Jallikutta: India’s Running of the Bulls

India’s yearly event of Jallikattu has many social organizations around the world aflutter, claiming that the traditional practices involved puts animals and humans in too much harm.  As a way to garner divine support, residents in these rural areas host a three-day event in order to bring good fortune to the area and its inhabitants.  “If we do not conduct ‘jallikattu’ the village is in danger of being affected by an epidemic,”—a villager of Palamedu (a central location for the ceremony) explains the importance of the ritual.

What is particularly worrisome for many, however, is the specific ritual that takes place on the third and final day.  It is on this day that a number of bulls (sometimes upwards of 1,000 bulls) are let loose into an arena of male youths waiting to take charge of the animals and ride it with little to no effort.  What this entails for the animals, however, is much pain and suffering.  According to John Carmody, founder of one of Ireland’s largest animal welfare organizations, Animal Rights Action Network (ARAN), Jallikattu is “an activity in which terrified bulls are surrounded by hundreds of shouting men, are hit with fists, have their tails twisted and pulled—and some even snapped and broken—and are jumped and wrestled to the ground.”

And the bulls are not the only victims.  Every year, many people (whether participants or bystanders) are trampled and injured in the melee; and for some, the injuries incurred are so severe that they lead to death.  Such was the case of Uchiveeran, a 50-year-old man and victim of this year’s games, who, along with twenty other persons from Boothamangalam in the Madurai district, were injured when bulls lashed into a crowd.  And he was not alone this year: one other has died, while well over 100 more were reported injured from eight other Jallikattu events in the Sivaganga district. 

Currently, there are government restrictions and guidelines set by the Supreme Court in order to ensure the public (and animal’s) safety, however, these rules are not always abided.  “They did this without informing us,” explained a police official present to the games.  “By the time we learnt that the bulls were being let into the ground, things went out of hand.”

It is because of these dangerous margins of error that animal rights groups are most troubled.  Groups like Carmody’s ARAN are urging the Indian Tourism board to take a hardline stance against the events of Jallikattu.  The ARAN has already launched a campaign to boycott the country and its southernmost regions in order to ensure the future safety of the animals.  In a letter to India’s Minister of Tourism, Carmody writes: “India’s reputation for treating animals with the utmost compassion and care is a major draw for almost everyone who is considering visiting your beautiful country,” further explaining that this particular bull taming event does not run in accordance with this sympathetic view towards animals.

In 1960, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in order “to prevent the infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering on animals and for that purpose to amend the law relating to the prevention of cruelty to animals.”  Jallikutta, however, is a direct contradiction to the mission stated by this legislation.  To help put an end to the violent sport of Jallikutta in India, write to India’s Board of Animal Welfare, and sign the petition here.


Photo Credit: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7e/Bullriding-India-PONGAL_festival-Tamiword25.jpg

Feral Swine Pose Problems for Farmers in State of New York

Feral pigs have been plaguing farming communities in New York prompting wildlife managers and researchers to explore various management options, such as poisons, snares, and even aerial shooting, in a bid to control their growing population.  Feral pigs are not commonly found in the northeast due to colder temperatures, but as of late, there have been sightings in 5 of the 62 counties in New York state.

Feral pigs, also referred to as wild boars and feral swine, are nocturnal animals similar in appearance to domesticated swine.  However, unlike their domesticated counterparts, feral pigs are aggressive and can pose an ecological and economical threat.  They have no known natural predators and are known to have voracious appetites.  Feral pigs will feast on crops and vegetables, domestic livestock, ground-nesting birds, fawns, and reptiles.  They are also breeding machines and can start to breed as early as 6 months of age. 

Several concerns arise over the proliferation of feral pigs including the threat they pose to other wildlife.  For instance, the state of Wisconsin has had problems with feral swine competing with their native white-tailed deer, and in other states, there have been population declines in quail and wild turkey because of wild pigs.  Furthermore, feral pigs can also carry and transmit diseases and parasites to other animals and humans.  Diseases such as brucellosis, pseudorabies, and tuberculosis are of especial concern to farmers and veterinarians, who come into close contact with animals on a regular basis.  Brucellosis is an infectious bacterial disease that can cause abdominal pain, fatigue, fever, muscle and joint pain, and weakness.  In addition, brucellosis can be chronic and can last for years.  On the contrary, pseudorabies does not cause illness in humans, but can be transmitted to cats, dogs, cattle, and sheep and can often be fatal.

