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Tracked Elephant Seal Yields Vital Information

Tracked Elephant Seal Yields Vital Information

Wildlife Conservation Society

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) tracked a southern elephant seal for an astonishing 18,000 miles—the equivalent of New York to Sydney and back again.

WCS tracked the male seal from December 2010 to November 2011. The animal—nicknamed Jackson—was tagged on the beach in Admiralty Sound in Tierra del Fuego in southern Chile. WCS conservationists fitted Jackson with a small satellite transmitter that recorded his exact location when he surfaced to breathe.

Jackson swam 1,000 miles north, 400 miles west, and 100 miles south from the original tagging location, meandering through fjords and venturing past the continental shelf as he foraged for fish and squid.

During this tracking, the WCS team analyzed the data to better understand elephant seal migratory routes.

Elephant seals are potential indicators of the health of marine ecosystems and may show how climate change influences the distribution of prey species that serve as the basis of Patagonia’s rich marine ecosystem. To protect this vast region, conservationists need to know how wildlife uses it throughout the year.

“Jackson’s travels provide a roadmap of how elephant seals use the Patagonian Coast and its associated seas,” said Caleb McClennen, WCS director for Global Marine Programs. “This information is vital to improving ocean management in the region, helping establish protected areas in the right places, and ensuring fisheries are managed sustainably without harming vulnerable marine species like the southern elephant seal.”

The information WCS gathers will serve as a foundation for a new model of private-public, terrestrial-marine conservation of the Admiralty Sound, Karukinka Natural Park (a WCS private protected area), and Alberto de Agostini National Park. It will help build a broader vision for bolstering conservation efforts across the Patagonian Sea and coast.

“The Wildlife Conservation Society has a long history of working in the spectacular Patagonia region to establish protected areas and advance conservation of its rich wildlife,” said Julie Kunen, WCS director of Latin America and Caribbean. “Individual stories like Jackson’s are awe-inspiring, and also inform the science that will ultimately help protect this region.”

WCS reports that Jackson has returned to Admiralty Sound, the site of the original tagging. Each year, elephant seals haul ashore in colonies to molt and find mates. The satellite transmitter is expected to work until early next year, when it will eventually fall off.

WCS has tracked more than 60 southern elephant seals via satellite on the Atlantic side of the Southern Cone since the early 1990s. Jackson represented the first southern elephant seal tagged from the Pacific side of the Southern Cone.

Elephant seals are among the largest pinnipeds in the world, reaching weights of up to 7,500 pounds and lengths of 20 feet.

Since 2004, WCS has owned and managed Karukinka Natural Park, the largest protected area on the main island of Tierra del Fuego. The 728,960-acre park protects the world’s southernmost stands of old growth forests as well as grasslands, rivers and wetlands. WCS, in partnership with the global investment bank Goldman, Sachs & Co., which donated the lands, has transformed Karukinka into a flagship for wildlife conservation in Patagonia. It is now supported by an advisory council made up of local scientific and business sector representatives who provide recommendations on the park’s development and serves as a model demonstrating how the private sector help advance conservation activities worldwide.

For more information, click here.

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The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes toward nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth.

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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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