Last of the wild asses back from the brink By Helen Briggs

KulansImage copyrightACBK
Image captionKulans live in pairs or small herds

Wild asses are returning to the grasslands of Kazakhstan where they once roamed in large numbers.

The equine animals, known as kulans, are native to the area but have been pushed to the brink of extinction by illegal hunting and loss of habitat.

Conservationists have started reintroducing the horses to their natural landscape.

This month, more kulan were released in the Altyn Dala nature reserve to establish a fourth population.

The project is being organised by the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK).

Sergey Sklyarenko said reintroduction started in a reserve on an island in the Aral Sea with fewer than 20 animals.

“We have got to now about 4,000 kulans in three wild populations,” he said.

“The creation of a fourth population will allow to provide new areas for the species and increase its sustainability.”

The wild asses were captured in the Altyn Emel National Park in the autumn.

KulansImage copyrightACBK
Image captionThe kulans were released at a nature reserve in the centre of the country

The population there has reached about 3,000 individuals, but there is little potential for future growth.

The kulans were moved to a centre at Alytn Dala in Central Kazakhstan, where they were kept in captivity over the winter to allow them to bond and adjust to local conditions.

Mares have been fitted with GPS collars so that the movement of herds can be tracked.

The animals have already started exploring the area, and it is hoped that they will thrive and breed.

Asian wild ass once ranged across the Russian Federation, Mongolia, northern China, northwest India, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

Today their main stronghold is southern Mongolia and China.

The Equus hemionus (Asian Wild Ass, Asiatic Wild Ass) is listed as Endangered, and considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild, on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Although they are a protected species, they are hunted for their meat and their skins in some areas

18 April 2018

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Ancient sea reptile was one of the largest animals ever

Sea reptilesImage copyright N TAMURA
Image captionIchthyosaurs are large marine reptiles that lived between 250 and 95 million years ago

Sea reptiles the size of whales swam off the English coast while dinosaurs walked the land, according to a new fossil discovery.

The jaw bone, found on a Somerset beach, is giving clues to the ”last of the giants” that roamed the oceans 205 million years ago.

The one-metre-long bone came from the mouth of a huge predatory ichthyosaur.

The creature would have been one of the largest ever known, behind only blue whales and dinosaurs, say scientists.

The ancient jawbone was found near the village of Lilstock by fossil collector Paul de la Salle.

He first thought it was a piece of rock but after seeing a distinctive ”groove and bone structure” realised it might be part of an ichthyosaur.

Dean Lomax, a world leading expert on ichthyosaurs from the University of Manchester, compared the bone with other specimens.

”It was a giant piece of mandible from an ichthyosaur,” the palaeontologist told BBC News.

”We were mind blown to think that a sea creature the size of a blue whale was swimming off the English coast about 200 million years ago.”

Severn Crossing

The discovery, reported in the journal, PLOS One, also clears up another long-standing mystery.

In 1850, a large bone was found at Aust Cliff below the Severn Bridge in Gloucestershire.

Prehistoric reptile’s last meal revealed

‘Sea dragon’ fossils ‘new to science’

‘Sea dragon’ fossil ‘largest on record’

Scientists have been unable to work-out whether the fossil and several other large bones found at the site came from a dinosaur or from a mystery reptile.

The two fossil experts now believe the Aust bones are also jaw bones from a giant, previously unrecognised ichthyosaur.

The jaw bone
Image copyright  PLOS ONE/LOMAX
Image caption The jaw bone from Lilstock

”Every fossil tells a story,” said Dean Lomax. ”It shows there are these things out there – hopefully someone’s going to find a whole one.”

Extinction stories

During the age of the dinosaurs, the ocean was home to many types of ichthyosaur.

They appeared in the Triassic, reached their peak in the Jurassic, then disappeared in the Cretaceous – several million years before the last dinosaurs died out.

Ichthyosaurs were among the first skeletons to be discovered by early fossil-hunters, at a time when theories of evolution and concepts of geology were starting to take shape.

The fossil hunter Mary Anning discovered the first complete fossil of an ichthyosaur in the cliffs near Lyme Regis, Dorset, in 1810.

Her discovery shook up the scientific world and provided evidence for new ideas about the history of the Earth.