State officials in New York have set their sights on controlling the wild boar population that has popped up in parts of New York.  Feral pigs were first spotted around a decade ago in Onondaga and Cortland County.  It is believed that there are about a few hundred feral pigs in the state of New York and an estimated five million feral pigs in the United States, with high concentrations in Alabama, California, Florida, and Texas.

Ed Reed, a wildlife biologist for New York state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, notes that there is an urgency to control feral pig populations because once they have settled in a particular area, it is extremely difficult to completely eradicate them.  In addition, feral pigs are smart and can sometimes even outwit traps.  In New York, hunting rules have been relaxed in order to control the wild pig population.  For instance, on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s web site, it has been declared that hunters with small game licenses may shoot and even keep any number of wild pigs at any time.  So far, state officials in New York have settled on trapping feral swine given that it is difficult to hunt them because of their nocturnal nature.

Photo credit: dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/PUBL/wlnotebook/Pig.htm

Greatest Show on Earth? Not for the Stars of the Show. New Law to Protect the Well-Being of Circus Animals

circus-circusImagine for a moment, a large metal dog crate, one that could hold a German Shepherd or a Great Dane.  Climb inside.  What do you think?  Comfortable?  Sure.  OK, make yourself at home.  Take a load off, have a seat.  Sir for an hour.  Or ten.  Oh yea, imagine the crate’s outside.  Now how do you feel?  Are you hungry?  Do you want to stretch your legs?  What about the bathroom?  Do you need to use it?  Are you hot?  Cold?  Have your feet fallen asleep yet? 

What’s unfortunate is that this example, although easy to imagine, is one that gets repeated on a daily basis for the wild and exotic animals that perform in traveling circuses.  Animals that normally travel almost 25 miles a day by foot in their natural habitat are kept cramped in cages like the one described above for up to 48 out of the 52 weeks in a year in conditions that are uncomfortable at best, dirty, unsafe, and basically just not right at all.

All of this is about to change though.  On Wednesday, November 2, 2011 a new bill was introduced to Congress that will greatly alter the inclusion of animals in U.S. traveling circuses.  Former Price is Right host and animal advocate, Bob Barker, was instrumental in introducing The Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act (TEAPA) on Capitol Hill.  Other supporters included CSI actress Jorja Fox, Animal Defenders International, and the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) who all aided Congressman Jim Moran in initiating the bill into action.

Details of the bill are meant to protect and prevent the most dangerous of situations for wild and exotic traveling animals but if the bill gets passed, animals will not be allowed to perform if they have been traveling in temporary shelters for the 15 days before they are to go on stage.  The goal of the TEAPA bill though is to fully exclude current wild and exotic animals from any of their performing ‘duties’ and to eliminate any future use of new animals from U.S. traveling circuses.  You can read the full bill here.  

During the introduction of the bill to Congress, Congressman Moran, who in addition to Bob Barker, has been a long time animal supporter and who co-chairs the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus, talked about the great costs, both mental and physical, that destroy the well-being of the animals that are forced to travel with these circuses.  He stated that animals are kept in conditions that are not only unsanitary but unsafe for both the animals and the trainers.  Eye-witness reports, both those of bystanders, former circus workers, and planted investigative workers tell us that animals are treated with electric shock, prodded with a device called an elephant hook or ankus, forced to move (or not move) with weighted ropes and whips and prevented from eating with the use of muzzles and tight ropes that restrict the animal’s movement.

