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Archive for month: March, 2016

Spider Shows Off His Big Paddle to Woo Mates

Spider Shows Off His Big Paddle to Woo Mates

Males of the human variety may spend hours at the gym bulking up to attract the ladies, but that’s nothing compared to the efforts of a new spider species from Australia.This little brown spider sports a massive, paddlelike appendage on its legs that it flashes at females to woo mates, new research has revealed.

The new spider species, Jotus remus, can do this paddle “peekaboo” routine for hours, all to get female spiders to accept its advances. The paddle seems to be a way of separating the fertile females from those that have no interest in mating, said Jürgen Otto, the biologist who discovered the oddball spider.

Camping stowaway

Otto has a day job researching mites at the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources in Sydney, but spends his free time hunting down gorgeous and unusual peacock spiders. (Otto maintains a YouTube channel filled with videos of the bizarre mating dances of peacock spiders.) He first discovered J. remus, while on a camping trip with his family during Christmas break in 2014. While unpacking the car after the trip, he spied an ordinary-looking brown spider sitting on his tent bag.

“At first it didn’t seem really unusual. It had color, patterns and shapes I’ve seen before,” Otto told Live Science. “But I looked closer and noticed it had these funny extensions on their third pair of legs, it seemed like a paddle.”

Otto suspected the creepy crawly was a new spider species, but had no idea what the paddle was for. And finding out posed a bigger problem: He wasn’t sure whether the spider lurked in the wilderness around his home or was a stowaway from his campsite at Barrington Tops National Park, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) north of Sydney.

Eventually, Otto returned to his camping location and noticed several of the spiders on a walking trail he’d visited during the trip. He suspected the darker brown arachnids were the females, so he scooped some of those up, as well as additional males and put individual males and females together with some twigs and leaves to see what they did.

Hide-and-seek

The male spider quickly hid behind a leaf as the female spider watched.

“From under the leaf he stretched out one of his legs, of the third pair,” Otto told Live Science. “He exposed that paddlelike extension to her and waved it at her.” The female occasionally lunged toward the male spider. The male handily evaded her.

“He seemed to have no difficulty at all escaping from these attacks; he seemed to be playing a game,” Otto said.

This seemingly pointless game of hide-and-seek went on for many minutes until the male gave up. Otto tried the same thing with multiple females and male piders. Perhaps the male was trying to exhaust the females, to make them more receptive to his mating advances, Otto said he thought. But the females didn’t seem to get tired, no matter how long the male persisted. Like the male spider, Otto eventually set aside the peekaboo game and pursued other spider questions.

Like a virgin

But a few months ago, some of the immature females of J. remus grew up. These spider females were “virgins” who had had no opportunity to mate with males. In these types of spiders, females can probably only mate once, so non-virgin females are of no use for males looking to pass on their genes, Otto said.

When Otto put the male spider together with the virgin female spider, the male went ahead with his paddle routine. But the female, rather than lunging at him, watched curiously. Within a few minutes, the female became very calm and still. At that point, the male spider made his move, emphatically thrusting his paddle twice.

“After those two vigorous paddle strokes, he just jumped up very quickly to the other side of the leaf and went on mating with that female,” Otto said.

So the paddle dance seemed to be an elaborate way for male spiders to figure out if a prospective female is “the one,” Otto said.

“The one that keeps attacking him is not the right one,” Otto said. (Probably good advice for males of any species.)

Questionable behavior

While Otto has never seen a female spider eat a male, the females are superb hunters and the males of the species are significantly smaller than the females, “just the right size for him to be food,” Otto said. As such, the elaborate paddle game may partly be a protective mechanism, a way for males to avoid risking danger with a female who has no interest. Still, the males are swift and never seemed to be truly threatened by the females, and the whole encounter seems almost playful, so there could be another explanation for the male spiders’ sneaky moves, he added.

One question still puzzles Otto: Why do the males play so long with partners who clearly have no interest?

“If the male gets a reaction from the female telling him she is not really happy to mate with him, why does he keep on trying?” Otto said. “There’s a lot of play going on that seems to be wasted energy.”

Otto and his colleague David Hill, a zoologist in Greenville, South Carolina, described J. remus in a paper that was published online Jan. 7 in the journal Peckhamia.

Source:   Live Science
Writer:   Tia Ghose

Spider Diet Goes Way Beyond Insects

Spider Diet Goes Way Beyond Insects

Spiders eat insects. That’s why some of us are reluctant to kill spiders we find at home — we figure they’ll eat the critters we really don’t want around. But a new study reveals that the spider diet is far more diverse than we learned in elementary school. Spiders are insectivores, sure, but many also have a taste for plants.

