Excuse me, Mr Bat. ……….WATCH: Bird uses ………..

Excuse me, Mr Bat. You’ve got a huge parasitic fly on your face.

Excuse me, Mr Bat. You’ve got a huge parasitic fly on your face.

When entomologist and renowned photographer Piotr Naskrecki posted images of long-winged bats plagued by facehuggers recently, he caused a bit of a stir. At first glance, the strange creatures look like spiders or ticks, but they’re actually a type of wingless fly found exclusively on bats.

bat flies1_2015_05_27

Image: Piotr Naskrecki

Naskrecki made the discovery while working on a biodiversity survey in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, and when he took to Facebook to share his find, debate and hilarity ensued. “The photo was reported for depicting ‘graphic violence’, and of course there were accusations of photoshopping the whole thing,” he says. The flies (Penicillidia sp), however, are both very real and very interesting.

The ancestor of Penicillidia flies probably looked something like modern tsetse flies, which also feed on blood. But after millions of years of co-evolution with their furry hosts, bat flies have become highly specialised parasites. For starters, their bodies became flattened and very hard, making it almost impossible for their hosts to squash them. Special “claws” at the end of each foot and hairs on the legs make it extremely difficult to dislodge them from fur. “These insects know the value of a good host and once they land on the furry back of a bat, they never leave it again,” explains Naskrecki.

bat fly parasite up close_2015_05_27

Image: Piotr Naskrecki
bat fly combo_2015_05_26

Image: Piotr Naskrecki
Bat fly zoomed out_2015_05_27

Image: Piotr Naskrecki

“Female bat flies, like their relatives tsetse flies, are remarkably good mothers,” he adds. “The great majority of insects lay hundreds or thousands of eggs, betting on one or two of them making it to adulthood. Bat flies, on the other hand – like humans – prefer to invest a lot in a much smaller number of offspring, hoping that they will all make it to the reproductive age. Instead of laying eggs the female gives birth to a single, fully developed larva, which immediately turns into a pupa.”

In fact, because the parasites can’t survive for very long on their own, the only time a female bat fly will leave its host is when the time comes to drop her larva off in a safe place – usually the wall of the bat’s cave roost. Then, she’ll quickly rush back, guided by the smell and warmth of her host.

While most people view parasites as lowly animals, Naskrecki begs to differ. “If anything, parasites, including bat flies, are incredible examples of evolution at its best, organisms capable of both adapting to life in the most hostile of environments (the very substrate you live on wants you dead!) and resisting diseases that live inside your body.”

For more amazing wildlife photos, stories and info, check out Naskrecki’s blog, The Smaller Majority.

Sarah Keartes



China-backed Sumatran dam threatens the rarest ape in the world

China-backed Sumatran dam threatens the rarest ape in the world


Bill LauranceJames Cook University

The plan to build a massive hydropower dam in Sumatra as part of China’s immense Belt and Road Initiativethreatens the habitat of the rarest ape in the world, which has only 800 remaining members.

This is merely the beginning of an avalanche of environmental crises and broader social and economic risks that will be provoked by the BRI scheme.

The orangutan’s story began in November 2017, when scientists made a stunning announcement: they had discovered a seventh species of Great Ape, called the Tapanuli Orangutan, in a remote corner of Sumatra, Indonesia.

In an article published in Current Biology today, my colleagues and I show that this ape is perilously close to extinction – and that a Chinese-sponsored megaproject could be the final nail in its coffin.

Ambitious but ‘nightmarishly complicated’


Forest clearing for the Chinese-funded development has already begun. Sumatran Orangutan Society

The BRI is an ambitious but nightmarishly complicated venture, and far less organised than many believe. The hundreds of road, port, rail, and energy projects will ultimately span some 70 nations across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region. It will link those nations economically and often geopolitically to China, while catalysing sweeping expansion of land-use and extractive industries, and will have myriad knock-on effects.

Up to 2015, the hundreds of BRI projects were reviewed by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, which is directly under China’s State Council. Many observers have assumed that the NDRC will help coordinate the projects, but the only real leverage they have is over projects funded by the big Chinese policy banks – the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China – which they directly control.


China’s Belt & Road Initiative will sweep across some 70 nations in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region. Mercator Institute for China Studies

Most big projects – many of which are cross-national – will have a mix of funding from various sources and nations, meaning that no single entity will be in charge or ultimately responsible. An informed colleague in China describes this model as “anarchy”.

