Weekly round-up: December 20

Scottish mountain hares could be at increased risk of predation due to longer periods of ‘camouflage mismatch’ – the period between their white winter coat coming in and snowfall – according to a new study.

Like many species, mountain hares moult their dark summer coat for better protection in winter conditions, with shortening daylight hours the primary signal for the process to begin. However, increases in global temperature have led to reduced snow cover in the Scottish Highlands, resulting in an additional 35 days of camouflage mismatch between hares and their environment between 1950 and 2016.

Researchers studying the phenomenon suggested the absence of adaptation to the changing conditions may be due to high population numbers across the moorlands of the northeastern and central Highlands, much of which is managed for grouse shooting – controlling hares’ natural predators and thus reducing natural selection pressures. The authors note any change in land use or policy changes resulting in the return of predators would leave the mountain hare at risk due this ‘latent maladaptation’.

In a second study released this week, researchers found chestnut-crowned babbler birds had changed their breeding patterns due to warm peak temperatures earlier in the spring. However, average temperatures remain colder, resulting in females incubating eggs less to improve their own chances of survival – but reducing those of the offspring.
Publication Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences/Journal of Evolutionary Biology

Gastrodia agnicellus, aka ‘the world’s ugliest orchid’ (Kew)

A mushroom discovered at Heathrow airport and the ‘world’s ugliest orchid’ are among the 156 plant and fungal species named to science in 2020.

Cortinarius heatherae was discovered along the river on the boundary of Heathrow by field mycologist Andy Overall, while in Madagascar Gastrodia agnicellus bucked the orchid family traditions of vibrant, showy flowers by evolving small, brown ones. In New Guinea a further 19 new species of orchid were named this year.

A herb from the medicinally important Apocynaceae family and two new aloes are also among the new species unveiled by Kew and its partners, but in a press release the British-based organisation issued a warning alongside the update.

“The bleak reality facing us cannot be underplayed. With two in five plants threatened with extinction, it is a race against time to find, identify, name, and conserve plants before they disappear.”

In September Kew released its State of the World’s Plant and Fungi 2020 report, in which 40 per cent of plant species were estimated to be at risk of extinction – including 723 currently used in medication.
Source Kew

A humpback whale (ArtTower)

Minke whales seek the shelter of Antarctic sea ice while humpback whales actively avoid it – a discovery made following nine years of acoustic recordings by researchers.

Studying the lives and behaviours of whales is particularly difficult due to their elusive nature and expansive habitats, while most research in the Antarctic is conducted in the summer. However, a long-term monitoring programme following successful characterisation of specific species’ calls and song has enabled a team from the Alfred Wegener Institute to uncover some of their secrets.

Monitoring populations in the Southern Ocean’s Weddell Sea between 2008 and 2016, researchers discovered minke whales preferred the protection of sea ice – “most likely in an attempt to avoid their archenemies, killer whales” says AWI biologist and lead author Diego Filun.

A second study found humpback whales avoid sea ice regions, instead travelling north of the ice edge to feed on Antarctic krill and build up fat reserves. In summer the whales appear to migrate south as the ice retreats, but only as far as needed to find food.
Source Science Daily

Bellway Homes, a British construction company, has been fined £600,000 after admitting damaging or destroying a bat habitat – the largest ever fine issued by a UK court in relation to a wildlife crime.

The developer is also liable for costs of £30,000 and has agreed to make a voluntary donation of £20,000 to the Bat Conservation Trust after it carried out demolition work in Greenwich in 2018 – soprano pipistrelle bats had been confirmed at the site a year earlier. All bat species in the UK are protected.

Bellway Homes had been notified it would need to obtain the appropriate mitigation and a Natural England European Protected Species licence, but no application was made.

Inspector David Hawtin, of the Greenwich Safer Neighbourhoods Team, said: “The success of this case has been the result of diligent investigation by Sgt Simon Henderson and PC Giles Balestrini, two officers based on the South East BCU [basic command unit]. With the expert assistance of colleagues from specialist units within the Met, the officers constructed evidence to prove that the company had indeed committed an offence by carrying out work at a site where bats were known to inhabit.”
Source Met Police

A thresher shark (Thomas Alexander)

A study into the effects of a blanket ban on shark fishing suggests it has little effect on bycatch, a considerable threat to many marine species.

A team from Exeter University, the Zoological Society of London and NGO Oceanswell assessed the effects of a ban on landing thresher sharks implemented by the Sri Lankan government in 2012. While the ban was shown to have reduced targeted fishing, persistent bycatch is continuing and largely unrecorded.

“Bycatch is a problem not only because of the direct impact on this vulnerable species, but also because it makes it tempting for fishers to get round the ban,” said lead author Claire Collins. “Because it is easy to conceal threshers as other shark species, by cutting fins off before landing, fishers can sell them easily and the ban can be hard for authorities to enforce. 

“Without addressing continued bycatch, there’s always going to be a temptation to land these sharks – especially because in Sri Lanka there is a strong market for shark meat as well as fins.”

Thresher sharks are easy to identify by their extended tail fins – which can often be as long as the body. There are three species, the pelagic thresher – which is endangered – common thresher and bigeye thresher, both of which are classed as vulnerable by the IUCN.
Source Science Direct

Stunning footage from the Harry Butler Institute and Western Australia’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attraction shows a sea turtle fending off a shark attack.

Researchers attached a camera to the flatback turtle to study the species’ feeding grounds, but instead witnessed the feisty individual snapping aggressively at a tiger shark looking for its own meal.

Watch the video here.
Source Murdoch University

Mussels purchased from supermarkets in 12 countries across the globe have all been found to contain microplastics.

As filter feeders, mussels are highly susceptible to ingesting microplastics – which are now prevalent in the marine environment. A study by the University of Bayreuth in Germany highlights the ease with which these pollutants can be consumed by humans, noting that the risks posed to human health by microplastics are not yet known.
Publication Environmental Pollution

Secondary forest growth in Romania, 60 years after the Soviet War (Mihai Daniel Nita)

Declassified military intelligence photographs are helping researchers assess historical ecological change.

Deforestation in Romania, marmot decline in Kazakhstan and bomb damage in Vietnam are among the ecological changes highlighted by the images, taken by a US satellite during the Cold War and declassified by president Bill Clinton in 1995. 

New advances in image processing have allowed ecologists to better analyse landscapes and detect changes in the environment, such as the large-scale deforestation of a Romanian watershed following the Second World War – a 2015 Google Earth image shows secondary forest regrowth across the area.
Source British Ecological Society

The weekly round-up will return on Sunday, January 3

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