October 27, 2006

Neanderthal instincts

Ancient human hunters smelt blood on the breeze
26 October 2006
Our ability to detect the characteristic metallic smell left on the skin after handling iron-containing objects like coins and keys may have evolved for a more gory purpose: to help our hunter ancestors track down wounded prey.

Fats on the skin break down to form volatile, strong-smelling substances called ketones and aldehydes when they come into contact with iron - whether it comes from the environment or from haemoglobin in blood - says Dietmar Glindemann, a chemist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.

Glindemann and his team identified the chemicals after analysing vapours produced when seven volunteers rubbed metal objects on their skin. The strongest-smelling is 1-octen-3-one, the researchers report in Angewandte Chemie International Edition (vol 45, p 7006).

Glindemann then established that the same chemicals are produced by reactions between iron in blood and chemicals in the skin by rubbing his own blood on his skin and analysing the resultant vapour. He suggests that the ability to detect traces of the smelly chemicals allowed our ancestors to sniff out freshly wounded animals.

From issue 2575 of New Scientist magazine, 26 October 2006, page 16


"Take this tip from nature: The forest would be a very silent place if no birds sang except those who sang best."

Bernard Meltzer

Best Wildlife Photos of 2006

Photo: Best Wildlife Photos of 2006
Animal Behavior Winner: "Turtle Grooming"
Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, 2006

This green turtle is getting a full-body cleaning and massage courtesy of local fish at Turtle Pinnacle near Kailua Kona, Hawaii.

U.S. marine biologist Andre Seale, who took this photo, says the protected green turtles that come here rarely have to wait long for such a treatment from the fish, though some get more attention than others.

"Not all turtles attract so many fish, perhaps because of the amount of algae that's growing on them," Seale said.

The algae-eaters are colorful yellow tang and goldring surgeonfish, a species found only around the Hawaiian Islands. Also indigenous to the region is the saddleback wrasse, seen underneath, which feeds on dead and damaged skin.

"The turtles go up for a gulp of air, then come back down again," he added. "It's a bit like a car wash for them."
Photo: Best Wildlife Photos of 2006
Underwater World Winner: "The Great Mimic"
Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, 2006

It might want you to think otherwise, but this rare sea creature is actually an octopus.

The Indo-Malayan mimic octopus, a species first described only a year ago, is a master of disguise. When Michael Aw of Singapore first spotted the animal while diving off Indonesia's Banka Island, the octopus was pretending to be an eel, he says

Swimming alongside it for an hour, Aw says the shape-shifting octopus went on to assume the appearance of a sole, a ray, and then a sea snake. Its repertoire of disguises—used for both hunting and hiding—also includes hermit crabs, jellyfish, and sea cucumbers.

In the photo, the 1.5-foot-long (0.5-meter-long) octopus is mimicking a feather star, an animal related to the sea star, or starfish, Aw says.

"I guess it was saying, Please leave me alone, I'm really not interesting," the photographer said.
Photo: Best Wildlife Photos of 2006
Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year: "The Dilemma"
Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, 2006

Bug enthusiast Rick Stanley, 17, was exploring rain forests in the Dominican Republic with a group of naturalists when he and a friend heard a loud squeak from above. Looking up, they discovered a distressed Hispaniolan tree frog caught in the jaws of a green vine snake.

While Stanley, from Washington, D.C., recorded the drama on film, his friend Rubio decided to play a more active role.

"He felt sorry for the frog and touched the snake so it would let the frog go," Stanley said.

"It's amazing to think that snake could have eaten the frog," he added, noting the difference in size between the would-be predator and prey. "I guess we'll never know."

Stanley, who plans to become a biologist, accompanied a U.S.-led expedition that he says turned up seven new species of longhorn beetles.
Photo: Best Wildlife Photos of 2006
Overall Winner: "Beast of the Sediment"
Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, 2006

This image of a massive walrus looming through clouds of mud while probing for food in Arctic waters was voted best overall photo in the 2006 Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

Unveiled October 19 at the Natural History Museum in London, the winning images—five of which are included in this gallery—were chosen from 18,000 entries from amateur and professional photographers in 55 countries.

Göran Ehlmé from Sweden captured top prize for this face-to-face walrus encounter off northeast Greenland, where the tusked giants come to root out mollusks from the seabed using their bristled snouts and powerful flippers.

Ehlmé, who has filmed walruses for National Geographic Television, is the first person to photograph the animals feeding underwater. Diving with walruses is fraught with danger, and Ehlmé took the plunge only after spending many years studying their behavior.

"They are highly unpredictable and dangerous," said Ehlmé, who has been attacked by the marine mammals in the past.

"I think this one was in a bad, bad mood when he saw me. Appearing through the mud clouds, he looks like an angry god coming down from the heavens."

"Take this tip from nature: The forest would be a very silent place if no birds sang except those who sang best."