Tapanuli Orangutan

The dangerous potential of the BRI becomes apparent when one examines the Tapanuli Orangutan. With fewer than 800 individuals, it is one of the rarest animals on Earth. It survives in just a speck of rainforest, less than a tenth the size of Sydney, that is being eroded by illegal deforestation, logging, and poaching.

All of these threats propagate around roads. When a new road appears, the ape usually disappears, along with many other rare species sharing its habitat, such as Hornbills and the endangered Sumatran Tiger.


A Tapanuli Orangutan. Maxime Aliaga

The most imminent threat to the ape is a US$1.6 billion hydropower project that Sinohydro (China’s state-owned hydroelectric corporation) intends to build with funding from the Bank of China and other Chinese financiers. If the project proceeds as planned, it will flood the heart of the ape’s habitat and crisscross the remainder with many new roads and powerline clearings.

It’s a recipe for ecological Armageddon for one of our closest living relatives. Other major lenders such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank aren’t touching the project, but that isn’t slowing down China’s developers.

What environmental safeguards?

China has produced a small flood of documents describing sustainable lending principles for its banks and broad environmental and social safeguards for the BRI, but I believe many of these documents are mere paper tigers or “greenwashing” designed to quell anxieties.

According to insiders, a heated debate in Beijing right now revolves around eco-safeguards for the BRI. Big corporations (with international ambitions and assets that overseas courts can confiscate) want clear guidelines to minimise their liability. Smaller companies, of which there are many, want the weakest standards possible.

The argument isn’t settled yet, but it’s clear that the Chinese government doesn’t want to exclude its thousands of smaller companies from the potential BRI riches. Most likely, it will do what it has in the past: issue lofty guidelines that a few Chinese companies will attempt to abide by, but that most will ignore.

Stacked deck

There are three alarming realities about China, of special relevance to the BRI.

First, China’s explosive economic growth has arisen from giving its overseas corporations and financiers enormous freedom. Opportunism, graft and corruption are embedded, and they are unlikely to yield economically, socially or environmentally equitable development for their host nations. I detailed many of these specifics in an article published by Yale University last year.

Second, China is experiencing a perfect storm of trends that ensures the harsher realities of the BRI are not publicly aired or even understood in China. China has a notoriously closed domestic media – ranked near the bottom in press freedom globally – that is intolerant of government criticism.

Beyond this, the BRI is the signature enterprise of President Xi Jinping, who has become the de-facto ruler of China for life. Thanks to President Xi, the BRI is now formally enshrined in the constitution of China’s Communist Party, making it a crime for any Chinese national to criticise the program. This has had an obvious chilling effect on public discourse. Indeed, I have had Chinese colleagues withdraw as coauthors of scientific papers that were even mildly critical of the BRI.


President Xi Jinpeng at the 19th People’s Congress, where the BRI was formally inscribed into China’s national constitution. Foreign Policy Journal

Third, China is becoming increasingly heavy-handed internationally, willing to overtly bully or covertly pull strings to achieve its objectives. Professor Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University has warned that Australia has become a target for Chinese attempts to stifle criticism.

Remember the ape

It is time for a clarion call for greater caution. While led by China, the BRI will also involve large financial commitments from more than 60 nations that are parties to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, including Australia and many other Western nations.

The ConversationWe all have a giant stake in the Belt and Road Initiative. It will bring sizeable economic gains for some, but in nearly 40 years of working internationally, I have never seen a program that raises more red flags.

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Top header image: Tim Laman


In photos: Brown hyena calmly robs five cheetahs

In photos: Brown hyena calmly robs five cheetahs


In becoming a lethal speedster – the fastest land animal on the planet – specialised for the hunting of small antelope, the cheetah has sacrificed the brawn of its fellow big cats for a lean, light, stretched-out build. Across its grassland and savannah range in Africa, that means this whippet-framed feline must generally eat fast when it lands a meal, before a more dominant carnivore shows up to steal the spoils.

