Tree-dwelling rodents evolved to have greater brain power than burrowing relatives.
A new study has suggested that squirrels and other tree-dwelling rodents have evolved to have bigger brains giving them key abilities such as better vision and motor skills, and improved head and eye movements.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh used CT scans of skulls from 38 living and extinct rodent species to examine how the animals’ brains have changed over time. This data revealed that the overall size of rodents’ brains have been affected by their body mass, lifestyle and evolutionary history.
According to the study, squirrels' relative brain size has increased over time, mostly due to a sharp decrease in their body mass. Two key regions of the brain – including the neocortex, which is involved in vision and motor skills – became larger in species living in trees. The petrosal lobules – which help with stabilising eye movements as the head rotates and tracks moving objects – also increased in size.
This increase in brain power has helped tree-dwelling rodents adapt to life in complex environments, researchers say.
The previously mentioned regions of brain are comparatively smaller in mountain beavers – squirrels' closest living relatives. This is likely because these animals live in burrows, therefore spending most of their time underground with little light. As a result, the need good vision might be less crucial than it is for tree-dwelling animals.
Dr Ornella Bertrand, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, said: “Squirrels' ancestors were at an important juncture 34 million years ago. They were smaller than their closest extinct relatives, and there were far fewer primates living in trees than today, which opened up a new niche for them. When trees became available to them, squirrels' ancestors seized the opportunity.
“This transition was a key evolutionary step for squirrels as it enabled them to acquire larger and more complex brains."
Findings have 'major implications' for the control of TB.
New research from Trinity College Dublin suggests that increasing populations of sika deer in Ireland may be linked to local outbreaks of TB infection in cattle.
The research – published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science – found that, despite a decrease in TB infection rates in recent decades, there is a correlation between rising sika populations and higher local TB infections.
Dr David Kelly, first author of the journal article, said: “Irish farmers have been aware of the effects of bovine TB for well over 70 years. Its incidence has steadily diminished in Ireland, from 3 per cent in 1960 to 0.3 per cent some 50 years later.
“In the mid-1980s it became clear European badgers were a TB wildlife host. Since then, badger populations have been controlled around farms with TB outbreaks whenever those outbreaks cannot be linked to cattle.
“In recent years, however, it has become clear that controlling TB in badger populations cannot rely on culling alone. Along with this change in thinking, there has been a steady shift away from culling and towards badger vaccination.
“Unfortunately, while the management of one TB wildlife host has made great advances, another wildlife TB host has appeared on the radar: deer.”
Studies in Europe and the USA have shown that deer, at higher densities, can sustain TB in their herds. This new research has aligned with these findings, identifying certain populations of sika deer as maintenance hosts of TB in Ireland.
Dr Kelly concluded: “Now, when attempting to manage TB in wildlife, sika deer will need to be considered as well as badgers. Our analyses suggest Sika deer are currently of greatest concern in County Wicklow but if numbers continue to rise in other counties they may also pose problems elsewhere.”
Consideration when out walking is needed to prevent injury and even death.
A campaign has been launched by the Seal Alliance and the government in an effort to reduce the impact that human disturbance can have on seals.
The UK is home to 38 per cent of the entire world’s population of grey seals, as well as 30 per cent of the European subspecies of common seals.
There are numerous threats posed to these animals including climate change, toxic pollution, entanglement, collisions with vessels, plastics and other marine debris.
Human interaction, whether deliberate or unintentional, is a growing problem affecting seal populations. Young pups are particularly vulnerable, as their energy is wasted when they are startled by humans, causing them to struggle to haul out of the water in order to rest and digest their food.
Heavily pregnant female seals that are disturbed by humans have been known to stampede across rocks, which can prove fatal to both mother and pup. They also may be unable to build sufficient fat reserves as a result of stress so they cannot feed new-born pups adequately.