Bob Barker went on to say that the animals that are affected the most by living in captivity are naturally the larger animals.  On a typical day a tiger can traverse 2,000 square miles.  The average human walks 2-3 miles per day.  Think about how you felt imagining yourself in that dog crate for ten hours.  Now think about how the tiger feels when he travels a path 1000x longer than yours on a daily basis.  These animals are kept in confined quarters that don’t even begin to resemble an acceptable level of comfort and then forced to do behaviors that are so wildly unnatural to them it’s difficult to even describe.  Unlike domestic animals like cats and dogs who easily learn tricks and may even get some enjoyment out of doing them (or at least in the bone or can of tuna they get after completing the trick), wild and exotic animals get no such pleasure.  They often don’t know what they’re even doing and instead of operating on the same principles of positive reinforcement, their trainers use force and violence to get them to turn tricks and various ‘feats of wonder’ that are foreign and go against their normal instincts.  Although one would never know by watching a traditional traveling circus show, tigers are terrified of fire and yet for many shows one of the bigger acts involve tigers jumping through giant rings exploding with vicious flames.  The tigers emerge horrified and physically burned because they don’t know what to do around the fire but are forced to go near it.   

Although the Vice President of Corporate Communicates for Feld Entertainment, which produces the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, responded to the introduction of the bill by saying that “this bill doesn’t do anything to improve animal care.  We’re the experts on taking care of our animals; we’ve been doing it for over 140 years” it is apparent from previous documented accounts that the Circus’s animals are not treated well at all and do fall victim to many of the torturous techniques described earlier in this article.  Viewer beware, but you can see for yourself the cruel and unusual punishment circus animals undergo in order to prepare and perform at a show.

This law comes at a time when the American public is finally beginning to realize that Circuses are not the happy, wholesome family show they appear to be.  In a recent poll conducted in the UK, results showed that 72% of people believed that animals should be banned from performing in shows.  Governments in other countries across the world such as Austria, Costa Rica, Israel, and China have all already instituted such bans.  Although the PEATA bill will not include stationary exhibits such as zoos and places like Sea World, it is a great first step in confronting a long ignored problem.  Experts believe that the bill will likely pass and will hopefully become a stepping stone to future legislation that will help to end all forms of animal cruelty exhibits and shows that masquerade as educational and lighthearted entertainment.

Photo credit: flic.kr/p/ARRNC

Majority of Wyoming’s Wild Horses to be Culled

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) launched roundup plans for 700 wild horses from two of Wyoming’s free-ranging herds.  

Backing ranching and business interests, the BLM intends to cull nearly 70% of Sweetwater County’s herds to support what advocates are calling an ecologically responsible management of Wyoming’s land and natural resources. 

Conservationists, equine enthusiasts, and Westerners, who value the roaming horses as symbols of American heritage, are leading the opposition, citing mismanagement and animal cruelty among other BLM offenses. 

Since the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act by Congress in 1971, wild horses and burros have been protected by law to roam freely through designated areas of the American West. 

The law states: “Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.”

The law charges the Secretary of the Interior with protecting these animals and their range lands as “sanctuaries for their protection and preservation.”  To that end, it affords the BLM the authority to determine the amount of land necessary to sustain free-roaming herds, with the goal of maintaining the land’s “thriving natural ecological balance.” 

The legislation also advises authorities to respect the government’s multiple-use mission of accommodating various uses of public land while preserving the integrity of its resources.

In so stipulating overpopulation as just cause for the removal of horses and burros from their natural habitats, the legislation has allowed ranchers to capitalize upon an ecological imbalance that they disingenuously attribute to horses in order to lobby the BLM to cull the herds.  

Cattle and sheep overgrazing have degenerated the quality of public range lands to the detriment of the very ranchers who are responsible for its condition.  By blaming relatively small, free-roaming horse herds for overgrazing and ecological imbalances, the ranchers have managed to persuade the government to remove the horses, securing even more land for their livestock to use exclusively. 

In efforts to thwart the round ups, opposition groups have stressed that horse herds are allocated only two to three percent of forage in these herd management areas, while the remaining majority is already reserved for livestock. 

