?

For indigenous communities living in and around the forests of Kerala, tadpoles of a rather puffy, purplish frog are a cherished delicacy. The practise of consuming tadpoles has been around for decades but researchers worry that harvesting them any more will soon push the endangered frog to the verge of extinction.

Found only in the Western Ghats, the Indian purple frog, Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, is a rather weird-looking creature known for its rather strange behaviour. It spends much of its time below ground, save the few days when it comes out to mate, after which it disappears into its burrow again. This elusive frog has tiny eyes, short limbs, a pointed nose and a large body – all adapted to a life underground.

Discovered in 2003, the purple frog was soon classified as endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List due to its already declining habitat and a geographical range of less than 5,000 square km. We still don’t know a lot about the frog’s life, since much of the action happens underground, or about its dwindling numbers.

Now, a five-year survey (2008–2012) by the scientist who discovered the species has revealed that a single tribal household of four consumes an average of about 1,500 tadpoles in one monsoon season (July to September). There are 100 to 150 households in the area where the survey was conducted.

Read the full story at The Wire.

Photo credit: SD Biju