Only one species of spider is known to be completely vegetarian. Bagheera kiplingi jumping spiders of Mexico survive mostly on bits of acacia trees, Science News reported in 2008. And while scientists have yet to find any other vegetarian species, plant-eating appears to be very common, particularly among jumping spiders and spiders that make webs outdoors.

Martin Nyffeler of the University of Basel in Switzerland and colleagues combed books and journals for reports of spiders consuming plant material. There is evidence of veggie-eating among more than 60 species of spiders, representing 10 families and every continent but Antarctica, the team reports in the April Journal of Arachnology.

Perhaps past scientists can be forgiven for overlooking the plant-eating behavior, as spiders can’t eat solid material. They have a reputation for sucking the juices out of their prey, but that’s not quite the right description. Instead, a spider covers its prey with digestive juices, chews the meat with its chelicerae and then sucks the juices in. This eating style means, though, that spiders can’t just cut a piece of leaf or fruit and chow down.

Some spiders feed on leaves either by digesting them with enzymes prior to ingestion (similar to prey) or piercing a leaf with their chelicerae and sucking out plant sap. Others, such as the vegetarian Bagheera kiplingi, drink nectar from nectaries found on plants or in their flowers. More than 30 species of jumping spiders are nectar feeders, the researchers found.

“During such [feeding], the spiders were seen pushing their mouthparts deep into flowers to drink nectar, similar to the way nectar-drinking insects feed,” the researchers write. And this isn’t accidental behavior — some spiders can feed on 60 to 80 flowers in an hour.

Pollen is probably another common plant-based food source for spiders, especially those that make webs outdoors. That’s because spiders eat their old webs to recycle the proteins. And when they eat their webs, they eat anything that might be caught on the sticky strands, such as calorie-rich pollen. Spiders might also be consuming tiny seeds and fungal spores this way, though the latter may be a risky meal as there are many fungi whose spores will kill spiders.

The researchers also found some cases of spiders intentionally eating pollen and seeds, and they also note that many spiders are eating plant material when they munch on plant-eating insects. Just how common plant-eating is among spiders isn’t yet known, but it could be even more common, especially among species that create webs outdoors.

“The ability of spiders to derive nutrients from plant materials is broadening the food base of these animals,” Nyffeler says. “This might be one of several survival mechanisms helping spiders to stay alive for a while during periods when insect prey is scarce.”

And with reports of spiders eating a whole menu of other non-insect foods — including crustaceans, earthworms and small vertebrates in the wild; and sausage and soy milk in the lab — it’s clear that we need to call them something other than insectivores.

Source:    Science News
Writer:    Sarah Zielinski

Backpack Pigeons Monitor London Air Quality

Backpack Pigeons Monitor London Air Quality

A technology company has released ten pigeons wearing lightweight sensors to monitor pollution in London.
Plume Labs has fitted the birds with tiny backpacks which monitor nitrogen dioxide, ozone and volatile compounds.
Until Wednesday people can tweet their location to @PigeonAir and can find out how much pollution is registered in their area.

Who’s fighting air pollution? Pigeons. Wearing tiny backpacks with pollution sensors!

It is also possible to view the pigeons’ flight movements on a live map.
The idea was originally submitted by Pierre Duquesnoy and Matt Daniels, of marketing and technology agency Digitas LBi, to Twitter’s #PoweredbyTweets competition.

Racing pigeons

It was the winning entry in the “Solve a Problem” category and was exhibited during the London Design Festival at Somerset House.

Racing pigeons are being used for the project, with a vet on hand to check the pigeons do not suffer any distress.
Plume Labs said 10,000 people die from air pollution each year in London alone.
It said it hopes to “show Londoners how air pollution affects them, especially during rush hour” using the pigeon air patrol service.

The campaign aims to encourage Londoners to become beta testers for a wearable version of Plume Labs’ air pollution measuring device.

Source:   News, BBC, 14th March, 2016.

Angry Birds Build the World’s Biggest Nests

Angry Birds Build the World’s Biggest Nests

You don’t build the world’s biggest bird nests by putting up with lazybones. That, anyway, is the finding of a new study into how sociable weavers (Philetairus socius) make and maintain nests that can house up to 500 birds. Aggressive supervisors identify and punish the slackers while constructing the giant, grass-woven structures in southern Africa. (Take National Geographic’s bird quiz.)

