Take a gander: Audubon Society’s Christmas bird count underway

A photo of a snowy owl in the winter.

A photo of a snowy owl in the winter. (Blanka Berankova/Shutterstock)

The National Audubon Society’s 116th annual Christmas Bird Count is underway, which means it’s the perfect time to unleash your inner birder and take a gander at migratory bird species as they fly south for the winter.

Every winter, citizen scientists participate in bird-counting events across North America, from mid-December until early January, to collect data on bird migrations for the National Audubon Society. This year, there will be bird counts in countries all over the Western Hemisphere, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and several others listed on Audubon’s website.

The Christmas Bird Count, which began last week and runs through Jan. 5, is the longest-running wildlife census in the United States. Data from the counts give scientists insight into birds’ migratory movements that researchers would never otherwise have, such as how bird ranges have been shifting over time.

Databases created from the Christmas Bird Counts have contributed to several hundred research papers over the years. “[In] the late ’70s to the early ’80s, researchers began to embrace citizen science data sets,” said Geoff LeBaron, director of the Christmas Bird Count for the National Audubon Society. In particular, the project allows scientists to follow interesting migration trends and range shifts for hundreds of different bird species in North America, LeBaron told Live Science.

How the bird counts work

Each count encompasses a circular area that is 15 miles in diameter, which has been the standard since the mid-19th century, LeBaron said.

There are also two ways to participate in the bird counts: as a field observer, someone who actually walks around and counts birds; or as a feeder watcher, someone who makes observations about the different bird species visiting their home bird feeder, LeBaron told Live Science. Both types of volunteers offer valuable but different data for scientists to use.

Once one count is completed, the collected data are compiled and sent to the National Audubon Society so that scientists there can compare those numbers to other counts coming in from other regions of North America.

“There are some species of birds that could be seen on most Christmas Counts in North America,” LeBaron said. Birds such as the American robin, starling, pigeon and black-capped chickadee are all likely to be seen, he said.

LeBaron also mentioned that birders are more likely to see Eastern bird species farther west than they are to see Western birds farther east because Eastern birds are migrating down from Canada while Western birds are heading down toward Mexico and Central America. However, there are some differences during El Niño years. For example, LeBaron speculated that recent sightings of a painted bunting in Brooklyn, New York, are likely due to weather anomalies from the current El Niño. (Usually, this bird lives in the southeastern U.S. and flies to Mexico for the winter, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

Whooooo goes there?

What about snowy owls? Sightings of these majestic creatures have been highlights of past Christmas Bird Counts, and while it’s possible that some people may spot them this year, there is no guarantee, LeBaron said.

“The snowy owl is an irruptive species,” he said. This means that while the owls may not be consistently present in a particular area, there are seasons when there are huge spikes in snowy-owl sightings, including in places as far south as Bermuda. (In 2014, 22 snowy-owl sightings were reported in New York City alone.)

Scientists with Project SNOWstorm, which began with the historic owl irruption of 2013-2014, started to piece together some of the behaviors that might explain these seemingly random sightings. The scientists used backpacks equipped with GPS trackers to follow snowy-owl migration patterns, and their research suggested that snowy owls may be following the movements of lemmings, their main source of food.

Snowy owls have been seen in parts of Canada already, LeBaron said, but it’s not clear whether this year’s counts will feature as many sightings of the owls as there were in 2013 and 2014.

But regardless of whether you want to catch a glimpse of a rare bird or just go outside and enjoy an outdoor winter activity, something that’s great about the Christmas Bird Count is that anyone can participate. “You don’t need to be an experienced birder,” LeBaron said. “Some of the most important data [come from] looking for the birds that are supposed to be there [not rare bird sightings].”

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Hail the Hydra, an animal that may be immortal

The freshwater polyp, <em>Hydra magnipapillata</em>

The freshwater polyp, Hydra magnipapillata (Dr. David Plachetzki, University of California)

In ancient Greek myth, the Hydra was a multi-headed monster that grew two more heads for every one that it lost. As it turns out, the real-life animal named after this mythical beast may be even more tenacious.

A new study finds that hydra — spindly, freshwater polyps — can live seemingly forever, without aging.

Unlike most multicellular species, hydra don’t show any signs of deteriorating with age, according to the new research, published Dec. 7 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [From Methuselah to Elves: The Top 10 Immortals]

“I started my original experiment wanting to prove that hydra could not have escaped aging,” study researcher Daniel Martinez, a Pomona College biologist,said in a statement. “My own data has proven me wrong — twice.”

