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NOAA Offers $20,000 to Help Solve Brutal Florida Dolphin Murders

Animals
NOAA Offers $20,000 to Help Solve Brutal Florida Dolphin Murders

Government officials are offering an up to $20,000 reward for information that helps solve two brutal Florida dolphin murders.


The first dolphin was discovered shot or stabbed late last week by biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission off of Naples, Florida, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries reported Tuesday. The second was found within the same week by experts at the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, who discovered the animal on Pensacola Beach with a bullet in its left side.

"[These are] some of the worst cases we have seen," Tracy Dunn, who leads the law enforcement team of NOAA's southeast division, told The New York Times.

The deaths bring the total for dolphins stranded in the southeastern U.S. up to at least 29 since 2002, according to NOAA. The dolphins appear to have been shot or stabbed with arrows or fishing spears. Four of these strandings occurred within the past year. This includes one dolphin who was found off Captiva Island, Florida in May 2019 with a fatal puncture wound in its head. The case remains unsolved, and authorities are also offering a separate reward for any information about that case.

The underlying problem is that people feed dolphins illegally, NOAA officials explained.

"When dolphins are fed, their behavior changes. They lose their natural wariness of people and boats," NOAA bottlenose dolphin conservation coordinator Stacey Horstman told The New York Times.

This means that when dolphins encounter boats, they adopt a begging position, Horstman further explained to NBC. They either stick their heads out of the water with their mouths open or look up at the boats while on their sides. When they do this, they are only one to two feet from a boat. It is thought both of the dolphins killed last week were in a begging position when they died.

"The best advice is not to feed them, not to reach out to them. The seemingly innocent act of feeding dolphins can lead to harm and something like this," Horstman told The New York Times.

Bottlenose dolphins are not listed as an endangered species in the U.S., but, because they swim close to shore, they are at risk from human activity such as development and fishing.

They are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, NOAA explained, which means it is illegal to hunt, harass, kill or feed them, or to attempt to do so. Anyone caught violating the act can face criminal or civil penalties of up to $100,000 in fines or up to a year in jail.

NOAA is asking for anyone with information about the recent deaths to call its enforcement hotline at (800) 853-1964.

"It's very difficult to solve without the community coming forward," Dunn told The New York Times.

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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