Revered legal analyst Andrew Cohen makes the compelling point that, “even though cattle and sheep outnumber wild horses on public lands by at least a ten-to-one margin, the BLM largely blames the horses for roiling the resources of the range…The BLM grades the wild horses harshly for their impact on the range. But it does not appear to grade the cattle and sheep for the impact they bear upon it…The BLM is focusing upon the two percent that is relatively easy to fix rather than upon the 98 percent which is not. The reason is not hard to fathom. The ranchers have a powerful lobby. The horses do not.”

Further, a new, independent field review conducted by range scientist Robert Edwards, formerly of the BLM, presents scientific evidence the horses are not to blame for the degeneration of the land and shrubbery. 

He concluded that “the wild horses do not need to be removed in order to achieve the goal of a thriving natural ecological balance,” and further, that “removing the wild horses will not achieve that goal.” 

While the lands observed in his study were reported to be in only fair grazing condition, Edwards found that “removing a large percentage of the wild horses is not likely to result in an improvement of range condition since the percentage of forage allocated to wild horses is very small compared to the amount of forage allocated to livestock.” 

His findings indicate that better management of livestock grazing patterns will help to restore ecological balance in those areas. 

As Suzanne Roy of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign reminds us: “Congress deemed wild horses to be worthy of protection as national symbols of freedom whose presence on Western public lands is an important part of our history and heritage. The Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act designated the lands where wild horses were found in 1971 as habitat to be managed principally but not exclusively for wild horses.

“The BLM has turned this mandate on it head by allocating the majority of resources in federally designated wild horse areas to private livestock and not wild horses. The multiple use mandate does not require livestock grazing and it certainly does not require the imbalance of resource allocation that exists today.

“If the BLM wants to live up to its mandate to protect and preserve America’s wild horses then it will begin to address the inequities of resource allocation on the small amount of BLM lands on which wild horses reside. It will also shift resources away from the current costly and cruel roundup, remove and stockpile strategy toward on-the-range management of wild horses, utilizing cost-effective and humane fertility control strategies where necessary.” 

With compelling arguments such as Roy’s and scientific refutations like Edwards’s, wild horse enthusiasts still have some leverage in their fight against their powerful ranching adversaries.  Yet, with the round up already underway, hundreds of horses are already at risk of slaughter if procured by the wrong people in the adoption process. 

The wild horses of the West are quickly vanishing, despite laws in place to protect them.  Help force the necessary policy changes by signing the petition, “Save Wyoming’s Wild Horses from Slaughter.”

Photo credit: /farm3.static.flickr.com/2743/4384321268_ed005f9a86.jpg

Fountain of Youth: The Immortal Jellyfish Spans Oceans

The concept of immortality has long captivated man. The novel idea of starting-over, beginning anew, and wiping the slate clean for eternity has become the obsession of scientists and the inspiration for countless beauty campaigns. Novels, plays, and films imagine the outcome of attaining immortality. But for the Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish species, the notion of true rejuvenation isn’t unattainable—it’s routine.

Most jellyfish have a lifespan of hours or months, but Turritopsis dohrnii, dubbed the “immortal jellyfish,” breaks the norm. In many ways, Turritopsis dohrnii are similar to most jellyfish. They have the same umbrella shaped body and flowing tentacles. They grow from polyps, asexually reproduce to form many jellyfish and sexually reproduce at maturity. As the lifecycle ends there for most jellyfish species, for Turritopsis dohrnii, it has only begun. When a Turritopsis dohrnii is deprived of ample nutrition or physically injured, the animal becomes, simply, a blob. The damaged jellyfish attaches its fragile body to a stable object and its cells revert to their juvenile stage. The process of transdifferentiation allows cells to be used for different functions than they previously served as the animal rebuilds itself. The jellyfish goes back to its polyp stage and then grows into its full mature stage again. This process repeats as needed for survival.  

While some species of salamanders can grow new limbs (arms, legs, tails) after one has been amputated, these jellyfish are the only animal known that can revert to its polyp stage after sexual maturation. These 4-millimeter creatures are the only immortal animals known to man.

