How animals first appeared on Earth

Researchers at Australian National University have found the secret of how animals first appeared on the planet. This discovery explains the moment that led to the very existence of animals and humans on Earth.

Jochen Brocks, a professor of the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences, and his research team managed to unravel the mystery of the greatest ecological revolution in Earth’s history. They did so by analyzing ancient rocks from central Australia.

“We crushed these rocks to powder and extracted molecules of ancient organisms from them,” said Dr. Brocks. “These molecules tell us that it really became interesting 650 million years ago. It was a revolution of ecosystems, it was the rise of algae.”

Dr. Brocks explained that this rise of algae triggered the beginning of life as we know it.

“Before all of this happened, there was a dramatic event 50 million years earlier called Snowball Earth,” he said. “The Earth was frozen over for 50 million years. Huge glaciers ground entire mountain ranges to powder that released nutrients, and when the snow melted during an extreme global heating event rivers washed torrents of nutrients into the ocean.”

According to Dr. Brocks, cooling temperatures combined with exceptionally high levels of nutrients in the ocean created the perfect conditions for the rapid spread of algae. He said this was the catalyst for a shift from oceans filled with bacteria to a world inhabited by more complex life.

“These large and nutritious organisms at the base of the food web provided the burst of energy required for the evolution of complex ecosystems, where increasingly large and complex animals, including humans, could thrive on Earth,” said Dr. Brocks.

Co-author Dr. Amber Jarrett linked some of the ancient sedimentary rocks from central Australia to the time just after Snowball Earth melted.

“In these rocks we discovered striking signals of molecular fossils,” said Dr. Jarrett. “We immediately knew that we had made a ground-breaking discovery that snowball Earth was directly involved in the evolution of large and complex life.”

The findings of this study will be presented at the Goldschmidt Conference in Paris, France, this week and are published in the journal Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Bug feces could help fight resistance to antibiotics

Bug feces are causing quite a stink in the scientific community. Research surrounding excrements of different insects in the animal kingdom has found that bug feces serve a myriad of purposes including protection, choosing a mate, a homing device, nutrients, camouflage, and building materials.

The most exciting discovery is that some insect feces contain compounds which could potentially serve a role in warding off resistance to antibiotics.   

A piece originally published in The Conversation details the extraordinary variety of ways bugs use their own excrement to aid in their day to day survival. For example, the tortoise beetle coats itself in a covering of fecal matter that serves a type of protective shield, and pine weevils place fecal matter near their eggs to deter predators.

The fertilizing properties of feces are well known, and members of the animal kingdom such as ants also take advantage of these properties.

These are just a few examples of how insects use their poop as a tool, unlike most animals who specifically defecate away from their nesting, feeding, and sleeping areas.

The research revolving around insect excrement also delves into the healing properties that could potentially help with everything from cancer research, anti-inflammatory uses, to aiding in new antibiotics that combat antimicrobial resistance.

Antibiotic resistance is a quickly growing concern within the medical community, with some infections proving resistant to multiple drugs.

Superbugs, as they are sometimes referred, are microorganisms that change over time as they are exposed to antimicrobial drugs and eventually build up a resistance to them.

The healing properties of insect feces could help scientists develop new antimicrobials and probiotics for these drug-resistant infections.

 

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Climate change and habitat conversion eat away at biodiversity

The consequences of climate change are numerous and wide-ranging, but part of what makes it so hard for scientists to fully determine what these consequences might be is how one change affects another. This leads to confusing and intricate domino-effect situations, where the effects of climate change can actually be amplified even further. Now, a recent study by the University of California, Davis, has found that climate change and habitat conversion to agriculture are combining to homogenize nature.

This means that as these changes increase, some species within certain ecosystems become more prominent while others die off.

Up until this point, little has been known about how species respond to both stressors: climate change and conversion to agriculture. The study’s authors surveyed birds and plants at 120 site in northwest Costa Rica. These sites included rainforests, dry forests, and farmland.

This survey was done to determine how habitat conversion and droughts induced by climate change affect tropical wildlife. The results showed that different bird species thrive in drier versus wetter areas of the forests. However, in farmlands, birds that also lived in dry forests were found everywhere – even in the wettest areas.

