Rebecca Recommends #1

Welcome to the first of my (I hope) regular weekly blog posts Rebecca Recommends, in which I aim to introduce a variety of news from the world of entomology, zoology, science, and society in general that caught my attention during the past week, and to provide links to the sources so you can read more at your own leisure.

This week includes mental illness, African wild dogs, island biogeography, On the Origin of Species doodles, handling criticism, from giant rats to dwarf elephants, insect 'bones', National Museum of Natural History, insect eyes, CSIRO's RV Investigator, scale insects, the titi monkey, termite swarms, wildlife pictures, bat echolocation, large marble butterfly, stingless bees, top predators in human-dominated ecosystems, lemur extinctions, fossil fuels and sea-level rises, five new flea species, and the impact of copper and climate change on amphibians.

Mind matters

Mental illness is moving up the global agenda — but there is still much to do.

Nominally, 2016 should be a good year for mental health. On 13 and 14 April, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank will hold an unprecedented joint conference in Washington DC to discuss mental health as both a global disease and an economic problem.

It is a welcome gesture after many snubs. Mental illness was left out of the United Nations’ influential high-level meeting on non­communicable diseases (NCDs) in 2011. Almost begrudgingly, the UN gave mental health a brief mention in the entry for NCDs in its 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. As well as reducing deaths from NCDs such as heart disease by one-third, it said, the world should also “promote mental health and well-being”.

Source/read more Nature 

Hunting habits of wild dogs tracked

African wild dogs that live in woodland eschew the collaborative long-distance pursuit of prey used by their relatives on grass plains.

African wild dog pack consuming a blue wildebeest, Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa |  Masteraah  /Wikimedia Commons  [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

African wild dog pack consuming a blue wildebeest, Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa | Masteraah/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Source/read more Nature 

Island biogeography: Shaped by sea-level shifts

An analysis of changes in island topography and climate that have occurred since the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago shows how sea-level change has influenced the current biodiversity of oceanic islands.

Source/read more Nature 

The Charming Doodles Charles Darwin’s Children Left All Over the Manuscript of ‘On the Origin of Species’

From fish with legs to carrot cavalries, an endearing testament to the human life of science.

In contemplating family, work, and happiness, Charles Darwin proclaimed: “Children are one’s greatest happiness, but often & often a still greater misery. A man of science ought to have none.” And yet he and Emma had ten. Adept at weighing the pros and cons of family life with equal parts earnestness and irreverence, he clearly concluded that the happiness far outweighs the misery.

There is no more endearing a testament to how this balance skews — to both the exuberant happiness that children bring and the benign misery of the innocent waywardness — than the doodles Darwin’s children left on the back-leaves and in the margins of his Origin of Species manuscript draft, recently digitized by the American Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the Cambridge University Library.

Darwin's children's doodles |  American Museum of Natural History /Cambridge University Library

Darwin's children's doodles | American Museum of Natural History/Cambridge University Library

Source/read more Brain Pickings 

How to Handle Criticism: Advice from Some of the Greatest Writers of the Past Century

Wisdom and wit from Kurt Vonnegut, Aldous Huxley, William Styron, Truman Capote, and other literary titans.

“Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. “Criticism,” artist Ai Weiwei told an interviewer, “is, in the Chinese context, a positive, creative act.” The truth, of course, is that it’s both — criticism is a technology of thought and, like any technology, it can be put to constructive or destructive use depending on the intention of its originator and the receptivity of its object. One thing is certain: For every artist — that is, for every human being who gives form to his or her inner life and shares that form with the outside world — critical response is inevitable, for every successful act of engaging with the world guarantees that the world will engage back. How to relate to criticism in a healthy way is therefore one of the essential survival skills of the creative spirit.

Source/read more Brain Pickings 

From giant rats to dwarf elephants, island living changes mammals

Island mammals evolve differently from those on the mainland - which can be clearly seen in fossils such as the giant ‘terror shrew’ or dwarf hippopotamus.

Size matters.

Well, it matters when you are a mammal. And if you’re a mammal which has has found itself on an island. Let’s make that clear before we continue.

Islands are different from the continent, aka the mainland. They are smaller in land area, and separated from surrounding landmasses, be it the mainland or adjacent islands, by a certain amount of water. The degree of isolation can take on extreme forms for oceanic islands; in contrast to islands on the continental shelf, which may have been connected to the mainland by dry land at times of low sea level, oceanic islands arose from the sea floor and have always been surrounded by water. These features have a profound effect on island ecosystems and their inhabitants, and the field of island biogeography has inspired naturalists since the days of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Source/read more The Guardian: Science 

How Insects Repair Their ‘Bones’

Biomechanics researchers from Trinity College Dublin have discovered how insects build internal bandages to repair their broken ‘bones’.

A DIY cuticle repair kit allows wounded insects to go about their day-to-day lives almost as efficiently as they would have done before meeting with mishap.

When an insect cuts one of its legs, it kicks into repair mode by laying a patch of new cuticle underneath the affected area. This new cuticle effectively functions as a bandage, which seals the wound and provides structural strength where it is required.

Source/read more Trinity College Dublin 

The Story Behind Those Jaw-Dropping Photos of the Collections at the Natural History Museum

The images capture only a fraction of the millions of creatures and objects that are stored away from the public eye.

Wandering the warren of collections facilities and scientific laboratories that the public rarely sees at the National Museum of Natural History is like peeking into a reconstruction of Noah’s Ark. Filling every drawer, cabinet and shelf in sight are millions of taxidermic birds and mammals, preserved worms and fishes, skeletons and fossils, and so much more.