In the Kalahari Desert, one such carnivore is the brown hyena. Last April, photographer Derek Keatsdocumented the cool, calm, and collected manner in which that hulking beast – which looks, in a wonderful way, a bit like a demonic hound – goes about pilfering from the cats.

cheetahs eating_2018_01_12.jpg

A short-lived feast. Image: Derek Keats

Keats was watching five cheetahs feasting on a freshly killed springbok in the South African portion of the huge Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park shared with Botswana when a brown hyena ambled over. Scavenging unconcernedly alongside the cheetahs, the hyena set about gnawing off the hindquarters of the antelope, which it then wandered away with.

hyena faces cheetahs_2018_01_12.jpg

Dinner … interrupted. Image: Derek Keats
hyena steals carcass leg_2018_01_12.jpg

Hyena steals a share … and legs it. Image: Derek Keats
hyena returns_2018_01_12.jpg

Image: Derek Keats

Unfortunately for the cheetah quintet, the hyena wasn’t through: it reappeared not long after, hurrying back to the carcass and then summarily hauling off the rest of it.

“The cheetahs looked absolutely dejected,” Keats wrote in a post over at Africa Geographic. “The jackals then took their change to move in, cleaning up the intestines and other nasty bits.”

hyena and cheetahs_2018_01_12.jpg

Image: Derek Keats
Cheetah passing_2018_01_12.jpg

Image: Derek Keats
hyena with entire carcass_2018_01_12.jpg

Image: Derek Keats
jackals leftovers_2018_01_12.jpg

The jackals move in to clean up the leftovers. Image: Derek Keats

What Keats saw is typical brown-hyena scavenging behaviour. The animal often shears off a leg from a carcass and caches it several hundred yards away, then returns for more.

The brown hyena is the southern counterpart of the striped hyena of North and Northeast Africa, both of them being large, solitary-foraging scavengers; their bigger relative the spotted hyena, which outranks them in the rough-and-tumble carnivore hierarchy of the African bush, is a more accomplished group hunter. The brown hyena prowls the semi-arid wastes of southwestern Africa, including down to the Namib Desert seacoast, where it’s often called the “strandwolf” or “strandloper”, a gleaner of beachwrack and part-time stalker of seal pups.

Brown hyenas are happiest when they can adopt the kills of more predatory carnivores, and their heavyset build and powerful jaws mean they can actively displace some of them. As Keats’s photos attest, even a well-outnumbered brown hyena can rob cheetahs, who are loathe to get in a scrape with the bruiser scavenger. “When a [hyena] sees a cheetah it often runs in its loping gait toward the cat to investigate, apparently to see if it has made a kill,” wrote the authors of a 1978 study on Central Kalahari brown hyenas.

Leopards, too, can lose their kills to brown hyenas: in that same study, a female hyena stole a springbok from a male leopard and then treed the big cat after it tried reclaiming the carcass. Here’s some after-hours camera-trap footage of a similar encounter:

Lions are another matter: brown hyenas take pains to avoid them and wait awhile after they’ve left a carcass before coming in to scavenge. Spotted hyenas and African wild dogs also usually dominate brown hyenas. Those two species, though, are uncommon in the latter’s heartland, and lions there tend to be seasonal and localised forces – so in the drylands of southwestern Africa, the brown hyena is effectively top dog most of the time.

It may be easier to ooh and ah over the cheetah’s high-speed chases, but we should also admire the brown hyena’s resourceful resilience in the lean Kalahari dune scrub. It covers a lot of ground in a given day (actually night – it’s primarily nocturnal), angling around scenting the air for intriguing aromas. When ungulates and their predators are plentiful during the wet season, the hyena focuses as much as it can on scavenging. In the dry season, when herds are gone or scattered, it omnivorously supplements scarcer carrion with wild melons, insects, and any small game it can flush and run down.

And while the brown hyena usually forages alone, it’s not exactly an antisocial character. Resident males and females share large, overlapping clan ranges, crossing paths amiably along travel circuits and over much-prized remains of large mammals and raising cubs communally; nomadic males, meanwhile, roam around mating with clan ladies.



Top header image: Ian Dickinson

Ethan  Shaw




WATCH: Bear breaks into California home, steals fruit and bread

WATCH: Bear breaks into California home, steals fruit and bread


Officers from the Placer County Sheriff’s Office in North Lake Tahoe, California are used to receiving calls involving unusual break-ins. Just last week, deputies rushed to the aid of a homeowner whose kitchen was being raided by a hungry bear:

The bear burglar broke into a home in Northstar on Thursday (May 3), climbed onto the kitchen counter and began casually scoffing down fruit and bread – unperturbed by an officer banging on a nearby window. The sheriffs eventually managed to chase the bear off, but not before it had helped itself to a hearty meal and made a mess of the kitchen.