The Seal Alliance has created ‘Give Seals Space’ signs and leaflets, to raise awareness of the ways in which the public can protect these animals. These include:
- keeping well away from seals so that they can’t smell, hear or see you – using a camera zoom or binoculars to view them
- keeping dogs on a lead when in an area where seals might be present
- never feeding seals
- taking all litter home.
Environment secretary George Eustice said: “Disturbance by members of the public can be detrimental to seals, but this is entirely preventable. I would urge everyone to follow the guidance, give seals the space that they need and respect this vulnerable marine species.”
Concerns raised over the potential impact of the small hive beetle on British bees.
A petition has been launched calling on the UK government to stop the importation of honeybees into Britain from the European Union via Northern Ireland.
The petition, started by British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) chair Anne Rowberry, states that unrestricted bee movement could allow small hive beetle to arrive and ‘devastate’ British beekeeping.
It adds: ‘If small hive beetle was to be imported into GB with the bees, the risks to the bee population would be very great. The beetle can multiply to huge numbers quickly; eating brood, honey, pollen, destroying combs causing fermentation of the honey.
‘If uncontrolled they ultimately destroy the colony. Within two years of its discovery in the USA at least 20,000 colonies were destroyed costing millions of dollars. The economic impact on UK beekeeping and the pollination service could be devastating.’
The petition comes in response to media reports that bee trader Patrick Murfet is planning to import 1,500 Italian bees into Northern Ireland for onward shipment to Britain.
Murfet's proposals have been met with anger from British beekeeping organisations, which claim the bees are being sourced from Puglia, southeast Italy, just 200 miles from outbreaks of small hive beetle.
"[Small hive beetle] is a nasty pest of honeybee colonies and would have a devastating effect on the British and Irish bees," explained John Hill, vet and president of the British Bee Veterinary Association. “Small hive beetle arrived in Florida in 1998 and in two years killed 20,000 colonies and has since moved through the US to Canada. Once introduced, it is almost impossible to eradicate.”
Before Brexit, queens and package bees (a box with between 10,000 to 14,000 worker bees) could be imported into Britain. Since the end of the Transition Period, however, only queen bees can be imported directly into the UK from the EU.
Defra states that anyone looking to import bees to Britain should check the available guidance before doing so to avoid importing prohibited material. It adds that any packages and colonies of bees that are imported into GB from the EU would have to be returned to their original location.
Mr Hill stressed that many Irish beekeepers also keep a strain of bee called the Irish Black Bee, which is believed to be the most genetically-pure species of black bee in Europe.
“Allowing upwards of 15 million bees to fly in NI could have a detrimental effect on this gene pool,” he said. “It was initially thought that this importation by NI was illegal, but officials have said no, it is not anti-avoidance and should have unfettered access. Beekeeping organisations from all over Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England are all against this and have lobbied politicians to no avail so far.”
At the time of writing, the petition has garnered more than 13,000 signatures. After 10,000 signatures, the government is obliged to respond, and at 100,000 signatures, it will be considered for debate in parliament.
Biologists call for help to better identify the consequences.
A fish entrapped in a medical glove and a robin entangled in a face mask. These are just two of the hundreds of observations reported in a new study exploring the effect of COVID-19 litter on animal life.
Led by biologists Auke-Florian Hiemstra from Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Liselotte Rambonnet from Leiden University, the study also reports the first cases of birds using medical face masks as nesting material.
The study began in August 2020, when volunteers found a dead perch in the thumb of a latex glove while cleaning up the Leiden Canal. The fish is understood to be the first Dutch victim of COVID-19 litter.
To better understand the impact of PPE on animals, Hiemstra and Rambonnet set out to establish how often and where interactions between COVID-19 waste and animals occur.
The pair used a mix of social media, local newspapers and international newspapers to identify hundreds of reports across the globe of animals ingesting corona waste or getting entangled in it. The reports include apes chewing on face masks and a penguin found with a face mask in its stomach. Pets were also affected, with several dogs found to have swallowed face masks.
Describing their findings in the journal Animal Biology, Hiemstra and Rambonnet note that some animals use the waste as nest material. Coots in Dutch canals, for example, use face masks and gloves as nest material.