Living forever

Hydra are a group of invertebrates that look like tiny tubes with tentacles protruding off one end. They grow only about 0.4 inches long and eat even tinier aquatic animals.

Hydra are known for their regenerative capabilities. Most of their body cells arestem cells, Martinez said. These cells are capable of continuous division and differentiation into any cell type in the body. In humans, such “totipotent” cells are present only in the first few days of embryonic development. Hydra, by contrast, constantly renew their bodies with fresh cells.

In 1998, Martinez and his colleagues published a study describing how they found no signs of aging in mature hydras over four years. To detect aging, researchers look at senescence, which is defined as an increased rate of death and a decline in fertility with greater age. In that 1998 study, researchers couldn’t pin down whether or not hydra fertility declined with age.

The new research involved creating little islands of paradise for 2,256 hydras. The researchers wanted to give the animals ideal conditions, which meant giving each an individual dish, with the water changed thrice weekly, plus meals of fresh brine shrimp.

Over eight years, the researchers found no evidence of senescence in their coddled hydra. Death rates held constant at one per 167 hydras per year, no matter their age. (The “oldest” animals studied were clones of hydras that had been around for 41 years — though individuals were only studied for eight years, some were biologically older because they were genetic clones.)  Likewise, fertility remained constant for 80 percent of the individual hydras over time. The other 20 percent fluctuated up and down, likely because of laboratory conditions.

“I do believe that an individual hydra can live forever under the right circumstances,” Martinez said.

In the wild, disease, predators and water contamination kill off hydras before they can achieve immortality. But the findings fly in the face of old models that assumed that all animals must decline with age, Martinez said. And that means that studying hydra could help scientists unravel the mystery of why most animals do age.

“I’m hoping this work helps sparks another scientist to take a deeper look at immortality,” Martinez said, “perhaps in some other organism that helps bring more light to the mysteries of aging.”

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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New Jersey Boy Scout leader fights off black bear with rock hammer

A New Jersey Boy Scout leader fought off an attacking black bear with a hammer while hiking at a local reservoir Sunday afternoon, authorities said.

NJ.com reported that Christopher Petronino, 50, was showing a cave to three young Scouts when the bear grabbed him and pulled him inside. Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Bob Considine said Petronino suffered bites on his leg and both shoulders.

Considine said that after hitting the bear twice in the head with the rock hammer, Petronino “pulled his sweatshirt over his head and curled into the fetal position. He yelled to the scouts, who were outside the cave, to leave and go get help.”

The spokesman said the young scouts called authorities, who tracked the group’s coordinates on a cell phone and dispatched a helicopter in the hope of finding them. Meanwhile, Petronino instructed the scouts to place any food they had at the entrance to the cave in an attempt to draw the bear out.

Ultimately, a dog traveling with the group barked at the bear, drawing it out of the cave and up a nearby hillside. Considine said that Petrnino spent approximately 80 minutes inside the cave.

Petronino was airlifted to a local hospital for treatment. He told authorities that he had visited the cave at the Split Rock Reservoir regularly since the 1980s and had never seen a bear before. The scout leader said he did not see any ear tags or collars on the animal.

Police told NJ.com that Department of Environmental Protection employees have set traps in the area in hope of capturing the bear, but so far it has not been found.

Originally available here

Two ‘extinct’ snakes spotted swimming off Australia’s coast

(Grant Griffin, W.A. Dept. Parks and Wildlife)

(Grant Griffin, W.A. Dept. Parks and Wildlife)

Scientists feared the last of Australia’s short-nosed sea snakes died about 15 years ago, which makes this new sighting doubly auspicious: A wildlife official snapped a photo of not one but two of the snakes swimming off the western coast—and they were making googly eyes at each other.

“What is even more exciting is that they were courting, suggesting that they are members of a breeding population,” says researcher Blanche D’Anastasi of James Cook University in a press release.

No such snake had been spotted since the species disappeared from its habitat at Ashmore Reef in the Timor Sea more than a decade ago. Scientists at JCU confirmed that the photos, taken at Ningaloo Reef, captured images of the sea snakes in the journal Biological Conservation.

“We were blown away, these potentially extinct snakes were there in plain sight, living on one of Australia’s natural icons,” says D’Anastasi. The journal article had another piece of good news: A decent population of another species, called the rare leaf-scaled sea snake, was spotted in Shark Bay, more than 1,000 miles from the snakes’ only previously known habitat, notes Gizmodo.