Bernard Meltzer

October 26, 2006

New bird discovered in India

New bird discovered in India

The Indian bird species has added another feather to its plumage. With the discovery of 'Bugun Liocichla' by Pune-based radio astronomer and bird watcher Ramana Athreya, it is for the first time that a new species has been detected in mainland India since 1948. Now the total count of Indian bird species stands at 1226. Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd) records the new entry into the avian world

Bugun Liocichla belongs to the Asian Babbler family
Bugun Liocichla belongs to the Asian
Babbler family

In the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pardesh, mid-way on the Tezpur-Bomdila-Tawang road in a forest tract of 218 sq km lies the little-known Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. From near anonymity, it has overnight become the focus of worldwide excitement for ornithologists. On May 25 this year Ramana Athreya, a radio astronomer and an ardent bird watcher from Pune, discovered an Indian bird species hitherto unknown to science. The count of species, which stood at 1,225 for India since 1948, has now moved up by one digit.

In general, people are attracted to a bird either because of its brilliant plumage (the peacock) or its appealing song (the Blue Whistling Thrush). As far as the overall impact of colour is concerned, Ramana's discovery is so sublime that you can never have enough of it. Shades of red, black, flaming orange, yellow, brown, olive, grey, white, flesh pink and silver are deftly interwoven into a matrix, the ultimate in colour harmony.

The news of the discovery became public only in mid-September because many exacting demands had to be met to provide evidence. Ramana has provided all save one. He was very wise not to kill the bird for a "full museum specimen". He is to be congratulated for his courage and compassion to reject this one scientific pre-requiste because so far not more than 14 birds of the discovered species have been spotted. In any case, Ramana has irrefutable photographic evidence, sound recordings of the bird's song on tape, two feathers (one from the tail and another from the wing) and more than a dozen enthusiasts from the US and Europe as witnesses, who per chance happened to be with him on that fateful day. All evidence (of course, minus the witnesses) has been deposited with the Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai.

The black feathers on the head of the female (top) remain swept back, while the male (below) keeps them erect
The black feathers on the head of the female (top) remain swept back, while the male (below) keeps them erect
The black feathers on the head of the female (top) remain swept back, while the male (below) keeps them erect
The closed underside of the tail of the female
The closed underside of the tail of the female (top) and the male (below)
The closed underside of the tail of the male

What about the name of the bird? Well, it has been identified as a species from the Asian Babbler family. For the purpose of international convenience in usage, all birds are given a scientific name (in Latin) and an English (common) name. And, of course, they retain their vernacular (regional) name. Ramana very promptly named it Bugun Liocichla, which got Latinised as Liocichla Bugunorum. Buguns are the local tribe which cohabit the area with this bird. These tribesmen accompanied Ramana during all his ventures in that area. The name is both a token of Ramana's appreciation to them and the hope of a symbiotic relationship between the Buguns and the Liocichla.

For the present the bird has no common or vernacular name but in the fitness of things it would be just appropriate to call it Athreya's Babbler. There are very good reasons to do so. Firstly, there is the universal precedence in ornithology to assign eponyms to birds. For instance we have Jerdon's Double-Banded Courser, after Maj T. C. Jerdon of the Indian Army who had discovered it. To name just one more, we also have Tickell's Blue Flycatcher; Tickell too was from the Indian Army, a Lieutenant Colonel.

More than all other considerations, this is the only bird of India's 1,226 species that has been discovered by and whose scientific text has also been written by an Indian, Ramana Athreya. Do we need to labour on this aspect any more?

Now what takes Ramana, a graduate from IIT Kanpur (1989), a radio astronomer of international standing, currently on the rolls of the National Centre for Astrophysics on the Pune University Campus, to the Eaglenest in W Kameng? To begin with, it was to spend a short holiday with his wife, who was pursuing a field project in Kameng for her doctoral thesis. Birdwatching has always been a passion but when in January 1995 he first saw a pair of birds all he knew was that "they did not fit any description in S.Ali & S.D. Ripley's Complete Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan (1987)". The next sighting came after 10 long agonising years in January 2005; a flock of six at 3 p.m. and of another four at 3.45 pm. In collaboration with two friends from the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun, and with permission from the government, they attempted to mist-net a specimen between January 23 and 28, 2005, but did not succeed.

He returned to the site in March and April this year and over four different days saw 14 of these birds. On May 21, he attempted and succeeded in mist-netting one bird. Unfortunately, the bird escaped after just three photographs. Ultimately on May 25, Ramana's luck held when he netted one more. Now he created a complete photographic evidence, took bodily measurements with vernier calipers, made detailed notes and in less than two hours released the bird to join its kind. And the discovery became a fact of life from that moment!

Ramana first spotted this species in 1995
Ramana first spotted this species in 1995

In 1994, the North-eastern Himalayas were listed among the dozen biodiversity rich hot-spots of global significance. Once Ramana saw the Eaglenest sanctuary, he conceived a project to document its biodiversity, coopt the tribes (Bugun and Sherdukpen) as partners in conservation of biodiversity and in return provide them with alternative socio-economic sustenance such as eco-tourism. Funded by the Ruthford Foundation, the project was launched in November 2003. Birdwatchers from the US and Euorpe proved most eager for recreation of this kind. Ramana has already successfully conducted one such group in collaboration with the locals in 2004 and two in 2006.