Discovered in 1883, the Turritopsis dohrni’s regenerative capacity was recently realized in the 1990s. Today, genetically identical Turritopsis dohrni have invaded tropical and cooler waters, adapting with ease to the environment. Though the species originated in the Caribbean ocean, swarms of these jellyfish are found worldwide. Scientists speculate that the jellyfish glom onto ships in their cyst state and are transported to faraway oceans, populating the seas with these undying creatures. These animals are only susceptible to death by contracting a disease in their polyp stage or by being prayed upon.

But as these jellyfish continually replicate, fears are arising concerning the ever-booming population. Found off the shores of Spain, Japan, Panama and the Caribbean, these jellyfish may overrun the oceans. Scientists only recently discovered the presence of these immortal jellyfish after the species was well established, highlighting the inconspicuous spread of the species. Scientists have emphasized how difficult it is to detect the presence of these jellyfish until a full swam of them hits the sea. Now, the question remains if the immortal jellyfish population needs to be monitored to prevent an aquatic imbalance and how their presence will affect the existing ocean habitat.

As far as applying this discovery for human benefit, scientists insist that the information they obtain will not work toward advancing beauty creams or other products. Instead, the focus is on cancer. They suspect that these jellyfish have an unparalleled cellular repair mechanism and cancer is spawned from rogue cells. Understanding these jellyfish’s regenerative abilities may shed light upon the cancer epidemic that plagues so many people.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/phoenixation/2984477902/

Rare Giant Squid Specimen Found Off Florida Coast

Marine biologists have been offered an exciting chance to study one of the ocean’s most elusive animals, after a group of Florida fishermen brought in a recently-deceased giant squid last week.  The 25 foot-long specimen is now being carefully preserved at the Florida Museum of Natural History, where it will give researchers the opportunity to study the anatomy and genetic makeup of a species that has hardly ever been seen alive.

Recreational fishermen Robert Benz, Joey Asaro, and Paul Peroulakis found the squid drifting in the water about twelve miles off the Florida coast, and immediately realized they’d discovered something unusual.  Though already near death, the tentacles of the enormous invertebrate were still moving slightly when they found it.  The men managed to get the creature onto the back of their 23-foot boat, and took it in to shore. 

“I thought we definitely need to bring it in, because no one’s going to believe us if we don’t,” said Benz. “I didn’t want to leave it out there and just let the sharks eat it.”

By the time University of Florida scientists arrived on the scene the squid was dead, but still in good enough shape to be extremely valuable for research.  The researchers quickly put it on ice to preserve it, and took it to the natural history museum so the body can be preserved with chemicals.  The preservation process is expected to take about two weeks, after which time scientists will examine the specimen to find out its age and sex, and analyze genetic date from the dead squid.

“We don’t really have a good handle on the biogeography of these critters, so this will add to that knowledge base,” said Roger Portell, an invertebrate paleontologist at the museum. “Because they are so rare, we have so few samples where we get a fresh specimen and can actually do genetic work.”

If the preservation process goes well, it may even be possible to place the squid on display where the public can see it. 

At 25 feet long, the specimen found by the Florida fishermen is actually a rather “small” giant squid—individuals of its species can reach a length of up to 60 feet.  Because they inhabit the deep ocean and are very secretive, the scientific study of giant squids was for decades confined to examining dead specimens washed up on beaches, sometimes in a partially decayed state like in the picture at left.  Giant squids glimpsed by early sailors are also thought to have inspired myths of sea monsters.

In 2004 a team of Japanese scientists captured a giant squid on camera in its natural habitat for the first time ever, but it remains one of the least-studied large animals in the ocean.  Marine biologists believe it is an active predator that hunts for prey in the chilly depths of the ocean, thousands of feet below the surface.  The squids are themselves a source of food for deep-diving sperm whales, which have been found with scars from giant squid tentacles on their bodies.

The squid found off the Florida coast was probably dying of a natural cause when the fishermen ran across it.  Based on the life cycles of other squid species, scientists believe giant squids only mate once in their lives and then die.  The one found by Benz, Asaro, and Peroulakis may have just reproduced and reached the end of its natural lifespan. 

