Friday, 31 July 2009

Tiger escapes in Las Vegas

A tiger used in a magic show did a vanishing act from its pen and roamed the streets of Las Vegas.

Local police say that a resident in the north-west of the city called police at around 9pm after seeing the beast in the street outside, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Officers were despatched to recover the big cat, which belongs to the Fernando Brothers Magic Act. It was quickly tracked down to a domestic yard and returned to captivity.

Lt Les Lane of the Las Vegas Metro Police confirmed that no-one had been hurt during the tiger's brief escapade and that no charges would be filed.

However, animal control officers will be working with the tiger's owners to ensure that he didn't sneak out for any more evening strolls.

Wolves attacking hunting dogs

July 31, 2009 - 6:44 AM

PARK FALLS, Wis. - Wildlife officials say wolves have attacked hunting dogs
in northern Wisconsin.

The Department of Natural Resources says over the last two weeks wolves have killed four dogs and injured another as bear hunters trained them in Bayfield, Burnett, Clark and Oneida counties.

DNR officials say the wolves may have been protecting pups. The agency has added all four areas to its list of wolf caution areas.

Wolves are again listed as a federally endangered species. Killing them is illegal.

DNR officials say bear hunters should avoid training or hunting in areas with concentrated wolf activity.

Lost dog turns up after nine years

Muffy the long-lost dog has finally been found - nine years after she disappeared and 1,250 miles away from her original home.

The terrier-cross or 'bitsa', was last seen in 2000 by her owners, the Lampard family on the Gold Coast in Australia's Queensland state, when she set off from a friend's home, seemingly never to return.

However, while the Lampards got on with their life, even getting a new dog - a Rottweiler called Jack whom sadly yet coincidentally died a few months ago - Muffy was embarking on an epic voyage south down Australia's east coast.

Whatever may have happened to Muffy over this last decade, she was spotted living as a filthy stray in a backyard by a concerned local in Melbourne, who informed the RSPCA.

Carers came to rescue the flea-ridden pooch and clean up her matted hair and severe dermatitis.
However, it was during this skin treatment that welfare agency officers came across the microchip that could identify her and trace her original owners.

Although it took a little investigative work due to the age of the chip, the Lampards were finally identified and tracked down, much to Natalie Lampard's surprise.

Her daughter Chloe, 17, was particularly over-the-moon, as she and Muffy were inseparable when she was a child.

Chloe is now preparing to fly to Melbourne to be reunited with her.

Egypt: Foot-long Baby Croc Causes Scare In The Air

CAIRO, Jul. 31, 2009

Foot-long Baby Croc Wriggles Out Of Luggage, Causes Panic Among Passengers Flying To Egypt

(AP) An official at Cairo airport says a foot-long baby crocodile wriggled out of a passenger's hand luggage and caused panic on a flight from the United Arab Emirates.

A crew member on the EgyptAir flight from Abu Dhabi rounded up the wayward reptile and calmed passengers. The airport security official says the animal was seized and given to the Cairo Zoo.

Transporting exotic animals in and out of the Egypt is illegal, and none of the passengers on Friday's flight claimed ownership of the baby croc.

The airport official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

Will a well-mixed, warmer lake doom invasive fish?

Jordan Read, a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering, explains the mechanics of a water-mixing experiment as equipment is tested near the Limnology pier on Lake Mendota at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on July 9, 2009. The experiment, which involves a device that resembles a parachute with an inflatable ring, brings water from the bottom of a lake to the surface and raises the temperature of the deeper water. The experiment has implications for studying the effects of global warming as well as the effects of water temperature change on invasive species in lakes. Photo: Bryce Richter. Date: July 2009.

July 30, 2009

by Terry Devitt

MADISON - The rainbow smelt, an invasive fish that threatens native species such as walleye and perch, may soon be feeling the heat - literally.

In an experiment that could show the way to evicting the unwanted fish from Wisconsin lakes, University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists and engineers hope to experimentally warm Crystal Lake in Vilas County in an effort to selectively wipe out the smelt. Using a device known as a GELI, an apparatus that looks like a submerged trampoline, the researchers will mix the waters of the 83-acre lake to warm the cool, deeper waters where the rainbow smelt thrive.

"As far as I know, this is a completely new idea," according to UW-Madison researcher Steve Carpenter, a world authority on lakes and a leader of the new study along with civil and environmental engineering Professor Chin Wu.

"For it to work, one needs rather special circumstances," Carpenter explains. "The species you want to eliminate must be intolerant of warm water, and the warm water must not harm the native species that you wish to keep. That is the case in Crystal Lake and perhaps some other lakes in northern Wisconsin that have been invaded by smelt."

The idea, according to engineering graduate student Jordan Read, is to use the GELI - which is propelled up and down in the water column using compressed air and pushes water much like the bell of a jellyfish - to warm the deeper waters of the lake by a few degrees to a temperature the invasive fish is unable to tolerate.

"The main goal of the project is to mix the water column to the point where the deeper cold water habitat refuge for smelt is gone," says Read.

Using the device, the Wisconsin researchers will warm Crystal Lake by about 6 degrees Fahrenheit, bringing the average July temperature of the lake to nearly 66 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature intended to make things uncomfortable for the invasive fish.

The rainbow smelt is a native of the northeast coast of the United States and was brought to the American Midwest in the 1920s as a potential food source for walleyes, one of Wisconsin's most prized game fish. But the smelt spread to lakes Michigan and Superior and is now finding its way to many of Wisconsin's smaller inland lakes.

"Rainbow smelt are delicious, and many people know them as fried smelt," says Carpenter. "They are also voracious predators that gobble up juveniles of many fish species. They are particularly effective at eating walleye juveniles, and walleyes are often eliminated from inland lakes that are invaded by rainbow smelt."

The idea behind the Crystal Lake experiment, says Read, the graduate student directing the fieldwork, is to determine if artificially mixing the lake and warming its deeper waters will cause thermal stress for the smelt. The hypothesis, he explains, is that increased temperature will either kill the smelt outright or stress them to the point that survival and reproduction rates are greatly reduced. "The goal is to alter the thermal habitat the fish needs to survive," he notes of the experiment.

A device that resembles a parachute with an inflatable ring floats to the lake surface while being utilized in a test of water-mixing equipment near the Limnology pier on Lake Mendota at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on July 9, 2009. The experiment brings water from the bottom of a lake to the surface and raises the temperature of the water. The experiment has implications for studying the effects of global warming as well as the effects of water temperature on invasive species in lakes. Photo: Bryce Richter. Date: July 2009.

"Fish and most other aquatic invaders take on the temperature of their environment," says Carpenter, who explains that the rise in temperature should not harm native species such as walleye and bass. "If you warm the lake above the upper lethal temperature that the invaders will tolerate, they will die off."

The GELI is a radical departure from traditional methods of mixing lakes, says Read. Ordinarily, to alter the water temperature of a body of water the technique of choice is aeration, where compressed air is circulated through the water. The GELI technology could also potentially be used to restore oxygen to small areas of oxygen-depleted water.

"Preliminary measurements found the GELI technology to be much more efficient in comparison with traditional aeration techniques," says Read, of the 8-meter diameter membrane fitted with a hose-like collar which is alternately filled and emptied of air to raise and lower it in the water column. What's more, the GELI technology is more environmentally friendly as, unlike aeration, it does not stir up sediments.

Fishing 12-year-old nets Ice Age bone in Embarras River

Monday, July 27, 2009 6:34 AM CDT

By TONY REID - H&R Staff Writer

GREENUP - Josh Brandenburg went angling for a mammoth catfish and came back with a big bit of mammoth instead.

The platter-size circular bone he fished out of the Embarras River is now setting off some elephantine ripples in the scientific community. Experts from the Illinois State Museum in Springfield say the size of the bone means it belonged to one of the biggest mammoths on record from Ice Age Illinois.

The bone also has some "chatter marks" on it, which suggest it was gnawed on by a big meat-eater or maybe even hungry prehistoric humans who had just nailed the mother of all pot roasts.

Either way, Josh's find is something special. The bone is anywhere from 13,000 to 24,000 years old and came from, most likely, a woolly mammoth or another mammoth type, the mammuthus Jeffersonii, which is named for Thomas Jefferson, a major prehistoric critter fan.