Both species are officially listed as critically endangered. The good news, however, was tempered with the bad. Generally speaking, sea snakes are on the decline in Western Australia, and the reason “remains unexplained.” (Scientists, do however, have a pretty good idea about why snakes lost their legs.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: 2 ‘Extinct’ Snakes Found Swimming Happily

More From Newser

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Shark kills ship’s captain during Coast Guard rescue near Aruba

A Venezuelan man was attacked by a shark moments before the Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard tried to reach him and his crew during a daring rescue operation Saturday after their boat capsized in the waters off Aruba.

Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard spokesman Roderick Gouverneur told The Associated Press that the shark attacked the man as he was clinging to a rescue buoy and a member of the Coast Guard suspended from a helicopter was trying to rescue him. He said the man – who was identified by local media as 58-year-old ship captain Adrian Esteban Rafael, according to the IB Times — died Saturday on the way to the hospital.

Two other men perished when they sank with the vessel, the Doña Matilde.

A man who identified himself as a Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard officer posted on his Twitter account pictures purportedly showing the rescue.

Four crew members who survived by holding on to a refrigerator and pallet were hospitalized in Aruba for dehydration and were still recovering Tuesday.

The men were traveling from Bonaire to Aruba to sell whiskey when their boat capsized after it was hit by a wave, Gouverneur said.

Venezuelans often travel on boats laden with goods to sell throughout the Dutch Caribbean islands.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Originally available here

2 ‘Extinct’ Snakes Found Swimming Happily

AND THEY MIGHT BE MATING

By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 21, 2015 4:43 PM CST

(NEWSER) – Scientists feared the last of Australia’s short-nosed sea snakes died about 15 years ago, which makes this new sighting doubly auspicious: A wildlife official snapped a photo of not one but two of the snakes swimming off the western coast—and they were making googly eyes at each other. “What is even more exciting is that they were courting, suggesting that they are members of a breeding population,” says researcher Blanche D’Anastasi of James Cook University in a press release. No such snake had been spotted since the species disappeared from its habitat at Ashmore Reef in the Timor Sea more than a decade ago. Scientists at JCU confirmed that the photos, taken at Ningaloo Reef, captured images of the sea snakes in the journal Biological Conservation.

“We were blown away, these potentially extinct snakes were there in plain sight, living on one of Australia’s natural icons,” says D’Anastasi. The journal article had another piece of good news: A decent population of another species, called the rare leaf-scaled sea snake, was spotted in Shark Bay, more than 1,000 miles from the snakes’ only previously known habitat, notes Gizmodo. Both species are officially listed as critically endangered. The good news, however, was tempered with the bad. Generally speaking, sea snakes are on the decline in Western Australia, and the reason “remains unexplained.” (Scientists, do however, have a pretty good idea about why snakes lost their legs.)

The sea snake discovered on Ningaloo reef, Western Australia.
The sea snake discovered on Ningaloo reef, Western Australia.   (Grant Griffin, W.A. Dept. Parks and Wildlife)

Ancient marine reptiles flew through the water

Ancient marine reptiles called plesiosaurs likely swam like penguins, relying on their front flippers for forward propulsion.

Ancient marine reptiles called plesiosaurs likely swam like penguins, relying on their front flippers for forward propulsion.(Liu et al. PLOS Computational Biology 2015.)

The ancient, four-flippered plesiosaur didn’t swim like a fish, whale or even an otter — but instead like a penguin, a new study finds.

Plesiosaurs, giant marine reptiles that lived during the dinosaur age, likely propelled themselves forward underwater by flapping their two front flippers, much like penguins do today, the researchers said. The paleo-giants probably didn’t rely much on their back flippers for propulsion, as that movement would’ve only marginally increased their speed, computer simulations showed.

“This is the first time plesiosaur locomotion has been simulated with computers, so our study provides exciting new information on how these unusual extinct animals may have swum,” said study co-author Adam Smith, a curator of natural sciences at Wollaton Hall, Nottingham Natural History Museum in the United Kingdom. [Photos: Uncovering One of the Largest Plesiosaurs on Record]

The study began when Jie Tan, a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, began creating computer models and simulations that captured the movements of modern animals. After designing virtual simulations of moving frogs, turtles, eels and manta rays, Tan turned to imaginary creatures. But he wanted another challenge, so he chose an extinct beast for his next project, said study senior author Greg Turk, a professor of computer science at Georgia Tech.