“The packaging from paper handkerchiefs is found in nests too,” says Hiemstra. “As such, we even see the symptoms of COVID-19 in animal structures.”
Hiemstra and Rambonnet are now calling on people to keep sharing their observations so they can build up an even bigger picture of the impact of PPE disposal on wildlife. To enable this, they have set up the website covidlitter.com
They hope this overview will raise awareness of the danger of face masks and gloves for wildlife. The researchers are also calling everybody to use reusable face masks.
Findings could guide future conservation actions.
Smaller amphibians face a higher extinction risk because their females produce fewer offspring, according to new research.
The breakthrough study, published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, suggests extinction risk increases in species that produce fewer young, such as rain frogs but decreases in species that produce more, such as bufonid toads.
Amphibians are the most endangered animals in the world. Currently, more than 40 per cent of amphibians, including frogs, toads, salamanders and newts, face being wiped out altogether.
It is a long-held belief that larger body size increases extinction risk – a theory derived from research on mammals. In this new study, researchers investigated, for the first time, whether it is not body size, but instead, the number of babies a female produces per clutch that determines extinction risk.
The team looked at amphibians from across the globe, including frogs, salamanders and caecilians, and matched the endangerment levels of thousands of species. They then analysed this information against their body sizes and the number of babies they produce per clutch.
Lead author Dr Daniel Pincheira-Donoso, a lecturer in Evolutionary Biology and Macroecology at Queens University Belfast, explains: “Our findings explain the discrepancies in the body size-extinction risk relationship observed between mammals and amphibians, given that larger mammals have fewer babies per birth and therefore extinction increases with larger body size, whereas in amphibians, larger females produce more babies, thus reducing extinction risk with larger body size.”
It is hoped the findings will guide future conservation action about which species and areas to protect - resetting the theory to focus on reproduction levels of animals rather than on body size when calculating extinction risk.
The study was a collaboration between Queens University Belfast, Nottingham Trent University, Tel Aviv University, Exeter University and the University of Lincoln.
Results will inform red squirrel conservation programmes.
New, ground-breaking research by the University of the Highlands and Islands, in collaboration with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, aims to better understand how grey squirrels live and move in urban areas.
Currently, very little is known about the habitat preferences, movement corridors and home range size of grey squirrels. Researchers are aiming to gather information by monitoring the movements of ten grey squirrels in Aberdeen between late March and July.
The research is funded by Forestry and Land Scotland and will be carried out under a special licence from NatureScot. The teams will be using VHF (Very High Frequency) radio and GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking to monitor the squirrels.
Since 2007, a targeted grey squirrel control programme has been in place in the Aberdeenshire countryside, in order to help preserve red squirrel populations which struggle to compete with their grey counterparts.
The results of this new study will provide further support to red squirrel conservation in the region.
Research Fellow at Inverness College UHI, Dr Louise de Raad, said: “This exciting research will make use of the latest GPS tracking equipment that has become small enough to be fitted to grey squirrels.
“This will allow us to gain a much better understanding of grey squirrel ecology in a semi-urban environment and investigate what their preferred habitats are, how large their home ranges are, how far they travel in a day and whether they make use of movement corridors.
“This will inform best practices for grey squirrel population control and make a significant contribution to red squirrel conservation”.
Loss of communication could seriously impact future of the species.
According to new research from The Australian National University (ANU), populations of the critically endangered regent honeyeater are declining so rapidly that the species is losing its 'song culture'.
The regent honeyeater was once abundant in south-eastern Australia, but now just 300 individuals remain in the world. The rarity of adult male regent honeyeaters is seriously impacting the species' ability to communicate with one another, as younger males have no way of learning to sing correctly.
The new study – published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B – found that in places where there were larger numbers of regent honeyeaters, males sang 'rich and complex songs'. However, where the birds were more rare, the males sang more simplified or, in some cases, 'totally incorrect' songs.