But whether woolly or Jeffersonii, it was big: The expert guess is it stood anywhere from 11 to 13 feet at the shoulder, and maybe even bigger, with a weight that could tip the scales at 4 tons.

The bone is actually an "atlas vertebra," which attached the animal's massive head to its neck. "And this remains one of the largest atlas vertebrae we've seen," said Chris Widga, Ph.D., assistant curator of geology at the Illinois State Museum Research and Collections Center.

"We thought it was just a cow's pelvis or something," said Josh, 12, who was fishing in a boat with his dad, David, and brothers Zack, 13, and Alex, 16. Instead of throwing it back, though, they took it home and began trampling all over the Internet trying to find out what it was. They eventually hit on sites that identified it as an atlas bone from a mammoth, which wasn't a bad result for four hours point-and-click work with a mouse.

Josh plans to head back to the now top-secret catfishing spot, cast his rods aside and become a fisher of mammoths. "I kind of like big animals," he said. "We're going to look for more bones."

His dad and his mom, Tricia, were surprised to discover that mammoth bones can command prices into the hundreds and even many hundreds of dollars. But Josh and the family decided the right thing to do was hand their atlas over to the Illinois State Museum and bask in the glory of a grateful science along with official recognition that the find is what they thought it was.

"I didn't want my boy accused of being nuts because he claims to have found this cool mammoth bone, but nobody believed him," said Dad, who works in highway maintenance for the state of Illinois. "Now this find has got all my kids thinking and researching and using their brains instead of just spending the summer hanging out of a tree or something. You got kids? You know what I mean. Finding this bone has been pretty neat for us."

Jeffrey Saunders, Ph.D., who also works in the Illinois State Museum's Research and Collections Center and has a mammoth job description - quaternary vertebrate paleontology curator and chairman, geology section - said Josh Brandenburg's name will live forever.

"He has received a certificate of appreciation from the Illinois State Museum, suitable for framing, and we do everything we can to praise him," Saunders said. "His name will be forever associated with that bone as the finder."

Saunders, who has Beanie Baby mammoths sitting on his computer monitor and whose English family name features three elephants in its coat of arms, has a soft spot for mammoths. He suspects they were like modern-day elephants in their behavior: intelligent and moving around in matriarchal family units and willing to risk it all to protect each other.

He says baby mammoth mummies dug out of the permafrost of Siberia have given even scientists aw-shucks moments. "Three feet tall, three feet long, with a long little trunk and cute little ears," he said. "You see just how cute and compelling these mammoths were."

But just like their dinosaur predecessors, Mother Nature finally drew a line under them, and all that remains of their extinct species are the remains they left to a puzzled posterity. "Just what did happen to them?" Saunders asks. "That is the $64,000 question."

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Crustacean Color Control System Decoded

Anna Salleh, ABC Science Online

July 28, 2009 -- Popular crustaceans like lobsters, crabs and prawns owe their success to a unique color control system, according to a new genetic study.

Australian zoologist Nick Wade of the CSIRO Food Futures Flagship in Brisbane and colleagues reported their findings in this week's issue of the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

"We identified that this particular coloration system is only found in crustaceans," said Wade. "It's not found anywhere else in the animal kingdom."

Wade researched the crustacean color system for his PhD while at the University of Queensland and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Most people like their lobsters, crabs and prawns to come in nice strong colors because this is a sign the animals are good quality, said Wade.

"If the animal was all white people wouldn't be willing to pay much for it," he said.

But, said Wade, for crustaceans their color is key to their survival because it enables them to camouflage themselves and communicate with mates.

Scientists have long known that central to the color system of crustaceans is the carotenoid pigment astaxanthin, present in the shells of the animals.

A protein called crustacyanin is known to bind to astaxanthin and twist the pigment in various ways, changing the wavelength it reflects from red to a whole spectrum of colors, depending on how the molecules interact.

When a lobster is cooked, the crustacyanin protein is destroyed and the color of the shell returns to the orange of the free carotenoid.

The interaction between astaxanthin and crustacyanin is behind the myriad of colors that adorn various lobsters and prawns, said Wade.

"We're talking about going from the red end of the spectrum to the blue end of the spectrum," he said.

"That's the entire length of the visible spectrum. This protein is able to do something that no other protein can do."

Wade and colleagues wanted to know how widespread this color system is in the animal kingdom.

They looked for the gene responsible for crustacyanin in a whole slew of different animals but could only find it in crustaceans.

Wade said this simple "one molecule, many colors" system could have been key to the success of crustaceans, which occupy a bewildering diversity of habitats.

"What we're doing is starting to identify the genetic basis of biodiversity," he said.

Apart from genetics, other factors that influence the color of crustaceans are their dietary intake of carotenoids and the background color of their environment, said Wade.

Wade added that in the future the crustacean system could be used to develop new food dyes.

It could also be used to develop new indicators of acidity and temperature since both these factors can affect the protein-pigment complex, and thus affect color.

"You could engineer the protein to do more than it used to do," he said.

Freshwater crabs 'feel the pinch'

Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

Two thirds of all species of freshwater crab maybe at risk of going extinct, with one in six species particularly vulnerable, according to a new survey.

That makes freshwater crabs among the most threatened of all groups of animals assessed so far.

The study is the first global assessment of the extinction risk for any group of freshwater invertebrates.

Crab species in southeast Asia are the most at risk, from habitat destruction, pollution and drainage.

Scientists from the Zoological Society of London and Northern Michigan University led the survey, which produced the first International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species for the 1280 known species of freshwater crab.

Of those, the survey found that 227 species should be considered as near threatened, vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.

For another 628 species, not enough data exists to adequately assess their future, says the survey published in the journal Biological Conservation.

However, while the most optimistic scenario is that 16% of all species are at risk, the worst case scenario suggests the figure could be as high as 65%, or two-thirds of all species.

Keystone species

Freshwater crabs are essential to many freshwater ecosystems. Some feed on fallen leaves and algae, while other species help cycle nutrients by eating vast quantities of detritus.

The crabs themselves are an important source of food for a range of birds such as herons and kingfishers, reptiles such as monitor lizards and crocodiles and amphibians such as frogs and toads. Mammals that like to dine on freshwater crabs include otters, mongooses, civets as well as wild boar and even macaque monkeys.

Because most species require pristine water to survive, they are also excellent indicators of good water quality.

But species are increasingly being impacted by habitat destruction and pollution.

Most vulnerable are crabs living in southeast Asia, which is also home to the greatest diversity of species.

For example, 40 of 50 species living in Sri Lanka are threatened.

Those species that live a semi-terrestrial life, breathing air, living in burrows and dividing their time between water and land, appear most at risk, possibly because their habitats are most easily disturbed by human activities.

No species are yet known to have gone extinct, but some species such as the terrestrial crab Thaipotamon siamese and the waterfall crab Demanietta manii from Thailand have not been seen alive for over a century, and their original habitats have since been built over by urban developments.

The loss of natural forest to land development and agriculture has also impacted almost every habitat in which freshwater crabs live, the report notes.

The proportion of freshwater crabs threatened with extinction is equal to that of reef-building corals, and exceeds that of all other groups that have been assessed except for amphibians.

"We must set clear goals to reverse these trends and ensure that our enduring legacy is not to wipe out the small things that provide us with great benefits, such as nutrient cycling," says Ben Collen, one the survey scientists from the Zoological Society of London.

Mapping the crocodile genome

The first ever genetic linkage map for a non-avian member of the Class Reptilia has been developed. Researchers writing in the open access journal BMC Genomics have constructed a first-generation genetic linkage map for the saltwater crocodile Crocodylus porosus.

Dr Lee Miles, from the University of Sydney, worked with a team of Australian and international researchers to study a population of saltwater crocodiles from the Darwin Crocodile Farm in the Northern Territory. He said, "This map will be a valuable resource for crocodilian researchers, facilitating the systematic genome scans necessary for identifying genes affecting complex traits of economic importance in the crocodile industry".