Scientists who study marine invertebrates were pleased with how quickly the fishermen brought in the squid and notified authorities.  “It’s so rare to get these specimens and they’re such deep-water animals that we don’t know much about how they live,” said John Slapcinsky of the Florida Museum of Natural History.  “This specimen provides an excellent opportunity to learn things about these creatures we couldn’t find out any other way.”

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/vitenskapsmuseet/5375410538/

Fossil Of World’s Smallest Dinosaur Discovered

Scientists have discoverd a fossil which they believe to be the world’s smallest dinosaur. Informally dubbed “Ashdown maniraptoran,” the feathered, bird-like dinosaur lived more than 100 million years ago and was just over a foot long. The findings of the recent discovery are published in the most recent issue of the journal Cretaceous Research.

According to the findings, the bone indicates that the dinosaur lived in the Cretaceous period 145 million to 100 million years ago. The bone belongs to a maniraptoran, a group of theropod dinosaurs that scientists speculate eventually evolved into present-day birds. Because the dinosaur has not been formally named yet, researchers refer to it as “Ashdown maniraptoran.” The name reflects the type of dinosaur (maniraptoran) and the location in which it was found (the Pivensey Pit at Ashdown Brickworks, a site located in East Sussex, UK). The dinosaur will be given a formal, scientific name if and when more fossils of its kind are discovered.

Scientists speculate that “Ashdown maniraptoran” was bipedal, meaning it walked on two legs, most likely with its body and tail in a horizontal position. Darren Naish, a paleozoologist who co-authored the research, described the dinosaur as having “a fairly short tail, long neck, long slim hind legs, and feathered clawed forelimbs.”

The neckbone of the dinosaur was discovered in the southern United Kingdom by researchers from the University of Portsmouth. The size of the bone, which is just a quarter inch long, allowed scientists to estimate the full size of the dinosaur. The bone has been identified as a posterior cervical vertebra. Researchers used two methods to estimate the size of the dinosaur. First, scientists built a digital model of the dinosaur’s neck, then fitted the neck into the silhouette of a maniraptoran. The second technique involved using neck-to-body ratios of related dinosaurs to determine the length of the dinosaur. Both of these techniques allowed scientists to estimate that the “Ashdown maniraptoran” measured between 13 and 15.7 inches long.

Despite the tiny size of the dinosaur, researchers have confirmed that it was fully grown when it died. The neckbone that was discovered does not have a neurocentral suture, which is a rough, open line of bone that only closes when a dinosaur is fully grown.

Because the skull of “Ashdown maniraptoran” has yet to be discovered, scientists are not entirely sure about the diet of the dinosaur. Based on similar small dinosaurs, such as oviraptorosaurs and other small maniraptorans, researchers have theorized that the dinosaur was an omnivore that could have eaten small creatures, such as insects, as well as other things like leaves and fruit.

The discovery of the new dinosaur indicates that southern England and other parts of Europe were home to a large population of similar dinosaurs during the Early Cretaceous period. Because there were land bridges connecting Europe to North America during this period, dinosaurs found in Europe share many similarities with dinosaurs found in the United States.

“Ashdown maniraptoran” is not the only tiny dinosaur to have been discovered lately. A dinosaur called Hesperonychus elizabethae was recently discovered in North America. Six inches longer than “Ashdown maniraptoran,” the dinosaur weighed around four pounds and was similar to a velociraptor. A small dinosaur known as Albertonkyus borealis, which had long legs and large claws, is another fairly recent discovery.

If “Ashdown maniraptoran” proves to be the smallest dinosaur in the world, it will take the title of smallest dinosaur previously held by Anchiornis, a bird-like dinosaur that lived in China 160 million to 155 million years ago. Because modern day birds are technically dinosaurs, the world’s smallest dinosaur is the Cuban bee hummingbird, which is 2 inches long and weights just .063 ounces.