The 150-year-old story of Sri Lankan tea-making

 

Two tea pluckers work on a plantation in Sri LankaImage copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE

Almost 5% of the population of Sri Lanka work in the billion-dollar tea industry, picking leaves on the mountain slopes and processing the tea in plantation factories.

The cultivation and selling of black tea has shaped the lives of generations of Sri Lankans since 1867.

Documentary photographer Schmoo Theune visited plantations in the country to explore the world of Ceylon tea production.

A tea plantation in Sri LankaImage copyright SCHMOO THEUNE

Tea bushes on mountain slopes are situated above the barracks-style housing which each plantation provides for its workers.

Tea buds must be picked by hand every seven to 14 days, before the leaves grow too tough.

This means the working location can change from day to day, depending on where the buds need to be collected.

The tea leaves are gathered in tarpaulin bags, which are lighter than the traditional wicker baskets that were once used.

A tea plucker in a plantation fieldImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

The leaves are weighed throughout the day and a tea-picker earns 600 Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR), which is approximately £2.70, if they reach the desired quota of 18kg a day.

If they do not meet this target then they are paid 300 LKR (approximately £1.30).

Some plantations use different wage models, such as paying staff monthly and offering temporary loans to employees.

The majority of Sri Lankan tea workers are ethnically Indian Tamils, a people who were transported by the British to work on the plantations.

They differ from Jaffna Tamils who originate from Sri Lanka’s north.

A person travels down a road in a small sunlit valleyImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Dirt roads connect the workers’ housing to the tea plantations.

Tea bushes are grown on steep hillsides a metre apart.

Altitude affects the flavour of the tea, with higher altitudes producing a more delicately flavoured crop.

This is more highly valued than the robustly flavoured tea produced at lower elevations.

A tea plucker holds out her handsImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Veteran tea-pickers often have rough callouses on their hands.

The difficult physical nature of the work is causing a shortage of young tea-pickers.

Many daughters are choosing to work in garment factories, or abroad in domestic roles, rather than the fields of the plantations.

There can be four different levels of hierarchy on a small plantation, ranging from the owner down to tea-pickers.

Each layer supervises the level below it.

The sun sets over worker houses on a tea plantation near Kandy.Image copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Some of the houses the workers live in were built by the British during a housing boom in the 1920s when about 20,000 rooms were built for tea-pickers.

The buildings have changed little since.

Families raise their children in a village setting in colourful barracks-style houses.

Many buildings only have electricity or running water for a few hours each day, or do not have them at all.

Many daily tasks such as washing or bathing are carried out in streams and rivers.

Families walk outside their houses next to a tea plantation.Image copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE
The side of a tea plantation houseImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE
A woman collects water in containers outside her houseImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Some areas of housing are supplied with water only once every three days which must be collected in containers.

Tea-pickers and other labourers start work at 7.30am.

In plantation communities, children often have to walk several kilometres to school.

Tea-picking earns relatively low wages, so some tea plantation families have family members who work abroad in the Middle East, or in other cities around Sri Lanka, who send money back home.

A tea plucker poses inside her houseImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Women who labour on the plantations also have household duties such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of children.

A shelf of food containersImage copyright    SCHMOO THEUNE

The fresh tea leaves are taken to a factory near the plantation for processing, like the one seen below near the Sri Lankan city of Kandy.

A view of a tea plantation factoryImage copyright    SCHMOO THEUNE

‘Withering’ is the first step, requiring the blowing of dry air to extract moisture from the leaf, which gives it a pliable texture.

A batch of 18kg of fresh leaves can yield 5kg of Ceylon tea after it has been processed in plantation factories.

A worker places tea leaves into a machineImage copyright    SCHMOO THEUNE

A rolling machine then twists the withered leaves and begins the fermentation process, which starts to develop the distinctive flavour.

The machinery used in the tea processing is often up to 100 years old.

Finished tea is separated by leaf size, and packaged in bulk bags to be sent for auction in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

A machine processes tea leavesImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE
A woman past a large pile of processed teaImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE
Workers work in a tea shop in KandyImage copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE

Ceylon tea is not just an export, it is an essential part of Sri Lankan daily life, consumed by office workers, labourers, students, and everyone in-between.