Black bears hibernate for up to eight months of the year (yes, there is still some debate about whether or not they are true hibernators, but most experts now agree that their lengthy winter chill-out period can safely be called hibernation). During this time, they don’t eat, drink, or do that thing that bears are supposed to do in the woods, and their heart rate can drop to about eight beats per minute.

When they finally emerge from that lengthy slumber, they’ll usually start venturing out to find food (and people’s homes are an easy target). Bears can be problematic in the Tahoe Basin area, often lured out of the Sierra wilderness by the prospect of a calorie-rich meal discarded in a residential trashcan. More recently, as local homeowners have become more diligent about securing garbage in bear-proof bins or stashing it in the garage away from prying claws, the bears in the area have honed their house-burgling skills.

“The ease (with which) they can get in … shows that it’s a learned pattern, and it’s taught generationally,” Jack Robb, deputy director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, told the Sacramento Bee earlier this year. Trash is harder to find, but the local bears are up for the challenge.


Black bears regularly raid residential areas in search of a trashy meal. Image: Rachid H

Bear break-ins are become more commonplace in Tahoe often resulting in extensive damage to property (and occasionally to residents). The Bear League, a local non-profit made up of volunteers and community members, respond to “bear calls” as well as offering residents and tourists advice on how best to keep the bears at bay, but human-wildlife conflict is rarely an uncomplicated issue.

Many residents accuse the local bear advocates of abusing their unsanctioned role as saviours of Tahoe’s bears, and would like to see stricter measures enforced when animals break into people’s homes. Just across the state border, Nevada wildlife officials have a zero-tolerance policy when in comes to bear break-ins: if a bear is believed to be a threat, it will be terminated.

In California, wildlife officers are far more reluctant to kill a “problem bear”. If a bear becomes a threat, residents can apply for a depredation permit to have it trapped (provided they have first taken the necessary steps to keep the bear off their property). According to some residents, local advocacy groups harass those who apply for permits, and it’s often not worth the trouble.

Steve Torres, a Department of Fish and Wildlife supervisor who oversees the agency’s wildlife conflict programs, claims that an absence of resources in the Tahoe area means that the advocacy groups have a bit more leeway to take the reins. “We’re kind of in a difficult situation because if the homeowners don’t request a depredation permit, then our options are limited. There’s a lot of bears running around in there, and we can’t monitor all of them,” he said.

While this bear burglary seemed to pose little real threat to the homeowners, bears in the area are becoming more bold and with residents, wildlife agencies, and advocacy groups at loggerheads about the best solution, the stage seems set for more bear encounters in the future.


Top header image: Pixabay

Earth Touch News




‘Hidden sharks’: how we found a new way to detect them

‘Hidden sharks’: how we found a new way to detect them


Stefano MarianiUniversity of Salford and Judith BakkerUniversity of Salford

Imagine studying animals without seeing them. Does that sound ludicrous? To people like us, who first got interested in biology because we love animals and enjoy studying them, yes, it sounds like a poor deal. Yet, if you think about what forensic investigators do when they seek DNA evidence at a crime scene, or what doctors do when they detect a pathogen in a patient’s blood, it is exactly that: they detect life forms without seeing them.

DNA is life’s blue print. It is present in virtually every organism on Earth, and we usually study it by extracting it from a piece of tissue or a blood sample. But DNA, really, is everywhere: animals shed it constantly, when they scratch themselves, when they release urine, eggs, saliva, excrement and, of course, when they die. Every environment, from your bed to the deepest recesses of the oceans, is full of “biological dust”, mostly cellular material, which contains the DNA of the organisms that left it behind. This, we call “environmental DNA”, or eDNA.

Assisted by increasingly fast, accurate and affordable technology, scientists have begun, in recent years, to sequence this trace DNA from many environments. And this “micro” approach has even proved to be useful to scientists investigating environments as vast as the oceans.


Judith swimming with a hammerhead in the Bahamas: sharks are hard to survey and track as the ocean is so vast. Image: Nicolo Roccatagliata, Author provided

Many marine animals are large, rare, elusive and highly mobile. Sharks are an obvious example: in the oceans they make up a small proportion of the biomass, most of them are pretty difficult to catch, and they have been in conflict with humans since we started venturing at sea. With a few exceptions, they avoid us, and because of us many have become threatened with extinction.

This is why we thought it would be interesting to see if, just by sampling a few bottles of ocean water (and the DNA fragments therein), we could rapidly map shark presence and distribution, without engaging in wild chases or employing time and resource-intensive shark fishing methods. We were happy to find out that, indeed, this was possible, and that different species could be detected in different geographical regions, although the areas that had been more affected by humans would show scant presence of sharks.