Photo Credit: blm.gov/wo/st/en/res/Education_in_BLM/Learning_Landscapes/For_Teachers/science_and_children/paleo/

Worm Breaks Record for Deepest-Underground Animal

nematode-underground-record-deepestA newly discovered nematode (roundworm) species has set a new record for a known animal life form living naturally at the greatest depth beneath the Earth’s surface.  The worm—named Halicephalobus mephisto by scientists, and nicknamed the “devil worm”—occurs at depths where only microorganisms like bacteria were previously known to live.  At 0.5 millimeters long, it is the largest life form known to thrive this deep underground.

Nematodes (like the ones pictured at left) are one of the most abundant groups of animals on Earth, and are found in almost every habitat imaginable.  Though some are parasites living in the bodies of humans and other animals and plants, the majority are microscopic or near-microscopic decomposers that feed on dead organic material, or predators that hunt for microbes.  90,000 individual nematodes have been found living in one rotting apple—a statistic that provides a glimpse of how common these creatures are in nature. 

In total, about 12,000 nematode species are known to science—but there is little doubt that thousands more await discovery.  Some scientists predict as many as 500,000 species of nematodes actually exist, most of them as yet un-described.  Because of their role as decomposers and predators, nematodes are important to the functioning of many of the world’s ecosystems.

The devil worm was found 2.2 miles below the Earth’s surface, much deeper than most scientists had previously believed animal life could live.  The search that led to finding the new species was prompted in part by the discovery of nematodes in a gold mine in South Africa.  At first researchers thought the worms might simply have been transported deep underground on mining equipment or the clothing of miners—but scientists from the University of Ghent in Belgium launched an effort to see if nematodes might occur naturally in deep water veins nearby. 

After sampling thousands of gallons of water, the researchers found multiple types of nematodes, including a species already known from shallower depths, and the new species Halicephalobus mephisto.  The research team published their findings on June 1st in the scientific journal Nature. 

The devil worm probably feeds on bacteria that scientists long known to occur deep beneath the surface of the Earth.  However the underground environment poses unique challenges for animals, including extreme heat and pressure.  Somehow the worms have adapted to live under such conditions, and it looks as though they have been doing it for a while.  Isotope dating techniques suggest the water where devil worms were found is at least 3,000 years old, and perhaps as old as 12,000 years.  This means the species has probably already survived in its challenging environment for millennia.

The discovery of the devil worm and other deep-underground nematodes raises the question of whether there might be other animals living underground at depths far greater than researchers have looked for them previously.  If so, they are likely to be very small creatures like nematodes and related near-microscopic worms.  But their existence miles beneath the planet’s surface could re-shape scientific understanding of the kinds of harsh conditions where some form of animal life can survive.

Scientists are also asking whether animal-like life forms could exist deep underground on other planets.  In the search for extraterrestrial life, research teams have usually assumed any life encountered far below the surface of a planet or moon would consist of relatively simple bacteria-like organisms.  But if more complex life can survive at such depths on Earth, the same could be true of other planets.

The discovery of the devil worm, which is not only a new species but a representative of animal life found at previously unknown depths, is a reminder of how much remains to be learned about life on Earth.  Like the depths of the ocean, the canopies of tropical rainforests, and other comparatively unexplored environments, pockets of water deep beneath the planet’s surface likely hold many other surprises that could re-shape our understanding of life in the world around us. 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/snickclunk/200926410/sizes/m/in/photostream/

New Findings Show Affect of Sonar to Marine Life

When giant squid turned up dead off Spain about ten years ago, scientists suspected their cause of death to be due to powerful sound pulses from ships. A new study shows that this might, indeed, be the case. According to Barcelona’s Technical University of Catalonia, low-frequency sounds from human activities can affect squid and other cephalopods alike.

The findings show that noise pollution in the ocean is a matter that should not be taken lightly.

“We know that noise pollution in the oceans has a significant impact on dolphins and whales, which use natural sonar to navigate and hunt, but this is the first study indicating a severe impact on invertebrates, an extended group of marine species that are not known to rely on sound for living,” study leader Michael Andre stated.

About a decade ago the remains of giant squid were found off Spain’s Asturias province not long after ships had used air guns to conduct low-frequency sound-pulse exercises in the region. Affects on the squid included reduced mantles, bruised muscles, and lesions throughout their bodies. These organs, which are located behind the squids’ eyes, help it to maintain balance and position.