“Across Central and South America, we are seeing large areas being converted from native forest to agriculture, and droughts are becoming more frequent,” says Daniel Karp, lead author and assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology. “Both of these global pressures are favoring the same species and threatening the same species. This means we may be losing biodiversity faster than we previously thought when we were studying climate change and habitat conversion individually.”

The authors point out that some of the most vulnerable birds at the study sites were those found in wet forests. The birds found at agricultural sites were more similar to those found in the dry forest, which has less of a tree canopy and more grass cover. “Now that we know this, we know what to focus on from a conservation perspective,” Karp says.

Some possible solutions to this issue do exist. In order to help retain high levels of biodiversity, land managers should look to protect areas of wetter forests. Conservation efforts should also be more focused on wet-forest species – such as tanagers, manakins, and woodcreepers – which are more sensitive to habitat conversion and climate change. Furthermore, if private landowners are incentivized to protect wet regions of their land, it could help balance biodiversity as well as food production.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

New tool allows humans to speak elephant language

Saturday, August 12th was World Elephant Day, but most people can’t help but be captivated by elephants all year long. Elephants possess a mystical status in some religions, and since they’ve become endangered, many worldwide conservation efforts are now underway to help better ensure the survival of the species. They may be the world’s largest land mammal, but elephant behaviors and family structure are actually very similar to humans. Elephants are also highly sensitive, social, and extremely intelligent. Now, thanks to a new project meant to help raise awareness, you can actually speak elephant.

The project, Hello in Elephant, allows users to translate phrases into elephant and send them to friends and family via social media. Elephant language has been studied for so long that experts have found patterns and similarities that follow basic human language markers like greetings, shows of affection and acknowledgment, and warnings about nearby danger or distress.

“Elephants are so like us and they have so many of the same kind of behaviors and characteristics as humans do, even down to their language which you can translate,” said Robert Brandford, the Executive Director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust that developed the project and tool.

The program works by translating phrases into genuine recorded elephant calls in Kenya. The tool also shows a short accompanying video of an animated elephant mimicking the gestures that an elephant would do while making certain calls, lifting the trunk while saying “hello” for example.

The elephant’s threatened status has much to do with poachers who hunt elephants for their tusks and big game hunters. Hello in Elephant accepts donations to help combat these dangerous practices and protect elephant sanctuaries and habitats.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Why is there plastic on the ocean floor?

Giant larvaceans are zooplankton which resemble small tadpoles. These free-floating sea creatures are able to filter a range of plastic particles and discard them through their fecal matter in the form of sinking pellets.

Because microplastics are small enough for aquatic animals to ingest, they are a big threat to marine ecosystems. Research suggests that giant larvaceans and other filter feeders are invaluable in their ability to rapidly remove this type of pollution from the water and send it to the ocean floor. Giant larvaceans construct transparent structures known as “mucus houses” to live in, and filter ocean water particles from inside.

Kakani Katija is a bioengineer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and contributing author for the American Association For The Advancement of Science (AAAS). Katija and her colleagues set out to observe giant larvaceans in Monterey Bay, California, to get a closer look at microplastic ingestion. The scientists were particularly fascinated with the ingestion process of these plankton because their feeding filters exclude particles of the same size range as microplastics.

Using a remotely operated vehicle to distribute microplastics into the ocean, the team investigated whether the giant larvaceans consumed the particles. Researchers discovered that the majority of the larvaceans did, in fact, ingest the microplastics. The tiny particles also stuck to the mucus houses, which sink to the seafloor when they are discarded.

The scientists pointed out that larvaceans are probably not consuming a large amount of plastic in the ocean due to the fact that microplastics float closer to the surface than larvaceans are usually found. According to the authors of the study, further research is needed in order to better understand the overall effects of microplastics on marine ecosystems.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Missing link found between herbivorous and carnivorous dinosaurs

Researchers have determined that the dinosaur known as Chilesaurus could be the “missing link” that shows how the major divide happened between herbivorous and carnivorous dinosaurs. The unusual creature looked like a meat-eating raptor, but was actually a plant-eating dinosaur.