"18 male regent honeyeaters - or around 12 per cent of the total population - were only able to copy the songs of other bird species," study co-author Dr Dejan Stojanovic said.
"This lack of ability to communicate with their own species is unprecedented in a wild animal. We can assume that regent honeyeaters are now so rare that some young males never find an older male teacher."
The research team also found that regent honeyeaters born in captivity sing completely different songs to wild birds. They believe that this could reduce the birds' attractiveness to wild birds when they are released; Impacting their ability to find a mate and causing further population decline.
Lead author Dr Ross Crates said: "We've devised a new strategy to teach young captive regent honeyeaters to sing the same song as the wild birds by playing them audio recordings.
"Loss of song culture is a major warning sign the regent honeyeater is on the brink of extinction and we still have a lot to learn about how to help them."
Nell is the first of 16 cats that will be prepared for life in the wild.
A Scottish wildcat has been introduced to Royal Zoological Society of Scotland's (RZSS) Highland Wildlife Park in a bid to save the elusive species from extinction.
Young female Nell is the first Scottish Wildcat to be introduced to the Park's 'breeding for release' centre - an off-show centre, which provides breeding space, veterinary care, remote monitoring and training to prepare cats for life in the wild.
Nell arrived from Alladale Wilderness Reserve earlier this month and is said to be settling in well. Conservationists hope any kittens she rears will be among the first cats to be released into the Scottish Highlands next year, as part of a project to restore the critically endangered-species in Scotland.
The project is being led by RZSS in collaboration with NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland, the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Norden’s Ark and Junta de Andalucía.
“Saving Wildcats is an incredibly exciting partnership bringing together the necessary resources and expertise to save Scotland’s iconic wildcat,” commented David Barclay, Saving Wildcats ex-situ conservation manager. “Nell is the first cat to be introduced into our breeding for release centre at Highland Wildlife Park and she has settled well into her new surroundings.
“A further 15 cats will be arriving at the centre in the coming weeks, giving us a healthy, genetically diverse population to breed from. Offspring will then be transferred to larger pre-release enclosures as they mature where they will undergo a dedicated training programme to prepare them for life in the wild. We hope the first cats will be ready to be introduced into a site in the Scottish Highlands in 2022.”
Image (C) RZSS.
RZSS and Cheeky Panda team up to offer a host of exciting experiences for animal lovers.
The Royal Zoological of Scotland (RZSS) has launched a crowdfunding appeal to help Edinburgh Zoo recover from the pandemic.
The wildlife conservation charity has teamed up with eco brand Cheeky Panda to deliver a range of experiences and gifts, including virtual tours, animal adoptions, zoo memberships and giraffe feeding.
RZSS chief executive David Field said closing the park had cost the charity more than £2 million.
“With a food bill of £60,000 a month, every donation, membership, adoption, and experience will help feed our amazing animals and give them the very best of care,” he said.
“Recently we launched a prize draw for a behind the scenes visit to the zoo, which raised more than £70,000, with the winner being announced this week. Now we have opened Edinburgh Zoo again we want to help people get close to nature once more and enjoy incredible experiences and rewards.”
Mystery animal magic moments, virtual team-building tours and the opportunity to sponsor animal enclosures are just some of the other exciting experiences up for grabs.
To mark National Panda Day (16 March), Cheeky Panda has donated £50,000 to the appeal, with all proceeds going towards the cost of feeding the animals.
Cheeky Panda founder Chris Forbes, said: “We are proud to be supporting Edinburgh Zoo because we love big, bamboo-munching, black and white bears, and we both share a passion for conservation. We want to work with this special zoo to raise awareness of the need to protect wildlife worldwide and create a more sustainable planet for future generations.”
For more information and to support the campaign, visit crowdfunder.co.uk/edinburghzoo
Image (C) RZSS.
Large egg nursery declared Marine Protected Area.
The Scottish government has designated an urgent Marine Protected Area (MPA) within the Inner Sound of Skye in order to further protect the critically endangered flapper skate.
