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Elephants and Monkeys Are Working to Protect You From Climate Change

Animals
Elephants and Monkeys Are Working to Protect You From Climate Change
A herd of elephants. Pixabay

By Marlene Cimons

Mother Nature has it figured out. She's designed a master scheme that connects plants and animals, all working in concert to keep every living thing in balance. Imagine a stack of dominoes — knock down one of them, and the rest will tumble. The same can happen in nature.


This is especially evident in places like central Africa and in South American tropical rainforests where certain animals — from the world's largest to its smallest — help keep trees safe and healthy, which is critical as trees absorb vast amounts of planet-warming carbon pollution.

Recent research warns that losing the creatures that nurture trees puts forests in danger. This, by extension, is helping to accelerate dangerous climate change.

In central Africa, for example, elephants eat fast-growing trees, making room for those that grow more slowly. The slow-growing trees — with their very dense wood — store more carbon than their thinner, faster-developing counterparts. Without elephants, more carbon would accumulate in the atmosphere, worsening climate change, according to a new study that used computer models to project what could happen if elephant populations continue to dwindle or become extinct.

An elephant fuels up.

Pixabay

"Africa may once have contained 10 million elephants from the Mediterranean to the Cape, in every habitat except extreme desert. In 1970, there may have been a million left. By the end of the 1980s, there were half that number, mostly killed for the ivory trade," said Stephen Blake, assistant professor of biology at St. Louis University, and author of the study, which appears in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Despite an international agreement created to protect them, they face extinction as hunters persist in illegally killing them for ivory. Blake said that the price of ivory is so high that poachers will kill elephants of any size for their tusks, and go to gruesome lengths to remove them.

"How many cuddly [elephant] toys will be purchased this Christmas around the world?" Blake said. "Children everywhere will take them to bed, play with them, love them and be enchanted with the notion of these massive, gentle, humbled, wrinkled old animals… How many hearts touched?… Yet, as we do all these things, we live at a time when the last members of a once global and diverse lineage of these huge animals are being slaughtered."

African elephants.

Pixabay

By killing elephants, poachers rob slow-growing trees of their guardian. They also slow the growth of new trees. Elephants blaze trails and disperse seeds as they forage. "Elephants are basically the gardeners of the forest," Blake said. "They disperse over 100 species of seeds, and disperse more of them over longer distances that other dispersers."

"Without the restorative powers of the elephants, the forest becomes a broken shadow of its former glory," he added.

Similarly, some of the world's littlest creatures also help replenish forests, although they don't face the grave risks that elephants encounter. Tiny tamarins that live in Peruvian rainforests eat fruits from trees, then poop out the undigested seeds in degraded former pastures — land cleared by humans for grazing water buffalo — effectively planting trees.

A female emperor tamarin.

Brocken Inaglory

Scientists showed that two types of these squirrel-sized monkeys — moustached and black-fronted tamarins — are seeding new forests. This is vital because — like the forests of central Africa — tropical rainforests also store carbon, and are home to a vast number of plants and animals.

The scientists tracked seeds from the animals' feces deposited in the new forest and identified eight different plant species found in the main rainforest. "Tamarins can play a role for the natural regeneration of disturbed areas," said Eckhard W. Heymann, a scientist at the German Primate Center, who reported his findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

However, their contribution, while important, usually isn't enough to regenerate large tracts. "So it is better to protect the forests — which also protects the animals living there — than to rely on the services [of tamarins]." Moreover, climate change may be altering the plants that tamarins eat, changing when they produce leaves, flowers and fruits. This could limit tamarins' ability to seed new forests.

A baby tamarin.

Brocken Inaglory

Tamarins do not face extinction, like elephants, but are not without their own risks. While hunters usually reject them because they are too small to provide meat, "they are sporadically hunted or captured to obtain infants as pets," Heymann said. There is also the fact that forests are shrinking, meaning tamarins could lose their home. "The more serious threat at the moment comes from increasing deforestation," he added.

Blake, who has spent nearly 20 years in Africa working in elephant research and conservation, laments their fate, describing them as "a complex society of intelligent, caring, emotional animals who respect their grandmothers and mourn their dead," and condemns those who neglect their duty to save them.

"We will go to Mars — there is no doubt — humans are too smart not to," he said. "Yet we do not have the wisdom to protect elephants and their forest environment that do so much for our physical, spiritual and emotional well-being."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

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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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