While most dinosaurs were herbivores, theropods such as Tyrannosaurus were lizard-hipped carnivores. Researchers initially had a difficult time classifying Chilesaurus, a dinosaur first discovered in southern Chile. He had a collection of characteristics that made him resemble both plant-eaters and meat-eaters.

“Chilesaurus almost looks like it was stitched together from different animals, which is why it baffled everybody,” said first author Matthew Baron.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Natural History Museum used a comprehensive dataset to analyze over 450 anatomical features of dinosaurs in order to fit Chilesaurus into the dinosaur family tree.

First identified in 2015, the Chilesaurus lived about 150 million years ago during the Late Jurassic Period. Its head looked like that of carnivorous dinosaurs, but it had the flat teeth of plant-eaters.

Earlier research placed Chilesaurus into the group Theropoda, but the new study suggests that it was an early member of a completely different group known as Ornithischia. This may help researchers understand the origins of Ornithischia, which includes Stegosaurus, Triceratops and Iguanodon.

This group of dinosaurs had several physical characteristics in common. Most distinctively, they had an inverted, bird-like hip structure and a type of beak for eating. Chilesaurus had the bird-like hips and flat teeth for eating plants, yet it did not have the beak structure. This was a very significant discovery.

“Before this, there were no transitional specimens – we didn’t know what order these characteristics evolved in,” said Baron. “This shows that in bird-hipped dinosaurs, the gut evolved first, and the jaws evolved later – it fills the gap quite nicely.”

The researchers say that there is still a lot to learn about the family tree of dinosaurs.

“There was a split in the dinosaur family tree, and the two branches took different evolutionary directions,” said Baron. “This seems to have happened because of change in diet for Chilesaurus. It seems it became more advantageous for some of the meat eating dinosaurs to start eating plants, possibly even out of necessity.”

The study, published in Nature, suggests that bird-hipped dinosaurs and lizard-hipped dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus evolved from a common ancestor. This would disrupt over a century of theory about the evolutionary history of dinosaurs.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Military tech could protect bats and birds from wind turbines

Wind turbines kill hundreds of thousands of birds and bats each year, but scientists have struck on a possible solution: military tech that allows soldiers to see at night could help flying creatures avoid death.

According to a 2013 study, anywhere from 140,000 to 328,000 birds are killed by wind turbines each year in the U.S. alone. The turbines that generate clean wind power are, along with white nose syndrome, the greatest cause of bat mortality worldwide, a 2016 global review of bat deaths showed.

To give birds and bats a better chance, scientists at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are examining uses for thermal imaging – used in military tech like night vision goggles. Thermal imaging captures light on the infrared spectrum, invisible to the naked eye.

The lab has developed ThermalTracker, software that can use thermal imaging to track where bats and birds fly in areas that are being considered for offshore wind farms.

“ThermalTracker can help developers and regulators make informed decisions about siting and operating offshore wind projects,” said Dr. Shari Matzner, the engineer leading the development of ThermalTracker. “We need scientific tools like this to better understand how offshore wind turbines can coexist with birds and bats.”

Projects planned for locations where ThermalTracker picks up a lot of bird and bat activity can be modified or moved, the researchers said.

The new software is being tested by biologists and ornithologists from the Biodiversity Research Institute this summer, as they undertake field research in Maine.

Offshore wind farms could potentially generate far more electricity than wind turbine installations elsewhere. Offshore wind farms are already used throughout Europe, and coastal states are beginning to take advantage of the cheap, plentiful source of power.

ThermalTracker is one of several projects U.S. researchers have taken on to try and minimize the impact of offshore wind farms on birds, bats and other flying creatures.

Biodiversity Institute researchers will provide detailed reports on the software to the DOE developers so that they can refine the software.

“This is an extraordinary collaboration between technology developers, engineers and wildlife biologists who are working together on cutting-edge technology,” said Wing Goodale, deputy director of Biodiversity Research Institute.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

Image credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Agriculture can seriously threaten surrounding native wildlife

Graziers are farmers who rear sheep and cattle and graze them over wide sets of rural land. In order to do so, they often clear trees, debris, and brush for their livestock’s grazing needs. However, clearing trees for agriculture can have dire consequences on certain species who flourish and thrive in forest habitats.