A tea plucker works on a plantationImage copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE  
BBC News 10 April 2018

St Edward’s Church, Stow-on-the-Wold, praised for its architecture, wins special attention for a door that some believe inspired J. R. R. Tolkien

Featured image

A construction effort that likely lasted from the 11th to the 15th century, and was also refurbished during Victorian days, the Church of St Edward, Stow-on-the-Wold, in Gloucestershire, was built on the spot of a former Saxon church. The present-day edifice fuses various architectural styles. There are bits of Norman masonry and Early English types of arches and columns. Distinctive as well is the nave clerestory, a testimony to the late Gothic architectural twist.

While all of these authentic features are of interest in their own right, one that might have fueled the imagination of a famous writer is the church’s north door, flanked by two ancient yew trees. Rumor has it that this was the door that sparked J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Doors of Durin,” the west gate of Moria that appears in a scene in the The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Nevertheless, this is still just a rumor, and nobody has so far authenticated it.

St Edward’s Church is a great attraction and place of interest, protected as a Historic England Grade I listed building. The small town of Stow-on-the-Wold can take pride in having such an architectural masterpiece within its boundaries.

Some praise of the church’s earliest features can be found inside, like the ornamental nailheads of the columns. These are among the church’s segments that hint of a church of similar proportions occupying the site before this one was completed.

Other portions of the church testify to it not being an ordinary architectural construction. The aisles of the nave are rather uneven. Different corbels, some plain-looking and some grotesque, can be noticed in the nave, perhaps depicting notables of the day.

The chancel is much restored, and it bears elements from Victorian days. The low part of the nave’s west wall further reveals the earliest masonry in the church, likely Norman style.

A grand picture depicting the Crucifixion scene, the work of Gaspar de Crayer, a Flemish painter active in the early 17th century and noted for his various altarpieces, is seen in the church’s south aisle. The piece was presented as a gift here in 1875. Some of the windows of the church are reputably an early 14th-century effort, distinctive for their pairs of trefoil panels that also embed tinier quatrefoils.

The tower gives an imposing feeling too; erected by 1447, it rises more than 80 feet in the air and contains probably the heaviest bells to be found across the county. While the current clock of the tower was installed by the mid-1920s, there was another clock that chimed the hour before, at least since 1580.

Architectural admirers will certainly enjoy all these various aspects of St Edward’s, and likely they will come across more great details upon visiting the church. Another striking element is the pair of old yew trees hugging the north door that is dated to either the 17th or 18th century.

This door, looking as if it had emerged from a fantasy world, perhaps inspired Tolkien in his writing of the memorable door he described in the first part of his famous The Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, there isn’t any written account proving any connection of the Oxford-based writer with this site.

Tolkien included in his book an illustration of the west door of Moria, crafted by both dwarves and elves according to the books, and this was the entrance to Khazad-dûm. After the Dwarven city was left deserted, the manner of how the door could be opened was forgotten. When someone compares Tolkien’s illustration of the door with the actual door at St. Edward, there is only a slight resemblance between the two. More likely, what has heated the debate is the book’s adaption to the big screen, and how the door was depicted in the film.

St Edward’s Door is also known as the Yew Tree Door. Similar-looking doors, perhaps not as impressive as this one, can be spotted at other places in England. Tolkien could have been inspired by this door, or by several others, or possibly from something entirely different–for that, we can never be sure.

 Stefan Andrews

For millions of years these tiny beetles have chewed their way out of sight

Japan

Camouflage is a valuable survival strategy—just ask a chameleon.

Scientists have just discovered a new form of mimicry camouflage: beetles that hide by chewing beetle-shaped holes in a leaf. The holes function like body doubles when predators swoop in.

Since Darwin’s time, only seven types of animal mimicry have been defined by biologists, and none after the 1940s.

This new form of camouflage, discovered by an entomologist working in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and his colleagues, is so subtle that it’s been hiding in plain sight before the eyes of scientists for centuries.

Close analysis of 119 species of flea beetles and the feeding damage they inflict on plants has revealed the shape and color of these beetles’ bodies are strikingly similar to the holes they chew into plant leaves.

“It struck me—why did I not notice this before?” asks Alexander Konstantinov, a Smithsonian and U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist who has been studying flea beetles since 1977. “But nobody did, and people have been collecting these beetles since the 1700s!”

dark

It wasn’t until a collecting trip to China in 2011 that Konstantinov noticed the beetles’ feeding damage closely resembled the insects in shape, size and color. Afterwards, he started looking for more examples.

