'Human Swan' Joins 4,500-Mile Migration to Help Save the Species
While bird lovers are getting ready to celebrate World Migratory Bird Day next week, a team of researchers is preparing for an epic expedition that will follow Europe’s smallest swans as they migrate from Russia to the UK.
Only they’ll be getting their information from a lone woman who will be following the swans closely from the air. Sacha Dench of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) is going to be undertaking the first attempt to fly along with them using only a paramotor.
She’ll be taking off with the swans from the Russian high Arctic in the fall and traveling approximately 4,500 miles across 11 countries, ending at their overwintering grounds in the UK. If she makes it the whole way, she’ll be the first woman to cross the English Channel via paramotor.
#FlightOfTheSwans connects wildlife, wetlands & people across 4500 miles & 11 countries https://t.co/O1R4TBburP https://t.co/B4w5UKHh6h— Flight Of The Swans (@Flight Of The Swans)1461651302.0
While it sounds like a grand adventure full of challenges, there’s an important reason this mission is being undertaken. The Bewick’s swans who Dench will be accompanying are endangered and their numbers have dropped dramatically over the past 20 years. Now researchers from the University of Exeter, who are part of the expedition team, are trying to learn more about exactly why so few are surviving.
According to the research team, between 1995 and 2010 the number of swans making this migration has fallen by more than a third from 29,000 to just 18,000. Some of the threats they’re now facing include a loss of wetland habitat, development, energy exploration, being hunted and climate change.
Researchers hope that by following them so closely throughout their migration and getting a literal bird’s-eye-view of their journey along the entire route, they will be able to see firsthand what’s happening to them along the way and why so many don’t make it. They will then be able to use their findings to improve conservation efforts along the flyway.
While the expedition will provide valuable insight, it’s also a unique way to get people interested in conservation and the protection of wildlife. So far it’s attracted support from some big names, including Dame Judi Dench and Sir David Attenborough.
It's a privilege to have Sir David's backing for #FlightOfTheSwans https://t.co/LTtYxv5sAF https://t.co/mr6iDQchF3— Flight Of The Swans (@Flight Of The Swans)1461671730.0
“I’m humbled by the support that Flight of the Swans has already gained. People all across Europe and Russia are using this expedition as a lever to improve things for the swans, which is all I could have hoped for,” said Sacha Dench.
“Each winter, I’m fortunate enough that a small flock of a couple of hundred Bewick’s swans returns to my workplace—WWT’s Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire, UK. To get there they need safe passage all the way from the northernmost wilds of Russia and for the last two decades fewer and fewer have made it. It’s crucial that we act now before it’s too late,” she added.
For more info on the expedition and ways to help, check out Flight of the Swans.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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