A study from James Cook University in Queensland, Australia examined reptiles near grazing areas and studied how the grazing affected the survival and well-being of ground dwelling lizards and snakes, as well as those reptiles who could live in the trees.

“We looked at four different types of paddock near Townsville, all with different approaches to stock levels. We found that ground-based reptiles in paddocks with high numbers of cattle were heavily impacted by grazing. However, tree-dwelling reptiles were able to thrive in all of the grazing treatments, including the heavily stocked paddocks,” said Heather Nielly, a research team member from James Cook University.

The findings revealed that tree conservation is critical to the survival of many species, and understanding just how grazing habits affect ground dwelling reptiles will help show the full impact livestock has on native wildlife.

Native species are necessary to the ecosystem, so the James Cook study does more than just explain why conservative clearing practices are beneficial to ground and tree dwelling reptiles. Native wildlife can be an important part of pollination efforts, seed dispersal, pest control, and helps keep the soil rich with nutrients.

Any attempts to clear the land of native wildlife will show adverse effects on the surrounding ecosystem, as well as severely threaten certain species who depend on tree coverage and forest habitats.

Currently, 25% of the earth’s land is used for grazing, and studies like this one showcase the need for active community engagement in preventing habitat loss by implementing conservative clearing and grazing practices.

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By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Goldfish produce alcohol to survive without oxygen

What do goldfish and beer brewers have in common? It’s not a joke, nor is it a trick question. The answer: both goldfish and beer brewers are able to produce ethanol (alcohol) from lactic acid. Brewers do this in order to create delicious beer for the masses to consume, and goldfish do this in order to stay alive beneath frozen lakes.

The fish convert anaerobically produced lactic acid into ethanol, which diffuses across their gills and into the surrounding water. This prevents the dangerous build-up of lactic acid in their bodies.

In new research, investigators at the University of Oslo and University of Liverpool have uncovered the molecular mechanism behind the goldfish’s ability to produce ethanol. The muscles of goldfish and related crucian carp contain two sets of proteins used to channel carbohydrates towards their breakdown in a cell’s mitochondria, which is a key step in energy production.

One of the two proteins – while similar to the other – is strongly activated by the absence of oxygen and contains a mutation that allows it to channel metabolic substrates to ethanol formation outside of the mitochondria. Genetic analysis of these two proteins shows that they formed as part of a genome duplication event in a common ancestor of the goldfish and crucian carp roughly 8 million years ago.

“During their time in oxygen-free water in ice-covered ponds, which can last for several months in their northern European habitat, blood alcohol concentrations in crucian carp can reach more than 50 mg per 100 milliliters, which is above the drink drive limit in these countries,” explains Michael Berebrink, an evolutionary physiologist at the University of Liverpool. “However, this is still a much better situation than filling up with lactic acid, which is the metabolic end product for other vertebrates, including humans, when devoid of oxygen.”

This anaerobic production of ethanol allows these fish to be the only ones that survive in these frozen environments, giving them a boost in competition against other species. Lead author Cathrine Elisabeth Fagernes, from the University of Oslo, jokes: “It’s no wonder then that the crucian carp’s cousin the goldfish is arguably one of the most resilient pets under human care.”

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Ocean noise pollution makes fish stressed and disoriented

A study from Newcastle University shows that European sea bass are getting stressed out by noises from offshore construction. Exposure to the noise pollution also make the fish confused and disoriented when faced with a predator.

“Over the last few decades, the sea has become a very noisy place. The effects we saw were subtle changes, which may well have the potential to disrupt the sea bass’s ability to remain ‘in tune’ with its environment,” explained lead author Ilaria Spiga.

The research team played recordings of piling and drilling sounds to observe the responses of sea bass. The fish fled to an area the scientists referred to as the “safe zone.” When the researchers mimicked the presence of a potential predator, the sea bass became confused and made turns in the water which did not move them to safety.

“Sea bass, along with other bony fishes, rely on a characteristic ‘startle and response’ mechanism to get away from predators,” said Spiga. “Exposure to underwater noises can make it harder for fishes to detect and react to predators. It could also impair their own ability to detect food.”

The drilling sounds used in the study were recorded in the English Channel during the installation of a new tidal barrage. The piling sounds were captured from the construction of a new lifeboat station at Swansea Bay. The drilling was continuous noise, while the piling consisted of low frequency sounds that occurred in intense bursts.

