Rebecca Recommends #5

This week's summary includes stuff from the CSIRO, IUCN, Nature, Smithsonian, Journal of Zoology, Small Pond Science, and many other sources. Enjoy my latest curation from zoology, entomology, science and life in general!

  • Shipboard stories from Investigator
  • Virtual plaster cast: digital 3D modelling of lion paws and tracks using close-range photogrammetry
  • Beneficial beetle diversity blooms on strip-tilled farms
  • Happy anniversary! Our Ningaloo research project turns one
  • What is press-worthy scholarship?
  • Recommended reads #77
  • Swift parrot critically endangered
  • Deadly fungus threatens African frogs
  • Lion proximity, not moon phase, affects the nocturnal movement behaviour of zebra and wildebeest
  • Self-funding your research program
  • Tiger moths use signals to warn bats: toxic not tasty
  • This photographer shoots sharks to save them
  • The science behind nature's patterns
  • Helping bring spoon-billed sandpipers back from the brink of extinction
  • Breathing new life into malaria detection
  • The world’s carnivorous bats are emerging from the dark
  • Big bad banksias standing up to climate change
  • Google Images 'as good as fieldwork' for studying animal colour
  • Population recovery highlights spatial organisation dynamics in adult leopards
  • What mountain gorillas reveal with their teeth
  • Highway noise deters communication between birds
  • The Black Sea is dying, and war might push it over the edge
  • Natural history: restore our sense of species
  • Data sharing: access all areas
  • Peer review: close inspection
  • Low-cost headsets boost virtual reality’s lab appeal
  • The pressure to publish pushes down quality
  • Fox squirrels’ tell-tail signs of frustrations

Shipboard stories from Investigator

It’s 2 am Investigator time, which is halfway between Australian and New-Zealand time, loosely related to our geographical position. Half the clocks on the ship read Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) though, for consistency in the data we’re recording, which means I’m almost always confused about what time it is!

Source/read more CSIRO 

Virtual plaster cast: digital 3D modelling of lion paws and tracks using close-range photogrammetry


The ecological monitoring of threatened species is vital for their survival as it provides the baselines for conservation, research and management strategies. Wildlife studies using tracks are controversial mainly due to unreliable recording techniques limited to two-dimensions (2D). We assess close-range photogrammetry as a low-cost, rapid, practical and reliable field technique for the digital three-dimensional (3D) modelling of lion Panthera leo paws and tracks. First, we tested three reconstruction parameters affecting the 3D model quality. We then compared direct measurements on the paws and tracks versus the same measurements on their digital 3D models. Finally, we assessed the minimum number of photographs required for the 3D reconstruction. Masking, auto-calibration and optimization provided higher reconstruction quality. Paws masked semi-automatically and tracks masked manually were characterized by a geometric deviation of 0.23 ± 0.18 cm and 0.50 ± 0.33 cm respectively. Unmasked tracks delineated by means of the contour lines had a geometric deviation of −0.06 ± 0.39 cm. The use of a correction factor reduced the geometric deviation to −0.03 ± 0.20 cm (pad-masked paws), −0.04 ± 0.35 cm (pad-masked tracks) and −0.01 ± 0.39 cm (unmasked tracks). Based on the predicted error, the minimum number of photographs required for an accurate reconstruction is seven (paws) or eight (tracks) photographs. This field technique, using only a digital camera and a ruler, takes less than one minute to sample a paw or track. The introduction of the 3D facet provides more realistic replications of paws and tracks that will enable a better understanding of their intrinsic properties and variation due to external factors. This advanced recording technique will permit a refinement of the current methods aiming at identifying species, age, sex and individual from tracks.

Paw and track sampling. (a) During the paw sampling, the motionless paw is positioned on a stand with a clamp holding the ruler and orientating the paw upward. (b) A vernier calliper was used for the direct measurements of paws and tracks. From  Marchal et al. (2016)

Paw and track sampling. (a) During the paw sampling, the motionless paw is positioned on a stand with a clamp holding the ruler and orientating the paw upward. (b) A vernier calliper was used for the direct measurements of paws and tracks. From Marchal et al. (2016)

Source/read more Journal of Zoology 

Beneficial Beetle Diversity Blooms on Strip-Tilled Farms

Biodiversity of insects has become an important issue in agriculture. Large-scale, intensive agricultural practices involve mechanically tilling the soil, managing pests with chemicals, and the use of plastic mulches and covers. While these practices control pests and increase crop yields, they can also reduce the populations of beneficial insects.