Birds that shirk their duties on creating the nest’s main thatch structure, and focus instead on their individual chambers, are chased away from the nest, according to the study, published March 16 in the journal PLOS ONE. But when the lazy birds return, they’re much more cooperative, the researchers found during National Geographic Society-supported fieldwork at the Brink Research Site in Namibia in 2014.

Study co-author Gavin Leighton believes the pushy birds in the weaver colony help to pull it together for the common good.

“The aggression inducing this nest construction, given it’s such a constant behavior that we see, could very well lead to these large nests,” says Leighton, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in New York.

Potential Freeloaders

Weighing up to a ton or more and up to 20 feet (6 meters) wide, the nests are home to a number of extended families that have their own chambers for roosting and breeding. (Related: “5 Animals That Are Awesome Architects.”)

If the families aren’t all closely related, there’s a temptation for individuals to exploit the benefits of the communal nest while leaving the group building to others. “That’s where we think coercion may be important in protecting this investment and making sure others cooperate as well,” says Leighton, who co-authored the study with University of Miami biologist Laura Vander Meiden. Sociable weaver researcher René van Dijk of the U.K.’s University of Sheffield isn’t so sure.

The idea is “very interesting,” he says, but “it seems to me that this is unlikely to be driving communal nest-building.” According to van Dijk’s observations, “aggressive interactions seem to be relatively rare,” while “thatch building is only performed by about 50 percent of birds, mostly males. There are thus a lot of freeloaders that would need to be punished for not contributing to the thatch.”

He also questions how the dominant birds can “monitor the behavior of, say, 300 birds in a typical colony.” But Leighton says has seen nest-builders take frequent time-outs on a nearby branch. “It’s possible that they’re keeping tabs on the other individuals in the colony,” he says. (Read more about Gavin’s research in his own words.)

If the study findings are correct, sociable weaver nests may get even bigger than they need to, adds Matthieu Paquet of the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. “If coercion plays a role, we can imagine birds building more than is actually necessary to avoid aggression,” he says.

A First for Birds

Leighton says his study marks the first known case of a bird using aggression to boost cooperation for the good of the group. Such behavior is rare in social animals, he adds, with the few reported examples including the naked mole-rat, a species that likewise dishes out punishment to group members that need to pull their socks up. (See “5 of Nature’s Wildest Animal Showdowns.”) There’s also us humans, of course. Leighton compares the sociable weaver nest to an apartment complex.

“Individuals who contribute the most to maintaining the shared part of the complex are the most aggressive, and the individuals that work most on their own rooms receive the most aggression,” he says. But when sociable weavers are angrily shown the door, at least they know there’s a way back.

Writer:    James Owen
Source:    News, National Geographic

Bird poop blamed for nuclear reactor shutdown

Bird poop blamed for nuclear reactor shutdown

Bird feces piling up on power lines is the most likely reason behind the latest shutdown of the Indian Point reactor in New York, a state-commissioned probe into the incident at the aging nuclear power plant has revealed after months of investigation.

One of the reactors at the Indian Point nuclear power plant, 25 miles north of New York City, was shut down after a transmission line trouble on December 14.

After months of investigation into the cause of the malfunction that lasted for three days, the plant operator Entergy Corporation now says that the shutdown was likely a result from a string of “large bird” droppings landing on the plant’s electrical equipment.

“Damage was caused by a bird streamer. Streamers are long streams of excrement from large birds that are often expelled as a bird takes off from a perch,” company officials said in last month’s report, obtained by Lohud, part of the USA Today news network.

“If a streamer contacts an energized conductor, the electrical current may travel through the streamer back to the bird or pole/transmission tower. The result may be a bird electrocution, power outage, and/or line trip,” Entergy explained.

Following the investigation, managers at the nuclear plant have started installing bird guards on transmission towers and are now conducting additional inspections and cleanings of the lines.

An Entergy spokesman Jerry Nappi confirmed that the December accident was caused by an “electrical disturbance” on outdoor high voltage transmission lines, stating that the actual cause is “still being reviewed by an outside engineering expert.”

“A possible cause is bird ‘streaming’,” Nappi said, an issue that is a “common cause” for electrical interruptions in high voltage transmission lines throughout the world. Yet Nappi noted that he couldn’t recall a similar incident in the past several years from birds at Indian Point.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has raged a personal vendetta to shut down the nuclear plant that lies within an hour drive of 20 million people. Two days after the December 14 accident, Cuomo ordered the Department of Public Service to investigate a series of unexpected outages.