“Now I can’t unsee it. They all do it, everywhere,” says Konstantinov, lead author of a recent paper on the discovery in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, with co-authors K. D. Prathapan of Kerala Agricultural University in India and Fredric V. Vencl of Stony Brook University in New York.

Ranging from a dark, shiny black to a pale grayish-brown, most species of flea beetles lack bright stripes and patterns.

They aren’t nature’s flashiest characters—but they are among the most successful and diverse insect tribes. Found on every continent except Antarctica, the world’s 9,900 species of flea beetles make-up one of the largest individual insect groups.

DR

Scientists have long assumed the beetles’ evolutionary success was due to their incredible jumping ability. Some are able to spring nearly 100 times their body length in a single bound.

Now, researchers must take into account that the insects spend their lives on leaves covered with beetle-shaped chew holes. When a predator lunges for a hole rather than a beetle, it gives the insect a razor-thin window to escape.

For each of the species of flea beetle examined in the study, Konstantinov, Prathapan and Vencl observed that the feeding damage caused to plant leaves was roughly the same width and length as the beetle that created it. Light-colored beetles also make shallower holes for lighter-colored leaf damage, while dark-bodied beetles chew the leaf through, resulting in darker holes.

Scientists believe beetle bodies evolved to resemble the feeding damage at the same time as they evolved to chew beetle-sized holes in leaves.

light

Konstantinov and Vencl also suggest that the small size of the holes gives beetles another important protection: avoiding chemical plant defenses. Because the beetles’ feeding habits cause constellations of small, stippled holes in a leaf instead of a single large chewed-up territory, it may prevent a plant from protecting itself by unleashing toxins or other ways to repel insects.

And as they rely on the surface of the leaves during their entire life cycle—for food, for mating, for laying eggs—this feeding strategy has turned out to be a winning tactic on both sides of the survival equation.

“If the beetles don’t look like leaf damage, birds do eat them up, so the ones that can conceal themselves survive to reproduce,” Konstantinov says. “They have no choice but to be on the surface of the leaves, so they better come with some kind of strategy. This one is simple and ingenious.”

Vencl says that while he was initially skeptical the beetles were creating masquerade decoys, the study revealed the same patterns happening even in different genera of flea beetles, indicating an independent origin of the strategy. That means the decoy strategy may have aided in the huge diversification of species of this type of beetle.

light

“It could be that once a pretty good, broadly effective defense has evolved, it gets codified genetically,” Vencl says. “This defense allows the species to escape enemies, increase populations and spread to different habitats and geographic areas.”

The new work could also be useful from a pest-control standpoint: flea beetles are considered significant pests to many agricultural crops. Konstantinov suggests that perhaps plants could be manipulated to respond differently to the beetles’ feeding damage, resulting in holes that don’t resemble beetle bodies as closely. Predators could discern them more easily, and growers could use fewer chemical controls.

As for officially naming this new camouflage type, Konstantinov says it is an ongoing discussion among the authors and colleagues in the National Museum of Natural History. He says this totally new form of disguise demands a distinct, descriptive name.

beetles

“Self-portrait masquerade” has been suggested, as has “Shakespearean masquerade”—a reference to the playwright’s frequent use of character deception in his works.

“There’s no consensus yet,” Konstantinov adds. “But it needs to be named because it’s such a unique case—creatures making things that look like themselves.”

Just as new species are named when they are discovered, he says, naming new biological phenomena also makes them available for further study by others.

By Michelle Z. Donahue

 

Earth’s oceans are losing their breath. Here’s the global scope

death

In the past 50 years, the amount of water in the open ocean with zero oxygen has increased more than fourfold. In coastal water bodies, including estuaries and seas, low-oxygen sites have increased more than 10-fold since 1950. Scientists expect oxygen to continue dropping even outside these zones as Earth warms. To halt the decline, the world needs to rein in both climate change and nutrient pollution an international team of scientists asserted in a new paper published Jan. 4 in Science.

“Oxygen is fundamental to life in the oceans,” says Denise Breitburg, a marine ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and lead author of the paper. “The decline in ocean oxygen ranks among the most serious effects of human activities on the Earth’s environment.”