Stefano sampling in Belize. Image: Judith Bakker, Author provided

But the true measure of the efficiency of this eDNA approach to shark monitoring would only be revealed when contrasted against established, tried-and-tested methodologies, such as scuba-diving visual censuses or baited underwater camera recordings.

This was the focus of our most recent study, conducted with colleagues based in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia, France, Australia and the US, and now published in the journal Science Advances. The results were very exciting: 22 water samples collected over a few weeks detected more sharks than hundreds of baited underwater camera observations over two years, and thousands of scuba dives over a period of decades. Nearly half of the species detected through environmental DNA could not be found at all using traditional methods. And while eDNA could detect the presence of some sharks in about 90% of the samples, underwater cameras could only manage just over 50%, and scuba diving around 15%.


New Caledonia: just 22 eDNA water samples (red stars) detected more sharks than numerous camera recordings (blue) or scuba dives (green). Boussarie & Bakker et al (2018)

Interestingly, eDNA outperformed the other methods in both pristine and impacted areas. A range of shark species were detected even in busy, noisy and depleted areas, where they were thought to be extirpated. This suggests some “dark diversity” may still be present, in the form of remnant individuals and groups requiring protection. Similarly, eDNA can help by revealing the appearance of newly established, alien species that are expanding their range. All of this is good news for everyone, and this is why.

Given the speed and efficiency of eDNA sampling, a much larger portion of the sea can be screened, in a shorter time, to gather an overview of the patterns of diversity across large areas and habitats, along various environmental gradients, and at different times. Potentially, we could rapidly build maps of species diversity and use them to create predictive models and identify the factors that influence diversity, while methods are being developed to improve the quantitative aspect of eDNA detection, also in other charismatic species. All of it will be of great help to those who must devise plans to protect crucial habitats and ecosystems.

Environmental DNA science is still rapidly developing. The databases that we use to match the unknown sequences retrieved from the sea must be enriched with new DNA references of many existing species – every multi-species eDNA study to date has detected large amounts of sequences that could not be matched against any reference. A significant proportion of these belong to organisms that are yet to be described by scientists.

The ConversationThe “DNA probes” currently available will have to become longer, as short sequences may sometimes fail to distinguish closely related species. For instance, the blacktip shark shared some identical sequences with the grey reef shark along the DNA stretch used in our study. Nevertheless, all the initial indications suggest that this approach can get us a step closer to understanding and better managing the largest ecosystem on Earth.

Stefano Mariani, Chair in Conservation Genetics, University of Salford and Judith Bakker, Research Fellow, Environment & Life Sciences, University of Salford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Top header image: Shutterstock

Earth Touch News




WATCH: Bird uses side-stepping manoeuvre to see off golf-course gator

WATCH: Bird uses side-stepping manoeuvre to see off golf-course gator


In a clip uploaded to Drexler’s Facebook page, a side-stepping crane determinedly ushers a gator across a section of the golf course – the trundling reptile paying little heed to the bird’s bravado. The crane’s flared wings show a typical sandhill response to a potential terrestrial predator. The same tactic was used by a different sandhill crane on golf-course gator last year, as well as by a trio of cranes that managed to send a much-smaller threat running for cover. The outstretched-wing dance can also be accompanied by hissing and ultimately a kick at the antagonist, though this crane opted for a safer sideways shuffle.

According to Drexler, the sandhill was protecting a nearby chick – something that these birds are known to do with gusto. There are records of cranes using the same intimidating wingspread routine to drive off black bears that wander too close to a nest.

Alligators will sometimes prey on cranes, though adult birds are usually fleet and alert enough to avoid attack. When they aren’t ambling around on the putting green, gators are usually prowling deeper waterways, while cranes typically forage in wet meadows and nest in shallow marshes. If water levels rise high enough, though, gators may gain access to crane nesting grounds, and they have been known to eat both fledglings and eggs.

This gator, however, seemed disinterested in the crane’s defensive dance – it’s possible that the reptile had other matters to attend to. Alligators begin their courtship ritual in early April and mating kicks off in May when sexually mature animals are likely to be more active. Sightings of gators are already on the rise in Florida and Texas with reptiles turning up on residential porches, at busy intersections, and even at the occasional hotel.

Top header image: striderp64/Flickr

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