The researchers' map also provides a significant step towards the elucidation of the crocodilian genome, forming a scaffold for genome sequence assembly, and will be of intrinsic value to comparative mapping efforts aimed at understanding the molecular evolution of reptilian, as well as other amniote genomes. From an economic perspective, this new information should be able to assist in the breeding of farmed crocodiles with favourable growth rate, survival and skin quality by facilitating the systematic searches necessary to identify the genes that affect these traits.

Speaking about the map, Miles said, "The crocodile is a very charismatic organism, but with surprisingly very little genetic or genomic resources available prior to this map. As part of my PhD I was fortunate to have been involved in this collaboration between the University of Sydney, Darwin Crocodile Farm and the University of Georgia in the USA, and it is very satisfying to know that the outcomes of our research will be of value to both future research efforts, as well as industry. We've taken that first difficult step and I am certain that even more exciting research with follow."

Bird fossils found in Kalaeloa, Hawaii

By David Waite
Advertiser Staff Writer

Workers restoring wildlife habitat areas on land that was part of the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station have uncovered a number of fossilized bird bones, including those of several extinct species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The unexpected discovery will allow scientists to learn more about the ancient creatures that once were found throughout the Pearl Harbor Wildlife Refuge-Kalaeloa Unit, officials said.

The fossilized bird bones were found while scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were restoring several small tidal pools, known as anchialine pools. Over the past century, the pools had been filled in with rubble, rocks and debris by agricultural, military, residential and commercial activities. The discovery of the fossils provides a more complete picture of the natural bird diversity of a coastal dryland forest on O'ahu.

"These fossils of extinct birds give us a glimpse of an earlier time on O'ahu when the lowlands teemed with native birds, insects, and plants," said Helen James, research zoologist and curator of birds for the Smithsonian Institution.

"To me, it is excellent news that important fossil sites can still be discovered on an island that has experienced so much economic development," James said in a news release about the fossil find. "Lamentably the birds cannot be brought back to life, but by studying their bones we at least gain an appreciation of O'ahu's rich natural heritage."

The fossilized bones discovered so far are those of an extinct hawk, long-legged owl, Hawaiian sea eagle, petrel, two species of crow, Hawaiian finches, Hawaiian honeyeaters, and the moa nalo (a turkey-sized, flightless gooselike duck that was the largest of the native Hawaiian birds). Further work is needed to confirm the identification of each species.

The ages of the fossilized bones are unknown at this time and require further testing using radiocarbon analysis. Avian bones found at similar sites on the 'Ewa Plain date back from 1,000 to 8,000 years ago, the scientists said.

"The discovery of these ancient bird bones, including several species now extinct and maybe even new species not known before, is a great reminder of the truly unique history and wonderful diversity of Hawai'i's birds and the need to protect what is still left," David Ellis, refuge manager for the O'ahu National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said in the news release.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with the Smithsonian Institution and Bishop Museum to properly clean, store, and preserve the bones. The Smithsonian is also providing technical assistance to Bishop Museum and the Fish and Wildlife Service to properly identify and catalog the recently discovered fossils. Interest is high among all involved to continue with a more in-depth paleontological study of the area but further work is dependent on the availability of funding.

The Kalaeloa Unit was added to the National Wild- life Refuge System in 2001 to protect native plants, including two endangered species: the 'akoko and the 'Ewa hina hina. Kalaeloa is an area of ancient raised limestone coral reef and has the last remaining coastal dryland plant communities that were once widespread throughout the 'Ewa Plain.

In January 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began restoring 12 anchialine pools on the Kalaeloa Unit. While removing the debris, Fish and Wildlife Service personnel began to encounter the fossilized bones — some never before seen.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Amazing rescue: Drowning diver saved by beluga whale


A beluga whale in a Chinese aquarium has rescued a drowning diver by pushing her out of the water.

A spokesman for Harbin Polar Land in the country's north-east Heilongjiang province said the diver had been taking part in a competition at the aquarium when she began suffering sudden cramps in her legs.

Entrants were required to dive into the 6-metre-deep cool pool without any breathing equipment.

The person who dives the deepest and stays down for the longest time wins the competition.

Yang Yun, an applicant from a local Chinese Medicine College, dived to a depth of 4 metres on her first trial.

Commuter cat is star of bus route

Wednesday, 29 July 2009 14:25 UK

A cat has become such a well-known user of a Devon bus service that its drivers know where to let him off.

Casper has been queuing with other passengers to get the number three service from his home in Plymouth for months, bus company First said.

It added that he often sat in the queue and then quietly padded on board and curled up on a seat for the ride.

Casper's owner Susan Finden, 55, who picked him from a rescue home in 2002, said he had always been a free spirit.

Mrs Finden said she named her pet after Casper the Friendly Ghost, as he has a habit of wandering off.

A spokesman for First said that drivers had been bussing Casper around for months, but Mrs Finden said she had only just found out about his use of public transport.

The care worker said: "He'd always go off and have a wander.

"Once I had to walk a mile-and-a-half with a cat basket to bring him back from a car park.

"He does love people, and I don't know what the attraction is but he loves big vehicles like lorries and buses."

A notice has been put up by First in the bus drivers' rest room in Plymouth bus station asking them to look after the rogue passenger if they spot him sneaking on board.

X-ray shows dog swallowed nine golf balls

A dog called Bertie was found to have nine golf balls lodged in its stomach when worried owners took it the vets.

By Jeni Oppenheimer Published: 4:35PM BST 29 Jul 2009

Bertie swallowed the balls while out on walks in Maldon, Essex, with his owners Mark and Michelle Jewell.

When he started walking oddly, the Jewell's took him to vet John Matthews who upon examining the dog quickly realised there was something worrying inside Bertie's stomach.

"We were absolutely flabbergasted when we saw Bertie's x-ray," said Emily Nightingale, who also works for the Clarendon House Veterinary Centre.

"His stomach could have easily ruptured from the pressure of all of the golf balls, which could have been fatal."

After the x-ray, Bertie was taken to surgery where he was operated on for almost two hours to remove the golf balls from his stomach.

In addition, the vets removed the bullet found in the fat surrounding the dog's stomach.

"The fact that the bullet miraculously missed his vital internal organs proves just how lucky this brave little chappie has been." she said.

Mr and Mrs Jewell were unaware that their dog had been the victim of a shooting as Bertie had never shown any signs of an injury.

"Bertie's amazing story highlights the dangers of dogs swallowing potentially harmful objects and also to shotgun wounds, which dogs and cats are occasionally the victims usually accidentally as a result of mistaken identity," said Miss Nightingale.

Bertie is scheduled to have his stitches removed next week.

3,000 donkeys drafted in for Afghan polls: UN

Agence France-Presse 07/29/2009 1:52 PM

KABUL – More than 3,000 donkeys will be drafted in to help deliver millions of ballot papers to remote regions of Afghanistan for presidential elections on August 20, a UN official said Tuesday.
Swathes of Afghanistan are inaccessible by road, forcing election authorities to come up with innovative solutions to get voting materials to the masses in time for election day.

Kai Eide, the top UN representative in Afghanistan, toured a hanger at the Independent Election Commission (IEC) headquarters in Kabul where he watched the papers being stuffed into bright blue boxes and loaded onto trucks.

"There will be 3,500 trucks involved altogether in getting the material to the polling centres. And 3,000 donkeys will get the ballot papers to the most remote areas," said Eide, head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

He said the pack animals would be loaded up with the papers and dispatched to polling stations mostly in the north, where the mountains of the Hindu Kush cut off many residents from the outside world.

Eide called the operation "one of the most demanding electoral exercises I have seen" and praised Afghanistan for holding elections in the middle of a war, with Western and local forces battling Taliban insurgents.

"What makes it challenging is the infrastructure... and also the fact that the country is a country in conflict," the Norwegian diplomat told reporters.

Ahmad Bilal, IEC head of logistics, said helicopters would also be mobilised to reach the more remote areas and hoped to get all materials to polling centres by August 10.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and 80 percent of the people live in rural areas, largely without electricity.

Election officials also have to contend with fragile security in the south, Bilal said, where thousands of newly deployed US troops are trying to wrest back Taliban strongholds in harsh and baking desert.

The election will cost about 220 million dollars and is being bankrolled by Afghanistan's international partners.

More than 35 million presidential and provincial ballot papers are being distributed to 28,500 polling stations across Afghanistan.