Plesiosaur locomotion has puzzled scientists since the reptiles were first discovered in 1824, because there aren’t any modern animals that look like them. Even marine turtles, which have two large front flippers, are no match, because unlike plesiosaurs, turtles have tiny back flippers.”I did some poking around and found that plesiosaurs have this weird body plan,” Turk said. “There isn’t any agreement in the paleontology literature about how they swam.”

To investigate, the team of computer scientists and paleontologists built a computer model based on Meyerasaurus victor, an 11-foot-long (3.4 meters) plesiosaur discovered in a Lower Jurassic formation in Germany. The scientists placed pivot points on the model’s legs wherever the real-life M. victor had joints, but they kept the model’s neck and tail rigid, Turk said.

“We weren’t looking for what contribution the tail motion had,” Turk told Live Science. “There are hints that some plesiosaurs might have had a little bit of a tail fin, but that’s not something we looked into.”

The researchers ran about 2,000 simulations to identify the most efficient way the plesiosaur could have swum. In the end, they found that if plesiosaurs flapped their front flippers up and down, the animals could have efficiently propelled themselves forward with every up and down stroke.

“Plesiosaurs flew underwater using their winglike flippers,” Smith said. “The front flippers were the powerhouse providing most of the thrust, while the rear flippersprovided less thrust and may have been used for stability and steering instead.”

This technique, if accurate, clearly worked for plesiosaurs; the reptiles reigned as marine apex predators for 135 million years, until the asteroid event wiped them out some 66 million years ago, the researchers said.

The study was published online Dec. 17 in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Zoo’s cute baby baboon makes public debut

(Julie Larsen Maher © Wildlife Conservation Society)

(Julie Larsen Maher © Wildlife Conservation Society)

A cute baby baboon has made his public debut at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Zoo.

Kaia, a 12-year-old Hamadrayas baboon, gave birth to the as-yet unnamed male infant on Oct 22. Bole, a 23-year-old male, is the father. The baby baboon is Kaia’s second birth at the zoo.

Related: Cute zoo babies

The zoo breeds Hamadryas baboons as part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP), a cooperative breeding program administered by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).  The Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Prospect Park Zoo, explains that two baboons born there last year have been sent to another AZA-accredited zoo where they will eventually start their own breeding troop.

Hamadryas baboons are native to northeastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

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Ancient mouse-size creature uproots mammal family tree

An illustration of Haramiyavia, the earliest known proto-mammal, whose identity is based on a reconstruction of its 210-million-year-old fossil jaw (superimposed on bottom illustration). (April Neander)

An illustration of Haramiyavia, the earliest known proto-mammal, whose identity is based on a reconstruction of its 210-million-year-old fossil jaw (superimposed on bottom illustration). (April Neander)

Three-dimensional computer models of fossils from a tiny mouse-size creature that lived about 210 million years ago in what is now Greenland clear up a long-standing mammal mystery.

The high-tech analysis of the fossils suggests that mammals originated more than 30 million years more recently than previously suggested, the researchers say.

Paleontologists analyzed fossils of haramiyids, extinct relatives of modern mammals that lived about 210 million years ago. For decades, researchers only had isolated teeth from haramiyids, stymying investigations into where these creatures fit on the mammalian family tree. [See Images of 2 Tiny Early Mammals from China]

This uncertainty about where haramiyids belonged raised two possibilities. One was that haramiyids were crown mammals — the branch of the mammal family tree that all modern mammals descend from — suggesting that mammals began to diversify more than 210 million years ago in the Triassic Period. The other was that haramiyids occupied a separate branch at the base of the mammal family tree, suggesting instead that mammalian diversification began about 175 million years ago in the Jurassic Period.

To help solve this mystery, scientists analyzed a remarkably well-preserved jaw from a haramiyid species known as Haramiyavia clemmenseni, discovered in Greenland in 1995.

“These fossils are extremely rare,” study lead author Zhe-Xi Luo, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, told Live Science. “You have to go into the Arctic tundra and search for tiny little bits of fossils.”

The paleontologists theorized that Haramiyavia was a small creature, weighing from 50 to 70 grams, or about twice as much as an adult mouse.

“As the earliest known haramiyid, Haramiyavia is the key piece of evidence for inferences about the timeline of early mammalian evolution,” Luo said in a statement.

The researchers used high-resolution computed tomography (CT) scans to develop 3D computer models of the jaw that helped them investigate this specimen in unprecedented detail.

