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Our New Favorite Judge May Have Saved Red Wolves From Extinction

Animals
Our New Favorite Judge May Have Saved Red Wolves From Extinction
A red wolf in captivity in Florida. Mark Conlin / Getty Images

Here at EcoWatch, we love red wolves. Seriously, I challenge you to watch this video of "Four Weeks Young" wolves at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina and not fall in love:


Red Wolf Adventures "Four Weeks Young" www.youtube.com

That's why we were so sad to report this spring that there are only around 40 members of this adorable but extremely endangered species left in the only wild population in North Carolina, and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimated they could go extinct within eight years.

Worse, instead of fighting to preserve this shrinking population, FWS released a proposal in June limiting the red wolves' safe territory to public lands in northeast North Carolina and allowing private landowners to kill or trap any wolves that crossed their property lines. Conservation groups were understandably outraged, saying it "doomed" the red wolves' chances for survival in the wild.

But now a North Carolina judge has come to the rescue, The Washington Post reported. In a ruling Monday, Chief Judge Terrence W. Boyle ripped the FWS for chipping away at a previously successful program reintroducing red wolves in North Carolina and said the FWS violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by doing so.

Here's just an excerpt of Boyle's thorough takedown:

The Red Wolf Program having been declared a success in 2007, defendants, beginning in approximately 2014 and without consultation or formal review, determined to disregard management guidelines which had been in place since 1999 which distinguished between problem and non-problem wolves in regard to landowner take requests, to cease introductions of wolves into the wild, to cease pup-fostering, and to cease actively attempting to manage the threat from coyotes on the viability of the wild red wolf population. While a shift in any one or some of these activities may fall within the agency's discretion, when taken together, these actions go beyond the agency's discretion and operate to violate USFWS' mandate to recover this species in the wild.

The ruling goes on to note that the wolves' population saw a "drastic decrease" from 2013 to 2015. That's around when FWS stopped its successful policies and made the shameful decision to allow landowners to shoot and kill wolves, even if they weren't causing any problems.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) initiated a lawsuit on behalf of three other conservation groups to stop that killing in 2015, and Monday's ruling now makes permanent a 2016 court order banning those killings, giving the red wolves a new lease on life.

"For four years now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been dismantling one of the most successful predator reintroductions in U.S. history," SELC senior attorney Sierra Weaver said in a press release. "The service knows how to protect and recover the red wolf in the wild, but it stopped listening to its scientists and started listening to bureaucrats instead. The law doesn't allow the agency to just walk away from species conservation, like it did here."

But what does the lawsuit mean for the FWS proposal to shrink the red wolves' territory? SELC said the proposal was a blatant attempt to get out of the pending court case, and Monday's decision makes clear that it goes against the service's conservation obligations.

"Rolling back protections is the opposite of what this species needs," Red Wolf Coalition Executive Director Kim Wheeler said in the SELC press release. "The court's ruling today makes clear that the USFWS must recommit to red wolf recovery and resume its previously successful management policies and actions."

It is also wildly unpopular. Of the 108,124 comments FWS received on the proposal, 99.9 percent of them opposed it. And of the 19 comments that supported restricting the wolves' territory, 13 came from just one real estate developer.

Red wolves once roamed the entire eastern U.S. before they were hunted nearly to extinction. In the late 1970s, a few pairs were bred in captivity, and in the late 1980s, two breeding pairs were reintroduced into the wild in North Carolina. Their numbers swelled to nearly 140 in the early 2000s before the FWS dropped the ball. Hopefully, this court order will allow them to thrive once again.

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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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