Driver tells Conn. police snakes led to SUV crash HARTFORD, Conn. – Police say a driver blamed a car crash in Hartford, Conn., on two pet baby snakes that he said escaped from his pants pockets as he was driving.

Hartford police Sgt. Christene Mertes says Angel Rolon, of New Britain, claimed he lost control of his SUV on Monday when the snakes slithered near the gas and brake pedals and he and a passenger tried to catch them. The SUV veered into some parked cars and overturned.Mertes says animal control officers never found the snakes and police have been unable to confirm his story.

Rolon was treated at a hospital for unknown injuries. Police say they gave him a summons for reckless driving and other charges.There is no public telephone listing for Rolon and it was unclear if he has a lawyer.

Human activity is driving Earth's 'sixth great extinction event'

Earth is experiencing its "sixth great extinction event" with disease and human activity taking a devastating toll on vulnerable species, according to a major review by conservationists.
Much of the southern hemisphere is suffering particularly badly, and Australia, New Zealand and neighbouring Pacific islands may become the extinction hot spots of the world, the report warns.

Ecosystems in Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia need urgent and effective conservation policies, or the region's already poor record on extinctions will worsen significantly.
Researchers trawled 24,000 published reports to compile information on the native flora and fauna of Australasia and the Pacific islands, which have six of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Their report identifies six causes driving species to extinction, almost all linked in some way to human activity.

"Our region has the notorious distinction of having possibly the worst extinction record on Earth," said Richard Kingsford, an environmental scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and lead author of the report. "We have an amazing natural environment, but so much of it is being destroyed before our eyes. Species are being threatened by habitat loss and degradation, invasive species, climate change, over-exploitation, pollution and wildlife disease."
The review, published in the journal Conservation Biology, highlights destruction and degradation of ecosystems as the main threat. In Australia, agriculture has altered or destroyed half of all woodland and forests. Around 70% of the remaining forest has been damaged by logging. Loss of habitats is behind 80% of threatened species, the report claims.

Invasive animals and plants have devastated native species on many Pacific islands. The Guam Micronesian kingfisher is thought to be extinct in the wild following the introduction of the brown tree snake. The impact of invasive species is often compounded by pollution and burgeoning human populations on the islands, which have outstripped their capacity to deal with waste. Plastics and fishing gear are an ongoing danger.

The impact of humans on wildlife is likely to increase in Australasia and the Pacific islands. By 2050, the population of Australia is expected to have risen by 35%, and New Zealand by 25%, while Papua New Guinea faces a 76% increase and New Caledonia 49%.

More than 2,500 invasive plant species have colonised Australia and New Zealand, competing for sunlight and nutrients. Many have been introduced by governments, horticulturists and hunters. In addition, the report says, average temperatures in Australia have increased, in line with climate change predictions, forcing some species towards Antarctica and others to higher, cooler ground.

The report highlights several studies that point to serious threats from diseases such as avian malaria and the chytrid fungus, linked to declines in frog populations. An infectious facial cancer is spreading rapidly among Tasmanian devils and populations of the world's largest marsupial predator are believed to have fallen by more than 60% as a result.
Plants have also fared badly: a root fungus deliberately introduced into Australia has destroyed several species.

The report sets out a raft of recommendations to slow the decline by introducing laws to limit land clearing, logging and mining; restricting deliberate introduction of invasive species; reducing carbon emissions and pollution; and limiting fisheries. It raises particular concerns about bottom trawling, and the use of cyanide and dynamite, and calls for early-warning systems to pick up diseases in the wild.

"The burden on the environment is going to get worse unless we are a lot smarter about reducing our footprint," said Kingsford. "Unless we get this right, future generations will surely be paying more in quality of life and the environment. And our region will continue its terrible reputation of leading the world in the extinction of plants and animals."

Dead and buried
Cretaceous-Tertiary 65m years ago, the dinosaurs were wiped out in a mass extinction that killed nearly a fifth of land vertebrate families, 16% of marine families and nearly half of all marine animals. Thought to have been caused by asteroid impact that created Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan.

End of Triassic About 200m years ago, lava floods erupting from the central Atlantic are thought to have created lethal global warming, killing off more than a fifth of all marine families and half of marine genera.

Permian-Triassic The worst mass extinction took place 250m years ago, killing 95% of all species. Experts disagree on the cause.

Late Devonian About 360m years ago, a fifth of marine families were wiped out, alongside more than half of all marine genera. Cause unknown.

Ordovician-Silurian About 440m years ago, a quarter of all marine families were wiped out by fluctuating sea levels as glaciers formed and melted again.

Critically endangered white-shouldered ibis benefits from human intervention

Humans lend a hand to critically endangered waterbird
July 2009. Human impact on one of the world's most threatened bird species can be beneficial rather than destructive - and could even save it from extinction - according to counterintuitive new findings by the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The study by UEA conservation experts explores the exact reasons behind the decline of the critically endangered white-shouldered ibis. The new study was carried out in Western Siem Pang Important Bird Area (IBA), northern Cambodia, where 160-200 of the birds survive - around half of the global population. Working in partnership with BirdLife International, the researchers found that the ibis prefer to forage in open and accessible sites with low vegetation and bare soil. This is believed to be because it makes it easier to find prey, aids take-off and landing, and improves detection of approaching danger.

Traditional small-scale farming by local communities is therefore crucial to the ibis' survival because grazing livestock and burning of the forest understorey opens up these habitats making them suitable for the birds.

"Our findings show that this critically endangered species is largely dependent on the local farmers for their survival," said lead author Hugh Wright, of UEA's School of Environmental Sciences. "This is a fascinating outcome as we tend to assume that human activity always has a negative impact on the natural world."

Under imminent threat from development
Not all human influence is positive for the endangered ibis, however. Western Siem Pang - currently an unprotected site - is under imminent threat from large-scale development which would destroy the birds' habitats entirely, along with the local farming communities.

"The Forestry Administration in Cambodia is supportive of a proposal to make the area a protected forest and we believe that this - along with the continuation of local farming methods practiced for generation after generation - will be crucial in saving this once common species from extinction," added Hugh.

Most rapid decline
With fewer than 500 individuals remaining, mainly in Cambodia, the white-shouldered ibis has undergone the most rapid decline of all South-East Asia's large waterbirds and is now the most threatened. Once common in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, the precise causes behind the bird's continuing decline have until now been poorly understood, which has hindered conservation efforts.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Animal Conservation, and funded by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC),

Remains of at least three tigers found in taxi in Vietnam

Tiger carcass and many bones found in Vietnam taxi
July 2009. Hanoi's Environmental Police found a frozen tiger and more than 11 kilos of tiger bones being smuggled by taxi from the country's interior to Hanoi - the third seizure of tiger parts in the city this year.

Police stopped a suspicious looking taxi and found a frozen tiger wrapped in several layers of blankets in the trunk, and 11 kg of tiger limb bones. Dr. Dang Tat The, an expert at the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources (IEBR), Vietnam's CITES Scientific Authority, identified the animal and bones as tiger, and speculated that the animal, which weighed 57 kg, was probably a young individual that had been recently killed and that the bones had come from at least two more adult tigers.

DNA tests needed
The tiger was probably transported from Central Vietnam, but it is unknown whether the animal originated in Vietnam, or whether it was a wild or captive specimen. "To complete the police investigation, we call upon the authorities to carry out DNA testing to help determine where these tigers came from," said Nguyen Dao Ngoc Van, a Senior Projects Officer at the Hanoi-based office of TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade monitoring network-a joint programme of WWF and IUCN.

"While the continuing trade in tigers and tiger parts is of great concern, the work of the Environmental Police towards stopping the trade is encouraging and impressive," Van said. "Although recently formed, the police are quickly improving Vietnam's capacity to enforce its existing wildlife trade legislation."

Two other tiger seizures in Hanoi
Two other tiger seizures have taken place in Hanoi already this year; in January a seizure of more than two tonnes of wildlife products from a store in Hanoi included six tiger skins; and a February seizure of 23 kilos of frozen tiger parts.

"These seizures show us just how serious the threat to Asia's remaining wild tigers is," Van said. Fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild, with an estimated population of only about 50 individuals in Vietnam. All six tiger sub-species are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered on IUCN's Red List. Poaching represents a major threat to the survival of wild tigers.