The entomology collection |  Chip Clark/NHM

The entomology collection | Chip Clark/NHM

Source/read more Smithsonian  

Insect eyes enable drones to fly independently

After studying how insects navigate through dense vegetation, researchers at Lund University in Sweden have come up with a system that can be applied to flying robots. By adapting the system to drones, they can be made to adjust their speed to their surroundings and fly on their own– completely without human intervention and control.

Source/read more Lund University 

RV Investigator update – leaping multiple projects in a single bound

Don’t be fooled, Investigator’s mild-mannered steel exterior hides a custom-built super ship packed with enough technology to rival the Batmobile.

Demonstrating this capability, Investigator recently broke new ground in ‘blue-water’ research by tackling not one, not two, but three major projects in a single voyage.

Undertaking multiple major projects around Australia’s vast marine estate has previously not been possible, but for Investigator it’s just another busy day at sea.

The current projects include a suite of studies to collect information about Southern Ocean carbon dioxide cycles, atmospheric composition, and eddy patterns. This important research will help increase our understanding of ocean and atmosphere interactions, and the impacts of climate change.

Source/read more CSIRO 

Mexican Researchers Observe Autonomous Control of Scale Insects

Scale insects known as cochineals are major pests of prickly pear in Mexico, and pesticides are often used to control them. However, one prickly pear farmer has been controlling them without the use of insecticides since the year 2000.

Source/read more Entomology Today 

Zoologists shed new light on origins of titi monkey

Scientists in Salford have shed new light on the evolution of one of the world’s most diverse primate groups – the titi monkey.

Dr Jean Boubli and PhD student Hazel Byrne, working with zoologists from Brazil and the US, used cutting-edge molecular and computer modelling techniques to investigate the genus Callicebus, first described by Oldfield Thomas in 1903.

Source/read more University of Salford 

Video: This is What a Major Termite Swarm Looks Like

In March 2016, Thomas Chouvenc, a research assistant at the University of Florida Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, noticed a major swarm of Asian subterranean termites (Coptotermes gestroi) in his neighborhood, so he busted out the video camera and shot the following:

Source/read more Entomology Today 

The week in wildlife – in pictures

Dubai’s flamingos, wolverines in Scotland and hedgehogs in a Tokyo cafe are among this week’s pick of images from the natural world.

A wolf looks into the camera at the Chernobyl nuclear site in the abandoned village of Orevichi, Belarus |  Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

A wolf looks into the camera at the Chernobyl nuclear site in the abandoned village of Orevichi, Belarus | Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

Source/read more The Guardian: Environment 

Here's What Bat Echolocation Sounds Like, Slowed Down

Bats use a perceptual system called echolocation that allows them to produce high pitch sounds that bounce off nearby objects and living things. Humans can't normally hear these sounds, unless they're slowed down.

Source/read more Smithsonian 


I’m not one to get very excited about butterflies. They endear themselves to human sentimentality with little need for my literary intervention, thank you very much. Still, I am occasionally prone to bouts of surprise and effusive language when confronted by species I have not seen before. Such was the case last Monday, April 4, when my wife and I encountered a Large Marble, Euchre ausonides, while hiking in Aiken Canyon Preserve, a The Nature Conservancy (TNC) property in El Paso County, Colorado south of Colorado Springs.

Source/read more Bug Eric 

Study Shows Leaf Fertilizers to Be Toxic to Stingless Bees

There’s been a lot of focus and scientific study on the population reductions of honey bees and other pollinators. Some possible causes that have been cited are:

  • Solar storms
  • Viruses
  • Diesel Fumes
  • Bacterial pathogens
  • Selenium
  • A fungus
  • Fungicides
  • Insecticides, especially those in the class known as neonicotinoids.

Source/read more Entomology Today 

Top predators play an important role in human-dominated ecosystems

Also in human-dominated landscapes large carnivores such as brown bears or wolves –so-called top predators– play a crucial role in the regulation of wildlife populations. This is the result of a joint study by scientists of the Leuphana University Lüneburg, the Humboldt University Berlin and the Charles Sturt University and the Deakin University (both Australia), which was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The study is one of few that examine the impact of human activities on natural predator-prey relationships of wild animals and the regulation of wildlife populations.

Source/read more Leuphana Universität Lüneburg 

Lemur Extinctions Are Harmful to Madagascar's Plant Life, Too

Plants and trees that once relied on a particular species of lemur to spread their seeds may also be headed for extinction.

The human-driven extinction of fruit-eating lemurs on Madagascar has created multiple "orphan" plant species with precarious futures because their primary seed dispersers are gone, scientists say.

Source/read more Smithsonian 

Burning fossil fuels is responsible for most sea-level rise since 1970

Global average sea level has risen by about 17 cm between 1900 and 2005. This is a much faster rate than in the previous 3,000 years.

The sea level changes for several reasons, including rising temperatures as fossil fuel burning increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In a warming climate, the seas are expected to rise at faster rates, increasing the risk of flooding along our coasts. But until now we didn’t know what fraction of the rise was the result of human activities.

In research published in Nature Climate Change, we show for the first time that the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for the majority of sea level rise since the late 20th century.

Source/read more CSIRO 

Five New Flea Species Discovered in Indonesia

What do the United States Navy, the famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, and bizarre genitalia have in common? They are all part of the story of a newly discovered genus of fleas from Indonesia.

Source/read more Entomology Today 

Combined effects of copper, climate change can be deadly for amphibians, research finds

Researchers at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory warn that the extinction of two amphibian species—the southern toad and the southern leopard frog—may be hastened by the combined effects of climate change and copper-contaminated wetlands.

Source/read more University of Georgia