In the early 2000s, however, marine biologists were unable to prove that these frequencies were causing harm to the squid and surrounding marine life. Now, though, the evidence is in.

“With this study, we now have proof,” said marine specialist Angel  .

The researchers conducted the study by examining the effects of low-frequency sound exposure in 87 individual cephalopods of four different species. After two hours of constant exposure to various intensities of sound waves, the animals showed signs of damage to their statocyst tissue.

“This is a typical process found in land mammals and birds after acute noise exposure: a massive acoustic trauma followed by peripheral damage, making the lesions worse over time,” continued Andre.

The giant squid from the shores of Spain may or may not have suffered the direct impact of the sound waves, however, in either case their statocysts were practically destroyed causing the squid to become disoriented.

“The disoriented animals might wander up from the depths to the surface, where the temperature difference kills them,” explained Guerra.

Although the new research points out overwhelming evidence towards the leading cause of death for these giant squid, more research is necessary before a solid case can be made that human-made noise pollution is causing significant damage to marine life.


Photo Credit: http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/07philippines/logs/oct13/media/squid_600.html

New Giant Crayfish Discovered in Tennessee Stream

January 26, 2011- Nick Engelfried

It’s a common assumption that in our scientifically enlightened age, almost all plant and animal species have been discovered and catalogued by researchers—at least in highly populated temperate countries like the United States.  However a new discovery from the streams of Tennessee shows scientists are not done discovering new and fascinating creatures even in the US.  Last week researchers from Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced they have discovered a species of crayfish—a freshwater aquatic invertebrate that looks a bit like a small lobster—in the deeper waters of a Tennessee creek.

The species has been given the scientific name Barbicambarus simmonsi, and has been referred to as the “bearded crayfish” because of its long antennae covered in hair-like bristles.  It is notable for its large size compared to other crayfish in the area, and reaches a length of about five inches.  Yet despite its distinctive size and appearance it had until now been overlooked by scientists; because it is sparsely distributed in the streams it calls home, the bearded crayfish escaped detection for years.

Then in 2009 Christopher Taylor, a researcher at the University of Illinois, and Guenter Schuster of Eastern Kentucky University, received reports that a fellow scientist might have spotted a new and comparatively very large crayfish species.  A team of researchers combed freshwater streams from the area where the unusual crayfish had been reported, hoping to find a live specimen so they could verify it as a new species.  At last they found a bearded crayfish hiding under a submerged boulder in Shoal Creek, Tennessee.  A DNA analysis later confirmed that it was indeed a new species. 

The Southeast United States, now known to be home to the bearded crayfish, is also the center of global crayfish diversity.  Worldwide there are more than five hundred species in the crayfish family, and North America is home to more than any other continent.  Most of the US species live in the Southeast, and some are so restricted in their range that they are known only from a few individual streams or underground cave systems.  Because of their limited distribution, these crayfish are especially vulnerable to extinction if the body of water they depend on becomes polluted or otherwise degraded by human activity.

In an example of the remarkable diversity crayfish in the Southeast have attained, the bearded crayfish turns out to be not just a new species—it is closely related to only one previously known species, known to scientists as Barbicambarus cornutus.  This related species is also very large, and is found in the freshwater streams of Kentucky. 

Many people don’t realize that discovering new species is not particularly unusual in the world of field science, especially when it comes to insects and other invertebrates in remote regions of the world.  Scientists catalogue thousands of new species every year, many of them found in the canopies of tropical rainforests or the depths of the world’s oceans.  Around 1.75 million plant, animal, and microbe species are currently known and have been given scientific names.  The number of undiscovered species is probably much larger, with the UN Global Diversity Assessment estimating that more than thirteen million species exist in total.

Even in the United States discovering a new species of invertebrate is not necessarily an astonishing feat.  However finding one as large as the bearded crayfish, and living in a habitat that is neither remote nor unexplored, truly is unusual.  The discovery of this unusual-looking creature is a reminder of how much remains unknown in the natural world around us.

Photo credit: Justin Miller