Tiger habitat is also dwindling at any ever increasing rate and that which remains is still unprotected. "We appreciate the good work of the police in Vietnam in finding smuggled tiger skins and parts, said Dr. Susan Lieberman, Director of the Species Programme, WWF-International.

"However, it is critical that protection of tigers by anti-poaching patrols and on-the-ground efforts are greatly increased, so that tigers are not poached in the first place," Dr. Lieberman said. Tigers are listed in Appendix I of CITES, strictly prohibiting any commercial international trade in them or their derivatives. Although Vietnam is party to CITES, and has banned all domestic trade of tigers, the trade in tigers continues for the use of their bones in traditional medicines, the consumption of their meat as a health tonic and as a status symbol, and the use of their skin for trophy and decorative purposes. The seizure comes just one week after the World Bank announced it considered any experimentation with tiger farming too risky and could drive wild tigers further toward extinction.

World’s rarest deer found alive and well on Philippine islands

Visayan Spotted deer still surviving on remote Philippine islands
July 2009. The Negros Interior Biodiversity Expedition (NIBE) has confirmed that it had found evidence of two groups of the Visayan Spotted Deer alive and well in the North Negros Natural Park (NNNP) in the Philippines. The team of experts recently returned from the first scientific exploration of the park interior where they recorded the presence of many endangered and endemic species, with several new species records for the NNNP.

The Visayan Spotted Deer (Cervus alfredi) is endemic to the Visayan islands of the central Philippines, formerly reported on only seven islands (Cebu, Guimaras, Leyte, Masbate, Negros, Panay, and Samar), but now thought to remain only on the islands of Panay and Negros. It is a small deer found only in tropical rainforests up to about 1500 metres and has been hunted from 95% of its range. The population within the NNNP was believed to be one of the few viable breeding groups left in world with possibly no more than a couple of hundred individuals surviving. Heavy hunting pressure has led to the deer not being recorded in the NNNP for many years until the NIBE team found fresh deer droppings in several locations, deer tracks and significant evidence of feeding activity.

Highly important find

James Sawyer, NIBE expedition leader said of the find "This is a critically important find to discover such an important animal alive and well in its natural habitat. While this proves that the grass roots conservation initiatives are working on the island of Negros, the deer and similar endangered species in the park need more protection in order to assure their survival."

Many more rare species

"Finding such a globally important species is great news for conservation scientists but more importantly it shows that the NNNP and Philippine forests still harbour many rare and unique species, found nowhere else in the world. Conservation work is critically under-funded and our partners Negros Forests and Ecological Foundation Inc (NFEFI), really are fighting a pitched battle to assure future generations are handed their biological inheritance" added Dr Craig Turner, research leader for the expedition.

During the three week rapid biodiversity assessment, the team battled difficult terrain and conditions to survey an area completely new to science. The team included a film maker and teacher to assure the story of the expedition is told and new educational resources are made available to both the Philippines and the UK.

NIBE's partners NFEFI are a Philippine NGO based on the island of Negros who has been working to save and reforest the NNNP for the last twenty years. Programmes include: alternative livelihoods, reforestation, education and captive breeding programmes.

NIBE was an independently organised and funded expedition made up of specialists from both the Philippines and the United Kingdom.

9-foot Burmese python on first day of Florida extermination program

Burmese python problem in Florida

July 2009. Armed with snake hooks and nets, a group of reptile experts selected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to participate in the state's python permit program captured a 9-foot, 8-inch Burmese python. The volunteer permit holders spotted the python in water underneath a boardwalk. It was later ‘euthanized‘.

"Honestly, I was surprised. I did not expect to see a Burmese python on the first day," said Shawn Heflick, one of the permit holders. "We hope our success helps us establish connections with airboat operators and sportsmen out here in the 'Glades. They can tell us where these snakes are, so we can go out and find them."

The FWC's Burmese python permit program allows permit holders to search for pythons on several FWC wildlife management areas and lands managed by the South Florida Water Management District.

"This outcome shows that we do have a serious Burmese python problem, and this program is a good first step in helping to stop the spread of this exotic species." said FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto.

The python permit program runs from July 17 to Oct. 31, at which time the FWC will evaluate the data collected and determine if it should extend or expand the program.

Shawn Heflick measures the 9-foot, 8-inch python with the help of FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto. Credit FWC

Critically endangered Chinese alligators breeding in the wild after reintroduction

July 2009. Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has announced that critically endangered alligators in China have a new chance for survival. The WCS's Bronx Zoo, in partnership with two other North American parks and the Department of Wildlife Conservation and Management of the State Forestry Administration of China, has successfully reintroduced alligators into the wild that are now multiplying on their own.

Reintroduced to the mouth of the Yangtze River

The alligator hatchlings-15 in number-are the offspring of a group of alligators that includes animals from the Wildlife Conservation Society's Bronx Zoo. The baby alligators represent a milestone for the 10-year effort to reintroduce the Chinese alligator on Chongming Island, located at the mouth of China's Yangtze River.

"We are grateful to our Chinese partners for their commitment to reintroduce Chinese alligators back into the wild," said Dr. Steven E. Sanderson, President and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "WCS has championed careful wildlife reintroductions for more than a century. The reintroduction of Chinese alligators is a great example of how WCS partners with governments and local communities around the world to save wildlife and wild places."

Just 130 animals left in the wild

Plans to reintroduce Chinese alligators started in 1999 with a survey conducted by WCS, the Anhui Forestry Bureau, and the East China Normal University in Anhui Province, the only remaining location where the reptiles are still found in the wild in what is a small fraction of the alligator's former range. The results of the survey were dire, with an estimate of fewer than 130 animals in a declining population.

An international workshop on the species was held in 2001, followed by recommendations for the reintroduction of captive bred alligators. The first three animals released in Hongxing Reserve of Xuancheng County in Anhui in 2003 were from the Anhui Research Center of Chinese Alligator Reproduction (ARCCAR).

To ensure the maximum genetic diversity for the effort, project participants imported 12 more animals to Changxing Yinjiabian Chinese Alligator Nature Reserve from North America, including four from the Bronx Zoo. From this group, three animals from the U.S. were released in 2007 along with three more alligators from Changxing. The alligators were given health examinations by veterinary professionals from WCS's Global Health Program and the Shanghai Wildlife Zoo and fitted with radio transmitters for remote monitoring before being released.

Reintroduced alligators hibernated before breeding

Experts reported that the reintroduced alligators successfully hibernated, and then in 2008, bred in the wild.

Critically endangered ‘Muddy dragon'

With a former range that covered a wide watershed area of East China, the Chinese alligator-or "tu long," which means "muddy dragon"-is now listed as "Critically Endangered" on IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species and is the most threatened of the 23 species of crocodilians in the world today. It is one of only two alligator species in existence (the other is the better known, and much better off, American alligator).

Yangtze River - Development a disaster for wildlife

The Yangtze River, where the reintroduction of these alligators took place, is the third longest river in the world (after the Amazon and the Nile) and is China's most economically important waterway. The world's largest hydro-electric dam-the Three Gorges Dam-is also located on the river. The high levels of development along the river have become a challenge for native wildlife; in 2006, a comprehensive search for the Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji, didn't find any, although one isolated sighting of a dolphin was made in 2007.

Other participants in the project include the East China Normal University, Shanghai Forestry Bureau, Changxing Yinjiabian Chinese Alligator Nature Reserve, and Wetland Park of Shanghai Industrial Investment (Holdings) Co. Ltd.

The project is being supported by the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, Hong Kong.

The announcement was made at the International Congress for Conservation Biology, convened by the Society for Conservation Biology in Beijing, China (July 11-16).

New wildlife habitat created in the heart of London

Paddington Recreation ground to get new wetlands
July 2009. A new wetland wildlife habitat is to be created in the heart of London by Westminster Council and environmental charity Groundwork London. They are working together to create a new open water area and wetland meadow in Paddington Recreation Ground.

This is the latest phase in creating a dedicated 3,200m nature area with the addition of a series of wildlife-rich ponds and marshlands that it is hoped will attract a variety of species including frogs, toads, water voles, great crested newts and dragonflies.