The study came from a team of scientists from GO2NE (Global Ocean Oxygen Network), a working group created in 2016 by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. The review paper is the first to take such a sweeping look at the causes, consequences and solutions to low oxygen worldwide, in both the open ocean and in coastal waters. The article highlights the biggest dangers to the ocean and society, and what it will take to keep Earth’s waters healthy and productive.

globe

The Stakes

“Approximately half of the oxygen on Earth comes from the ocean,” said Vladimir Ryabinin, executive secretary of the International Oceanographic Commission that formed the GO2NE group. “However, combined effects of nutrient loading and climate change are greatly increasing the number and size of ‘dead zones’ in the open ocean and coastal waters, where oxygen is too low to support most marine life.”

In areas traditionally called “dead zones,” like those in Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, oxygen plummets to levels so low many animals suffocate and die. As fish avoid these zones, their habitats shrink and they become more vulnerable to predators or fishing.

But the problem goes far beyond “dead zones” the authors point out. Even smaller oxygen declines can stunt growth in animals, hinder reproduction and lead to disease or even death. Low oxygen also can trigger the release of dangerous chemicals such as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas up to 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and toxic hydrogen sulfide. While some animals can thrive in dead zones, overall biodiversity falls.

In the open ocean climate change is the key culprit to low oxygen. Warm surface waters make it hard for oxygen to reach the ocean interior. Furthermore, as the ocean as a whole warms, it holds less oxygen. In coastal waters, excess nutrient pollution from land creates algal blooms, which drain oxygen as they die and decompose. In an unfortunate twist, animals also need more oxygen in warmer waters, even as it is disappearing.

DB

People’s livelihoods are also on the line, the scientists reported, especially in developing nations. Smaller, artisanal fisheries may be unable to relocate when low oxygen destroys their harvests or forces fish to move elsewhere. In the Philippines, fish kills in a single town’s aquaculture pens cost more than $10 million. Coral reefs, a key tourism attraction in many countries, also can waste away without enough oxygen.

“It’s a tremendous loss to all the support services that rely on recreation and tourism, hotels and restaurants and taxi drivers and everything else,” said Lisa Levin, a co-author and marine biologist with the University of California, San Diego. “The reverberations of unhealthy ecosystems in the ocean can be extensive.”

Some popular fisheries could benefit, at least in the short term. Nutrient pollution can stimulate production of food for fish. In addition, when fish are forced to crowd to escape low oxygen, they can become easier to catch. But in the long run, this could result in overfishing and damage to the economy.

Winning: A Three-Pronged Approach

To keep low oxygen in check, the scientists said the world needs to take on the issue from three angles:

  • Address the causes: nutrient pollution and climate change. While neither issue is simple or easy, the steps needed to win can benefit people as well as the environment. Better septic systems and sanitation can protect human health and keep pollution out of the water. Cutting fossil fuel emissions not only cuts greenhouse gases and fights climate change, but also slashes dangerous air pollutants like mercury.
  • Protect vulnerable marine life. With some low oxygen unavoidable, it is crucial to protect at-risk fisheries from further stress. According to the GO2NE team, this could mean creating marine protected areas or no-catch zones in areas animals use to escape low oxygen, or switching to fish that are not as threatened by falling oxygen levels.
  • Improve low-oxygen tracking worldwide. Scientists have a decent grasp of how much oxygen the ocean could lose in the future, but they do not know exactly where those low-oxygen zones will be. Enhanced monitoring, especially in developing countries, and numerical models will help pinpoint which places are most at risk and determine the most effective solutions.

“This is a problem we can solve,” Breitburg says. “Halting climate change requires a global effort, but even local actions can help with nutrient-driven oxygen decline.”

As proof Breitburg points to the ongoing recovery of Chesapeake Bay, where nitrogen pollution has dropped 24 percent since its peak thanks to better sewage treatment, better farming practices and successful laws like the Clean Air Act. While some low-oxygen zones persist, the area of the Chesapeake with zero oxygen has almost disappeared.

“Tackling climate change may seem more daunting,” she added, “but doing it is critical for stemming the decline of oxygen in our oceans, and for nearly every aspect of life on our planet.”

By Kristen Minogue