Source/read more Entomology Today 

Happy anniversary! Our Ningaloo research project turns one

During the first year of the CSIRO-BHP Billiton Ningaloo Outlook research partnership, our science team tagged 60 animals (turtles; reef sharks and whale sharks) with three different types of tags, surveyed fish, corals and macroalgae along 7 kilometres of the reef, and 12,000 hectares of deep habitat!

Fish in the Ningaloo Reef |  Angelo DeSantis/Wikimedia Commons  [ CC BY 2.0 ]

Fish in the Ningaloo Reef | Angelo DeSantis/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

Source/read more CSIRO 

What is press-worthy scholarship?

As I was avoiding real work and morning traffic, there were a bunch of interesting things on twitter, as usual. Two things stood out.

First was a conversation among science writers, about how to find good science stories among press releases. I was wondering about all of the fascinating papers that never get press releases, but I didn’t want to butt into that conversation.

The second thing was a series of tweets that were poking fun at a university press release about some non-news. It was mean-spirited enough in nature that I’m not linking to it.

I get it, you’re thinking right now: breaking news: people are mean on twitter.

Source/read more Small Pond Science 

Recommended reads #77

“Natural history: an approach whose time as come, passed, and needs to be resurrected.”

A reconsideration of “new conservation.” Also, if you’re not familiar, this has an explanation of what “new conservation” is. Man, conservation biology is an ideological and theoretical and practical mess. Holy crap. I’m not a fan of Mongabay for a variety of reasons, but this seems worthwhile.

This has really made the rounds because it’s fascinating, if not a surprise: In the “reality” TV show The Biggest Loser, people were given substantial dietary and exercise regimens to lose a lot of weight in a short period of time. This story explains how not only did the contestants mostly gain the weight back, but after they lost the weight, their basal metabolic rate was crazy low. If you talk to anybody who is working to lose weight to something more healthy, you’ll know that the body fights like heck to keep that weight back on. Not only does the body tell you it is starving, but it also works way more efficiently.

How to handle an idiotic review.

A comparison of Toddler vs. CEO.

Source/read more Small Pond Science 

Swift parrot critically endangered

The Australian Government has listed the iconic Tasmanian swift parrot as critically endangered, lifting its status from endangered, following research by The Australian National University (ANU).

Dr Dejan Stojanovic from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society is part of a team that published the 2015 research which found the swift parrot could be extinct in as little as 16 years.

He welcomed the reclassification, which he said should provide greater protection for Tasmanian bird.

Swift Parrot ( Lathamus discolor ) |  Frank Wouters /Wikimedia Commons  [ CC BY 2.0 ]

Swift Parrot (Lathamus discolor) | Frank Wouters /Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

Deadly fungus threatens African frogs

Misty mountains, glistening forests and blue-green lakes make Cameroon, the wettest part of Africa, a tropical wonderland for amphibians. The country holds more than half the species living on the continent, including dozens of endemic frogs — an animal that has been under attack across the world by the pervasive chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis). Africa has been mostly spared from the deadly and rampant pathogen that wiped out entire species in Australia, Madagascar and Panama — until now.

Source/read more University of Florida 

Lion proximity, not moon phase, affects the nocturnal movement behaviour of zebra and wildebeest


Moon phase affects nocturnal activity patterns in mammals. Among ungulates, a number of studies have found animals to be more active over full moon nights. This may be because increased luminosity provides increased opportunity to forage and/or increased ability to detect predators; known as the visual acuity hypothesis. Here, we use GPS-derived movement data to test for the influence of moon phase on plains zebra Equus quagga and blue wildebeest Connochaetes taurinus activity in Kruger National Park, South Africa. We compare animal movement (rate and displacement) over full and new moon nights, and consider the effect of lion proximity. We found that lion proximity largely determined the nocturnal movements of zebra and wildebeest, not moon phase. When lions were >1 km away, there was no difference in the nocturnal movement activity of prey animals over full and new moon conditions, contradicting previous findings. When lions were within 1 km of these animals, however, the movement of zebra and wildebeest greatly increased over the new moon, the relatively dark period when lion were most likely hunting. Although we could not explicitly test for predator detection here, our findings suggest that the visual acuity hypothesis does not hold for zebra and wildebeest in Kruger National Park (KNP) given that there is no evidence for increased foraging activity over the full moon. The influence of moon phase on the nocturnal activity of African ungulates may be more complicated than anticipated, and we suggest that this cannot be estimated unless predator proximity is accounted for.

