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Daring Conservationist Takes Off on 4,500-Mile Migration With Swans

Animals
Daring Conservationist Takes Off on 4,500-Mile Migration With Swans

A British conservationist took off last week in a motorized paraglider, embarking on a 4,500-mile journey across the Russian Arctic. Sacha Dench, 41, who works with the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust in the United Kingdom, is following along the migration route of Bewick's swans in hopes of learning why their numbers have declined by more than a third in the past 20 years.

Sacha Dench in training over Sweden.Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust / PA

The first part of her route took her across the desolate Russian tundra. From Russia, she will cross Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Germany and France, returning to England. Her flying machine is a 35 mph motorized paraglider, also known as a paramotor.

Actual route of Sacha Dench's flight to study Bewick's swans.Flight of the Swans / Wildfowl & Wetland Trust

Dench is accompanied by Alexander Bogdanov, a Russian with knowledge of the region, and Dan Burton from the U.K. They have been flying about six hours a day, stopping to talk to schoolchildren in local settlements along the way. On Sept. 23, the team reached Mezen and was later met by her ground crew. She is currently southwest of Mezen, still over Russian territory.

Powered paragliding can be dangerous. In a study of 384 incidents published in BMJ Open, an open access medical research journal, there were 23 fatalities reported. The engine caused 43 accidents and was responsible for most injuries to the upper limbs. Head trauma and drowning after a water landing are other risks.

Dench was well prepared for this flight. She is a British national free-diving champion, able to hold her breath under water for 6 minutes and 22 seconds. She is an experienced paramotorist and has taken tundra survival courses.

In the air, her body suit is connected to the engine, electrically heating gloves and socks to keep her warm. She can communicate with her crew as well as air traffic control, and she's equipped with a GPS tracker and a personal locator beacon. They're carrying spare spark plugs, tools and survival gear.

Why is she risking this dangerous flight?

The number of Bewick's swans has dropped from 29,000 in 1995 to 18,000 in 2010. There are several known reasons, but none to account for such a large population decline. Also known as a tundra swan, the species is listed as of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Bewick's swans, which are sometimes considered a sub-species, cannot be hunted legally, but more than half are found with lead shot in their bodies. Other explanations for their decline include power line strikes and the loss of wetland habitat along the birds' migration route.

Filming the expedition.Flight of the Swans / Wildfowl & Wetland Trust

Her expedition, the Flight of the Swans, which is being filmed, has been backed by Dame Judi Dench, a distant relative, Sir David Attenborough and Sir Ralph Fiennes. She expects to arrive back in England in late October, around the time of the arrival of the Bewick's swans. To bird lovers in Britain, their arrival is a sign of the coming winter.

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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