Offshore construction, shipping, and some onshore activities can all intensify the noise levels underwater.

“Man-made marine noise could potentially have an adverse effect on reproduction also,” said Spiga. “If fishes actively avoid areas where these sounds are present it could prevent them from entering spawning grounds, or affect communication between individuals.”

Despite the fact that noise is recognized as a pollutant by the European Union’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive, only larger and more complex projects have to be approved by the Marine Noise Registry. The research team is urging officials to expand the reach of legislation by putting limits on the length of time that underwater construction can take place.

The study is published in Marine Pollution Bulletin.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Wind energy facilities do not impact endangered grassland birds

The Greater Prairie-chicken was once a common bird in North America, but like many endangered grassland birds, they are becoming more and more of a rarity. Today only small pockets of Greater Prairie-chickens exist in the plains and parts of the Midwest. And recently, there has been a growing concern that wind energy farms might add to the growing list of threats facing the endangered birds.

Wind energy, especially in the Great Plains, is increasing in popularity, and wind energy facilities are popping up all over the place to create a bountiful source of renewable, clean energy.

A new study published in The Condor: Ornithological Applications, led by Jocelyn Olney Harrison from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in conjunction with her colleagues, finds that wind energy facilities in Nebraska have little to no effect on the Greater Prairie-Chicken nesting grounds.

The research team studied nesting sites near a small wind energy facility and captured 78 female prairie chickens from different breeding areas spaced at different locations across the facility. They fitted the birds with transmitters and monitored their nests and movements.

The team discovered that no matter how close a nest was to the wind energy facility, it seemed to have no effect on the bird’s mating and habits overall. Instead, the scientists found that the greatest threats were infrastructure and grazing patterns of animals.

“We suggest that livestock grazing and other grassland management practices still have the most important regional effects on Greater Prairie-Chickens, but we caution future planners to account for potential negative effects of roads on nest site placement,” said Harrison.

Further studies will need to be done with a larger scope to see if wind energy facilities have a significant impact on all grassland birds. But the promising findings of this project show that wind energy is not as great a threat as other current practices that lead to habitat loss.

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By Kay Vandette, Earth.com, Staff Writer

Photo Credit: L. Powell

Using forensics to track migration patterns of penguins

Scientists have been observing Antarctic penguins, seabirds, and other marine animals for years in an effort to improve conservation strategies. Electronic tracking is a great way to identify migration patterns, but the trackers can be invasive, expensive, and difficult to recover. Groundbreaking research may allow scientists to track the movements of animals in remote locations without a need for trackers, as one team proved animals can be traced using only forensics.

Michael Polito, a professor of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University, led a study which determined that scientific tests can reveal where penguins have migrated. Polito explains this is because “a geochemical signature of their wintering area is imprinted into their feathers.”

Chinstrap and Adélie penguins are part of a family of birds known as “brush-tailed” penguins, which shed all of their feathers after each breeding season and before they migrate to the ocean for winter. Their tail feathers, however, continue to grow into the wintertime while the penguins are at sea.

Polito and his team attached tags to 52 adult Chinstrap and Adélie penguins at their breeding colonies. The tags were retrieved the following breeding season, and were evaluated to establish where the birds had been over the winter. As the tags were removed, the researchers took a tail feather from each penguin. Tail feathers were also collected from 60 other penguins that had not been tagged.

The team conducted high-resolution forensic assessments on the chemical compounds of the feathers. Polito and his colleagues used a technique called compound-specific stable isotope analysis of amino acids to perform the tests.

Data collected from examinations of the feathers combined with electronic information from the tags enabled the scientists to identify the unique chemical signatures of various wintering areas. They were then able to determine where the untracked penguins had spent their winter seasons based only on the chemical signatures of their tail feathers.

“This novel approach could be applied to different tissues from a wide variety of marine animals that migrate over long distances including seabirds, sea turtles, seals and whales,” Polito said. “Using stable isotope forensics to increase the size and scope of animal tracking studies will help us to better understand these charismatic species and ultimately aid in their conservation.”

The study will be published August 9th in the scientific journal Biology Letters.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Photo Credit: M. Polito, LSU