New timber decking pathways will surround the ponds to give visitors full access to the water and damp meadow habitats, and a wooden 'dipping' platform will also be built to allow school children to take part in pond-dipping and learn about the variety of animals that live in the water.
Rainwater supply
The pond will be supplied by rainwater which will be channelled from the roof of an adjoining building while a dedicated water borehole will supplement water levels during times of low supply. The series of smaller ponds will act as a natural water filter to the larger open water area.

It will also boast a new demonstration area and ecology centre which will be run by dedicated trained staff and bring local residents, schools and community groups closer to the natural environment and wildlife that surrounds them. Cllr Lee Rowley, Westminster's cabinet member for customer services and communities, said: "Westminster is one of the most densely populated places in the UK and our parks and open spaces are enormously valued by residents, as well as those who work and live in the city. Living in the capital it's easy to forget about the natural world that surrounds us and this new wildlife area will provide an exciting opportunity to get back to nature as well as a valuable and unique educational opportunity for our school children."
The scheme, which is due to be completed by the end of the summer, is being jointly funded by the council, the government's Playbuilder Programme, Marks & Spencer and the SITA Trust, which supports environmental and community projects.

First rhino birth in Uganda for 28 years

July 2009. A baby white rhino, now named Obama, was born in Uganda in June at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Obama's mother was donated by Disney Animal Kingdon, and his father was donated by Kenya.

White rhinos were reintroduced into Uganda some 25 years after being poached to extinction. Four southern white rhinos were released here in 2005, from Kenya. A year later two more arrived from Disney, and the 6 (now 7) roam a 70 square kilometre reserve that is heavily protected.

Extinct rodent species discovered

Right: Lower incisor

28 July 2009 Plataforma SINC

An international team of scientists has discovered an extinct rodent species, based on fossil tooth remains found in Alborache, Valencia. Eomyops noeliae, from the Eomyidae family, represents the oldest find within this genus in the world

The small number of fossils found has prevented the scientists from the University of Valencia (UV), who have led this research study, from being able to gain a full picture of this "new" rodent. However, they have been able to prove - on the basis of just the teeth, the only fossil remains discovered - that Eomyops noeliae was morphologically and biometrically different from other rodents of the Eomyops genus. The new species provides valuable evolutionary, biostratigraphic and paleoenvironmental information related to this rodent, which was of average size within the group.

"Until now, the Eomyops genus was made up of a group of small species and one large one, but no intermediately- sized kinds such as Eomyops noeliae had been found", Francisco Javier Ruiz-Sánchez, lead author of the study published in the French journal Comptes Rendus Palevol and a researcher in the UV's Department of Geology, tells SINC.

The palaeontologists have also confirmed the age of the find. "The fossils found in the Morteral 20A deposit in Valencia show that this is the oldest species within the genus known in the world with absolute certainty", points out Ruiz-Sánchez. According to this data, Eomyops noeliae would have lived during the Aragonese period "perhaps between the Lower and Middle Miocene (around 16 million years ago)", underscores the researcher.

The rodent's wet environment

The varied fauna of micro-mammals and the new species found in the Valencian deposit provide information about the environmental conditions in which these animals would have lived at the time. "The rodent taxa found show evidence that the environment was very wet", says Ruiz-Sánchez, even though the full study on all the fossil rodent remains, begun with this new eomyid, has still not been completed.

According to the study, the environment was "relatively thickly wooded, and the climate was wet", although other factors such as temperature have not yet been defined.

The biogeographical data also show that Eomyops noeliae lived throughout the east of the Iberian Peninsula during the Lower-Middle Miocene. This has been confirmed from the Eomyops species remains excavated from the "most recent" Morteral 22 deposit, which is very close to Morteral 20A.

Ruiz-Sánchez says the finds of this species' teeth in deposit strata separated by just a few metres show that "how this species survived in the east of the peninsula over a specific time period that is currently hard to define, but which must have gone on for several tens of thousands of years".

* Full bibliographic information
Ruiz-Sánchez, Francisco Javier; Lázaro Calatayud, Belén; Freudenthal, Matthijs. "Eomyops noeliae sp nov., a new Eomyidae (Mammalia, Rodentia) from the Aragonian of Spain" Comptes Rendus Palevol 8(4): 375-384 mayo-junio de 2009.

David Farrier to embark on hunt for Mongolian death worm

Left: Artist Rob Farrier's death worm illustration

Mon, 27 Jul 2009 3:22p.m.

Two New Zealanders will leave for Mongolia's Gobi Desert next week on an ambitious expedition to find the fabled acid-spitting and lightning-throwing Mongolian death worm.

The worm has never been documented but some Mongolians are convinced it exists. They call it Allghoi Khorkhoi, or "intestine worm" because it resembles a cow's intestine and is about 1.5m long.

They say it jumps out of the sand and kills people by spitting concentrated acid or shooting lightning from its rectum over long distances.

Auckland-based journalist David Farrier, who is organising the expedition, and Motueka-based cameraman Christie Douglas, leave on Tuesday to spend two weeks in the Gobi, trying to verify the worm's existence and making a documentary about it.

They will hire local Mongolians to help them; a guide, translator and cook.

Farrier, who works for TV3, told NZPA he had always been fascinated by cryptozoology, or the search for hidden creatures.

The expedition and documentary, which would cost him between $15,000 and $20,000, would take a serious look at the worm and what it was, Farrier said.

He said he was interested in the death worm because it was one of the most outrageous creatures that were rumoured to exist.

However, it was also one of the mythical creatures that had a better chance of being real.

Rumours could inflate the reputation of things such as the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot, but sparsely populated Mongolia was not a place where rumours were going to propagate, Farrier said.

"If a Mongolian says they have seen a big worm-like creature out in the desert they haven't really got any reason to lie."

A number of experts have dismissed the worm's existence, putting it down as a rumour, but Farrier was not put off.

"I think it won't be a worm, obviously a worm can't survive in a desert. I'd say it would be some sort of snake that's not meant to be there. It's very out of place and a bit new."

Farrier said there been up to four unsuccessful expeditions searching for the death worm in the last 100 years, the last two in 2003 and 2005, which had used night vision goggles to look for the worm.

However, the New Zealand team planned to bring the worm to the surface with explosives, as it is said to be attracted to tremors.

Farrier put his chances of finding the worm at between 5 and 15 percent.

"They are high for a ridiculous creature like the death worm but the area I am going to is a very specific place in the southern Gobi where all the sightings have been."

He only plans to capture the worm on film.

"I have no intention of grabbing it, capturing it, stuffing it, or anything like that. I just want to prove its existence and if I can get it on film, that's all I need to do."


The Truth Behind the Mongolian Death Worm

Tue, Jul 21, 2009

Braving violent sandstorms akin to fog with an attitude problem, tent-shredding twisters that blast men off their feet, and an ice river that caves in as their vehicles are crossing, the four men continue on their journey. Their thoughts are haunted by the creature they are tracking, a legendary beast said to be capable of spitting lethal corrosive venom, or killing from a distance with an electrical discharge. This was the quest to find the truth about the Mongolian Death Worm.

The intense experiences just described were critical moments for leading cryptozoologist, author and zoological journalist Richard Freeman, in the expedition he led in 2005. The mission: to track one of the world’s most fearsome cryptids, an animal that strikes terror into the hearts of many Mongolian people with its abhorrent appearance and deadly demeanour – and not just for those who have seen it.

The Death Worm’s existence has been reported in these columns, but it was time to set the record straight and get the lowdown from Freeman himself. So what prompted him to embark on the expedition in the first place?

Says Freeman: “The Mongolian Death Worm is legendary. I had heard talk of the creature for quite a few years before we left for the expedition. The Death Worm was first mentioned in the West by American adventurer Professor Roy Chapman Andrews, who was the inspiration behind Indiana Jones.”

Full story with photos at:

Conservationists hunt elusive US earthworm

US conservationists have begun hunting a giant worm that spits at predators, lives in 15ft-deep burrows and has been spotted only a handful of times in the past 30 years.

By Tom Leonard in New York
Published: 6:49PM BST 27 Jul 2009

Armed with high voltage electric shockers to draw the giant Palouse earthworm from its lair, the team from the University of Idaho has begun scouring the American northwest.

