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2 Butterfly Defenders Found Dead Within a Week in Mexico

Animals
2 Butterfly Defenders Found Dead Within a Week in Mexico
The funeral of Mexican butterfly defender Homero Gómez González, one of two men connected with a monarch sanctuary found dead last week. ENRIQUE CASTRO / AFP via Getty Images

Two men connected to a famous monarch butterfly reserve in Mexico have been found dead within a week of each other, raising concerns for the safety of environmental activists in the country.


Homero Gómez González, 50, who managed a butterfly reserve in Mexico's Michoacán state and campaigned against illegal logging in the butterflies' winter habitat, was found dead in a well on Jan. 29, BBC News reported. Three days later, part-time reserve tour guide Raúl Hernández Romero, 44, was also found dead on top of a hill in the El Campanario monarch butterfly sanctuary.

"How can you protect the butterflies if Homero Gómez or other people are not protected?" poet and environmental activist Homero Aridjis asked NPR.

Gómez González managed the El Rosario sanctuary, which is part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The site, located in forested mountains around 100 kilometers (approximately 62 miles) northwest of Mexico City, is where more than half of eastern monarch butterfly colonies spend their winters. The butterflies travel all the way to Canada each spring and then back again in the fall. Because four generations of butterflies are born and die during this time, it is unclear how they know to find their way back, but they do.

"Every autumn, millions, perhaps a billion, butterflies from wide areas of North America return to the site and cluster on small areas of the forest reserve, coloring its trees orange and literally bending their branches under their collective weight," UNESCO described.

But the butterflies' winter home is threatened by logging and the planting of avocado farms, according to NPR. Between 2005 and 2006, loggers felled 461 hectares in the area, The Washington Post reported.

Gómez González, a former logger himself, campaigned to protect the reserve and argued that tourism from the butterfly migration was worth more to the region than illegal logging. The El Rosario sanctuary he managed opened in November to help prevent logging, BBC News reported, and his family said he received threats before he disappeared Jan. 13.

His funeral on Friday was widely attended.

"I offer my condolences to Mr. Gómez González's family, his colleagues and all of those who, in Mexico and elsewhere, sometimes at the risk of their lives, work every day to protect this natural heritage which is shared by all of humanity," Director of the World Heritage Centre Mechtild Rössler said in a statement.

Gómez González was found to have received a blow to the head before drowning in a well, BBC News reported. His death was apparently not a robbery, since he was found with the equivalent of more than $500 in pesos, according to NPR.

Hernández Romero worked showing tourists around the El Rosario sanctuary, according to The Washington Post.

He was last seen Jan. 27 leaving his home, and then found dead Saturday after having been badly beaten with a sharp object.

Authorities are unclear if the deaths are connected to each other or to both men's work protecting the butterflies. However, The Guardian pointed out that there is a trend of environmental defenders being murdered in Mexico in conflicts with developers or criminal groups. Mexico's murder rate is also generally on the rise, BBC News reported. In 2019, the country saw its highest murder rate ever with 34,582 reported killed.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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