The new MPA will protect the largest flapper skate egg nursery area ever identified in Scotland. A number of marine activities such as fishing, diving and construction will be prohibited within the site for an initial period of 12 months and will come into force on 17 March 2021.
If, after this period, permanent protection is found to be necessary, the Scottish government will then carry out a full stakeholder engagement process, public consultation and impact assessments.
Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment Ben Macpherson said: “The flapper skate, which was once abundant in our seas, is now only found in the northern area of the North Sea and off Scotland’s north-west coast.
“The designation of this new Marine Protected Area will allow further information to be gathered to inform permanent proposals and will safeguard an area of vital importance to this critically endangered species. This will support conservation efforts to help it recover back to a healthy status in Scottish waters.”
This is the second urgent MPA to be created using powers within the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, the first being the Loch Carron urgent MPA created to protect flame shell beds in 2017 and then made permanent in 2019.
Scotland’s MPA network covers more than 37 per cent of its sea area. This exceeds the proposed new global target of 30 per cent coverage by 2030.
New campaign shows public support for 'reinvention' of circuses using animals.
To mark World Wildlife Day, UK-based charity Animal Defenders International (ADI) and the Eurogroup for Animals coalition have launched a new campaign calling for a Europe-wide ban on the use of wild animals in circuses.
In the European Union, 23 member states have now adopted national restrictions on the use of animals in circuses; however, some nations’ restrictions only apply to certain species.
The EU Stop Circus Suffering campaign aims to raise awareness of the suffering that animals in circuses endure, in an effort to prompt authorities and governments around the world to end their use.
Investigations carried out by ADI have shown the poor conditions that animals in circuses are kept in, as well as the harsh handling methods used to control them and the excessive amounts of time they spend shut in trucks and trailers.
A Savanta ComRes opinion poll conducted on behalf of Eurogroup for Animals asked the public for their views on animals in circuses in Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Spain.
The results showed that 68 per cent of respondents agree that the use of wild animals in circuses is cruel and 62 per cent say that the European Union should ban the use of all wild animals in circuses. 83 per cent of respondents added that the European Union need to guarantee that cruel uses of animals are not allowed.
Jan Creamer, president of ADI said: “Many European nations have recognised that circuses are no place for wild animals and implemented bans.
“However, bans at the national and regional level have not stopped wild animals from being trucked around the continent in the name of cruel entertainment. A Europe-wide ban is needed to free circus animals from their chains and cages, and end circus abuse in Europe once and for all.”
ADI and Eurogroup for Animals will continue to raise awareness through the EU Stop Circus Suffering campaign over the coming months.
Lions, primates and elephants among 'pet' animals revealed in survey.
A new survey by Born Free has found that nearly 4,000 dangerous wild animals are being kept privately in the UK. The charity is calling on the government to review licencing laws immediately in order to protect the welfare of these animals.
Currently, under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, anyone in Britain can keep a dangerous wild animal as long as they obtain a licence from their local authority.
Born Free investigated the number of Dangerous Wild Animal (DWA) Act licences granted by local authorities across England, Scotland and Wales, and the variety of species being privately kept.
Findings highlighted that in 2020, a total of 210 DWA licences were granted for the private ownership of 3,951 wild animals including:
- 320 wild cats including lions, tigers, leopards pumas and cheetahs
- 274 primates including more than 150 lemurs
- 158 crocodilians
- 508 venomous snakes
- 332 scorpions
- 106 venomous lizards
- two elephants.
Other species being kept as pets or in private collections in the UK include zebras, camels, hyena, wolves, and otters. Additionally, Born Free believes that many additional dangerous wild animals are being kept without a licence.
Although the DWA requires the applicant to demonstrate that their animals are properly contained to prevent escape, Born Free states that very little to ensure the welfare of the animals or the protection of the owner or anyone else visiting the property.
Veterinary surgeon Dr Mark Jones, who is also Born Free’s head of policy, said: “The UK likes to claim to be at the forefront of efforts to protect nature and improve the welfare of animals, yet our legislation governing the keeping of and trade in exotic pets is woefully outdated.