However, the scientists, who have asked the Obama administration to give the species endangered status, admit that they know little about the elusive creatures.

The Palouse earthworm is reputed to smell of lilies when handled and grows up to three feet long. It is thought to inhabit rich soils of the Palouse - two million acres of rolling wheat fields near the Idaho-Washington border - but there have been only a handful of sightings.

The worms - known locally as GPE and, unlike the common earthworm, native to America - were said to be common in the 1890s but much of their natural prairie habitat of steep, silty dunes has since been turned into agricultural land, apparently causing their numbers to dwindle.

Documented discoveries of the worm have occurred only in 1978, 1988, 1990 and 2005. They were considered extinct four years ago but then one was accidentally dug up by an Idaho university student using a shovel to collect a soil sample.

That fat, milky white specimen, which is only six inches long, is the only example of the species in human hands.

The worm hunters, led by Prof Jodi Johnson-Maynard, will use three techniques to lure the animals out from their deep lairs.

One is simply to dig holes and sift the soil; another is to pour a solution of mustard and vinegar on to the ground, irritating the worms until they come to the surface; and the third involves using an "electro shocker" that can send up to 480 volts into the ground.

In a technique similar to that used to summon the gigantic sand worms in the science fiction film Dune, a series of three feet long metal rods are pushed into the earth in a small circle and then connected to batteries, hopefully drawing the worms to the surface.

Care is needed as the scientists admit that the voltage is sufficiently high to fry any specimens.

Farmers have reportedly never seen the worms but it may not be in their interests to report sightings if they are declared an endangered species.

Gary Budd, a grain elevator manager in Uniontown, compared the creatures to Elvis Presley. "He gets spotted once in a while, too," he said.

But another local man, Lee Matthews, has claimed to have seen odd worms occasionally on his property over the years. In 2007, he saw up to 16 inches of what he took to be a white snake sticking out of a clay bank he was widening.

Disease threat may change how frogs mate

Dr Amber Teacher, studying a post-doctorate at Royal Holloway, University of London, has discovered evidence that a disease may be causing a behavioural change in frogs. The research, published in the August edition of Molecular Ecology, has unearthed a surprising fact about our long-tongued friends: wild frogs in the UK may be changing their mating behaviour.

Dr Teacher conducted her research with colleagues from the Institute of Zoology and Queen Mary, University of London. The research followed concerns over the survival of wild frog populations in the UK. Ranavirus, which had its first reported case in England in the early 1980s, is one of many pathogens ravaging the amphibian community.

Dr Teacher's pioneering new research looks at the genetic make-up of populations, and indicates that wild frog populations that have been infected with this virus may be choosing mates differently to those in healthy populations.

As Ranavirus is typically associated with heavy death tolls in infected populations, there are often few frogs left alive to mate. This frequently leads to inbreeding, which causes an increase in relatedness in the population. However, Dr Teacher has uncovered startling results; finding that despite inbreeding there has been no subsequent increase in relatedness in these populations.

Dr Teacher's conclusion is that this lack of relatedness has been caused by a change in the frogs' mating strategy. With diseased frogs struggling to mate, healthy frogs are likely to be mating more often with other healthy frogs, leaving diseased frogs to mate with each other. These frogs could also be selecting mates based on their Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) type; a group of genes directly involved with the animal's immune system. As the common frog is generally thought to mate randomly, this is a major shift in the frogs' mating behaviour.

Active mate choice based on MHC type is not uncommon in other species, with research indicating that a number of vertebrates, including humans, may use it to choose prospective mates, and improve their immunity to diseases.

'The situation requires directed behavioural research', says Dr Teacher. This discovery could re-shape the way we look at disease management in animals. If such behavioural effects from diseases are widespread, it is likely they have been overlooked in the past, meaning we may be forced to reconsider how such diseases impact on animals. Whilst Ranavirus has been researched in specific relation to population dynamics, Dr Teacher has exposed previously unknown effects that require further investigation.

Dr Teacher believes the next step is to observe these wild frogs over the coming years. 'The world of wildlife disease research would benefit greatly from such long-term investigations, allowing us to see how the host and the pathogen respond to each other over time', 'It would also shed further light on whether Ranavirus does indeed cause observable behavioural changes', she explains. Further research may also bring us closer to knowing if this new mating strategy could lead to wild frogs in the UK developing immunity to Ranavirus.

Full bibliographic information:

Population genetic patterns suggest a behavioural change in wild common frogs (Rana temporaria) following disease outbreaks (Ranavirus) AMBER G. F. TEACHER, TRENTON W. J. GARNER and RICHARD A. NICHOLS

Molecular Ecology, Volume 18
DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04263.x

Homeowner shoots bear invader with shotgun

By Laura Snider
Monday, July 27, 2009

BOULDER, Colo. — It took three rounds from a shotgun, five bullets from a handgun and two shots from a rifle to kill the 120-pound black bear that broke into a Boulder County home early Monday morning.

The bear break-in was the fifth time in a week hungry bears have gotten into Boulder County residences, all while the residents were home. That has wildlife officials urging area residents to take precautions and bear proof their homes.

Brenda Fischer's barking dog woke her at about 2 a.m. Monday morning. When she went upstairs to investigate, she found a bear in the kitchen of her home on Poorman Road, between Sunshine and Fourmile canyons.

Fischer quickly returned downstairs to wake her two children and her husband.

"As soon as I knew there was a bear inside the house, I went to gather up both our weapon and our ammunition, because they are in two different places, and went to place myself with the weapon between the family and the bear," said Paul Fischer, Brenda's husband.

"As soon as I moved to try and make a place for him to get out, he charged me," Fischer continued. "That's when I shot him and he kept charging me. I shot him a second time, and he kept charging me. I shot him a third time and he was finally disoriented enough for me to get away."

The first two rounds from the 12-gauge shotgun were birdshot and the third was rubber bullets, according to a report by the sheriff's office. The Fischers escaped through a bedroom window, leaving the wounded bear inside the house.

When officers arrived on the scene at about 2:30 a.m., they found a bloody bear trying to claw his way through a screen door.

Sheriff's Sgt. Lance Enholm, after determining that the bear was severely injured and would need to be put down, fired his .45-caliber handgun five more times at the animal.

"(The first shot) struck the bear in the head, and it immediately reacted and began flopping around and growling," Enholm wrote in his report. "... I fired another round from my handgun, again striking the bear in the head. This didn't appear to have any impact on the bear, and it kept coming towards me."

It was shot number nine, however, this time from the sergeant's .223-caliber rifle, that finally felled the bear; a final round ended the bear's suffering, according to the police report.

Paul Fischer told officers he was certain the bear, determined to be a juvenile male, was the same one he'd seen on his property several times recently.

State wildlife officials said it's impossible to know, however, if this bear was the same one that broke into three other Boulder County homes in the past week.

"The bears are out right now, and they're looking for food," said Jennifer Churchill, spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "I had hoped that, with all the wet weather this year, we wouldn't have as many incidents. But I'm told they're kind of between food sources right now."

But even with abundant natural food, high-calorie human food can be irresistible for bears, which eat as many as 20,000 calories a day by late summer and early fall to fatten up for the winter. And once the bears have gotten a hold of a human-made food, they'll keep coming back no matter how many berries are on the bushes.

"Birdseed is often times the first thing that bears get in trouble with," Churchill said, "and that starts the vicious cycle of them getting too comfortable with humans."

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Shaunetta the sheep shot dead

Published Date: 28 July 2009
By Caroline Gough.

THE now-famous Shaunetta the Sheep is no more after a marksman shot her dead yesterday.

Her plight was highlighted in Friday's Whitby Gazette.

RSPCA inspector Justin Le Masurier arrived on Monday afternoon and surveyed the cliff top near Hawsker with high hopes of Shaunetta being rescued.

But even as Tyne Tees Television's Monday evening bulletin was retelling our story of Shaunetta's predicament, the now-famous sheep was already dead.

The decision was taken by the RSPCA and the sheep's owner to shoot Shaunetta due to the fact a rescue attempt could be dangerous as the sheep may bolt causing harm to itself or people involved in the rescue.

The option of using a tranquiliser dart was also ruled out for fear Shaunetta may get confused and wander off the cliff edge.