Source/read more Journal of Zoology 

Self-funding your research program

In the last few months, something has been on my mind. I’ve brought up the topic a few times, with some research scientists who hold tenured faculty positions. It would go along these lines:

I’m thinking of funding all of my research out of my salary. If I imagine a scenario in which…

  • I take a 20% cut in salary
  • I get that money in research support
  • I don’t spend any more time writing grants

… it just makes me happy.

Every time I’ve brought it up, this was the response.

“I’ve been thinking about doing this, too.”

Source/read more Small Pond Science 

Tiger moths use signals to warn bats: Toxic not tasty

Acoustic warning signals emitted by tiger moths to deter bats - a behavior previously proven only in the laboratory - actually occur in nature and are used as a defense mechanism, according to new research from Wake Forest University.

Field research of free-flying bats conducted in their natural habitats by biology graduate student Nick Dowdy and colleagues shows that tiger moths produce ultrasonic signals to warn bats they don't taste good. This behavior - called acoustic aposematism - was previously proven in the laboratory by biology professor Bill Conner and Jesse Barber, who earned his doctorate at Wake Forest in 2007.

Source/read more Wake Forest University 

This Photographer Shoots Sharks to Save Them

Michael Muller is a legend in Hollywood. His work is seen by millions of moviegoers each year, though most of them probably don’t know who he is. Muller is one of the preeminent movie-poster photographers in the business. This year alone, Muller’s artistry can be seen in the promotions for X-Men: Apocalypse, Captain America: Civil War and Zoolander 2. He was also responsible for the hazy Wes Wilson vibes of the poster for Inherent Vice and the action-packed Guardians of the Galaxy one, among dozens of other memorable advertisements. When he’s not photographing Hollywood’s biggest names, however, Muller finds himself drawn to the big predators of the oceans: sharks. His startling, intimate portraits of these beasts of the oceans have more to do with his action heroes than one might think.

Source/read more Smithsonian 

The Science Behind Nature's Patterns

The curl of a chameleon's tail, the spiral of a pinecone's scales and the ripples created by wind moving grains of sand all have the power to catch the eye and intrigue the mind. When Charles Darwin first proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection in 1859, it encouraged science enthusiasts to find reasons for the natural patterns seen in beasts of the land, birds of the air and creatures of the sea. The peacock's plumage, the spots of a shark must all serve some adaptive purpose, they eagerly surmised.

Source/read more Smithsonian 

Helping bring spoon-billed sandpipers back from the brink of extinction

Marking World Migratory Bird Day 2016, Rebecca Lee of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), an SOS – Save our Species grantee, reflects on the transformation in survival prospects for this Critically Endangered and diminutive migratory bird. Thanks to a sustained and innovative ‘head-starting’ programme, 40% more adult birds are making the 8,000 km round-trip from breeding grounds to wintering grounds. Ambitious conservation goals can be achieved provided collaboration among conservationists along the bird’s flyway continues, she advises.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper ( Eurynorhynchus   pygmeus ) |  JJ Harrison/Wikimedia Commons  [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) | JJ Harrison/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Source/read more IUCN 

Breathing new life into malaria detection

It goes without saying that breathing is pretty darn important. Aside from the obvious benefits of filling our lungs with oxygen every couple of seconds, your breath can say a lot about you.

We’ll not get into the garlicky kebab after a night out kind of breath, but food, drink and even disease can be detected in a single breath.

Breath tests have been around for a while. It is about 34 years since random breath testing for alcohol was introduced in New South Wales. Recently, a study in the Journal of Breath even showed that conditions including Type 1 Diabetes, colorectal cancer and lung cancer could potentially be detected by breath testing.

Source/read more CSIRO 

The World’s Carnivorous Bats Are Emerging From the Dark

Around 70 percent of the world’s 1,240 known bat species feast on mosquitoes, roaches, flies and other insects, while much of the rest prefer nectar, fruit or blood. But there is also a fifth dietary option: In tropical regions around the world, around a dozen mysterious bat species subscribe to a carnivorous menu of lizards, frogs, birds, rodents, fish — or even other bats.

Source/read more Smithsonian 

Big bad banksias standing up to climate change

Banksia plants are Australian emblems, famous for their colourful flowers and dark, knobbly seed pods — the inspiration of May Gibbs’ big bad banksia men. Just like those banksia men, unerringly creepy after all those decades, their real-life counterparts may be just as resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Researchers from The University of Western Australia (UWA) and Department of Parks and Wildlife (WA) surveyed six iconic banksia to assess the impact of climate change in south-west Western Australia. Since the 1970s, south west Western Australia – one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots – has become warmer and significantly drier. In addition, the science of biodiversity has gone digital, through Australia’s largest online biodiversity resource, our Atlas of Living Australia (ALA).