The Indian Point Energy Center produces some 25 percent of New York City’s and Westchester’s electricity. The combined power generated by the two units amounts to over 2000 megawatts. The facility employs some 1,600 people.

Google Takes Zika Virus With Mapping Project

Google Takes Zika Virus With Mapping Project

Google takes Zika Virus with mapping project to visualize outbreaks. Google is leveraging its technological expertise in the hope it can help curb the spread of the Zika virus. The search engine giant announced several initiatives today to help combat the virus, including an open-source mapping platform and more detailed information for people searching about the mosquito-borne virus.

“As a company whose mission is helping people find information, with a lot of experience in analyzing large sets of data, we’re in a good position to help — at scale and at speed. So today we have Google engineers working with UNICEF to analyze data to determine how to map and anticipate the virus,” a Google blog post announcing the initiatives said.

Google reported a 3,000 percent spike in searches for Zika since last November. Since as many as four in five people don’t show symptoms of Zika, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Google’s team said a data-driven solution was needed to help map the virus.

Google’s volunteer engineers, designers and data scientists are joining UNICEF to build an open-source platform that can help visualize potential Zika outbreaks. The map will draw on data from various sources, including weather and travel patterns to help provide a visualization of potential outbreaks.

“Ultimately, the goal of this open source platform is to identify the risk of Zika transmission for different regions and help UNICEF, governments and NGO’s decide how and where to focus their time and resources,” Google’s announcement said, referring to non-governmental organizations. “This set of tools is being prototyped for the Zika response, but will also be applicable to future emergencies.”

Google also announced a $1 million grant for UNICEF to be used for mosquito eradication, vaccine development, and awareness campaigns.

The Zika virus has been spreading throughout the Americas and the World Health Organization has deemed it a “global health threat.”

Common symptoms of the Zika virus include fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis, according to the CDC. The virus has also been associated with a rise of microcephaly birth defect cases in Brazil. The birth defect is characterized by a malformed or smaller head and brain and can result in serious developmental delays.

India Have World’s First Vaccine For Zika Virus

India Have World’s First Vaccine For Zika Virus

In a breakthrough discovery Bharat Biotech, a vaccine and bio- therapeutic products manufacturer based out of Hyderabad, has claimed to have created the vaccine to combat the rapidly spreading Zika virus outbreak. Zika virus is named after Zika forest of Uganda where it was first identified in Rhesus monkeys in 1947. The virus has recently made headlines all over the world as it is spreading rapidly and has reportedly no vaccines to combat it.

The Impending Threat

The virus is transmitted by the Aedes Aegipti mosquito family which causes a mild fever known as Zika fever. The virus has been found to be showing the same symptoms as those caused by Dengue fever and is treated only by taking rest. In the 1950’s the virus was confined to the equatorial belt of Africa and Asia. But since then it has spread to various other regions and as of today has reached pandemic levels. According to World Health Organization, the virus is ‘spreading explosively’ and will infect 4 million people by the end of the year. In Brazil, the virus has been linked to children being born with small heads or microcephaly, but the diagnosis about that has been inconclusive. The virus has been reported in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela. A cluster of infections similar to what occurred in Brazil was also reported in French Polynesia in 2014. Most recently in Texas, the USA the first infection transmitted through sex has been reported.

The Importance Of ‘Zikavac’

Bharat Biotech CMD Krishna Ella said, “We believe we have an early mover advantage in developing the Zikavac and we are probably the first in the world to file for a global patent for Zika vaccine candidates. We have two candidate vaccines in development. One of them is an inactivated vaccine that has reached the stage of pre-clinical testing in animals”. The patent for the vaccine was filed by the company nine months ago, however, the efficacy of the vaccine still needs to be tested. None the less the discovery is essential to combat the virus and is a big inspiration for Indian budding scientists. The world has only recently started research on developing a vaccine after the outbreak came to limelight. Dr. Ella has said that the company at best has the capacity to produce one million doses of vaccine per year. To scale up the delivery of the vaccine it needs intervention from the government, and for this, he has asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to help fast track the development of the vaccine. Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, a pediatrician, and Director General, ICMR has said that they will examine the vaccine from a scientific point of view and take it forward.

The Logical Indian Community congratulates Bharat Biotech for taking the early initiative. This shows that medical prowess of India is immense. By providing vaccine to Brazil and especially to poor African countries India can strengthen its diplomatic efforts in these countries. This ‘vaccine diplomacy’ will definitely be fruitful for India in the long run as it can project itself as a dependable friend.

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