At 6.45pm Shaunetta was brought ashore to be returned to the farmer.

We broke the story of Shaunetta after Gazette reader Juanita Degenaar brought in pictures.

Sightseers and television crews, including Sky and Tyne Tees, went out to sea to see her and reported she looked in a good state of health only today.

Mr Le Masurier told the Gazette: "In the interests of its welfare, attempting a rope rescue on a 200ft cliff face would be too dangerous for the animal and for any rescue personnel.

"I thank members of the public for bringing it to our attention, the press and the coastguard and most of all the particular effort of off-duty coastguards Rob Parkin and Don Crank who assisted us.

"We understand the public's concern. It is sad sometimes but we took the difficult decision as it was in the interests of the animal.

"The farmer said his sheep had been a good ewe over the years but in the interests of her welfare the decision was made jointly by the farmer and myself to shoot Shaunetta.

"It was a difficult decision, it's a a sad story and we understand the public's concern but what we have done has been in the best interests of all concerned.

"The owner made the decision to have the animal humanely put to sleep.

"The action was taken with the animal's best interests at heart.

"The decision was made as it was deemed too dangerous to attempt a rescue.

"The owner arranged an independent marksman.

"An RSPCA chief inspector was present to ensure it was carried out humanely, and the carcass was removed.

"The RSPCA regularly rescues animals trapped on cliffs but there isn't always a happy ending.

"The procedure was carried out quickly and cleanly and the sheep would not have suffered."

Our first story yesterday prompted the following comments on our website:
zedoctor said: "people cannot just leave well alone, the animal wanted to be there and would probably have found its way off. instead we interfered."
Pete Budd, Lost in the Forest, claimed this was "Emergency services out of control?"

Policeman takes 'big cat' video

An off-duty Ministry of Defence police dog handler has taken a video of what he claims is a panther-sized big cat.

Pc Chris Swallow was helping a friend with their garden in Helensburgh, Argyll, when he spotted the black creature on a nearby railway line.

The officer, who is stationed at the Faslane naval base on the Clyde, said the cat was as big as a Labrador dog.

Big cats have been reported in the area in the past, with several sightings of the so-called Coulport Cougar.

Pc Swallow said he saw the animal on 30 June while working in the garden at Kildonan Drive, Helensburgh.

He could tell it was not a Labrador, as he first thought, because of the way it was walking, and because its tail was about twice the length that a dog's would have been.

He said: "My friend's house is next to the West Highland Line and at one point I looked down and saw what I first thought was a black Labrador on the tracks.

"There were trains coming and going throughout the day and I was a bit concerned, but when I looked again I saw that the animal wasn't moving the way I expected a dog to.

"It was then I realised that what I was seeing was a big cat and I shouted on my friend to come and have a look. We were stunned."

After running to his car to grab his camera phone, Pc Swallow stood on the rail bridge at Winston Road and got a still photo and a couple of minutes of footage of the animal moving up the railway line.

He added: "It was remarkable. I've heard stories about creatures like this moving about the countryside, but never really believed them before. Looking back at the video I don't think there's any doubt that it's a big cat."

The Coulport Cougar was first reported in June 2004. The creature was described as being tan and prowling the woods and hills around Loch Long, Portincaple, Whistlefield and next to the Coulport access road.

However, another creature, described as being black in colour, was also spotted at the nearby Garelochhead Training Camp, leading some people to believe that there may also have been a panther in the area.

John Belshaw, pest control officer at the Faslane naval base, said he had spoken to people in the past who had been "quite shaken" by seeing a big cat cross the road in front of them during the night.

Mr Belshaw said: "I have had a look at Chris's footage and have to say that I do not believe it is a domestic cat or a dog.

"At one point in the video it seems to walk on the railway line and a dog simply wouldn't have had the balance to do this.

"Also, you can tell from the size of the track that it is much larger than a house cat."

There have been regular reports of big cat sightings across the UK, leading to speculation that they may have escaped from a private zoo or collection.

'Very exciting'

Shaun Stevens, a researcher with the Big Cats in Britain group, said: "We have regular sightings reported every year of large black cats in the Helensburgh area and it appears to be a favourite haunt of these animals.

"In Argyll, I probably get to hear of maybe 20 or 30 sightings in a year. In the UK we get a sighting practically every day."

Mr Stevens said he believed the cats could be a hybrid species, or possible an entirely new species.

"I myself have photographed a black hybrid cat of over 3.5ft in length," he said.

"Knowing the width of the rail tracks in Chris's video is 4ft 8.5in, the animal photographed by him is clearly in excess of 4ft and as such is certainly not a domestic cat.

"Initial first impressions are very exciting, as I think this could be one of the best pieces of footage of a big cat in the UK ever."

See video at:

Cat rings 999

A cat sparked a full-scale emergency after stepping on a phone and dialling 999.

Watson, a one-year-old Bengal, trod on the handset and then somehow hit the redial button four times.

Police raced to the address and spotted a smashed vase when they peered through a window. Fearing a burglary they broke down the door, reports The Sun.

Owner Lauren O'Shea, 23, an animal nursing assistant, said: "A friend saw all commotion at my flat and called me.

"I hurried round there and the police told me they thought there had been a burglary.

"I immediately said, 'I bet it was the cat'. When we first moved in he would play a lot with the phone."

Lauren, of East Preston, West Sussex, added: "When we first moved in, the cat would play with the phone a lot - so we used to try to hide it from him."

Clumsy moggy Watson, who Lauren took from an animal rescue centre, redeemed himself when he won second prize at a Bengal cat show at the weekend.

Ewe Want To Be Alone? Meet Independent Aretha

7:47pm UK, Monday July 27, 2009

Gerard Tubb, North of England correspondent

A lonesome ewe has turned itself into Britain's newest tourist attraction by balancing on a cliff ledge and refusing to return to safety.

No-one knows how the Swaledale sheep made its way more than half way down the 220 foot high cliffs between Whitby and Robin Hoods Bay, but it is clearly in no hurry to leave.

The animal has been nicknamed Aretha - after Aretha Franklin who sang the soul classic Rescue Me.

Pleasure-boat captain Bryan Clarkson spotted the intrepid ewe a few weeks ago from a remote bay and has been keeping tabs on it ever since.

When Sky News chartered his boat, the Specksioneer, to see North Yorkshire's answer to the film Touching the Void, he explained the sheep appeared to be happy on its rocky ledge.

"She seems to like it there, she's very mobile," he said. "Sometimes she wanders off to a patch of grass and then comes back to the ledge."

Thirty minutes after leaving Whitby harbour, we found the sheep on its favourite perch on a barren expanse of rock some eighty feet above the shore.

Oblivious to our presence, the sheep lay on its side, oblivious to the waves crashing on the rocks below and apparently enjoying the view.

In Whitby, fishermen are already planning special boat trips to take tourists to see their new attraction.

The RSPCA says it will mount a rescue operation if one is needed, but locals claim there is no need for such drastic action.

"I'm sure she could get up to the top if she wanted to," said Captain Clarkson, who rather optimistically tried to get the sheep to move by turning his boat round in circles

The sheep refused to react, although at one point it lifted its nose as if to sniff the sea air, before settling back down.

Bryan's verdict on Britain's most independent sheep: "I think she likes where she is."

Dogs get human names as they become part of family

Traditional dog names like Fido, Patch and Rover appear to be a thing of the past and are being largely replaced by human names, according to a new report.

Published: 7:42AM BST 28 Jul 2009

Owners are being influenced by celebrities, sports stars and their favourite snacks, with names like Dizzee Rascal, Ronaldo and Kit Kat proving popular choices, the survey found.

The poll also indicated that dogs are increasingly being thought of as part of the family with the entire top 10 consisting wholly of human names.

The most popular name was Molly, with Poppy and Charlie making up the top three.

James Furse, managing director of Greenbee Pet Insurance, which conducted the survey of more than 12,000 names, said: "With the top 10 dog names all human names, it's clear that more and more people are thinking of their dogs as another member of the family, rather than just a pet."

The top 10 were:

  1. Molly
  2. Poppy
  3. Charlie
  4. Max
  5. Alfie
  6. Millie
  7. Jack
  8. Rosie
  9. Daisy
  10. Ruby
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