Christine Cooper
Christine Cooper

Burrowing Echidnas Act as Natural Hoes

Christine Cooper
Christine Cooper

When we talk about ecosystems, we often talk about the food chain, and the ways in which each plant or animal affects others around it. But we don’t often think about the impacts of each creature on its environment. Case in point: the humble echidna, which, researchers now say, can aerate tons of soil every year in its native Australia. A report on the echidna’s contributions was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

The echidna—better known among readers of a certain age as “Sonic the Hedgehog’s friend”—is a strange, strange beast. It’s got spines like a porcupine, uses electrosensing to hunt like a shark, and lays eggs like its cousin, the platypus. To give you some idea of what an echidna looks like in motion, check out these adorable little weirdos at the Columbus Zoo:

It’s not a particularly fast animal, nor is it particularly fierce, and exactly how it spends its time has been something of a mystery. (Cue dramatic music) Until now.

Researchers at three Australian universities have made the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) their business. They traveled to the woods east of Perth one summer and tracked down 11 different adult echidnas, videotaping each one as it wandered past. Then they caught them and fitted each one with a radio transmitter, GPS tracker, and accelerometer to trace its movements. Before releasing their test subjects, the researchers held them and wiggled them around a bit to calibrate the accelerometers.

Every one to four days, the researchers followed the radio signal to catch each echidna and download the data from its sensors, which amounted to a little more than an hour of movement data per critter. Then the next year, the team did the same thing all over again in the spring.

The data showed a huge difference in seasonal echidna activity. In the spring, the animals trundled about at a “stately” pace, averaging about 0.3 meters per second. Come summer, when temperatures could reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit, echidna life became equally extreme. The animals spent most of the day staying very, very still, but when they had to move, they “sprinted” between spots, easily doubling their springtime speeds. “They certainly try to avoid really hot temperatures,” said study co-author Christofer Clemente in a statement.

During the team’s tagging trip into the woods, Clemente had noticed lots of little gashes in the ground where the echidnas had gouged out their insect meals and wondered if these dig sites were numerous enough to be changing the landscape. He looked over the data from the echidnas’ trackers and found that the animals spent as much as 10 percent of each day moving earth around. Using this, and what he knew about the echidnas’ digging skills, Clemente calculated that each one could easily move about 200 cubic meters, or more than 7000 cubic feet, per year, about the volume of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

This is important information not only for the echidnas and their subterranean prey, but also for scientists and conservationists.

“They are probably one of the last really big bioturbators [soil mixers] left in Australia,” Clemente said, “which means that they are really important for the environment."

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Scientists Capture the First Footage of an Anglerfish’s Parasitic Mating Ritual

The deep sea is full of alien-looking creatures, and the fanfin anglerfish is no exception. The toothy Caulophryne jordani, with its expandable stomach and glowing lure and fin rays, is notable not just for its weird looks, but also its odd mating method, which has been captured in the wild on video for the first time, as CNET and Science report.

If you saw a male anglerfish and a female anglerfish together, you would probably not recognize them as the same species. In fact, in the video below, you might not be able to find the male at all. The male anglerfish is lure-less and teeny-tiny (as much as 60 times smaller in length) compared to his lady love.

And he's kind of a deadbeat boyfriend. The male anglerfish attaches to the female's belly in a parasitic mating ritual that involves biting into her and latching on, fusing with her so that he can get his nutrients straight from her blood. He stays there for the rest of his fishy life, fertilizing her eggs and eventually becoming part of her body completely.

Observing an anglerfish in action, or really at all, is extremely difficult. There are only 14 dead specimens from this particular anglerfish species held at natural history museums throughout the world, and they are all female. Since anglerfish can't live in the lab, seeing them in their natural habitat is the only way to observe them. This video, shot in 2016 off the coast of Portugal by researchers with the Rebikoff-Niggeler Foundation, is only the third time we've been able to record deep-sea anglerfish behavior.

Take a look for yourself, and be grateful that your own relationship isn't quite so codependent.

[h/t CNET]

Cockroach DNA Shows Why They're Basically Indestructible

Most people are all too aware that cockroaches are horrifyingly resilient beings. Yes, they can and have survived nuclear blasts, and surely stand to inherit the Earth after we all succumb to the apocalypse. Why is this creature able to thrive in the face of pesticides, the loss of limbs, disgusting conditions, a range of climates, and even nuclear fallout, in urban kitchens across the world? As Inside Science reports, a new study on the genome of the American cockroach shows that certain genes are key to its wild evolutionary success.

In an article published in Nature Communications, researchers from South China Normal University in Guangzhou, China report that they sequenced and analyzed the genome of Periplaneta americana, and in the process they discovered just how indestructible this scourge is. They found that the cockroach (native to Africa, despite its American moniker) has more DNA than any other insect whose DNA has been sequenced except the migratory locust. The size of its genome—3.3 billion base pairs—is comparable to that of humans.

They have a huge number of gene families (several times the number other insects have) related to sensory reception, with 154 smell receptors and 522 taste receptors, including 329 taste receptors specifically related to bitter tastes. These extra smell and taste receptors may help cockroaches avoid toxic food (say, your household pesticide) and give them the ability to adapt to a multitude of different diets in different environments.

They also have killer immune systems able to withstand pathogens they might pick up from the rotting food they eat and the filth they like to live in. They have many more genes related to immunity compared to other insects.

The genome analysis might give us more than just a newfound respect for this revolting pest. The researchers hope to find a way to harness this new knowledge of cockroach immunity to control vermin populations—and create an eradication method slightly more effective than just stomping on them.

[h/t Inside Science]


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