“With the CT scans, we were able to see every little piece of this fossil,” Luo said.

This high-tech analysis revealed many primitive structures in the haramiyid jaw, including a trough in the back of the jaw that would have been connected to a primitive middle ear, and a bony prominence on the hinge of the jawbone. These two features provide strong evidence that haramiyids are more primitive than true mammals. This theory is supported by the lack of these two jaw features in the multituberculates, a group of early mammals that prior research suggested was closely related to the haramiyids.

“This was clearly a dead branch of the mammal family tree, going off to the side,” Luo said, referring to the haramiyids.

The scientists also created virtual animations that showed how Haramiyaviateeth functioned. Their research showed that haramiyids possessed incisors for cutting and complex cheek teeth for grinding plant food, suggesting that they were omnivores or herbivores. In contrast, other early proto-mammalian groups had less complex teeth, which were adapted for eating insects or worms.

“They broke away from being insectivores and carnivores and invaded an herbivorous-eating niche, opening up a whole new world for themselves,” Luo said.

Plant-eating mammals did later evolve complex teeth similar to those of haramiyids, despite the fact that they were not direct descendants of haramiyids. This is a striking example of convergent evolution, a bit like how flapping wings evolved from arms in birds, pterosaurs and bats.

“This herbivory adaptation evolved many times,” Luo said.

Many questions remain about how haramiyids lived. “Now that we know their address on the evolutionary tree, we want to better understand how they went about their daily lives — for instance, we’d like to know how they moved about,” Luo said.

The scientists detailed their findings online Nov. 16 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Take a look at this bizarre, head-banging bee

121615_scitech_bee_1280

If there was a heavy metal rock fan in the natural world, it would have to be the Australian native blue banded bee.

As you can see from this video, this bee with its distinctive black and blue stripes is a head banger. But rather than jamming to the latest Metallica song, this is actually the bee’s unusual approach to pollination. It uses its head to shake loose the pollen, a contrast to the conventional methods of brushing up against flowers so the pollen stick to the hairs of a bee.

“I initially though it was one bee doing something weird, so I went back the next day to try to get some up-close videos of the bees,” Harvard’s Callin Switzer told FoxNews.com. “When I looked at those videos, I spent a bunch of time trying to figure out why they would behave so differently. Then I immediately though about putting some music in the background and making a silly video to share with my colleagues!”

Related: Global warming, evolution reshaping bodies of bumblebees, study says

To the naked eye, it’s almost impossible to see the head banging – since its done up to 350 times a second. This video, however, slows things down so you can see the violent head shaking and how this technique causes vibrations that release the pollen into the air – which helps pollinate the flower.

The researchers from RMIT, University of Adelaide, Harvard University and University of California, Davis compared the pollination techniques of Australian native blue banded bees with North American bumblebees, which are commonly used overseas to commercially pollinate tomato plants.

Related: Tiny flies create zombie honeybees that take night flights, then die

While their American counterparts grabbed the anther of the tomato plant flower with their mandibles before tensing their wing muscles to shake the pollen out, super slow motion footage revealed the bee from down under prefers a “hands-free” approach.

And by recording the audio frequency and duration of the bees’ buzz, RMIT’s Sridhar Ravi, Switzer and the University of Adelaide’s Katja Hogendoorn were able to prove the Aussie bee vibrates the flower at a higher frequency than overseas bees and spend less time per flower.

But it remains a mystery why the bees take this approach.

“I can’t explain why they use this behavior, though I have a few guesses,” Switzer said.

“Maybe their mandibles are too small or too weak to hold onto the anther while vibrating at 350 Hz. Maybe the impact forces actually loosen pollen better than the relatively smooth motion that would occur if they grasped the anthers with their mandibles,” he said.  “I also don’t know if they’re alone in this behavior — I think that question is really hard to answer, since it’s not a behavior you can see with your naked eye.”

The researchers said they were “absolutely surprised” by the findings and argued the results, which will soon appear in the journal Arthropod-Plant Interactions, could open the door to improving the efficiency of certain crop pollination as well as better understanding of such things as muscular stress and the development of miniature flying robots.

Related: Study shows popular pesticide hurting health of wild bees _ not honeybees _ out in the field

“Our earlier research has shown that blue-banded bees are effective pollinators of greenhouse tomatoes,” Hogendoorn said. “This new finding suggests that blue-banded bees could also be very efficient pollinators ─ needing fewer bees per hectare.”

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