“The Dangerous Wild Animals Act should be overhauled as a matter of urgency, to phase out the private keeping of, and trade in, those species that clearly don’t belong in people’s homes.”
Two-week old Lavender rescued on Valentine’s Day.
The Scottish SPCA is currently caring for a two-week-old badger cub that was found in woodland near Inverness on Valentine’s day.
A member of the public contacted the Scottish SPCA after finding the tiny cub. It is suspected that the female infant was dragged away from her sett by another animal.
The badger, who has been named Lavender, is now being hand-reared by wildlife care assistant April Sorley at the charity's National Wildlife Rescue Centre.
At 12 weeks the cub will be weaned, and then in the autumn she will be released with other badger cubs in the charity’s care.
Ms Sorley said: “We believe Lavender is the youngest badger cub to ever be cared for at our National Wildlife Rescue Centre. When she arrived she was smaller than my hand and weighed just 250g, although she’s getting bigger every day!
“She is bottle feeding well, and has doubled her weight since she arrived which we’re so pleased about. As of today she weighs 575g.
She went on to add that the Scottish SPCA typical sees badgers come into its care around April, when the young are old enough to venture out of their sett and explore their surroundings.
If a member of the public finds a wild animal in need of help, the Scottish SPCA encourages them to contact its animal helpline on 03000 999 999.
Images (c) Scottish SPCA.
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) has become the first UK zoo to sign the global coalition #UnitedForBiodiversity.
RZSS joins more than 150 institutions and 25 organisations worldwide that have already joined the coalition, which calls for stronger mobilisation in raising awareness about the need to protect biodiversity.
The move comes ahead of the UN Biodiversity Conference CoP15, which takes place later this year.
David Field, RZSS CEO, said, “We are proud to join this growing list of international organisations standing together on behalf of biodiversity across the globe.
“Our planet is facing an extinction crisis, with scientists warning that one million species are on the brink of disappearing. The UN Biodiversity Conference offers an opportunity to set new goals and transform our relationship with nature for the better.”
The #UnitedForBiodiversity campaign was launched on World Wildlife Day 2020 by Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU commissioner for environment, oceans and fisheries. Among the institutions that have already pledged to raise their voices for nature include aquariums, zoos, national parks, research centres and botanic gardens.
The 2021 CoP15 summit will see scientists, heads of state and policymakers adopt a new global framework to protect and restore nature. Current projects being carried out by RZSS Scotland include restoring the Scottish wildcat population and protecting chimpanzees in Uganda.
Nano chameleon measures just 22mm from top to tail.
Scientists have discovered a new subspecies of chameleon that they believe could be the smallest reptile in the world.
With a body size of just 13.5mm, the brookesia nana – or 'nano chameleon' – was found by a joint team of German and Malagasy scientists on an expedition in the North of Madagascar.
Their study was recently published in the open access journal Scientific Reports.
The team was only able to find two individuals, a male and a female. Measuring 22mm from top to tail, the male is the smallest known male of the roughly 11,500 known non-avian reptiles, according to the Bavarian State collection of Zoology in Munich.
The female is larger at 19mm body length and 29mm total length.
Dr Mark D Scherz, one of the researchers involved in the discovery, called it "a spectacular case of extreme miniaturisation.”
Dr Scherz added that, as the miniscule new chameleon lives in the mountains of mainland Madagascar, it “violates the pattern of the smallest species being found on small islands. That suggests that something else is allowing/causing these chameleons to miniaturise.”
Despite only two individuals being located the researchers expect that that brookesia nana has a very limited distribution range, similar to most species of dwarf chameleons.
“Unfortunately, the habitat of the nano chameleon is under heavy pressure from deforestation,” said Oliver Hawlitschek from the Center of Natural History in Hamburg, “but the area has recently been designated as a protected area, and hopefully that will enable this tiny new chameleon to survive.”
Image (c) Frank Glaw (SNSB/ZSM).