Weekly round-up: May 9

The Mindoro fanged frog (Limnonectes beloncioi) (S.L. Travers)

A species of fanged frog new to science has been “hiding in plain sight” in the Philippines.

The Mindoro fanged frog (Limnonectes beloncioi) was previously thought to simply be another population of the Acanth’s fanged frog, a physically identical amphibian on the neighbouring island of Palawan, but genetic analysis has revealed the two are entirely different species. The two also have different mating calls, which prompted the investigation.

“We ran genetic analyses of these frogs using some specific genetic markers, and we used a molecular clock model just to get a very basic estimate how long we thought that these frogs may have been separated from one another,” said lead author Mark Herr, from the University of Kansas. “We found they’re related to each other, they are each other’s close relatives, but we found they’d been separate for two to six million years — it’s a really long time for these frogs. And it’s very interesting that they still look so similar but sound different.”

Herr added that the frogs’ fangs are likely used in combat for access to prime mating sites and to protect themselves from predators.
Publication Ichthyology & Herpetology

Green sea turtle numbers are on the up in the Cayman Islands

Turtle populations in the Cayman Islands have recovered dramatically since being close to local extinction in the 1990s.

Between 1999 and 2009, the number of sea turtle nests across the three islands rose from just 39 to 675. The greatest increase has been seen in loggerhead and green turtles, while hawksbill turtle nest numbers remain low, with a maximum of 13 nests recorded in a single season.

Researchers credit recovery on the captive breeding of green turtles and a tightening of restrictions on traditional turtle fishery, but warn numbers are still far below historic levels – the islands were once one of the world’s largest nesting sights, with millions of turtles visiting every year. 

Dr Jane Hardwick, from the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, said: “For both species, the recovery was assisted by protection efforts by the Cayman Islands Department of Environment on nesting beaches, including patrols by conservation officers to reduce illegal hunting. 

“However, our study finds that illegal take is an ongoing threat, with a minimum of 24 turtles taken between 2015 and 2019, many of which were nesting females. 

“Artificial lighting on nesting beaches, which can direct hatchlings away from the sea, increased over the period of our study. 

“Additionally, as highly migratory endangered species, sea turtles are influenced by threats and conservation efforts outside of the Cayman Islands, showing a need for international co-operation in sea turtle management.”
Publication Frontiers in Marine Science

Mangrove forests serve many essential functions, including carbon storage

Microplastic concentration in some ‘blue forests’ is more than 17 times higher compared to coastal zones without vegetation, with a new study showing mangroves and seagrass beds are as adept at capturing plastic waste as they are carbon.

Surveys along three coastal areas in China revealed significant concentrations of microplastics, highest in mangroves where they are captured between roots and buried into sediment – in a similar way to carbon. 

The elevated concentrations in these ecosystems is also a concern to wildlife – both serve as breeding and nursery grounds for myriad species, which can ingest microplastics while feeding.

A second study published this week highlighted the need for further investigation into the effects of nanoplastics on the environment and organisms.
Publication Environmental Science and Technology

Gray wolves are under threat in Idaho (Tracy Brooks)

A conservation group has asked the US government to withhold millions of dollars from Idaho following approval of a bill that would allow the legal hunting of up to 90 per cent of the state’s 1,500 wolves.

The Centre for Biological Diversity has argued the bill rules the state ineligible for federal wildlife restoration funding, due to implementing legislation contrary to the goals of the grants. Idaho received about $18 million from the fund last year, which is raised from a tax on sporting firearms and ammunition.

The bill, which is now on the desk of governor Brad Little to approve or veto, allows the hiring of private contractors to kill wolves and increases the methods by which they can be hunted, including unlimited trapping and snaring.

The presence of wolves in the US is a common source of tension between ranchers and conservationists. Supporters of the bill argue wolves kill too many elk and livestock, while the CBD reports the animals kill less than one per cent of the state’s livestock, and elk numbers are “above management objectives in most of the state”.

Last year the Trump administration delisted gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act, removing the species’ federal protection.
Source Associated Press

South Africa has pledged to close down its captive lion industry, which would effectively end the legal trade in lion bones, and also outlaws tourist experiences such as petting cubs. There are between 8,000 and 12,000 lions kept in captivity in the country.

The policy, which has yet to be made into law, prohibits the keeping and breeding of lions in captivity, and the use of any parts for commercial purposes. South Africa is the only country with special dispensation from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to sell and export lion bones, claws and teeth.

Once implemented, it will also ban “canned hunting”, where captive lions are moved to larger enclosures for paying hunters to kill.

The industry is plagued by accusations of poor welfare, including inadequate enclosures with a lack of shelter, water and food – while lions suffering from malnutrition and disease are reported to have been left to die to avoid veterinary costs.
Source Associated Press

The debate over giraffe classification spans more than 200 years

A new chapter was added to the long story of giraffe classification last week as researchers identified four distinct species – which despite their similar appearance, are as different as polar bears and brown bears.

The taxonomic debate over giraffes has run for centuries. However, after mapping the genome of almost 50 giraffes across Africa, the team are confident there are four distinct lineages – the Southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa), Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata), Northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) and Masai Giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi) – which diverged between 230,000 and 370,000 years ago.

“We were extremely surprised to find such large genetic differences in giraffes in our initial study as their morphological and coat pattern differences appear limited,” said co-author Dr Axel Janke, a geneticist at Goethe University. “However, to put our results into perspective, the genetic differences between the distinct giraffe species are similar to those between polar and brown bears.”

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation estimates there are only 117,000 giraffes remaining in the wild, a drop of almost 30 per cent over the last three decades due to habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, disease, civil war and climate change.
Publication Current Biology

Floating scarecrows that deter seabirds from diving into gillnets could help prevent some of the estimated 400,000 deaths per year due to bycatch.

A team from BirdLife International and the Estonian Ornithological Society tested the effects of a “looming eyes buoy” – which bears an uncanny resemblance to Pixar’s Wall-E according to The Guardian – in Küdema Bay, Estonia, and found a 20 to 30 per cent reduction in the presence of long-tailed ducks around the devices.

While further research is needed, the team hopes the buoys would have a similar deterrent effect on other species, and could eventually be deployed as part of concerted management efforts to reduce bycatch deaths.
Publication Royal Society Open Science

Read Sharks can navigate via Earth’s magnetic field

Watch Scottish Wildlife Trust’s osprey nest camera on the Loch of the Lowes reserve

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