Yellow flower spike of  Banksia media  | [public domain]

Yellow flower spike of Banksia media | [public domain]

Source/read more CSIRO 

Google Images 'as good as fieldwork' for studying animal colour

Studying photographs of animals posted online by the general public has proven to be as valuable as traditional fieldwork in research on the locations of species that have evolved with different colours.

Colour polymorphism - the occurrence of two or more colour types in the population of a species - has long fascinated biologists. These different colour types often vary geographically, providing a useful way of studying how different colour morphs evolve.

Source/read more The Guardian 

Population recovery highlights spatial organization dynamics in adult leopards


Polygynous species follow sex-specific spacing patterns to maximize reproductive success, and changes in population density under otherwise stable environmental conditions likely provoke sex-specific responses in spacing patterns. A classical dual reproductive strategy hypothesis posits that female home range size and overlap are set by habitat productivity and remain stable under increasing population density, whereas male home range size and overlap decrease with increased mate competition. An alternative dispersal-regulated strategy predicts that females relinquish part of their home range to philopatric daughters and form matrilineal clusters, while adult male spacing is stable with density-dependent subadult male emigration rates. We used 11 years of telemetry data to assess the response of adult leopard Panthera pardus spacing following the release of harvest pressure. Female annual home ranges and core areas were smaller than in males. Intersexual overlap was larger than intra-sexual overlap in males or in females. As leopard density increased, female home range size and inter-annual fidelity in home range use decreased, and females formed matrilineal kin clusters. In contrast, male leopards maintained large home ranges, and did not track female home range contraction. Spacing dynamics in adult leopards was consistent with dispersal-regulated strategies, and did not support a classical dual reproductive strategy. Our study suggests possible hidden lag effects of harvest disturbance on spacing dynamics that are not necessarily apparent when only assessing demographic recovery of harvested populations.

Panthera pardus  | [public domain]

Panthera pardus | [public domain]

Source/read more Journal of Zoology 

What mountain gorillas reveal with their teeth

Mountain gorillas from Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda eat up to 30 kilos of plants a day and their diet is highly varied in a habitat that is becoming increasingly fragmented as a result of illegal hunting and deforestation. For the first time, a study shows how dental morphology adapts to the food that is available. The information from the wear on their teeth is used to identify specimens that disappear.

Source/read more SINC 

Highway Noise Deters Communication Between Birds

New research from University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researchers shows birds may be avoiding habitats near noisy highways because they can’t hear fellow birds’ alarms that warn them of attacking hawks or owls.

Source/read more University of Florida 

The Black Sea Is Dying, and War Might Push it Over the Edge

It was a little before 11 a.m. on a breezy mid-April morning when the Crimean coastline finally hove into view. Rising sharply from the water, its sheer cliffs and distant jagged peaks cut a stunning sight amid the Black Sea’s otherwise unrelenting grayness. As our ship, the Greifswald, drew closer to shore, a few stray dolphins emerged from the depths and danced along in the foamy wake.

The Black Sea | [public domain]

The Black Sea | [public domain]

Source/read more Smithsonian 

Natural history: Restore our sense of species

Klaas-Douwe B. Dijkstra has named a new dragonfly after David Attenborough to mark the broadcaster's 90th birthday — and to honour the importance of knowing the natural world.

Source/read more Nature 

Data sharing: Access all areas

Advocates say that open science will be good for innovation. One neuroscience institute plans to put that to the test.

Source/read more Nature 

Peer review: Close inspection

To improve your own papers, learn how to evaluate other scientists' work.

Source/read more Nature 

Low-cost headsets boost virtual reality’s lab appeal

A wave of user-friendly devices is making the technology an attractive research tool.

Source/read more Nature 

The pressure to publish pushes down quality

Scientists must publish less, says Daniel Sarewitz, or good research will be swamped by the ever-increasing volume of poor work.

Source/read more Nature 

Fox squirrels’ tell-tail signs of frustration

Fox squirrels flick their tails when they can’t get a cherished nut in much the same way that humans kick a vending machine that fails to deliver the anticipated soda or candy bar, according to new UC Berkeley research.

Source/read more UC Berkeley