All proceeds from this eco-tourism venture have gone to the Village Tribal Council, which has pledged to keep the project going. Ramana in the meantime has obtained funds from the Ford Foundation for creating tented accommodation for visiting groups. Indian professional and amateur ornithologists have been offered a "vacation-for-conservation" plan where participants are charged tariff at zero-profit, provided experienced guide gratis and all this is in return for simply documenting the flora and fauna of Eaglenest.

When Ramana Athreya had first seen the Bugun Liocichla in 1995 and then could not spot it till 2005, he "began to doubt what I had seen". And now whole of India sees and rejoices in having a spanking, cuddly new bird, just 2mm bigger than the familiar Red-vented Bulbul.


"Take this tip from nature: The forest would be a very silent place if no birds sang except those who sang best."

Bernard Meltzer

October 12, 2006

Trouble in Darwin's paradise

In the pantheon of evolutionary icons they have prime status - for biologists they are the closest thing to Mecca. Now the Galapagos islands are facing a two-pronged attack.

On one side are the rats, goats and other alien species that have made the islands their home, to the detriment of local flora and fauna and on the other, the hordes of eco-tourists descending on the equatorial paradise.

Last year around 126,000 people visited the Galapagos, and cruise ship companies have recently added the islands to their destinations. Felipe Cruz of the Charles Darwin Foundation, dedicated to conserving the islands, believes the Galapagos should not be used in this way.

"We don't want cruise ships in the Galapagos, we don't think it's sustainable," he says. The ships leave local people and the environment to deal with their laundry water and sewage waste. Second, the larger numbers of tourists visiting the same areas will disturb the wildlife. Third, the chances of bringing alien species or disease is greatly increased.

Cruise ships, however, are coming. The Ecuadorean government allows twelve 500-passenger cruise ships to visit the Galapagos a year. So far the only one has been the 698-berth MV Discovery, operated by Discovery World Cruises of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which visited in May. Classic International Cruises, based in Lisbon, Portugal, has the Athena, which is scheduled to visit in 2008. Cruz says the ships bring their own food with them and don't deal with local people, so the tourist money doesn't filter into sustainable tourism.

Pirates used the islands as hideouts until the 19th century, introducing many non-natives such as rats, pigs and goats. Leonor Stjepic of the Galapagos Conservation Trust in London says the potential ecological impact of mass tourism poses a similar threat. "It is very difficult to perform adequate quarantine checks on a large ship with lots of people and luggage," she says. "West Nile virus has already been detected in Colombia. Imagine the devastation if that - or avian flu - came to the Galapagos."

When asked about the ecological risk to the islands, Classic International Cruises told New Scientist they will comply with the rules set by the Ecuadorean government and the Galapagos National Park Management as far as protecting the islands is concerned.

Stjepic insists that cruise ships are not a good thing for the islands. "It goes beyond environmental impact assessment. Even now we get invasive species, such as thrips, and blackberry, which has devastated the daisy trees in the highlands of Santa Cruz."

Managing the Galapagos is difficult, but there are successes. Most notably, Project Isabela, which eradicated thousands of goats that had devastated many of the islands in the archipelago.

Even large islands like Santiago and Isabela, each home to almost 100,000 of these alien invaders, are now goat-free. "The success of this project has acted like a catalyst, giving us confidence to take on other huge challenges in Galapagos," says Cruz.

Later this year the island of Pinta is to be the setting for one of the boldest. One hundred giant tortoises from nearby Española will be released onto Pinta's volcanic slopes. There is only one surviving Pinta tortoise, Lonesome George, and he was moved to the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz in 1972. His closest living relative - the Española tortoise - will act as a stand-in for him and his long-dead ancestors. "This is the first time that conservationists in the Galapagos have attempted to replace one species with another," says Cruz.

The tortoises should fill a hole in Pinta's ecological make-up. "In the absence of a dominant herbivore, the structure of the island's vegetation is changing," says Ole Hamann, a botanist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark who has worked on Pinta since the 1970s. "Tortoises will open up the vegetation, making room for light-loving herbs and grasses."

Next for eradication are the non-native rats. In 2003, conservationists announced that around 200,000 Norwegian rats had been removed from Campbell Island, some 700 kilometres south of New Zealand. It was the most successful rat eradication scheme to date and the technique used, an aerial drop of poison specific to rats, is due to come to the Galapagos soon.

With cruise liners and mass tourism, however, enforcing adequate quarantine measures will be very difficult, says Stjepic. At the end of this month, there will be workshops to look at ways of capping the number of visitors to the islands. One obvious way is to put the price up, from the $100 entry fee currently charged, to $500.

From issue 2573 of New Scientist magazine, 12 October 2006, page 8-9

My comments:

"Should leave nature alone...if one cannot care for it"